Tuesday, February 21, 2017

In the Barn with the Shepherd

These winter days remind me of lambing season many years ago.  Our family started raising sheep when my Dad brought home an orphaned ewe lamb named Betty sometime in the early 1960's.  Betty had no pedigree.  She was our pet lamb.  From that single sheep, we eventually assembled a flock of 25-30 sheep.

I can still picture my Dad shearing each sheep by hand--the old fashioned way--no electric equipment.  He used a blade shears, bending over each sheep as he worked.  I remember how sore his hands and back became every spring at shearing time.

Today, I remember the late night trips to the barn, which was some five miles away from our home.  We would drive back to the barn to check on the sheep often in lambing season before we went to bed.  The barn had no electricity, so we carried lanterns which gave off a little heat as well as light.  You could always see your breath in the barn on those winter nights.  It was a quiet, peaceful place with sheep all around, chewing their cuds and dozing.

Often those trips back to the barn were uneventful, but every now and then a ewe was giving birth.  Sometimes there were complications.  My Dad always knew what to do when the delivery was difficult.  I saw him revive many a lamb that others would have given up for dead. 

There is something about raising those sheep that has helped to form me as a pastor of the church.  All the business and technology models for ministry do not really resonate with me.  My roots are in the agrarian life.  My care for congregations was formed by observing the shepherd care for his sheep on cold winter nights.  His commitment to the well-being of the sheep was evident as we left the warmth of our home to make the trip back to the damp chill of the barn.

When I consider the ministry to which I am called, the model of the shepherd still informs my practice.  Ministry is not so much about management as it is about listening to the sighs and watching for the signs of new life.  It is about protecting the flock and working for its well-being.  It is about calling others to congregate in community.  It is about knowing the names, perceiving the needs, and loving them all--no matter what.

Today, I give thanks that I am still surrounded by shepherds (150 active ministers in the New Hampshire Conference).  And, I give thanks that we all have a Shepherd--a Good Shepherd--who has come to lead us to green pastures and abundant life, who calls us together when we wander away, who gives himself in love for the world.  We have a Shepherd!  Thanks be to God!


A benediction from Hebrews:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Beyond the Silence

Just one week ago, on Inauguration Day, a group assembled at the New Hampshire State House.  It was not a time to protest but to be present for and with one another in a Silent Vigil of Hope and Concern.  Those ten minutes of silence on the same morning that our President was taking the oath of office were reverent, respectful, and prayerful. 

I have been thinking lately about the move from silence to speech.  A text from the baptismal homily of the First Epistle of Peter is the focus of my devotional time: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence"  (I Peter 3:15f., NRSV).  The Greek word that is translated "defense" is ἀπολογία (apologia).  Always be ready to make an apology?  I hear a parental echo, "Say you're sorry. Show some remorse and regret."  This sounds like something that belongs in a prayer of confession.  But apologia is the desire to make clear why you are taking a particular position or engaging in a particular action.  It is speaking that clarifies one's belief.  It is speech that follows the silence.

The late Eugene Wehrli, Professor of New Testament and President of Eden Seminary, taught me that actions without words are often ambiguous.  How does the faith inform my action?  Words are necessary.  Preachers are important:  "How will they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14, KJV).  Prophets must offer an apologia for their actions in order to be effectively understood and to more deeply encourage and engage others in their witness.

So beyond last week's silent vigil at the State House, I believe people of faith must find the words to account for the hope that is in them: Words to inspire others, to lift their eyes so that they might see all the way to the horizon, to catch a glimpse of heaven that transforms the troubles of earth, to see the Sovereign God, who is faithful--King of kings and Lord of lords.  To make our apologia with gentleness and reverence, with courage and conviction, as people of great faith; this is our high and holy calling.  This is what is required of us now.

The next time we gather at the State House, I hope we will bring words--perhaps a single word on a piece of brightly colored card stock.  Just a single word written large for anyone who passes by to read.  A word that communicates our deepest values . . . a word that is rooted in our baptismal identity . . . a word that clarifies our action . . . a word that may inspire someone else to hope, to imagine, to take a stand, to find their voice, and to act.  What's the word you must speak today?

With gratitude for those who plan the silent vigils, pray the prayers, and find the words that change the world. Indeed, thank you God!

 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Can Anything Good Come from Bay?

There is often a skeptic in the crowd.  At the outset of Jesus' ministry, as he was gathering his disciples, some were not sure about him because he came from a little nowhere place called Nazareth.  Nathanael gave voice to the question:  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Of course that question gets lost in the encounter that this skeptic has when he actually meets Jesus for himself.  Jesus reveals that he has already paid attention to Nathanael as he sat beneath the fig tree.  Nathanael turns from his skepticism to offer a profession of faith:  "Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  (Jn. 1:43-51).

The first book that I read in this new year was by Don Waldecker, "Growing Up in Rural Missouri."  I'm a slow, ponderous reader, but these 98 pages with extra large type were read in an evening.  I selected the book after seeing an article about it in my hometown newspaper, The Gasconade County Republican.  Waldecker has written to chronicle his family's migration from Germany to Bay, Missouri in the 1830's and 1840's.  Bay was also my childhood home.

What I found interesting was that most men and women found their spouses within a ten mile radius.  Marriage between second cousins was permitted.  Houses, like the one where Don and his sister grew up, were roughly 1,000 square feet.  A large garden supplied produce for the year.  Schools were one-room with all eight grades, but often there were some grades with no children in them.  Books were scarce and were read numerous times.  Teachers were not that much older than their students and did not have much formal education.  It was a far different time.  The world was close.  The circle was tightly drawn.

Waldecker mentions how a favorite pastime was rehearsing the family relationships.  "How are we related to the Obergs or the Gumpers or the Ridders?"  And visiting, especially on Sunday afternoons, was what we did.  Folks did not wait to be invited, but often checked about coming over for a visit as they left church on Sunday morning.  "Will you be home this afternoon?  We'd like to drop by for a visit?"  That visit always included a mid afternoon lunch of coffeecake and coffee.

It was a different world.  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  Can anything good come from little villages like Bay?  Waldecker's family encouraged him to get an education beyond the eighth grade.  He ended up receiving an engineering degree from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy at Rolla (now Missouri University of Science & Technology).  He went far from those hills of home to work as an engineer in Owego, NY.  But it is clear as he now approaches age 80, that the memories of his ancestors and the stories imparted in that close community shaped his life in profound ways.

So, my hope is that our communities--even our neighborhoods in the larger urban centers--might reclaim something of that same closeness.  It seems to me that the local church right in your community is the setting where folks meet one another and practice friendliness.  And, as they do that, often they have the experience of meeting Jesus there and discovering faith that abides for a lifetime.  May it be so for us! 

O God, restore in us and foster in us a desire for connection--not only to you but also to one another.  Fill us with the awareness and appreciation for those places that may, at first, seem small and insignificant but are, in fact, sanctuaries where your love and life abide.  Amen.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Courageous Christmas

It's Christmas Morning.  At worship this morning, a sentence from the Prayer of Invocation spoke to my spirit:  "Bring us to our knees before the manger, that we may then stand with confidence before the dangers around us."  The birth of Jesus invites a posture of piety, a kneeling before the manger, where a tiny, vulnerable baby is cradled.  I am a child of the German Evangelical Church. This is where my piety is grounded: In the Gospel, on my knees in a stable before an infant named Jesus.

But piety is not a sentimental spirituality that is disconnected from the realities of earth.  Piety moves us to "stand with confidence before the dangers around us."  Whether we are standing with vulnerable orphans of war and famine, with those with some debilitating and isolating illness, or with those who face economic disasters--faith moves us from our knees to our feet.  Trusting in the grace and truth we glimpse in Bethlehem's manger, we are disciples who engage in the world.  Christmas begins with piety and moves us to prophetic action.  When the church stands with confidence before the powers and principalities of this world, it declares its allegiance to the Christ in the cradle, to the Crucified Christ on the cross, and to the Risen Christ who promises to be with us forever.

The great temptation for the Christian Church in this time is that we become comfortable and complacent with evil in our midst.  We let someone else "stand before the dangers around us" while we say, "It's not my problem.  It's too complicated.  It's too controversial."    We surrender our voice and our moral responsibility both to kneel and then to stand up for the little ones (Matthew 25). 

Lately, I have been astounded that some are calling for us to return to a nuclear arms race.  I well remember the work of SANE/FREEZE (forerunner of Peace Action) in the 1980's.  I remember William Sloane Coffin, and the prophetic voices of others like Martin Buber, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Harry Bellefonte, who called us to resist the danger of nuclear proliferation.  Our prophets taught us that our security was not in weapons, not in the military-industrial complex, not in threatening words on the lips of world leaders.  True security derives from trusting God to be our refuge and strength.  And those prophetic voices changed the world.

In my last parish, there were congregants who lived on a farm adjacent to a former Minute Man II Missile silo--one of 150 such sites in Western Missouri.  I would pass that underground silo on the way to visit the farm family in their home.  It was unnerving to think that such a deadly weapon was once located just a few hundred yards from the home of my friends.  That missile might have created catastrophic devastation somewhere else in God's world.  Today that silo has been decommissioned because others with faith and courage moved from their knees to their feet.

I not only wish you a Merry Christmas today, but I also wish you a Courageous Christmas.  May your piety, your faith, your devotion to the little Baby in the manger lead you to a spirituality that is sensitive to the needs of all God's little ones, whether they be near or far away.  May your piety lead you to prophetic witness that is willing to "stand with confidence before the dangers around us."  Isn't that, after all, what this tiny Baby will do as he grows up and finds his voice?  Isn't that, ultimately, what he calls and claims us to do in our own time?

Give us courage at Christmas, O God, that we may kneel and then take our stand for your justice and peace.  Amen.   

Monday, December 19, 2016

Incarnation

It's almost Christmas again.  I am reminded of how much I miss the relationships that come with parish ministry.  That is not to say that Christmas was always a joy.  For example, I still remember how difficult it was to balance time between our families and Christmas services.  I remember creating liturgies and delivering homilies for Christmas.  I remember the crowded pews.  I remember Herb wrestling the chalice from my hands and taking it to his lips during the candlelight service.  I remember Wilbert hiking to Christmas Eve worship through briars and ravines, honoring a special Christmas tradition from his childhood.  I remember the solos, Sharon and Brenda and Christy each singing, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" in different sanctuaries on different Christmases.  I remember luminaries that would not light.  I remember praying for our soldiers during Desert Storm--praying for an end to violence and war.

Today, my thoughts turn to the Incarnation and the way our faith is grounded in flesh-and-blood relationships.  God's holiness is connected to the earthiness and the messiness of human life.  Jesus was born in a stable and cradled in a feed trough.  No place but a barn.  Just imagine.

As I reflect on the Incarnation, I think of Christmas caroling; how we shivered on porches in the village to sing a carol or two.  I recall caroling through the halls of nursing homes.  I remember most caroling in places where life was difficult--where this was likely the last Christmas that a family would be together.  It was a holy time, singing the faith to folks who lived with oxygen tanks, bedside commodes, and diminishing light. And Jesus was there.  It was all so very real.

So, may your Christmas be real and may it be joyful this year.  May you find Jesus anew in those closest to you and those farthest away.  May you delight in the Incarnation--the Word in the flesh and dwelling with us always.  Blessed Christmas, Dear Friends!  Blessed Christmas!

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Walk in the Park

I am spending the week with United Church of Christ colleagues in San Antonio.  It has been a rich and fruitful time as we talk together about the church and the nature and purpose of authorized ministry.  Committees on Ministry do such important work--discerning gifts and assisting in the formation of our clergy, living in that tension between extending support and exercising oversight, saying "yes" and saying "no."  The church is always changing.  God gives us minds as well as hearts, so that we may reason together and think critically about where we are and where God is calling us to go.  I am glad to be here and a partner in this circle.

Most mornings I have been going outside early in San Antonio to take a walk and to pray.  As I walk, I think about churches--local churches--in places like Tamworth and Temple, Hillsborough and Haverhill, Milton and Madbury, Winchester, Westmoreland, Wolfeboro--and many others too.  I think of pastors--faithful servants of the gospel, who have responded to Jesus' call to be set apart for service, for preaching and teaching, for administering the sacraments, for pointing others to the grace and glory of God.  My prayer is that pastors will love their churches and that churches will love their pastors.  I pray that they will mutually engage in building up one another, that they will respect and honor each other, and especially, that they will continue together to listen for the voice of Jesus and be stirred by the Holy Spirit to change the world.  We have such important work to do.  The world needs the church to be light and salt, a beacon of hope.  The world needs the church to break down the walls that divide and destroy God's children.  The world needs the church to sing an old song:  Miriam's song (Exodus 15:21), Hannah's song (1 Samuel 2:2ff.), Mary's song (Luke 1:46ff.).  The world needs the church to witness for justice and to work for peace.

It's time for another walk in the park.  Where will you walk today?  What is your prayer as you walk?

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Reflection on the US Election

I have been thinking a lot since Election Day about what word I would offer and why it is important to say anything about what has happened.  Our society is saturated with pre- and post-election commentary.  In New Hampshire we have barely completed one election cycle when another begins.  Along with that comes pollsters and pundits' predictions.  The editorializing is immediate in social media.   The commentary can become excessive, wearisome with everyone expressing an opinion.  Sometimes we need to pause, to feel, and to pray.

Last week, I heard much anxiety about how preachers in our pulpits would address the outcome of the election.  Would they further divide the country and the churches they serve by expressing their personal disappointment and anger?  Would they cause their members to feel ostracized because they voted for one candidate or another?  I read the counsel and concern that was posted by other church leaders and seminary teachers on Facebook.  Some organized immediate support groups for clergy to gather and talk through their reactions to the election.  

I trust that the Word of God will get through and will have its way with us.   I trust the Word to speak its consolation and challenge in the local context, in the congregations where God's people gather-not once for a pronouncement from on high, but week by week, Sunday by Sunday to build a community of compassion and justice.  I trust the Word of God to move us to care and protect those who are more vulnerable now.  We are called to make sure that all God's children are safe.

Do I have disappointment and concern about the election of our new President?  Yes.  I am concerned about the man we have elected and about the multitudes that propelled him to victory.  I am concerned about his rhetoric becoming our reality.  I am concerned for our children and our neighbors and the building of impenetrable walls around our souls that will isolate and separate us one from another.  I am concerned, but I also believe that the Word of God will have its way--transforming hearts and minds, changing lives, and creating justice.  I have faith that the Spirit of God will stir in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

So I thank the preachers and the prophets for their proclamation of the Word.  I thank them for modeling "courage in the struggle for justice and peace."  I thank them for pointing us toward the One who is with us always, announcing God's "presence in trial and rejoicing."  I thank them for calling us to find our voice and to be vigilant in our witness to love all the people.  In the words of the United Church of Christ's Mission Statement:  United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all. 

Today, tomorrow, and in the end, may we be found faithful to the values that we have learned in our sacred sanctuaries.  May we follow Jesus who stills every storm.  May we look to our God, our Sovereign and our Savior.

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
      the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people!
            May the LORD bless his people with peace!

~ Psalm 29:10-11, New Revised Standard Version