Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Misunderstandings and Understandings

Often it seems like it doesn't take much to cause a misunderstanding between two people or between groups of people. Even where understanding has been the mainstay, it seems like even there, a misunderstanding can sprout up like Jack's beanstalk!

We human beings are prone to misunderstandings, but we also need understanding so badly. And, we do have the ability to understand each other, but sometimes that ability gets paralyzed by weariness in life and other burdens in our lives.

In the early church, there were very many misunderstandings, and Paul's letters reflect these situations of conflict: between members of the church at Corinth; between members of the church at Rome; between the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter; between the Jerusalem Apostles and Paul and Barnabas; between two church members at Phillipi.

Paul tried very hard in writing his letters to help people come to an understanding of each other by God's grace. Paul knew there are just so many factors in life that tend to make understanding fragile and difficult to sustain. But, he knew something much greater than our tendency to misunderstand each other. He had experienced the reconciling power of God's Spirit in Christ. Paul, a Jew, had not only experienced himself reconciled with God but also reconciled with people he had formerly condemned as unworthy of salvation and respect - the Gentiles.

The Spirit of Reconciliation from God stirs within us a desire to mend that which is torn, bring understanding where there is misunderstanding, and escape the confines of our own little worlds to live together in God's big world.

But, we all have our failures, and have to step back and take stock of where we are before God and with our brothers and sisters. I am doing that today. I have stepped back, hopefully out of my own limited views of things, opening myself to a larger view of others and life itself. And, I hear that advice of Paul to that church at Corinth that had so much trouble with misunderstandings and conflicts. He writes to them in the 1st Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13:

"I will show you a still more excellent way . . . " And, he describes that way revealed in Jesus Christ, poured out upon earth through the Holy Spirit, and as Paul says: "poured out in our very hearts." Romans 5. And, Paul bears witness to something much greater than himself, much greater than his ideas, much greater than any words of inspiration. He bears witness to the love of God which is eternal, which endures, which heals, and which is shared with human creatures like you and me if we can open ourselves to its coming. Read 1 Corinthians 13 today with these thoughts in mind.

I close with a prayer of Howard Thurman:

Lord, open unto me

Open unto me — light for my darkness.
Open unto me — courage for my fear.
Open unto me — hope for my despair.
Open unto me — peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me — joy for my sorrow.
Open unto me — strength for my weakness.
Open unto me — wisdom for my confession.
Open unto me — forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me — love for my hates.
Open unto me — thy Self for my self.

Lord, Lord, open unto me!


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sermon Notes, not sermon from August 28

(Ecclesiastes 3) For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. 9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

Thanks be to God for the words of wise man of Israel.

This book of Ecclesiastes records the teachings of a wise man of Israel. But, it comes as a surprise to some who have gotten their Christianity more from T.V. preachers than from the Bible. I mean, “could it really be,” some might ask, that a book of the Bible would begin by saying: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity?” Which is another way of saying: “Life is meaningless.” It comes as a shock to those who have gotten their view of what is in the Bible more from preachers than from reading the Bible themselves.

One thing is for sure, not many preachers read from this book from the pulpits of their churches. Maybe they read from it more often when they are facing the struggles of life and feel alienated and alone. Who knows.

But, throughout the centuries, many Bible readers among Jews and Christians have come to love this book for what it expresses. Just listen to these words.
And, the conclusion, the insight is this: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
IT IS GOD’S GIFT THAT ALL SHOULD EAT AND DRINK AND TAKE PLEASURE IN THEIR WORK. If you want to reduce Ecclesiastes to a Creed, I guess this would be it. But, this book doesn’t go the way of Creeds; it speaks the language of experience, not the language of abstract concepts or theological confession..

This book is a guide for how to affirm the goodness of life amidst the turmoil of a sin-shattered world. Ecclesiastes knew his scripture well. He knew those beautiful lines from Genesis one: “And, God saw all that he had made. And, behold it was very good.” But, to celebrate the goodness of life after the brokenness of sin, takes some struggle at times. Ecclesiastes, like the Psalmist in Psalm 73, wants to be true to the generation of children he is instructing. He doesn’t want to leave them with hopelessness and despair. But, he knows the world they live in, and so he strives to face that world honestly and speak a word that is true.

He, an old man, wants to leave them with something that can endure the storms and questions and disappointments of life. He knows they need a word that rings true amidst the real experiences of this world: a world that he acknowledges is full of injustice and suffering and senselessness so often.

And, so he spoke these words that continue to ring true.

Some people come to church looking for clear answers to the difficult questions of life: questions about human suffering and injustice and pain and sorrow and death and disappointment. . questions about happiness and meaning and purpose.
And, real honest to goodness conservative people often find these answers in real honest to goodness conservative churches. And, real honest to goodness liberal people often find these answers in real honest to goodness liberal churches.
But, for those of us who don’t really buy the conservative or liberal ideology, the simple answers offered by liberals and conservatives just put us off, or at least leave is still seeking something more. In Ecclesiastes, we find a teacher, who looks at life as it is, and begins to teach us how to live within it in faith. I think his great first emphasis is on intellectual honesty and religious humility.
I think it is a fair question to ask of our Christian religion: are we seeking escape from the reality of life through our faith, or are we seeking to understand and engage the reality of life in faith. I continue to insist that God is a God of reality and doesn’t hand out that opium for the masses that popular religion has often promoted. I continue to believe that true faith allows us to embrace reality and engage fully in living.

I think there are a great number of people who are alienated from church and Christianity who don’t buy the simple answers to the hard questions of life that the church is offering.

For some of us, it may be troubling to come to church and hear some moral or theological confusion and expression of disappointment bordering on despair in our worship, but for others it may be uplifting to come to a place of worship and hear some honest questioning and even expressions of complaint and doubt right alongside a sincere dedication to worshipping a God who is above all human categories and understanding. That’s what you get in this book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes.

God is in heaven; we are upon earth. God is eternal; we are mortal. God created the world. We are part of God’s creation. And, it is a struggle to take it all in – to reflect on what it means to be mortal in relationship with the immortal God. It is a mystery how we who are mortal are some how touched my the eternal.

Struggling with the real issues of life that cause our hearts to feel pain and even tempt us to give up, that’s where many of us live a good bit of the time, or at least often enough that it deeply influences who we are. We sing the positive uplifting hymns with joy, “Come Christians, Join the Sing,” and “Now Thank We All Our God,” but then we sing those deeply brooding spirituals from a place very deep in our hearts and lives. Spirituals like: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” or “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”or “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”

We live out our lives often in this gray area: we believe while we doubt; we hope while we worry; we have good days and bad; good hours and bad.

And, Ecclesiastes lived there . . . many of his days. And, King David lived there, and surely king Saul seemed to have lived on the darker side of the gray most of his days as king.

And, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 103: “God knows our frame – that we are dust.”
What many people in this world are listening for in the church is a profound note of humility . . A humility that worships God and presumes nothing . . . because it is that profoundly humble faith and praise of God that gives us hope in the reality of God, and gives others hope that there is really something there other than human presumption involved in religion. It is this profoundly humble and honest faith of Ecclesiastes that can go through the valley of the shadow of death.

For me, Ecclesiastes represents that humble faith, that pure faith so well. His questions about life and his desire to find some truth in life persist . . . And, he finds his way to a battle-tested, time-torn faith. Maybe it is a little less glorious than that of some other Biblical witnesses, but nonetheless a profound faith that is enough to reawaken the will to live in those who are worn out by life . . . enough to rekindle a love of life in all its strangeness and fragility and disappointment. Ecclesiastes seems filled with a sense of the mystery and beauty of life, even if he is also troubled by the unfairness and suffering of life.
I’ve said before that if Ecclesiastes had been a musician, he would have played the blues . . . if he had been a sacred song writer, he would have played the Spirituals, the real brooding ones that go to the depths of human suffering and remain right there in the songs of faith: “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child . . . “ “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord . . . “

Because the Blues talk about life as it is – not as we wish it to be – the Blues tell it like it is.

Lay awake at night,
Oh so low, just so troubled.
Can't get a job,
Laid off and I'm having double trouble.

Hey hey, to make you've got to try.
Baby, that's no lie.
Some of this generation is millionaires;
I can't even keep decent clothes to wear.

Laugh at me walking,
And I have no place to go.
Bad luck and trouble has taken me;
I have no money to show.

by Otis Rush

Ecclesiastes looks out at the world, and he speaks honestly about what he sees. Injustice where there ought to be justice; fools in places of power where the wise should be. Life passing by just too fast, taken away too soon so often.

And, then he looks back at life again. And, what really troubles him so much about life is that it is full of such promise and beauty so that losing it and seeing it twisted and crushed is very painful. He expresses the give and take, the breadth, the mystery of life so well in these opening verses of chapter 3.

And, to a certain extent he just gives up trying to figure it all out. He accepts that the mystery of life is ours to marvel at, but not to understand fully. But, the work of this day, the chance to eat and drink and enjoy life with each other. That is our lot – something we can grasp. God has graciously given it to us. And, Ecclesiastes would have never appreciated it so well and so deeply if he hadn’t puzzled over life so much, because that’s part of what it is to be human: to have the desire to figure it all out, but yet not be able to figure it all out, but only some of it. As he writes: “God has put a sense of eternity in us, but we cannot comprehend it.” We are those who can think ourselves into the mystery of life, even the mystery of God, but then we must surrender the mind and give way to the heart and give praise to the One above all. We can think on the mystery of life and even the mystery of God, but cannot comprehend it. Whenever we think we have comprehended it and got it in a formula, then we have stepped out of faith.

Ecclesiastes short statement that it is ours to enjoy the days of our lives and to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all our toil is a great affirmation that calls us to give thanks for the gifts of God. But, I think his reflection on life in this holy book reveals to us that it is a very precious gift to be able to puzzle over life, to be able to wonder why things are as they are, to be able to yearn for justice and peace and happiness and even to question why the universe often seems indifferent to our yearnings. This may be much of what it means to be made in the image of God, but to still be a creature of God.

It is a peculiar and a glorious destiny we have as human beings. The Psalmist wondered about it: “O God, what is man that thou are mindful of him?” “Yet thou hast made him just less than the heavenly beings!”.

To truly value our ability to wonder over life, our ability to think and feel deeply and yearn for goodness and justice and love, and then at the same time to realize that we can not think our way to heaven, nor think our way to security and control over the earth. That is faith. To value our reason, but to realize when it comes down to it, we are closer to the other animals than we are to God in our grasp of the universe. That is the faith of Ecclesiastes. So, go enjoy the good life God has given, and eat and drink and talk and laugh and cry and sing and work and do all that you do to the glory of God whose ways are far beyond our understanding, but who has also put within us these remarkable hearts and minds that we have.

It is a strange and glorious thing to be a human being. And, there are no easy answers about how to do it well. But, there are examples of how to live life honestly and to the glory of God. There are examples like Ecclesiastes who would not accept the easy religious answers of his day, but who thought his thoughts and felt his feelings and tried to put it all together in a system of thought, but then one day found himself rejoicing in the simple goodness of life and couldn’t let it go. As he said: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” What he found was a living faith and a will to live and he gave God thanks and glory for it all. Let us continue in this holy tradition and pass on this will to live honestly and fully in the beauty and mystery of human life. Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Finding a Harbor for My Soul: Thoughts after the sermon on August 21

Sometimes a sermon ends and the preacher is left thinking: "I just wasn't able to finish that - I started in a direction, but I just didn't have the clarity to get to where I was going."

And, that's what I felt after yesterday's sermon. It was one of those where I said what I had to say and was willing to sit down and hope those who heard could take the sermon where it needed to go for them. Better, I was hopeful that the Spirit of the Living God could use a relatively meager offering from me to bless those gathered.

As I move into the Monday work world, I take with me one thought from the thinking I was going through in that sermon yesterday about finding "harbors" for our souls in daily life. I think a real key is to have eyes for the good, to be able to find the good, the peaceful, the joyful, the funny in daily life. I will be gathering up my files and going to court today for 16 clients. I will be talking with prosecutors, officers, probation officers, inmates, other defendants who are out of jail, their families, court officers, my fellow public defender's office staff, and maybe a church member or two by phone or my fellow pastor throughout this day. I'll probably talk with my wife a couple of times, maybe my mother once as well.

It occurs to me that I will be interacting with a lot of people today. And, with each interaction, with God's grace, I might be able to provide a little harbor for others if I treat them with respect and kindness. Maybe part of that sermon yesterday should have been more about becoming a harbor for other people's souls and less about finding a harbor for our own souls? That would have been more in line with Jesus' way.

Monday, August 15, 2011





Yoga at Fourth United Presbyterian Church