Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lifting Burdens Hard to Bear

This weeks Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Question is from Luke 11:46.

“Jesus says to the religious authorities of the time, ‘You load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.’  What burdens does the church carry or load on people today that it needs to ease?”

The major burden that the church often lays on people is focusing on its own needs instead of the needs it is designed to serve.  The church is extremely important, but the church thrives as it gives itself away in mission and ministry (both to "members" and to "non-members").  When our church focuses on others, we can trust God will give us what we need for that work.  When we focus on ourselves, we do not serve those who need us and we facilitate our own decline.  

Here are a few examples:

Stewardship.  We often find congregations linking budgetary needs and giving.  God, however, is perfectly capable for sustaining any truly worthwhile ministry.  All the money is, after all, already God's.  We, as individuals, need to tithe for our own faith and financial well-being.  We need to learn to trust God even with our bank accounts, and we need to put God first on our priority list in a way that happens more completely with first-fruits giving than with any other single spiritual discipline.  Nobody needs the burden of keeping their church's heat on or roof repaired. We need the joy of tithing, along with the confidence that the church is there to generously aid those with emergency needs.  The church's disciplines of stewardship can be a vehicle to exuberant generosity and financial freedom, not stress and anxiety.   

Children's Formation.  Too often, churches are try to shoehorn parents living 21st century lives in mid-20th century children and youth programs.  A lot of energy and reminder emails are sent to round up the little ones for 9:00am Sunday School or a youth outing.  While these can still be valuable, they do not work for many families.  Instead of guilt, these families need resources that help them grow their own spiritual lives and form their children in ways they can access.  The website Grow Christians is one way that family spiritual disciplines are being shared to reach people who aren't able to bear the burdens of traditional "family ministry."

Buildings. In the old days, church activities filled up every nook and cranny of the building, with new education wings built and basements transformed into classrooms and meeting rooms.  Many of those spaces in our facilities are no longer used consistently, or used beyond once a week.  Too often we still expect a declining number of people to maintain this property.  Yet, as many churches have discovered, the community often has need of spaces like the church's.  Various schools can use our Sunday school wings, families need places for graduation parties, showers, and other events, healthy eating groups need commercial kitchens to teach classes, and any number of non-profits need accessible meeting rooms with adequate parking.  Smaller churches and church plants are also looking for worship space (often at a time that isn't Sunday morning).  We can open up our churches to others, but not with an eye toward rental income.  Ideally our goal is allowing people to be served by the church such that they become part of our extended church community.  Instead of an income stream, we are offering people a chance to be part of our overall ministry -- loving God and loving neighbor.  As we allow others to have a piece of ownership in our facilities by being part of who we are, we give people the opportunity to contribute and take responsibility our physical plant in whatever ways God prompts them.  As we give away our buildings (at least for a scheduled time), we allow others to help us maintain them. When we burden our congregations by holding them tightly, we weigh them down with a very heavy load.

Blog Force Participant

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Jesus Teaching Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

In Luke chapter 11, Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. He responds with a slightly condensed version of what has become known as the Lord's prayer.  Then Jesus  relates the parable of the guy pounding on his neighbor's door for bread in the middle of the night.  He writes the lyrics to the second verse of Seek Ye First ("ask and it shall be given unto you; seek and ye shall find").  Finally, he says that when our children ask us for good things, we don't give them bad things, so, if we ask, God will give us the Holy Spirit.  

This week's BLOGFORCE question only deals with the Lord's Prayer, but since Jesus didn't stop there, neither will I.  These instructions of Jesus tell us four important things about prayer.

1. While the Lord's Prayer could be expounded line by line at great length, the basic format tells us something important.  We can have a short, easy to memorize, rote prayer that covers the most important bases and can be used as often as we wish.  We can't spend fifteen seconds, rush through Our Father, and be done with our prayer for the day.  Yet we also don't have to spend fifteen minutes finding the exact right words to say.  If we are uncreative, if we don't know what to say, if we don't even feel like praying, Jesus gives us a simple way to come before God and enter into his presence through prayer.

2. Jesus also says something about the opposite situation, when we really know what we want to pray for.  In the parable of the guy who finally gets up to throw a loaf of bread out the door at his neighbor in the wee hours of the morning, Jesus tells us to be persistent.  Keep asking, keep praying, keep the angels of God up all night until the Almighty sends them down with whatever we need.  Make clear to God what we want and that we really want it.

3. The parable moves seamlessly into Jesus' next point, which is that we only have to ask and we will receive.  The stress seems different, however.  Seek and you will find feels a lot different to us than bang on the door all night.  In reality, however, it may not be.  Part of this instruction is that God wants to give us what we want, especially when what we want is good.  We may have to tell him what that is, however.  Part of prayer can be clarifying our desires, since we often want different, and even contradictory things.  We want nothing to change but we want a better job.  We want to lose weight and eat more ice cream.  We want to support a charity and to go on a cruise.  God is inviting us to ask for what we really want so he can give it to us.  Maybe we need to knock on God's door repeatedly until we are clear in our own minds.  Our persistent prayer is more for our sake than for God's.

4. Jesus says that our heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  Since no one had been talking about the Holy Spirit so far this chapter, Jesus' must think this point is particularly important.  In the midst of all our other prayers, we should ask God to give us his Holy Spirit.  As we receive the Holy Spirit, we activate our spiritual gifts to build up the church and reap the benefits of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  If we want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control and the other fruits of the Spirit, we need to ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says he will.

Blog Force Participant

Friday, August 11, 2017

Heading Home -- Dominican Republic Mission Trip 2017 Day 9

This is the last of nine daily blog posts from our Diocesan Mission trip to Santiago, Dominican Republic from July 21-29.  I'm posting one a day now that we have returned to the states.  A daily bog from others of our team can be found on our Diocesan blog:

July 29
Our plane finally arrives in Santiago!
If you are reading this, I have made it home.  As I write this, however, I’m not as sure.  I’m at the Santiago International Airport waiting for our flight, which had been delayed 2 hours waiting for the plane we are supposed to be leaving on.  Right now, we are schedule to arrive in Newark 15 minutes before our flight to Pittsburgh takes off.

The week has been good.  We have had well over 70 children attend Vacation Bible School, with the numbers increasing as the week has gone on.  We have seen 20-30 people each day for our vision clinic.  We have given glasses to young people who could not clearly see the first line on an eye chart (the huge solo letter “E”).  We have given reading glasses to a woman who didn’t know how to read but needed them to see for cooking and sewing.  We have given glasses to senior citizens with significant correction needs who have never had glasses.  We really did help some people see this week.

"The Gatekeeper"
Our good-byes were difficult.  Over the week we have worked closely, and lunched daily, with a great group of teachers and others who help out at the church, including the “gatekeeper,” who had all the keys and locked and unlocked everything for us. We also developed great relationships with Randy our translator, Lazarus who ran the hotel we stayed at, the children of the teachers and others at the church, and Father Hipólito.  I think everyone on the team would love to come back next year and see our new friends again.

Post Script
We did make it home.  We landed in Newark about 10 minutes before our flight to Pittsburgh was supposed to take off but, thanks be to God, it was delayed about 50 minutes and was now to take off at 9:10pm.  So we moved as quickly as we could through immigration, customs,  and to security.  When we looked up, the flight had been delayed until 9:15pm, and those five minutes were an answer to prayer.  Going through security, not only did the X-ray machine in our line break, but they were particularly interested in our diagnostic equipment.  Our vanguard ran to the gate -- on the other side of the terminal -- to fall down and tie their shoes in the doorway if need be.  When all but the last two people had made it, we talked to the gate agent, who said that he had to close the doors in less then five minutes.  Then the last of our company arrived and we got on our aircraft in those final minutes between 9:10 and 9:15pm.  Thanks to all those praying for safe travel and a good week!

Post Post Script
The day after we got back to the States, Adrian Beltre became the first Major League baseball player born in the Dominican Republic to reach the 3,000 hit plateau.  It is probably unrelated to our trip, but still a nice postlude to spending a week in his homeland. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Interesting Tidbits -- Dominican Republic Mission Trip 2017 Day 8

This is the eighth of nine daily blog posts from our Diocesan Mission trip to Santiago, Dominican Republic from July 21-29.  I'm posting one a day now that we have returned to the states.  A daily bog from others of our team can be found on our Diocesan blog:

July 28
In no particular order, here are a variety of things I’ve found interesting during our mission trip.

The full name of Santiago is actually Santiago de los XXX Caballeros (Santiago of the 30 Knights).  The city is so named because it was founded by 30 knights, or so I have been told.

Across the street from the church, I saw a newer payphone.  I can’t remember the last working payphone I have seen, and I haven’t run across a new one in a very long time.

Unfortunately, one of the other frequent sites on our drives were places to buy lottery tickets.  While most buildings are pastel-painted stucco or cinder-block, the sites for the main lottery are a vibrant blue vinyl that pops out from a block away.  In addition, numerous other more run-down buildings offer chances to play other lotteries 

The driving is a bit more adventurous here, with motorcycles cutting in and out of cars and trucks, and parked cars making for narrow lanes.  However, driving is much slower and more careful than in the United States, with drivers moving to almost a crawl before hitting the numerous speed bumps in the road or to maneuver around handcarts, pedestrians, or other challenges. 

Santiago seems to have very few, if any rapid transit buses.  The city does, however, have a number of specified special taxi routes.  Cars designated as special taxis display their route number on the side and pick people up and drop them off like a bus would.  One local said they were cheap, but he hated taking them because they would squeeze four people in the back and two passengers in the front seat.  Instead, he preferred “regular” taxis that picked you up and dropped you off wherever you wanted. 

The cross street closest to the hotel is “30th of March” Street.  I like this street because March 30th is my birthday.  I asked someone why it was named that, and understood that it was the day of a battle against someone or someones whose name I didn’t recognize.  Another bit of information to google later. 

Fried Eggplant
We’ve had many great foods here.  The fresh mango, avocado, papaya, pineapple, and bananas have all been delicious.  Each night at dinner, we start off with thinly-sliced, deep fried eggplant and end with sweet plantains.  We’ve had this banana-relative prepared in a way that brings out its natural sweetness as a dessert, as well as had it deep-fried with salt as a starch.  At lunch, I also had fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice for the first time, which I would highly recommend.  I, and many others on the trip, have enjoyed the local coffee, while Julia has found the dolce de leche to her liking.  Of course, we’ve also found Fanta!

During the large group opening of Bible School, the Dominican teachers lead the children in a variety of songs.  One of my favorites is about how the body is musical.  The mouth says “la, la, la”; the hands say <clap> <clap> <clap>; the feet say <stomp> <stomp> <stomp>; the head shakes back and forth; and the hips say “chi-chi-chi” as they dance to a cha-cha-cha rhythm. 

Finally, what better way to work on your Spanish than by watching the Smurfs?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Tale of Three Roofs -- Dominican Republic Mission Trip Day 7

This is the seventh of nine daily blog posts from our Diocesan Mission trip to Santiago, Dominican Republic from July 21-29.  I'm posting one a day now that we have returned to the states.  A daily bog from others of our team can be found on our Diocesan blog:

July 27
This evening, I was struck by the difference between three roofs.  Roofs here are often flat and used for storage or as an additional “outside room”, or are slightly pitched with corrugated metal to keep rain off.

Each evening we go onto the roof of our five-story hotel to say evening prayer and share about the day that has passed.  The roof has a covered party room, locked with a metal gate, and an open area where we set up a circle of chairs and talk.  The hotel itself has some interesting features from a US perspective.  The rooms have air conditioning and TV’s with an extensive cable/satellite package of Spanish and English programming.  Wifi, however, is only available in the small foyer at the bottom of the stairwell and the dining room, and common areas have no air conditioning.  There is also no hot water at night, but whether that is because the hot water is heated outside during the day by the sun or whether people have used it taking showers in the evening is not clear.  Overall, the Hotel Colonial has been a wonderful place to stay this week, and its roof has been a great place to feel the evening breeze, watch the local historical monument change colors, listen to the sounds of the street, and build our missionary community.

The second roof is the building next to our hotel.  The part of the building near the street rises up three stories, but the back of the building is only two with a flat roof.  On the flat roof are two structures that can best be described as square huts, each about the size of a room – one larger and one smaller.  A family of at least five people seems to live in these two structures, mostly inside at night, but spreading out over the roof during the day.  They even have a small children’s swimming pool that they were playing in one afternoon.  They seem to have electricity, but their situation is a far cry from the land of three-star hotels.

The third roof is directly across the street from the second one.  A not very high, but very new-looking cell tower rises up off of it.  Numerous modern electronic gadgets fill the roof.  It resembles, on a smaller scale, the roofs of the skyscrapers in US cities, at least, that’s what I thought at first.  Then I went up to take a picture of it and I couldn’t.  An older woman was sitting in the doorway to the staircase watching her sheets that she had hung on wires between the electrical equipment dry. (I assume the lines were put up as clothes lines and weren’t any of the wires connecting the cell phone tower paraphernalia.)  Taking a picture of her and her laundry without permission seemed wrong, so I waited and got a photo of only the “modern” roof.  Seeing these various parts of Dominican life side-by-side, and roof-by-roof, says a lot about the way of life on the island here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Wednesday Adventures -- Dominican Republic Mission Trip Day 6

This is the sixth of nine daily blog posts from our Diocesan Mission trip to Santiago, Dominican Republic from July 21-29.  I'm posting one a day now that we have returned to the states.  A daily bog from others of our team can be found on our Diocesan blog:

July 26
Today is Wednesday, the halfway point of our Bible School and Eye Clinic and about two-thirds of the way through the trip generally.  Today was also a day full of various surprises.

Tina got mangu and pancakes
At breakfast, the eleven of us usually eat together seated along both sides of a row of small tables that have been pulled together.  This morning, two other people were seated with us, and they had some unfamiliar Dominican food.  When we asked about it, the proprietor of our hotel and the hotel’s restaurant, whose name is Lazarus, offered some to us, as well.  Fried cheese was tried by some, but I had mangu (mashed plantains), which were very good.  

When our minibus arrived, we found out that our translator was sick today and wouldn’t be with us.  Bible School went well, thanks to the great local teachers who teach the Bible lesson and have everything organized.  For our games, we repeated some of the children’s favorites so we didn’t need to do detailed explanations, and the craft of the day was making bracelets.  We also have a few middle school children who help us.  Since they now know what is going on, they help to keep things moving along, as well.  When Julia and I taught music this morning, we got the children singing in English, which they enjoyed.  We have been working on a song, Sing Alleluia to the Lord, in Spanish for the past few days.  Now that they know the tune, today we taught them the English words. 

After lunch, we were a little more concerned about getting the Eye Clinic running smoothly without a translator.  Father Hipólito said someone was coming, but she wasn’t here by the time we began.  All the Spanish I could muster was put to good use, and we managed to get one client her new glasses before the translator arrived.  She just graduated from high school in the Bronx, but comes to Santiago where her mother’s family lives every summer and is here for a month.  She was a great help.  Hopefully, we’ll have two translators tomorrow and things will run even more smoothly.  Our young helpers have also become very adept at explaining how to read eyecharts to our clients!

When we returned to the hotel, we walked about three blocks to a local ice cream shop, Bon.  The ice cream was delicious, and the ladies behind the counter seemed to enjoy having some foreigners drop in.  On the way, we also came across a mural on the side of a building with a quote from Fredrick Engels: “Great social change is impossible without the women’s uprising.”

One surprise this evening was that I saw my first tarantula in the wild.  And by “in the wild”, I mean, “in the hallway of our hotel.”  I did not share this with my fellow missionaries since the fewer freaked out people the better, and as much as I am trying to get my own freak-out quotient to zero, it isn’t quite there yet.  A Dominican woman in a room down the hall saw it in the corner of her door, and said, fairly calmly, “tarantula.”  I think she also said something else that may have meant not poisonous or dangerous (at least that’s what I’m hoping).  She took off her shoe and batted it onto the floor.  Then, before she could stomp it, the thing booked across the floor at a speed at which I have never seen such a critter scamper.  Of course, it was the size of a medium-sized mouse with eight legs about two inches long, so I probably shouldn’t compare its movement to the average daddy-long-legs.  I think I will be double checking my suitcase and backpack before I take them anywhere from now on.  (I didn’t have time to take a photo and I’m not googling tarantulas.  If you want to see some, dear reader, you are on your own.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Christo Salvador's Ministries -- Dominican Republic Mission Trip 2017 Day 5

This is the fifth of nine daily blog posts from our Diocesan Mission trip to Santiago, Dominican Republic from July 21-29.  I'm posting one a day now that we have returned to the states.  A daily bog from others of our team can be found on our Diocesan blog:

July 25

Father Hipólito and the mission of Christo Salvador are doing great work in their community.
  Based on what Father Hipólito and others have said, when he arrived in Santiago, there were about four Episcopalians here.  He started the mission of Christo Salvador in a poorer neighborhood and went door to door.  Without their own building, they would meet for prayer and Bible study in whatever homes were available.  Eventually, they obtained the church building, which today has a sanctuary and sacristy downstairs and a large activity room and three smaller classrooms upstairs. 

Later, with the help of their diocese, they were able to purchase the building across the street that includes a kitchen and dining room downstairs, a fenced in, open-air back patio easily holding about 30-40 people, and three classrooms upstairs.  Every Saturday, Christo Salvador offers a meal to the children in the community in this new building.  The church also has a preschool, which is an essential ministry in providing a way to an education and a better life for the neighborhood children.  Part of the goal of our Bible school is to provide an outreach to a larger number of young people in the hopes that more families would enroll their children in the preschool.

Out of that initial mission begun a few decades ago, three additional churches have been planted in Santiago.  Our group's translator, Randy, recently moved to the city when his father, an Episcopal priest, took a call at St. Mark’s, another church that Father Hipólito founded out of his work. 

Like urban churches in many communities, Father Hipólito and his church are dedicated to helping the people around them in ways that will make a difference.  The neighborhood faces problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and the church tries to find ways to minister to the children and provide what they need.  Father Hipólito clearly knows his people, and their affection for him is evident.  Working with him to make a difference in his community is the primary purpose of our mission trip, and it is a great privilege to serve God alongside of him.