Never give up hope, but always share it

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Annette Pfohl (2nd from left) and family finish the Battling Cancer 5k Race/Walk

Long ago, Cris Pfohl and I were serving on the same police squad and had just begun commuting together. I was a bachelor, had no family in the area, and to be honest, felt quite alone and unloved at that time in my life. As often happens as a junior police officer, we were scheduled to be on duty for Christmas Eve.

Hearing this, Annette, his new wife, made room at their holiday table for me, along with his mother and father, before Cris and I reported for duty. That simple act of breaking bread and Christmas hospitality opened an unexpected gift where we would eventually become family for one another. Since 1989, we have experienced the promised “future full of hope” together (Jer.29:11) as the years rolled by. As they had children, Curtis and Kyle, and I married Kristine, our faith, hope and love only grew. Yet this year, it is going to be a very different Christmas for the Florio-Pfohl clan. As most of you know, Annette died from cancer right before the holiday season.

Yes, we will miss Annette at the table, around the Christmas tree, and even in her usual holiday pew at Messiah Lutheran. As she faced over 100 chemo treatments, approximately 60 radiation treatments, 7 surgeries, and several SRS therapies over eleven years, she grew to look forward to our annual family Christmas photo on Christmas Eve in front of Messiah’s tree. You would often hear her say, there and elsewhere, “Never give up hope.” She lived that way too. She served as a teacher rarely missing a day. She mentored others facing cancer for the first time. She continued to welcome people into her heart and home, expanding our “family” connections. She never let terminal cancer define her. As much as things have changed with her passing, I trust hope remains.

How can we still say that? Why do we believe? Because whatever happens good or bad, no matter if we have family or not, our hope came to us long ago as a vulnerable babe. He found no grand, warm welcome. He was born in what was likely a cold cave used for stabling animals. His family were what today might be called the working poor. He soon became hunted by those in power, and he and his parents fled as refugees. We don’t know much about his life after that time until he went into his public ministry. Then, he had no real home. His family of blood often made jokes and scoffed at him. His neighbors turned their back. Yet on his way, fisherman and other low-lifes and “losers” – people who often felt unlovable – crossed his path and began to walk with him.

Jesus spoke of hope. He shared his love, and before long, those who welcomed him in relationship became like family. They even called each other brother and sister, and they continued to welcome more into his family even after his death on a cross. All at first seemed lost, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4-5). When hope seemed beyond our reach and power, God sent his hope to us in Jesus.

Remember again the Nativity story. Amidst the poverty and problems, strangers felt drawn to Jesus. They even brought their friends. It remained that way throughout his life and after his death. People were brought together and found they really could love one another; be family together. It is true we should never give up hope, but perhaps we can all learn a bit from Annette and these other saints. Let’s also seek to also share that hope with others. This isn’t a gift to be hoarded.

Who do we know who is alone? Where do we see someone suffering? How can we be one with them this Christmas? I don’t know your answer(s), but I’m sure Jesus will show us all our individual way if we ask. It might be as simple as seeing someone who is easily ignored and speaking with them – or perhaps better, listening. It could be that you offer space at your table – or better yet in your heart for relationship. And when we meet these strangers who become friends, brothers and sisters, we will find out the hope we celebrate at Christmas is real and need never end. It’s a gift that goes on from one heart to another, generation to generation, until Jesus comes again.

Never give up hope. Always boldly share it. Kristine and I give God thanks for you, especially at this time. On behalf of the Cris, Curtis, Kyle and ourselves, thank you for your kind words and prayers this last nine years. We will look forward to seeing you gathered around Messiah’s tree on Christmas Eve!

Sincerely,
Pastor Lou

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (December 2016/January 2017).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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We are all strangers in a strange land

“Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She bore a son, and [Moses] named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”(Exodus 2:22)

Throughout scripture, we often sense the feeling of isolation and yearning for home. The people of God faced conquest, exile in foreign nations, and during the diaspora never quite fit in. Even in Jesus’ time, faithful Jews lived within a predominately Greco-Roman culture. It got even worse once Jesus preached a message contrary to the way the world so often operates. Jesus bluntly told his disciples, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).

The truth remains, if Christian, we won’t ever feel like we fit in perfectly. God has put a yearning in our hearts for a heavenly home. The peace and justice promised us is not of this world. The faith, hope and love we possess isn’t always recognized or appreciated. Perhaps in this year’s caustic national election cycle, it has been particularly so.

Yet recall what Jesus also said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). He prepares for us a new home even now in his heavenly kingdom. We need seek to only follow Jesus in trust. Injustice and fighting will happen in this world. There will be wars and rumors of war with many things to rightly fear. Yet, Jesus promises these things must happen, but good will also come from them for the people of God.

This world can never fully satisfy us, so why play its political games? Pray for the “city of your sojourn” (Jeremiah 29:7). Be kind to those who persecute you or with who you disagree. Vote your conscience seeking to conform to God’s will as best as you understand it from your prayers and scripture, but also trust God will forgive you if you err. Never conform to the political hype and hatred, but conform to Christ. Love one another. Ask for the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

There is much to bother many of us about this election, and we may at times feel like casting stones. Yet we are called to be light in the darkness, ambassadors for Christ. We need not fear. No matter who wins the election, God promises to lead us home.

Remember what Paul tells us: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20). Why be lost in anger? Why waste our time in fear? Politicians come and go, and we have more important work to do.

Christ’s peace be with you,
Pastor Lou

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (November 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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May I have a word, please.

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

God created all that is with a word. When the world lost its way, he sent his living Word, Jesus Christ, his beloved son. Through him, we have redemption and access to an abundant, eternal life. Because of him, we learned that God can be described with one word. As John teaches, God is love (1 John 4:8).

For over twenty years, a generation, Messiah members have generously supported Messiah Lutheran School. Over that time period, our varied staff members taught children many words. Among the most important were those relating to Jesus Christ. Weekly in formal chapel, in daily classroom study, service and play, they learned about love. They experienced what it means to be loved and to love.

In my eight plus years here, I have seen remarkable things. This particular ministry didn’t get us many new members, yet it was meant to be an offering, not a membership drive. It did at times help us financially, but for the most part, we shared the love that we have with others sometimes with great sacrifice. We assisted some children make sense of their world when love was lacking or there was abuse. We helped families during loss of jobs or loss of loved ones. We offered care for those suffering severe developmental disabilities and families who struggled to earn their daily bread. Scholarships were utilized to help kids stay in school when parents couldn’t manage, and food was sent home at times when people didn’t have enough. We supported families at time of birth and adoption, and we offered counseling to those who struggled to remain a family.

All the while, we worked with our families to provide the best learning environment possible. We shared in efforts to make the world a better place through St. Jude’s Trike-A-Thon, Operation Christmas Child, MCEF, and more. Together, we struggled to make love known – to make Christ present – in our world and accomplish the work set before us. On our way, we made many friends.

Like many of you, I’m going to miss the children who have been entrusted to our care. Their laughs and tears brought life to this building. I will grieve the loss of Messiah Lutheran School with many. Yet, I don’t think the time with our school should be regretted. God’s word is still at work in the lives we have touched. The time for this ministry might have past, might have seemed all to short, but it has succeeded accomplishing what God wanted. It had its season, and our love was not wasted. Our love is never wasted. It has changed the world whether we realize it or not; whether we see all the results or not.

Now as a community, we say goodbye to some faithful employees and friends. We have many good memories to sustain us amidst any grief. Yet, I also wonder, where will God send us now as a congregation? Where will we be sent next to share God’s Living Word? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure God will make it clear to us. I trust his Word is still on the move, and I know the world is still in need of such love.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (August 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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God hears us

Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice. (Job 19:7)

12809595_1148313495180921_4330328337464380992_nDuring our recent sermon series on the Book of Job, our congregation members and world faced its own share of challenges and loss: economic threats, deaths in our extended family, a terrorist attack in Orlando, even our own roof-ripping kind of “whirlwind.” The world can seem a terrible place, and like Job, we are tempted to cry out to some divine police officer, “Violence! Help us!”

If you missed our sermon series, know this. God hears us, and God cares. We might not always see God at work, but he promises to labor for our welfare not for woe (Jeremiah 29:11). Indeed, our God often works behind the scenes hidden from our human view. As Jesus proclaimed, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Our sovereign, loving Lord is in control.

Still, Job was right in one sense. There is no perfect justice in our world. Bad things can happen to good people. Yet in an unfair world, we are gifted with an unfair grace. God loves us and plans never to abandon us.

No more than Job can I pretend to know why month after month it seems I am mourning with congregational members or my own family members over one thing or another. Yet, I know this. God is love…only love. Like a child, I can choose to trust my heavenly parent who created me and you out of love. It is all I really have – God’s promise to love me. Fortunately, God doesn’t lie. Jesus, our brother, Son of the Living God, proved this love through his death and resurrection for our sake. Hear God’s promise:

“For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again, ‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’ Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.’” (Hebrews 2:11-15).

Job did not live in this world long enough to see justice reign in fullness, and we might not either. Still, even Job knew his Redeemer lives. We must as well and share that good news with others. God’s justice is breaking into our world. While we wait, we are only asked to trust in the love being offered us and share it. We must seek to give into love, not fear.

Yes, more trouble is in our future, but so is our Redeemer. He will return because he wishes to banish fear, tears, violence and evil forever. We might never understand the evil and struggle we face, but we can find courage. God loves us more than we could ever understand.

So in the face of much darkness, go ahead and pray. Go ahead and live in Jesus’ name.

I wish you Christ’s peace in all that you might face,
Pastor Lou

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (July 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Paradise Noticed

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Boomer is thankful to roll in whatever grass we have.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isa. 43:19)

I am trying to grow grass on the clay I call my front yard. It isn’t easy. In fact, it seems downright impossible! I’ve paid people to help. No luck. I’ve spent hours prepping and preening the ground. Nothing. It sometimes seems like my yard is a desert waste. Yet, lo and behold, quite unexpectedly, I witness life in my front yard bloom each spring: rabbits and colorful birds, butterflies and fireflies. Yes, even some green grass manages to grow for my pup, Boomer, to joyfully roll in. It may not look as I planned, but there is beauty there.

Often, how we look at the world needs to change. We can’t perceive God blessings because we are too busy focusing on our own work, expectations or fears. We blind ourselves to God’s goodness. What if we prayed with thanksgiving for what we already have? What if we looked for signs of life instead of counting the signs of death around us? What if we dared to believe that the Lord’s prayer is being fulfilled around us: that God’s name is being hallowed; that God’s will is being done; that our daily bread is being laid out before us and forgiveness is ours to accept; that God is leading us to a better future filled with blessing? This is exactly what Jesus told us is happening.

True, our current life isn’t perfect. We will stumble into brambles and be chocked by weeds at times. Yet, that’s no excuse to miss the beauty around us. Jesus is coming, and Eden will be restored. Jesus sends us signs of that hope to us each day for those with the eyes of faith to see. Even now, recognized or not, God is seeking to create new life out of desert and death.

Out of clay, God created the first humans with sacred breath. Through a small tribal people, God would introduce love to the ends of the earth. Through death on the cross, Christ’s body and blood would offer the world salvation. So, we in turn are asked to continue to expect the impossible. In the face of hunger, we are asked to feed others. Surrounded by poverty, we are asked to share what we have. Even in the deepest, darkest clay, we are to generously plant the seeds that God has given us – our time, treasure and talent – trusting God’s garden will grow.

Jeremiah once spoke for God about you saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). You were planted and born with a purpose. Open your eyes! Open your heart! Open your hands! Behold the glory of God at work in and through your life!

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (May 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Early mourning thoughts and prayers…

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Officer Guindon (center), Prince William County Police, died on her first shift during a domestic disturbance. She was shot and killed. Two other officer were injured.

I’m thinking a lot this morning about my first shift, my first arrest, and the many men and women who helped me have a great (if relatively short) law enforcement career. They actually helped me become who I am today, and so I always give God thanks for them and my experiences. It is why I volunteer as a police chaplain today – to try to give back.

And yet, I’m also recalling the joy my family felt having just seen me graduate from the police academy, and then on that same weekend, seeing their fear as I headed out to my first midnight shift. I also remember with love coworkers injured and killed as a result of their desire to serve others. Thus, Officer Guindon’s death is somehow personal to me, as with every law enforcement death. I can’t help it. I feel like a piece of me has died, although I know it doesn’t make much sense to many.

How many Officer Guindon’s are out there? How many such families sacrifice, live in fear, or are now grieving across our country? How must her Field Training Officer and fellow officers feel as this recruit died and as they try to make sense of it? They all need our active support and prayer.

And yet, I don’t know how to pray for this. She was on her first shift, and the hope of last Friday has turned into community shock and grief spreading across the Thin Blue Line. I remain at a loss for words, especially as law enforcement officers in our country continue to be so quickly and openly hated, condemned and needlessly die. And so, I find comfort in these words. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:25-26).

To my brothers and sisters still fighting the fight, you are not alone. God has not forgotten you. God will make good come from this evil, although we do not yet know how. No life dedicated to the service and love of neighbor is a wasted one, no matter how short. I remain in communion with you, and you will all be with me at worship this morning in my heavy but hopeful heart.

The Rev. Louis Florio is a former member of the City of Alexandria Police Department and current volunteer law enforcement chaplain with Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Crime Clinic. He currently serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church and School, Mechanicsville, VA. This post may be shared freely with proper attribution.

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Hearts of Stone

heart of stone image.pixabay.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

One of the great promises of the Hebrew scriptures is that God intends to give us a new heart and spirit to replace our hearts of stone. This great work has been started through Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit at Pentecost, and the gift of faith. The process continues throughout our lives as we seek to follow Jesus and grow in intimacy with Christ and his church. It is supported through our shared life and blessed Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, means of grace.

Yet even with this great promise, we can take our eyes off the goal. We can become distracted by the world and our love can grow cold. We can ignore fertile soil and choose to hide in the weeds the world offers us – sometimes not even recognizing it. So as we began our Lent together, I challenged all of us to put our hearts into this season of renewal. I asked each of us to rededicate our bodies, minds and souls to Christ, and see what fruit of the Spirit grows.

Lent is meant to be a kind of springtime bringing new life and order to our lives. Yet in the end, we are all led to the wood of the cross and cold stone of the tomb. Jesus lost his life, his body cold and stiff, so that we might truly live and our hearts beat with his love. As unlikely as it might seem, we must go to the tomb to discover abundant life.

For there like a blooming seed, the power of the resurrection sprung from Christ’s own heart on a Sunday morn more than two thousand years ago. Its power still reaches out through the ages to each of us in love. It wants to take hold of our lives and transform them, but it won’t do so through violence. We need to die to ourselves and willfully surrender.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Christ taught this. We are meant to stay connected to one another and to him. We are intended to help each other grow. Don’t cut yourself off. Come back if you have been away. Don’t let human faults or failing, yours or that of others, separate us. Don’t give into the darkness of sin and shame when the light of the Resurrection offers us forgiveness. (Reach out to others with that same light!) No matter your burden or business, cast all your cares upon Jesus for he cares for you (1Peter 5:7). Let nothing keep you away!

Then, leaving your old self in the tomb, go and follow Jesus. Be church with us and all the saints. As Martin Luther said, “Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the church… Now the church is not wood or stone, but the company of people who believe in Christ.”

The tomb is empty, and our hearts newly beat with expectation. It is Easter and time for us to leave the tomb of our past behind. Jesus isn’t there. He’s among the living. He wants you and I to join him there forever.

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (March 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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