Category Archives: Christian Faith

What Giving Thanks Can Prompt

I thank my God every time I remember you . . .“. Those are the opening words of Paul’s prayerful greeting to the members of the church at Philippi. (Philippians 1:3 NRSV). It’s truly a beautiful and bold statement, one of my favorite beginnings to a New Testament Pauline letter. So, it seems a fitting jumping off place for some thoughts on giving thanks in this Thanksgiving season.

Here are three statements about Paul’s thankful statement and what giving thanks can lead to:

A BIG STATEMENT
Not only is Paul’s opening statement bold, it’s also BIG. To so emphatically declare that he is thankful “every” time he remembers these brothers and sisters in Christ must indicate that they hold a special place in his heart. Yet, if we stop and think about it, I would guess we might each have someone for whom this is true – someone for whom we give thanks when we think of them?

Maybe it’s a spouse, child, grandchild, friend or parent. Maybe it’s the person who led us to Christ, or the prayer partner we share our heart with? Who is it for you? Search your mind for a moment to see. Then give thanks for them. Then, tell them! Part of what makes Paul’s statement so BIG is that he shares it with the Philippians. Have you told the “someone(s)” you give thanks for when you think of them, how you feel? Go for it! Thanksgivings that are shared have more impact than those held too close.

A TRUE STATEMENT
I do not get the sense that Paul is engaged in any kind of hyperbole or stretching of the truth with his claim. This is not “preacher speak” or the buttering up of an audience. He is being truthful and vulnerable. Thanksgiving wells up in him when he thinks of these friends as he prays for them. They have been partners in ministry with him. They have stood with him during his imprisonment and separation from them. He knows that they “hold him in their heart”, just as he most assuredly does them.

Sharing a thanksgiving like this requires a certain amount of vulnerability. Many of us are not all that comfortable with such openness, yet that is part of what makes this prayer of Paul’s so memorable and touching. He’s taking the risk of being completely open and honest with his partners in the faith. When were you last this open and honest with someone? What was the outcome? Did you feel even more thankful for them after they returned some form or empathy or understanding? True statements of thanksgiving are often received with reciprocity.

A HOPEFUL STATEMENT
When we are thankful, we are by nature more hopeful. Would you agree? In my experience, both in being around thankful people and practicing thanksgiving myself, I have seen the relationship that grows between thankfulness and hopefulness. It is as if a thankful thought or comment prompts one to look forward with greater optimism and promise. Thankfulness, in this way, becomes a seedbed for hopefulness.

This past summer I expanded my vegetable garden, adding some additional space to the preexisting garden. The land I took in, however, was not in very good shape. It had been occupied for several years by a dead pine tree that over the years had dropped many pine needles and cones. Not only did I have to remove the pine tree and it’s stump, I then needed to cultivate the soil. I began to do this by bringing in some additional dirt, working it in with the existing dirt, and removing (by hand) rocks and other debris that surfaced in the cultivation of the plot. While I improved the seedbed it did not yield as nice or productive a harvest of vegetables as the preexisting garden plot did. I will need to continue working on the foundation of this new seedbed so that it will produce a better yield.

Thankfulness leads to the improvement of our hopefulness seedbed. When we practice thanksgiving it’s as if we aerate the soil, infusing it with oxygen and nutrients that will produce better results. In life those better results from cultivating thanksgiving frequently translate into a more positive, hopeful disposition.

No wonder Paul was so purposeful in the verbiage of his opening prayer to the Philippians. It’s as if he knew that his Big, True and Hopeful statement about giving thanks was going to have a lasting impact on that community of faith (and others) far exceeding his own life. Here’s hoping your expressions of thanksgiving can yield similar dividends this year and beyond.

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For All the Saints

The tradition of celebrating All Saints Sunday is one that goes way back in the life of the greater church. At FBC Columbus it’s a tradition we’ve observed for the past few decades. Our practice on this day is to remember those church and family members who have passed away in the prior twelve months. This is done as an element of worship as members of the FBC Foundation lead in a memorial service within the morning’s worship liturgy. Even though I know it’s planned, and that we will be sharing names and photos of those we’ve mourned on the screen, each time it happens I’m still caught up short with feelings of loss and reflection as we revisit the deaths of a prior year.

On more than one occasion there have been names of my own family members on the screen, and each year multiple names and photos of persons whom it was my pleasure to serve with in congregational ministry, many who’s funeral or memorial service I officiated. It is a special day, filled with meaning for the congregation and family of those honored.

This year I will be using the occasion of All Saints to invite our reflection on that term “saints” that the Apostle Paul used so often in his New Testament epistles. In Ephesians 1:1 he writes “to all the saints”. It’s a title intentionally chosen, not because of that community’s holiness, nor in anticipation of their later veneration, having gone through a beatification process. No, Paul uses the term “saints” much as we might say “believers” or “Christians” in our day. He is describing the collective people of God, in the case of Ephesians, who reside and worship at the Church of Ephesus. In using the term, however, I can’t help but imagine that he’s calling them to an identity in Christ he truly wants them to think about.

In the Apostle’s Creed there is a phrase, “the communion of the saints”. As with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians the term is plural – saints with an “s” and not singular. This seems fitting as a communion is of course more than just one. In the case of the saints of Christ said communion represents both those who follow Jesus on this earth, and those who have gone on to live in Christ, awaiting the Day of the Lord. The saints, then, includes what the writer of Hebrews calls the “great cloud of witnesses” and the living congregants, Christ followers who occupy the churches and homes of today’s world. Together we make up a communion of like-minded, like identified people in Jesus. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are part of this communion, you are one of the saints. When you stop and contemplate the number of persons you’ve known who’ve gone home to glory, multiplied by the number of believers over all time who’ve died in Christ, the cloud of witnesses is “great” indeed!

Often, on All Saints Sunday, I like to imagine the sanctuary filled with those who made this their spiritual home during their lifetimes. So, in addition to the population of those in the pews, gathered for worship, I imagine the saints who’ve gone before. In my minds eye I see their familiar faces, remembering where they often sat, and before long I have a pretty full congregation gathered. This, of course only includes those saints whom I’ve known at FBC. What of the many others who’ve worshipped among this family of faith for it’s now nearly 170 years? Once you begin doing the math, you can’t begin to squeeze everyone into the worship space! Thus the cloud, I guess. Clouds of witnesses to me invite us to consider unlimited seating and participation.

One day we will each experience this gathering with Jesus, face to face. We will bend our knee at his throne and declare our worship in the courts of heaven. We will be part of that cloud of witnesses. Every day will be All Saints day and we will be in the presence of the risen Lord forever. Until then, may the purpose of our worship and our lives be to the “praise of his glory”. May we remember the promise that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. And may the resurrection power that brought forth Jesus from the grave, empower us, the communion of the saints, to live saintly lives.

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700,000

The sisters of Our Lady of Grace, a Benedictine Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana toll a bell for every Hoosier who died that day from Covid-19 during their evening prayers. (see link to news story below) They began this practice on July 29, 2020 and have tolled the bell roughly 10,000 times to date. Had they begun in March of 2020 the bell would’ve tolled 15,165 times by now – once for each life lost to Covid-19 in Indiana. One day in December 2020 it tolled 164 times. Were these nuns to take on a national bell tolling, this week the bell would have surpassed 700,000 tolls. Globally the number is now in excess of 4.55 million who have died from the coronavirus.

There is something quite somber about the tolling of a single, solitary bell. It has the capacity to catch your ear, stop and settle your mind, and call you to prayer. The unique ring and tone are quite foreign to the daily noise of life, an exception in the cacophony of sound with which we’ve become too familiar. A bell tolling can cut through the noise, calling for silence and reflection.

This must be the intent behind the nuns’ daily prayer vigil. As the bell is tolled, however many times called for by that day, each ring is given it’s just due – moments of reflection and prayer offered for another life lost. During the week ending September 29, 2021 the bell tolled another 31 times as that many of our fellow Hoosiers gave up the fight, overcome by the effects of Covid-19.

While I cannot speak for the impact this practice has had on the sisters, I suspect it to be wearing and weighty. It seems much of society has moved past a daily reckoning of Covid-19 data, but not the nuns of Our Lady of Grace. No, the bell continues to toll, as many times as needed during evening prayers, in the monastery just south of Indy. These servants of Christ are keeping watch, and holding vigil, for those for whom the bell tolls. I thank them for their ministry.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by
John Donne
 No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

WTHR story of Our Lady of Grace

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Up and Away

On a recent Sunday morning as I stood outside the front entrance of the church, getting some air and waiting to greet folks as they arrived, I looked up to see a hot air balloon aloft in the distance. Initially hardly more than a speck, the balloon gained in size as it closed the gap between us. Making use of a substantive air current, in just a few minutes it was overhead to the delight of a growing group of worship arrivals. Many, like me, were snapping photos, angling to catch both the balloon and the peak of the church building in their picture. Others were speculating who the pilot might be, naming a local man known to have flown balloons for some time. Some arrived commenting on how they had been watching the balloon as they drove in that morning. Still others were recalling prior hot air balloon experiences they’d had – a ride while traveling in Australia, attendance at the Albuquerque, New Mexico festival.

Photo taken by Dan Cash

I rather wished we could’ve relocated worship outdoors that morning, given the blue sky and warm weather. Then speculated how challenging it would be to keep a congregation’s attention while a hot air balloon went over. Not a chance! I think you’d have to call an audible, suspending whatever was happening in worship, to let people enjoy the sight.

There is something rather uplifting and serene about seeing a hot air balloon aloft. I was immediately taken back a few weeks to having witnessed four in flight together over Colorado while taking a morning walk. Then recalled another occasion, years prior, also in Colorado, having come upon a balloon festival near Aspen. The fields were in full color that day as the balloons dotted the landscape. Maybe it’s the size, colors or the silence of these airborne vessels that can stop you short when you see them. Their hushed travel interrupted by the occasional plume of fire gushing more air into the balloon. It’s the rhythmic music of rests with the occasional whole note of gas, igniting the elevated air ship to greater heights and distance.

Some years ago our church observed our own neighborhood celebration with tethered hot air balloon rides on the lawn. People lined up and waited for their turn in the basket, young and old alike, a quick up and down ride that offered a taste of what such travel might entail. It was a great part of a fun day together, it’s memory brought back by the unexpected spotting of our Sunday morning balloon guest.

FBC Faithful at 50 Celebration in 2014.

Worship is sometimes described as that which creates or facilitates an encounter with God, causing the worshipper to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and holiness. Much effort can go into the elements that lead to worship on a typical Sunday. A preacher will spend hours crafting a sermon. Musicians will rehearse. Worship leaders give much thought the service’s flow. Then there are the other moments, like the one that spontaneously developed outside the front entrance to the church this past Sunday. A moment when an unexpected worship leader caused us to look up, reflect, and notice the wonders of life as God has created it.

Turns out we didn’t need to relocate worship outside the church, it had already happened. We had been called to a moment through the artistry and simplicity of an overhead leader causing us to stop and worship God outdoors, before we went inside to continue.

Photo taken by Wayne Lovelace

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Passageways

I’m drawn to them, those places and images that invite a going through or coming toward. They are passageways, entry and exit points from what has been to what will be. Thresholds and more, offering promise and prompting thanksgiving. Call it a professional hazard of one who has been present as folks unite to cross a threshold, welcome a new beginning, or share a “farewell” and “see you later”. To be present at the passageway times of life – birth, marriage, death – is sacred work. It’s also humbling work, peeking into the intimacy of a family system and coming to share a presence and a word.

These passageways crop up in life, in nature, in travel and in the mundane. It seems we are always coming and going, sometimes with a lack of awareness and abandon that approaches the cliffs in danger; other times in a measured gait that belies our reluctance to enter the work at all.

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