Category Archives: Pastor’s Corner

Pastor’s Corner by Rev. Dr. George Hancock-Stefan
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Blessed Exhaustion

george hancock stefanAs I was reading emails from some of my colleagues, one of them declared that he was totally exhausted. It has been a good year and there were many fantastic accomplishments but exhaustion sets in as we approach the end of the year. Christmas brings great joy, but it also requires a lot of us. Our choir director said that her favorite holiday was not Christmas but Easter; while she has almost the same amount of music to prepare, the cooking demands on her are much smaller.

For many years, I have taken the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve as my vacation. I take the whole week off and usually go far away from the church. I also pray that there will be no sick people or people who the Lord desires to take home during that week. This is not because I want to contradict the divine plan, but because there is very little that I can do from far away to comfort people.

I spend this time with my sisters, who know me well and accept me when I am completely empty. There are no alarm clocks, no scheduled meetings, no counseling sessions, and no preaching. This is a time of restoration, rejuvenation, and reinvigoration. By the time I take the flight back home, I feel that I am ready to encounter everything that the Lord will place in front of me.

In the gospel of Mark we find these words twice, “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat…” (Mark 3:20 and 6:31). Jesus’ response to this situation is “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Like many of my colleagues in the church and the academy, my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are often appointments as well. In the business world they have even coined the expression ‘power lunch.’ Yet as important and effective as these meal meetings are, people participating in them often leave exhausted. I must admit that there are days when I feel completely exhausted at the end and it is a good feeling.  I look over all the things that I accomplished and feel good about what the Lord has enabled me to do.  Nevertheless, I need to pay attention to the times when my body, my mind, and my spirit say to me that it is time to rest and to rest completely.

I pray that my parishioners and my students have found some time to completely relax, to enjoy doing nothing, and to be refreshed and empowered for the next year that will bring opportunities and challenges for each one of us.

 

 

Come and Worship, Worship Christ the Newborn King

george hancock stefanI am thankful that so many radio stations become Christmas radio stations during the Advent Season. Some changed their musical repertoire the day after Thanksgiving. I remarked to one of my daughters that I have been paying closer attention to what is being played on the radio this year. I have heard new carols this year—both secular and Christian. While some were written more recently, many of them come from different cultures and traditions.

I admit that I don’t understand some of the songs. The carol about the boy’s mother dying on Christmas confuses me to no end. I do not know what the song is trying to elicit from me. Is this a simple story? Am I supposed to send my money to needy children? Or should the song remind me that people die, including mothers, sometimes even on Christmas?

There are a number of secular holiday songs that stand on their own without Christ. They have lyrics about love and giving gifts, traveling from afar, and longing to be reunited with family members that resonate during the holidays and throughout the year.

But there are other songs that make me think deeply about their meaning. As someone who loves to study the roots of words and their impact when they are written, spoken, or sung, I listen carefully to song lyrics. As I listen, I remember that songs are not just the creations of composers and lyricists. Many of the songs that I know in English have been translated from other languages and I appreciate the linguistic expertise of the translators. While I appreciate the music, words, translations, soloists, orchestras, and choirs, I remember that all of them have the same goal – to worship and to praise Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of God, the Newborn in the stable of Bethlehem.

 

The Exact Date for Celebration

george hancock stefanThere is some debate over the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ. But our date is historically accurate according to the standards of the time in which He was born. Luke describes it this way: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.” There is no day or month given; it is a time that is known to people of that era and place.

John introduces the era of Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s ministry with a presentation of important people. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius plate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysinias tetrarch of Abilene – during the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zecharias in the desert.” Taylor Gardner, the well-known preacher of Concord Baptist Church, Brooklyn, contemporizes it in this very creative way: “In the day when Eisenhower was president, Hoover was in charge of the secret services, and Billy Graham was the high priest, the word of the Lord came to Martin Luther King Jr. in the wilderness of the United States.”

The certainty of the Lord Christ’s birth is attested to by historians, but we do not have the exact date. It was not because they did not have days or months, but because that is not how they kept records.

Thus the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ was ascribed to a certain day and month in the fourth century. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church assign different dates for his birth and resurrection based on different calendars. The debate over the exact date of Christ’s birth became less important during the time of the Reformation and especially among the English Puritans. They knew that he was born and they worshiped him, but they did not celebrate Christmas in New England. Slowly most of the Protestants throughout the world started to celebrate Christmas based on the celebration of others in their communities. So Protestants in Eastern Orthodox countries celebrate the major holidays with the Eastern Orthodox while the Protestants in Catholic countries celebrate with the Catholics.

Every so often, there is a year with two consecutive days of celebration on the Christian calendar. On Saturday, December 24, most Protestant Churches will celebrate Christmas Eve. This year, Christmas Day is on a Sunday. Both Catholic and Orthodox believers have no problem going to church two days in a row (even though attendance is better on one day than the other). But many Protestant pastors had a meeting with their leaders because their congregants told them that they are not able to come to church for both services. It is interesting to hear usually non-traditional Protestants now employing tradition by saying that it is not the Protestant tradition to come to church two days in a row, no matter what holiday we are celebrating.

I understand all three arguments. Many people argue that once a year it is important to sacrifice and go to church two days in a row. Other people feel like they are too tired to do one more thing on Christmas. Still others know that God wants us to worship freely, cheerfully, and voluntarily and going two days in a row becomes an imposition. I want to present all three arguments without becoming like a Pharisee in the process. But I do find myself wondering why we emphasize the minutia of the holiday instead of the cause for our celebration and when our worship was reduced to just an hour or two each week.

 

Naming

george hancock stefanIn the opening chapters of Genesis, there is an interesting assignment that the Lord God gives to Adam. The assignment is to give names to the entire created order of animals and birds. The text tells us:

“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the filed and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them name them; and whatever the man called each living creature that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.” (Genesis 2:19-20)

Theologians across the millennia have argued that we can see multiple interpretations of this assignment that God has given to Adam. We see the authority that God has given to humanity over creation, the reflection of the fact that we have been made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore possess intelligence within that image and likeness, and that God entrusts us with the created order.

The authority given to us in naming is not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. As the Lord Jesus Christ comes to earth to bring salvation to humanity, naming becomes a pivotal part of the story again. John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. His father Zechariah had a vision in the temple where he is told what to name his son who has not yet been conceived. The family imagined other names, but God authorized Zechariah to give the name John to the infant who was born to him and Elizabeth.

Before the Lord Jesus Christ is born, Joseph has a dream in which he is told what to name the child. Matthew writes, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

During this season of Advent, I was reflecting on the authority and trust that God has given us. In the same way that he has entrusted His Son to Joseph and Mary and honored them by giving them the privilege to name His Son, God has honored so many us with children who were his children first. God has entrusted us with this world and we have named rivers and valleys, mountains and hills, and countries and continents. God has entrusted us with people and resources to love and protect and to do His will and purpose in this universe.

Thanksgiving Traditions

george hancock stefanYesterday afternoon I drove from our house to the Newark airport. This year, some of our kids are going to be on the West Coast for Thanksgiving and some will be on the East Coast. We will all be together with family, but our family will be celebrating in two different places. As I took the exit for the airport, I saw many others leaving for different destinations. All the lanes in front of the airport terminals were busy. My daughter remarked that if it is so busy on Tuesday, it will be even busier on Wednesday when most people are leaving for their destination.

On Wednesday evening, we will gather together with believers from other churches. The pastors will process down the church aisle to the traditional song “Come Ye Thankful People, Come.” While most people in the United States are no longer living in an agrarian society, this traditional song reminds us that we should be a thankful people. Even though most of us do not work as farmers, we are well off because we have abundant food in this land. The trucks on our highways carry fresh food from various parts of this country, and even from nations around the world.

As I read various articles post-election, I discovered that some family members are disinviting people from their Thanksgiving table because of their comments during the election. The only other time when this is recorded in our history is during the Civil War when families were split between the South and the North. In our home, we have never followed that old adage to not discuss politics and religion at the table. While talking about these topics can be divisive, where do you learn to argue and defend your political and religious views with passion and kindness if not at the family table? In fact, we seem to have the opposite rule – a new boyfriend can earn a place in the family if he can hold his position at the dinner table. We did not have to agree with them, but they had to present their points well. (Thus far we have two sons-in-law who can hold their own and we will see who the other two will be!)

I enjoy hearing about Thanksgiving traditions in various families. It is interesting to find out who cooks the turkey, who carves the turkey, who brings the mashed potatoes or the pies, and who says the family prayer. There are stories of making traditions and there are times when traditions are passed from one generation to another. There are also funny stories of dropped turkeys, spilled gravy, and burnt oysters. When those things happen, it makes some people unhappy in the moment but they create the family stories that will be passed from one generation to another.

So whether you travel or you stay home, whether you have a large gathering or a small one, may you have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving. Give thanks to the Lord for His bounty on your table and give thanks for the people who are there to share it with you.

 

Every Four Years – Ballots, The Electoral College, and Citizenship

george hancock stefanOn the morning of the election, I went to the voting place for my district. In less than 5 minutes, I was done. The next day I was talking with a student from Philadelphia who stood in line for over 4 hours. Each time I vote, I say hello to the other people there and I do not hide my accent. One of my students had a very different experience when she was asked when she will return to Jamaica, even though she has been an American citizen for over 20 years and all her children were born here.

Every four years I make sure that I go to vote. I also vote for every local and state election. I was raised in a communist country where we were told how to vote, there was often only one candidate on the ballot, and people knew if you did not vote and held it against you. Because of my experiences in Yugoslavia, I never ask my wife or children how they vote. Politically I am a centrist and I vote across the ballot.

The ballot system in the United States needs help. If anyone talks with people in the election offices, they tell us that few people change their voting information and it stays there for a long time. Most of us do not think to send a letter to the election board to let them know that we have moved. No one sends a note to let our old city know that we have moved and are registered to vote in a new place. We complain every four years, but every state continues to use systems that break down and have all sorts of shortcomings.

The same thing is valid for the electoral college. Very few people know how or why the electoral vote was created in the Constitution, but we have kept it for all these years. The party that loses the national election complains for a while, but there is no movement to change it during the four years that follow. What body of the government needs to create a referendum on the electoral college? Would we better served by going to a national democratic vote in which the person who gets the largest number of votes becomes the president?

In his article “Latino Early Voting Numbers In Swing States Are Way Up” Grant Suneson writes, “They (Hispanics) are often underrepresented in polls because English-speaking pollsters have a hard time getting responses from potential voters who speak only Spanish.”  I was surprised by that because there are two requirements to become a citizen of this country.  They are “the fundamentals of history and of the principles of government of the United States, and the English language, as it is spoken, written and read.”

As someone who has lived in Detroit and Chicago where there are many immigrant communities, we used to joke that the two most ineffective governmental agencies were the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Immigration and Naturalization Office.  Inevitably, applications were lost and it was well-known that there were some dishonest people in those two departments. There were people outside who would guarantee your driver’s license because they would translate for you by telling you which answers to pick. So the license exam was taken by the translator, not by the person taking the test because he did not know English or the signs of the road.

In the Immigration and Naturalization Department that were a few people who accepted bribes. As a pastor in the Chicago area, I always told the people that I took to see an immigration judge that they should never bring a gift (bribe).  However, one of my parishioners decided that I did not know what I was talking about. The moment we were seated before the immigration judge, he opened his briefcase and gave her a gift from his country. The judge immediately asked us to leave her office. The only requirements for citizenship are civics and English. Nevertheless, there are people who think they can avoid these requirements.

Dishonesty and broken systems are an ongoing reality when we look at our ballots, our electoral process, and our citizenship requirements. These are things that we should think about during the next four years and work to change, so that we will not complain that they are happening again.

 

The Only Thing Left Is To Pray

george hancock stefanI must confess that, in my lifetime, I have never encountered as many Democrats and Republicans who are not sure how they are going to vote in an election. As someone who has lived in this country for close to 50 years and takes my civic responsibilities seriously, I have voted in every election since I became a citizen. This year is the most puzzling yet. I have four daughters who are eligible to vote. As I listen to them, I find out that each one of them is struggling with this upcoming election.

But we do not have is the luxury of not voting. Too much has been sacrificed for all of us to have the privilege of voting for us to abandon it now. There was a time in this country when only the landed gentry could vote, there was a time when only white males could vote, and there was a time when only men could vote. In this moment, each American citizen has the opportunity to vote. This is not a liberty that everyone has around the world. There are still places where certain people are not allowed to vote and there are places where only one candidate is on the ballot.

What can we do besides cast our vote? In the Scripture, we are encouraged and commanded to pray for our leaders. The prophet Samuel disagreed vehemently with King Saul and knew that God rejected him, yet he was the king over Israel. When Samuel bids farewell to Saul, he says, “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23). Samuel could see beyond his disagreement – he saw that while Saul was the king, there was an entire nation to consider. Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “I urge, then first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4).

Therefore this week, and especially on Sunday as we are gathered to worship the Lord, prayers should be lifted up for God’s will to be done in this country as we go to vote on Tuesday, November 8. 

 

Divine Involvement in Life and Government

george hancock stefanIn these tumultuous political days, we hear that people are so involved in political feelings and predictions that their own health—physical and psychological—suffers from it.  There are people who feel that everything will collapse if the other candidate wins. I have heard less frequently of people who will leave this country if one or the other candidate leaves and I concluded that it is mainly a thing said in Hollywood circles.

In the stormy days of our earthly lives, what are our spiritual anchors? In one of our hymns we sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

As I was listening and reflecting on the circumstances of our current day, two verses came to mind. One concerns the events in our individual lives and one has do with circumstances in political/governmental life.

The first verse is about Job. When he was afflicted with boils and lost everything he loved, his wife had a solution: “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) I am sure that Job’s wife had many wonderful gifts and offered many splendid pieces of advice, but that was not one of them. It is in the most difficult moment of his life that Job says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the Name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21) Many of us can see the sovereignty of God when our life is loaded with divine blessings. In those moments, it is easy to sing that “God is so good, He’s so good to me!” Yet, almost all of us have to admit that we struggle with the verse from Romans that says all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)

The other verse has to do with those who are in government. The mighty king Nebuchadnezzar looked around and said to himself, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) The Bible tells us that he lost his power and his position in a second because he did not give glory to God for his accomplishments.

The prophet Daniel writes these words as a lesson for Nebuchadnezzar and for us, “Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 4:25, 32)

This election will be decided by the democratic vote and the electoral vote. But in a sovereign way, God already knows who will win and will not be surprised by the winner. We need to take our civic responsibility seriously, but God will be with us no matter who is in the White House. This does not take away our responsibility nor the process by which the person will come to the White House. If the presidency is achieved through iniquity, that is not a good foundation for leadership. If the process is just, the presidency will flourish for both the president and the country.

 

The Bumpies

george hancock stefanA number of months ago, I was on the West Coast with my sisters. One of them attended the Franklin Graham Decision America event in Seattle. She mentioned that it has been a fantastic gathering and that I should do my best to attend when it was in my state. I promised her that I would try and I placed it on my school calendar.

In my Wednesday morning Bible study, a participant told me that a whole bus of people from Ocean Grove would be going to the New Jersey Decision America Rally. They organized the event during the summer and they were all looking forward to going together to pray with thousands of other believers in NJ.

Although I was scheduled to teach in Philadelphia that day, I said that I would try to attend. It would be an extra three hours in my schedule: one for the event and two for the round trip. I left immediately after my Bible study to attend a campus meeting at 10:00 a.m. When I looked at my school calendar, I saw that I had already made another appointment for a 1:00 p.m. meeting. After the meeting, I had a three-hour class to teach, so I did not make it to Trenton for the event. I was disappointed that I could not attend the event, since I really appreciate the ministry of Franklin Graham.

I find that there are so many wonderful things that I want to do, but they get bumped by other people and things. The day has only so many hours after sleep and other obligations that need to happen. I can get only so many absences from the pulpit, only so many absences from the classroom, so many cancellations of appointments when I double-book myself. On the one hand, I completely believe that we should keep our word once we promise to do something. Thus I rarely schedule any non-church events on Sunday, because I am committed to doing the work of the church. Currently, on Thursday I teach three classes. Each one lasts for three hours and by the end of the day I am exhausted. I am committed on that day to my university and to my students. At the same time, there are very special occasions in which the church and the university will release me from my obligations because the special occasion supersedes what I usually do.

When I consider bumping things from my schedule, I know that I want to spend my time wisely. I want to use my time in the best way doing the things that I am well-qualified to do.  I want to be involved in being enriched so that I can enrich the lives of others on a local, national and international level.

It would have been great to be in Trenton for the event, but I would have been one of thousands. In my schedule, my colleagues and my students depended on me and, for them, I was the only one. I am so thankful that not everyone was in my predicament and there were more than 2,500 people at the Trenton meeting praying for our nation and our upcoming election.

Scorched by the Hot Mic Moment

george hancock stefanIn our Sunday School classes, we used to sing a song that went, “O be careful little mouth what you say, for the Father up above, He is looking down with love, O be careful little mouth what you say.” The song added verses that went “O be careful little eyes what you see” and “O be careful little ears what you hear.”

This election has been more about “gotcha” moments than substance, it has been about scuba-diving through the debris of the past and coming up with as much dirt as possible. WikiLeaks revealed Hillary’s emails to leaders of the Democratic Party, leaders on Wall Street, and international leaders. We have witnessed her change her tune depending on the group that is listening to her. Revelations of Donald’s lifestyle, his infidelities, and his tactics did not need deep digging but once we started to dig, the things we found were not very laudable.

As I was listening to various interviews and talking with community and church members, a couple of things came to mind.

I have no idea where this election will go since it changes every day, depending on which newspapers and polls we read. One of these two candidates will be the president of this country for one or two terms. As I was listening and reading, I was reminded of something that surpasses the hot mic moment: the judgment seat of God. The Holy Scriptures tell us that on the Day of Judgment, we shall give an account for every word that we have spoken and for every deed that we have performed.  In that judgment day. nothing will be hidden. But on that day, Donald, Hillary, and I can claim the forgiveness of the One who died on the cross for us, if during this life on the earth we have made Him the Savior and the Lord of our lives.