Friday, October 5, 2018

A Minor Milestone

Earlier this week, I completed the course of one year in my new ministry with St. Peter's United Church of Christ.  That's not a long time in the sweep of the 175-year history of this congregation.  I am "running the race" that is set before me in company with a congregation and wider community that I am learning how to love.

It has not been an easy year, for I have often lived with the feeling that I left my previous ministry prematurely.  I have grieved deeply in the past twelve months, having severed the ties that bound me to the churches, the members, and staff of the New Hampshire Conference, United Church of Christ.  I have missed being a leader in the wider settings of the church.  Diana Butler Bass in her book, Grateful, notes that nostalgia creates unrealistic pictures of the past.  We glorify the good old days and forget the pain and difficulties of those days.  A year later, it is clear to me that I am gone.  And now, a new Conference Minister has been called there, who will lead and love in the field that I once tended.  I remember Paul's words in I Corinthians 3:6ff.: 
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God's servants, working together, you are God's field, God's building.
New Revised Standard Version

I'm here.  I am grateful.  The finish line is not yet in sight.  This is a sprint and a marathon.  I am pressing on in this race.  

Here is what I've seen thus far, just twelve months into this race:  
  • St. Peter's United Church of Christ is a strong congregation of Christ's people.  
  • There are few occasions where both congregations (Saturday night and Sunday morning worshipers) ever meet together.  
  • We still many members, perhaps a majority of members, who are still out there in the shadows somewhere.  Maybe they are waiting for just the right time to return and be actively involved; perhaps they will always stay at the margins, or perhaps they will never return because they are already gone.  Writing them off is not the answer.  Inviting them to come home is.  
  • We have many others, in and around Washington, who feel that a church will look down on them or their lifestyles.  They need to know they are loved and included, accepted and embraced by God and God's people.  We all have "something" that might seem to disqualify us from grace.  Even so, God loves us.  We need each other and all others.
  • I have also observed that some cherished traditions have eroded away, especially with Sunday school, youth ministry, and confirmation.  Perhaps a church of older adults does not need to spend precious energy being anxious about such things.  We are who we are--who God is calling us to be.  
  • Sometimes it seems to me that our priorities are misplaced with too much energy and emphasis on money and "paying down" (not "paying off") the old, weighty debt.  
  • I have also seen the toll that deferred building maintenance takes.  Thankfully, the major roof repairs are done.  What's next?
  • I celebrate the active social service ministries that happen because St. Peter's decided to stay downtown and to care for the poor close-up in our community.   I wonder though whether we can really see Christ in the shelterless and hungry ones who come through our doors.  Why do we do what we are doing? 
  • I am inspired by the beautiful music that fills the sanctuary as we worship together. The musicians and choirs are the best!  We are blessed!
  • I see how hard many others work as they run along beside me.  Your commitment and care for Christ's church are a source of encouragement and great joy.

Yes, there is a race to be run.  I am here.  I am exceedingly grateful.

O God, who calls us all to the race, give us grace to run this course with persevering love.  Give us space to breathe and be in the presence of your Spirit.  With gratitude for the wonder of life, the joy of being in this blessed community of your people, and hope of what is yet to come, I pray:  Come, Holy Spirit!  Amen.

Friday, September 28, 2018

And Now This

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is poised to vote on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to take the vacant seat on our nation's highest court.  Yesterday, the Senate committee held its final day of testimony on the Kavanaugh nomination, and the world watched and listened to the proceedings.  It was a painful day.

The allegation of sexual assault brought by Christine Blasey Ford is disturbing.  It shakes us to the core.  It is not what we want to believe about our children, our daughters and sons, our fathers and mothers, or about ourselves.  It challenges our idealistic notions of how we relate to one another.  There is no illusion left. 

Ms. Blasey Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh are both caught in a terrible drama that has been played out right before our eyes.  We cannot go back.  We cannot look away.  We cannot be naive.  This is real.  There is no excuse to explain it all way. 

Which testimony voiced yesterday is true is not mine to determine.  I do not yet have enough information to make that call--if it were mine to make.  What I believe is that the truth will prevail.  It will finally be clear and it does matter.  Mr. Kavanaugh may soon take his seat on the Supreme Court.  Ms. Blasey Ford may soon fade from public attention.  Life will go on.  But, we all have a Judge--a Righteous God--before whose bench we must ultimately appear.  Our deeds will be known and judged for what they are.  It is the truth that will, finally, set us all free.

In the meantime, while there is yet time, I will work with our youth to do all I can to make sure they are safe and that their lives matter now . . . and into the future.  Ministry with youth is not just about having fun, it is also about building character, helping them to make faithful choices, and laying a foundation for a lifetime.  It is about teaching them to know and love God.

In the meantime, while there is yet time, I hope you will join me in supporting women and men whose stories are difficult to hear, stories that shake us to the core.  Let us work for that day when sexual abuse, assault, misconduct, and violence are over for good.  It does not have to be this way!

Righteous One, who knows our sad and sordid stories better than we know them ourselves.  You know all the ways that we have been less than the people you have created us to be.  Have mercy upon us!  Bring your justice and your compassion near to Mr. Kavanaugh and Ms. Blasey Ford.  Be with the senators who hold our nation's future in their hands now.  Grant us all the courage to speak and act in ways that are just.  We pray in the Spirit of that One who is our Judge and our Hope, even Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Remembering "Chief Connolly"

The move had been especially difficult, as moves often are.  It was the summer of 2007, and the long year of separation and commuting between the apartment in New Hampshire and the little farm in Missouri was ending.  Debby and Matt were finally moving into our new home in Concord, New Hampshire.

That move was especially traumatic for Matt, who was leaving his friends at California Middle School to attend Concord High School, a larger school with some 1700 students.  The move involved much more than traversing the 1300 miles between California and Concord.  It was about the loss of many friends and a major cultural shift.  We did not fully realize the impact the move was having on Matt--but an astute and caring principal did.

Gene Connolly, the Principal of Concord High School, recognized and welcomed his all his students--including Matt Schulte.  He saw the shyness and sadness.  He took the time to befriend Matt, joking with him and inviting him to lunch often in the Principal's Office.  Matt called him "Chief Connolly" and cherished the bond of that friendship.  In 2011, when Matt graduated from Concord High School, he stood in the football stadium before his peers and introduced the class song, "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey.  Matt had found his place.  He was at home.  Chief Connolly's friendship and care had transformed a life--and many others along the way.

In 2014, the news that Mr. Connolly had ALS came as a great shock.  Yet, Chief Connolly persisted in doing what he always did.  He welcomed students and helped them grow.  He took an interest in each one--including the shy and sad ones.  Matt and Mrs. Arnold, a teacher and good friend, would visit Chief Connolly graduation.  Matt looked forward to those visits.  As we prepared to move again, from Concord to Washington, last summer, Matt and Mrs. Arnold went to the Chief's home to say goodbye.  I imagine it was a kind of blessing one another on their way.

On August 20, the news arrived in a text message: Gene Connolly had died.  There have been so many notable deaths in the past month--Aretha Franklin, John McCain, Burt Reynolds.  The stars are falling from our sky, but none of those shone brighter than that of Chief Connolly.  He was an educator, administrator, and a good friend of so many--including Matt Schulte.  Would that more of us would share his kind of love and courage!  I think it would be the world as God intends it to be.

So, rest in Christ's peace, Chief Connolly!  Well done!  Well done!!  Well done!!!  And, thank you from this grateful parent.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Minister - Called and Equipped

Last week, I read a blog, "How Much Education Does a Pastor Need?" by David Kamphuis, the pastor of Martin Luther Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Youngstown, Ohio.  His post was prompted by Luther Seminary's plan to shift from a four-year M.Div program to a two-year program for those preparing for ordained ministry.

That article stayed with me this week.  I reread it again this morning.  Kamphuis argues that the church can no longer afford to equip its clergy with an academic degree in order to effectively be ministers of word and sacrament.  In other words, the seminary education, which we used to train our clergy leaders for generations, is no longer affordable or practical today.  He writes" There is no longer enough money to sustain the expense of hard-nose theological degrees for pastors.  Ages ago seminary was virtually paid for by the church and what wasn't paid for could be paid off with a well-paying job.  As churches have declined so has support to seminaries and the costs of higher education have ballooned.  M.Div programs now require tens of thousands of dollars, Put simply, few people have the money for that anymore."

I do not disagree that the way clergy are formed must, of necessity, change with the times.  Yes, we must find another way to pay for equipping those who will serve as the next generation of church leaders.  That way must not continue to place the economic burden of a seminary education solely on the shoulders of an individual minister.  It is too heavy a load to carry.  The church must again accept responsibility for sharing that load.  Nor is it helpful to have seminaries become preoccupied with institutional survival and fundraising.  They have more important work to do.  We need the seminaries, for a local setting cannot do all that is required to equip the present and future leaders of the church.

The second observation Kamphuis makes moves from an economic to a cultural critique.  Clergy are no longer valued as professionals in the society.  Once they were on a par with lawyers, doctors, and educators.  Now, we don't know what to do with them.  To quote the author, "Even if we had the money, the world of institutionalized cultural support for Christianity is dead or dying.  We live in a world where, depending on your generation, many have never had an encounter with pastor or priest.  The pastor is, at best, an odd duck in this world and we will probably not receive the same cultural respect we did in days past."

I think of clergy scandals and the erosion of confidence in those called to serve with integrity and truthfulness.  Can we trust our clergy?  I think of lost and wounded souls who have found their path to ministry but never healed or grew in the process.  The society needs a voice in the pulpit and the public square--a voice that calls for truth, justice, and mercy.  Priests and pastors need not be comparable to other professions.  We are our own profession with a season of preparation, codes of ethics, discipline and oversight, and standard practices that center in word and sacrament.  We are ambassadors of Christ's love.  Denominations are indeed changing, but they still serve an important purpose in equipping ministers to serve and in holding them accountable in their calling.  Clergy are part of a network that is larger than an individual calling.

I believe that it is not just the society that has a low assessment of clergy leaders.  Too many churches have never helped their sons and daughters to hear the call to serve as pastors and teachers.  I remember an educator who argued with me at the church door.  He came to worship every week, sang in the choir, and participated in the life of the church in many generous ways.  When I suggested in a homily that the church should encourage its members to listen for Christ's call to ordained ministry--a life of service and leadership in the church--the man became disturbed.  He did not see ministry as a future for his or other children of the church.   He respected my leadership, but he would not encourage others in a similar way.  Perhaps he only saw the hardships, the sacrifice, the conflicts associated with being an authorized leader of the church.  It is not just that the culture has shifted; the church itself has changed and no longer values its clergy.  A card in October for "Clergy Appreciation Month" does not address the issue.

So, the blog raises questions in an old debate:  Is ministry a vocation or a profession?  Is it Christ's call alone that qualifies one for ministry?  Or, is ministry a profession with certain covenantal standards and expectations?   Is ministry about an individual who hears and responds to a call or is it about fulfilling the needs of the Church in a variety of ministry settings?

This is my response:  Yes, ministry is primarily a calling--whisperings in the soul and in the ears: "Have you ever thought about being a minister?"   "Come, follow me."  And yes, it is also a profession for which disciples must be equipped.  A season of intense discernment and study is still required. There must be a separation, a time away from the local setting that has nurtured us, for ministry, of necessity, will cause us to move away from the comfortable confines of home to serve in places that we had not imagined we would go.

The word in the scripture will move us to deeper commitment and encourage us to speak up and to stand up in places we had never expected that we might go.  To be equipped to serve is to be broken open and to find our healing.  To serve at the font and the table is deeper than presiding over ancient rituals.  It is to allow oneself to be an agent in the mystery--to be a participant in God's grace and mercy--that is extended to all the world.  That, too, requires that our spirits and our minds be equipped.

Finally, I believe that those who are called and equipped to serve will also be collegial, that we will reach across our doctrines and theologies to be in relationship and support others who do what we do.  There is already too much isolation and loneliness in ministry.  It is time for those who lead to befriend one another and to hold each other accountable, to speak the truth to one another in love.

I am grateful for the blog and its question, "How Much Education Does a Pastor Need?"  To it I would add my own question:  "What Does a Pastor Need to be Equipped Today?"

Friday, August 3, 2018

The End of an Era

I suppose it was bound to happen.  This little building was one of the few remaining businesses in the rural community where I was raised.  The State Bank of Bay was chartered in 1911 and was the only bank in Gasconade County to remain open through the Great Depression.  That was the legendary story our grandparents taught us.  It was a story of perseverance in adversity, prudent management, and fiscal conservatism.  Our bank was strong and stable, and so were we.  Our community had wealth and resources.  We were resourceful folks!

Earlier this week, I read that the bank, which is now a branch of The Missouri Bank, will be closed on November 2.  It saddens me to think about the changes that have occurred in the  little community that nurtured my identity: The closings of the Bay Feed Mill, the Bay Mercantile Company, Ollie's Repair Shop, and now the Bay Bank.  Bethel Presbyterian Church has been closed for some time.  Ridder's Store at "Little Bay" is also long gone.  One center of activity still remains in Bay: Zion-St. Paul United Church of Christ. 

Yes, I suppose it was bound to happen.  The village of my childhood has been passing away for a long time.  The world has shifted away from those small, out-of-the-way villages to technology and social media that connect us virtually with whole world.  Banking can be done from almost anywhere with a smartphone.   We are more connected, and yet, more isolated than ever.  On November 2, when the Bay Bank closes its doors, something important will be gone forever.

Well, I could wax nostalgic.  And, a protest now would do little good to extend the life of the bank.  These changes are not the outcome of malicious outside influences that have attacked the little community of Bay.  As families moved and died away, the cultural centers in the community did so as well.  It was easy to become insular, retelling the traditional stories while the community was dying around us.

So, I wonder:  Does this closing serve as a metaphor for the church?  Churches are resilient.  They tell stories about grand times in the past when they had lots of children and young families, when it was fun to be a church, when our mission was clear, when the buildings were new, and when there was a great spirit of cooperation rather than endless conflict.  We look back to the founding families, admiring their commitment to be the church and their enduring faith in the face of great peril  and adversity. 

Perhaps there is still time for us to learn a new story, to find our own purpose and identity in this day, to stop living in the past, and to be clear again about our identity and our purpose..  May God grant us vision, love, and courage for the living of these days!


Friday, July 20, 2018

Vacation Bible School

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:14-15, NRSV).

We just completed five days of Vacation Bible School (VBS) last night.  What I appreciated most about these evening sessions was getting better acquainted with some of the children of St. Peter's United Church of Christ and the children of the other churches who came to participate.  Sadly, a new pastor often meets the children last.  Children do not appear on search committees or church councils or in the adult fellowship groups.  They are visible--we want little children to be present--but in some ways they are also invisible, left in the background.  It was a joy to finally meet our children in the context of Vacation Bible School.

This week I went back in memory to the first time I was able to attend VBS.  Just across the back fence from my childhood home was Zion United Church of Christ (Zion-St. Paul UCC) in Bay, Missouri.  In the summer, in the years before I was old enough to go to VBS, I would hear the happy sounds of little children at play.  I would catch glimpses of them darting around the church yard at recess.  I could see them touching the old cistern pump as a base, a safe place, while playing tag.  When I was finally old enough to attend VBS myself, I was delighted to be there.  I had grown up!  It was all very good.

I remember VBS.  I remember Miss Ricka Leimkueller telling us a story about the danger of guns.  I remember Mrs. Lillian Schneider, the pastor's wife, teaching us to sing "We Shall Overcome" in addition to the songs with motions that little children loved to sing.  While I was unaware at the time, I now see that it took some courage to teach us to resist violence and work for the liberation of others.  We learned those songs during the civil rights movement and Vietnam.  At VBS, we received resources to be compassionate and understanding, to begin to find our way faithfully in the world.  Even as little children, we began to imagine a "Just World for All."  I remember the Bible stories about God creating the world, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments,  and Jesus calling his disciples and calming the stormy sea.  I remember the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  I remember the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for the sake of the sheep.  I remember craft projects that took some time to complete and are still among the treasured artifacts in my study.  Later, when I was a youth in that church, the adults trusted me to help teach at VBS.  This was a formative influence in who I am today.  I am grateful.

So, I wonder what VBS might mean to the children I got to know a bit better this week.  I wonder whether we have provided them with resources that might guide and steady them throughout their lives.  Did we teach them to trust Jesus through life's storms?  Did we teach them to sing the songs of freedom and hope?  Did we teach them to be compassionate and loving with all people?  Did we give them songs and stories to anchor their faith in God now and in the times yet to come?  Did we teach them to resist evil and violence, to choose another path in life?  That is certainly the prayer of my heart as I remember the week we shared.  It is my prayer for our children.

I also wonder about the way we are doing Christian education/Christian faith formation now.  It seems churches have such a compressed schedule.  Everything overlaps--especially on Sunday mornings.  We are in such a hurry, controlled by the clock and our overloaded lives.  The children come to worship, but they do not stay there for long.  When are they present for a whole service?  We trust the curriculum and the videos to do the teaching for us, rather than sharing the scripture stories and our own experience of God.  A lot appears to have changed in the time between my first experience with VBS and what we do now.  Perhaps I am just getting old and overly anxious.  I wonder, however, whether we are providing the depth, the foundation for faith that will last for a lifetime.  What are the texts and stories that our children will take to heart--resources to sustain them when sickness and sorrow, conflicts and troubles come into their lives?  Will there be depth of soul, resilience of hope, and reality of love?  Will they know that they are always accepted and accompanied by a God who knows them by name and loves them forever?    So, I am wondering if we can go deeper, rethinking and adapting, revising our ways of doing Christian faith formation, so that we incorporate what was good from the past into today's ways of teaching our children.  

O God, grant us faith that endures and sees us through.  Bless all the little children . . . those near and dear to us and those who are distant and unfamiliar to us.  Bless them with your love.  Bless them, Lord Jesus, with your life.  Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2018

My Spiritual Advisors

In recent days, I've read about Paula White, a televangelist and spiritual advisor to President Donald J. Trump.  Every president has had a prophet, a pastor, a spiritual guide to whom they have turned.  In refuting those who are protesting present immigration policies by claiming that Jesus was also an illegal alien (when his family migrated to Egypt), Pastor White has countered that Jesus never broke laws, for if he had, "he would never have been our Messiah."  I disagree with White's interpretation, but that is not the point of this writing.

I have been thinking about those who are and have been my spiritual advisors, my mentors and counselors.  Once, just  when I had bid farewell to my first parish, I was deeply troubled in spirit.  A friend had died suddenly.  I got a call from the grieving family, inviting me to return to do the funeral service.  In my mind, I had every reason to return.  Then a friend and fellow pastor took me aside and said, "It's not your place.  You are gone.  You cannot go back without doing harm."  It was not what I wanted to hear, but those wise words were what I needed to hear.  A true spiritual advisor tells us what needs to be said even if it challenges  our own ideas and practices.

When I was a senior at Eden Seminary, my dad was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  I had decided that I would forgo my final semester, postponing graduation in order to care for my parents.  I was standing in the aisle in the seminary chapel, relating my plan to a wise professor who said, "You will be of more help to your parents if you finish your education and follow your call."  For a time, that counsel caused deeper soul searching.  It was not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear.

In these days, as I settle more completely into my call and new life in Washington, there are spiritual advisors whom I trust to speak the truth.  There are voices that call me to accountability.  There are those friends and colleagues who do not let me alone.  They speak wise counsel--not necessarily what I want to hear, but what I need to hear.

One of those spiritual advisors spoke when I was installed in April.  Bishop Dwayne Royster reminded me of a higher calling that is grounded in the counsel of the prophet Micah.  "What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"  (Micah 6:8).  I seek to be a spiritual advisor who speaks and serves with integrity and truthfulness.

O Righteous One, when I am called to be a spiritual advisor, a pastor, to another seeker on the way, remind me of what you require.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be just and true. Move me from pleasing others to serving you.  May my life and ministry be grounded in deep reverence and humility, for you alone are God.  I am grateful!   Amen.