Monday, June 27, 2016

Churches in Bloom

Yesterday I had the privilege of being in worship with Northwood Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, as the congregation dedicated its restored building.  It was exciting to experience the hope and joy that are alive in this community of ministry and mission.  Friends and former members came "home" to testify to the role the church played in their lives.  While we do not worship our buildings, this place is made holy by its use--a place in which God gathers us, where walls are lowered and broken down, where friendships are constructed in Christ.  Northwood Congregational Church is a church in bloom.  God is doing great things here!

In the afternoon, I traveled to First Congregational Church of Croydon, United Church of Christ for the creation of a new covenant between the Grafton Orange Sullivan Association, First Congregational Church, and the Rev. Donna Lee Muise as the congregation's Pastor and Teacher.  It was a moving service of commitment that contained both laughter and tears.  The depth of relationship was evident in words of affection and appreciation, in promises made, in the new pastoral relationship that has begun.  This is a congregation that is building well on the foundation that others have constructed over many years.  There is anticipation and joy. First Congregational Church of Croydon is a church in bloom.  God is doing great things here!

The ministry to which I am called as the Conference Minister of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ leads me to rejoice in God who still creates and calls the church to new life.  Many today lament the state of the church.  I hear the Risen Christ calling us forth to new life and new ministries.  Today I rejoice in the buds and blossoms that are all around us in the 135 local churches of the New Hampshire Conference.  God is indeed doing great things here!

O God, it's another Monday morning.  Today my heart sings for joy, for I have seen your Spirit stirring in the congregations of this Conference.  I see the gift of your future emerging.  I see the beautiful ways you renew and resurrect your people--your joyful, hopeful servant Church--in this new day.  Thank you!  Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lessons from Orlando

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved. 
(Psalm 80:3, 7,10 NRSV)

This is the refrain of a congregation in crisis.  The people sing out from their brokenness, praying that God will fix that which they cannot.  In the midst of the darkness, there is a longing for the light of God's face.

When Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of a Sunday morning, another terrible and tragic episode in US history began.  One hundred and two precious people were shot by one man.  Forty-nine people were killed in that massacre.  Orlando--a place of sunshine, resorts, and theme parks--is now marred by hatred, violence, and death.  

It has been a hard week for me.  I attended vigils during the past week and read aloud the names of the dead.  I've listened to sermons, read devotions, and reflected on the massacre.  I feel the need to write to add my own voice to those of courageous and compassionate pastors and teachers of the church who have spoken out about what has occurred in light of our Christian faith.  So these are my reflections on Orlando.  These are my emerging lessons from this tragedy:

While I was grateful to be in the crowds that gathered in New Hampshire to lament and grieve what had happened at Pulse, I kept thinking:  What do I need to do to make sure something like this never happens again?  Vigils are certainly important as we gather to witness to the Light that continues to shine in the darkness and to steady and encourage our broken hearts.  But, I am convinced, now is the time for people of faith, hope, and love to find their voice and change the world.

The church needs to say Open and Affirming (ONA) is more than a label; it is a commitment that this congregation is a safe sanctuary for all LGBTQ people.  ONA means that those who gather here promise to value you as a child of God, disciple of Christ, and member of the church.  This is a community where your voice matters--where your life and the life of those you love matter.  A lesson from Orlando:  We cannot be silent or passive about ONA and pretend that we don't need to discuss or discern what it means to welcome, affirm, and embrace all God's children.  The church needs to become a more safe sanctuary where God's light shines and love abounds to heal the brokenness and to bridge the differences.

I continue to be amazed at role of guns in our society.  It is as though weapons of war are our ultimate security.  When the Bill of Rights was drafted and adopted, the framers of the Second Amendment could not have anticipated the sophisticated weaponry that is now so prevalent in our nation.  That one individual could kill or maim over one hundred others in so short a time would have been inconceivable to the founders of this country.  It is time for lawmakers to find the conviction and courage to act--or we need to elect others who will.  Guns are not our salvation or our security. 

It is time that we moved from rhetoric that views the faithful in Islam with suspicion and fear.  Our Muslim neighbors are part of the same faith family from which we ourselves have come.  In every religious tradition--including our own--there are movements and voices that have done great harm.  A religion should be judged not by threats and violence of a few but by deeds of love and mercy that build up lives and lead to greater understanding and peace.  It is time to embrace others in our common humanity with acceptance and love.

In the beginning, God created from the dust.  In the end, God will be present to restore, redeem, and resurrect.  In the middle, may we pray and act to shape the world in ways that reflect God's own intent and hope for it.

O God, who restores the brokenness of hearts and lives, help us to change and to be changed.  Be with all who grapple with the massacre that has occurred in Orlando.  Stand with your precious LGBTQ people.   Bless our Muslim neighbors that they may be accepted and valued.  Strengthen our voices and our resolve to work for your justice and peace, and to live forward in your hope.   Amen.

Monday, June 6, 2016

On My Way Rejoicing!

I woke up in Jefferson City, Missouri this morning.  My time away has been rich with connections.  Yesterday, I was present for the 150th Anniversary of the United Church of Christ of California, Missouri--a church where I served as Pastor and Teacher during a formative time in our family's life.  It was humbling to return to people and a place that had been home.

What I found in California was a vital and lively congregation, as I had imaged that it would be.  There were children--almost thirty of them gathered at the Pastor's feet for the children's time.  The choirs sang for joy with words of harmony and hope.  The names of the saints flooded my memory and stirred my soul.  I am grateful to Pastor Andrew Lovins for his generous welcome and hospitality.    I offered the sermon for the day and will link to it here for those who might like to read what I said:  A Homily of the 150th Anniversary of the UCC of California

And now, it is time to leave for home.  I start the journey in a few minutes and will be home in Concord and back to my ministry with the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ later this week.  This has been a renewing time.  I leave this place that once was home with a joyful heart and a thankful spirit.  The God who calls us into communities of deep faith continues to support and sustain the Church and calls it to be an agent of resurrection hope now and in all the times yet to come.

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Remembering . . .

Memorial Day is past.  Summer is here.   There were no visits to family burial plots this year.  No services for me in the church cemetery.  No honor guard appearing before worship to salute the dead with a firing of guns.  No, my Memorial Day was rather calm and quiet, reflective in a different way.

Sunday, in worship, our Pastor invited us to name those soldiers who had been killed in service to the United States of America.  The list was not long, but the mention of names that were carried in hearts was a poignant and powerful moment.  One by one those names were again lifted before God in the pastoral prayer.

As I prepared for prayer, I remembered my four uncles who served in the military in World War II and Korea--Elmer, Ollie, Alan, and Harold.  They all returned from the war, but a neighbor and friend, Kenneth Emil Hoehne, did not.   He died in Germany while serving with General Patton's 3rd Army Infantry. 

I also remembered  L.Cpl. Leon Deraps, who died May 6, 2006, while serving in the Iraq.  His was the first war casualty that I remember from Moniteau County, Missouri.  His death left a family and community in deep grief.  I remembered as I prayed on Sunday.

And I think about how many of these young people did make a tremendous sacrifice--whether they died or whether they lived through the battles of war.  Many served because they were sent away from families and farms to fight.  They gave a significant time to serve.  Many came home in silence.  Something changed in them while they were away.  Many are still ill with the effects of what they experienced.

And so, I prayed on Sunday and pledged that I would do all I can to remember the names and know what I could to honor their sacrifices.  But I also prayed and pledged that I would do all I could to serve for peace in the world, so that others would not have lives interrupted by fighting and death.  That, it seems to me, is one of the best ways to cherish the memories of those who have given their all.

O God, in your tender mercy, enfold in your arms all who were lost in the fighting and their families who still remember in ways that we cannot.   Heal those broken spirits that have returned in silence with no voice to plead their cause.  Let justice roll down and let your peace prevail, now and forever.  In the name of the One who is the Prince of Peace.  Amen. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Please Stay!

I remember a congregant named "Sam," who was a member of a church I served as a student a very long time ago.  Sam grew simultaneously dissatisfied with his church and with my ministry.  One Sunday he just disappeared and never came back.  We let him go.  I let him go.  We decided that life would be better without Sam's negativity spreading around to infect others.  Now, I'm not so sure we really did the right thing.  I was in my early twenties then; I'm sixty now.  The years and the experiences of ministry have helped me to see things very differently.  I wish I had said to Sam, "Please stay.  We really need you."  But I didn't do that.  The church didn't do that.

I often wonder what became of Sam.  Did he join some other church that appeared to be a better fit for him?  Did he turn his back on "organized religion" and never go to worship again?  I wonder if his experience started him on a lifetime of drifting from congregation to congregation, never satisfied and always easily ignored and quickly dismissed.  Confession time:  I not only remember Sam; I still miss him.  It was not right that we let him go without a blessing, a word of encouragement, or a conversation that communicated, "Please stay.  We need you to help us be a better church."

In the Gospel of John, the verb menw (meno) occurs about 40 times.  It means to abide, remain, or dwell.  Many of these occurrences are clustered in John 15, where Jesus identifies himself as the "True Vine."  Jesus says, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (John 15:9-10, NRSV).  Jesus comes to connect and stay with us--even when we are difficult and disloyal disciples.  He puts up with us even as he works to transform, heal, and forgive us.  He loves us no matter what, as is evident in Good Friday's cross. 

That's also how I understand the word "covenant" in our heritage as members in the United Church of Christ.  Covenant is a relationship that includes a foundational promise to abide with another no matter what.  It's not easy to keep others close--especially those who challenge and criticize us.  Like Sam, they can make life difficult for pastors and everyone else; but it might just be possible that God is speaking through them too.  Covenant requires a commitment to remain connected with Christ and one another no matter what.

So Sam:  If you are reading this blog.  Please stay in the relationship.  Please be true to your own spirit and the Spirit of the Living God.  Engage me.  Engage us.  Don't go easily away.  We need you now and into God's future.  There is a place at the table for you and for all of us.  Please stay!

O God, it's your Church.  When we are tempted to reform it by encouraging others to leave and just disappear, change our minds and hearts.  Lord Jesus, please stay with us!  And teach us to say that to members of our faith communities who are disagreeable, discouraged, and disregarded:  "Please stay with us!  We need you."  Amen.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Encouragement for the Hard Times

Well, this is a day and a date that always take me back.  It was Easter Sunday (April 3, 1983), my first Easter after ordination; but I was not with my congregation that day.   Before the dawn on the Easter morning thirty-three years ago, my dad died.  It was a long journey from the diagnosis of cancer to the ending--many hard months of change and decline.  Finally, like some cruel twist to the sacred story, death came on Easter Sunday.  There might have been comfort in that--dying in in the hope of resurrection--but such comfort only came much later.  Easter in 1983 was a hard time.

I remember how in John's Gospel, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb before the dawn and discovered the tomb was open.  She met Jesus was alive again--raised from death to life.  In 1983, we gathered in a dim hospital room before the dawn and discovered that death still came even in the season of resurrection and new life.  It was not fair.  I felt cheated, angry, and sad on that Easter morning.  I missed my dad.  I missed my congregation.  It was a very hard thing to experience.  There was disappointment and disruption.  This ending was exceedingly hard.

Endings are not easy--even when they come with blessings attached.  It takes a while before "blessing" applies to such a loss.  It should not be pronounced too quickly by those who seek to bring comfort and consolation.  Sometimes beginnings are hard to bear, too.  Starting over after one's world changes abruptly is not easy.  Taking steps by faith into an uncertain future may be more than we can do--at least for a time.  It takes a certain kind of courage to face into a new beginning--meeting, greeting, and befriending strangers.  Mary and the disciples before us had to find courage to face new beginnings.  The presence of the Risen Christ brought its own pain and its own fear.  It took a while for the reality of resurrection to soak into one's soul.  It takes a while for the reality of the resurrection to transform broken hearts and a broken world.  It still does.

Recently, I discovered a song by Carrie Newcomer.  In You Can Do This Hard ThingNewcomer sings words of encouragement--a pupil learning to do addition for the first time, friends parting so one can go on a journey, a late-night call in the midst of some crisis:  "You do this hard thing."  I think of the hard things that seemed impossible at some earlier seasons in my life.  I find encouragement in knowing that I finally did learn to tie my shoes, ride a bicycle, swim and face into harder challenges and disappointments.  I have discovered the encouragement of the gospel as the waves of grief have subsided.  I have picked up the broken pieces.  I have started over many times.

Endings will continue to come.  Beginnings will summon us to a new and uncertain futures.  Neither is easy.  But in the song I hear the proclamation of the gospel: "You Can Do This Hard Thing."  I know it is true.  Jesus--crucified and risen--is always near--even to the close of the age.  We are accompanied.  We are not alone.  We are never alone.  Thanks be to God.  Alleluia!  Amen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Long Week in Cleveland

I spend last week--a very long week--in Cleveland for meetings with colleagues from across the United Church of Christ.   In meetings of the United Church of Christ Council of Conference Ministers and the United Church of Christ Board, a common theme was transformation, the transformation of our denomination.   There was a sense of urgency among us:  This is our moment to be the Church.

Yes, the Church is changing.  The United Church of Christ is changing.  No doubt about it.  But I wonder whether we are claiming too much credit for the change that is happening.  Is it really all about our designs and dreams?  Are we as important as we think we are?  Does the call to be a minister (a servant) grant us the right and responsibility to dismantle what has been and be architects of what is to come?  Where is God in the midst of this change?

What I felt in Cleveland was a profound sadness.  While glimpsing the church we are becoming, grief swept through my spirit.  I found myself remembering and missing The Evangelines, a women's Sunday School class in a former church where I served as pastor and teacher.  This class was created in the 1920's, a very long time ago.  The class met for Sunday morning study and monthly fellowship and service.  I admired the way these women continued to combine study and service.  They were disciples of Jesus. They were faithfully relational.  They were the church at its best.  I suspect that this class may be gone now.  Yes, things change in the church.  "New occasions teach new duties."  But there needs to be room for change to come naturally--in God's good time.  Real transformation takes time.  It will not be forced by those who seek to initiate and control it.

As I took a walk in Cleveland last Friday, I discovered a solitary daffodil that had emerged after the cold winter.  The bud reminded me that something new is emerging from the wintry earth.  Though I will not be there to see it bloom, I saw hope in the bud.  I see even greater hope as we approach Easter, which holds the promise of transformation for us all: the change from death to life.  Christ's resurrection will not be forced.  It will not be managed or controlled.  It appears in God's good time, shrouded in mystery before the dawn.  It comes as a gift to be received and lived.  It is reason for exuberant joy.  I persevere in the hope of resurrection.  It's not about me, but it's about the God who raised Jesus from the dead--doing what I could not even imagine or control. 

Eternal One, thank you for the memory of those who have been the church, living with patient hope and persevering love.  Lead us forward in faith.  Let Christ's resurrection change and sustain us.  Let this be your moment!  May it be so.  Amen.