Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A MId-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the Bible readings for this weekend’s worship services is the continuing story of the patriarch, Jacob.  The story this weekend really starts in the middle of a longer story about Jacob being married (twice in a week) and the start of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The longer story about this aspect of the saga starts about chapter 29 and continues through chapter 31.  These chapters chronicle a series of deceitful acts within the extended family of Rebekah (Jacob’s mother), Laban being the tribal patriarch, i.e. Rebekah’s father.
These chapters read like a scandalous recollection of the worst of family members.  Jacob comes to his mother’s kin and, at first, he is well received but, as the story progresses, scandalous behaviors get more and more numerous until after a 20-year period, there is again the threat of murder in Jacob’s family.  The reading for this weekend is at the point of the first obvious deception within this family unit.
This story encourages one to reflect on families and the dynamics within them.  Whereas the Scriptures present a culture significantly different than our 21st Century American culture, the problems of the Jacobean family seem as relevant and as familiar as a made-for-TV movie.  Or possibly the back story of a newspaper or news magazine story of a famous family with troubles.  Suffice it to say, a very messy picture is presented.
Which brings me to contemporary families.  All families have difficulties.  The difficulties exist because each family member is unique and individual, thus, unique and individual needs that may or may not blend together.  Many families find themselves working to navigate these differences to varying degrees of success.  Some families come out well “on the other side” of struggles.  Some don’t.  Most get help and encouragement from friends, church, other family members, or professionals because family conflict can cut deeply and even sever.  These conflicts happen in every family to lesser or greater degrees because we are not all the same even in the family.The scripture for this weekend can offer every family a sense of encouragement regardless the degree of struggle.  For in the scripture story God was with them all, even the ones causing the difficulties.  In the midst of deceitfulness and jealousy and hot anger, the word of God still is heard.  This is just as possible today if we are willing to hear.  But what the aggrieved persons in this story had to do was to listen and receive God’s word of transformation.  By that the transformation reconciliation was possible, and God’s promises continued on.
The same can be true for all of us.  If we allow the words of God notably spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, to transform us especially in times of anger and anguish, reconciliation is possible and the promise of abundant life can continue.  However, just as in the story of Jacob in Genesis, we’ve hot to allow ourselves and our families to be formed by God’s words of compassion and hope.  May our families, individually and as the greater family of human beings, hear the transforming Word of God, who loves us all.
 Pastor Jeff Blackman

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

This week, our prayer focus is Night and Day. The bead that symbolizes this is silver and black.

The light of day is a pretty positive image. Whether literally or metaphorically, seeing clearly and moving easily is a whole lot easier than stumbling around in the dark. Throughout scripture, light is associated with good news. Jesus is the Light of the world. We want to reside in the light.

We aren’t so positive about the dark. Not only are there deeply ingrained fears of the dark, scripture treats darkness as bad news. In scripture, darkness is about evil, unbelief, death and the absence of God. These associations say things that aren’t true about people of color or the visually impaired. And they leave us wanting to avoid all that we perceive as dark, so much so that, in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, we can become “full solar Christians.” Church becomes a place for people who are livin’ in the Light and life is good. To go through a difficult time, a frightening time, or a struggle in a full solar church makes people feel that they either have to pretend or drop out. Somehow it seems like having struggles is a lapse in faith.

In Genesis 28:10-19, Jacob is literally in the dark, but he is spiritually in the dark as well. He is terrified, running from his brother’s hatred and his family that he has betrayed. He is guilty and afraid for his life. In the dark night of nowhere, he can run no longer. He puts a stone beneath his head and sleeps. In a dream more like a vision, Jacob sees a ladder with its feet firmly planted on the earth, reaching up to heaven. Angels, God’s messengers, move up and down the ladder, connecting heaven and earth. Then, to his amazement, God speaks, not in judgment or accusation, but in hope and promise.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s most recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, tells of her realization that dark is as essential as light; that night is as essential as day; that we can trust that rhythm in our spiritual journeys. In her efforts to become more comfortable with the dark, she goes into a deep cave with two trusted friends. At one point, they separate, turn their lights off, and sit in the dark. As BBT (as we fans call her) is sitting in the blackest dark imaginable, it occurs to her that all new life happens in the dark. It is in the dark that seeds grow. Babies grow in the womb. Jesus’ resurrection takes place in the dark of a tomb; the blackness of a cave, steeped in silence, filled with the scent of damp earth.

Jacob awakens. He takes the ordinary stone and uses it to mark an extraordinary experience of God. Here I received new life. Here God used darkness like a wrecking ball to destroy false gods and false understandings about God. Here, in the dark, God is present.

If you are experimenting with the prayer beads, hold the silver and black bead as you bring God your struggles. What does the darkness have to teach you? How can you learn to walk in the dark? Who are the angels, God’s messengers, in the darkness? The promise is this: you like Jacob, make an amazing discovery in the darkness:
 Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!

On the journey with you,


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
About six weekends ago, the lectionary (a list of pre-selected Bible readings for each weekend) started with Genesis 1:1.  Each weekend since, a reading has been selected from the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and, now, Jacob.  Last weekend was the start of the Jacob saga in Genesis.  Those stories last for six weeks and then we move to stories of Jacob’s sons, especially focused on son Joseph.
The Hebrew Bible (or what we often call the “Old” Testament) is a complicated and complex collection of stories, theologies, and narratives.  Last weekend we started with the birth of Jacob and his brother Esau.  This story began the tale of much conflict between the brothers.  Jacob, however, was chosen by God to be the recipient of God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac:  progeny, “the promised land,” protection, and blessing.  The story this weekend is the telling of how Jacob became aware of this truth.
As a character of faith, Jacob is not always easy to like.  This week’s reading finds Jacob running away from Esau and home because Jacob (with the help of his mother Rebekah) has cheated Esau out of his birthright and his blessing.  Esau is murderously mad and intends to kill Jacob.  Jacob (again with his mother’s help) takes off on a trip to find a wife.  It is on this trip that we encounter Jacob moving toward Haran.  As it is getting dark, Jacob decides to camp for the night in a “certain place” as the story describes it.  As Jacob prepared to sleep, he found a stone of that place for a pillow (talk about firm!) and then fell asleep.  He dreamed of angels going up and down a ladder or stairway—thus our hymn, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”  There is much that can be said about this story.  However, for my purposes as I think about preaching, Jacob makes two comments that kindle my imagination.  The first is “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16) and then, secondly, “This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 27:17).  And Jacob called that place Bethel, i.e. House of God.

Briefly this has me contemplating the importance of place for us human beings.  Since we are beings that occupy time and space, there is a certain logic that we can get attached to specific places in time.  We might even call them ‘Holy.”
Secondly, Jacob said that God was present there where he was and he didn’t know it.  That makes me contemplate if that has been true for many others—God was about them and they were too distracted to notice.
Where are your sacred spaces, those places in your life’s journey and history that have revealed the holy to you?  Have you ever missed God’s presence in your life because you were too distracted to notice at that time?  Jacob did notice and, in respect, consecrated the place and experience.  How about you?
                                                                                       Pastor Jeff Blackman

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

Thinking of our spiritual life as a journey has deep roots in scripture. Abram and Sarai leave all that is familiar to go to the land God promises to show them (Gen. 12). The Hebrews journeyed into Egypt, back out again, and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Later the Hebrew people journeyed into Babylonian exile and then, in time, journeyed home. Mary and Joseph journeyed. So did the apostles in Acts, who flung the seeds of the gospel far and near. Jesus was forever on the move.

Journeys in scripture go up high mountains and down deep valleys. They take place in the desert and on churning seas. Some are delightful and restful, by green pastures and still waters. Others are discouraging and demanding, through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus was dealing with a disappointing leg of his journey when he told the parable of the good soil in Matthew 13:1-9.

That parable can be used to take stock of our inner landscape, our spiritual geography. Within each one of us are patches of good ground, green and growing, warm and sunny. Within each one of us is also a hard-packed path: ground we have covered so often that it could be said that we are in a rut. Sometimes those well-travelled paths have to do with how we think about God or church or politics. Sometimes that path has to do with attitudes about work or family. No matter what, it is a place of complacency and certainty.

But those aren’t the only kinds of soil within us. We have rocky places; hardened hearts toward certain individuals or entire groups of people. We also have thistle patches, choked with worry and fear, prickly with desire for money and stuff.

Teresa of Avila, a Christian medieval mystic, says that within each one of us there is a universe. Within you is written all your experiences, your hopes and desires, the people you have loved and who have loved you, the people you have hated and who have hated you. Within you are your talents, glimmering like gold in sunlight. You have, within you, both fertile places and barren places. You also have places of great upheaval that has left you weak and broken.

Prayer opens us to God. In prayer, we discover that God is already present in our inner landscape. In fact, in daily prayer and in weekly worship, we begin to see that God, the Good Sower, has been flinging kingdom seeds anywhere and everywhere in the vastness of our spiritual geography: in fertile soil, yes, but also on the hardened paths and the rocky places and the thistle patches. Kingdom seeds of compassion and justice, healing and hope, peace and forgiveness tossed with abandon into the weakest, most broken parts of our lives. In prayer, we begin to discover what God is doing and God’s surprising, wondrous crop of grace.

The prayer bead that symbolizes journey has a pattern that looks like stepping stones on a path. If you are using the prayer beads to structure and focus your prayers, hold the journey bead as you ponder these questions:

Where are you on your spiritual journey? What next step is God asking you to take?

On the journey with you,

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A MId-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

Many of us have a desire to pray. And many of you will know what I am talking about when I say that my desire to pray has often been sabotaged by what some refer to as monkey mind. A monkey mind leaps from place to place and from thought to thought. It is such a distraction that even the desire to pray can disappear in the face of monkey mind antics.

Our summer sermon series, All My Days, is an invitation to fall more deeply in love with God through prayer. Together, we are stepping outside our comfort zones and experimenting with prayer beads in an effort to create a spiritual discipline of prayer that is both focused and structured. Each bead, as it is held, is a reminder of a different facet of prayer. Our focus this upcoming weekend is Journey.

Journey is an oft-used metaphor for the life of faith. Scripture is filled with people on faith journeys: Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, just to name a few. The imagery of journey is rich, with each step moving us either forward or backward along terrain that is smooth and straight or steep and exhausting or somewhere in-between.

For centuries, labyrinths have been used as a means of praying. A labyrinth is not a maze in which you get lost and confused and afraid that you will never find your way out. Instead, a labyrinth (some of which are found on the floors of the great cathedrals of the world) is a path that has one way that leads to the center and one way that leads back out. Following the labyrinth is much like our spiritual journeys. There are times that we can think that we are close to the center and we suddenly discover we are really on the outside edge, far from the center, far from God. There are other times that we wonder if we will ever find our way closer to the center and suddenly and surprisingly, we are there.

One of my Covenant Discipleship sisters, Alecia Williams, used to have a labyrinth in the timber where we would sometimes walk in silent prayer. At a previous church, Sheridan United Methodist, there was a labyrinth mowed into the pasture behind the church. In our church, thanks to Kendy’s efforts, there is a temporary labyrinth in Friendship Hall. You are invited to stop by the church and take as much or as little time as you wish to walk the labyrinth. Several people can walk at the same time, all in prayerful silence.

I like to walk a labyrinth in a spirit of openness to God, concentrating on both the movement of my body and the journey itself. If you wish, you can use the prayer beads on your path. At the beginning of the labyrinth, hold the gold bead and thank God for the gifts God has given you. Hold the bumpy bead and lift your worries to God. Then hold the bead with the large circle that symbolizes silence before God and begin your journey. Listen for that still, small voice of God within as you walk.

When you reach the center, you might say the Lord’s Prayer. As you begin your journey outward, hold the copper journey bead. Where has God led you on your faith journey? What is the next step God is asking you to take?

On the journey with you,


Monday, July 7, 2014

Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the readings for this weekend (July 12-13, 2014) is the old, old, ever-relevant story of conflict.  Specifically, the rivalry and conflict between Jacob and Esau.  I personally don’t think of Genesis as accurate historically but, rather, do think that it constantly hits the bulls eye about what it means to be human.
The storyline progresses very quickly because the storyteller wanted to get to what he thought was important:  the conflict between tribes—the Edomites and the Israelites.  The Edomites are represented by Esau and Jacob is the name bearer of Israel.  In ancient times these tribes had ongoing conflict and struggle.  This weekend’s story attempts to offer some sort of explanation of that conflict.
Within this storyline many critical Biblical themes are named:  birthright; barrenness; the struggle of family members, especially sons; name giving of children; patriarchy.  Just as important as these concepts is the introduction of the third great Hebrew patriarch—Jacob..
In our American culture, our great forebears (think George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, etc.) are often presented in virtuous pictures.  There is not much of a “dark side” presented of our founders and heroes.  In the Hebrew Bible (what we call the ‘Old Testament’), a founding father and even hero, i.e. Jacob, is not at all presented so squeaky clean.  Jacob is presented as dishonest, manipulative, and a liar, who is willing to take great advantage of distressed people, especially his own family members.  Thus starts a long saga in Genesis about the stormy relationship between Jacob and Esau.
From this story found early in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, it would seem conflict and struggle are part of the human situation (think Cain and Abel and murder!).  As we encounter today’s news from virtually any source, conflict, violence, war, atrocities, slaughter, brutality and outrageous behavior greet us daily.  Is this how it must be with us humans?  Certainly history would say a resounding, “Yes!”  So, there we are:  stuck ad generally miserable with our own behavior, it would seem.

 Yet there is hope.  In some ways the way of hope seems slim and fragile.  However, I know hope exists.  For me that hope has many names but one name stands out ahead of them all—Jesus of Nazareth.  The slim and fragile part of hope is revealed in this man being born as a helpless vulnerable infant.  This hope ends as a crucified vulnerable human being.  And then, God’s life force cuts in despite the despair of humans.  God’s power shines in a way that we call Resurrection.  Hope moves from slim and fragile (based on humans) to indomitable (based on God).  If we had only ourselves to hope in, our hope would continue slim and fragile and ultimately be snuffed out.  When hope is found in God we move to indomitable and present.  This is faith—hope and trust in God by following The Way of Jesus wo lives every day to empower us with hope.
                                                                                              Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

I grew up thinking that praying meant bowing my head, closing my eyes, folding my hands and telling God my problems. My biggest problem is that I wasn’t very good at praying.

I tried praying at bedtime. I tried praying during morning devotions. My efforts at creating a spiritual discipline would last for a while and then I would backslide. As I began to get serious about studying scripture, I found my time immersed in God’s Word to be a prayerful experience. But I never really discovered a method of praying that felt truly right.

Until I began commuting to seminary and discovered the incredible gift of silent prayer.

Long hours spent on the road between Iowa and Kansas City became a time when I would turn off the music and simply be. I admired the beauty of the landscape, ever so aware of our Creator God’s amazing artistry. I focused on being open to God. I paid attention to the nudges and the insights that came to me while I drove; nudges and insights that often were answers to questions I had been wrestling with. Later, I would write down these a-ha! moments. They often became seeds of a sermon or brought some much-needed healing growth. Sometimes I followed up with a phone call or a note to someone who had come to mind while I drove.

I discovered that in the past, I spent so much time talking to God that I wasn’t listening to God. Someone much wiser than I has pointed out that we have two ears and one mouth and should use them proportionally. Silent prayer, silent openness, silent meditation allows us to listen to God. My experience is that when God speaks, God often speaks in a “still, small voice” or “a sound of sheer silence” deep within (1 Kings 19:11-12).

These times of contemplative prayer are most meaningful to me when I am outside in this great, big beautiful world of ours. Sometimes it is sitting on the deck, watching the birds and the deer and enjoying our dog Scout’s company. Sometimes it is gardening, digging in the black Iowa dirt. There are times when there is no particular nudging, no new insight, and that is ok. It is simply a gift to be alive, be aware, to be open to the presence of God.

Using the prayer beads, hold the gold bead and give thanks to God for the blessings in your life. Hold the bumpy bead and name your worries. Now hold the bead with the large hole and sit in silence for a moment. Listen for God. What is God saying to you?

On the journey with you,