Our Easter Morning Worship will premiere LIVE at 10 at this link: https://bit.ly/SnowyEasterService
This was a difficult process, to be sure! Many thanks to Stephen Steinbacher, who filmed, edited, produced, and directed this Easter Light Worship.
To James Steinbacher who recorded and mixed all the audio and created a soundtrack for the sermon.
To our wonderful musicians: Traci Maddox, Tony Rosacci, Sarah Lantermans, Lori Ouri, Linda Brumagin, David Maddox, and Matt Nixon.
And of course we all thank our indispensable Office Administrator Jill Miles for endless hours of work through Holy Week and every week.
I woke up extra early this morning. Somehow I-lean, our two-legged cat, snuck into my room and was sleeping on my pillow, purring a lovely lullaby and bestowing me with a wicked bad allergy attack. I got up for cheese (my favorite snack) and saw a bright, nearly full moon in the low western sky. As I sat down to watch the constellations I found Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars lined up in the SE sky right over the ridge of one of the mountains off of my back deck.
The world is unpredictable right now, but some things are so regular. Like clockwork they remind us that the world keeps turning and the solar system is still in its predictable cycle. Our galaxy is full of wonders if we but take time to get to recognize and know it. In these crazy times when it feels like everything is out of order, we can depend on the regularity of our celestial wonders. My dad instilled this in me years ago and since moving to the mountains I have gauged the passing of time with each full moon and each spectacular planet showing off in the clear, cold night skies.
Spiritually it reminds me that our God, who is intimately close to us, is beyond our galaxies and understanding. May each of you find comfort in the galactic mysteries and regularities of a God who herself is full of compassion. Even now, she offers comfort to each of us through the predictability of our planets and stars and their courses through the heavens.
Beginning this Sunday (June 2) Church of the Eternal Hills will be on our new “One at Nine” schedule that will run through September 8:
8:00am Forum (Library)
8:45am Choir Practice
9:00am Worship at the Lord’s Table
10:00am Fellowship and Service Station (Hall)
We hope to be adding opportunities for “outdoor worship” following the Sunday service. If you have an idea for a nature walk, games, or other outdoor activity please contact the office.
In order to make the best decisions for our future, we need as much information from as many as you as possible. Thank you to those who have responded to our survey so far! If you haven’t already responded, please take a few minutes (needs less than 5!) to do so.
There may have been some confusion about who or how many persons from a household should respond. In order to get the broadest information base we really need ALL adult household members to respond. If only one person in your family has responded to the survey so far, we urge the others to join us.
We’ve extended the deadline for completing the survey to next Friday, June 7. Click here to answer on line, or click on the link on our www.eternalhills.org website. There are also printed copies available at the church that you can fill out and return postage-free.
We are a healthy, growing congregation!
In order to meet the space needs of the church, the Eternal Hills Christian Preschool and the community at large, the Building Committee is in the midst of planning renovations and upgrades to the lower level as well as the East and West Wings. In order to fund a Capital Campaign, we’ve engaged Church Development (CD) of Kansas City to conduct a Feasibility Study. The study would determine the readiness of the congregation for a Capital Campaign. CD has assisted over 300 churches with their campaigns nationwide and is recommended by our Presbytery.
We need your input! Each congregant is asked to fill out a brief survey as part of the Feasibility Study. The survey will be e-mailed the week of May 6th. Paper copies will also be available in the back of the sanctuary. There is also a link to the survey at the top of our eternalhills.org website.
By completing the survey, you will have an opportunity to help shape our plans for the future.
Thank you for your past and present support of Church of the Eternal Hills Presbyterian and thank you in advance for your feedback. I look forward to what God has ahead of us in our ministry together.
Pastor Paula Steinbacher
July 8: Week One of Vision 20/20+
Hindsight is 20/20: Looking back on God’s providence over the long history of CEH.
The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. God has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything (Deut 2:7).
Sunday, July 8 was a day of much celebration. Not only did we start the morning by kicking off our July “Mission of the Month” of Habitat for Humanity Grand County, but the President of HFHGC, Steve Morrison, attended to present Bud Crawford the very first “Habitat Hero Award” for efforts above and beyond the ordinary volunteer.
CEH’s efforts in HFH for Grand County are just one way we can look back and celebrate our wonderful past. Celebrating our past and seeing how God has guided CEH since 1905 is the first step we will take as we begin to look forward.
Like the children of Israel, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before settling in the Promised Land, God has guided and provided for CEH through some very lean times. God also provided CEH with vision: first for a missionary church to be located far away in Granby, CO (in 1939. . . before there was a highway 40 or any convenient way to get from Fraser to Granby); and then for the two churches to be united in one space in 2002. Both efforts seemed to be miraculous by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, it’s so rare for two congregations to be combined so successfully that the story of CEH and how they “Weaved” themselves together into one congregation is featured in a textbook on how to do church right!
One thing that has made a difference in CEH’s history has been the nature of the congregation. From the first building (the historic Fraser Church, dedicated in 1911 after congregants gathered river rock and worked together to build the little church) to the current beautiful site in Tabernash, the hands of the congregants have worked together to vision, plan, and build the church buildings. Bud Crawford will be quick to point out that in the working together, relationships are built and strengthened as well.
Which is probably why “Relational Ministry” ranked so high in what CEH is good at when we pulled our New Beginnings information together. A bit over a year ago we set out as a congregation to begin to look forward. For help, our Presbytery of Denver sponsored our participation in the New Hope “New Beginnings” Process. This process began with an assessment by an outside consultant, who came in to see the building and listen to people talk about the church and what is important to them. After the initial visit, we were issued a report and moved onto the second phase where we grouped ourselves into “House Groups” and met five times over the next two or three months.
After the House Groups met, all their data was collected and processed by our Transition Team, headed up by Elder Matt Nixon.
Our New Beginnings process informed us that once people have walked through our doors, they feel loved and included. The relational aspect of CEH is so strong that it brings people back to the church for worship and fellowship long after they have moved away from the county. What a wonderful thing to celebrate as we look over the history of our congregation. What a wonderful thing to keep as a focus as we look into the near future for where God is leading us!
Looking back, we can certainly see God’s loving hand guiding us through a tremendous history. There are many sources available to you if you’re interested in reading our history. There are pictures and paintings with narratives in our foyer, and a new print out of the history is available on the old Communion Table under the pictures. You can also check our website for an abbreviated version of the history.
Our hope in the next several weeks is that we can see God’s hand in our future vision as well. Proverbs 29:18 reminds us that “Without a vision, God’s people will perish.” Let’s tune in and listen for God’s direction, as we seek to move into God’s future for CEH.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
The story of David and Goliath from 1
Samuel 17 was a great start to our scripture readings on Sunday. With the children gathered on the chancel steps, we read the entire story from start to finish. The young disciples were on the edge of their seats when they heard that the small shepherd boy took off Saul’s armor and headed to face off with the Philistine warrior Goliath. David had such confidence he didn’t need the armor. As he said, “The battle belongs to the Lord.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we had the faith and assurance of David marching into the field of battle with nothing but five smooth stones he had chosen from the wadi and the slingshot he always carried with him?
But our attempts at confronting our fears or our “Giants” is a little more like the disciples in the boat on the sea of Galilee when the storm rose up:
On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, [the disciples] took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)
There was no confidence and no faith on the part of the disciples. In the midst of the chaos of the storm, they did pretty much exactly what we find ourselves doing:
- We recognize the chaos/storm and. . . Panic!
- Try to handle it ourselves (I imagine the first response of the disciples was to begin to bail out the boat; they were career fishermen weren’t they?).
- Recognize we had better cry out to God (the disciples woke up Jesus saying, “Don’t you even care?!”). Our cry is a bit like that “God, where are you? Don’t you care?”
- We are filled with awe when things work out — we find ourselves surprised that God has been with us in the boat all along.
Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you afraid?” We could ask ourselves the same thing, “Why are we afraid?” Of course an easy answer would be: LIFE. We’re afraid because real life — death — disease — illness — crime — violence — real life stuff rains down on us all the time. It’s been a long time for most of us to be able to rush into battle our giants with only those things God has prepared us with. David’s confidence in God is stunning; the disciples’ doubt is so much more realistic. But when Saul placed upon David the heavy armor (built not for a child but for King Saul), David realized God had already prepared him through years of picking up rocks, aiming them in his slingshot just right, and then letting fly the blessed and chosen stone. Had he walked into the battle with that heavy armor on, he certainly would have perished: his faith would have been in the sword rather than in God.
In the midst of chaos, my prayer for you is that the first thing you do is cry out to God for help. Go ahead and bypass the panic and the crazy attempts to bail out your own boat (or put on the big and heavy armor that was not made for you), and move to the awe-inspired “How has God prepared me for this and how will we beat this giant together?”
And then let fly your blessed and chosen stone with assurance.
God may be ineffable, but as the church we need to become the visible Jesus to the world.
I explained it like this to the children during our “Time for Young Disciples:”
The Trinity is hard for us to understand, right? Let’s think about it as if we are blowing bubbles. There is the wand, which represents our Creator who forms us and shapes us. The liquid is “Emmanuel” or the visible “God-with-us”; the skin that God put on Godself to be visible in the world through Jesus. The air we blow through the wand into the liquid is the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that moves and fills us and enables us to become what we are called to be.
It’s a silly metaphor maybe (and God knows the world doesn’t need another silly or faulty metaphor for the trinity), but what I really wanted to highlight is that you can have a bubble and it’s all good and well, but what really makes the bubble wonderful and beautiful is when the light is reflected in the liquid. It makes an iridescent reflection that is vibrant and visible (like the light of Jesus that shines out of our lives). If we are just mere humans and didn’t reflect any of God’s love for the world, this world would have no visible Jesus. See how that works?
It all really relates to how well we show the beauty of the love of God to the world. It’s our job; we are the post-resurrection Body of Christ that is visible to the world.
And what I’ve been noticing lately is that somehow that light isn’t shining brightly enough. Someone shared a statistic with me today that 22 veterans complete suicide daily. That’s an epidemic. It’s emphasized in the media any time someone famous completes suicide. People talk about it around the dinner table, and around the water cooler at work, and there are numerous opinions available on social media and radio and television talk shows. Maybe the one place that can really do something about it, and the one place where we rarely bring it up is church!
Our scripture readings from Luke and Corinthians both speak to this. In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ mother and brothers are concerned about his welfare: he is constantly healing people and not even finding time to eat. They “intervene” and Jesus pretty much says, “These people are my family now.”
Our Epistle reading is one of my favorites:
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1).
Don’t you just love that? “So we do not lose hope,” and “slight momentary affliction” are wonderful reminders to me that we live not for a temporary promise but for an eternal promise. I can honestly say I don’t know what that eternity looks like or when we actually arrive there on the life-death continuum. But I’m banking my whole life on some kind of eternity that’s better than this. An eternity where we are not so painfully far from our Creator.
We all have our ideas of what eternity will be like. Mine looks a little like a
floating on the light summer mountain air,
shifting reflections of the light
with every movement
and every moment.
So “I do not lose heart.” And I hope that we can inspire each other to reflect more light so that others may not be so inclined to lose heart.
May you find yourself reflecting the light of our savior, helping to add some beauty and whimsical love to this world in much the same way that Jesus did as he healed the broken hearted, and drew the outcasts back into community.
Last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we talked about the “ineffable” nature of God, and how we try our human best to understand it through the Trinity. It is difficult to try and contain something so BIG and OTHER as God through our language! But the one part that needs to be visible and as plain as the nose on each of our faces is Emmanuel: God with us. This is evidenced and visible in the modern world through all of us. We are the “Visible Jesus.”
Our Epistle reading spoke to this. It was from 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, and Paul writes to explain that we are merely human (clay jars) and fallible; it’s the Jesus part of us that shines. When we care for others, we are caring for Jesus and we are being the visible Jesus to that person. It’s a pretty cool concept:
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
So yeah — we are supposed to be the visible Jesus to one another. Even in our hurting. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Letting others care for us and to be vulnerable to them, but when we remember it is part of our calling to one another, it’s a little easier to open up and share. Because if we don’t, we are denying others of seeing and being Christ.
Apparently though, it was difficult for those who lived and walked with Jesus to actually see the light. Those who were vulnerable to him, of course, recognized him immediately as pure, living love. But there were so many who were absolutely closed to Jesus, and it pained him that their hearts were so hardened. Our Gospel reading from Mark 2:23-3:6 offers two examples of some people with some pretty hardened hearts. They were obedient followers of the Torah and keepers of the law, but in their strictness and passion to follow the letter of the law, they lost the Spirit of the law.
One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”
And Jesus said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure the man with the withered hand on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against Jesus, how to destroy him.
Jesus saw suffering — whether in the hunger of the disciples or in the pain of the man with the withered hand — and he chose to be present to their suffering and heal them.
Early last week when I had already begun studying these two lectionary readings for preaching them on Sunday, I also took some time to listen to one of my favorite podcasts. Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday” podcast features interviews with famous people who will share openly about their faith. The one I listened to was called, “How to Listen With Compassion” with Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I listened and was really intrigued. In fact, I listened to it again as soon as I finished it the first time.
What I noticed was Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentleness in teaching, and I noticed how he paralleled Jesus’ teachings in what he was calling people to put into practice. It was such a powerful message. He said he practiced these things all the time: being present; being present to people in their suffering; and taking time to listen to them with compassion. He cited several Matthean passages where Jesus is teaching and living the very same thing: “Worry not about what tomorrow brings; tomorrow will worry for itself” and “Give us today our daily bread.”
Wow! I had never considered those passages to be so closely parallel to the practice of “being present.” I listened to the podcast again and decided, upon conferring with God in my morning meditations, that I would give the day to being present. My schedule was full and I was a little anxious about accomplishing everything, but I agreed to an attempt at practicing being present.
Have you ever noticed that when you pay attention to things like this there are opportunities EVERYWHERE around you? My day started with preschool chapel and the children seemed extra loving and excited about chapel time. They sang at the top of their lungs and shared such enthusiasm for the love of God that I found myself on sacred ground with them. Great way to start the day with huge rewards for being present!
Then I received a call from a couple from Texas. They wanted to elope. They had a big ceremony planned for November but wanted God’s blessing on their marriage and wondered if I would do the service. Today. As soon as they could drive over.
My inner pharisee started in, remembering the process by the Book of Order and the details I needed to cover before performing a marriage. My inner voice said, “Paula, your policy is six sessions of premarital counseling and ample time to discern that they understand the commitment of marriage, especially one that is being blessed by God. Then you need to contact the elders of the church and ask for permission to use the sanctuary for said marriage. . .”
And then I caught myself. What was I learning about being present? Could I challenge myself to be THIS present? I pondered what the couple was asking for — a blessing from God. Could I meet them in their suffering and be present to what they needed? Could I somehow serve as the visible Jesus to them in their need? I stilled my mind and prayed and before I knew it I had invited them to come over for some brief counseling before we did a short service in the forest.
When I blessed their rings and helped them exchange their vows of love and commitment, I found myself on sacred ground again. The light dappling through the pine trees, the backdrop of the Continental Divide, the fresh smell of our Colorado summer: all of this would have been missed if I had let my inner Pharisee take over. The joy in their eyes as they walked through the rest of the forest hand in hand, officially married before God and all of Creation – this would not have filled my day at all.
And though my day was busy, it ended up being such a productive and blessed day. I recognized that sometimes the inner Pharisee needs to be quieted so that I can be the visible Jesus as well. I need to remember that my old clay pot needs to let God’s love and light shine through even when it means I’m not following procedure and obeying polity. Isn’t that what Jesus was teaching through his healing of the man with the withered hand on the holy Sabbath?
May all of you find a way to become more present to others as we move through this beautiful and wondrous life. And in your presence, may you also bring the gift of a visible Jesus to a world that needs his presence, love, and grace more than ever.
Ineffable. That’s the best word I know to try and put words to the presence or identity or relationship of God to God’s people. “Ineffable” means that words just won’t do, that what one is trying to describe is beyond words. Ineffable seems like a strange way to define God, but all our attempts to describe Her fall utterly short of the holy mystery. Even the name “God” is just more of a description. I like the description “Divine Other” instead: He/She is something so much bigger and “other” than us, so holy and divine, we can’t even capture it in words.
In our scripture reading, we heard Nicodemus asking in wonder how one could be “born again?” Jesus had stumped him, and didn’t offer much help as Jesus basically said, “You can’t understand the things of this world; how can you understand the Holy?”
The concept of the Holy Trinity is also just another attempt to describe God. It’s a completely human construction that has caused divisions and arguments within the church for as long as we have attempted to find words to express our common belief in God as Christians. But every first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate “Holy Trinity Sunday.” It is the only Sunday of the Liturgical year that focuses on doctrine. Because remember — the Trinity is doctrine; it isn’t a scriptural truth — it is derived from scripture. It is human’s best attempt to describe something ineffable, remember?
In my recent trip to Greece I took immense joy in studying the icons at the monasteries and Basilicas found in every city and village and upon every island we visited. On the beautiful island of Hydra, I found a little Trinity icon (see below) tucked away in a dark corner. I looked closely and noticed that it was entitled “The Hospitality of Abraham.” Many times I’ve seen the Trinity pictured at Abraham’s table; but this was the only one I had noticed that had Abraham and Sarah in the picture.
Take a close look at this icon. Do you notice that the three strangers who sought hospitality from Abraham are seated at the table, in the shape of a triangle. They are all looking to each other. But Abe and Sarah are on the outside of that triangle, just peeking in! It’s as if they are trying to get a glimpse of this holy gathering.
As interesting as this icon is to me, I don’t expect it clears things up for you at all about the Holy Trinity (and just for your reference, every time I say “Holy Trinity” I sing it at the top of my lungs in an operatic voice; either that or I whisper it). So since we’ve agreed that God is ineffable, and that the Holy Trinity is confusing, let me put it to you this way: the Trinity is the way that humankind has tried to “sum up” all the ways that God has revealed Godself to us — the ways that we come to know and experience the “Divine Other.”
And it’s like this:
Creator/Father/YHWH — we learn about God the Creator as we interact with creation and come to understand some of the Holy Mystery through the patterns and re-creating life we see in nature. We recognize how richly God has provided for us through the cycles of the seasons. We witness inconceivable beauty from the tops of the mountains and even in the most barren places of the Great Plains. God revealed Godself as YHWH in the Hebrew Scriptures, when humankind received the law and the Torah, and learned how to be in Covenant with the Divine Other. This YHWH was powerful and awe-inspiring and the glory shekinah; distant, dangerous, and so Holy one could not even look upon God.
Redeemer/Incarnation/Jesus — we learn about the Divine Other very personally through “The Word made flesh.” Emmanuel “God with us”! Jesus was a real human, flesh and bone that we could see and listen to and touch and walk alongside and reach out to grasp the garment of. Jesus was the one whose very being was Divine and his life and teachings modeled to us the way we are to love each other. Jesus taught us that yes YHWH gave us the word, but when we live the word out it looks like a humble, loving healer, who had no earthly possessions and spent his time building relationships and reaching out to bring the outcasts back into community. And when his death was imminent he gave his students a shocking charge: I’ve redeemed you; now go and do likewise for others.”
Sustainer/Holy Spirit/Advocate— we learn about God the Holy Spirit through every movement and interaction and feeling we experience. God the Spirit is our direct link to the Divine Other, communicating for us even when we don’t have words to express our pain. Spirit is the very breath Creator breathed into us and we are reminded of it each time we take a long, deep breath and fill our lungs with the life-giving mixture of air that Creator provides. Spirit is the goosebumps and warm and cozy feelings we receive as well as the incredible sense that we are not alone. It is the Love that binds us together in unity when we are singing hymns or speaking liturgy, gathered together in prayer, sitting in silence together. God the Holy Spirit surrounds us and changes the everyday ordinary into the sacred.
The three persons of the Trinity — Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer — are how we know and relate to God. As Christians we think Jesus is the part of the trinity we understand the best, but it is the part where we fall the shortest. We are called to be the presence of God to others by modeling the love of Emmanuel. But there’s a lot of hurting and broken people out there who are just waiting for Jesus to look them in the eyes and ask, “Are you okay?” Guess what? That’s YOU who needs to be looking people in the eyes so that you can see Jesus in them and you can be Jesus to them.
Sunday was not only Holy Trinity, it was also the day before Memorial Day. In honor of this, Elder Bob Gaskins felt compelled to write about how he came to know and understand God through three special men in his life. They were, to Bob, the presence of Jesus. They lived out the charge to “Go and do likewise.” I share his words with you to remind you that it is up to us to be the resurrected Body of Christ and the very presence of the Holy in this world. Though God is ineffable, these words do a pretty good job of defining what it means to “Go and do likewise.” Thank you so much for sharing these reflections with us, Bob:
Christian father-warrior-saints remembered on Memorial Day
The Spirit moved me to share the following testimony yesterday with Paula regarding three fathers who served their country during wartime and also had a significant impact on my life. She asked me to share this testimony with you today.
As Memorial Day approaches this coming Monday, I am so thankful for the roles which three fathers played in my evolution as a born-again Christian. For all three of these men, their Christian faith played a key role in their lives and their ability to serve their country in combat when it counted most.
The first is my father, Warden Gaskins, who was raised Methodist in North Carolina and enlisted in the submarine service the day after Pearl Harbor. He served as an officer on attack submarines in the western and northern Pacific for the entire duration of WWII, earning the bronze star for actions taken during combat patrols. Dad’s Christian faith was a bedrock in his entire life, sustaining him through the death of his father at age 12 and through the seemingly endless years of WWII. He was very involved in our local Methodist church while I was growing up, which provided the initial foundation for my own early Christian faith. This same faith sustained and nourished Dad as he cared for my mother who had Parkinson’s disease for many years later in life, and then after her passing, as he lived out the remainder of his life without her.
The second is my ex-father in law, Bill Mason, whom I grew extremely close to during my marriage to my son Billy’s mom. Bill served as a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division during WWII in Europe. He fought in the battles for Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in early 1945 that proved pivotal to the Allied troops’ ability to defeat of Nazi Germany later that same year. Bill was one of the most modest and caring individuals whom I have every known, and his solid and unwavering Christian faith was his foundation for a life of amazing accomplishment and contribution to others. When I asked him what was most important in his ability to keep his head calm through the savagery of hand-to-hand combat in war, and through other extremely challenging life experiences, Bill’s answer was his absolute faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I was so very honored and humbled to be asked to deliver one of the eulogies at Bill’s memorial service six years ago when he left us to be with Jesus.
The third is my deceased wife Joanie’s father, Paul Riley, who I never met, as he was killed in combat in Vietnam in 1967 when Joanie was 11 years old. Paul Riley grew up in extreme poverty in Texas and enlisted in the army upon graduation from high school in 1947. He served multiple combat tours in Korea and Vietnam as an infantry sergeant, and was highly decorated for battlefield bravery in both wars, earning several bronze stars, purple hearts and other commendations. Additionally, three months prior to his death during his second Vietnam deployment, he was awarded the silver star which is our country’s third highest medal for combat gallantry, for his actions in which he single-handedly destroyed enemy combatants and pulled his comrades to safety in the midst of heavy enemy fire, while totally ignoring his own safety. Paul had a very small, well-worn Bible that he always carried in his rucksack during combat missions. He was a Christian man who believed that he was serving God as a soldier by protecting his country and his family from evil. He lived by the words of Jesus inscribed in John 15:13 which are: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” At a reunion of his surviving comrades from Vietnam that we attended six years ago, they each recounted countless times when he put the words of his faith into action by saving lives on the battlefield. He was a quiet man with immense strength of character, and he was their rock and their calm in the constant storm of jungle warfare. They could clearly see and feel God’s love for them through Paul’s actions. After that reunion, I gave Joanie a pendant inscribed with the words “John 15:13” as a daily memory of her father’s everyday commitment to Christ’s words. After Paul’s death in 1967, the only thing which returned from the battlefield to his family besides his identification dog-tags was his little Bible which had somehow survived the massive land mine explosion targeted for him by the Vietcong.
I believe that all three of these men are saints in their own way and are now living in resurrected glory with Jesus. They each demonstrated Christ’s Word through their actions. In other words, they “walked the talk”. And, I am eternally thankful that each was placed in my life by God to provide guidance for my own journey to my born-again Faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
Witness to the Resurrection
I don’t know if there is any better description of what we are gathered here to do today than “Witness to the Resurrection.” It is, of course, what our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship calls a service upon the death of a saint. Today especially, we are here to worship God as we celebrate being the witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for a saint who lived his life as a Witness to the Resurrection.
I am sure the many other pastors here would agree with me when I say that it is an immense honor and a holy, treasured duty to serve as a “Witness to the Resurrection” for our beloved congregation members, family members, friends, and even unknown community members. I’m certain that over his over 60 years as an ordained clergy, Bob officiated lovingly at countless such services. Indeed, Donna shared this letter that Bob wrote upon his anniversary in 2012, which speaks to this holy task:
Whenever I was asked to officiate at a funeral or memorial service, I would ask if the person to be remembered had a favorite poem or verse, perhaps fastened to the refrigerator or tucked away in their Bible. such a saved verse or quote often revealed something of the one who kept it, and gave me an insight into what was important in that person’s life and which was worth sharing in that service in which he or she was remembered by friends and family.
I have two such special momentos in my home.
One is a plaque with just a single word carved on it which was made and given to us one Christmas by a very good friend of ours many years ago. It says simply “Faithful.” I don’t know what our friend had in mind when he made the plaque and presented it to us, but “Faithful” is a word that has very special meaning to me, and for many years that plaque has had a prominent place in the very center of the mantel over our fireplace.
It is not as important that we be successful in life but that we be faithful. In my life I have felt it important to be faithful to God, faithful to his plan or purpose for my life, faithful to my family, and faithful to those whom I have been called upon to serve.
Thanks to a friend, that word, that thought, has had a prominent place in our home and in my life.
The other momento is a small glass plaque that hangs in our kitchen window directly over the kitchen sink, and we see it each time we wash the dishes or get a drink of water, or look out over our beautiful view of the mountains. And on that small plaque is engraved the words, “God has allowed us to share something beautiful together.”
I’m writing this on our 63rd Anniversary. When Donna and I think of our lives together, truly God has allowed us to share something beautiful together. And for this, we are both most grateful.
Even in his retirement — which I should write, “retirement,” as no true servant of Christ ever retires until the completion of their baptism at the moment of death — Bob lived out his faith in such a peaceful, joyful way, that he was still teaching and guiding as his heart stopped beating and he took his last breath. It was the first day of this new year, and I am certain I heard the earth and heavens tremble with the echo of “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
I was surprised and touched to find out that Donna and Bob had left the scripture selection to me. I thought that certainly, after so many years in the pulpit and after serving so many families at the death of loved ones , certainly Bob had chosen the scriptures to comfort his family and beloved community.
And I wrestled with this. I felt a little incompetent to choose the scriptures, and I struggled with what would best comfort all of you in your grief even as we proclaim celebration. But as I walked the ruins of Corinth a couple of weeks ago (remembering all the travels Bob and Donna ventured on) and I sat in a cave on the island of Patmos, I relinquished the struggle and began to listen.
And do you know what I heard? Bob’s marvelous, soothing voice, telling me the stories of a life in ministry, carefully recounting the difficult years when our nation struggled with the growth pains of the Civil Rights movement, and detailing the struggle even in our own Presbyterian Church for the Ordination of Women. He always spoke of love for his people through these struggles, understanding that when the Holy Spirit is shaking things up, it can be difficult to do things in a new way.
I heard his eloquent words explaining the gift of understanding God in light of science, and remembered countless times when he was able to lift out encouraging scriptures, phrases from great theologians, and quotes from our beautiful Book of Confessions to help explain why we do things, and how we, as a people of God, have come to read and understand scripture.
And through all of it, of course his words echoed with love.
Of course! He’s still teaching!
Of course this encouraging old saint, with that glint in his eyes (that got Bud in trouble when it was time for the church to be built) and that warm and welcoming smile, was beaming as it all became clear: through all the years of his teaching and leading and counseling and encouraging, the one thing that was consistent through every age and struggle was LOVE. Even when we look at scripture critically; even when we study and doubt and challenge the word of God, it is difficult to distill this message down to anything more than how Jesus summed it all up:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (selections from John 15, NRSV).
The Rev. Dr. Bob Bielenberg was most certainly a friend of God. He lived out Jesus’ commandment through his immense love for Donna and his family, for his love and devotion to congregations across the globe, through bridging relationships with strangers in every place he traveled.
I received a gift from Donna when I returned from my recent travels to Greece. I found a stack of Bob’s sermons, with his notes scribbled in the margins and the dates on the tops of the scripts for when he had preached them. And I recognized that now, even in his death, Bob is still teaching us. So we will bear witness to the Resurrection today by sharing Bob’s words on this very subject – the resurrection, and why, despite all the little things we can quibble over about scripture and our religion, the one things we count as necessary for faith is to proclaim and live into the resurrection of Jesus. So I leave you this morning with his own words, culled from several sermons stretching from as early as 1960 to 2016:
God has broken into human life and interrupted it in an unexpected but a glorious way. The Resurrection was the proof of it. . . That which makes life meaningful and exciting is that God constantly breaks in upon human life in his own way, which is not our way.
The important fact of the Resurrection is not that we will live forever but that God lives, and that he has not forsaken us, nor will he ever forsake us. It is of this certainty that Paul spoke in his letter to the romans:
“I am convinced,” Paul said, “That neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is our certainty; and it is greater than the sum total of all our doubts.
Friends, Bob’s conclusion here is why we can be so assured of our task for today, which is – amidst our doubts and fears and sense of grief and loss – we are here to bear witness to the Resurrection. May it be true in our every word, thought, and deed, and may we bear this to the world in love.
Peace in Christ,