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Pinnacle Presbyterian Church

Echoes Blog

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It was a hot and humid July afternoon in Washington, DC. I was so glad to hide in a cool, vast, neoclassical sanctuary of the National City Christian Church. Not only me. There were over a thousand of us, church musicians, members of the American Guild of Organists. Church musicians are typically trained to take care of all aspects of musical life in a church: playing the piano and organ, conducting vocal and instrumental ensembles, teaching music to adults and kids, singing, arranging, composing, planning music, etc. The majority of us who came for the National AGO Convention chose to participate in that particular event at the Christian Church that day. Why? Because it was a HYMN Festival. We do so many things at our churches, but we rarely get to sing as congregants. And we all miss that.


Bruce Neswick, one of the finest church musicians of our generation, along with the National Brass Quintet, a handbell ensemble, percussion instruments, and approximately a 50-piece choir, led a sing-along of some of the best hymns ever written, interspersed with sacred compositions and well-suited fragments of Scripture. I knew it would be good. We all did. But what happened next transformed my life as a church musician.


The full house of trained musicians (standing room only), led by the choir, organ and brass ensemble, sang in unison the first verse of "Christ is Made the Sure Foundation" (to the tune of Purcell's Westminster Abbey). I got butterflies in my stomach. Next, we divided into 4-part harmony, perfectly executed. It brought tears to my eyes. Then only women sang. Then men. Then we reunited in unison for the last verse. My whole body was overtaken by an overwhelming tremble. For over an hour I could not stop my emotional and physical response to what was happening. I was transformed. For the first time in my life, I felt that I fully, wholeheartedly, and physically understood what it means to SING A HYMN.


From then on I have not stopped striving to recreate this experience in my own hymn playing. Leading a hymn from the organ or piano requires good preparation, experience, knowing the lyrics of the hymn, understanding the room and its acoustics, etc. But there is one more variable that changes every time. And it is YOU.


When I start playing a hymn I want to make sure you understand what it is going to be about. Are we singing about the glory of God, a particular event from Christ's life, His Love, Wisdom? Are there darker verses in the text? Is there a story line? Where are we going to start and how should we feel when we end? The opening hymn every Sunday is to collect you. To bring you from whatever you were doing all week and unify your voice. The closing hymn is to collect you again after you listened to the sermon, prayed and pondered on life. You are ready to be unified again and to be sent off to the world. This is a blessing, until-next-time, and Good Word for the week. A reminder that you are a part of something larger, that you are not alone.


And now to the variable. YOU. When I prepare the hymns before every Sunday I decide on the sound combinations and musical ideas I want to use. But I often adjust my playing to the "temperature" of the room. There are days when I feel that you need extra energy, and I provide it if needed. And there are days when you sing so powerfully that you lift me and the organ up. The way a hymn is played and sung is not arbitrary, rather we all partake in its creation. I lead and you lead - we have a conversation, the energy floats in a continuous loop between us. You and the organ are a vessel - we let the Holy Spirit fill it up.


Since I started working at Pinnacle, there were many times when I had that sense of something happening, energy shifting, Holy Spirit dancing in the room during our congregational hymn singing. I live for these moments.

What Could I Have Done?

There is not one person who is not affected by the loss of someone we love and it is very rare that we don’t know someone who died from suicide.  Tuesday was World Suicide Prevention Day. A day set aside to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides around the globe. As a pastor, people always ask me what my thoughts are about suicide.

This is one of those topics that we don’t really want to talk about and yet the death by suicide rate has a ripple effect touching not just those who died, but family, friends and community surrounding the death.  Here are some statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

  • People from every class, race, status, age, success, and gender die from suicide.

  • In 2017, there were an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts in the United States.

  • In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide. 1,327 of those deaths happened in Arizona.

  • In Arizona, on average, one person dies by suicide every seven hours.

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

These numbers are staggering, sad, and overwhelming and yet they are a part of our everyday culture. For those touched by the death of someone they know and love by suicide the questions include “Why did this happen?” to “What could I have done?”  The questions are often left without answers. 

Suicide of my friends has broken my heart. I have asked those hard questions and been left with empty answers. I have sat next to family and friends who grieve the loss of the person they love asking those hard questions. Each person wishing that their loved one had made a different decision or that they could have changed the outcome in some way.  I wish that I could give them the answer. I wish that I could explain why…but I can’t.

I don’t know the answer to end suicide, I wish I did. But I do know that we are called as community for each other for such a time as this. We must be a community who recognizes the power of relationships. We are made for relationships with God and with each other and there is no connection with another person that isn’t important and valuable.  You make a difference in individual lives when you ask how they are doing, when you smile, share a hug and offer to listen. These moments matter.  

In our busy world we often run past these significant experiences and forget their value.  But I promise you each one of these moments makes a difference in someone else’s life. While relationships and community don’t prevent suicide they make it far less likely. Spend more time with the people you love. Take time to share experiences with people you don’t know as well. Letting people know that they matter, are valued and treated with dignity and respect changes lives. And if you have lost someone to suicide, know that those moments that you shared with that person mattered.  

Always be aware of the people around you who are depressed, hurting, isolated and lonely. While there is no one single cause or factor for suicide there are things that we can all be aware of: 

  • Pay attention when someone is talking about wanting to die, feeling hopeless, having no purpose, being in unbearable pain, acting reckless, sleeping too little or too much, withdrawing, showing rage, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

  • Ask questions.

  • Encourage the person to talk to someone.

  • Listen.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone if they are feeling lost or sad enough to hurt themselves. That bold question could save their life.

Most importantly, always remember that you are loved. Each person is loved by God.  No matter what anyone does or says, God loves them. Just because a person dies by suicide doesn’t mean they won’t go to heaven or that God doesn’t want them anymore.  There is nothing we can do to separate ourselves from the love of Jesus. 

I encourage you to love each other, support each other and if you or someone you know is having thoughts about suicide please call me, call a friend, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255).  Always remember YOU are important, valued and loved. We need you in this world. You are all in my prayers.


Faith in the Time of Hurricanes

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One of my earliest memories is of a hurricane (typhoon) barreling down on the small island we were living on in the South Pacific. The island, Kwajalein, amid the Marshalls, was only three miles long and half a mile wide. Its highest point was only about 10 feet above sea level. When the sea rose, the island would almost disappear.

I remember the sound of the rain pummeling our army-issue metal trailer and of the wind howling a deafening barrage. I remember purple lightening flashing across the sky and water seeping in under the door.  I was scared, but not too scared. I didn’t know enough to be really scared. This was my first hurricane. This was long before satellite technology could be communicated to the average person. We didn’t really have telephone service on the island to and from the outside world. We had Armed-Forces radio from which I’m sure my parents got their news, but we still didn’t know much. We truly had to just wait it out and see.

No, I wasn’t too scared; I’m sure my parents were. I’m sure they prayed, but we children had to depend on their faith. We didn’t know to be afraid…and we didn’t know yet what it was to have our own faith.

The next day the sun came out, and we could see the havoc the storm had wreaked: palm trees sheared in half by flying debris, palm branches strewn all about, and many a broken window. But we were okay.

I’ve weathered many a hurricane (typhoons, cyclones, & nor’easters) and even one earthquake since then. I’ve been lucky. Some people have endured far worse devastation than I have. Some people have not made it through such disasters. Relatively few of us know the perils we are facing even now or may yet encounter.

Jesus told us that we ought to have faith like that of a child. Children don’t know much and have to rely on the knowing and the faith of those around them. Children can lean on the faith and trust of the parents and other caring family members. The wellbeing of the child depends on the trustworthiness of the parent and the quality of faith the parent holds.

In the grand scheme of things, we are like children, in terms of what we know about what life will bring us. Our faith is unlearned, untutored, untested, when it comes to the barrage of trials we have yet to face. As I write this blog, hurricane Dorian is stalled off the coast of Florida. Floridians have no idea what this storm will do. Even with all the technology we have, there is still a great mystery. There has been a general call to prudence, “Prepare yourself; get ready; get out of harm’s way.” As a people of faith, we also say in such times, “Turn to God. Have faith. God will deliver.”  Do both the practical and the esoteric: prepare and pray.

Sometimes people pray, and they are delivered from dire circumstances, seemingly miraculously. Sometimes people pray and don’t make it through the storm. It’s a disconcerting mystery. I am reminded of this quandary of faith addressed by the writer Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
what God has done, God has done,
so that all should stand in awe before him
. (Eccles. 3:1-4, 14b)

What matters most, in the oh-so-difficult times, is not the amount of our faith, but the faithfulness of God.  As all of us were born into this life, we each will experience the moment of death. God may deliver us from many storms throughout life, and God will ultimately deliver us, notfrom death, but through death into life. What matters is our leaning on God’s faithfulness in the midst of the storm, trusting that “whether in life or death, we belong to God.”

We are all children, weathering the storms of life. We must rely on a faithfulness of our heavenly parent who has enough faithfulness for us, a faithfulness that surrounds us, holds us, companions us, and lifts us up. This we know in Jesus, who both calmed the world’s storms and himself experienced the ravages of the world’s stormy barrage. And in the midst of both God delivered.

Angels of Differentness

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When I first met him--God forgive me--my reaction was one of apprehension and nervousness. His stringy, unkempt yellow-white hair framed a gaunt face whose toothless mouth seemed oddly oversized. His pale eyes darted nervously and gave no sign of being connected to an inner life or to the moment we were sharing.

His dirty clothes were layered to keep the night chill at bay, and his nervous fingers drummed an empty paper cup. His speech was rapid, at times incomprehensible, and those few words or phrases I could understand seemed more like a confused stream of consciousness than a conversation. How he found his way into my office remains a mystery, but the initial hesitant encounter became the first link of an ongoing friendship.

I don’t know a lot about him. I believe he was born in 1926 somewhere in Virginia, but I’m not absolutely sure. He told me his name and Social Security number, but there is some question about both. What I know for certain is that this confused, gentle man has made a connection with me, and I with him. I also know that I will never again be able to marginalize or “un-see” a homeless person.

If you think such a friendship is pointless and that in the world of the homeless there are no happy endings, you should know that my friend has found a home on the east side of Houston, and with the help from counselors he may soon receive his Social Security benefits. Each week my friend can be found worshipping at the El Bethel Mission in Midtown. Be patient with him and his indifferences. Greet him with a welcome and a smile.

And for those that believe angels regularly appear among us as messengers from a deeper, more holy reality, perhaps that is the role my friend is meant to play among us. Perhaps, he is here to remind us that we must never accept homelessness as a permanent fixture of modern life. There are solutions. Some of them are very obvious if we have the courage and compassion to find them.

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I'm not a very spiritual person . . . 
I'm spiritual, but not religious . . . 
She's really spiritual . . . 

What do we mean when we say these things?  

I was at Starbucks this week and couldn't help but hear a loud conversation at the table next to me.  Two ministers. It seemed they were from a Holy-Spirit oriented church, with ministries of prayer and miracles.  They counseled folk to look for signs, like cloud configurations that give messages and other ways we try to hear God speak in a world where God can seem silent.  One of them writes books about her life, to help others find the Spirit in way she has. She grew up Presbyterian, she said: "Very formal. Not very 'spiritual.'"  

Got me wondering.  We often think of spirituality as the way we feel, or how we talk or what we do to connect to a realm beyond worldly things.  It's beyond our rational side.  In this view, spirituality is about the mystical, or the numinous (fancy word), or the unexplainable.  "Spiritual" is the opposite of "material." You're either keyed into it or not. You're either "spiritual" or not.  

But that view of it doesn't really work for a Christian.  For spirituality is not the opposite of materiality in Christian tradition.  Spirituality is not what is "beyond" what we see. Spirituality is how we relate to what we see.  It's about the relationship, and it takes many forms.  

Jesus is our clue here.  For Christians affirm that in some mysterious, but real, way, the living, breathing, acting, laughing, teaching, suffering Jesus was (and is) God among us—spiritual and material together, relating in sacrificial love.  If he's our clue, then Christian spirituality can't be outside the material. And it can't be the possession of just a few.  

We're all spiritual.  We all relate to the stuff of life in one way or another.  We pause and seek God's presence, we stand in awed silence, we sing for joy, we embrace friends and share our hearts, we join up and make a difference, we think things through, we study and teach and wonder and accept and declare.  

I know a guy who builds.  That's what he does. Little religious language.  Doesn't mouth prayers. Doesn't sing much. Probably wouldn't be the first to take communion to someone at home.  But is the first to show up to get a job done. Sees a need and meets it. Solves practical problems. Leaves his camp cleaner and more organized and safer than he found it.  By some definitions he's not a very spiritual guy. But oh, how wrong that assessment is. For all this is his spirituality. And it's a wonder to behold.  

Our spirituality often relates to our personality type (like an extrovert or an introvert), or experience (maybe witnessed an unexpected healing, or not), or what we've been taught (Sunday School has an impact!), or what you've been willing to try (organized prayer, a mission group, serious study).  But we're all spiritual.  And we tend to gather with folks who are spiritual in ways we are.  That can help. That can also keep us from learning.  

So it seems to me that the question is not whether you are spiritual, or "we" are spiritual.  The question is how we are spiritual, and how healthy, whole, stretching, humble, compassionate, courageous our spirituality is.  And how freeing—from the things that might hide us from God (like judgment, anger, self-hatred, selfishness, envy, fear).  

How are you spiritual?