Mt. Pleasant Lutheran Church

Reflections Spiritual

Welcome to the Reflection Spiritual Blog of Pastor David Echelbarger. For nearly twenty years, Pastor Dave wrote a weekly newspaper column that revealed how daily life reveals the spiritual fabric of our existence. In this blog, he will visit daily life, family, friends, nature, ideas, whatever leads to the spiritual presence of God and grows our spiritual life. A new blog every Thursday.

An Austere Christmas – by Pastor David Echelbarger

December 5th, 2016 by Pastor David Echelbarger

For as long as I can remember, I have been visiting home bound members just before Christmas.  Nearly all of them have a small table top ceramic Christmas tree.  Plug it in and you’re done.   I find that they like their little tree very much. The decorating is minimal, austere and I wonder when they were forced to give up the large tree and whatever else they once used to prepare for and celebrate the season of Christmas.

In our home, we are all in when it comes to decorating.  We have two live Christmas trees, both balsams (well, they were alive).  The “Old Fashioned” tree stands in our family room and we’ve been doing a tree like that since the beginning of our life with children.  It has white lights, including electric candles, handmade decorations and any number of ornaments that our children made when growing up and now grandchildren are adding theirs.

In the living room is our Historical Tree with ornaments Christine and I have picked out to represent each year of our married life.  We now have forty-one! In addition, there is an ornament for each child, their spouse, and our grandchildren.  The tree is crowded.  To hang the ornaments is a walk into the past and to take them down is to close the door on yet another Christmas season – neither of which is without emotional pain.

The rest of the house has decorations, too.  Table floral pieces, crèches, and a ceramic lighted Christmas Village.  There are decorations on the top of our kitchen cabinets, garland going up the banister, and various ornaments that came from my grandmother’s house, which we put on door arches or in windows. Outside, we light up the house, hang wreathes, put up a lighted angel and deer in the backyard and lighted garland on the deck rails.  We are the exact opposite of the single table top ceramic Christmas tree.

“How sad it will be when we are not able to do this,” I think to myself.  Or I also wonder: “What happens in the future when the children no longer visit us during the season but we go to them?  Will we still have a tree?  Who will water it for us when we are gone?  Will we go to, gasp, artificial trees?”  This causes emotional pain.  When will an austere Christmas be forced on us?

But this morning I am wondering.  What would it be like to not decorate like our life depended on it?  What would happen if we simply lived in the religious moment that is given to us in this season without all the trimmings?   As a child, my mother read a book to me entitled: The Animals’ Christmas.  This found its way deep into my consciousness.  On a cold austere Christmas Eve night the animals come upon a little evergreen in a clearing in the forest.  The branches are trimmed with a fresh snow fall.  The moon illuminates individual flakes that sparkle like tinsel.  Red berries on the evergreen are the ornaments.  Several apples have fallen to the ground from a nearby tree – a memory of what was once autumn.  Now in the December of their lives the animals gather under their tree – munch on the apple feast and experience an animals’ Christmas.  It is total discovery with no preparation.  They simply appear and receive an amazing gift.

Oh I know that Advent is the season of preparation and I don’t want to short shrift its theme, but what if preparation is not adding to what we already are doing but radically subtracting to allow the meaning to simply be experienced?  After all is not the meaning of this season unearned grace? A gift?

What if we didn’t put up the tree this year and wrestle with the sentimentality of time past?  What if we simply walked out the door of an undecorated house on Christmas Eve and wander through the forest that is Mount Pleasant and come upon a church service?  There, like the animal’s Christmas, it is sheer discovery.  We are welcomed into a clearing that is a decorated church.  We find our way to the altar rail and kneel to receive the sacrament and there in front of us are the statues of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the manger.  We kneel before the first austere Christmas where the gift is not in the trimmings but God coming to us fully.  The word incarnation means: In the meat.  The meat of the season is not the decoration – the substance is Christ.  Should we not put up the Historical Christmas Tree in the living room with all of its memories which including longing for what is gone and pain for what we are losing?  Should we live fully in the Christmas moment not so worried about the past or future?  Is the austere Christmas the truly abundant Christmas? And so I wonder.  Should I feel bad for the person with a single ceramic tree?  Or do they have what I need to come to know?  I am wondering about having an austere but amazing Christmas.

Pastor David L. Echelbarger

Postscript:  Well, in the spirit of full transparency, as we say – I’ll decorate like I always have.  And I’ll wrestle with the past, like I always have.  And I’ll focus on the trimmings along with the meat of the season like I always have.  But when the day comes when it is all reduced to a single little ceramic tree sitting on my table – it might just be ok.  Or even, much more than ok.

Who am I as a Christian in a Politicized World? Sermon Transcript

April 14th, 2016 by Pastor David Echelbarger

Lent 2016: Who Am I as an ELCA Lutheran?

March 16, 2016   Texts: Deuteronomy 10: 14-22 Matthew 25:31- 40

The following is a transcript of a sermon preached March 16, 2016, by Pastor David Echelbarger.  The Lenten Theme: Who Am I as an ELCA Lutheran?  Who am I as a Christian in a Politicized World?

Who Am I As a Christian in a Politicized World?

Who Am I As a Christian in a Politicized World?  A variety of denominations and non-denominations reflect on that differently.

Pastor Ed Dobson who died recently, was a pastor who once did everything he could to get some people elected to government.  He was the pastor of a mega church in Grand Rapids Michigan and also a key aide to Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority in the 70’s and 80’s.  Later he spent a year trying to live like Jesus which radically changed his perspective, but previously he wanted to advocate for certain candidates and get them elected to further what we saw as biblical values and morality but he ended up realizing this was not the path.  He wrote:  “I believe that people, myself included, were well-intentioned and our goals were noble, but we got caught up in the illusion that politicians really cared for us, and that political change would bring moral change.”  For him this was a dead end. Imposing religious values does not work. Why?  The political process is ambiguous, often corrupt, deceptive, often brokered behind the scenes with lobbyists.  When a church becomes embroiled in that, they become tainted and can compromise their most cherished beliefs.   Pastor Dobson realized that while you can endorse candidates because of their supposed moral stands, the politician’s religious beliefs were sometimes radically opposed to the theology of the church endorsing them.  Then the church ends up supporting what they are categorically against.  A politician can take moral stands and not be moral.  Or more commonly they can borrow moral issues as a means to be elected.

It is important to understand that the bible is not primarily concerned about morality.  It is concerned about the welfare of people, the health and healing of people, that people get enough to eat, that we care for and protect the foreigner, the outcast.   We certainly heard this in our texts today.  These are huge biblical themes, powerful rivers, sometimes composing entire books that I we rarely hear the religious right lift up.  Rather they focus on perceived moral issues that may be mentioned in the bible infrequently while neglecting the major thrust of scripture.   Jesus did not focus on personal morality and conduct.  He wanted to have relationships with people and to allow love to grow them.  Consequently he associated with tax collectors and sinners and was hated for it by the pious moral religion of his day.  Jesus offered forgiveness to those who have moral failings – yet he is sharply critical of those who are judgmental of sinners, and sharply judgmental to those who victimize the weak and vulnerable.

Ultimately no legislation can bring about moral change because it is a matter of the heart, of personal transformation not the court room.  That is a spiritual task, not a legal one.  We as the church certainly should not coopt the state into doing our job.

In my judgement the ELCA follows the biblical prophetic model when it comes to relating to a politicized world. Our church cares for issues that impact people, economic fairness, equality and creation. Issues, not a specific candidate to endorse, but candidates who we can be critical of if need be.  The church is the conscience of the state.  It does not run the state.  The church informs our individual consciences through a process of discernment, and then we go out as individuals and participate and vote in a politicized world.

The prophets of the Bible critiqued and criticized the government of the day.  They never praised a king.  The kings, however, surrounded themselves with what the Bible called false prophets who endorsed the king.   The church must not be the cheerleader for the state.

What does it mean to be a Christian in a politicized world?  For us it means that our primary allegiance is to God, not a political party.  It means that our leaders need to be measured against how they reflect, or do not reflect not only the will of God but the compassion, love, and care of Jesus Christ.  We expect, as our biblical lessons teach, that our leaders treat others as we would have ourselves be treated.

Ours is a faith that makes “whole.”  This is what the word salvation means. We take seriously the biblical commission to reach out to the marginalized, those rejected by society in biblical times they were the children, the widows, the orphans and the stranger.  Faith is not about moral positions so much as it is the demonstration of compassion, love, justice.  God is always seeking to make and build a community, not fracture one.  We say all the time that faith is relationship.  A relationship with God shapes our lives.  If candidates encourage bad relationships or behave in offensive ways that injure social relationships then something is seriously wrong with the personality of that candidate and relationships are skewed potentially to the point of danger.

Throughout history there has always been the temptation to ride a wave of discontent and even to build it to get elected.  These times are shrill but they are nothing new.  Fear gave us Joe McCarthy, eventually disgraced as were his followers.

Such behavior fractures the community fabric that Holy Spirit seeks to gather. As Christians in a politicized world we should ask: Is the person asking for my vote?  Or are they asking for my personal allegiance regardless of what they say or do?  Our allegiance is to God alone.  Blindly following a leader is irresponsible and dangerous.   We need to make decisions based on reason not reaction, especially when some are trying get us to react.  It is easy to cultivate the base emotions of fear and anger. Churches sometimes do this too.  It is much harder to set forth a vision that inspires a country to come together to not only solve problems but to be something special, a light to the world.  We need dreams from our leaders.  Imagine, dreams from our leaders that would lift us up and seek a unity to accomplish those dreams!  Not division and divisiveness.  We need unity: people willing to work together to solve problems not serve ideologies that have become religions in themselves.   We need visionaries to bring together not divide.  When examining the personality of our leaders we should ask: Where is the kindness of Christ?  Where is the love of God? Where are those who would bring people together and not insult?  Where are those who put self-interest behind that of service?  Where are people who speak truth and do not bear false witness against others, or knowingly tell lies?   The truth is, if our children acted the way some candidates have and are on the national stage, we would seriously be worried about them and we would correct that behavior.  If we had confirmation students that treated each other as some are doing on the national stage, we would be talking with them and their parents.  Why?  Because this is no way to treat your neighbor and demonstrates flaws of character. Character matters.  Those who would lead us are human beings, just as you and I are.  Who they are as people matters.  It matters greatly.  We are electing a person not a mere platform.  Such behavior we are witnessing certainly does not follow the great commandment given by Jesus: to love on another as God has loved us.  And remember God also tells us to fear not – because fear creates terrible realities.  Certainly do not endorse those who feed it for their own purposes.

Being a Christian in a politicized world calls for careful discernment.  Reason not reaction and prayer.  These are dangerous times because there are those trying to divide what should be indivisible in all areas of our society.  Indivisible was the dream of our forefathers.  We must not follow those who would destroy this for their own purposes.  As a Christian in a politicized world look for a Christ-like perspective in all things, for then we will not go blindly into the night of fearful rage but will create a path that reflects the goodness and will of God for all.  Put away anger and fear.  Pray and vote with a God filled conscience.  Amen.

David Echelbarger

 

In Memory of Pippin

September 14th, 2015 by Pastor David Echelbarger

In Memoriam. For Pippin

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Pippin

The day dawned wet. The puddles were evidence of yesterday’s tears. Beckon, my thirteen year old setter, was on the hunt. She trotted around the yard, went to the large back deck, went to the small side deck and searched the flower beds until she was completely wet. She was looking in vain for fourteen year old Pippin, her kennel mate for her entire life. Nine year old Islay also made the rounds and laid down on the wet deck dejected. Pippin was gone. Sadness hung in the damp air like yesterday’s rain.
Pip’s formal name on his papers was Y.P. Pippin. It was supposed to be U.P. Pippin but the Field Trial Stud Book got it wrong. Y.P. was better – I thought it stood for “Yes Please,” Pippin. He was a bright happy little fellow. Unlike my other English Setters, Pippin was bred from field trial dogs – competition dogs. His natural range was not the forty to sixty yards to which I was accustomed with my other dogs, but his range was measured in the hundreds of yards. He could be hunted best on horseback.
This is the way it works with English setters. You turn them loose in the field or woods and when they find a bird they stop and point remaining motionless until you arrive and flush the bird. Typically they have a beeper collar that lets you know where the dog is and when it freezes on point. This helps you locate the dog. With big running dogs like Pippin, people now use GPS collars that tell you that your dog is pointing 241 yards away at 93 degrees compass course. Go get him.
I have not availed myself of GPS tracking systems, yet. I did, however, need something to find Pippin back in the days before GPS so I bought the radio tracking collars that people who run hounds use. It beeps and light indicators point the way so you can find your dog in thick cover. It was a necessity with a dog like Pip and I never ran him without it.
Pip was a stunning dog; small, strong, agile and intense. When he encountered scent it was as though he’d throw up dust as he put on the brakes. He also had a disability. He could not seem to find his way back when you whistled for him. He’d try. Whistles have a way of echoing in the woods and he’d head in the wrong direction fast as lightening and then be totally lost. My son once ran him down for me and when he found him he was running in small circles looking “weird.”
Pip was often lost. During his second season, I was hunting with four friends at our traditional Woodcock Camp. Pip vanished. We finally located him on the edge of a dark swamp. The moment I snapped a leash on his collar, four howls erupted around us, so close they were terribly distorted and frightening. A pack of wolves had almost gotten him. Wolves kill dogs for invading their territory. We had arrived in the nick of time.
Wolves made it necessary to change Pippin into a dog that was more like my other English setters. I had to reduce his range to keep him safe – change him from being the dog he was bred to be. He was smart and quickly learned to turn each time I called out “Pip!” He’d run left, and then right, with each “Pip.” “Easy” slowed him down. But I had to stay on him, otherwise he was gone.
Once, hunting with friends in a location I was unfamiliar with, Pippin took off. I left the group to find him. Eventually I located him and was walking him at heal. I was almost back as the light began to fail, when he took off again. Now it was growing dark, in an area I didn’t know, with a lost dog. When I found him I leashed him and tried to walk him out of an aspen woods, getting caught every other step on small trees and brush in the dark. Frustrating. He was my Jacob dog. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel: Israel means “to struggle with God and prevail.” Pip struggled with me and prevailed.
He was an amazing hunting dog, running with speed and often covered with blood from the cuts he sustained. Each year I took Christine out for a hunting trip and finished with dinner at a restaurant before heading home. We heard Pip yelp in pain but could not find where he had injured himself. He hunted another forty minutes and we put him in his crate and drove for dinner. Eventually, a couple of hours later, we arrived home and when I opened his crate door he staggered out with a hematoma on his chest as large as a cantaloupe. His gums were pale. I rushed him to the vet for fluids. It turns out a small sharp stick had penetrated his neck, nicking his jugular vein. The hematoma slowed the bleeding enough to save his life – as did the fluids. He knew only one speed. Fast!
A last Pip story. Pippin knew where the birds were and if I whistled him to come in or change direction, he would immediately go on point. He knew I would honor his points and he’d wait until I got there, look at me with a wise “got ya” look and then trot off to eventually find the bird with me in tow.
Yet all things come to an end. Pip could not hunt last season. Arthritis had severely limited his ability as he grew old. A decision had to be made. In recent weeks he would stand and look at me, eye to eye. His tail no longer wagged, he stopped eating and his bodily functions were failing. He could barely lie down and I had to lift him into his kennel. I made an appointment for euthanasia, but he seemed to rebound and I canceled it. A week later I made the appointment again. After 14 years and 3 months it would be Y.P. Pippin’s last day. Christine and I gave him a bath and I sat down on the deck and fully expected him to climb into my lap. Besides hunting this was his favorite thing to do since the day he rode on my daughter’s lap for the hours it took to bring him home as a puppy from Lower Michigan.
He nuzzled me, but could not lie down in my lap. Instead he walked away, laid down facing me looking into my eyes. He needed the deep sleep. The vet was very kind. Pippin never liked examining tables and she always treated him on the floor. Out came some blankets and it was time to let him go with Christine’s and my hands on him. We cried. The vet cried as he relaxed and laid his head down and was gone. And now Beckon is looking for him. Everywhere. She is not eating, she feels his absence as do I. His release was peaceful, and he looked so good once he was freed from the tension and anxiety that pain was producing, I wanted him back. There are three empty collars now in my hunting prep room. There are now three dogs that have been my companions that are now buried in my heart. I fear that Beckon will not be far behind in joining Pippin, Tucker, and Cisly. Love is worth the journey, but there are tears and many days will now dawn wet.
Rest easy Y.P. Pippin. And thanks for everything.

David L. Echelbarger

The Sun on my Deck

October 16th, 2014 by Pastor David Echelbarger

The Sun on My Deck

The week has been one that could convince me I live in either London or Seattle. Wet, grey, and weary. Yet each morning when I opened the blinds my eyes widened when I saw a yellow sun on the deck. My own miniature sun, thanks to Christine’s bright yellow mum plant she puts on the deck table each fall.

I thought for a while why the yellow flowers brought so much pleasure. A bright spot in the grey? No, more than that, there was also a feeling of wistful joyful longing – a memory trying to surface like a shard of glass in the soil.

Then it came to me. The occasion was my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. The golden theme was underlined by a host of bright yellow (gold) mums. The maple tree in the front yard in those days was a twig tied to a stick for support. Now that tree would defy two people placing their arms around it. That is how long the mums of that day have been gone – but not gone. Memory brightens our days. Store up for yourself cherished memory – a bright sun on a cloudy day.

Pastor David L. Echelbarger

Listening to your Original Voice

May 27th, 2014 by Pastor David Echelbarger

Listening to Your Original Voice

This morning’s concert, in my family room, at 5:30 a.m., courtesy of my stereo system, were two string quartets of Fredrick Schubert. I absolutely love Schubert’s music especially his chamber works. These were two early quartets. D112 composed when he was thirteen years old, and D353 when he was nineteen. I had not heard either work before. Mostly I am captivated by his “mature” works. (Although you wonder if they can be described as mature when you die at age 30!) D112, the early work, was clearly the voice of the Schubert I know so well: the subtle lyricism, a sad drone in the cello and viola, acting like a Lake Michigan undertow taking one into the depths. Clearly this was his voice and evident even at thirteen.

After refilling my coffee cup, I eagerly listened to the second work of the nineteen year old. I was expecting to hear Schubert, but I heard little of his distinctive voice that was apparent in the earlier work. At the time of D353’s composition, Schubert was under the tutelage of Salieri one of the leading music figures of his day. Salieri had successfully (?”) purged all vestiges of Schubert’s own voice and replaced it with his, and Haydn’s. Shortly after finishing the composition, Schubert left Salieri – and for good reason: he was losing his voice.

Each of us has a unique perspective on the world. Each of us mirrors God’s creation in a unique ways. While education is important, advice and guidance sought, we must not sing someone else’s song. Education, advice and guidance, prepares us to better discover our own. Go forth. Discover. And Sing, as only you can.

David L. Echelbarger

Space Ship Church