Monday, February 22, 2021

Prayers of the People - Feb. 21

Yesterday during worship we experienced a momentary power disruption which caused one of the devices we use for our live stream to reboot. This caused the stream to freeze for several minutes right at the end of David's Time for Reflection and through most of Jan's Prayers of the People. (It also happened again during the postlude, for those of you who were still watching.) It's always frustrating when something like this happens, but it was especially so yesterday because the prayer that Jan wrote and prayed was so lovely. So I asked her to send it to me and I am posting it below. I hope that you will take time to pray this prayer with her at some point this week.


As we come together in prayer, I would bring your attention to the fact that the season of Love – Valentine's Day, and the season of Lent – Self Reflection are back to back, next door to each other. So may our time of reflection focus on Love as we go through this journey toward Easter and the season of Hope.

Creator God,

We are finding it very difficult at the moment to look toward the coming season of Hope. There is so much negativity in our world that our hearts ache with the burden of it all. We sit and we ponder, we argue and we try to listen, we kneel and we pray, we see and we ignore and the agony continues.

We come together today to pray for our world, for the leaders and those behind the scenes who exert influence, for the stricken and hungry, the tired and the sick and for those who feel forgotten. We ask for the world to feel your presence, to realize that Love is the answer today and everyday. And may we love and heal our planet as well as ourselves.

We pray for our country where there is so much division and anger. We pray for our own leaders who make decisions that impact us all. We ask that compromise be a word of hope and not one of dissension. We pray for those who have been impacted by the storms and extreme weather that has passed over so much of our country. May they receive the help that they need and may those in power find ways to assure the people that they are working for the good of all.

We pray for our community where we are grieving the loss of 3 teen-agers who have been taken down in the prime of their lives. We struggle with these random acts of violence and wonder why random acts of kindness cannot be the norm. We ache with their parents as they adjust to this loss of hope for a better future that these kids were poised to explore. Help us to know how we can make a difference, how we can contribute to the solution and even how we can pray.

We pray for our own families as we wonder if our kids are next, as we wonder if Covid will take more lives that we know, as we wonder how we are to go on in this swirl of negativity.

We are told that there is hope, that there is light, that there is redemption. Help us to find it. Aid us in our Lenten journey to reflect on our own path, to find ways to reach out and to be that Christ like example that we long for in others. Bring us Hope. Bring us Love. Bring us Redemption.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Pray for Our City

Greetings brothers and sisters, 

I write today with a heavy heart. Yet another teenager has been shot and killed in our city, the third victim of gun violence in the last four weeks. Fifteen-year-old Janaira Muhammad was a freshman at Austin-East. Her death follows that of sixteen-year-old Stanley Freeman and fifteen-year-old Justin Taylor, both of whom were also Austin-East students. All three were the victims of gun violence. My heart grieves for their families and for this community.

There were 37 criminal homicides within Knoxville city limits in 2020, the highest number in modern history. (The average for the last two decades has been 21.) There were 35 homicides in 1992 and 1998. When you add in 8 additional homicides in the county, the total number of killings in Knox County last year was 45. All from shootings. The only positive thing to be said is that none of the murder victims in 2020 were under the age of 18.

Now, this year, there are already 4 victims under the age of 18. If you think that's bad, listen to this. There have already been 16 murders this year. Let that sink in for a moment. It is February 17th. We are six weeks into the year. We are almost halfway to the record number of homicides of last year.

It's not just East Knoxville, either. Murders have happened in other parts of Knoxville - North, South, West. Three weeks ago there was a double homicide at Cazzy's Corner Grill. Three days ago there were two shootings resulting in one death in the Cedar Bluff area. Nowhere is immune from the violence.

As I was writing that last paragraph, another news alert just flashed across my mobile phone. This afternoon, a woman driving in North Knoxville was struck by a stray bullet and crashed her car into a building. She has critical, life-threatening injuries. A stray bullet also struck a school bus. With children on board. Thankfully there were no injuries.

What is happening in our city? The same thing that is happening in cities across our country. COVID, high unemployment, housing insecurity, fear, anxiety, racial tensions - all these have led to an increase in violent crime throughout the land. For the first 6 months of 2020, homicides in the country had increased 15% over the same timeframe in 2019. At year's end, cities everywhere, including Indianapolis, Houston, Memphis, and Los Angeles, reported record high homicide figures. Almost all of them gun-related.

I don't have the answers for this epidemic of violence. I believe that increased gun regulation is a must. I do not believe an increased police presence will help. I do believe that our entire community must take each one of these homicides personally and not write any of them off to "other" people in "those" neighborhoods. I do not believe that more guns is the answer. I do believe we are being called to a time of prayer.

Let us pray for the families of the victims. Let us pray for our city. Let us pray for the police officers who are trying their best to keep the peace. Let us pray for the first responders and emergency room workers, especially those who have to watch teenagers die. Let us pray for perpetuators of violence, that they will feel the love of God. Let us pray for our country.

And then let us do something. Prayer means nothing if it doesn't lead to action. We need to act. This is unacceptable. This is not who we are called to be. I am grieving. I am angry. I am offended. I am incensed. 

How long, O Lord, will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, "Violence!" but you don't deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife and conflict abounds. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. - Habakkuk 1:2-4

Please join me in praying for our city.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Church's Ministry in a Tragic Time

I came across the following this week...

"To charge these present times as the most tragic in the history of the human race might be subject to question were the condemnation based solely on the number of people who are hungry, or who are ill-housed and ill-clothed, or who have been forced into slave labor, or who suffer from the ravages of disease. But to charge these times as being tragic because of their violent reversal of trends toward a better day is to make an observation readily recognized by even the most casual on-looker of the present scene.

For example, for several generations the world seemed to be moving in the direction of assured peace. There was evident a growing desire for cooperative activity in securing what would be good for all, and a fairly widespread wish, at least, to settle international disputes through justice meted out by an objective international court. Yet the phenomenally rapid rise of a new nationalism spurred by the unholy quest for control of the world's basic resources has made this century the bloodiest in the many centuries of our life upon the earth.

Up until several decades ago it appeared that the western world was making progress in the control of the so-called social diseases. Public opinion and wise educational procedures seems to have curbed the further spread of alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, narcotic addiction, and other such practices that damage the social order. Yet the last fifteen years has seen the most violent reversal of that trend. Whether or not acute alcoholism is at an all-time high, certainly a higher percentage of the total population of this country, according to government figures, is drinking liquor more regularly. The publicity highlighting drug addiction among adolescents has thrown into shadow the more widespread habit - use of other drugs by a great multitude.

The open betrayal of public trust by public servants a generation or so ago would likely have resulted in the loss of public position. Yet it seems that a large portion of our people look with equanimity on the use of public position for private advancement and personal gain. And make no mistake, what I am saying applies not only to the Federal Government and Federal agencies, but to local educational systems, local police departments, county road commissions, civic waterworks, even the social service agencies, and sometimes to the church. It seems to be accepted as almost normal that people in such positions have as their first responsibility to look after their own interests. It is a tragic reversal of what had seemed to be a noble trend.

Yet of all these conditions so tragically evident in this day are but symptoms of a more deep-seated disease. We have neglected God. It is not that we have forgotten God. We have neglected him. We treat the faith of our fathers the way we treat a family heirloom. It is certainly not to be disposed of. It has had too much place in our past to let it be lost. We have a deeply sentimental attachment to it. We even want to display it on occasion, and with some pride, as we tell of our tie to such faith. We keep - we prize - we display our faith in God - but - we don't use it. After all, antiques are enjoyable to look at, but who wants to use a spinning wheel these days? We forget that religious faith is not a condition of a certain type of social order, but a certain type of social order results from the use of a fervent religious faith. Basic to the redemption of our present world is the recapture of an active faith in God."

The above is taken from a sermon given by Rev. Dr. Clifford E. Barbour on November 8th, 1951. Perhaps that surprises you. It did me. You are to be forgiven if you thought it was much more recent than that. It could have been preached from any number of pulpits just yesterday.

Many of you reading this know who Dr. Barbour was. For those who do not, Dr. Barbour was the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church from 1928 to 1951. He left to become President of Western Theological Seminary, which would later merge with Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary to become Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a position he held until his retirement in 1962. The excerpt above is from his Inaugural Address at Western Seminary. I edited it slightly for length and for inclusive language, but not for content. Everything you just read is as it was preached.

Dr. Barbour goes on to offer his thoughts on the church's calling in such a tragic time. He describes what he believes the church - and its members - must do to make a positive difference in the world. Given that Dr. Barbour's description of the problem is still valid and relevant today, I believe that his solution is equally relevant and valid.

And to find out what it is, you'll have to join me on Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. for our Virtual Worship Service. See you then!

Grace and peace...

Pastor Tim

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Psychic Numbing

If you're like me and you're wondering why so many people are walking around, visiting family, getting together, going to bars and restaurants, not wearing masks, and generally acting as if there's NOT a raging global pandemic going on, then perhaps the audio clip below will help answer some of your questions. 

It's an interview I heard recently with Dr. Paul Slovik, professor of psychology at University of Oregon, Eugene. 

He explains why Americans don't seem to be bothered by the massive numbers of deaths and why people are likely to not change their behavior in order to reduce infections. The first part is due to a phenomenon known as psychic numbing. The second is due to the psychological principle of reinforcement.

The clip is just a little over 4 minutes long.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Morton Rose & The River Bluff Wildlife Area

Hey all - 

Happy New Year to one and all! Recently, our friend and fellow church member, Helen Grant, shared with me an article written by her neighbor, Dale Allen, about another of their neighbors, our friend and fellow church member, Morton Rose, and his connection to the River Bluff Wildlife Area in South Knoxville. I found it to be fascinating reading, both for what I learned about Knoxville AND for what I learned about Morton. I thought you all might like to read the article, as well - so here you go!

Morton Rose and The River Bluff Wildlife Area

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Darkness of Advent

 Hey Everyone - 

Yesterday I was cleaning out my garage because it was my day off and it was warm outside and because, well, that's the kind of thing I do when I'm procrastinating about writing a sermon. (Another thing I do? Write a blog post.) While I was going through all the things that are in my garage that I haven't used in years but still insist upon taking up space in my life, I was thinking about how hard it is to get "up" for Christmas this year. I mean, our lights are hung, the trees decorated, and the decorations are all out; I put on Christmas music in my office and in my car and at home; Tuesday and I have watched several Christmas movies. But these things aren't really doing the trick. I'm just not "feeling" it this year.

This year has been hard...for all of us. We stopped all in-person activities at the church in March. We opened up to have people in worship and meetings in the church at the beginning of October, only to close again five weeks later as the infection rate in our county soared. Through it all you all have been so faithful. Everyone has done so very much to continue the mission and ministry of the church and to see that the church thrives. And we have. It's really been amazing to see what you all have done, and continue to do. You truly took the lemons of 2020 and made some sweet lemonade. I am so very grateful to you all and to God, I really am. But, like you, I am just getting emotionally fatigued by the distance, all the extra effort that goes into doing ministry in a pandemic, the masks, the fear, the partisanship in our nation, the arguments, the disagreements, the injustice and racism that persists, the everything-that-2020-has-been.

Maybe that's why I'm having hard time putting my thoughts together for tomorrow's sermon. This week is Gaudate Sunday - Joy Sunday. But how do I stand before people (well, stand before a camera that represents the people on the other end of the internet) and proclaim a message of joy when I'm not feeling particularly joyful myself?

The other day I was designing the Christmas Eve Service, and I was reading through the lectionary passages for the day. The words of the prophet Isaiah leapt out at me: 

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Usually when I read that passage I focus on and think about the light that shines in the darkness, the light that dawns at Christmas. This week, however, the words that leapt off the page at me were darkness and deep darkness. I feel like I am walking in darkness, that we are living in a land of deep darkness. I mean, it's easy to get excited about Christmas when life is shiny and pretty and fun. But what about when things are dark? When there is an empty place at the table that didn't have to be there? When you can't hold the new baby that was born to your colleague and friend? When peoples' jobs and livelihoods are in jeopardy? When you can't be with the people you love? When you are afraid of endangering the health of your congregation and those you love?

I think that now, perhaps more than at any time I can remember, we need Advent. We all love Christmas, but Christmas is easy; Advent is tough. Advent is waiting and watching. Where is God for a struggling people? Where is God when we have lost our smiles? Or we can't see the smiles for the masks? Where is God when our collective attitude seems to be "it is what it is." Where is God when our souls cry out with Habakkuk and with the Psalmist, "How long, O Lord?" Where is the light that shines in the darkness?

It is coming. At Christmas. It was to those living in the land of deep darkness that the light dawned, that God came in the form of a vulnerable child. And it still is. This is the world into which God came, and into which God still comes - a world full of people scared about an uncertain future, a world rocked by loss, a world waiting and hoping, sometimes against all reason, for the light to break through. Into a broken, dark, and fearful world, hope was born. Hope is born. This is true, even if we can't feel its immediacy.

I need to be reminded of this truth again and again, but especially this year. I need to be reminded that God chooses to come to us, abide with us; that he is our Lord, Emmanuel, God-with-us. This year, for me, I think Christmas will be more like Passover is for the people of Israel: a reminder that God has been faithful in the past, and will be faithful in the future. Just because I can't see it, just because the darkness is so...dark, doesn't mean that the light isn't coming. It doesn't mean that we won't see the dawn of a great light. No matter how uncertain 2020 has been, this is one thing I know to be certain, one thing I know in the depth of my being to be true: God has been faithful, and God will be faithful, and that faithfulness is the thing upon which I rest my hope, thanks be to God.

So we will light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. We will sing the songs and continue, for a little while longer, to observe a holy Advent. We will let it remind us of the faithfulness of the God who holds us fast and calls us Beloved. And we will continue to pray from the depths of the darkness, "O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel."

Grace and peace...


Monday, November 30, 2020

1st Sunday of Advent

 I love this day. I love this day because the secular world really doesn't know what to do with it. This day stands in the middle of the high holy days of consumerism like an oasis in the midst of a desert.

It all begins with Black Friday, the "traditional" start of the holiday shopping season that has, in recent years, begun to encroach upon Thanksgiving, with stores opening "early" on Thursday so shoppers can get outstanding deals. Then comes Small Business Saturday, the day we are supposed to eschew the major chains where we spent lots of dollars the day before in favor of the mom and pop shops in our town. After all, 67% of all dollars spent at local small businesses stay in the community.

Then there's today - the first Sunday of Advent. We'll come back to that.

Tomorrow is Cyber Monday, a day that grew along with the rise of the internet that offers outstanding online shopping deals for those who haven't yet spent enough money in search of the perfect Christmas gift. Then, after we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ourselves, we have Giving Tuesday. This is a day for "giving back" by donating to various charities that are always in need of funding. What better way to alleviate the guilt we feel for being selfish than by throwing a few dollars towards the need and deserving. 

By the way - don't forget to support UKirk's Giving Tuesday campaign. Here's a link:

Give to Ukirk

Now don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with shopping and there's nothing wrong with gift giving. There's also nothing wrong with supporting worthwhile causes.

It's just that today, the Sunday-without-a-special-name, the Sunday Christians call the 1st Sunday of Advent, flies in the face of the other four days. Why? Because the other four days are built upon a deadly myth that is rampant in our society - the Myth of Scarcity. The Myth of Scarcity says, "There's not enough to go around." 

The prominent Stanford economist, Thomas Sowell, has said, "The first lesson of economics is scarcity. There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it."

The Myth of Scarcity says we'd better get ours before someone else does. It creates a zero sum mindset - the idea that there must be a winner and a loser in every transaction, that for every gain there must be a corresponding loss. People with a mindset of scarcity see life as a finite pie; if someone else gets a big piece of the pie, that means less for others. Less for me.

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and even Giving Tuesday work because of the Myth of Scarcity, because people have bought the lie that there is not enough to go around. We have to get to the sale early or someone else will get a better deal than me. Small Businesses have to convince people of the value of shopping local because it's hard to compete with the big box stores. If we have the right online code or catch just the right flash sale we can win Cyber Monday. Worthwhile charities that do really good work in the world must fight and compete with other worthwhile charities that do really good work for the scraps that fall from the table once gluttonous Americans have satiated their own appetites by being the loudest or the slickest or the most persistent or demonstrating the most need or giving people the most compelling guilt trip.

And right in the middle of all of this is the 1st Sunday of Advent. A day that secular consumerism has not been able to get its hooks into and that most people treat as just a day to rest in between shopping days. And on this day, the 1st Sunday of Advent, we proclaim a message that is in direct opposition to the Myth of Scarcity. 

We proclaim the message of hope - hope in a God of abundance who sends his Son into the world to show the world grace and love and mercy and to let the world know there is more than enough to go around. The scriptures start out with a liturgy of abundance, God promises Abraham and Sarah abundance, God provides abundantly in the wilderness, Israel consistently and constantly celebrates God's abundance in the Promised Land. The people of God give to God and share with others off the top, rather than out of their leftovers, because they trust God to provide more.

When Jesus feeds the 5,000 (the only story to appear in all four of the Gospels), it is the disciples who say, "There is not enough to go around." But when they share what they have, at Jesus' command, there is more than enough for everyone to be fed. That is the counter-cultural message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Grace is not a finite pie. When we share what we have with others, there is more than enough for everyone, especially when we take care of others, rather than ourselves, first.

Our economy, the global economy, oil companies, banks, corporations, retail stores are all based on the Myth of Scarcity. They literally bank on our fear that there won't be enough to go around.

But on this day we stand and shout to the world - WE DO NOT BUY THE LIE OF SCARCITY! WE SERVE A GOD OF ABUNDANCE! WE SERVE THE GOD OF HOPE!

As Pastor Sarah says, "May it be so."