Friday, February 17, 2017

The Promise of God's Presence

I heard a local meteorologist say today that we have had many more above average temperature days than below average temperature days this winter. I wasn't surprised or disappointed by his assessment...less fighting that heavy coat, less shoveling of snow, and even a round of golf played a few weeks back on a 60- plus degree day! All in all, it's been a very mild winter so far. Now, I know that might change quickly as an arctic surge could work its way down from Canada or a Nor'easter could work its way up the mid-Atlantic coastline. Our flirtations with springtime this weekend may fool us into thinking winter is done, but don't put your coat and gloves away just yet. A few realists among us have expressed concerns about March and even April. Next week and next month are yet to unfold, and they may bring that jolt of winter that will remind us of the necessity of our winter wear. But until that time comes, get out and enjoy the wonder of God's winter warmth. No matter the season, the promise of God's presence, as the prophet Isaiah encouraged, is that garment of praise that is always appropriate.

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday morning for Bible study and worship. Invite a friend, as many of you did last Sunday, and join your Westwood family as we celebrate the wonder of God at work among us.

Jim Abernathy

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Crush of Time and Circumstances

Decisions have ramifications. Take retirement for instance. Sounds like a good pause, reflect, retool for the next chapter of life. Making such news known to friends, colleagues, parishioners, is bittersweet, for you are talking about change that affects their lives and your own; the joy in a new chapter of life, the sadness at leaving folks you hold dear. I think I was prepared for these ramifications when I made my announcement a few months back. Now, however, I am coming to terms with an aspect of this transition I had spent little time considering. The emotional and spiritual implications were well thought through; not so much so the physical. Yes, I am talking about moving, specifically, getting our house ready to sell.

We have spent several days in the last week or so going through different rooms to assess what to keep and what to let go of. It is exhausting in more ways than one. Clayton's room was the first to be assessed. Talk about a trip down memory lane! Clayton had just turned seven when we came to Westwood. His shelves, closets, and drawers were filled with items that invoked memories that caused us to take pause and reminisce. The realization that every room would provide opportunity for such reflection seemed overwhelming, but we persevered. The emotional came squarely up against the practical as we realized some things would have to be done to the house to get it ready to sell. And so, the slow, wistful march from room to room has given way to a more frantic pace ahead of the painters and handymen who are now at work.

Yesterday was spent in readying the basement and study for these repairs. At first, I rather cautiously sorted through things, treating them as treasures to be finely poured over. By last night, I was tossing right and left, filling trash bags and boxes with things once proudly possessed that needed to be disposed of before the painters arrived this morning.  At midnight, I was still schlepping boxes to the sub-basement and trash bags to the bin outside. With every trip it seemed that the bags and boxes were multiplying. Like many of my gender, I worked on the theory that volume was preferable to weight, so with each step I came to realize how heavy the inconsequential becomes collectively. My assistant in this project had tried to warn me, but I was resolute. As usual, she was right.

I realize this frenzy of activity over the last week or so is just the beginning. The things accumulated in one house over fifteen years and in a marriage of over thirty-five years are amazing. When they are all in their proper place or hidden away in blissful oblivion, they seem rather trivial. Taking them out, one by one, dusting them off, deciding their fate, and then disposing of them is a much more challenging endeavor indeed.

Perhaps the Psalmist was dealing with his own realization of the crush of time and circumstances when he wrote in Psalm 90, "Teach us to live wisely and well." (Psalm 90:12, MSG) In the middle of reminiscing, repairs, recycling, and refuse, those are correcting and encouraging words.

Sunday is "Bring a Friend Day," so give a friend or neighbor a call and invite them to join you at Westwood. We will have coffee, donuts, and juice in the narthex beginning at 9:15, so come a few minutes early and bring someone with you to Bible study and worship.

Finally, a biography has been written about our ministry partner and friend, Leena Levanya. Copies of this book will be available to purchase very soon for a cost of $20. All proceeds will go to help with the ongoing ministry of ServeTrust. Look for further details very soon about how you can purchase this book.

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday!

Jim Abernathy

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Importance of Godly Training

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow today. The bad news...six more weeks of winter! Now Phil has not had extensive meteorological training. There's no evidence that he monitors radar screens or subscribes to any reputable weather sites. However, every February 2, thousands of people flock to a sleepy Pennsylvania town, and probably millions more tune in, in hopes that this rather large rodent will offer some clear sign of what is to come.

Before you sink into a deeper winter funk, however, consider another perspective. Staten island Chuck informed his audience in New York this morning that an early spring was on the way, and Shubenacadie Sam came to the same conclusion in Nova Scotia. Mixed results at best, but in the world of weather prediction, accuracy is not always a given.

Most of us wouldn't put much stock in these hairy harbingers, though Staten Island Chuck is reported to be right 80 percent of the time. Yes, it's fun to see the pageantry and consider the possibilities, but few, if any would make plans accordingly.

In I Timothy 4, Paul wrote about the importance of godly training. "This is a trustworthy saying," he wrote. "This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers." Trustworthiness speaks of integrity, dependability, and strength. Here, there is no fantasy that entertains, no amount of luck that ultimately informs. This is the Word, with God from the beginning, still present and at work in our world. Hope isn't dependent on the whims of creation, but rather, hope is found in the Creator.

There will most likely be some very cold days over the next 6-8 weeks, but I will go out on a limb to predict that there will also be some very nice days mixed in to remind us of the coming spring. Don't be fooled, the Punxsutawney Phils, Staten Island Chucks, and even Shubenacadie Sams of our meteorological fantasies have little to do with the elements of nature around us. I'll trust the Creator who doesn't provide me with weather updates, but does promise to be with me, whatever the weather. That good news will carry me through to spring, summer, and beyond.

Hmmm, WeatherBug tells me that it will be dry and cool over the next few days, even partly sunny and 47 degrees on Sunday. I guess some look to groundhogs...some to bugs. The Creator, however, is Lord of all.

Jim Abernathy

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Religion of the Open Door

Hebrews 13:1-2 says, "Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it." I have always been intrigued by this text. To think that heavenly beings would mingle among us sparks a number of possibilities in our imagination. Perhaps the writer of Hebrews is remembering the encounter Abraham and Sarah had with the messengers of God Abraham welcomed to dine with him, who later shared the news that he and Sarah would have a son in their old age. His invitation had made welcome these strangers.

William Barclay writes, "Christianity was, and still should be, the religion of the open door." In a time when the talk of walls and other means of exclusion seem to dominate our conversations, we would do well to remember Barclay's words and these of the writer of Hebrews. God's persistent love isn't defeated by the barriers we often erect in our own lives. "While we were yet sinners," Paul writes, "Christ died for us." It would seem that the welcoming arms of God, made manifest in the incarnate Christ, should serve to remind us of the need and value of every human heart.

Perhaps the words of this text from Hebrews 13 call us to view our world with different eyes, to look for God in the stranger who comes among us. We have been blessed this week to welcome "strangers" who have come among us. Our hypothermia guests have found shelter, nourishment, and rest within the walls of our church building. In their uncertain world, we and other churches are providing a haven of welcome...hospitality in an often inhospitable world. If we are to believe the words of Jesus, when offering this hospitality to strangers, we are truly offering it to him. In the context of judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus says the King will welcome those who have welcomed and cared for persons whose lives have been shaken by the burdens and hardships of life. "I tell you the truth," the King says, "when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me."

I believe I have seen and heard Christ during this week of hypothermia at Westwood, finding him in the faces and stories of these "strangers" we have welcomed among us. In honoring the word of Christ by opening our doors and hearts, we have welcomed God among us, seeing the Divine as strangers have become friends. Christianity is, as Barclay asserts, "the religion of the open door." May we continue to hold open that door for all who come.

I look forward to welcoming you and sharing from God's word as we gather for worship this Sunday. I will be preaching from Micah 6:1-8 on the topic, "A Simple Prescription." Take a moment to read this powerful text and come expectantly as we worship together this Sunday, and yes, why not invite someone to join you.

Jim Abernathy

Friday, January 20, 2017

How Do We Move Forward?

Donald Trump will be sworn in as our nation's 45th president on Friday. Some question the legitimacy of his presidency. Some will march over the weekend to protest his policies. Some will celebrate his inauguration, believing that he is the right person for the job. Regardless of one's perspective, it seems our nation is clearly divided, and that will most likely not change any time soon.

The issues and personalities that have given platform and voice to this division have not suddenly arisen. Certainly there have been wide variances of perspective and political practice in our nation's history, producing contentious division that lasted well beyond inauguration day. I don't remember a time, however, when this contention has so permeated the conversations, friendships, and ongoing relationships of neighbors, co-workers, and family members. Passions run high on both sides of this political divide, creating among other things, a lack of respect for those whose opinions differ from our own. The challenge before us as a nation then, seems to be, "How do we move forward?".   

Considering the enormity of the challenge, perhaps we find encouragement not in the task of transforming an entire nation, but recognizing our role in making a difference right where we live. That, I believe begins with respect and prayer. The apostle Paul, writing in I Timothy 2, says, "The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live." (I Timothy 2:1-3, The Message)  Paul doesn't mention being in agreement with these people we are to pray for, even rulers. He does, however, communicate something that I believe has particular relevance for us today as we think about those who lead our nation. Again, he writes, "Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well..."  I would hope that those elected to these vital tasks of governance, would want what young Solomon asked for when given the opportunity to claim any gift for himself as he began his rule. In I Kings 3, the Lord comes to him in a dream to ask what gift he might want to rule over his people. He could have claimed great wealth, but he did not. He could have claimed great influence, but he did not. He could have asked for mighty military power, but he did not. He said, "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people."

Wisdom is a gift of God that moves human hearts and minds to meaningful action. Through two administrations during my tenure at Westwood, I have publicly prayed for the leaders of our nation, asking God to give wisdom for the enormous responsibilities they carry in seeking to govern. I will continue to do so as a new administration begins and I encourage you to do the same. Regardless of your perspective, party affiliation, or particular ideology, I ask that we be faithful in obedience to God's word, faithful in respecting others even when we disagree, and faithful in prayer for each other and for the leaders of our nation. To do so doesn't mean your voice must be silent when you disagree, nor does it mean that you must follow in lock-step conformity without thinking and making decisions on your own. It does, however, mean that in uncertain times, your will trust God to be at work, even through the flawed exercise of human government.  

"Pray every way you know how for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well..." Amen.

Jim Abernathy

Friday, January 13, 2017

What Is Truth?

In the interaction between Pilate and Jesus in those last moments before Jesus was condemned to die, Jesus told Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. "All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true," Jesus said. Then Pilate asked the question that was left unanswered; "What is truth?" In an ever changing world, that question is often yet unanswered.

Throughout the recent presidential campaign, much was made about the role of truth and integrity. Neither candidate fared well when pollsters asked voters about the subject of trustworthiness. Indeed, some comparisons focused less on leadership or substantive issues, settling instead on who seemed to lie the least. The question of truth has often factored into presidential politics, as candidates, or their representatives, rearrange facts to suit their own needs. This wink and a nod approach to truth has at times been treated as an acceptable part of the political process, prompting again the age old question, "what is truth?".  

This week, one of the president-elect's advisors, when asked about something questionable he had said, encouraged people to focus less on his words and more on his heart. Does her suggestion imply that words and their meanings have little significance in the context of truth? I don't understand how they can be separated, for integrity begins within and finds its authentic expression in words and action. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the significance of this correlation between heart and the spoken word when he said, "Let your yes be yes, and your no, no," or put another way, simply tell the truth.

Pilate seemed to look for a way to escape the impossible situation thrust upon him. He found no guilt in Jesus and wanted to release him, but the pressure of the crowd overshadowed the question of truth, and he gave in to the expedient instead of following the truth.

Scripture tells us that Jesus could see into the human heart...not so easy, however, for you and me. Words therefore are important, regardless of one's position in this world. For the follower of Jesus Christ, they are to bear evidence to the authenticity of the heart. Truth does matter, in heart and in word.

Today and every day, let us be mindful of the words of Jesus; "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." Amen and Amen! 

Jim Abernathy

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Day After

So, what happens now? Millions of Americans are waking up to this question in the aftermath of Donald Trump's victory last night. For his supporters, this question may refer to the prioritization of promised action Mr. Trump touted on the campaign trail, and how those promises will now become reality. For those who did not support him, this question assumes a level of change that frightens many who wonder how this anticipated change will affect them and a variety of groups targeted in the rhetoric of the campaign. Political and media pundits are left scratching their heads about what Mr. Trump's victory means for future elections when their polling data suggested a much different outcome. And a nation ponders a way forward in the midst of obvious division that will most likely not be soon healed.

We have arrived at this moment, I believe in part, because hyperbole has overshadowed common sense and decency. I understand that many believe their voices and concerns have been ignored for too long. I understand the frustration with political gridlock that has stalled meaningful legislative initiatives for years. I understand that the integrity of institutions generally trusted over the years from established media outlets, to government, law enforcement agencies, and the financial industry has greatly eroded. But the finger-pointing, name calling, and lack of accountability across a wide spectrum of political, social, and religious boundaries has fueled a level of discontent that I don't believe will be soon assuaged. Both major candidates talked in apocalyptic terms of what would happen if the other was elected, and though strong rhetoric has always marked such exchanges, the level of threat and utter disrespect for the other side  has left many on this morning after to wonder how we can move forward with hope. There are indeed lessons to be learned for us all in this arena of free speech as we think about the power of words carelessly and expediently used.

So, what happens now?  I mentioned to our deacons this past Sunday morning, in the context of growing uncertainty, that we have a very real opportunity to be salt and light in Jesus' name. No, I wasn't speaking to political expression that uses religion for political gain. We have seen too much of that. I was speaking about taking seriously the teachings of Jesus that impact individual lives and relationships, a narrowing of focus if you will, that heightens personal integrity and accountability as Christ-followers actually try to follow His way. That is a starting place for relationship and conversation where others see the qualities of love, grace, mercy, kindness, and integrity lived out in simple word and action every day. That is not a mandate of political expression but a personal choice to walk in the Christ way.

Maybe, in adversity and divided interests, Jesus' call is enough for the living of these days..."follow me."

Jim Abernathy