Friday, August 25, 2017

Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly With God

As I write my last Pastor’s letter, I find myself filled with many different emotions and feelings. Certainly, a feeling of profound and deep gratitude tops my list. I am so grateful that God called me to Manassas to serve, work, and minister with you in the name of Jesus Christ these past 11 years.

Joy is gratitude’s partner, but even so, I am also filled with sadness as I contemplate saying goodbye to you all. Our lives have been woven together in so many wonderful ways that I expect come Fall, the presence of your absence, especially on Sundays, will be all too acute.

I leave with a sense of great confidence in and hope for MPC. We are a strong, vibrant congregation, and while transitions are unsettling, I know that God will see us through, both you and me.

The seething debate of late over racism and bigotry shows how much work we have still to do as disciples of Jesus Christ to bring healing and reconciliation to all of God’s creation. We cannot equivocate: racism is hatred; bigotry is hatred; misogyny is hatred; violence is hatred; they have no place in God’s kingdom.

For all our sense of revulsion as we look at symbols of racism and anti-Semitism, what the current debate should remind us of is the more insidious racism that lurks beneath the surface, behind closed doors, in words spoken with a nod and a wink – “dog whistles”, from women and men who vigorously protest,  “But I am not a racist”.

This is where our Lord teaches us: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. … whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:1-3)

The Belhar Confession, the newest addition to our Book of Confession, teaches us, “We believe that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another; that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought; one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain; that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;”

How many times have we heard God’s words to us through the prophet Micah that we are to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)  To do justice is to build a world of reconciliation, hope, peace, grace, and love for all God’s children. To do justice is to confront hate with love, as a large, ecumenical group of courageous clergy did in Charlottesville. To do justice is to continue building the foundation of the very Kingdom of God, here at MPC and everywhere God calls us.

May the Lord Bless You and Keep You – Always!

Pastor Skip

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Honoring Your Promises

Do you remember the promises you made to our Middle Schoolers before they went to Massanetta Springs? You promised to support them with your prayers while they were away, and then you promised to “celebrate with them as they conclude their work and ask them with genuine enthusiasm to share their experiences with you.”

We made the same promises to those who helped with Vacation Bible School and we’ll make the same promises on July 16 to our High School Youth Group before they go to Montreat. 

Have you honored your promises? Have you asked any of our young people to share their experiences with you?

If you haven’t, you should. Year in and year out our Middle Schoolers head to Massanetta Springs and our High Schoolers head to Montreat with such eagerness and enthusiasm. I cannot recall anyone ever returning from either place not wanting to return. On the contrary, our young folks start planning for next year on their way home from this year’s time.

Ask them why. Ask them what they learn, who they meet, what they did, and why they love to go. What you’ll find is that even as our young folks are having a wonderful time, they are also growing in faith and discipleship. A few days at Massanetta Springs, a few days at Montreat are nothing short of transformative.

We want to keep helping our young folks have these experiences. We want to help them go back to Triennium in 2019, if they want to, as they last did in 2013, when we sent the largest contingent of any church in the National Capital Presbytery.

In order to assure our young people of these and other opportunities, we are already at work planning for a Stewardship Campaign that we are hoping and praying will be as successful as our Capital Campaign was a couple of years back, when we achieved 120% of our goal. Stewardship giving took a small slide backwards last year, forcing us to cut where we did not want to cut, including expenditures for Youth Activities.

We can do better. We need to do better. We will do better. As we wind up our 150th Anniversary celebrations, it’s time for us to look forward to our future and make it bright and strong. God will lead us, Jesus will guide us, and the Spirit will enable us, but we are the ones who will make it strong and vibrant.  

I’ve loved this image of a church reminding us that we are the Body of Christ, each of us called to build the church, and all of us standing on the shoulders of all those saints who’ve gone before.

What kind of church are we going to build for our young people? What kind of church will we celebrate in 2027? 2037? 2067? It’s up to us. It’s up to you.

Grace & Peace,
Pastor Skip

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Where 14 or More Are Gathered!

It was on a Sunday in July of 1867 that 14 men and women gathered to worship in the home of Mrs. Catherine Hornbaker, not far from what are now the Fairgrounds. They became the foundation of Manassas Presbyterian Church. Others joined that first group, one here, two there, the community growing by word of mouth. Within 10 years, the community had outgrown the shed they had purchased for a worship space. Plans were made to construct the building that still stands in Old Town.

Were we to travel back in time and participate in a worship service from those formative years, we’d find things not all that different from today. Certainly the biggest difference would have been the length of the service – worship would have lasted more than 2 hours, and the pews would not have been upholstered, nor, as we head into summer, would the Sanctuary have been air-conditioned!

Still, we have much on common with our ancestors in faith, not least of which is reaching out to others with an invitation to join our community. Even with all the technology we have today that makes communication easy, inexpensive and instantaneous, the best way to spread the word about our church is word of mouth – telling your neighbors and friends.

I recently put together a fact-sheet for our Stewardship Committee and our Elders highlighting what a wonderful church we have. It is easy to overlook all the good things happening here.

We have an extraordinary music program; anyone of any age can find a place to “make a joyful noise to the Lord”. We have a deep commitment to learning as we seek to grow not just in knowledge, but in wisdom. Our Youth programs are in a word, amazing.

We have one the best preschools in the County. It is always such a joy for me to hear parents praise the school, and in particular, our talented, dedicated teachers.

We have a beautiful campus that we are happy to make available to outside groups such as Beacon, Girl Scouts, support groups, and others. Our building is a bustling, busy place every day of the week, even in the heat of summer.

Most important, we are a community that gathers each Sunday to worship, pray, praise, sing, and learn. We gather in community in much the same way the first 14 gathered, called by the Spirit to grow in Christ.

Anne Lamott has written, “in church we live in community – in shared loss and hope”, or, as wedding vows remind us, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want. We cannot worship the Lord alone; we come together to be together, just as the very first followers did 2,000 years ago: They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

To God be the Glory!
Pastor Skip

Monday, May 1, 2017

Questions, Questions, Questions

How do we know there is a God? How do we find God? What does it mean to have faith?  What can we expect from God? What should God expect from us? Why do we pray? How do we know God hears us when we pray?  Why does it seem that God sometimes doesn’t answer prayers?

These are just a few of the questions that are part of the conversation Mary Langley and I have each year with the students in our Confirmation Class. Some questions come from us, but most of the questions come from the students. Year after year, our Confirmands are eager to question, ponder, probe, wonder, and think. 

Why do we go to church and worship? How do we know what is the “right” way or “best” way to worship? Why do other people/churches worship so differently? What happens when we die? Do we really believe that we will live for all eternity? What is the purpose/meaning of our life before we die? 

Are money and success a sign that God is blessing us and happy with us?  Is poverty and struggle a sign that God is not happy with us?  Is God absent where there is war, crime, disease, poverty, hunger, & suffering?
How do we know that God knows us and cares about us? How do we know whether we are doing things “right” in our lives? What is it that Jesus wants us to learn from him and his life?

These are not just questions we ask in 9th grade; they are questions we seek answers to over our lifetimes. It is one of the answers to the question of why we go to church: to inquire, to ponder, to dig — to explore our faith and our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

What we learn as we ask our questions is that there will be times in our lives when we’ll feel disconnected, detached, and even uninterested. But the flame of faith is always there, and we know that we can find our way back to God. We learn as well that God’s words spoken through Isaiah are so true and so comforting: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine….you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43)

The goal of Confirmation Class has never been to shape emerging Presbyterians; rather, we want to our young folks to understand that it is okay to ask questions and even express doubts and concerns and they live their faith. The apostle Thomas may have expressed his doubt, but Jesus loved him no less for it.

We want our young folks to learn that life is challenging, messy, and can often seem profoundly unfair. God can often seem absent, as though God has traveled to the farthest end of the Universe, and left a message on his e-mail: “Out of the Office for a time known only to Me. Checking e-mail daily (but remember that for Me one day is like a thousand years.”

But, as we question and learn and grow in faith, even in the most difficult times, we can still sing “Hallelujah Anyway”, as the title of Anne Lamott’s most recent book reminds us.  For the promise is sure, that underneath us always are the “everlasting arms”. 

Grace & Peace,
Pastor Skip

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Hope!

The Psalmist says it poetically, lyrically, “My hope is in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; My hope is in the Lord!” The Psalmist returns to the theme of hope throughout the Book of Psalms. 

It was with this thought in mind that I chose the word “Hope” for the stones we used on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the service in which we remember the covenantal promises made to us through our baptisms. With just a sprinkling of water, we are welcomed into a life of hope, for we are welcomed into a life with our Lord Jesus Christ.

As our Book of Order reminds us, “In baptism, God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. In baptism, we die to what separates us from God and are raised to newness of life in Christ.” Through our baptisms, we begin a life grounded in hope. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah:  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Lent is the ideal time for us to remind ourselves of this promise of hope. As we go about our Lenten spiritual housecleaning, sweeping away the things in our lives that get between us and God, we can feel the sun emerging as though from behind a dark cloud as we walk again in the light of hope.  We can join our voices with the Psalmist: “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth…I will hope continually.”

The word “hope” means “a feeling of expectation”, and our expectation is that as disciples of Christ, we can know wholeness and peace. Life can throw profound challenges our way and life’s road can be bumpy, pot-holed, winding, even frightening. But still, we can walk in hope, for we walk with our risen Lord.

As the apostles finished their Passover meal with our Lord on the night of his arrest, they would have sung words from Psalm 118: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!...Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me…With the Lord on my side, I do not fear….The Lord is God and he has given us light.” Even in the gloom that hung over that meal like thick smoke, the apostles would have sung the Psalmist’s words with hope.

We can walk confidently through life, for through the grace and love of God given us in the living Christ, we walk in hope. So as we look to the joy of Easter, sing out with the Psalmist, “I will rejoice in hope, for you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust!”

Pastor Skip

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Good Spiritual Scrubbing for Lent

Lent – the word means “spring”, the ideal reminder of rebirth and renewal as we look to our joyful celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter. It is fitting that Lent this year begins on March 1, as our thoughts turn to spring, even if they were already there with our unseasonably mild February.

Lent is a time of preparation, 40 days, not counting Sundays, that lead us to Easter. Lent is not about giving up pizza or ice cream or Facebook.  Lent should be a time for serious, somber, sober reflection and renewal. It should be a time for each of us to do some spiritual housecleaning. It should be a time for us to remove the clutter— all those things that get in the way of faithful discipleship.

We’ve all got spiritual clutter in our lives. The apostle Paul even provides us with lists to help us identify the clutter: envy, greed, lust, anger, strife, quarreling, factions “and things like these”. Unhappily, the past year has revealed how easily we add to the clutter hatred, racism, bigotry, sexism, and intolerance, as well.

It is time to clean up, time to clean out. It is time to sweep out the detritus of our sinfulness, all those ways we turn from God. It is time to rid ourselves of clutter to make room for what Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness and self-control. These are the characteristics that mark a faithful disciple of Christ. These are the things we are called to work on during Lent, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the new life we’ve been given in the resurrection of our Lord.

It was the Psalmist who prayed, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin… Create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51) The Psalmist understood his need for a good spiritual scrubbing. His words provide us with a reminder that we too need a good scrubbing.

Giving up chocolate or texting for Lent won’t do it. Rather, we each need to step back, take a long, hard, honest look within, and let the light of Christ show us those places that need cleaning. Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “In the presence of Christ’s integrity, our own pretense is exposed; in the presence of Christ’s constancy, our cowardice is brought to light; in the presence of Christ’s fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed.”

It is Lent. It is time for a good spiritual scrub. It is time for us to come humbly before God and acknowledge our waywardness, our lukewarm faith. It is time for us to pray with the Psalmist: the Lordinstructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

Blessings for a most Holy Lent,
Pastor Skip

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"Let Us Say What We Believe"

We hear the words regularly in worship: “Let us say what we believe, using the Affirmation of Faith printed in your bulletin.” Together we then recite words that the bulletin tells us come from the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Brief Statement of Faith. What are these statements? Are they things our denomination requires us to say? Are they statements the Lectionary assigns on certain dates? 

The answer is that these are confessional statements found in our Book of Confessions. And what is the Book of Confessions? It is part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, USA. It is Part I of our denominational Constitution, with Part II the Book of Order and Directory of Worship.

Our Book of Confessions contains 12 confessional or creedal statements that span the centuries. The earliest is the Apostles' Creed, which dates from the end of the second century and was modified from time to time over the next few hundred years; its present form dates from the 8th century. The Nicene Creed was adopted in the year 381 and is the most ecumenical of our creeds.

Four confessional statements grew out of the Reformation: The Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, and finally, The Westminster Confession of Faith, with its companion Shorter and Larger Catechisms. The Westminster Confession, with its catechisms, served as our denomination’s primary theological guide for the better part of 300 years.

The 20th century saw the addition of the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith. The most recent addition is the Belhar Confession, which has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and speaks powerfully to our call to ministries of reconciliation, peace, and justice.

There is a logic to the way we use our Confessions in worship. We typically use the Apostles' Creed when we receive new members, celebrate a baptism, or ordain officers. We usually use the Nicene Creed, which we share with the Eastern Orthodox church, Roman Catholicism, and many other Protestant churches, on World Communion Sunday. We tend to use different parts of the Brief Statement, with its very specific Trinitarian focus, other times of the year.

Our Book of Order tells us that, “The Presbyterian Church states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in the Book of Confessions. In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what is believes, and what it resolves to do.”

In other words, our confessional and creedal statements help us to articulate our faith. More important, in articulating our faith, the words of the confessions then call us to action and guide us as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Our confessions and creeds, words written decades, and even centuries ago, can still guide us to more faithful lives as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ. This we believe.

Grace & peace,
Pastor Skip