I have a confession to make. I need to be more grateful. Over this past year I’ve spent a lot of time fretting over what I can’t do, lamenting what I can’t have, and wishing I could see the people I love unmasked and indoors. This month will mark a full year since we have worshiped in our sanctuary. It has been hard for me and I know it has been hard for all of you too. The sacrifices we have made in our personal and corporate lives over this past year, while important and necessary, have been costly. Yet what I’m beginning to truly lament is my attitude and the time I wasted fretting. I wish I had spent more time over this past year being grateful and living in the present.
One of my favorite Biblical figures is the Apostle Paul. He suffered so much for God but he made sure that his suffering only increased his joy. He didn’t waste time fretting. In Philippians 1:12-14 he says,
“I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually
helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole
imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and
most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my
imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”
Paul could have allowed his imprisonment to make him bitter and resentful, but instead, he viewed his circumstances as an opportunity to continue his ministry in new ways. Had he not been imprisoned, he could not have spread the Gospel where he did. Not only did Paul follow God’s leading to seize new opportunities but joy and love overflowed from him.
It took me a year but I’m finally able to start seeing some of the blessings that have sprouted even from the barren ground of suffering. I’ve gotten to spend so much time watching my daughter grow up. With no child care, we have spent so much time together. I treasure every second with her because someday soon she will be off to school for most of the day. Our family decided to hold Christmas entirely outdoors. It wasn’t anything like what I wanted, but my grandparents bent over backwards to make it fun by organizing unforgettable experiences like a family scavenger hunt. I’m glad we kept one another safe and I’ll never forget the fun we had as well as the memories we made. This year has forced me to slow down, to really reflect, and to work on my relationship with God. If life had not slowed down, I would not have taken the time to get more in touch with myself and with God.
As a church family, we have expanded our understanding of what it means to be “together.” Last summer we worshiped outside because it’s safer than being indoors. We also have found togetherness online and grown our digital presence. We played bingo in the parking lot! We kept the Blessing Box stuffed full for those in need. Younger members have gone grocery shopping for older members. The deacons and our administrative assistant have become experts at delivering communion bread and other worship supplies. We spread the message of Jesus’ birth through new outdoor Christmas decorations. We’ve stuck together and even added some new folks to our family who found us online.
There is much to lament about the physical separation over the past year. Isolation and loneliness have been tough, even devastating at times. But social distancing has kept people safe and alive and we can give thanks in our suffering knowing that our sacrifices have been worth it. I also am grateful for what we have learned over the past year that we would not have learned otherwise. Or, it may have taken us many more years to learn these lessons. For a church that values its physical building so much, this year has taught us that with or without a building, we are still the church. This year has taught us that when we move outside of the building, whether that be to the parking lot or onto the internet, we’re more likely to meet new people and grow the church than if we just stay inside our four walls. And most importantly, we’ve been reminded that wherever we go, God is truly with us, and we really love and care about one another. I’m not grateful for the pandemic and all the suffering it has caused, but I am grateful for how God has used this time to teach us new things, force us to grow in new ways, and remind us of God’s faithfulness. I wish I had spent more of the past year being open to what God wants to teach me instead of focusing on getting back to normal as fast as possible and before it’s truly safe.
We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The “new normal” is coming closer each day, with each vaccine needle that goes into each arm, but we’re not there yet. In the time that remains until the “new normal” arrives, let’s focus on gratitude and on Paul’s example of joy. He says, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” May we have a similar tone and remark with similar joy, “What has happened to us has actually made us stronger, broadened our horizons, and shown us new possibilities for ministry…” Joy and love in the midst of suffering is not easy, but it’s deeply Biblical, and it’s a way of life to aspire to. Let’s walk the road of gratitude and joy together.
- Pastor Tim
As many of you know, I spent five years of my childhood in the Dominican Republic because my parents were missionaries there for the Church of the Brethren. One of the things I loved about the DR was how brilliant, bright, and warm life was there. As a Caribbean nation, it was almost always bright and sunny. The weather was warm with a fresh ocean breeze. Houses are painted bright colors like yellow, purple, and pink. There is light everywhere, whether from the sun, the paint, or the energy of Caribbean life.
Back home in the northern United States, winters can be tough for me. Cloudy, gray skies drag on for days, or weeks. Farther from the equator, days are shorter and nights are longer. We found a wonderful house here in Kettering but as was common for homes built in the 1950s, several rooms lack ceiling lights. It has been hard to not have enough light in the evenings. Lamps just don’t provide the kind of light I need.
Katie and I have dreamed of putting nice, bright ceiling lights in our home ever since we moved here two years ago. We’ve been saving up the money to do that and this month we will finally get those lights installed. We’re excited for the light that our new ceiling lights will bring us later this month. We know they will bring us joy and brighten our home, especially on cloudy and dark winter days.
Spiritually, we are in the season of Epiphany. The Day of Epiphany, which was January 6, is sometimes called The Day of the Lights, because the Magi followed the light in the sky to find Jesus. However, Epiphany is not just one day but a whole season that runs until Lent begins in mid-February. This season is associated with light and that’s the main reason why our sermon series over the next few weeks is called “Welcoming the Light.” During this season we focus on welcoming Jesus, who was born at Christmas.
I enjoy reading The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson. I particularly enjoy his take on putting John chapter 1 into modern language. In verses 1-5, he uses names like “Life-Light” and “Word” to describe Jesus. And in verse 14, he refers to Jesus’ birth, saying, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” I love the beautiful imagery of Jesus, the Light, moving into our neighborhood to be with us. It’s as if the Gospel of John is saying that Jesus, the Light, is our new neighbor! How wonderful!
As I take in this wonderful news of Jesus coming to us as a great Light, I’ve been reflecting on how sorely his arrival is needed. We have been through some dark and chaotic times lately, as individuals, as a nation, and as a world. If there was ever a time that we needed the light of Christ to be among us, it is now. Our world desperately needs Jesus. Over the next several weeks we will explore together how we can Welcome the Light that Jesus brings, into our lives. We’ll also be invited to share the great Light that is Christ with those around us.
As I eagerly look forward to the day that our ceiling lights will be installed, I’ve often paused to think about how I’m making space within myself for the Light of Christ to be installed in me. And I’ve wondered how I can share the Light of Christ with others. I’m excited to learn more and more about how to do that in the next several weeks. Join me on this journey of welcoming the Light that has moved into our neighborhood!
Dear sisters, brothers, and friends, near and far, greetings to each of you! May the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, who is with us always, be a comfort and an encouragement to each of us!
Are you familiar with the term “mutual aid?” Brethren author Frank Ramirez, in his article Mutual Aid in the Bible and the Early Church, defines it like this: “It is expected that in greater and lesser ways, we take care of each other and put our stuff at each others' disposal when the need is there.”1 This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on a story from Acts 2:41-47 that recalls how the early Christians right after Pentecost practiced a particularly radical form of mutual aid. The Bible says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This might be one of the most notable times that mutual aid was practiced in the Bible on a large scale, but mutual aid is something you’ll find on the pages of both the Old and New Testaments.
Mutual aid is also a theme you can see throughout Brethren history. As you know, the first eight Brethren chose to be baptized even though that was illegal in Germany at the time. As a result, in their first few years of existence as a community, they were subject to persecution.2 To help one another survive, the first Brethren shared their money and possessions freely with one another. Alexander Mack, our founder, had some wealth initially, but he shared it so generously that he wasn’t sure where his food would come from for the next day.3 When the Brethren arrived in America, they continued this practice of mutual aid. All Brethren tried to be self-sufficient but when a need arose, the deacons of the church took up a collection to meet the need. Brethren were even known for keeping a guest room in their homes for anyone traveling through the area.4
Brethren soon expanded their practice of mutual aid from a congregational level to the denominational level. In the late 1800’s, Brethren formed the Mutual Aid Association. This organization helped Brethren coordinate their mutual aid on a larger scale. When there was a drought that affected Brethren in the west, Brethren in the east donated funds to help them. In the twentieth century, Brethren looked even further outward and became more aware of global concerns. Brethren mutual aid in the twentieth century is best known for helping to lead the relief effort in Europe after World War II. Organizations like Heifer International and Church World Service have Brethren roots.5
The practice of mutual aid has created a long history of witnessing to the love of Jesus. We see it throughout the Bible. We see it in our church history. We see it on a person to person level. We see it practiced within the church and with others beyond the church. We see it locally and globally. Today we face a health crisis and an economic crisis of historic proportions. I have already begun to see our church spring into action with mutual aid. I have seen mutual aid practiced among members of our church more times than I can count over the past two months! Plus, we are doing a great job of keeping the Blessing Box stocked with food to meet increased need. It warms my heart to see this tradition of radical love still going strong. As the twin crises that the world face progress in the months and years to come, how will the mutual aid we offer so well be expressed in new ways to fit the needs of new times? We’re often quite good at taking care of one another. How will we open our arms ever wider to comfort and care for persons we don’t even know yet?
In each century, Brethren have risen to the challenge and taken Jesus’ call to mutual aid to the next level. Our collective action has shared God’s love with all and made a difference in people’s lives. That sounds like a great vision for the next decade! I can’t wait to dream with you and act with you, For the Glory of God and our Neighbor’s Good!
- Pastor Tim
1. Ramirez, Frank. “Mutual Aid in the Bible and the Early Church.” Brethren Life and Thought 53, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 1–39. http://proxy.earlham.edu:2084/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001753722&site=ehost-live, 1.
2. Durnbaugh, Donald F. “Mutual Aid in Ministry to God’s World.” Brethren Life and Thought 33, no. 2 (Spr 1988): 87–97.
3. Ramirez, 10-11.
4. Ramirez, 12-13.
5. Durnbaugh, 94-96.
"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God."
Philippians 1:3-11, NIV
The Apostle Paul was no stranger to physical distancing. Later in his life, after years of preaching the Gospel in person and starting churches, he was imprisoned for two years under house arrest in Rome. Paul could not leave his home for those two years and you might think that his ministry ceased during that time. However, Paul wrote letters upon letters to the churches he helped start around the Mediterranean. He wrote letters that would become books in the New Testament: Philemon, Colossians, Philippians, and Ephesians.
Paul is an encouraging example to us during this season of physical distancing from one another. He was separated from friends and co-workers in the faith and could not be a physical support to them, but his letters could. We are parted from one another, but we can be an encouragement and support to one another through snail mail, e-mail, phone calls, and video calls. We have so many ways to strengthen our social connections, even as we maintain our physical distance. Who can we reach out to in word or call to support and encourage today? Paul modeled connection with the meager resources he had at the time and we have so many more today that can help us maintain social connection.
Being isolated under house arrest is a dreary fate and Paul’s faith in God helped him to be content in each situation. Paul writes in Philippians, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (4:11-13). Circumstances in our lives change, but God remains a constant, and Paul relied on God for comfort and strength in the midst of good times and bad times.
He took strength from Jesus to not only endure his years imprisoned, but to find joy and have reasons to rejoice before God. Paul actually has reason to rejoice and praise God, even under house arrest. He encourages the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:4-6). We will not always feel like rejoicing in this season, but we can practice the spiritual discipline of gratitude. Can you find at least three things everyday that you are grateful for? This practice can uplift our spirits in difficult times.
Since Paul was unable to leave his home or to earn any kind of income, the churches and communities he was connected with supported him during this time. Paul gives thanks to the Philippians for they sent him aid “more than once when [he] was in need” (4:16). The Philippians shared in his troubles and sent Paul gifts and supplies through their mutual friend, Epaphroditus. It’s very important that certain populations remain inside and limit their trips, especially those over 60 and the immunocompromised. Yet others, like Epaphroditus, can be a support by helping bring groceries or food to those who aren’t able to venture out themselves. Which group do you find yourself in? Is it best for you to remain inside and receive freely the gifts and support or are you able to bring groceries to those who are in need of them?
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is an encouragement to me during this time of physical distancing. I am uplifted by the fact that even though Paul was physically isolated from his communities, he remained connected with them and looked with hope toward a time when they would be together again in person. May Philippians be an encouragement and a model for us in these times. And like Paul, I thank God every time I remember each of you and I look with hope toward a future when we are together in person again.