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.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Morning, Before the Dawn

It's Sunday again.  I've been looking forward to this morning because it brings me into the orbit of others.  When the churches gather to sing praise, my soul is renewed in the singing.  When disciples offer their prayers, I also am reminded to pray.  When the churches gather, there is yet hope for the healing of the world.

I remember Sunday mornings from a time long ago, when I would spend Saturday nights with my grandparents.  On Sunday mornings we would rise before the dawn because Grandpa had to tend the cattle on the farm where he was employed.  We had several hours of work to do before we went to church.  I loved those Sunday mornings in the middle of the winter when I could go along to help feed the cows.  The air was crisp.  The frost was heavy on the pastures.  The cattle would be waiting at the gate for hay, silage, and generous scoops of grain.  It was feeding time on the farm.

And, this Sunday morning, as I prepare to visit the Congregational Church of Laconia and this afternoon as I visit the Maranatha Indonesian United Church of Christ and join the celebration of the twelfth anniversary of this immigrant church--I remember those special Sunday mornings on the farm.  Today brings a special opportunity to feed and to be fed in worship.  There will be wonderful food in the festivities of this day.  There will be rich food, the bread of life, that God provides in abundance for all.  How I need that food today!

May your Sunday morning be filled with the nourishing, enlivening presence of God.  Come to the waters.  Come to the bread that satisfies.  Come to the feast.

Gracious God, I need to taste and see your goodness today.  Bless all who seek and all who find you as they gather today.  Nourish in us your peace.  Amen.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

I Went to Church Last Sunday

Surely you will say to me, "What?  You went to church last Sunday?  You always go to church!  You're the Conference Minister.  Of course you went to church."

Yes, that is true.  I go to church a lot--to worship, to meet with members, to encourage and to pray, to sit in the presence of Jesus, to glorify and praise God.  There have been very few times when I have not wanted to be in church on Sunday morning.  This has been my centering spiritual practice for a long, long time. 

On Sunday, which was both Valentine's Day and the First Sunday in Lent, I traveled to the Community Church of Hudson, which is one of our smallest local churches.  There on a cold, clear morning with temperatures well below zero, I found the warmth of Christian community.   The faith was proclaimed and taught, Communion was shared, and I was at home.  Hudson reminded me of the tiny church on the border between Missouri and Iowa--Livonia United Methodist Church--where the United Methodists welcomed me as their Sunday morning preacher while I was in college.  That little congregation of eight members was formative in my call and has been foundational my care for small-membership churches.  The Community Church of Hudson, United Church of Christ is a community to be cherished in the New Hampshire Conference as it worships God and serves God's people.

This church was in the news last month because a small truck crashed through a front window and landed inside the fellowship hall.  The damage is extensive and is still evident.  What stirs my soul about this story is how--on the very day that the crash occurred--the church continued to serve the poor in its community by distributing food through a back door in that fellowship hall.  The Community Church of Hudson serves in the midst of adversity.  It sees Christ in those whom others might easily overlook, especially when the church has reasons to be distracted and discouraged by its own problems.  The Spirit of Christ abides here!

I am reminded of Paul's words:  "When one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." (I Cor. 12:26, NRSV).   We are all connected in Christ.  I am so very glad that I went to church last Sunday. 

Thank you, Gracious and Gathering God, for the Community Church of Hudson, United Church of Christ!  Amen.

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!