Lead Pastor's BlogThoughts from our Lead Pastor, Matthew Dyer
On vacation last summer, my wife and I made a road-stop in a small town in South Carolina. We found a great little coffee shop overlooking a picturesque harbor, and settled in to enjoy a moment of peace and quiet conversation. We obviously weren’t quiet enough because a couple of guys a few tables over quickly asked us, “Where are you from?” Our British accents had given us away, but the question was friendly enough (as it nearly always is in our case) and we responded. But the next question seemed to jump to somewhere quite surprising: “What do you think about all the immigrants and Muslim terrorists taking over your country? You must be really worried.” This question made me want to recoil and shut them out. I had a response, but ironically this apparently prejudiced and ignorant question was firing up all my own prejudice and ignorance. I am ashamed to say it, but their own accents and demeanor, and the fact that I was in “The South,” all made me jump to a host of conclusions about their worldview and openness to dialogue.
I wanted to withdraw, but something else overturned this instinct and I began to talk. I explained that most people in Britain do not see it that way, that immigrants are generally welcomed and cause no problem at all; that Muslims are not terrorists and are not taking over the country, but just people like you and me trying to make a life. I also mentioned that I was quite familiar with “terrorism” growing up in England because of the bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army. Depending on your political perspective, the IRA were “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” seeking Irish independence from centuries of British oppression—but either way, no one assumed any person from Ireland was automatically a terrorist. We talked about stereotyping, sweeping judgements, fear and misinformation—and their use by people in authority to gain support and consolidate power. They responded insightfully with their own perspective, we all listened, and it ended up being a kind and fascinating conversation: one that changed us all, I believe.
Another unspoken irony is that I am an immigrant. I am not a citizen of the USA but in all my nearly 20 years of living here, I have never felt treated like an immigrant. No one seems suspicious of me. The frequent question, “Where are you from?” is always asked with genuine interest. People seem to find the English accent quaint, and no one has suggested it’s problematic for me to be here. This is quite remarkable since I come from a country against which the US fought a bloody war of independence not all that long ago. We even came back a few decades later and burned down the White House—but all seems forgiven now, and I am received with kindness.
When my kids were at school, they would counter negative talk about immigrants and refugees with, “I am an immigrant too”—to which the response was always, “Oh, but you’re different.” There’s a sinister side to that “difference.” It’s not hard to see that the reason my immigrant family is treated so well is because we are white. That’s a hard sentence to write, but I think it’s true. The children being separated from their parents at our borders are not white. The refugees on blacklisted countries are not white. Few white immigrants like me receive xenophobic comments or are suspected of being terrorists. Somehow people who look different make us afraid, and fear is the fertile soil for prejudice and injustice.
Today is World Refugee Day: a day coordinated by the UN to highlight the plight of more than 66 million displaced people around the world. It’s a day that forces us as humanity to look at the tragedy of our fear and hatred as it wreaks havoc through war, and economic and environmental disaster. It also forces us all to confront our own fear of “the other.” Most of these people might look different to “us,” and perhaps we can acknowledge that this makes us fearful, suspicious or indifferent to people who are in need of a safe home. Perhaps this is why, despite having one of the world’s most rigorous vetting systems for refugees, the US still struggles with fear.
There are so many ways we can work towards a more loving response to refugees (click here for ideas for action). And we can all work together to overcome the power of fear in our culture. Perhaps a more positive reason my kids’ friends don’t think of them as “immigrants” is because they know them. They have a human connection that transcends culture, nationality, race and politics. Fear dissipates when we get to know others and build a bridge. That conversation in the coffeehouse in South Carolina could have resulted in greater polarization, but somehow we all managed to rise above our prejudices and listen. So let’s all speak up and act out for refugees. Let’s befriend refugees, immigrants, and people from other cultures wherever we can. Let’s have courageous and loving dialogue with those who disagree with us. Let’s fight fear and build bridges, and dare to dream the world can be a better place.
Is it just me, or does it feel like spring has really struggled to break through this year? There was a chill in the air this morning as the sun came up and caught the few azaleas that have courageously begun to flower in my back yard. They glowed in resistance to winter’s refusal to loosen its grip. But winter will eventually let go, of course. A few weeks ago (on Tuesday March 20 at 12:15PM EST, to be precise) our planet reached the point on its annual journey around the sun where our northern hemisphere began to tilt towards its star. Spring equinox! Spring is now inevitable: warmth, growth, new life. Nothing can resist it. It may feel slow in coming, but it’s all relative: we are actually moving around the sun at a staggering 670,000 mph. I’m not sure I want to go any faster!
This coming Sunday April 22 is Earth Day, and it’s well worth celebrating. There’s something beautifully “grounding” about the earth. The predictability of the seasons, the rhythm of day and night, the cycles of life and death all keep us humble and aware of our dependence on so many things over which we have no control. In fact, the very word “humble” comes from the Latin humus meaning “ground.” Humble people are grounded: aware of their limitations, conscious of their dependencies, and mindful of their impact on others. The earth reminds us of this.
We all belong to the earth. The ancient Hebrew creation story found in the Bible (surely a poetic metaphor for creation rather than a scientific account) pictures humanity as being very much from the earth: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). The word “man” in Hebrew is adam; the word “ground” is adamah. This word play is telling us we are part of the earth, grounded in it. We truly are earthlings and until we work out a way to sustain our existence on other planets, we are all dependent on this one right under our feet. No matter how rich or poor we are, no matter our race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age or education, we all need planet Earth. So Earth Day reminds us of how connected we really are, and how much we need one another. And that is worth celebrating!
We humans have the capacity to support and sustain our planet, but also to damage it. Earth has got along quite adequately for most of its 4.5 billion-year history without us, and will most likely continue to do so when we are long gone. But the way we treat it now determines how we’ll continue to benefit from it both in the present and the all-too-near future. The effects of climate change, pollution, the degradation or our forests and oceans, and the tragic extinction of countless species are all ultimately prices we pay. Earth will recover without us, but we have so much to enjoy, so much to look forward to and benefit from, if only we could walk humbly and lightly upon it. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5). So, Earth Day is also a reminder that the earth is an inheritance for us to treasure and pass on to generations to come. And that is worth celebrating!
At Cedar Ridge, we treasure the earth as a gift from God and an expression of God’s love. This Earth Day we’ll join with local people from all kinds of faiths, traditions and walks of life for an Interfaith Day of Service. Whatever our religion or politics, none of us have all the answers. But together, as grounded, humble, gentle, compassionate earthlings, we can make the world a better place.
A couple of weeks ago I was speaking at our church on the subject of hope in the context of war and violence. As always, I did my best to present a positive and hopeful way forward because I truly believe Jesus provides us with that kind of possibility. As always, I had my own doubts and my own fears that I might be simply naïve and unrealistically optimistic, and that, as a leader, I might be unfairly setting people up for disappointment. But, as always, I fell back (or perhaps forward) into a simple trust in Jesus and his way of non-violence, his love for enemies, and call to be peacemakers.
Meanwhile, pretty much as I was speaking, someone walked into a church in Texas and started killing people with an automatic weapon. A few days later, someone else did the same in a school in California. A few days after that, someone did the same at a mosque in Egypt.
Earlier this week my wife went to BWI to pick up a friend from the airport, and was delayed for several hours because the airport was shut down. Someone had left their bag unattended: at one level an understandable thing to do, but in this day and age a totally crazy thing to do because violence (and the expectation of violence) is our new normal.
It may be Advent—a time of hope, when we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ—but, if I’m honest, I find myself expecting the worst. Hope is in short supply. It’s been another unbelievably painful year. I can talk about hope, but the harsh reality of this world makes me want to run away.
Advent and our Christmas celebrations in some way offer such an escape. During the holidays the lights and music, food and drink, the goodwill, and time with family and friends all provide a welcome and needed respite from the “world out there.” I find myself longing for another world (a heaven perhaps)—and the stories of angels, prophecies, and miraculous stars and births all make me want to escape to such a world.
But the irony of Advent is that the birth of Jesus is anything but an escape. One of the unique aspects of Christianity is that in its most authentic form it validates this broken, dark, difficult, painful physical reality of ours. While most religions offer an escape from this reality, Christianity dares to dream that it can be redeemed. The birth of Jesus is incarnation: God becoming human. That is validation of our humanity as God lovingly embraces us with all our beauty and ugliness. God is not inviting us to escape this world but is entering the world to redeem it. Jesus is born into it; shows us how to love people who don’t love us; loves so much that it costs him his life; and is then resurrected back into this very reality. God has not given up on the world, and God has not given up on us.
People have always found this difficult to believe. The Christian Scriptures attest to the struggle early followers had with a notion that eventually became known as Gnosticism. Some were persuaded that the physical world is bad. Our bodies, our physical needs and desires are all symptom of weakness. The goal of life is to free our spiritual selves, our souls, from this body and escape to heaven. It’s not hard to see how this thinking of escape prevails in religion even today. But the story of Christmas tells us that the truth is just the opposite. The Divine Intention is not escape but redemption, and we are part of the plan. Jesus shows that a new way, a new creation is possible. We are called to partnership in reconciling this world to God. That means never giving up on hope, peace, love and joy. It means striving for justice in the most unfair situations. It means engaging rather than withdrawing in difficult relationships. It means entering and bringing light into darkness wherever we find it, rather than turning away.
This Christmas I want to rest. I want to find solace in the wonder and mystery of incarnation. But I also want to celebrate Immanuel, the Divine “Withness.” God is not going away. God is here. God is with us right now. Perhaps Advent is not really so much about us waiting for God, as God waiting patiently for us; waiting for us to see that God is already at work bringing Heaven to Earth.
I love fall for many reasons, and one of the main ones is food and drink. We had friends over the other day for a leisurely meal, some good wine, and meaningful but relaxed conversation. That’s not an unusual occurrence. But somehow on this occasion, looking around the table, I became acutely aware that “it doesn’t get much better than this!” Somehow that moment captured a little piece of heaven on earth for me—the beauty and mystery of both human connection, and our connection to all of creation.
Fall is harvest time, when we celebrate the miracle of photosynthesis! All spring and summer the innumerable solar panels we call leaves have been soaking up the energy of the sun and converting it into a variedly delicious energy source that we get to eat. In Europe and North America, fall is time for the grape harvest. The meticulously tended vines relinquish their cherished fruit, and in years to come will reappear in bottles of complex, delectable wine. These bottles contain years of work, heartache, joy, soil, weather and history. And we get to drink them! My body is now replenished with this miracle of food and drink. All that energy, all that history, all that humanity is now literally part of me!
Jesus loved food and drink. One of his favorite ways of referring to himself was the term “Son of Man.” It’s a mysterious term, with roots in ancient Hebrew prophetic literature, and carries certain apocalyptic connotations. Certainly, on many of the occasions where the Gospel writers report Jesus using the term, he seems to be talking about the future (even possibly the end of the world), which gives it a somewhat sinister feel. For years scholars have debated what it means and why Jesus used it as a self-reference so often. But perhaps it has a much more down-to-earth meaning.
What I find personally intriguing is that on three occasions Jesus uses it to describe his purpose on earth. In Luke 19:10 he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” In Mark 10:45 he says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” No great surprises there: for centuries, we have celebrated Jesus as Savior and, for many followers, we have always seen servanthood as the means by which Jesus saves and heals us. Jesus came to save and to serve.
But in Luke 7:34 Jesus says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” Jesus is saying that he came to eat and drink with us, and he loved doing it so much that he was accused (falsely by his enemies) of being a glutton and a drunkard. The way Jesus befriended “tax collectors and sinners” (people like you and me) was by eating and drinking with them. He broke down all manner of cultural barriers of race, religion, gender, political persuasion and social hierarchy simply by sharing food. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors, men and women, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles—and he was loved and hated for it. In his final moments with his closest friends, he eats a meal with them. After he comes back to life, he cooks his friends a meal on the beach. It seems that a big part of the way the Son of Man saves and serves us is through food and drink!
So, as we seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, and as we “dare to dream of heaven on earth,” a momentous step would simply be to open our homes and eat together. It’s no coincidence that the early communities of followers of Jesus are described as eating and drinking in one another’s homes. It’s no coincidence that the way these churches sought to remember Jesus was by eating a meal together. Over the years we’ve made that meal (communion) very ceremonious, but what if we were as mindful of Jesus every time we eat and drink, no matter who we are with? What if every meal was communion?
Food and drink is reconciling: it connects us to one another, it connects us to the universe, and it connects us to God. So let’s throw open the doors to our homes. Let’s cook good food (or get take out!). Let’s invite friends, neighbors, family, coworkers and general acquaintances, and let’s celebrate Life itself with the Son of Man!
I just got back from vacation on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Most people avoid Florida in the sweltering heat of summer, but for me there’s one big draw: sea turtles. The summer months are peak time for turtles to lay their eggs on the beach, and we were staying on the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge—one of the most prolific nesting areas in the world for loggerheads and green turtles. These amazing creatures were reptilian contemporaries of the dinosaurs but survived the extinction and have been swimming in our oceans for more that 100 million years—way before we came on the scene. Ironically, we are now their greatest threat, such that sea turtles are on the endangered list and protected areas like Arch Carr NWR represent a growing urgency to help them.
I was privileged to be able to go out each night until the early hours to surreptitiously watch enormous female turtles lumber out of the surf and struggle up the slope of the beach where, with great effort, they would dig a nest and lay a clutch of 100 or so eggs before returning to the sea. Early each morning I got to help patrol the same beach to rescue hatchlings from older nests that had hatched out during the night but had not been able to successfully navigate the perilous journey of a few yards from their nest to their future permanent home—the ocean. Once there, they swim all over the world and never return to land except to lay their eggs. And quite incredibly, having swam all over the world, each female returns each time to nest on the very same beach where she herself hatched some thirty or more years before. She will continue to do that for all of her fertile life (with many turtles living to more than 100)! It’s one of nature’s amazing navigational miracles, and no one really knows how they manage it.
As I observed these turtles, and in some simple way experienced a small moment of their normally hidden life, I felt caught up in their mystery. As I watched the sun rise in the mornings, and on moonless nights took in the stars and the vastness of the visible cosmos, I felt at times completely overwhelmed. It was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I felt drawn into the mystery of God. There’s so much we know and understand about our universe, but there’s so much we don’t know that remains mysterious. Often we seem to struggle with mystery: we feel we ought to understand everything. If we can’t understand or explain something, we are reticent to trust it and often we fear it. But unknowing, uncertainty, mystery, even doubt and confusion, are a normal healthy part of faith.
Mystery creates a sense of wonder, where we are overcome with awe as we surrender to a reality that is so much bigger and more beautiful than we can fathom. We can fall into the reality of the infinite love of God without fully understanding it.
Mystery provokes a sense of curiosity as we set out on a journey that is seeking understanding. Ironically, religion very often uses mystery to shut down critical inquiry and discourage curiosity. We are told certain things about faith are a “mystery”—meaning, “Stop asking questions or thinking in certain ways as it will get you into trouble!” But we all know that there are many things about life and about faith that are difficult, troubling, deep and mysterious. Perhaps God wants us to be troubled and curious. Perhaps mystery is a divine invitation into an intimate struggle, a quest for more, a call to deeper seeking that leads to more enlightenment and richer personal growth.
Mystery keeps us humble as we accept that we don’t know everything. Healthy spirituality thrives in an atmosphere of openness where there is room for doubt, for change, and for the opinions of others. Certitude often shuts these down and even makes us fearful of those with whom we disagree. But by humbly embracing mystery, we can see one another as fellow travelers who have not arrived yet. Spiritual discourse need not be about trying to convince the other that we are right, but an invitation to explore the mystery of God together: an invitation to swim in the vast ocean that is God’s love.
Interested in listening to messages?
You can hear messages from Matthew and our other speakers right on our website.