Cutting Room Floor: Love


IMG_0715 - Version 2When was the last time we said no to that urge to give voice to something that takes away from another person? Because love does this, more than anything else: it makes other people more human than when we found them.

The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference: that what happens to those around us just doesn’t matter. What we say about them just doesn’t matter–who’s going to hear it? What we think about things just doesn’t matter–who’s going to know? What we do with our things just doesn’t matter.

And indifference, at its heart, is the choice to make ourselves more important than anything else, and our opinions, our wants, our needs, our goals, our vision, and our comfort the biggest and brightest things in the constellations of our universe.

But God is anything but indifferent: God is humanizing, because God pays attention to us, and through his attention we are made more human, more real, more persons than we otherwise were. We’re made into children of God because of love.

~ Post Written by Pastor Rich Hagopian


Walking With Henri Nouwen To Easter – Prayer


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In an interview given to the Journal Sacred Journey, Henri Nouwen was invited to answer a question about prayer. This is his answer:

What is prayer? That is what you have to start with. I very much believe that the core moment of Jesus’ public life was the baptism in the Jordan, when Jesus heard the affirmation, “You are my beloved on whom my favor rests.” That is the core experience of Jesus. He is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he is. The temptations in the desert are temptations to move him away from that spiritual identity. He was tempted to believe he was someone else–You are the one who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump form the temple. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Jesus said, “No, no, no. I am the beloved from God.” I think his whole life is continually claiming that identity in the midst of everything. There are times in which he is despised or rejected, but he keeps saying, Others will leave me alone, but my Father will not leave me alone. I am the beloved son of God. I am the hope found in that identity.

Prayer, then, is listening to that voice–to the one who calls you beloved. It is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves. I’m not what I do. I’m not what people say about me. I’m not what I have. Although, there is nothing wrong with success, there isn thing wrong with popularity, there is nothing wrong with being powerful. But finally, my spiritual identity is not rooted in the world–the things the world gives me. My life is rooted in my spiritual identity. Whatever we do–we have to go back regularly to that place of core identity. 

In many ways, what Nouwen expresses here has become the heart of Spiritual Formation for me. I think of Paul who says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” We who are Christ’s must have our sense of self, of worth, of being worth something come from the fact that God loves us. God simply loves us, and so we’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose and everything to gain from offering ourselves to God and the world and those around us in compassion, helpfulness, handiness, service, care.

Who are you? How do you define yourself? Is it the work you do? The relationships you have? What makes you, you, and what would happen if you lost it? 

Does what Nouwen says here matter? 

These aren’t easy questions to take seriously; feel free to post any thoughts you have in the comments below, or reach out to one of Smoky Row’s pastors to talk more about this.

(The ISSN of this journal interview is 1096-5939; published by Fellowship In Prayer, Inc.

Uh… *Tugs Collar*


I’ve been finding it difficult to know exactly what to say about some of the parables in Rich’s latest series. Today’s is another challenging one, Matthew 22:1-14.

Ben TrubeThere are the obvious parallels to the wedding banquet being the kingdom of heaven, with the lord of the house being God. Beyond that, however, God acts in a retributive way we frankly don’t like to think about very much as Christians. We can maybe understand the response when his guests ignore his invitation and kill his servants, but what about those he invites off the street? Someone isn’t dressed properly and he’s thrown back outside with the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth.

“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

We don’t like this as Christians, as people generally. I think most of us want those around us to be with us in Heaven. We don’t want to exclude.

And it may well be that this parable had more bearing on the immediate context of the pharisees than it does on today’s modern context. But a couple of parallels we could draw are evangelists, particularly missionaries spreading God’s word in dangerous corners of the world. Some people die trying to bring God’s word to the world, to invite people to the banquet. But God killing the murderers in return feels a little more Old Testament than we’re comfortable with.

The thing is this, and this is what I come back to. Heaven is not heaven to those who don’t believe in God. If you don’t believe in God, or did believe in God but actively defied him, heaven wouldn’t be your ideal place. These “chosen few” are those who do believe and wish to follow God. Few is not given a specific numerical value here, and I certainly don’t think there’s a quota. Heaven’s got room for everybody.

So how the heck do I apply this to life?

I don’t particularly love living out of the fear motive, which would be implied by the man not wearing the wedding clothes. If going to the wedding banquet is going to your eternal reward, you should be prepared for it at all times, whether it’s happening tomorrow or 20 years from now. Living for God is “wearing your wedding outfit” so to speak. And unlike the parable, this isn’t a wedding you don’t know about and were just pulled off the street. You just don’t know the date.

I like the idea of living for God as a way of building a closer relationship with him, and fulfilling the purpose he has for me, and my whole reason for being. Doing so because I’m afraid I’m going to be caught unawares isn’t really the best way to go about it.

Again I go back to context, which actually prompted me in last week’s Bible Study to say the phrase “What Jesus meant to say here was…”

I know, right?

Parables do not occur in a vacuum, and it is useful and beneficial for teaching to read the whole passage, and not just the little well-known snippets. And sometimes it’s okay to wrestle with something, come up empty, and try again later, praying for insight along the way.

I have a feeling the rest of this series is going to be like that for me?

Have you studied this passage before? What challenges you about it?

Time is not on my side


Last Sunday’s sermon was a concluding sermon to a long series on the Christian life, and as such, it was kind of a laundry list of topics. We could probably write posts every day for three weeks on some of the questions raised, but for today I’ll be focusing on one, how am I claiming my time?

The principle here is very simple: If we don’t make a point of setting aside time for something, something else will fill that time.

Ben TrubeFor me the things that fill random available moments are watching TV, and organizing files on my computer. I keep active libraries of DRM free eBooks, comic books, music and video games I’ve purchased stored on a number of different computers and hard drives. Everything is backed up in multiple places, and needs to burned to disk so it can really be permanent. Occasionally my organization results in a well kept library that actually serves my needs (be it writing, listening to music, reading or playing games), but most of the time everything is a befuddled mess. If my digital files had a physical manifestation I would have desk drawers that would not open because they were stuffed with paper, next to a floor that I could no longer see because it is piled to the ceiling with books.

I’m not saying organization is a waste of time, but after a while it gets to be kind of ridiculous how much of my life is spent attempting it. And the reason is my materialistic need to acquire. I like having new books to read, new games to play, and new music to listen to, without the time for any of it. Even if it’s free, it’s still taking a toll on life.

I want to be devoting more time to studying of the Bible and more time to writing, while still managing to spend quality time with my wife and my new dog. So far, I’ve gotten pretty good about figuring how to write, even if it means perfecting my writing down to a fever-pitch stream of consciousness leaping from my fingertips. But I’m frankly lousy at devotion, even when I do make time for it.

I’m good at trying new plans, coming up with creative ways to get God to fit into time I’m already spending, but it’s not particularly setting aside special time for him. The only times I set aside time to be specifically focusing on God are when I write these posts, go to church on Sunday, or go to life group on Wednesday (assuming I’m awake for any of it, including the writing).

This is probably one where I can’t just pray things will get better and do nothing. I have to actually make some choices in life, shift my priorities. Yes, there are only so many hours in the day, but there are way more of them than you think.

What occupies your time when you’re not thinking about it?

Who’s Afraid?


When Rich talked about “The Christian … Afraid” I have to admit I didn’t think I was going to relate. I’m not one of those people who does around being afraid of what will happen to them. I’m even pretty chill about the state of the world. Sure, things are bad, but God is good. Things will get better. Life isn’t always like the last few weeks, or months, or years we’ve been having.

But I do experience fear in some tangible and more insidious ways.

I can obsessively think, worry, and work myself up about things in life that I think are going to be unpleasant.

Ben TrubeA good example of this is going to the dentist. Now no one likes going to the dentist. It’s not fun for all involved. And dentist appointments always seem to sneak up on me. I accuse my wife and the dentist office of scheduling me early, that it can’t possibly have been six months. In a perfect world I would find out about a dentist appointment the day before I had to go in, and not spend a week dreading slash obsessing about it. Ultimately happy gas helps some of the anxiety during, but it doesn’t do much for the week before.

I don’t really want to be this way. Going to the dentist is just a fact of life. And it’s not particularly scary. I just don’t do so well with pain in my head. I don’t mind extremity pain, like kicking a corner with my toe, but I can’t really get away from the inside of my mouth. And worry can be a real drag. It can put me in a funk and take the fun out of other things around me, during time when I shouldn’t be feeling so bad.

Ultimately I try to employ distraction as a strategy. Or I treat myself. Sure I’m going to do something unpleasant, but I get ice cream afterwards.

Man, I am such a kid sometimes.

Actually that’s the thing, in situations like this I’m really getting God the father. Not the disciplinarian father, but rather the father who tells their kid that everything is going to be okay, that there’s nothing to worry about. And there are better ways to spend one’s time than obsessing. Repetition and facing fears are good too, but a grounding in knowing God is there for you and knows what you’re going through can help you with fears for things you haven’t encountered before.

Now the trick is remembering that when you’re actually in the situation. As with all things, it’s probably easier to think of God in rough times, when you’re thinking of God and talking to God all of the time. It’s a relationship, and relationships can be very encouraging when you’re scared.

Examine how you feel during each season in life


This past Sunday Rich spoke on “transition” and as a Christian how do we deal with that? And also what are we feeling during those times?

Everyone will face some sort of transition in their life. Some are much larger in scope than others are. Some people will face transition more than others. And also sometimes you will have seasons of constant transition in your life and sometimes you will have none.  Having experienced many transitions and also some seasons where nothing changes I don’t think one is better than the other, it all depends on how you deal with it. Obviously, as Rich pointed out, some people (Christian or not) are unable to deal with a change in routine. It is disruptive and can leave you confused or feeling alone.

I have felt this before as I have constantly had seasons of transition in moving to different locations. With my dad being a pastor, we moved a lot. I was born in Ashland, Ohio and lived there from 1980-1984. Then my dad was called to his first pastorate at Gretna Brethren Church, so in 1984 we moved to Bellefontaine, Ohio. I was too young to remember this transition so it did not affect me all that much. We lived in Bellefontaine till 1991 and then my dad was called to pastor New Lebanon Brethren Church in New Lebanon, Ohio. I do remember this transition. It was tough having to leave some friends that I had made. But as Rich discussed, I learned to cope over time and make new friends.

Four years later we moved to Wabash, Indiana as my dad began a pastorate at College Corner Brethren Church in 1995.  This transition was much more difficult.  I was ready to transition into High School and I had to leave it all and go to a completely new school in a new state.  I remember not wanting to move but it was not my choice really.

I have since moved a few more times going back to Ashland, Ohio for college in 1999; back to Wabash for one year out of college, back to Ashland for seminary in 2005 and then here to Columbus, Ohio in 2008.  All those transitions were much easier and I had friends to help me cope along the way.

Trying new things can be hard for some.  Also, as previously stated, there is no quick fix for these transitions.  It takes time to find out who you are and who you want to be.  For me, the easiest way to deal with these was to make new friends.  I had to also find connections with people in situations where I felt comfortable, like going to sporting events, and make connections so I would not become completely isolated.

Just some random thoughts I have about all this:  Looking back on all these situations I feel that somehow I was fine with the transition of moving.  The biggest issue I have now is wondering if I am not in a “transition” am I ok with that?  Can I settle down.  Can I enjoy life sitting still or staying in one place? A question I have to ask myself is:  Am I not looking deeper into what God wants me to do here in Columbus because I am afraid that if I find that, I am once again going to be moving along somewhere else?

Maybe you are like me and have these thoughts of what to do with your life.  I think that those that are in some phase of transition and those that are not  can possibly be searching for the same things.  God, companionship, friendship, acceptance and self worth.  If so, questions that examine how we feel during these transitions or lack there of can be important ones to ask ourselves.

Unfruitful Introspection


As Ben and Bob have already observed, Rich’s sermon this week was about being alone. How often are we alone, with only our thoughts for company? Do we deliberately seek time alone to reflect on our lives and realize our identity in Christ, or do we distract ourselves from serious thinking with reading, TV, video games, music, Facebook…? What does it mean to be a Christian when we’re alone?

Brenda Account PictureMuch of the sermon focused our attention on the innumerable ways in which we avoid being alone with our thoughts. This was interesting to me, since being alone with my thoughts is my default mode—and I usually enjoy it. I’m almost always analyzing and reflecting, turning things over in my mind. I am reflective to a fault. (This is no doubt why I’m sometimes anxious.) In fact, I deliberately choose some distractions so that I can stop thinking about things.

Rich also stated that if we don’t even ask ourselves what God might be teaching us in a particular situation, we aren’t responding to that situation in a Christian way. I thought about this observation for quite a while. Does this mean that non-reflective extroverts aren’t Christians? I have a friend who says that I taught him how to be introspective; before then he didn’t know how to do it! But Rich pointed out that both introverts and extroverts have a problem with distraction; it’s just that the distractions may be different.

Here’s where the sermon connected with me. Although I have no problem with solitude or reflection, I have to admit that my tendency is not to ask what God is trying to teach me in and through the events of my life. I try to understand things that happen and learn from them—even learn about myself—but I rarely stop long enough to listen to what God might want to say to me. As I learned when I started to practice listening in my prayer life, silence is easy for me but listening is hard.

I have as many habitual distractions as anyone else. And even when I get away from the external distractions, I have a lot of interior noise that can drown out the voice of God. I’ve found that a break in my routine can help. The best thing I’ve done along this line is to do five-day silent retreats at a couple of Trappist monasteries. It usually takes me two days to slow down enough to be able to listen!

Not everyone has the luxury to go on retreat—and I don’t do it very often!—but as Rich said, all of us can carve out a few minutes to practice attentiveness to ourselves in relation to God. Rich suggested doing this while we’re in the bathroom, but we can do it during any activity that doesn’t require a lot of thought, such as taking a shower, mowing the lawn, folding laundry, walking on a treadmill, riding a bike, weeding a garden. Some people call this mindfulness, simply being aware of ourselves in the presence of God. We can do this in the confidence that we are loved by God and always welcome.

So I don’t think I’m going to pick up on Rich’s bathroom suggestion, but as the new school year gets started, I am going to try to find a time that works for me where I can be mindful of myself and God—and see if God has anything to say. How about you?

I am a C.H.R.I.S.T.I.A.N.


It’s a little church camp song. I think they’re designed to be quickly memorized by enthusiastic young singers. Yes, it’s catchy. And it does not require a great voice as much as it takes enthusiasm and volume. Here’s the ditty I’m referring to:

“I am a C. (insert two claps here)

I am a C.H. (insert two more claps here)

I am a C.H.R.I.S.T.I.A.N. (yep, two additional claps here)

And I have C.H.R.I.S.T. in my H.E.A.R.T. and I will L.I.V.E.  E.T.E.R.A.L.L.Y.

(repeat ad nausium)

That little chorus summarizes the connections some people have with their faith. It’s simple, takes little thought, can be parroted easily, requires enthusiasm, repetition, and volume.

JeffWhitesideAs a sixth grade social studies teacher, I have all sorts of students in class. Those who are Buddhist or Hindu are able to explain what they believe, and the ways their religion affects their decisions, diets, and duties to family and other faith practitioners. The Jewish and Muslim students are able to articulate what they believe and the ways their religion affects their decisions, diets, and duties to family and other faith practitioners, too. Christians? That’s another story.

It may not be fair to assess Christianity based on what eleven and twelve-year-olds are able to communicate. However, you’d think that some information might be passed on that might explain why a family chooses to identify as Christian. Can you tell how I feel about such branding of my faith?

Our culture insists that faith is a private concern. It does not matter what is believed. What counts is only sincerity, reason, and tolerance of others and their belief systems. After centuries of argument, disfellowship, persecution, and execution, it’s no surprise that American Christians try to get away from those terrible European experiences when people of faith felt that jihad against non-acceptable versions of their faith was God-honoring.  Going back in history is not necessary to understand this. We don’t like to hear how difficult it is to live in China, Northern Africa, the Middle East, etc… as a believer in Jesus Christ.

So, just what does it mean to be a real, authentic, meaningful, purpose-oriented, North American believer in Jesus Christ in 2014? Apparently a lot; because those themes will be explored during the coming summer months at Smoky Row Brethren. If you can join us, the experience may prove to be worth your time. If you can’t, stay tuned to this blog. We’ll be reflecting on the themes explored each Sunday morning at 10:30a.m.

~Post written by Jeff Whiteside

Being who we were created to be


So this week Pastor Rich and Pastor Rudy co-preached a sermon for Easter Sunday as we had a bi-lingual service.  It was a great thing to experience and be a part of.  And although I really don’t understand a lick of Spanish, I am proud to be a part of a congregation that uses the gifts and talents of its people and is trying to reach out more than one people group.

In a way that is what the sermon was about too.  It was stated in the sermon that our lives are filled with meaning and what we do in this life is important to God.  I believe this to be 100% true.

mattGod has given us each talents, gifts, hobbies, things we enjoy and more…and he wants us to use all of that to the best of our ability.  We are created as unique individuals.  God wants us to enjoy this life and bless others while doing so.  Even the things that seem minor to us, sometimes God can use them when least expected.

I experienced that this week.  I was able to go to the Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game yesterday.  As a CRAZY-WACKO SPORTS FANATIC it was awesome to say the least.  Sports is a hobby for me.  It is something I enjoy to the fullest.  Although I am not sure what role God played in making me like this, if any at all, I do believe that He can use it for His glory.

As we were driving to the arena one of the people in the car, all of whom knew I was a Christian, looked over at me and asked if I could pray for a family member of theirs.  I won’t mention the details due to the fact that it was asked to be kept private.  I was a bit shocked at first, then realized how cool of an opportunity that was.  I listened, I affirmed their thoughts, and I agreed to pray for them and the family.  The point being is that having the chance to bless someone else and glorify God in the process can come in the least likely of places and through the oddest of avenues.  My love of sports and being who God created me to be provided that opportunity to be used by God.

Are lives are filled with meaning and even the little things we do are important to God.  Enjoying our life now is a good thing.  God cares about it and so should we.  Because of the Resurrection we have a purpose.  Without it our lives as believers would be a meaningless existence.  Because Christ came back from the dead, we now have a reason to carry on.  That reason is to share the gospel.

We are to share that good news with everyone we know.  It may appear in small forms.  It may take time.  It may be just planting seeds.  But even a prayer for a family member of someone may brighten up their day and they may come to realize that their life has value too.  And maybe even if we enjoy the little things like our hobbies, it will allow the Holy Spirit to use us in ways we never thought possible.

Cutting Room Floor: Luke 9:18-27


Jesus in Context:

And Calling Jesus “God’s Messiah” instead of “Jesus Christ” reminds us that Jesus, you know: He was Jewish. He had a context.

IMG_0715 - Version 2God worked through fallen humanity to create a people for himself, Israel. Even though Israel broke relationship with him, he kept a remnant for himself out of them, out of that remnant, Jesus came: the ideal faithful Israelite, and because of that, the ideal person, who redefines what it means to be a person. Those of us who trust him, we’re given the spirit to live up to God’s best blueprint for personhood, Jesus, and we become like him, and take on all his mission and purpose and suffering in the world, so that the rest of the world can find their way out of the quicksand that we all get trapped in.

And we Christians, who trust this Messiah, become, of course, the branches God holds out to those who are sinking.

On Shame:

Shame is complex thing. It’s both an experience and a feeling. We are shamed–made to be “lesser than,” made small. We feel ashamed–regretful, embarrassed, dehumanized for all sorts of reasons. I grew up deeply ashamed of my family’s poverty and our drama and chaos; I discovered far too early in life that we were poor, and that I was less than those who weren’t. And like everyone, I learned to be ashamed of myself because others first shamed me. We learn shame, we’re taught it, and stamped with it: it isn’t inherit in us. But it is common to humanity, and for far too many of us, it has defined who we are, our shame has directed our steps for too long, it has chained us and whipped us.

For someone to be ashamed of us is for them to say that our very presence takes away from them. Our existence makes their existence less joyful, less wonderful, less pleasing. Shame is personal, and if someone is ashamed of us, they are someone we care about–because shame requires familiarity–you can’t be ashamed of someone you don’t know. You can be dismissive, frustrated, but not ashamed. The context for shame is intimacy. To be ashamed of someone is to communicate that you are more important than them, and that they are diminishing your importance, your value, and your goodness. It’s to wish they didn’t exist, because if only they didn’t exist, all would be well with your life.

And this line of this passage has been difficult for me. Shame is a tool of the devil; shame is evil’s creative work, undoing the good God makes of everything He touches.

The opposite of shame, I think, is something like advocacy. To say that no matter what you do, say, or become, I will use my power to pull you alongside with me. I will stand with you, and hold you against me, because you are mine and I am yours. This reminds me of Jesus. This is safe, and powerful, this is neverforsaking love, right? To know that God is not ashamed of us is basic to any ability we have to live freely and fully alive in the Lord. But we have this line, today’s sentence; what do we do with it?

~Post written by Rich Hagopian