“Beyond the Dead End”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Dead End” Acts 16:6-15

We can imagine the Apostle Paul’s disappointment. The Jerusalem Council blessed his mission to the Gentiles. He left Antioch with big plans: to revisit the churches he had planted on his last missionary journey and then push on into new territory. But 750 miles into Paul’s second journey, it appeared that he was at a dead end.  First, the Holy Spirit had turned him around in Asia, and then, the Spirit of Jesus had blocked his way in Bithynia.  750 miles on foot, that’s a long way to go on a dead-end road.

As Paul retreated to the busy seaport of Troas on the Aegean, he must have felt frustrated and grieved.  He had gotten all the proper permissions.  He had the best intentions. And still, it was a no-go.  Even worse, he had dragged friends along on his folly: Silas, Timothy, and Luke.  As the team bedded down for the night, Paul was certainly puzzled—maybe even a little angered—by God, who had called him to this great missionary purpose, yet thwarted his efforts at every new turn.  It seemed that he had come to the end of the road.

We know how it feels to hit a dead end.  We have been there in our personal lives.  We’ve spent years in relationships with significant others who would never commit. We have had broken friendships that will never be mended. We have had family problems that just never get resolved.

We have hit dead ends in the workplace. Armed with a degree in our field of study, we step into a first job and find it is not at all what we had hoped or wanted.  We’ve worked long years for businesses that fail. We’ve done our very best for our boss and still the promotion never comes.

Sometimes we hit a dead end with our bodies, our physical health. There’s the natural progression of age—we no longer have the legs for mountain climbing or the eyesight for fine needlework. Or a difficult diagnosis can have life-changing consequences, like medications with debilitating side-effects or doctor’s appointments rob us of our days off.  Sometimes, our dead end leaves us hoping for a medical miracle.

We don’t like dead ends.  At the dead end, we feel like failures and are filled with “if onlys.” If only I had apologized. If only I had accepted that other job. If only I had taken better care of myself when I was younger. At the dead end, we may wonder if we have wasted our best efforts.  At the dead end, we may question God’s purpose and even God’s presence.

Paul must have felt a lot like that when he and his friends turned in for the night in Troas, lacking direction and wondering where to go. That night, Paul found new vision.  A Greek man, a Macedonian from the heart of the old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, spoke to Paul.  He pleaded for Paul’s help, calling the apostle to come over, to cross the Aegean Sea.  The apostle awoke with the conviction that the message was from God almighty, who was calling him in an entirely new direction. 

After sharing his vision with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, they all agreed, “Macedonia, here we come!” At first light, the men went down to the waterfront.  They booked passage for Neapolis, the port city of Macedonia.  As they set sail, a promising tailwind pushed them on to their destination in record time.  As Paul and his friends stood on the deck with the wind at their backs and the ocean spray in their faces, it must have felt like a holy affirmation of their new direction.

On some days, it can feel hard to imagine that a fresh start awaits on the far side of our dead ends. It’s difficult to see past grief and heartache, pain and loss, doubts and fears. Dead ends really do feel lousy. Yet, dead ends can be turning points or unexpected twists in a journey that continues.  Sometimes, when we take stock at the dead end, we find that we have grown through our experience. There is wisdom that comes with failure, insight gleaned from our dashed dreams, fresh understanding that grants patience when circumstances are beyond our control.  We may not have a spectacular midnight vision from the Lord, but newness and possibility can emerge from the ash heap of our dead ends.

There is life for us beyond the dead ends in our personal lives. On the far-side of the dead end, we may find a new relationship or discover joy in the freedom of being unattached. We make new friends, tend those kinships better, and keep healthier boundaries. We find the possibility for peace, even when our family stays stuck.  We may choose to make a family of our own with those who accept us as we are and support us in our growth.

There is possibility for us beyond the dead ends we find in the workplace. Beyond the dead end, we take the time to discern our gifts and learn how God would have us use those abilities in meaningful and productive ways.  Or, we find a new job with different, more meaningful responsibilities, colleagues, and learning experiences. Or, we realize that life isn’t about a paycheck. We find fulfillment beyond the unfulfilling workplace in our families, pass times, and service to the community.

There are fresh starts for us beyond the dead ends of growing age and failing health.  Indeed, the dead end of diminishing ability can lead to new interests.  We trade the tennis racquet for the pickleball paddle.  We trade mountain climbing for trail walking.  On the far side of the dead end, we learn to live with that diagnosis. We replace the burgers and fries with grilled salmon and a fresh, leafy salad – and we may even learn to like it.  We find the support we need to accept our limits in small groups and the prayers of faithful friends.  Even when we must acknowledge the finitude of our days—the dead end that we will all one day meet, we savor the time we have, drink each day to the last drop, and trust that with God, there is always an eternal more that awaits us in that far brighter light on that far better shore

The Apostle Paul had one more twist on his missionary journey.  He spent some days in Philippi without any success to speak of.  On the Sabbath morning when he left the city and headed down to the river in search of an informal synagogue, he was probably wondering about the wisdom of this “new direction.”  There had been no Macedonian man waiting to greet him. On the contrary, it was the Gentile woman Lydia, an affluent merchant of imperial cloth, whom he found, gathered with her household at the riverside to pray and meditate upon the Word.

Paul let go of his expectations and followed the Spirit’s lead.  He shared the good news of Jesus and God’s love that is stronger than death.  And Lydia followed the Spirit’s lead, too, with open ears, open heart, and an open home.  Imagine the rejoicing on that riverbank, the shouts of “Alleluia!” “Amen!” and “Thanks be to God!” as Lydia was baptized, and Paul’s first church beyond the dead end was planted. Now, that’s what I call a new beginning.

Paul’s story speaks to us, we who have languished in the cul-de-sac of dead ends and second-guessed our new beginnings.  Paul reminds us that our path and our purpose ultimately belong to God and we are never alone on the journey.  We can trust that the Spirit is at work in us, just as it is at work in others.  God’s Spirit opens ears, opens hearts, and opens the way to the future that God holds ready.  Beyond our dead ends, the Spirit beckons to us, “Come over.”

Resources:

Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 9, 2010.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Brian Peterson. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2013.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jennifer Kaalund. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 26, 2019.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Megan McDonough. “Dead Ends Are New Beginnings.” Accessed online at wholebeinginstitute.com.

Dixie Somers. “7 Dead Ends in Life and How to Avoid Them.” Accessed online at lifehack.org.


Acts 16:6-15

6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We therefore set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed[b] there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.


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The Choice for Joy

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Choice for Joy” Philippians 4:4-7

This Sunday has long been known as Gaudete Sunday.  That name derives from ancient Latin words that began our worship on the third Sunday of Advent, long before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  I’m talking about Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi.  Gaudete in Domino semper, rejoice in the Lord always.

In the days when Advent was closely observed as a season of repentance, fasting was eased on this Sunday as Christians anticipated the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus and his triumphant return in glory.  These days, the only reminders of that celebratory observance are the name Gaudete or Joy Sunday and the pink candle on our Advent wreath.  The pink is a softening of the season’s penitential purple.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  The theme of this Sunday may feel like a jarring, dissonant message for some this morning.  As we acknowledged in our midweek service of the Longest Night, the joy of Christmas may feel at odds with our personal feelings of sorrow, pain, and hardship.

Burt won’t be merry this Christmas.  His wife Lois died last summer.  This year on Christmas Day, there won’t be a salty, savory ham baking in the oven.  Nor will there be a platter of deviled eggs or a sticky, sweet pecan pie.  This year, the kids and grandkids won’t be coming home for the holiday dinner.  Burt has a big, painful hole in his life.  All Burt can feel is the emptiness and sorrow in his heart.

Kristin is struggling this Christmas.  The kids will be spending the day with their father and his new wife—and they’re expecting a baby.  While her kids are unwrapping presents from Santa, Kristin will have a second cup of coffee and watch one of those Hallmark Christmas movies.  Kristin wonders how her “happily ever after” ended with adultery and divorce.  She feels lonely, betrayed, and defeated.

Joanie and Curt don’t have much to celebrate this year.  Their small business was a casualty of COVID-19.  They have found other work, but it may take years to pay off their mountain of debt.  This year instead of shopping, they’re making special gifts for the kids and upcycling some used toys and clothes.  All the same, Santa won’t have much under the tree.  Joanie and Curt feel stressed, disappointed, and powerless.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  That’s what the Apostle Paul said to his friends in Philippi.  Bible scholars tell us that the circumstances of the Philippian church were hardly joyful.  Their Greco-Roman neighbors viewed them with suspicion.  In fact, Paul and Silas had been driven out of their community by prosperous merchants who said they were bad for business.  The young church needed Paul’s leadership, but his return to Philippi had been long delayed.  When news came that Paul was in the imperial prison, the Philippians sent Epaphroditis to Rome to provide support.  Then, came the news that Epaphroditus was sick—near death.  We can imagine the worry and concern of the Philippians as they waited and feared the worst.  It must have felt to some felt like a jarring and dissonant message when Epaphroditus finally returned, bearing Paul’s epistle with the exhortation to rejoice always.

We don’t like it when folks make light of our suffering.  It feels like a gut punch when we are lost in grief and someone assures us that our loved one passed because God needed another angel.  We feel like failures when a more skilled or experienced friend offers to help—after our plans have come to ruin.  Early in my tenure here, I was approached by an older woman who had been a member of the church as a child.  When her father divorced her mother—a scandalous turn of events in that day and age, Rev. Gurley, our pastor at the time, told the bereft wife and children that all would be better when they met a “nice guy.”  Poor Reverend Gurley was well-intended, but his words felt like gall in the ears of those he had sought to comfort.  Almost seventy years later, the anger and hurt of the daughter was still palpable as she told me her story.

It’s important to note that the Apostle Paul wasn’t speaking platitudes or empty promises to his friends in Philippi.  He wasn’t making light of their struggle and fear.  On the contrary, Paul believed that joy was a core characteristic of the Christian life in all circumstances, and he modeled that for others.  The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they sang songs of faith and prayed—much to the amazement of their jailor.  When Paul described to the Corinthians the difficulties of his service for Jesus, Paul said he was “grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).  Even as Paul wrote to the Philippians, his end was near.  Condemned to death for the sake of the gospel, Paul had appealed his case to the emperor himself—and everyone knew that would not go well.  Despite every adverse circumstance, Paul lived in joy and hoped that others would, too.

The secret to Paul’s joy was its source.  Paul rejoiced in the Lord.  This wasn’t the fleeting, superficial feeling of happiness that comes when everything goes our way.  Rather, Paul’s joy was found in the knowledge that he belonged to God, who loved him enough to enter the world’s darkness and die for his salvation.  Paul trusted in God’s love in every circumstance.  He boldly wrote to the church in Rome that God’s love was always victorious, saying, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Paul’s joy in the Lord sustained him through rejection, persecution, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and even the shadow death because he knew that he belonged to God both in this world and the world that is to come.  Now that was something to rejoice in.

Henri Nouwen, one of the finest pastoral theologians of the twentieth century, taught that joy is a choice.  Sounding a lot like the Apostle Paul, Nouwen wrote in his 1994 book Here and Now that “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”  Nouwen saw joy as a spiritual discipline, the daily choice to remember our belovedness and to live in the light of God’s unquenchable love for us.  This joy is ours always, regardless of what is going on in our lives.

Nouwen himself used daily quiet times of prayer to reflect upon his life and attend to his mood.  In that stillness, in the choice to remember the love of God revealed in Jesus, Nouwen’s world would change.  Worry, stress, irritability, and sorrow would give way to joy.  In Nouwen’s words, the daily choice for joy transformed him from a “victim,” overwrought by the pain and challenge of life, to “victor,” resting in the eternal goodness of God.  Joy can be ours for the choosing.

The choice for joy that Paul and Henri Nouwen described might seem like a dry theological assertion or an unlikely turn of events if we didn’t see it in action.  We have all encountered folks who knew tremendous adversity and grief yet continued to shine light for the world around them.  I think about Anna Ferree, who lost her two sons in tragic accidents.  After their deaths, a friend asked Anna for help with watching her children.  Before she knew it, Anna had a daycare in her home.  There Anna provided love and support for many of Saranac Lake’s children.  Anna still mourned the loss of her sons, yet she chose to make a helping and healing difference in the lives of local families.  There were story times and naps, snacks and tea parties, play time and even prayer time.  Anna saw her experience as a vocation, a gift from God who called her from sorrow to joy. 

We all know people like Anna.  The mother who raised three incredibly successful kids alone.  The dad who never misses a Little League game, despite his battle with cancer.  The older brother who skips college and works hard to provide the resources for others to get an education.  They do the impossible with grace.  We all know folks who have shown us an inner strength and remarkable faith that chooses joy, despite the odds.

Beyond the difficulties and problems that every life holds, there is cause for joy on this Gaudete Sunday, a joy that is both holy and improbable.  When we stand fast in God’s love and make the choice for joy, we can be bowed down by grief, like the recently widowed Burt, and yet we can rejoice.  We can struggle with broken, dysfunctional families, like Kristin alone on Christmas Day, and yet we can rejoice.  We can know hardship and failure, like Joanie and Curt who lost their business, and still we can rejoice.  Joy is ours because we are beloved.  Amid adversity, we belong to God who has overcome the grief and sorrow, pain and problems of this world.

May we rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say rejoice.


Resources:

Holly Hearon. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2008.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Carla Works. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 21, 2021.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 13, 2009.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Henri Nouwen. Here and Now. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006.


4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:4-7


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“Live in Love”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – “Live in Love” – Ephesians 4:25-5:2

We need love. The groundbreaking research of behavioral scientists like Harry Harlow and John Bowles determined that humans have a hard-wired biological need to experience love. Their findings revealed that babies who are deprived of contact comfort and love during the first six months of life suffer long-lasting harm. Even into adulthood, they can experience psychological damage that increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and difficulty in relationships. We also need to give love. Each of us has an innate need to love and care for others. It’s what compels us to pinch the cheeks of babies, say “Aww!” when we see a cute puppy, or make a generous donation to the Crisis Care Nursery when we hear about those at-risk orphans. It’s safe to say that God created us with the intent of giving and receiving love.

No one was better versed in the importance of love for human development than broadcaster and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers. Once a lonely child himself with respiratory issues, Fred was sensitive to the insecurities and needs of children. The love and affirmation of his grandfather, the original Mr. McFeely, helped Fred through those early years. As the grown-up Fred saw the vapid humor and violence of children’s television, he thought, surely, we can do better. He resolved to use tv to encourage kids to know that they mattered. From 1968 until 2001, his show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was broadcast nationally on public television. In 895 episodes, Mr. Rogers was all about love. Fred said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest people.”

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians also emphasized the importance of love. The apostle spent more than two years in the busy Aegean port of Ephesus sharing the good news, spending five hours daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, relating the story and teachings of Jesus. All that gospel, coupled with extraordinary miracles, made for a vibrant and growing church. In summarizing the Way of Jesus, Paul exhorted his friends to “live in love.” He began by describing all the things that love is not: dishonesty, harbored anger, thievery, malicious gossip, and slander. Wise pastor that he was, Paul knew that these behaviors undermine the fabric of a community.

We can attest to the truth of Paul’s teaching. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? says that dishonesty undermines trust, the primary connective tissue of a relationship. Without trust and the sense of safety that it brings, our relationships cannot grow in a healthy manner. Likewise, Dr. Randi Gunther cautions that unresolved anger can sabotage our connections with those we care about, whether our anger manifests as nitpicking, withdrawal, snapping, or tantrums. Once we are in an angry interaction, we can rapidly go from friends to adversaries, unable to see beyond our emotional survival. We resort to distance for our emotional safety and resist working through the conflict to get at the underlying feelings and concerns. We also all know from personal experience how painful it is to be targeted by gossip. It spreads lies, tarnishes reputations, and ruins relationships. Dishonesty, harbored anger, and sins of speech, when these destructive behaviors become endemic to a family, community, or church, they create an unsafe emotional space where no one truly feels welcomed, accepted, or loved.

Paul expected better of the Ephesians—and us. He reminds us that our true purpose is agape, the generous, other-interested love that acts out of concern for the well-being of others. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, describes agape as “kenotic love,” from the Greek word kenosis, which means to “pour out.” In agape we pour out ourselves in the best interest of others. There isn’t anything in it for us. Agape is self-sacrificing, forgiving, and kind.

Agape is a healer and a community builder. A Penn State study considered the effect of feeling loved upon individuals. They asked subjects to report the brief experiences of love and connection that they had in everyday life: a caring text, a meaningful interaction with a friend, a sweet kindness from a family member, the random niceness of strangers. The researchers learned that the subjects who had more experiences of love and connection also had significantly higher levels of psychological well-being, including feelings of optimism and purpose.

Fred Rogers didn’t need a scientific study to tell him that. He simply believed that all people feel better and are happier when loved. In his testimony before a Senate panel in 1969, Rogers described the ethic that undergirded his children’s programming, saying, “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we… can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men [be portrayed] working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing… gunfire. I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing.”

Like Fred Rogers, we instinctively know the power of kindness and love to build-up one another, but we sometimes struggle to be loving. We get really angry. Sometimes it is justified. We can be less than honest or may resort to lies because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to represent ourselves in a bad light, or we want to try to stay in control of a situation where we feel out of our depth. We can use language in ways that hurt, whether we speak rashly, raise our voices, betray a confidence, or put someone down so that we can feel better about who we are. We hear Paul’s wise exhortation to “live in love,” but it isn’t always easy.

We are only able to forge the capacity to be a people who live in agape when we consider the example of Jesus. His life was a long unfolding of agape. In agape, Jesus chose to heal hurting people on the sabbath day, even when the scribes insisted that he was violating the Torah. In agape, Jesus welcomed sinners, scandalizing the Pharisees. In agape, Jesus was crucified, taking on the sin of the world and reconciling us to God and one another. In agape, Jesus forgave even his executioners as they nailed him to the cross and gambled for his robe. Jesus poured out his life in “kenotic love.” It is when we ponder the enormity of what Jesus has done for us that we begin to understand agape. It is in following Jesus, what Paul described as being “imitators” of Jesus, that agape begins to take shape in our lives. We care, we share kindness, we forgive, we learn to live in love.

Researchers say that agape is good for us. Dr. Raj Raganathan, who teaches at the University of Texas, has found that when we express love and compassion for others, it makes us happier. In a study, students were given a gift of either $5 or $20 with the instruction that they could do with it as they wish, either spending it on themselves or spending it on someone else. The study found that those students who chose to spend their windfall on others grew happier than those who kept it for themselves, regardless of whether they were spending $5 or $20. That desire to love and care that each of us is born with brings happiness when it is generously exercised. Our agape helps others, and yet we benefit, too. I suspect that Jesus and the Apostle Paul knew that, too.

In one of his last public addresses, Fred Rogers delivered the commencement speech for Dartmouth University’s Class of 2002. Mr. Rogers shared one of his favorite stories, seeking to impart the ethic of other-interested love and care that he hoped those best and brightest of young people would embrace. The story was about the Seattle Special Olympics. There were nine “differently-abled” contestants for the hundred-yard dash. They assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell. He hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying, slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, saying, “This’ll make it better”. And the little boy got up. Then, all the runners linked their arms and joyfully walked to the finish line together. Everyone in the crowd stood up, clapped, whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. Mr. Rogers said that deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then. He went on to quote Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the last of the great Roman philosophers, who said, “Oh happy race of mortals, if your hearts are ruled, as is the universe, by love.”

Sisters and brothers, let us live in love.

Resources:
Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Exegetical Perspective on Eph. 4:25-5:2” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Gunther, Randi. “How Anger Affects Intimate Relationships” in Psychology Today, August 30, 2019. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.
Ward, Richard F. “Homiletical Perspective on Eph. 4:25-5:2” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
–. “Fred Rogers” in Biography. Accessed online at biography.com.
Penn State. “Feeling Loved in Everyday Life Linked with Improved Well-being” in Science Daily, Nov. 25, 2019. Accessed online at sciencedaily.com.
Rogers, Fred. “Dartmouth College Commencement Speech, 2002 in Rev Speech to Text Services. Accessed online at https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/fred-rogers-mr-rogers-commencement-speech-transcript-2002-at-dartmouth-college.
Raghnathan, Raj. “The Need to Love” in Psychology Today, Jan. 8, 2014. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.
–. “About Fred” in Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. Accessed online at https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/about-fred.


Why Mister Rogers Took Pictures of the People He Met - Biography
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“Rejoice Always”

A Memorial Reflection in Celebration of the Life of the Rev. Richard F. Stone

“Rejoice always!
Pray constantly.
Give thanks in everything,
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Don’t stifle the Spirit.
Don’t despise prophecies,
but test all things.
Hold on to what is good.
Stay away from every kind of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.”

– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24


Rejoice always? Rejoice while the delta variant surges across the unvaccinated heartland and we return to our masks. Hunh?  Rejoice while Republicans and Democrats debate whether January sixth was an armed insurrection or a reverent, if illicit, tour of the Capitol.  Hmmm.  Rejoice while Simone Beils struggles with the stress of athletic excellence and bows out of Olympic events that she once mastered with ease.  Really?  Rejoice while we gather in sorrow.  Rejoice as we miss a beloved husband, father, pastor, and friend.  Rejoice as we sense a Dick Stone-shaped hole in our hearts.  I’m not so sure.

“Rejoice always.”  When the Apostle Paul wrote that exhortation to his beloved flock in Thessalonica, they didn’t feel that they had much to celebrate.  Thessalonica was a culturally Greek city, where a bevy of Greco-Roman gods were worshipped.  In fact, Thessalonica was a haven for the Imperial Cult.  The Roman senate had declared the emperor the newest of gods and mandated that all should worship, sacrifice, and give generously to the emperor to ensure their personal wellbeing and the good of the empire.  Thessalonica was an unlikely place to plant a church, especially a community that heralded as the Messiah a man convicted and crucified for insurrection against the empire: Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul first came to Thessalonica after spending time in jail in Philippi.  In Thessalonica, Paul found a kind and generous welcome among the Greeks, who had eager ears to hear his good news of a God who loves us enough to take on flesh and live among us and show us the way of salvation.  They marveled at the Christ, who loves us enough to die for us, who promises that God’s holy love is eternal, who is always eager to welcome us—no matter what—both here and now and in that far brighter light on that far better shore.  Not everyone in Thessalonica welcomed Paul or his gospel.  He met with violent resistance from the synagogue and was driven out of the city.  But Paul’s tender followers persisted in Thessalonica, experiencing the sort of scorn and persecution that had led Paul to flee for his life.  In the refuge of Athens, Paul heard of his little flock’s trouble, so he wrote to them saying, “Rejoice always.”

Paul reminded his people that joy isn’t found in the superficial circumstances of our lives: the masks and the virus positivity rate, the incessant squabbles of partisan politics and the false, hateful brotherhood of white supremacy, the thrill of Olympic gold and the euphoria we find when everything is coming up roses.  Joy is found in God’s love that was revealed to us in Jesus, a love that walks with us through the long days of our lives and holds for us the promise of salvation.  Paul cast a joyous vision of the fulfillment of joy to come, writing to his persecuted friends, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).  Although we know persecution, although we know grief and hardship, we have a holy welcome and an imperishable inheritance.  In that truth there is abundant joy, enough to make us want to “rejoice always!”

My friend and colleague Dick Stone knew the joy of which Paul wrote, the joy that we choose, even when it feels like life is giving us more lemons than we can possibly squeeze into lemonade.  Dick found joy in the Lord.  Jesus was his shepherd, friend and constant companion.  Dick found the quiet joy of prayer and meditation.  He feasted on the Word, whether tackling seminary studies at Princeton, prepping for his weekly sermons, or meeting with the ecumenical clergy.  Dick expressed his love and joy for the Lord in a life devoted to God’s service.  There was joy in serving the saints of Bellona, Hornell, and Canton.  There was joy in caring for vulnerable neighbors through the Church and Community Program that he worked to establish in Canton.  There was joy in providing clean water for African villages through the shallow well initiative of the Marion Medical Mission.  It’s hard to believe, but there was joy in moderating the Presbytery of Northern New York.

Dick found joy in Jeanne, his partner in life, love, and ministry.  They forged a family and a home together in sunshine and, at times, in sorrow.  Especially in retirement, the two were inseparable.  You might have seen them strolling the village on a Thursday evening Art Walk, or sharing a lunch out at a local eatery, or seated next to one another in a pew, worshipping the God who brought them joy. 

How grateful Dick was that the circle of joy and love that he shared with Jeanne spilled over to a new generation.  Lisa, Mark, and Kirk were the apple of his eye.  He loved and was proud of you and the strong, independent, successful adults that you have become.  He delighted in those grandchildren.  Dick acknowledged that he struggled with the challenge of being a pastor and a family man.  As he prepared to retire from his 30-year pastorate in Canton, Dick told a local reporter, “I’ve said to my children many, many times, ‘All I ask of you is to believe I tried to do the best I could at that time in my life.  I might have been dead wrong, but please believe that I tried my best.’”

Dick lived with good cheer, faithfulness and a modicum of rejoicing – even when it may not have seemed that there was much to rejoice about.  On the third Sunday of Advent in 1996, after the untimely death of Kirk, Dick returned to leadership in Canton, to lead the people he loved in worship.  I can only begin to imagine the ponderous weight of climbing into the pulpit on that Sunday with a broken heart, still reeling with grief.  The theme he chose for worship that day?  “Rejoice always!” 

Jeanne shared with me Dick’s sermon notes for that message.  Those of you who knew Dick’s penmanship can imagine how indecipherable those notes truly are.  But I was able to make out that Dick began that message as I did this one, with all the reasons that joy seems like a bad and unlikely choice.  I may not have been able to read Dick’s handwriting, but I know that he went on to claim the hope that Paul held out to his friends in Thessalonica.  Dick trusted that, in every circumstance, even the most bitter of family tragedies, God was with him.  Dick knew that God can take all our loss and tears and grief and bless it, redeem it, and summon from it a miracle of new life.  Dick believed that death is the ultimate healer.  There is a far brighter light on that far better shore where the unbridled joy of the Kingdom of God awaits.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  Again, we will say rejoice.

We who love Dick can find solace in the very promise that Dick trusted.  No life is without sorrow, from the persecution of the Thessalonians to the grief that we share this afternoon.  Yet amid the tears there is joy.  Listen!  The archangel has called.  The trumpet has sounded.  Dick, God’s good and faithful servant, has risen with unbridled joy to meet the Lord he so dearly loves.  One glorious day, we shall all be caught up together.  “Rejoice always!”  Again, I will say, rejoice!


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