Blog Space of Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D, pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD

Monday, January 29, 2018

We Get Knocked Down!

Last week at Mount Hebron Presbyterian we were thinking about the "Call of God" and had  a message titled “Listen to Him!” But this coming Sunday sees the Superbowl.

One thing is for sure. Players are going to get knocked down. And, unless injured, they are expected to get up again and carry on with the game... no matter how hard they are tackled.

Life can be tough. We are going to be knocked down by circumstances that come our way. All sorts of problems are out there that we have to tackle. And when we fall, we are expected to get up again and carry on with the game of life. Either that or we need time to recuperate from the onslaught! But once we can get up again, it's back to business as usual.

A favorite scripture of many people, particularly during those times when life is laying them low, is found in Isaiah 40:31 “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. I realize that one of the teams participating this year are known as the “Eagles” but please do not consider this biblical text as favoring either team! That would indeed be taking things out of context.

The context of the words Isaiah offers was that the people Israel were in captivity and longing to return to their homelands. They realize that their situation had come about because of their own unwillingness to heed God's call to act like people who belonged to the Lord Almighty. They were afraid, defeated and desperate for some hope. They were knocked down and had no idea of how to get their lives back together again.

Along comes Isiah with this message of hope. By the grace of God they were forgiven. The doorway was being opened for a new beginning. A time was coming when they would be restored. In order to enter into their blessing they are counseled to wait upon the Lord.

Such a message resonates with the Good News we are called to proclaim through our Christian faith. We claim that we are set free by the life and love of Jesus Christ. We believe that through God's Holy Spirit we can find power for the living of these days... even when they knock the stuffing out of us! One of the ways we live into that calling is by helping others get back on their feet.

One of the things here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we have been participating in, is a “Souperbowl” collection on Game Day. We will have folk stationed with collecting pots as people leave the sanctuary. They are invited to make a donation into the pot of the team they favor. This money will then be distributed to a charity (chosen by the youth) seeking to feed hungry folk in our community. It's all part of a national initiative that last year raised millions of dollars to help folk who had been knocked down, get back on their feet again.

Whoever you are supporting in the Big Game, and however you spend the day, be sure to spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves. And when you see one of those players get knocked to the floor, recall how the love of God is able to reach out to us when we fall.

There is song by a band called Chumbawamba all about getting knocked down. As the lyrics of the verse don't really go along with the sentiments of the meditation, I'll let you choose to look for that one yourself! Instead, here's “Psalm 91 (On Eagles Wings)” by Shane and Shane.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Which Voice Will We Follow?

When my son was younger he played on a soccer team. I recall sitting on the bleachers, and being often amazed at the experts that occupied the seats alongside me. They had no qualms about informing the referee that he or she needed glasses or shouting at the coach to do a better job of making their particular offspring shine as a star on the field.

I also noticed that the players who did best, had a healthy respect for the officials who could remove them from the game and took absolutely no notice of the advice from the bleachers, choosing instead to focus on the advice that their coach was offering to them. They also seemed to have a sense that the game wasn't just about them, but that they were part of a team.

Here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we have been following a series of messages focusing on the “Call” of God that invites us to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Last week we were considering that to respond to that call takes a great deal of of commitment, that we may feel hesitant to embrace … and we were thinking about the experience of the prophet Jonah, who when he sensed a call from God, immediately headed in the opposite direction. (Sermon here: The Reluctant Preacher)

This week we will be thinking about the fact that the “Call” of God isn't the only voice out there that is seeking to direct our life. There are so many, many, many voices seeking our attention. It can be hard to discern which ones are in tune with the direction and dimensions of God's Kingdom.

Our New Testament passage will be from Mark 1:21-28, a passage in which Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and during the service deals with a majorly disruptive heckler whom the scripture describes as having an 'unclean spirit.'

The story begins with some of the members of the synagogue being impressed by the way Jesus teaches. He has an authority about Him that other teachers lacked. Then comes the confrontation with this heckler who cries out “I know who You are, You are the Holy One of God!” The guy with the problems seems to sense the authority of Jesus even more so then those who were impressed by His teaching!

Further down the line, some of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law find out about the claims being made about Jesus, and they are not the least bit impressed. After all, they were the important ones in God's scheme of things. They didn't realize that there was a guy in town who was rewriting the rules of the game and would turn out to be both the best coach and the best referee that there ever could be.

There are always going to be folk around us telling us that their way is the best way. And in among them all is the voice of God. How do we tune in to God's voice?

I'd suggest that the traditional disciplines of prayer, reading scripture and worshiping in the company of others provide a way that helps us in our discernment. That is not a new idea or particularly radical suggestion. Sometimes the tried and true ways are the ones that bring the most long lasting results.

If we want to make Jesus our life coach then we have to ignore the voices from the bleachers and simply play our part as members of God's team. “Listen to Him!”

For some music a track from Twila Paris's 1998 album "Where I Stand"... a song about listening to God's voice. The comments on the YouTube page read; “We should always be attuned to the voice of God, perhaps subconsciously. But particularly after we pray. Many people make the mistake of praying but then missing the answer because they weren't paying attention. Others get impatient and give up on God and do things their own way. So, we need to have "patience to wait, when there is nothing clear", and when there is "nothing to see, still we believe".”

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Reluctant Disciples

Reluctant Disciples

We've just started a series at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church focusing on the “Call” to discipleship. Last week our focus was Samuel and we had a message titled “The Call and the Tingling.” This coming Sunday we'll be taking a look at the prophet Jonah.

From Sunday School days we probably recall Jonah as the one who was swallowed by the whale because he didn't want to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. And who can blame him? They didn't have the best reputation when it came to relationships with the people of Israel.

Sharing the gospel message has never been an easy task. The gospel really does challenge us to dig deep into our hearts and consider what really matters in life. People really don't want to learn that the things they are building their whole lives on might not be such great things after all.

We are very comfortable with our assumptions and misapprehensions. And like Jonah, we really don't want to have to be the ones who point out to people where their lives may be going wrong. Well... maybe only behind closed doors, but certainly not face to face with those we fear or disagree with.

The story of Jonah is a challenge to our complacency and ability to put others down without taking any actions that might help them move to a better place in their lives. Like Jonah, we may prefer that God simply dealt with them so we didn't have to be concerned about them any more.

If you recall the story, when Jonah does reluctantly go and tell them about God being about to judge them, the Ninevites turn their lives around. Is Jonah pleased? No. Not in the least. On the contrary he sits beneath a tree on the outside of town and sulks because God didn't go through with judging them after all!

The thing about grace is that it is very unfair and indiscriminate. How dare God forgive people when we believe they deserve judgment? Here we are, doing our best to live decent and responsible lives, and they get to receive the love of God just as much as we do. Lord have mercy!

Maybe that's our problem. Our God is a merciful God. Our God calls all people, of all nations, of all faiths, of all kinds, to be known as God's children. He welcomes every lost sheep and returning prodigal with open arms of welcome and acceptance.

And the challenge for us is that, part of our calling as disciples, is to let others know they are welcome. Even if we find the concept of grace difficult, personally inconvenient and downright scandalous, our commission is to go into all the world and create opportunities for discipleship.

Hopefully it won't take for us to be swallowed by a big fish before we embrace our calling! For some music... Chris Tomlin sings “I Will Follow.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Call

This coming Sunday at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church I'm beginning a series of sermons featuring stories from the Old Testament, which speak in different ways, about hearing and responding to the call of God. I always find it interesting to see not only how such a call comes to individuals and communities, but how that call is received!

Jonah, heard the “Word of the Lord” and immediately headed in the opposite direction. Isaiah addresses not an individual, but the whole people of Israel with a message that tells them to “Get up and get back in the game again!” The future of the whole nation becomes dependent on their response to his words.

Samuel, who will be the topic this week, needs the help of an older, wiser person, to help him discern what is going on. Though the voice speaking to Samuel is clear, Samuel is not at first at all sure where the voice is coming from. It is only after three consecutive mid-night visits to the priest Eli that Samuel eventually says Speak, for Your servant is listening.” (You can find that story in 1 Samuel 3:1-20.)

When the Lord does speak to Samuel, the message he is to offer to Eli is not an easy one to share as it concerns judgment on Eli and his household for their unfaithfulness. No wonder Jonah and Isaiah were not exactly enthralled at the prospect of being carriers of God's message! The overall picture from these characters is that not only is the call of God difficult to hear, but responding to it and putting into practice what God calls you to do is never an easy task.

As you follow the stories through you become aware, that though the challenge is hard, those who respond to the call discover that God is the one who equips them and enables them to fulfill the call. It is significant that Samuel describes himself as a “servant” who is listening for God's call. A servant acts upon the authority of their master, rather than from any position of personal power or influence.

To be servants in God's Kingdom is the task of every would be disciple of Jesus Christ. We don't need to hear a voice in the night or encounter a talking bush to discover that. Simply reading one of the gospel accounts calls to consider that when Jesus says “Follow Me,” He is offering an open invitation for all of us to respond to His call.

Doing so means acknowledging that there needs to be some rearranging in our hearts. There is a need to think through our priorities. To consider what in life truly has value and worth. To be a servant of the King means embracing the values of the Kingdom... which, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, is always going to be a challenge.

Yet never one we face alone. To all those who will commit their life to Him, Jesus also promises the help, guidance, and life-giving love of His Holy Spirit. For some music, a song by the late Larry Norman that responds to God's call declaring “I am a servant.” I particular like the line in this song that says “To live is a privilege, to love is such an art.

May 2018 be a year in which we respond to the call of God's love in artful ways that both challenge us and enrich us!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Epiphany Stars 2018

This coming Sunday at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we mark Epiphany, and the beginning of 2018, with our Epiphany Stars Service. Epiphany Stars are, (as in the illustration above), stars with words on them, such as “Wholeness” or “Faithfulness” or “Hospitality.” Congregational members are invited to prayerfully pick a star as they are distributed to them.

Before choosing their stars, those who had chosen stars last year are invited to share stories of how that word had been important to them during the past 12 months. It sounds a little crazy that any one word could define a year, particularly one chosen in advance, but many of the stories people share speak of how that word had been a part of their year, time and time again.

Kristin Stoble, who is pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio (another congregation that celebrates an annual Epiphany Star service) shares the following story of how her initial skepticism was turned to positive reflection.

My first word was “"Restraint"”. I wanted to throw it back. What was that supposed to mean? "Restraint" made me think about being held back or being bound. These words were supposed to be a gift, but this did not feel like one to me. And yet, over time the word continued to work on my heart and mind. I started practicing "Restraint" at church coffee hours and forgoing doughnuts. I used "Restraint" to stop myself from getting second helpings at potlucks. "Restraint" gave me permission to look at how unhealthy I had become and do something about it. When I began to see "Restraint" as a gift instead of a curse, it freed me to change my eating habits without apology, to leave work earlier to exercise and to focus not just on my spiritual health but my physical health.

In my year of "Restraint" I lost 90 pounds and, for the first time I could remember, achieved a healthy weight. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions because – let’s be honest - they always seem to fail. Instead, these star words have become my practice for the New Year. Instead of making a resolution that I’ll feel guilty about a week later, I take a star word as a gift and keep my eyes open. The stars have allowed me to see God in unexpected ways and places. They’ve been challenging, life-giving and transformative.

One woman in my congregation received "Joy"last year. Her middle name is "Joy". She admits, though, that she had lost her "Joy", forgotten how to live with "Joy" The star word reminded her throughout the year about the gift of "Joy"in all circumstances of life; a "Joy"that comes from the simple affirmation that we belong to God. Another member received “Courage.” She was in the midst of cancer treatments when this word was given to her. She took that paper star with her to every doctor appointment. She kept the word by her side as she entered hospice care and as she passed from this life to the next.”

Similar stories will be told this coming Sunday at Mount Hebron, and in other churches that follow this practice. There is no magic to the process. It's just about seeking to following God's direction. After all, isn't that what the story of the Wise Men is all about? They followed a star and it led them to a place of new understanding and blessing.

For some music... the worship song “Open the eyes of my Heart,” performed here by Michael W Smith. May 2018 be a year that leads you to many blessings in your life and the life of your family and community.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.