Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ending the Cycle of Negativity

I can't even count how many times in my life I have had negative encounters with people, who unleashed upon me a diatribe, angry criticism, personal attacks and the like.    

I also can't count how many times I have thought of something awesome to say to the person who is attacking me after they've unleashed their venom and then walked away. 

You know how that feels, right?  Whether it's moments or a day later, the thing you should  have said comes to you, and you find yourself saying, "Oh my gosh!  I wish I had said that!"  

There was one time in my life were I said exactly what I wanted to say to someone who had attacked me publicly.  It was when I was an assistant manager at Best Buy and another manager in the store falsely accused me of something in a manager meeting.  

Our argument continued out into the store, and I finally stood directly in front of him and inexplicably said the following--a thought turned to words that came forth from somewhere deep within me.  

"I'm going to dance on your grave," I told the guy.  "And I'm going to wear a kilt."  

Come on!  You know that's amazing. I mean, where does that kind of thing come from?  It was inspired, I am sure.  And for the first and probably only time in my life I walked away from a confrontation and said, "THAT was exactly what I wanted to say."  

The only problem with my scenario is that in the moment I was doing exactly the opposite of what I should have done.  I was repaying evil for evil.  I was mirroring exactly the kind of negativity I was being offered.  I didn't break the cycle. 

In his first letter to the Church, Peter writes the following: 

Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing. (I Peter 3:8-12)

At some point, we need to realize that the only way that we are ever going to have peace the people who oppose us, is when we refuse to participate in the conflict, lay our weapons down and stop the cycle of negativity.  "No retaliation," Peter writes.  "No sharp-tongued sarcasm."  

If we embrace the fact that, as followers of Jesus, our job is to be a blessing, we will start to reframe our struggles with people who want to dwell in the negative all of the time.  We will see them in a different light, and we'll finally be able to move beyond negativity into the joy and hope of resurrection life in Christ. 

May you find ways to break the cycle of negativity today by refusing to repay evil with evil.  May you find ways to speak grace and peace into the world, to be a blessing and to be blessed. 

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gas Station Dancing Queen and The Presence of Jesus

My son just did one of those things that adult children do to drive their parents crazy--he decided to drive home late last night from a whirlwind weekend trip to North Carolina.  He didn't get home until 4AM, and I am pretty sure his mother was sleeping fitfully until he got in.  I slept like a rock, but that's beside the point. 

This morning he told me a story about a resurrection moment in his trip, and I asked him if I could share it.  

He told me that around 2 AM, he stopped to get gas in the middle of nowhere.  There were other people there, too, he said, and they all looked about as tired as he did.  Just a bunch of weary travelers, filling up their tanks in the middle of the night.  

My son said that while they were all standing there pumping gas into their cars, the music playing over the loudspeakers outside suddenly changed.  The familiar strains of the classic 70's song "Dancing Queen" by ABBA burst into the humid, mid-morning air of South Georgia.  

Jay started singing along, softly, and then he noticed that some of the other people were doing the same.  The sound of people singing started to grow.  By the time the song was almost over, almost every person that was pumping gas in the week hours of the morning was not only singing along to "Dancing Queen," they were spinning and dancing under the fluorescent lights illuminating the gas pumps.  

Life is short, and it's often filled with challenges.  In the ancient book of Job we have these words, acknowledging the struggles that many of us have in life:  "For we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow." Job 8:9

But then you have these moments in the middle of our oft-weary journey where we hear the song that God is singing all around us, and we realize there are other people who are singing it, too.  And we realize we are not alone--that God is with us, and present among our sisters and brothers who sing along with us.  

Jesus made a promise to his disciples about his joyful, resurrection presence: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)  I think that there are countless moments in life when we get the chance to experience exactly what Jesus is talking about here, and most of them don't happen in church.  

You see, in my humble opinion, wherever there are signs and symbols of resurrection, we can know that Jesus is almost certainly present there through the power of God's Holy Spirit. 

In the ancient world, it took two or three witnesses to be able to prove something. So, I believe what Jesus is saying here is that you experience more fully the resurrection moments of Jesus presence when you experience them with others. 

May you find resurrection moments today with your sisters and brothers in the world around you.  May you be more aware of how God is still in the business of resurrecting what has been left for dead.  May you experience the intense joy of seeing Jesus in the faces of those who are dancing and singing with you.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

An Open Letter To Our Muslim Neighbors

After I read an article in the Daily Commercial within which they interviewed some of our Muslim neighbors from the Islamic Centers in Clermont, I felt the need to write letter you'll read below. Like many of us, I’ve been very angry lately about the effects of radical Islam on our world.  

I’ve also struggled with my own ability to show grace even to those Muslims who strongly disagree and abhor the way their religion has been hijacked by lunatics.  Honestly, I feel that way sometimes, too, when I see stories about Westboro Baptist Church, or even hear what many prominent Christian leaders say that people assume all Christians believe. 

The following is a letter that I wrote shortly after the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub, and (with the endorsement of the elders of my church) sent to the two Islamic centers in Lake County.  I'm sharing this as an open letter in hopes that it will open minds and hearts (including my own).  

To the Members of the Clermont Masjid, 

Al-salaamu alaykum during this holy month of Ramadan.  

I am writing this letter in my capacity as Lead Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis, and as a brother, a neighbor and a friend.  Grace and Peace to you in the name of Jesus, whose example guides me as I seek to know God, and love others.  

Like all of us, I know that you were saddened and shocked by the recent tragedy in Orlando.  But I am also well aware that when you, as members of the Muslim community, receive the news of such tragedies, you experience it with a sense of fear and, I imagine, a sense of dread.  

Just as you grieve when people assume that a few, angry, misguided people speak and act for all Muslims, I also grieve when angry, misguided people claim to speak and act for all Christians.   

Please know that you are in my prayers, and in the prayers of many Christians who refuse to give in to hate, and ignorance.  Our Scriptures teach us that we should not be overcome by evil, but that we should “overcome evil with good.”  

I know that the Holy Quran speaks to this as well, exhorting us to “compete with each other in doing good.” And this is what we must do as friends and neighbors during this trying time in order to push back against evil, and ensure it does not get the last word. 

To that end, we offer our friendship, our love, grace and peace to you and all of the members of your community during this time of tragedy—tragedy that affects us all as children of God.  

W’al-salaam alaykum

Counting it all Joy, 

Rev. Dr. Leon Bloder

Lead Pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Eustis 

Taking Your Eyes Off God Leads To Deserted Living

This morning I am watching the news that people in the United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union in a very close vote.  I have friends who are extremely happy today because of the vote, but it's also abundantly clear that there are also millions of people who are surprised, angry and disappointed that "their side" lost.  

This week I have been participating in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Portland, Oregon.  I spent the first part of the week working in a 60-plus person committee, and for the past two days I've been part of the larger deliberative body that has 500 or so voting commissioners. 

All week I have participated in votes where some people "won" and others "lost."  I have watched people get angry at times, or express deep disappointment when their ideas were rejected, or their deeply held convictions were not affirmed by the group.  

I've been thinking a lot lately about disappointment, lately.  

Most of the deep disappointments we have in life happen because of the actions of other people.  People let us down.  There's not a single person reading this today who hasn't been hurt by another human being.  I know that I have to raise my hand acknowledging this to be true in my own life.  

I've been betrayed by people, and have had people stab me in the back.  I've had people let me down, and shatter my confidence in them.  I've vouched for people who have then made me look like a fool for doing so.  I've had people vote against things that mattered to me, sometimes in spite of my efforts to prevent it. 

And try as I might, I struggle sometimes to keep my focus on God and not human beings when it comes to seeking affirmation, purpose and meaning.  

There's this pretty hard core verse from the prophet Jeremiah that speaks some truth about what happens to us when we place all of our trust in people, and not God:  

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. Jeremiah 17:5-6

Kind of harsh, right?  "Cursed are those who put their trust in mere human...They are like stunted shrubs in the desert."  

The thing about Jewish prophecy is that it's not actually predictive.  In other words, what the prophet is saying here is that if you turn your heart from God, and rely on human beings for your affirmation, purpose and meaning, you will find yourself in a very dry place, and constantly disappointed.    

He is painting a picture of what might be if you take your eyes off of God, and cast them continually upon others.  But God doesn't punish you for your lack of trust--you simply find yourself living a less-than life, continually seeking the approval of others, opening yourself up again and again to heartbreak.  

On the other hand, what God desires is the very best for you.  God will never leave or forsake you, despite what others might do or not do to disappoint you.  When our faith and trust is in God, we are not immune to disappointment when others let us down, we simply have God's strength to deal with it, and put it in perspective. 

May you find your approval, affirmation, purpose and meaning in the One who created you, loves you and desires abundant life for you.  May you look upon those who let you down with grace and mercy, forgiving them even as you have been forgiven by God.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

God Wants You To Brag

Did you know that God is totally fine with bragging? 

Don't get me wrong, God is never cool with you bragging about yourself.  

For example, In Jeremiah 9:23-24 the prophet declares the following:  

"This is what the Lord says; The wise must not brag about their wisdom. The strong must not brag about their strength.  The rich must not brag about their money..."  

I met a pastor recently who, within the first hour or so of our meeting, made sure that I knew he had a 140 IQ.  I heard later, he also shared this information with his congregation in a sermon not long after he arrived at the church as a new pastor.  Additionally, he made sure to bring it up in conversations with church members, staff, etc. 

When I heard this, I shook my head in disbelief.  

"Who does that?"  I asked the person who was sharing the information.  "I would never do something like that with my congregation.  I know better!  I guess that's one of the reasons why my church has over five hundred people in worship and his barely has a hundred and fifty!"

And just like that, I went from being righteously indignant over that other pastor's bragging--to bragging in my own right.  It's easy to do, isn't it?  It's easy to fall back on our own strength, our own ideas about how we're superior to other people.  

The rest of that passage in Jeremiah gives us something to brag about, however, that doesn't land us outside of the will of God.  

"But if someone wants to brag, let him brag that he understands and knows me.  Let him brag that I am the Lord, and that I am kind and fair, and that I do things that are right on earth. This kind of bragging pleases me..."  

This subtle (and very Hebrew) way of re-framing what it means to "brag" is so powerful. It means that we aren't pushing our way forward to take credit for all of the good things in our life.  

When we live into this passage, we are acknowledging the sovereign and amazing grace of God that we are able to do and accomplish whatever it is that we accomplish, and to have whatever it is that we have been able to acquire--whether that be riches, success, prestige, accolades, natural ability, you name it.  

But even further, it means that we are also giving glory to the One who makes all good things possible, and that a relationship with this One is worth celebrating, sharing, gushing over and---yes, even bragging about.  

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul actually lists a whole bunch of his own accolades--some earned and some inherited, and then counts them as nothing, less than nothing even.  

“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but dung, that I may win Christ.” (Phil 3:8)

Paul actually uses the Greek word skubala, which is a a slang word for dung.  You can substitute a slang word for dung in English, if it pleases you.  That's what Paul thought of his own accomplishments in the light of God's grace to him in Jesus.  What mattered most to Paul was his relationship with God through Christ. 

May you count all of your blessings, abilities, possessions, success and affirmations today as gifts from Almighty God, who should get the glory for all of them.  May you find ways to celebrate your relationship with God, to share it with others, to brag on God's grace and mercy.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.