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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Hillside Church, Merry Christmas and Thank You

 

This is a personal note to my church family.  The Apostle Paul unabashedly expressed his love for the churches he founded.  I'm no Paul, but I will follow his example here, and express my affection for the church God privileges me to serve.  This photo is our Advent candles in our sanctuary from the fourth Sunday of Advent last year.




Hillside Church, I am very thankful that 15 years ago, God called me to be your pastor.  I preached my installation sermon here on September 24, 2006.  This year, you showed me and my family a lot of love, and I really grateful.  But then, in countless ways, you show us love every year, and I hope we show you love too.  I won’t say ‘reciprocate.’  Love is not reciprocal, but flows from the Spirit beating within each of us and from the generosity of the heart. You show love because of the heartbeat of Christ in you.  I hope that’s what I am doing as well.

The last few years we have seen ups and downs.  Before COVID came our church went through some changes, and now, 21 months of pandemic have imposed changes on all churches and on everyone everywhere, churched or unchurched.  I thank God to have gone through this with you.

I believe God will be seen this Christmas among us, as we love each other and welcome all who come.  I believe as the word is proclaimed and praise is sung, the Holy Spirit’s touch will be felt.  Reader, be part of it.  Maybe you are a Hillside member who hasn’t come in-person yet.  Maybe you are someone who sees our newsletter, but hasn’t gotten very involved in our church.  I pray that you will.  I pray you will come and experience the love and community that we offer.  And I thank God that I get to be part of it.

-        Pastor Rob



Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Book Review - "Church: What to Do When Everyone is Like You" (Daynette Snead Perez)

 




Daynette Snead Perez asks a question every church should ask itself.  “Can there be unity and diversity here?”  In her latest book ‘Church: What to do When Everyone is Like You,’ she answers ‘yes,’ and ‘yes.’ There can be unity in your church.  In fact, there must be.  And there can be diversity, no matter where your church is.

Snead Perez doesn’t make the assertion.  She charts the course.  Blending Biblical principles, bible stories, and her own story, the author introduces the reader to her Stranger to Neighbor ministry.  This approach to unity/diversity is going to catch on and alter the way churches see the people who walk through their doors as well as the people in the community who walk past their doors.

 Two particular strengths that stand out are the weighted phrases Snead Perez pastorally invites the reader to carry.  For instances, she likens ministry to standing.  Wouldn’t we all like to stand on firm ground? Doesn’t Jesus instruct us to build our faith on the rock of his word, that we might withstand the storm (Matthew 7:24-27)?  Of course he does.  But our foundation is him.  He does not tell us to avoid the storm!  Thus, Snead Perez writes, “adjust your comfort to stand in a canoe, rather than on firm ground” (p.52).  Have you ever toppled into the water trying to stand in a canoe?  Yes, ministry can get wet and messy, but when we develop the agility to navigate the roiling changes in the cultural climate around us, we are ready to grow united, diverse congregations.

 Another example of her powerful wording comes when she a process for stepping onto new ground in ministry.  She writes, “Blind spots are removed through education, listening, and engaging with people willing to provide and share first hand knowledge of lived experiences.” Having practiced this approach of humble listening to people willing to share their stories with me, especially across racial and ethnic lines, I can attest to the efficacy of the approach she prescribes.

 These are but two examples from a book chalk full of compelling wording and phrasing.  The reader will be challenged to examine his or her own life is he or she has the temerity to follow the course the author is plotting.  Yet the challenges Snead Perez presents come as an invitation, and this is the other particular strength to be mentioned here. 

 Her style is direct, but gentle.  She tells her own story truthfully and vulnerably, but not in a way the condemns any particular racial or ethnic group.  As a white male, I don’t read this and think, “Gosh, I am awful. I need to change.”  It’s a conviction of guilt heaped upon me.  Rather, I come away from reading ‘What to Do When Everyone Like You’ thinking, “I might need to change, and I know can!  I can play role and unleashing a more diverse, unified, loving church upon the world.” Daynette has invited me to be part of the beloved community.

 

Pick up a copy of this book for your pastor, you church elders and deacons, the Sunday school teachers, and yourself.  You’ll come away ready for a more colorful, blessed future for your church.



Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Jesus in the Neighborhood





            After I preached a sermon on Mark 12:28-34 about loving one’s neighbor, one of our members shared with me an article she read.  In it, Mother Teresa is interviewed.  The interviewer suggests that though Mother Teresa in her ministry works hard and does some good things, in the long run, it makes little difference.  Her efforts do not alleviate poverty on a large scale.

            Here is Mother Teresa’s response:

“I do not agree with the big way of doing things,” Mother Teresa replied. “To us what matters is an individual. To get to love the person, we must come in close contact with him. If we wait till we get the numbers, then we will be lost in the numbers. And we will never be able to show that love and respect for the person. I believe in person to person; every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is only one person in the world for me at that moment.”[i]

 

            I appreciated her focus on loving the person and not getting lost in the numbers.  We do the one and avoid the other.  We can focus on loving people, our neighbors.  We can be creative and find meaningful ways to show love to the people around us.  We can be a gathering of people willing to walk with individuals in their struggles.  We can help people see Jesus.

            We can also avoid getting lost in the numbers.  In terms of active members, our church is smaller than it has been in over 30 years.  If you just counted bodies, you’d say we’re in decline.  However, when I see how many of our people commit to neighbor love by volunteering at the food pantry twice month, I see a small congregation doing a lot of good.  When I consider the way our members support the church through tithes and offerings, it makes me believe God wants our church to thrive.  We haven’t been this small in a long time, but we also haven’t been this financially stable in a long time.  We have a lot going for us and the Gospel we preach and try to embody is the same Gospel they read in churches with thousands of people.

            It’s OK for us to want a growing children’s ministry.  It’s ok to want youth, young adults, and small group ministries that are more developed.  It’s ok to acknowledge that one of the things we probably need for these ministries is more people.  It’s ok as long as we remember that God has blessed us as we currently are, and the group that currently comprises our church body is capable of countless manifestations of neighbor love.  We dream about what will be even as we pour energy into what are doing right now as a church. 

            Like Mother Teresa, we see and love everyone who comes through our doors as if he or she were Jesus.  We members of the church family go out into the surrounding world intent on showing neighbor love.  Jesus is in the neighborhood and we will see him if we seek him.  We seek him by loving all the people we meet in the everyday places of our lives.   



[i] https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/08/mother-teresas-nuns-escape-kabul-with-orphans-and-show-us-how-to-live/ 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Provoked


8-4-2021

 

            I pray you will be provoked.  Wait!  What?  That’s right, I pray you be provoked!  Doesn’t provocation lead to conflict?  Maybe.  Stay with me here.

            A few weeks ago, a friend strongly recommended I spend significant time in the New Testament book of Jude.  Jude only has 25 verses in total.  Because I greatly respect the friend who recommended Jude and because it is so short, I decided to go through Jude praying each verse, phrase-by-phrase, in the manner of Lectio Divina.  I read a phrase out loud, take several deep breaths, read it again, and then read it one more time.  I let the sound of the words settle on me.  Then, I write in my journal what I hear.  It took me a week just to get through Jude 1:3, but that’s the whole point.  I am taking my time; and being provoked.

            Verse 1 includes the phrase “… kept safe for Jesus Christ.”  I wondered if Jude was writing to a persecuted church.  He said they were “kept safe,” but I had to ask did they feel safe?

            In verse 3, Jude feels he has to “contend for the faith.”  I was provoked to ask, where do we, in Hillside Church, have to “contend for the faith?”  And, when we identify where that is, are we doing it

            Verse 3 records Jude referring to “intruders.”  Have I confronted intruders at Hillside?  Or, have intruders intruded, and when they did, did I fail to recognize them?  Or, did I confront someone as an intruder who was actually a brother or sister in Christ and was not actually intruding?

            Do you see?  Simply reading and praying over 4 verses in Jude provoked me to a number of questions.  Obviously, some of the questions with which I wrestle are specific to my role as the pastor.  You, though, can read in the same way.  Read scripture slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.  Read with your life wide open before you, before the Bible, and before God.  When the word prods you, respond in humble, confessional faith.  Be vulnerable and moldable, so through the Bible, God can shape you. 

            I pray you will be provoked.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Presence

 


Last Sunday (6-27-21), I urged the congregation to see that our greatest joy is found in God’s presence.  Being with God is better than getting what (we think) we desire.  You can watch that sermon here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnytxbCHJMw (begin at 19:20 mark).  Be with God.

            Here I follow up that message with an encouragement for you.  This summer, 2021, discover what being is God’s presence is like for you. Prayer walking.  Periods of silent meditation.  Worship singing.  Journaling.  Find the mode and context in which you are able to tune out distractions and focus on hearing from God.  Feel God speak to your spirit. 

            Jesus promised “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).  Paul promises nothing in creation can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).   Why is it good news when we say “God is with us?”  I bet you can answer that question intellectually or rationally.  Or, if you don’t know the answer, you can research it and discover a cogent response. 

            Why is it good for us experientially?  I suspect this one is harder to articulate.  And this is not something you’ll learn by a google search our hours spent reading thick theology or spirituality books.  To experience God, you have to invest significant time and focused attention walking with God, sitting with God, and listening to God.  Do exactly that this summer.  Dedicate this summer to knowing God in your spirit.

            There will be trial and error, and frustrating periods of silence.  It’s worth the agony.  Transformation comes in the journey.  And, you’ll see the world around you differently, and you’ll become a new creation.  Practice the presence of God.  Discover who you are in light of your relationship with God in Christ. 


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Graced (6/1/2021)

 





 

“Sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

“Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7).

“Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

 

            Why this sampling of numerous New Testament verses about grace?  We are “graced” people.  We are saved by God’s show of grace, the sending of his beloved Son on our behalf.  The hope we have for eternal life is a gift God gives us.  If we understand we have been gifted with grace, we will be eager to extend grace to others.

            Opportunities to give grace come up in every encounter in life.  A most present and immediate application for grace is the awkwardness of emerging from COVID-19 quarantines, back into fully engaged life.  Those vaccinated and ready to take off masks need to have patience and give grace to those who insist we still need to wear masks.  Those not quite ready to be fully open can extend grace to people running around without masks on.

            Some people have not been vaccinated and there are still new cases of COVID-19 in our area every day.  Those under 12 years of age aren’t eligible for vaccination yet.  Vaccinated people can be carriers of COVID without getting symptoms themselves.  When they wear masks, they are “living in love” (Eph. 5:2), showing love for vulnerable, unvaccinated neighbors. 

            Whatever one feels about masks, vaccinations, and COVID-19, when we are in Christ, our priority is to share self-giving love to our neighbors as Christ gave himself for us.  If we approach others in a spirit of self-giving love and extend grace, we’ll get through the awkward conversations.  We’ll get past the tribulation of the pandemic.  Our purpose is to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus.  One of the ways we can do that is to give love and grace. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Called




5-4-2021

 

            A couple of thoughts tease my mind as I sit to write.  It’s “Star Wars” day.    How did a fun, fresh science fiction movie become the mythic, entertainment behemoth that it is?  Fans exchange knowing winks as they proudly say, “May the 4th be with you!”  They delight in the ignorance of the uninitiated who don’t understand “the force.” 

            This is all fantasy, but like a lot of fictional world, Star Wars holds a firm grip on the hearts of many in the world.  What do witnesses sharing testimony about Jesus have to say to the voters, lawyers, dishwashers, bus-riders, builders, writers, wannabe-writers, gamers, and influencers inhabiting the Star Wars universe?

            The other musing poking around my brain is the movement related to COVID-19: vaccines are up; infection rates are down; restrictions are being lifted.  In the U.S., we are inching toward the end of the pandemic.  Of course, just as some at the beach go charging into the surf, and others gradually dip their toes and venture no farther than ankle deep, and others stay completely dry settling for sand and sun, we will see varying levels of social engagement that mark the end of the COVID-19 ordeal.  

Some will continue to isolate.  Some will come out but stay protected by masks and will find themselves wary about handshaking.  Some will bound out into the world and act gregarious, ignoring the personal space of others, and acting as if COVID-19 never happened. What word do Christ-followers have to share in this disordered, unbalanced time?  And how do we share it?

Sorry, I don’t have answers, per se.  When COVID-19 is completely in the rearview mirror, there will be other crises ignored by some and completely feared by others.  There will be numerous fantasy worlds that give people joy and even meaning.  We who follow Jesus are called to show the world who He is and why He matters, and we’re called to do that no matter how things are in the world. 

Ephesians 1:18 says one of the goals of this letter is that the reader will receive the Spirit and know the hope to which Christians are called.  Believers often talk about, write about, and debate about “the elect.”  Who’s included in “the elect?”  Who’s excluded?  Am I among “the elect?”  What if, instead of these conversations about something utterly out of our control, we see ourselves as the called.

We are called to hope.  We are called to follow Jesus, love others, and share hope!  We are called to be witnesses in a Star Wars world, in a COVID-19 world, in a post-COVID world, and in the midst of whatever comes next.  As you bask in the fresh, new beauty of Springtime, consider seeing yourself with new eyes.  If you have given your heart to Christ and dedicated yourself to following Jesus, then you are among the called.  How will you respond to God’s call?