Pastor Tommy's Blog

You can access Pastor Tommy's past blogs from 2023 here.

  • Going Underground - February 22, 2024

    Last Friday, the dogs and I were beginning our walk when I noticed a puddle in the area between my yard and the neighbor’s. I walked over to investigate and discovered what looked like a big hole I hadn’t noticed before, completely filled with water that was flowing into our yards. The hole seemed to be between my meter box and the street, so we called the water company.

    I had plans and so wasn’t able to be there when the water guy showed up, but the next day when I looked at the hole, it was dry. I couldn’t figure out how it had gotten that way because nothing was dug up, there were no signs of repair. Then I looked across the street and saw that our neighbors’ meter box had been dug up. Apparently, the leak had originated there but rather than pool in a low spot in my neighbor’s yard or flow over the road, the water had gone underground and popped up again in my yard.

    I think the same sort of thing happens in our lives. Stuff happens, and because we don’t have the time (or the inclination) to deal with it, we push it underground, maybe thinking it will stay there. But like the water from my neighbor’s broken water line, it doesn’t. It’s got to go somewhere, and it’s eventually going to come out. For me, it used to be on the highway. Someone cuts me off or doesn’t let me merge and I lose it. One of my favorite things to do was get right on the offender’s tail and stay there until my nemesis had learned his or her lesson … or until I came to my senses, whichever came first.

    Social media (and our increasingly polarized and fragile culture) has made it easier for us to see this principle in action everywhere. People regularly flying off the handle and starting flame wars over the smallest and most inconsequential things, not so much based on the thing they’re venting their rage over, as it is something they are unwilling or unable to resolve within themselves.

    Now, I don’t do the tailgating thing so much anymore, and I try to minimize my exposure to the social media and cable news rage machine, but I still encounter the same principle in my life in more subtle ways. Pride, judgment, resentment. All of it projected onto others who may or may not have done anything to deserve it, but actually flowing from something unresolved in me.

    We’re now in the season of Lent, which is a time for us stop and reflect on what’s most important in our lives. It’s a time for a little introspection; a time to dig in and maybe find some of those things that we’ve shoved underground—some of the things we’re holding onto, whether we know it or not; to find them and to get rid of them; to give them to God. Lent presents us with a choice: to hold onto all that stuff (which inevitably separates us from the peace and joy of Christ), or to let it go and connect more closely with the eternal One who loved us into being.
  • I Hate Squirrels - February 15, 2024

    When I was a kid, some squirrels chewed their way into our attic. It took a while for us to figure out that the pitter-pattering sound wasn’t just squirrels on the roof. During their sojourn in our attic, the squirrels did a fair amount of damage to the insulation, the ductwork, and various wires. Once we figured out they were there, it took months and months and months to get them out. Every time we thought we had them under control, they would manage to somehow chew their way back in. I think we ended up replacing part of the roof and installing thick, stainless steel vent screens. From then on, every time my mother saw a squirrel in the road, she would swerve, often with some moderately deranged invective, to hit it. A few times she actually got one. My mother hated squirrels.

    Now, I had pretty much forgotten about this dark episode in my family’s history until a few months ago. Kirsten and I have an old truck that we use mostly to haul things and serve as a backup when one of our other cars is in the shop. It’s been a really good truck over the years and mostly problem free. That is, until the squirrels found it. One afternoon I was going to use it to haul some brush, but it wouldn’t shift into gear. After several hours of YouTubing (and some lunch and maybe a nap), I finally located the problem. Squirrels had gotten into the engine compartment who knows how long before, had made themselves a nice little nest, and had chewed through some wires.

    I fixed the wires and went on with my life. A few months later, the truck wouldn’t start. I immediately lifted the hood and spotted a new nest, right in the middle of a what looked like a wire explosion. One tow job and $750 dollars later, we got the truck back. My mechanic said to put mentholatum on the wires and mothballs under the engine compartment to deter the squirrels, so that’s what I did.

    Then, a few weeks ago, several of the truck’s warning lights started to blink. Turns out the mentholatum trick works, but only if you put it on ALL the wires. The squirrels had simply moved to the other side of the engine compartment.

    I now understand my mom’s antipathy towards squirrels. In fact, I guess I’m carrying on the family tradition. I hate squirrels. Everything about them. Their cute little chipmunk faces and their fluffy little tails. The precious way they sit on their hind legs and hold their food in their cute little front hands while they eat. I hate them. And I think the squirrels must sense this, since they seem to stay out of the road when I’m around; they don’t even give me the chance to veer and hit them. I hate squirrels with the intensity of a thousand burning suns.

    And as I contemplate my undying desire for all squirrels to die tragic and painful deaths, I realize that I wish I felt the same way about sin. And, just so we’re all on the same page, my understanding of sin is anything that separates us from God. Not just the big stuff like theft and murder and lying, but everything.

    In our church we just finished a worship journey where we focused on generosity and giving as a spiritual practice that draws us closer to God. And as that journey progressed, I began to realize that while generosity can be a spiritual practice, like any other spiritual practice, it can also become an idol. I came to understand that for me, it had become a rote exercise; a stand-in for actually seeking a closer relationship with and experience of God’s love and goodness. It had become sin.

    And that got me to thinking about my prayer life. Over time, I have developed a fairly detailed schedule that includes devotions, Bible study, prayer, and meditation every morning, which is obviously a good thing. But more frequently than I would like to admit, this exercise too turns into a rote exercise. It becomes something I just need to grit my teeth and power through so I can get some real work done for God’s kingdom.

    And, even worse, most days, once I’m done with that morning prayer time, I pretty much forget about God for the rest of the day. I do my work. I check the news feed on my phone (way too much). I do all the other stuff we all do to distract myself from the One who loved me into existence. At least until right before I go to bed, when, day after day, like a newborn with no concept of object permanency, I realize once again that I spent the better part of my day trying to get away from God.

    I don’t think I’m unique in this. And what really gets me is that I’m pretty much OK with it. I ought to hate it. I mean, the creator of everything that is—bigger than the universe and older than time—loves me so much that he wants nothing more than for me to spend my day with Him. And tiny little me can’t seem to make it happen. I ought to hate this even more than I hate squirrels. But I don’t.

    Now, the point of this reflection isn’t to beat myself up, or for any of you who can identify to beat yourselves up. It’s just a recognition—especially appropriate as we head into the season of Lent—that there’s always room for improvement. Until we reach perfection, there’s always going to be something we need to repent of—to leave behind—in order to draw closer to God.

    So, here’s my prayer for today: God, help us all to flip the script of our lives. Help us to hate the things that distract us from your presence at least as much as we hate squirrels.
  • God is Good - February 8, 2024

    I nearly killed my dog the other day. Not on purpose, of course (although sometimes she tempts me). I was putting out bait to kill the mice that have been feasting on the wires in my truck and decided to put one in the back yard for full coverage. Less than 5 minutes later, I noticed the bait housing was gone. I went around the corner and there was Ginger Ruth, chewing on a shredded mouse-bait-housing, with little green crumbs covering her mouth and the remains of the housing.

    I would like to say I responded all cool and everything, like Fonzie from “Happy Days.” Aayyyy. Unfortunately, I responded more like Lenny. I freaked out. My gut clenched and my mind shut down. But finally, after several moments of mindless, pointless wandering, the gears started turning again and I took Ginger to the vet. They got her fixed up in no time.

    As I write this, Ginger is laying in her bed looking at me. She’s been her normal, alternately hyperactive and comatose self ever since she recovered from the medicine the vet gave her. I, on the other hand, am still a mess. I like to think of myself as a reasonably calm and emotionally stable person, but this event nearly did me in. Waiting helplessly to find out whether my dog would live was like being encased in giant suffocating cotton balls, while at the same time lying in a bathtub with a low-voltage electrical charge passing through it.

    Now, as I was waiting, I knew I should pray. But I had a hard time stringing together the thoughts and words. So, I just said over and over, “Please, God.”

    Now, I realize that in the grand scheme of things, this was a pretty small event. I know so many people who have been through so much worse with friends, family members, spouses, and with far different outcomes. Sometimes the outcome is precisely the opposite of the prayers.

    I’m reading a book now on theodicy, which is a churchy word for why bad things happen to good people (and why good things happen to bad people); why some prayers are answered with miracles and so many prayers don’t seem to have any effect. And, as it turns out, there are lots of logical philosophical explanations. Suffering builds character and Christlikeness (which, to a point, is true, but not very satisfying for those who are suffering). A lot of the time when we pray, we’re praying for stuff that’s really not good for us and God knows better (like if I were to pray for a lifetime supply of as much ice cream as I can eat). Similarly, God knows everything, so God knows when (and how) to answer or not answer our prayers for our ultimate good. And there are lots more.

    But what it all boils down to in the end is, “we don’t know.” It’s a mystery.

    Now, there are some things we do know (or at least that I know). What I do know is that God is God and I am not. God is love—ultimate goodness—and I am not. God is all-powerful, and I am not. And I know that even in the difficult times—like when all I can think is “please, God”—it helps to know that there is an all-powerful, perfectly good God there with me, grieving with my grief, laughing with my joy, and loving me through it all.

  • I'm His Favorite - February 1, 2024

    Several years ago, one or the other of my siblings (I’m pretty sure it was Becca) started giving a particular kind of Christmas and/or birthday present to my parents. I think it started with a T-shirt that had her picture on it, with the words “Favorite Daughter” underneath. Not at all a middle child thing.

    Anyway, this gift-giving strategy has spread to other members of the family, so at any given family gathering where gifts are involved, there’s likely to be at least on “I’m the favorite” gift given and received.

    Which brings us to last Sunday night. We were celebrating my sister Patti’s birthday. A few weeks ago, Kirsten came to me literally giggling. She found this place online that makes coffee mugs that are black at room temperature, but when they’re heated up—for example by hot coffee—they lighten to reveal whatever is underneath. So, Kirsten’s idea was to put a picture of her on the cup, along with the text “Favorite Sister in Law,” and give one to both of my sisters. She’s been giddy with excitement for the better part of the last 2 weeks as she waited to give these gifts to my sisters. And it only got worse, so that by Sunday, she could hardly contain herself.

    Now, Kirsten was very sneaky about the whole thing. When she presented the mugs to my sisters, she said they came highly recommended by HER sister; that this particular brand actually enhances the flavor of coffee. And since Kirsten’s sister is pretty fancy-pants, my sisters bought it.

    Then, Kirsten schemed with just about anyone she could scheme with to be able to be there when one or the other sister drank some coffee. So, there we were after dinner, and my niece asks her mom, Patti, the birthday girl, if she’d like a cup of decaf. Patti says yes. Kirsten was practically vibrating as the coffee was poured. Eventually the cup changed color and there was Kirsten, the favorite sister in law! Everyone, especially Patti and Becca AND Kirsten had a good laugh.

    Which, of course, got me to thinking about God. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he says that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). In one of the apostle John’s letters, he says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And then, of course, there’s the fact that we are all God’s children, created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). What this means is that we are ALL God’s favorites. We know this from that famous verse in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believed in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God doesn’t just love me or you, my town or your town, my country or your country. God loves the world–everyone. We’re all God’s favorites. Who knows, maybe God has billions of t-shirts (or coffee mugs) with our pictures on them, saying “I’m God’s Favorite.”

    But here’s the thing. Jesus came as an expression of God’s love to give everyone eternal, new, abundant life. But there are a lot of folks in the world who don’t know this. They haven’t gotten the t-shirt or the mug yet. They need to hear that they’re God’s favorites too. They need to know that, no matter what, they are loved.

    And here’s what I pray. I pray that we can help them to get that message, and be as excited about it as Kirsten was.
  • The Hike - January 25, 2024

    In my sermon last Sunday I was talking about generosity. And in doing so, I used the metaphor of a walking path to illustrate how we should seek to progress—move down the path—in our generosity as a critical aspect of our spiritual growth. And as part of that discussion, I threw in, sort of as an afterthought, the fact that I had hiked on Saturday. I said it would have been kind of silly to drive all the way out to the park, put on my hikin’ shoes and knee brace and jacket and water carrier, step onto the hiking trail, and then just stop. The point of the hike is to … well, hike; to move down the path.

    And for some reason, that hiking image has stuck with me. It seems like a good metaphor not just for generosity, but for our whole lives. You may have heard the saying, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” It’s the same idea. We were made to grow. We were made to move. It’s what’s behind John Wesley’s (and the apostle Paul’s) focus on growing more and more into the image of Christ.

    But here’s the thing. When I hike, I don’t just keep going. At some point, I turn around. I may just do an out-and-back or I might do a loop, but at least so far, every time I hike, I have managed to always end up back at the car so I can go home and rest.

    Our culture does a great job of keeping us busy; keeping us moving; keeping us distracted. We’ve got to work ourselves up the ladder of success. There’s always a better, higher-paying job; a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, a cooler car (or Jeep or truck), prettier clothes. Or, failing that, there is ALWAYS something new to check out (and usually get outraged over) in our social media feed or news scroll. There’s always something to do—or at least be distracted by. But there’s not a lot of time for rest; not a lot of time for contemplation and reflection.

    Which, of course, isn’t right. God created us to move and grow. But God also created us to rest. It’s right there in the middle of the 10 Commandments (and, by far, the longest and most fully explicated of the 10 commandments): keep the Sabbath.

    And this is where the hiking metaphor shines. Because rest—looping back to the car and heading home, getting enough sleep and recovery, or spending time alone with God—is an integral and vital part of our path. It’s a big part of how we grow. Now, this may seem ironic or counter-intuitive, but if you’ve ever done any sort of sports training, you know that rest is necessary. If you do nothing but run all-day every day, you’re going to get injured. If you do nothing but go, go, go all-day, every day, you’re going to burn out. If you don’t believe me, just ask some high-school kids.

    We need to rest. We need the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. We need it for our families, we need it for our school or jobs, and we need it in our spiritual journeys.

    And so, this morning I pray that before you head back out onto the trail, you will intentionally carve out a moment or two for rest, for peace. And that, in the process, that you may move closer to who you were created to be.
  • Created to Give - January 18, 2024

    This week at the church I lead, we’re starting a new sermon series on generosity. It’s actually  more than a sermon series. It’s an intentional effort to get us all to reorient our understanding of what it means to give.

    And so, for some reason, I’m sitting here this morning thinking about the mission trip to Belize I got to be a part of back in October. It was an incredible spiritual experience. It reminded me of my first “real” mission experience in Juarez, Mexico. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is what I was made for,” and I have felt that same way every time I’ve participated in any sort of service activity, whether for a few hours or a few days, whether in the town where I’m living or in another country.

    And there’s a reason for that. It really IS what I was created for. It’s what YOU were created for. According to the Bible, we were all created in the image of God. And that God, in whose image we have been created, is love (1 John 4:8, 16). In case you missed that, God IS love. Love isn’t something God does, it’s who God is; God’s identity. And that love is fundamentally about looking out for and taking care of one another.

    God’s ultimate demonstration of this love took place when he sent his Son into time and space to live among us—to give of himself as he served and healed the high and the low, the outcast and the insider, the poor and the rich. It took place when that Son, Jesus, died in order to make new, abundant, full, and eternal life possible for the whole world. It took place when that Son was resurrected in defeat of the forces of darkness and death.

    That’s the image we were created in—the image of ultimate love and generosity. So, when we give from our material resources, our skills and abilities, our time, and our service, we are living into who God created us to be. Or, to put it in terms I’ve heard recently, we’re (really) living our best life.

    It is also, however, not normal. It’s counter-cultural. It’s a little weird. Because the world we live in wants us to think it’s all about me. It seems to be sliding ever more quickly into a lowest common denominator formula, with the LCD being me, myself, and I.

    But every time we give sacrificially, every time we participate in some way to help someone else, we push back against this slide into spiritual anarchy. And, in doing so, we become just a little more who we were created to be. So, my prayer today—for me and for you—is that we will find opportunities to be a little weird; to live into our true selves.

  • Be Like Ginger Ruth - January 11, 2024

    Kirsten and I went to the park the other day. She was riding her new bike with her friend Jennifer. My bike was (already) in the shop so I got to walk the dogs. There are lots of different trails at this particular park, and it didn’t make sense for us to try to stick together since I was walking, so we pretty quickly parted ways.

    And what happened then was interesting. We have two dogs: Ginger Ruth and Buster Ruth. And their reactions to being separated from Kirsten could not have been more different. Buster Ruth didn’t even notice she was gone. He’s not the brightest of bulbs, so it could have been an out of sight out of mind kind of thing. Whatever it was, he didn’t miss a beat as he searched the trees and grass and brush for things to eat or chase.

    Ginger Ruth, on the other hand, was not pleased. Up until that point, she was right there with Buster, sniffing out everything that could be sniffed. But when Kirsten rode off, Ginger went after her, maybe to bring her back or maybe she figured it would be more fun running with the bikes than plodding along with me. In any case, Ginger would have stayed with Kirsten if I hadn’t called Ginger back. Then, as I continued on with the dogs, Ginger would stop every 30 seconds or so with her ears up, looking in the direction Kirsten had gone. At one point, she actually caught sight of Kirsten about a half-mile away and took off after her. Again, Ginger would have sprinted the whole way if I hadn’t called her back. She continued to do this—occasionally checking in the direction she thought Kirsten must have gone—for pretty much the whole two-hour walk. And meanwhile, Buster was just … well … Buster. He did manage to find a few smelly things to chew on, so there’s that.

    Which makes me think about my walk with Christ. Sometimes, I’m like Ginger. I’m always looking to see if I can find him—in the people or the circumstances around me. And if I get a glimpse, I’m taking off across whatever lies between us just to get closer.

    But, if I’m being honest with myself, most of the time I’m like Buster—eyes down, sniffing around to see what’s going on right in front of me, not that concerned about where Jesus is and what he’s doing, much less about anyone else.

    And, I think that if we’re not careful, that’s the case for most of us. We are immersed in the everyday, mundane aspects of life in the world from the moment we wake up in the morning to when our heads hit the pillow in the evening. We’re also constantly bombarded with toxic messages of hate or shame or both. And it doesn’t take any effort at all to pay attention to that stuff—it’s staring us in the face all day, every day.

    But it takes intentionality to be like Ginger. It takes intentionality to focus our gaze beyond what’s right in front of us and look deeper; look farther. In Ginger’s case, her searching after Kirsten is based in love and devotion.

    And I think it’s the same with us. We are going to search for what we love and are devoted to. If we allow ourselves to become devoted to the anger, hate, and shame that’s always in front of us—with just surviving until tomorrow—then that’s all we’re ever going to see. But the more we manage to look beyond what’s in front of us and find what our hearts were truly created to love, the better we get at it.

    So how about you? Buster or Ginger? I think I’m going to go with Ginger on this one.
  • Happy New Year - January 4, 2024

    Happy New Year! I am sitting here in absolute shock that it’s already here. It is a new year! 2024! I mean, it was 2023 just a few days ago. And it seems like 2022 just a few days before that. How can this be?

    And you know what the new year means, right? New Year’s Resolutions. With the changing of the calendar, I guess we are just naturally nudged to look at our lives and change those things about ourselves that we feel may have gotten just a little out of whack over the last year. And, of course, a lot of those things are things we’ve been doing for the last month and a half as we prepare for the end of the year: eating, finding excuses not to exercise, spending; things we tell ourselves will be ok because we’ll take care of them next year.

    I used to be big into the resolutions. I would get to the end of the year and feel guilty for all the screw-ups of the prior year, so I would draw up a list and prioritize it and get all excited about it. I would visualize how I was going to change my life for the good by just eating better and getting more exercise and reading more and working harder, while spending more time with my family, and ….

    Of course, it never worked out that way. I would get busy. I would get distracted. I would get tempted. And, before a couple of months had elapsed, I was back where I started. And worse, because now I had the guilt and shame of failure on top of the fact that I had been too weak to change my situation.

    So, nowadays, I’m not much of a resolution person. Part of it is just avoiding the inevitable guilt and shame. But I think a bigger part is that I realize I’m not going to be able to change anything on my own. It may just be me, but I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m just not smart enough to know exactly what needs to be changed, or strong enough to make it happen.

    So, as a result, I’ve whittled my list down to just got one resolution. And it’s not even a New Year’s Resolution. It’s an every day resolution; one I pray every single morning. It’s a prayer that, at least for today, God will enable God’s love to become more a part of who I am that God will transform me—even if just a little bit—more into the image of Christ; and it’s a prayer that through that love, God will be able through me to transform the world around me into the world God wants it to be—even if just a little bit.

    And I pray the same for all of you. May the new year not just be happy, but may it be filled with Joy.