Saturday, October 9, 2021


Faith & Values: When iron sharpens iron, everyone is sharpened

By Steve Shussett

For The Morning Call |

Oct 09, 2021 at 6:19 AM

Divisive times do not mean we have to be a divided people. We can disagree without being disagreeable, and when iron sharpens iron, both conversation partners can be sharpened.

We live in complicated times. Divisiveness in our nation and world has only increased. That, in turn, has spilled over into other areas of life, to where once seemingly inviolable communities like families and school districts are now threatened. And religious communities are no exception.

No religious leader goes out of their way to upset people, but when it happens, we are in good company. Some people heard Jesus and grumbled. Others complained, “This teaching is difficult.” Others still heard Jesus’ message and turned away from him. And Christians believe his words ultimately led him to be mocked, rejected, and killed.

If said faithfully, what preachers have to say will sometimes offend. Out of self-preservation, rarely will someone intentionally “poke the bear” just to stir up trouble. But there are times when what must be said must be said.

As Jesus stated, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

A high wire act is often required in communicating matters of faith, a message that is challenging enough to move us toward God’s intended future, yet not so challenging that unsettled people stop listening. Like any high wire act, there are no guarantees that the message will not fall flat.

There are unpredictably high winds, such as people coming in moods good or bad, distractions and lapses in concentration that may cause confusion more than clarity, and language that is rarely as precise or careful as one intends. And then there is the wildest wind of all: the Holy Spirit, who takes the static letters on a page and, as the author of Hebrews writes, makes “the word of God… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (4:12).

Listeners may react differently to any given sermon. Some respond immediately from the gut, positively or negatively. Others need time to think about it, perhaps finding it takes days for God and life to reveal something important. Sermons are neither written nor understood in a day.

So when you find yourself thinking on the day’s sermon, particularly if you are upset or angry, what are some things you can do? After all, as good as stewing in anger can feel, it isn’t very productive.

When distressed, ask yourself “What in this message challenges me and my beliefs? Could there be any truth in it, from another perspective?” You don’t have to agree with what is bothering you, but by putting yourself in another’s shoes, can you see something new?

Perhaps you feel like you have heard a message before, or believe that while once something was an issue in your congregation, it has been resolved, and everything is fine now. Remember, worship isn’t all about you. There are people there who don’t agree with you, then or now.

Others need to hear that message again — or for the first time. And given that “the Word of God is living and active,” what you heard or experienced years ago may reveal something new today.

Finally, the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and other steps toward modernity, were about not having to rely solely on someone else for your beliefs. The Bible is in your language, not only Latin, so you can read what the preacher read.

You have your faith and experience. If you don’t like the preacher’s sermon, then what is your sermon? Don’t just complain about what you heard. Risk listening for how God is inviting you to change your life and the world. Yes, Jesus loves you, but that is hardly all he has to say to you. He loves you, but he also wants you to be who God made you to be.

Divisive times do not mean we have to be a divided people. We can disagree without being disagreeable, and when iron sharpens iron, both conversation partners can be sharpened.

Steve Shussett is a pastor and spiritual director living in Reading, Pennsylvania.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

May 2021 Prince Philip Planned His Own Service


Like many around the world, I watched the funeral of Prince Philip. I’m not a “royal watcher” as such, though I love the show The Crown. But, not surprisingly for a pastor, it is always interesting to witness how faith is expressed by different people in different settings. So while I have a general sense of this long-time royal, aided by a fictionalized television show, I was more intrigued by how a funeral such as this, at a time like this, comes to pass.

And what I heard, as much as anything else, is that Philip planned his own service. From the choice of church (he had many to choose from), the 700 military personnel, personal touches like his cap and sword on the coffin, to designing the Land Rover that would carry his body. A “smaller affair” by royal standards, commentators noted this also reflected his desire for a “simple” service. He picked biblical passages and musical pieces that were meaningful to him, but despite the several clergy involved, he chose to have no eulogy or homily. And, as I’ve experienced whenever deep love is expressed, it was a beautiful, eloquent service.

I share this in light of a church member who recently shared how helpful it was to have a departed love one provide many of their funeral arrangements in advance. You don’t have to be in ill health or 99 years old to think of Scripture verses or hymns that mean a lot to you. Perhaps the best time for such discussions and selections is when your heart is burning within you.

As you may remember, each year I dedicate one of my monthly newsletter columns to the same subject: funeral preparations. Whether death comes suddenly or after a protracted illness, or upon reaching a certain age, there is a degree of surprise to death when it finally comes. Despite its inevitability, people often feel like there is always more time available. But that time comes for all of us, and family members can feel unnecessarily guilt badly for not knowing their loved one’s favorite Bible passages or hymns, or other meaningful wishes. Please take the time to talk with your loved ones, to write down your desires. The time you take now will save a lot more than time down the road.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

February 2021 Fast or Fill


   Whether they are New Year’s resolutions, an impulse to improve yourself, or the Invitation to Lent, after about a month our best of intentions can take the road less traveled. Perhaps, after trying a new thing on for size, we realize this isn’t the year for taking this particular thing on, or our heart isn’t really set on giving this other thing up.

   Rather than scrapping the Lenten desire to better follow Jesus, take some time to discern what might be more meaningful to you. Instead of “better luck next year,” take the time you have ahead of you to experiment with something else.

   After all, if what you are really trying to maintain is the fire of your faith to follow Jesus, keeping that spark alive is what’s most important, not the details of how you do it.

   If you find you’re running out of steam on your Ash Wednesday intentions, Pope Francis recently offered some possibilities for “fasting and filling” that may address your yearning to make this a meaningful Lent.

The Pope asks, “Do you want to fast this Lent?” before offering the following alternatives:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.


   You could just sit with these for a bit, asking God, and yourself, which one of these might be most necessary or fruitful for you at this time in your life. Whether the reason is clear to you or not, is there one invitation, or a pair, that seems to touch you more deeply than the others?


   Thanks be to God if your Shrove Tuesday intentions for the Lenten invitation remains strong. But if not, there’s no reason to wait until 2022. Whether you begin today, tomorrow, or the next day, “now is the acceptable time” to follow Jesus.