Tuesday, February 2, 2016

End of an Era

Confession time:  It is not easy for me to admit that the world is changing.  I am tempted toward to denial as a coping mechanism.  Continuity between the past, present, and future is comforting.  Endings are hard, for I tend to hold tightly to memories of what has been--the people and places where I have served.  Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!

When I was in junior high, Clarence Hengstenberg knocked on our door and asked whether I would be interested in working for him.  Mr. Hengstenberg, a former dairy farmer, was now a milk distributor for Central Dairy.  He delivered milk every evening, except Sunday, to homes around the community.  He hired me for $6.60 a week--a dollar and a dime a night--to be one of his four delivery boys.  We literally ran the milk cartons to the door, sliding across icy porches and slipping past growling dogs.   This was my first real job. 

Imagine how it felt a couple of weeks ago when a newspaper in Missouri ran the story of the end of home deliveries by Central Dairy:  Central Dairy Closes Door on Home Delivery.  With that announcement came the end.  Folks no longer need a milk delivery at their doors.   We do not live by milk alone.  Milk deliveries are not going to keep senior citizens living in their own homes longer.  We might as well buy the dairy at the Walmart across town.  Home delivery no longer made sense in Central Dairy's business plan.  The world has changed.  My first job isn't being done by anyone in Mid-Missouri now.  It's over.

Now, I wonder about ministry, including this specialized ministry called "Conference Ministry."  It began with the stirring of the Spirit and with the call of Jesus who said, "Come, follow me."  The calling of the twelve disciples and the commissioning of the seventy apostles were always favorite stories at Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.  The old hymn, "Where He Leads Me I Will Follow," runs deep in my spirit.  And just look where Christ has led me!

I wonder whether the day is here when the headlines Saturday's Concord Monitor tell of the end of another era.  For me, ministry has been anchored in a call that takes us to the doors--of congregants, of hospitals and nursing homes, of the poor, and of the dying.  Ministry, even Conference Ministry, is about being face-to-face with those whom Christ also loves.  For nearly thirty-five years, my ministry has involved preaching, praying, and being present with people.  It has included service and sacrifice.  It has been a source of joy.

That understanding of ministry seems antiquated today.  Many in the pews of our churches no longer expect such things of their ministers.  It's not how we do things in a digital world.  Why would a minister take the time to drive (or fly) somewhere to be with someone in their sorrow or suffering?  What a waste of resources!  Sending an email or posting on Facebook should be sufficient now.  Real ministry happens on the screens of our devices.  

From my first job to my present one, I sense that I may well be at the end of an era.  What I have done others may not do or even value in the future.  But of this I am confident:  I have followed One whose story ends in resurrection.  I have this powerful assurance that the Christ who calls me still makes house calls and heart calls.  I have this hope--this empowering hope--that God is present in every ending and brings life in the midst of death.  I have this hope in my living and in my dying:  God is faithful even at the end of an era.

 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve Wanderings and Wonderings

As I worshipped during the service of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, I heard the preacher encourage us to receive the gift of Jesus Christ.  Here's where my mind wandered:  Yes, it is important to unwrap God's present or open the dusty box to really receive the healing, the peace, the love that is offered to us at Christmas.  But if I really receive and put on the gift of Christ (Galatians 3:27), my life will be changed from the inside out.  This gift is not one that stays on the surface, but soaks into the heart, the head, the wholeness of my humanity.  It permeates my life and changes my world.  I cherish the little text about the mystery of the resurrection and how we shall all be changed in the end: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (I Corinthians 15:52).  We will be changed!   Yes, we will be changed in the end, but I also think we are changed in the middle of life.  Whenever we truly receive the gift, we are changed.  The gift of Jesus Christ will not be received with staid politeness; rather this gift will turn our lives upside down and right side up.

When I consider all the political insults and slurs that are flowing so freely in this season, I wonder whether these politicians, who insist that we say, "Merry Christmas!" have really taken the gift to heart.  If so, how can they continue to denigrated other people with such antagonistic and inflammatory rhetoric?  Is this not to spurn the gift of God and harden one's heart and close one's mind?

I also wandered away for awhile when the choir sang of peace:  Dona Nobis Pacem ("Grant Us Peace").  It is a prayer and a plea for peace in a troubled world.  When the music ended, I sat, reflecting about how we want peace at the end--when we feel as though we have triumphed, when we or our own ideology has prevailed--when we have won.  We want peace to be the period at the end of our conflict.  Do we also want peace in the middle of the trouble, before an ending is clear?  Do we want God to intervene and intrude before we have won the war?  Grant Us Peace, O God, but only when it is convenient for us.  Grant us peace in our souls while we engage in warfare in the world.  Grant us peace when our drones have hit their targets and our borders are impermeable.  Grant us peace when we have ordered things to suit ourselves. 

And finally, I thought about losers.  One candidate, in particular, uses that word, "Loser," a lot.  I think about that baby in a manger this morning.  He did not enter the world as a winner; nor did he exit it as such.  A cradle and a cross do not a winner make.  So I guess, I'd rather align my life with this Loser--and be humble enough to claim that designation for myself--than to be a boisterous winner. 

It is amazing where we wander when we enter the sanctuary.  How will all of this transform my thinking and change my life?  While I cannot answer with certainty, I feel a journey has begun on Christmas Eve.  May it be so for you as well.

Blessed Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Prayer for a Quiet Christmas

I am living with the reality that we often have far too much chatter in the world.  Those ancient settlers, who built the tower to the heavens on the plain of Shinar (Gn. 11:2), may have caused it.  I really don't want to blame them, but it seems their curse has also become ours.  There is confusion in the communication, far too many words--far too little listening.  We hear those words in predictable presidential debates, endless news feeds, Facebook and Twitter posts, fearful, anger-provoking rhetoric on every side.  Sometimes we hear too many words even in church.  The silence is just too shallow.  We have learned to fill up every silence with our own chatter. 

What we really need, I believe, is a silent Christmas this year--one in which we turn off all the technology and listen in wonder for the news that in the quiet our God still speaks.  Beyond all the human words that would stake a claim on our hearts and minds, there is another Word that transforms our world.  There is a Word that came to us in the beginning and comes to us anew in this very time.  This is a Word that brings a new beginning, a word that opens hearts, causes hands to fold in quiet reverence before God, and transforms the way we relate to one another.  Beyond our words, there is that Word--eternally present, made flesh with us, full of glory and grace and truth.

My wish and fervent prayer for you is that this will be a quiet Christmas.  May the Word be alive as you gather in the darkness to wait and to worship, to light candles, to weep and to hope.  May the Word be alive in your Christmas gatherings with family and friends.  May there be holy a quiet that descends upon your soul and fills you with confidence and courage and hope.

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . . full of grace and truth"  (Jn. 1:14).

Christmas Blessings, My Friends!  

Christmas Blessings!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A New Day Dawns

Sunday was a great day.  I had the privilege of attending events with the Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.  It was good to be John's chauffeur and colleague as we went to worship with the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, United Church of Christ and to a special program on race at Smith Memorial Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Hillsborough.  John connected deeply in both contexts.  There was enthusiasm and energy in each gathering.  This is a new day in the United Church of Christ. 

It is amazing to behold how the Holy Spirit summons ordinary persons to extraordinary leadership in our denomination.  The Spirit's gifts produce visionary leaders.  The United Church of Christ has been blessed with articulate, compassionate, and courageous leaders throughout its history.  I look forward to the future that God has in store for us and the mission to which we are being called in God's world. 


The Rev. Dr. Avery D. Post and the Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer
meet in Hanover, New Hampshire
 
Holy One, thank you for raising up prophetic leaders among us.  Grant them the wisdom and courage to lead, so that we may be the church that shows no partiality--where all are loved and received and nourished by your grace.   Amen.
 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Take Courage: You Can Do This

In 2006, during General Synod 25, my first as a conference minister in the United Church of Christ, there was a moment when I was paralyzed by fear.  The gala worship celebration on Sunday afternoon included the serving of Communion by conference ministers who were paired with a youth from their conference.  We rehearsed on Sunday morning.  It was a long morning.


When I learned that the New Hampshire Conference team had been assigned to serve in the upper sections of the Hartford Civic Center, I lost my nerve.  The fear of heights has always produced great anxiety in my soul.  Climbing up and down those steep steps while carrying the paten and chalice was a terrifying thought.  I found myself wishing that I had some physical limitation that would have kept me comfortably serving the sections down on the floor.


When the practice ended, Kate Rogers, the youth selected to serve with me, suggested that we go up to our section and practice in preparation for the afternoon service.  I remember feeling shaky.  My palms were sweating.  My heart was beating fast.  I stood at the top of our section, looking down--way down at what seemed like thousands of steps.  And then, a break-through moment came in a simple, yet profound declaration.  Kate spoke:  "You can do this!"  In the human voice, I found divine reassurance.  Serving Communion to the people in our section on that Sunday afternoon was a highlight of the worship experience.


"You can do this!" was the word that inspired courage in a cowering conference minister.  It is the word that we are called to speak to one another as we face the challenge of being the church in these days.  To churches that are afraid, paralyzed by their fear of the future, the word comes:  "You can do this!"  To pastors who are weary and weak, the word comes:  "You can do this!"  To leaders who feel the weight of the tradition and the responsibility for moving the church forward in a time of great change, the word comes: "You can do this!"


So, in the midst of every paralyzing fear and doubt, listen for the voice that provides hope and courage.  Today, I am grateful for Kate's voice that helped me serve when I felt scared to death.  Take courage, dear friends, "You can do this!"


Living God, in the face of my fears, open me to hear your voice, calming and calling me to be courageous.  May my voice be a source of courage for others today.  Thank you for the gift of empowering courage.  Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Get Up and Eat" - Sunday's Sermon

It's been a great summer.  I recently returned from our summer road trip to the Ozark hills of Missouri.  It was a very long trip--over 1400 miles one way.  At points along the way, I found myself wondering whether I could make it back home.  It seemed like such a long journey.

Similarly, the Church of Jesus Christ is called to a much longer journey, a road trip for justice and peace.  Sometimes discouragement settles in on our soul.  Sometimes we no longer hear Christ bidding us to follow him.  Sometimes we tired or distracted or afraid.

My sermon from yesterday sought to reassure and empower the Church for its service in God's world.  I share it with you now in a spirit of humility and hope.


 I Kings 19:4-8
19:04 But he [Elijah] himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.

19:05 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat."

19:06 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.

19:07 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you."

19:08 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
 
New Revised Standard Version
 John 6:35, 41-51
06:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

06:41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven."

06:42 They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?"

06:43 Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves.

06:44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.

06:45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.

06:46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

06:47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

06:48 I am the bread of life.

06:49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.

06:50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

06:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
 
New Revised Standard Version
 

"Get Up and Eat"

 
When Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe in Gilead lost his nerve, he went alone into the desert and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He had just taken on the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel and triumphed over them. But now, he is depleted and defeated beneath the broom tree. There he prays to die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." I picture him curling up in a fetal position and falling asleep—waiting for God to take him home.

But instead the angel comes to pester and save him, saying, "Get up and eat." And lo, and behold, a cake is there at his head along with a jar of water—both essentials in the desert. Elijah eats and drinks as he had been commanded. Then he returns to his sleep.

A second time the angel comes, poking and prodding the slumbering prophet. A similar command is spoken, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." Without a word, Elijah rises to eat and drink; and we are told that he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mountain of God.
 


And at Horeb—just beyond todays reading—Elijah is reassured that there are other faithful ones who are still keeping covenant with God. Though he feels all alone, Elijah is not. And God appeared to the prophet at Horeb, but not in the wind or the fire, but in "the sound of sheer silence."  In the quite, God came to re-commission and fortify the prophet, who had lost his never and his heart in the desert forty days before.

I see the church today in a similar way: grieving and despairing in a fetal position in the wilderness. The church, like the great prophet, has had powerful successes in its ministry. It has been steadfast and faithful to its call for many, many decades—but now it is weary, curled up in the wilderness in the shade of a desert bush. It has chosen to go to this desert place all alone although there are others who might have accompanied it there.

I see the church in confusion and despairing of its life. What shall we make of all the great indifference to religion in our culture? Why aren’t we important anymore? And, what shall we make of the conflicts and the lack of civility in our society? From the loud afternoon talk shows to the political forums—everywhere we look and listen—people are treating others as less than human. There is so much—so very much—yet to be done.

 

A year ago today, I was visiting my brother in Kansas City while on vacation. Suddenly a news bulletin flashed across the television screen. An unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown had been fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—just across the state.  We knew this would spell trouble, but we did not realize at the time how widespread this trouble would be.

Old, old evils have emerged again during the past year.  The church is called to follow Jesus into this trouble and to work for life in the midst of so much death.  Yet, it is easier to run away into the wilderness--afraid, depleted and defeated.  Our prayers to God are not about engaging the trouble and righting the wrongs--but are filled with surrender and despair.  Perhaps we, like Elijah, might pray, "It is enough, O LORD, take away our life, for we are no better than our ancestors."

We have not been stirred to take a stand to make this world a better place. Rather we are content to sit, to slumber, and to starve away under our solidary broom tree. Jesus calls us to bridge the racial divides, to welcome the strangers, and to befriend the friendless. Jesus calls us to overcome our fears with faith, to leave this world better than we found it, to heal the ancient wounds and to raise one another up with the love of Christ.

We cannot do this on our own strength. But, an angel still appears in the wilderness, saying, "Get up and eat, or otherwise the journey will be too much for you." The food is provided from beyond our resources. God’s providential and generous care enlivens us and moves us to ministry in broken, conflicted places of the world.

 
Or amid the terrible drug epidemic in our own state, what have we done to make a difference? When spent syringes are found in
playgrounds and ball fields, how can we close our eyes and slumber away? In our state, the number of drug-related deaths in 2014 was well over 300, a third more than the previous year. It has been reported that drug fatalities are higher than highway deaths in New Hampshire this year. This is not so much about crime rates as it is a measure of the soul of our society. People are wasted. People feel useless. People—including our teens and young adults—are giving up on life and giving in to death. And the church wonders whether its ministries with children, youth, and families can make some difference. The angel still comes, commanding us, "Get up and eat, or otherwise the journey will be too much for you." You cannot do this on your own, but with God’s help, you will make a difference.  It is time for the angel to poke us and prod us and save us, that we might be God's prophet Church in the world.  "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you."

God still has a plan and purpose for the church. We see that as we follow Jesus into the world. Jesus is our food and our drink. Jesus is the Bread of Life. He promises us, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." He leads us to eternal life. Whenever we commune with Christ—whether at the Communion table or in our daily prayers and study—we take him to heart and he strengthens our hearts. He is with us, giving us the courage to face the challenges in our home and the troubles in our streets.  As our Statement of Faith proclaims, "He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be his servants in the service of others."  He raises us now and in the hour of our death. He feeds us, so that we may make this journey and be his faithful church

So, dear friends in Christ, today we are invited to get up and to taste and see God’s goodness. Happy are those who take refuge in Christ. They will find life, and they will change the world. Do not despair. You are not alone. You are never alone. Keep faithfully serving and loving, assured that your service is not in vain.
 
 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Called to be Courageous

There are stories that shape our identities.  Some attitudes we carry are instilled in us from birth as we listen to the counsel of our elders.  One of those stories in my family of origin came from grandparents who had lived through the Great Depression.  They were not interested in investing in the stock market because they had seen how the Market Crash of 1929 had personally affected their lives.  A dusty box of worthless stock certificates stored in the attic remained as a symbol of that painful time.

Another story that was told around the kitchen table had to do with serving on the church board, the store board, or the bank board.  We were taught to shy away from such responsibilities.  When the local bank was sold, board members were scrutinized and criticized.  When the time came for the sale of the local mercantile, the board members were subject to many questions.  Those board members were our long-time neighbors and friends.  We did not seek such responsibility.  Members of my family would never respond to an invitation to serve in such a public way.  We were cautious followers, who refused to assume the risk of leadership.

So, what happened with me?  What story has shaped my identity more than those formative family stories?  Sometimes I think, "It certainly might have been a different, easier life had I never left the place where I was born."  If only I could have avoided the responsibilities that are required with leadership, being in close contact and conversation and--in those pivotal, defining moments--being out front.  What story has given me such courage?

The preacher when I was ordained chose the call of Jeremiah as model for my own calling to ministry and leadership in the United Church of Christ.  I've never forgotten the text:

Now the word of the LORD came to me 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."

Then I said, "Ah, LORD GOD! 
Truly I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a boy."

But the LORD said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth,
and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

So, see where God has taken me.  God's hand touched my mouth.  God's Spirit descended into the depths of my heart.  Jesus called me to the tumult, and my life has never been the same.  It has been a series of amazing adventures. 

I write today from General Synod 30, as the Conference Minister of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.  I can only imagine what my grandparents might say.  I am called to lead and to love: to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.  I am called to be courageous.

O LORD GOD, I cherish your call.  You have brought me to and through "unexpected places."  You have surrounded me with other faithful and courageous disciples.  You have touched my mouth and my heart.  You have strengthened my hands.  I trust you to see me through and, at the last, to lead me home.  Amen.