September 27 Reflections

There is a story that comes out of Native American Folklore and culture. For a young boy of 12 to reach manhood he needed to spend one night in the forest by himself. Then he was to return in the morning to a ceremony celebrating manhood. He took off into the woods around sundown. He was scared and frightened, every little sound was magnified by the quiet of the night. Every animal sound was as if they had a megaphone blasting into the night. He wasn’t able to sleep much…he was constantly hearing noises being sure that a bear was going to come and attack, leaving him for dead. He felt so alone.

In the morning when the sun began to create a faint light, he noticed that not far away was his dad. His dad had been there all night to protect. In the midst of all the noises and scary moments, his dad, though hidden, had been right there. If he had known his dad was there, he could have rested through the night. Moses questioned God about who was going to go with him as he led the people to the promised land. God told Moses, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. “ (Exodus 33:14) In other words my personal, Spiritual presence will go with you so you do not need to strive to accomplish you can rest in me as you keep moving. I will lead, guide, and protect.

There are many times I think it would be great if I could literally have Jesus walking with me each day. Flesh and blood Jesus, not only the spiritual presence through the Holy Spirit. Especially in the difficult times where I could ask him a question; I could hear his voice. I could feel the touch of his hand. I could look into his eyes. But instead I am being asked to trust in his spiritual presence and that he is always with me and that is enough. When Thomas was invited to reach out his fingers and touch the wounds of Jesus; Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

We are going to think about our desire to see God this coming Sunday as we hear Moses, cry out to God, “show me your glory.” Some passages to read and reflect upon: Exodus 33:12-23; 2 Corinthians 4:5-6; Numbers 6:24-26; 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

September 20 Reflections

One of the news stories that is getting a lot of attention are the political races that are happening all over the country from the highest office in the land to County Sheriffs. I do not talk politics from the pulpit because I am called to proclaim Good News not the latest Gallop poll. I think God is God; neither a Democrat nor Republican, though God could be the ultimate independent. I believe we make idols when we think an object, a person, or group of people or an ideology is “god.” It speaks for God.
In our country we make idols out of donkeys and elephants. Political parties become idols. It doesn’t make a difference which; each party has come to believe they speak for God. If you are a true believer you will be a republican or democrat, depending where you live and which idol you worship. But God is God, unfathomably bigger than any politician or political party. We need a healthy dose of Isaiah 40, “He (God) sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. God stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. “(Isaiah 40:23) I encourage you to remember that we worship the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world not an elephant or donkey.
This week the Israelites are into making an idol that they can worship and bow down to. Moses’ delay in coming down from the mountain causes anxiety with the perceived threat that they were alone with no one to help them. It is amazing after all God had led them through that they would get so full of anxiety that they would create a god, which they would worship. God had split the Red Sea…provided manna morning and night every day…brought water out of a rock and still they wanted an idol. Tim Keller defines an idol or god this way, “It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” They had learned to trust God. They had been taught what it means to love God out of that trust. And yet they wanted something other than the living God. We are going to think about this on Sunday as we read and reflect together on the Story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. Some passages to read and reflect upon: Exodus 32; Isaiah 40:18-31; John 4:21-24.
Grace upon Grace,
Pastor Verlyn

September 13 Relfections

As a child I can remember hearing sermons on the 10 Commandments. The point it seemed to me at a young age was that I better shape up or God was going to squash me. Or bad things would happen to me if I was not a good boy and follow the commands. I don’t recall hearing a lot of grace connected to the commands, which I find interesting because I grew up in a Reformed Church that taught the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully. The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism place the 10 Commandments squarely in the section on gratitude which follows grace. The Commandments are born in grace as we see in Exodus 20:1-2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” God’s irresistible grace first…then the commands.

I never tire of preaching/teaching about grace. I hope that has been evident all along in my ministry at First Reformed. God releases us from the prison of sin and death and sets us free to live in love with him and others. It is part of our journey of faith in the story of the Exodus. First in their freedom they needed to learn to trust God. The Red Sea account, the manna, and the water from the rock were all places that God was teaching them to trust him. Now he is going to show them what love for him and others looks like.  These are powerful life changing truths…trust God…love God. But this is after being released. We trust that God loves us first. Grace is a Copernican Revolution.

Copernicus lived in the 1500’s. The scientific community believed that the earth was the center of the universe which meant that everything revolved around the earth. Copernicus proved that the sun was the center and the everything including the earth revolved around the sun. Imagine the change in thinking that this required. Some resisted; others gradually came to accept this truth.

Grace is a Copernican Revolution. For too long we have been led down a path where we think and believe that if we are good enough, then maybe God will love us, and we can get into heaven.  This is the religion of human pride and arrogance. The Scriptures teach a whole new way. God loves us first. God accepts us first. We cannot earn his love. It is gift. We receive it and want to shape our lives around his love not to earn anything, but to live in gratitude for the gift.  We are going to think about this on Sunday as we come to the place of the giving of the 10 Commandments, as part of our spiritual journey of faith.  Some possible passages to read:     Exodus 3:1-10; Exodus 20:1-3; John 8:31-36; Romans 13:8-10.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

September 6 Reflections

There was one point in ministry where I felt like leadership was being too controlling; even in their relationship with me as pastor. The turning point came when an elder suggested that I needed to run each sermon series and each message by him for approval. A lot of things went through my mind, some not so charitable, but I did reply this way: I work for Jesus not for you. I am not going to run anything by you. I will run it by him, but not you. Now I did not mean that arrogantly, because if someone comes to me and wants to talk about needs in the Body and possible sermon series, I am ears wide open. But to suggest the type of control that was exhibited by the elder is affront to my original call which came from Jesus, my training and credentials, and years of experience. Because the truth is, I really do work for Jesus. So, do you. Because it is Jesus to whom we belong.

Listen to Paul as he writes to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (3:23) Or listen to Paul in Romans 14:7-8, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Or the Heidelberg Catechism in the much loved Q and A # 1, “My only comfort (source of strength) is that I am not my own but belong body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Jesus created me uniquely. Jesus gifted me. Jesus called me into my job (as he did you). I belong to him. He asks me to work as if I am working for him, which I really am. I do not take writing sermons lightly. I talk to Jesus about it all week long. I ask him what he wants to say through me. I ask him about each task of the day. I invite him in always. For someone to suggest that I need to run things by him, really is arrogant on his part.

I think this is important as we think about work on the Labor Day weekend. Work is a God-given creative gift. Some folks have sold their souls to their job, with a sense that they are nobody without their work. The most basic truth about our lives is that we are loved by Jesus and belong to him. This is not an excuse for laziness, because we are to work with all our heart, but it is a way of knowing the limits that work can provide. Work is to be an expression of our belonging.

We are going to think about this on Sunday as we consider the life of Moses and how at one point he was over functioning in his work and running himself ragged. There is a better way…know who you belong to…what are your strengths…what are your growth areas…and where can you allow others to celebrate their gifts by using them. When we over function we allow others to under function. Passages to read and reflect upon: Exodus 18Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 14:7-9.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

August 30 Reflections

Henri Nouwen wrote in the book, The Inner Voice of Love, “At every moment you have to decide to trust the voice that says, ‘I love you. I knit you together in your mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13)”; “Stop wandering around. Instead come home and trust that God will bring you what you need”; “For as long as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. But now you are being asked to let go of all these self-made props and trust that God is enough for you”; “The root choice is to trust at all times that God is with you and will give you what you most need.”

Nouwen wrote this book as he faced his own imminent death, in fact the book was published on the day of this death. In the book he uses the word trust sixty-five times. That is a lot considering the book is only 115 pages long. In the book that he wrote as he faced death, he proclaimed that trust was the most foundational truth in our relationship with God.

I have often stated that I believe the number one question to answer in my walk with God is not do I love God, but rather it is do I trust God. Do I trust that God loves me? Do I trust that God is with me every second? Do I trust that nothing can separate me from his love? Do I trust that God is for me and not against me? Do I trust that God will give me what I most need? The journey of the Israelite’s out of slavery to freedom, is a continual test of their trust in God. I think each day is an opportunity to trust God; to not run ahead on my own.

The Israelites had witnessed the plagues that led to their release. Added to that, the parting of the sea, the pillar of fire and cloud that led them, and the daily provision of quail and manna. God’s incredible provision and protection, and yet in chapter 17 of Exodus we see them grumbling that there is not enough water to drink. Instead of simply going to God in prayer and asking him for what they need, they grumble, complain and quarrel. Really, they were asking the question, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)

Before I get too hard on the Israelites, I must remember my own wavering and lack of trust. I often think I am not enough, even though God says I am. I often think there is not enough, even though God says that there is.  I often think there will not be enough, even though God says there will be. We are going to think about this on Sunday as we look at the story, “Water From the Rock” in Exodus 17. Some passages to read and reflect upon: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 62:1-8; John 14:1-3.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

August 23 Reflections

A scout is a soldier or other person sent out ahead to gather information about either an enemy’s, or teams, or places strength, position, or movements.  Or simply it is someone who searches for something or someone in various places. For instance, someone might be sent out to scout around for the best place to park the camper. These scouts go out to help make the future a little less anxious for the group. There are a couple of scouts however, that are not helpful to you and me in our walk of faith. The scouts of worry and anxiety.

These scouts are off in the future. They really do run ahead of reality. When they return, they tell tales of giants, insurmountable odds, and worst-case scenarios. For instance, if I have an ache in my side the scouts of worry and anxiety fly off into the future, totally removed from reality, and tell me, you have a big battle ahead of you; it is either cancer, heart or lung disease, it is going to be awful. You are not going to survive. When in reality I strained a muscle lifting the lawn mower out of the vehicle.

It is so easy to let our minds and hearts run ahead of reality. Instead of sinking into the moment of now and simply living. The Message translates Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:34 this way, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” Let God fill this moment; experience this moment fully and completely. The Israelites in the wilderness were asked to do this: trust God for this moment, today. Do not run ahead of yourselves. Manna will be here today. Tomorrow there will be more. Trust do not hoard today. In the past few month’s toilet paper has been hoarded, Lysol spray and disinfectant wipes have been hoarded. What if Covid 19 strikes and we are quarantined?  Hoarding is a lack of trust. Trust in a God who provides today.

A spiritual practice that has been so powerfully used in my life is mindfulness. There is a significant amount of literature and videos that talk about this spiritual discipline. It is about disciplining yourself to shut out the noise of the world and sink into God’s filling this moment. Not rushing ahead or dwelling in the past but sinking into the right now. The fullness of now. I can be out on a run in the morning and thinking about the past or the future, actually obsessing about it, and miss the moon (yes when I run the moon is usually still out) or the stars, the meteor shower, the clouds, the birds singing, the cardinal or the woodpecker pecking, the deer that runs across the path, or the skunk I want to avoid, the wild flowers, rabbits and squirrels, the sunrise just as it begins to come up with all its nuances as clouds surround it, the freshness of the morning, the breeze as it touches my face. God, I believe, wants us to live now, not in the past with unresolved guilt or nostalgia, or in the future with worry and anxiety. But in the fullness of now. That is what we are going to think about on Sunday as we continue in the Exodus story of the Israelites set free and living in the wilderness. Trusting God for “now.” Some passages to read and reflect upon: Exodus 16; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Matthew 6:25-34 .  

Grace upon Grace,                                                                                                 

Pastor Verlyn

August 16 Reflections

Have you ever been between a “rock and a hard place?” Have you ever faced a troubling situation that cannot be easily escaped? These dilemmas are nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. They often bring us to the end of our resources and threaten to drive us to despair. We see a perceived threat…something is going to negatively happen if we do not decide. But what is it we are to do? A young man was offered a job, but if he accepted it was low pay with long hours, if he did not accept, he would lose his livelihood. Maria is in a car accident. She is physically okay. But the accident left a huge dent in her car. She can spend what little money she has on repairs, or she can not spend a dime and ride around with an unsightly dent in her car. Both options are undesirable to her. She is between a rock and a hard place. Joe is diagnosed with cancer. He can undergo chemo treatments and go through the side effects or do nothing and let the cancer takes it course and most likely die within a year. Neither option is desirable.

When Moses and the Hebrew people were facing the Red Sea in front and the Egyptian army behind, they were between a rock and a hard place. Moses’ advice from God was this: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today…The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14) Admittedly that is hard advice to hear during the situation. Do not be afraid. Stand firm. The LORD will fight for you. Be still. In other words: trust. Trust that God is for you and not against you. Amid the situation it is easy to think that God is pouncing on you to make your life miserable, not fighting for you.    

Faith Walking, a spiritual transformation movement, in the module that speaks of facing anxiety gives a short process that helps manage anxiety during the rock and hard place experience. This is if you have time and it is not an emergency.

  1. Stop…Don’t just do something-stand there.
  2. Think…what are the facts? What is threatening here?
  3. Calm…breathe
  4. Listen…to yourself…to others…to God
  5. Say…what is true for you
  6. Stay…don’t run away…don’t ignore.
If you can calm your heart, soul, mind, and body lowering your anxiety I believe God will speak. God spoke to the Hebrew people, “move forward and trust me.” On Sunday we are going to look together at the truth of being still and moving forward during the rock and hard place experiences. Some passages to read: Exodus 14; Psalm 37:1-7; Psalm 46.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

August 9 Reflections

When someone lives in bondage, slavery, or imprisonment they slowly but surely become numb to the true, the good, the beautiful. Eventually they forget that they were made for more.

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, a long-time prisoner named Red explains the psychology of prison to his friend Andy, who persistently dreams beyond the walls. “These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.” Though Andy had been in prison a long time, he has not forgotten life outside the walls. He has not forgotten who he is. He says, “There something inside me…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.”

Religious organizations and institutions routinely put people in bondage and prison. They bait you…set you up…and then trap you in religion. They will declare that you are saved by God’s grace alone. But once you enter or join the group, they hand you a list of 75 things you cannot do.  You were told that trusting in Jesus would lead to freedom. They might even quote Jesus, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Immediately though upon joining they set out to control you by inflicting rules, shame, “shoulds.” And one might wonder where is Good News? Where is freedom? Where did grace go? Where is lightness of spirit? Joy? Sometimes people have lived in bondage to rules, religion and should for so long they have forgotten who they are. They can only define themselves by what they don’t do, not by who they truly are in grace.

Religious groups, organizations and institutions can take your life away from you causing you to live in fear and shame. The Apostle Paul fought against this his whole ministry. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) Do not let people with their human-made up rules and their bondage interpretations of faith lead you to be burdened. This week the Hebrew people are set free (Exodus 13). Pharaoh lets them go. What are they going to do? Do they remember who they are?  Are they going to choose freedom or slavery? A choice that you have as well: to choose the freedom Christ offers or to choose the bondage of religious institutions and organizations; to choose rules or relationships. We are going to think about this on Sunday as we continue to study the story of the Exodus, which is our story. Some possible passages to read: Exodus 13:17-22; Galatians 5:1-15; John 8:31-38.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

August 2 Reflections

Why couldn’t God just snap his fingers and the Hebrew people could be released from Egypt? Why did there have to be such a mess…people dying, and lambs being slaughtered? Why doesn’t God make it easy to be released from bondage? Why can’t God just say the word and people be released from addictions…from shame…from abuse…from depression…from slavery to feelings of nothingness…from brokenness? Why does it have to be so hard? Why so often does life have to be such a bloody mess?

These are questions I wonder about as we look at the final plague: the death of the firstborn in homes that do not have the sign of blood above the doorpost, which created the holy day of Passover. All this death, loss, and grief just so the Hebrew people could be released. Isn’t there an easier way? I believe in God’s wisdom there is not an easier way. The people’s bondage and Pharaoh’s anxiety to keep them in slavery were so deep that an extreme demonstration of God’s love was needed. God uses a mess to fix a mess. I think anything less would have seemed phony or superficial. 

Our bondage and slavery to sin…death…fear…destructive behaviors and thoughts really is a mess. It is hard. It is a struggle of life and death. God could, but does not, just snap his fingers and say be released. It would seem superficial; not really getting at the heart of the issue. The point is not only can we not fix others, we cannot fix ourselves, no matter how much self-effort we put into it. God is in the business of changing lives. All he asks is that we be open to his love and trust his work for us. The bloody mess of the Old Testament in the Passover is fulfilled in the New Testament by Jesus suffering and dying on a cross, so that we could be released from bondage to be free to love.

A contemporary song that has been speaking deep truths into my life is by Building 429 called “Blessing I Can’t See.”

I’m lifting up my heart again

Cause even when I can’t see the plan

I know your love is closing in on me

You hold the whole world in your hands

Still You feel the pain you understand

Ain’t just a war I’m standing in, oh no

It’s a blessing I can’t see yet.

I trust You in everything

I trust you in everything, oh God.

Whatever tomorrow brings

I trust You in everything, oh God.

As we think about God’s love closing in on us to provide freedom from bondage here are some passages to read for Sunday: Exodus 12:1-13; John 3:16-17; Galatians5:1; Galatians 5:13-15.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn

July 12 Reflections

Many times in my life I have accommodated, sought to please others, or take care of others’ pain, generally giving in or giving up self because I was anxious others would not approve of me. Because you know of course the world will come to an end if someone does not like me. I paid attention to the feelings and actions of others not my own. How someone will react is more important than what I think or believe. I often became a chameleon changing to whatever the loudest voice of whom I wanted approval was voicing. I would act cautious so as not to upset anyone.

Through God’s grace I am seeking to live into a different way…a grace of self -defining.  This way is based on values; knowing what I believe I take thoughtful positions. I have the capacity to see my part; to be able to step back and see my interactions with others. I listen to others not to know what I must believe but to stay connected. I seek not to be sabotaged by the reactivity of others but live out what I believe God is leading me into as I seek to be who I am by his grace. I seek adventure. I seek challenge. I want to be stretched for growth and my imagination stimulated until I transition from this world to the next.

In this different way…the grace of self-defining; I offer, not to change your mind, some things I believe. You may think I am nuts. You may think I am a genius. It does not matter. Together as we self-define and stay connected, we have a real relationship instead of a made up “get alongness” that really is fake and phony.  So here goes:

1.) I am race challenged and I suspect you might be as well.  I have no understanding of what it means to be black in America. I have no understanding of what it means to be a brown immigrant.  I have no understanding of what it means to be native American, or Chinese American, or Korean American. All I pretty much know is what it means to be white in America. And by and large I have not taken the time to learn. This does not mean reading a book; it means developing a relationship with someone “different” than me. I regret that I have not done much of that to this point. I do want to live out the life of Jesus, who by the way was not white, and seek to treat people as he treated people.

2.) I believe women are to be celebrated in the life of the church using their gifts of leadership for the building up of the church. I reject a male, macho, chauvinistic attitude that wants to treat strong capable women as “the little woman” who is helpless and not capable of thought or leadership. Many if not most women I have met through the years have powerful gifts for leadership. I remember the elder who told me years ago that his wife is the one who should have been elder, not him. But because we believe that the Holy Spirit can only work with certain hormones and not others the church is weaker.

3.) I believe children of believing parents are welcome at the Lord’s Supper. My thought is this if we are not going to allow them to participate then let us not baptize them. We say you are part of the Covenant Community but not really. In Reformed theology we make a big deal about the continuity between the old covenant and new covenant. Lord’s Supper is the continuity of the Passover. Baptism is the continuity of circumcision. Children who were circumcised and brought into the covenant community participated in the Passover from the earliest age. To me it is inconsistent to not allow the children of believing parents to participate.  I have met many five-year old’s who have a greater understanding of the fact that Jesus loves them than a lot of adults.

Now as I define my beliefs, I do not expect you to automatically go along with them for your own self. But I do want you to respectfully think about them as I would yours. The story of Moses has a ton of this sort of interaction going on…defining…responding…not defined…reactions…anxiety…less anxiety. This week we see what happens when Moses defines and is shot down by Pharaoh and the people. How do I face that? How do you face that? Where do we turn? We are going to think about that this week. Some passages to read: Exodus 5-6;James 1:2-8.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Verlyn