God is Doing Something New

I am still reflecting on what a great day we had together at church last Sunday. The afternoon service was remarkable, and I am so blessed that many braved the rain to attend in person. We had a good group watching online as well. (Within about 24 hours of the installation service, there were 62 views on YouTube.)
 
An installation service is a special moment for a congregation and their new pastor. It’s a worship service in which members of the Presbytery formalize the call of the congregation and its new pastor. It’s a service of celebration marking the start of a new pastoral relationship.
 
The commission from Presbytery was a group I invited to be part of the service. Four of the five were immediately recognizable. Randy Hall, Ken Davis, Cathy Fulp and Susanne are people you already know. The fifth member of the commission was Rachael Brooks. Susanne and I have known Rachael and her husband Michael and their children for about twenty years. We first met them when they joined the church I was serving in Kentucky. That was a long time ago! Rachael followed a call into ministry and is presently the pastor of a small church in Pilot Mountain. It’s great to be serving in the same presbytery.
 
By my request, Ken sang 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman. There is a line in that song that I felt spoke to the moment:
   The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning;
   It’s time to sing Your song again.
   Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, 
   Let me be singing when the evening comes.
 
Shelley chose the anthem, God Is Doing Something New for the choir to sing. It fit exactly right for the day.
   God is doing something new, here among us, let it start.
   May it change us, restore our hearts, He’s the way through the wilderness.
   In the Desert, He’s the stream. God is doing something new in you and me.
 
Rachael’s sermon from Ezra 7, was full of encouragement for what God has planned for us together. She gave us a faithful vision for what’s ahead.
 
These are days full of energy and excitement for the church. And I humbled and grateful to share in the work with all of you.
 
Finally, I want to share my thanks one more time for the notes and sympathy cards I’ve received since my mom’s death. You’ve sent messages of hope and peace, and that has meant a lot to me over the past month. In February, I am planning some time with my brothers when I travel for the Navy to California.
 
Peace to you as we are growing together in Christ.
 
Jon
 


God’s Rubbish Service

The city where we previously lived in Virginia has a monthly trash collection that was handy. In addition to the weekly trash collection, on the first Tuesday of each month, the town collects almost anything you put at the street. This provides a way to dispose of items that are too large to fit in a rolling bin. (The Lexington City web site describes a similar service for its residents.)
 
So, on the first Tuesday of each month in the limits of that Virginia town, there is an assortment of items all waiting to be hauled away. The official name by the public works department for these items is “bulky rubbish.” The Martins made regular use of this popular service.
 
Once we put an old push mower out. Before the town came and took it, however, someone else came by and asked for it. We said yes. It’s possible that some items set out for the town to haul away never make it to the landfill, but become flea market items-and I’m okay with that! 
 
And once when I was driving on a first Tuesday, I saw a gas grill someone had put out. It looked like it still had some life left in it, and I admit that for a brief moment I considered stopping but didn’t. Susanne would not have approved.
 
There is a theological point here. In our Presbyterian worship service, we offer a similar “bulky rubbish option” every Sunday morning of the year. During the service, there is a time for individual and collective confession. We are all encouraged to push to the street all of the parts of our lives that we don’t want anymore: all of the sinful behavior, all the struggles and anxieties and hassles. And God hauls away all of that bulky and not-so-bulky rubbish. With all of that gone, we are assured of God’s forgiveness, and sing as we make a fresh start for a new week.
 
To receive the benefit of a town’s rubbish removal service, you must live within the town limits. To receive the benefit of God’s bulky rubbish service, your zip code doesn’t matter; you need only ask-and it doesn’t have to be during a church service. And it’s always available. We include God’s rubbish service as part of our worship each Sunday morning because, we believe, God wills for us to take our human condition seriously.
 
I appreciate the way January arrives each year with energy about making a fresh start in a new year. Some of you make plans and resolutions and so do I. Whatever plans you make, please consider in these first Sundays of 2023 what you would move to the “street” that you don’t want to bring with you into a new year. God will haul all of it away. Peace to you and…
 
We are growing together in Christ.
Jon
 


The Household of God

Susanne and I have been decorating our house for Christmas for the past couple of weeks. This year we started our Christmas decorating by setting up the tree. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago: when it comes to Christmas trees, we are definitely Fraser fir tree people. Rockefeller Center can have their Norway spruce, but the Martins will stay with the Fraser fir!
 
We put all kinds of ornaments on our Fraser fir. Some of our ornaments are homemade. Some were given to us. Some we gave to Katherine and Jonah. Some came home from school as art projects. They are made of wood, pewter, glass, plastic, metal, wax, ceramic, and some are stuffed. Others need batteries or hold a photo. Some have been on twenty-seven different Christmas trees and one or two are new. Every year we unpack this assortment and hang them one-by-one on the tree.
 
Our collection of ornaments reminds me of the church. To be more specific, it reminds me of something I really like about the church. We are a gathering of people who are united in the household of God, and yet have varied backgrounds, worldviews, cultural identities, political leanings, work-a-day lives, personal stories, interests, gifts, and much more.
 
I like this because a diverse body of Christ is God’s idea. Jesus told the disciples to make disciples of all nations, and that’s what they did. They carried the news of Christ’s death and resurrection into all the world. The church is truly world-wide – and what a gathering of people it is!
 
One window into this diversity is the church’s wide-ranging Christmas celebrations. In Ghana, a fruit tree in a family’s yard or in the center of a village might be decorated with simple ornaments. In Lebanon, a family might spend the week after Christmas visiting relatives (Some of you might be planning something similar.). In Australia, a family might unwrap presents on the patio then the children might cool off by running through the sprinkler on a summer day. In Saudi Arabia, celebrations and decorations are confined to embassies and private homes. Public displays are very seldom seen. In Germany, families open their gifts on Christmas eve.
 
I like a Christmas tree full of all sorts of ornaments as a symbol of the diversity of the world-wide church. Like the branches of an evergreen tree holding a collection of ornaments, Jesus holds all of us together in our diversity.
 
The Martins wish all of you a Merry Christmas filled with hope, peace, joy, and love, trusting that we are…
 
Growing in Christ,
 Jon
 


Every Part of Us

This week a very important question was asked in the Martin house. It is asked every year about this time. Right about the time the Christmas mugs are unpacked, and we have returned from the Christmas tree lot with a Fraser fir, the Martins’ favorite tree for Christmas. After the tree is in the stand and moved into the house, the question is asked, which side of the tree should face the wall?

Of course, the deeper reason for asking that question is to make sure the best side of the tree faces into the room. I admit that some years that has been a difficult question to answer, partly because the Fraser fir is a terrific tree.

That question is asked when you have a fresh cut tree in your home. I understand all who prefer an artificial tree (ease of set up, pets, allergies, etc.), but there is something about the uniqueness of a fresh cut tree and the evergreen smell it brings into the Martin house that we enjoy. But the fact remains: one side of the tree must face a wall.

That’s what you get with God’s spectacularly diverse creation. No two Fraser firs are alike. No two sides of a Fraser fir are alike-even on the same tree! People are like that too. We are all unique, but don’t we all have a side we would prefer not to show to the world? When my brothers and I were small and we were going as a family into a restaurant, my dad would look at us and say, “Boys, be gentlemen.” There was a rowdy side of my brothers and me that my parents did not want fellow diners in the restaurant to see. 

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, consider that no matter what side of ourselves we show to the world or what side we hide from the world, God knows every part of us-and still loves us. We are each an expression of God’s creative work and while our own brokenness can make that much more complicated, Jesus birth sets in motion God’s fullest plan to rescue us and heal our brokenness.

When we decorate our tree, we still hang lights and ornaments on the side of the tree facing the wall. That reminds me that God’s gift of love and redemption born in a manger reaches every part of us. God doesn’t only seek out the presentable sides of our lives, God’s redemption is thorough.

I hope you are able to share in the Advent and Christmas events at First Presbyterian this month, there is a gospel promise at the heart of what we do together: even as these winter days grow shorter and darker, the light of Christ shines brightly, and the Spirit stirs in the church. God calls us together-every one of us and every part of us-so that we can hear and respond to God’s love come near.

Growing in Christ,
 Jon
 


Olives and Imagery

Last Sunday during the children’s moment, I shared that November is a month full of wonderful smells. I named a few with the children. When I asked the congregation to call out their favorite November smells, I heard several responses: pumpkin pie, apple pie, turkey, cinnamon, dressing. I am looking forward to those smells in our new house.

After asking about smells, I gave each child a small wooden cross. I told them to scratch the wood and then smell it. I could see that they were trying to figure out the unfamiliar smell of the wood. The crosses were made of olive wood, and olive wood when scratched with even just a fingernail releases a sweet, fruity aroma.

I’ve had those small crosses for a long time. I brought several back from a trip to Israel and have enjoyed giving them away one by one over the past many years. I am thankful to have enough left to give them to the children of First Presbyterian Church. (I only have one or two left.)

The smell of olive wood was familiar to people in the ancient world, where olive trees were cultivated. The oil from pressing olives was used in lamps. Remember Jesus’ parable about the woman who loses a coin and lights a lamp to search for it? (Luke 15:8-10) That’s an olive oil lamp. In ancient Judaism, olive oil was used for more than lighting up a dark room. It was used in preparing food, in religious ceremonies to anoint priests and was part of the sweet-smelling perfume used in the Temple. 

After Jesus shared his last supper with the disciples, they went outside to an olive orchard to pray. If we were reading about this in a Bible study, I would ask why do you think Jesus chose an olive orchard as a place to pray?

In about a month, we will hear from the prophet Isaiah with the familiar Advent reading: a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out of its root. (Isaiah 11:1). Isaiah is using the image of a new spring of life coming out of an old olive tree stump. We understand that image to point to Jesus, to be the new life coming out of old established line of Judah. These are just a few, but there are many other references to olive trees in the scripture.

I hope some of these images, or others, come to mind the next time you smell olive wood, or more likely, the olive oil you keep in your pantry.
 
Together in Christ,
Jon
 
 


Assignments

I am back from a five-day trip to support a Marine training exercise in Southern California. Special thanks to Susanne for covering the service on October 23, in my absence. In the picture below, I am standing with four Marines during a break in the training. I am on the right. Do you see what the Corporal in the middle is holding? It’s bag of Red Bird Puffed Mints from right here in Lexington!
 
 
 
Before I left, two elders brought me candy to take to the field. One elder brought two bags of Jolly Ranchers. Marines love Jolly Ranchers. When I carry those with me, I can’t give them away fast enough. It’s a morale boost wrapped up in a bit of sugar.
 
Another elder dropped off a bag of Lexington’s own Red Bird Mints. The mints were also a hit. One Marine said, “it just melts away in your mouth.” Another Marine said the peppermint woke him up. A Jolly Rancher or a bit of peppermint can make a miserable training day just a bit less miserable.
 
Early in the training exercise, I noticed a Marine off by himself. He was sitting with the boxes of chow. I went up to him and introduced myself. He was a Lance Corporal and he said he couldn’t take part in the training because he was injured. His Platoon Sergeant had told him to guard the chow instead of training. I understood the wisdom of the assignment: it kept him in one place when everyone else was in a different location.
 
I stopped by several times to check on him. In the photo on the left, we are having a cup of coffee together. I heated the water on a small camping stove I bring with me to the field. As he waited for the coffee to cool enough so he could take his first sip, he said it was the first time he’d had a hot cup of coffee in the field. He was grateful for the visits, and he shared a bit about his official job in the Marines, which is a cook. Officially he’s a “Food service specialist” in charge of cataloging, cooking, and supplying Marines with food while in garrison or on field operations. Their mission is to keep Marines fed so they have the energy to complete their mission.
 
This makes me think of a couple of questions: Where are you spiritually fed so you can carry out God’s mission in your life? What kindness or mercy might you offer to make someone’s difficult day just a bit less difficult?
 
 
Together in Christ,
 Jon
 
 


Rocket Lights

Do you remember when cars had a round metal button on the floorboard to turn on the high beams? My mom had a 1963 Corvair that had one of these buttons. She kept that car long enough for me to drive it for a couple of years. She said it was a classic! 
 
At some point, the high beam button was moved. The left foot was no longer in charge of the high beams, and the control was integrated into the steering column as part of the turn signal control, which is now called a multi-function lever.
 
When Katherine and Jonah were younger, they would call the high beams the “rocket lights.” From the back seat, they could see the indicator light on the instrument panel and thought it looked like a rocket (in orbit, of course, because it’s flying sideways). Can you see why they thought it looked like a rocket? For a while, all four Martins were calling the high beams, the “rocket lights.” Jonah would shout, “Dad! turn on the rocket lights!” I still turn on the rocket lights when I need a bit of extra light on a dark road.
 
I have two church-related thoughts about this. Here’s the first one: high beams help a driver see down the road, and I am excited about what is down the road for First Presbyterian this fall. Are you noticing the energy level on Sunday morning, too? The Holy Spirit is at work and this fall is going to be great.
 
Here is my second thought about the rocket lights: children see the world differently than adults. I would not have thought the high beam indicator light looked like a rocket unless two children had pointed that out to me. Now when I look at it, I can’t help but see a rocket. 
 
How will children help us adults see the church in a new way? I think that is a beautiful question to ask. It recognizes that while we have something to teach them, they have much to teach us. It also means we always make room for every age in the body of Christ.
 
Jesus said we should have faith like a child, a complete trust in God’s care for us. What if, with that kind of faith, also came the willingness to see like a child? What would we see in a new way in the church and in the world?
 
Together in Christ,
 Jon
 


Lessons from an Acorn

For we have become partners of Christ… (Hebrews 3:14)
 
acorns from Pixabay

picture of acorns from pixabay.com

When Susanne and I walk our dog, Cali, in our temporary neighborhood (we move into our new house in a few weeks!), there is a place on the side of the road scattered full with acorns. Overhead is a magnificent oak tree, and I am sure every squirrel within four blocks of that tree knows about it.
 
Recently, when we get to that place on our walk, I tend to study the acorns on the ground instead of looking up to see where they came from. Some are flattened because they fell or rolled too far into the road and met a car tire. Some are in two pieces. The bottom part has been separated from the top. My favorite acorns under that tree are the ones that are still in one piece.
 
Over the weekend Susanne and I collected about twenty whole acorns so I could take them to church for the children’s moment. I put the acorns in a basket so the children could study all of them at once. Here’s what we saw: each one is a unique seed of the oak tree. We didn’t see two acorns that looked exactly alike, and every acorn has the same job. It contains all the information necessary to make an oak tree.
 
Something similar could be said about us. We have all been created by God as unique people, and in the church we all have the same job: love God and love our neighbor. 
 
One of the children said that squirrels like to eat acorns. I shared that squirrels bury acorns and then come back later to eat them. Sometimes, however, an acorn or two is forgotten and stays in the ground. When this happens, the squirrel is inadvertently planting a tree. Could it be part of God’s plan that the squirrel and the oak tree are partners? The tree depends on the squirrel’s forgetfulness to plant some of its acorns, and the squirrel depends on the tree for some of its food.
 
Something similar could be said about us. We depend on each other to accomplish God’s work in the world. And like squirrels, some things we do don’t always go as planned. I don’t think a squirrel intentionally forgets where some of the acorns are buried. It just happens. So when things don’t go exactly well in the church, God can still bring good from it. This reinforces the claim from the Book of Hebrews that we are partners of Christ for the work of the gospel in the world, not because we do everything correctly, but because God chooses us for this work.
 
Together in Christ,
 Jon
 


Looking Toward Fall

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:9)
 
 
I am looking forward to the start of the church program year. Of course, you might expect a pastor to write such things in a September newsletter, but it’s really true! I have missed Sunday school. Sitting around a table and studying with others has been a regular part of my Sunday mornings since I was an associate pastor in my first church. I have also missed singing in a choir, which I did in my previous church. So, I am ready to get into this new program year. 
 
I know that summer is an important time to give volunteers and staff a break. And a church’s summer program is different than the rest of the year. Please take a look at the bulletin board in the hallway heading to the fellowship hall for the fantastic pictures of the summer program at First Presbyterian. The bible school looked like an amazing week, and I appreciate all that Ann Kiefer and her team did to make that happen. I hope it has been a good summer for everyone.
 
As I write this, it’s a rainy Labor Day evening, and golden and brown leaves on the ground are the signal that the season is changing. The official end of summer and beginning of fall is still a couple of weeks off (or so), and there will still be summer-like days ahead, but the start of school, the start of the fall program at the church, and the availability of pumpkin spice all signal what is ahead.
 
In Mary Oliver’s poem, March Meadow: Song for Autumn, she writes about leaves falling to the earth. Here is part of that poem:
In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind?
 
Mary Oliver is a wonderful poet with a compelling story. Her words about leaves falling to the earth make me think about how much I feel grounded in the life and fellowship of a church family. I feel most grounded when I share in the life of a church in worship, study, fellowship, and in mission in its own community and beyond. 
 
As I begin my first fall at First Presbyterian, I look forward to how we will be grounded in that together.
 
Peace in Christ, 
Jon
 


Thankful on the Way

…with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16)
 
Last Sunday was a great day! The congregation welcomed Susanne and me with wide open arms and smiles. It felt like we had reached the end of a long journey that had begun more than a year ago. But even as one chapter ends and a new chapter begins, it is both thrilling and humbling to think about what God has planned for us over the coming months and beyond.
 
Sunday was about being thankful on the way. So, in that spirit, I want to say thank you.
 
I want to thank everyone who wore a name tag and said, “You’ve got a lot of names to learn.” I promise to work on names over the next several days. Thank you for your warm welcome.
 
I want to thank Ann Kiefer for including me in the children’s moment so I could begin to get to know the children of the church. The Hebrew friendship bracelet from the children is a sweet gift. During the lunch someone complimented me on my ability to sit down on the lower step of the chancel with the children and still be able to get up again. I have a good feeling that some of the children would have helped me up if I had needed it.
 
I want to thank Regina and JoAnn for their amazing arrangement of God of our Fathers on piano and pipe organ. Were you singing along in your head while they were playing? I was. It’s a great hymn of the church. The words were written in 1876 and was initially sung to a different tune. In 1892, a new tune was written for the hymn and that’s the familiar one we sing today. It first appeared in the hymnbook of the Episcopal Church.
 
I want to thank Ryan Harman. He was the liturgist on Sunday, and when I was not quite in sync with everything that was happening (I accidently left out part of the service), I could see he had his side covered. In the future, I might need to work out some hand signals so that I can stay on track with Regina and the liturgist from across the chancel.
 
I want to thank the fellowship team for organizing the lunch after the service. The tablecloths and the flowers were beautiful. The blue and gold colors reminded me of the Navy. And the food was wonderful. What a feast! And thank you to the team that cleaned up after the meal, too.
 
In my sermon, I mentioned that gratitude can lead to a happier life. Maybe part of that happier life is an awareness that we depend on one another, and all of us depend on God. Thank you for reminding me of that on my first Sunday with all of you.
 
Peace in Christ, 
Jon