Tuesday, October 11, 2016

It's Only Words

Last night I listened to the second Presidential debate.  What I heard was a candidate who said, "It's only words, folks. . . . Locker Room Talk."  Only words?  Really?

I am concerned because words evoke actions.  "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Luke 6:45)  Rhetoric that diminishes and demeans others is real; it is powerful, world-wrecking words.  Words can wound.  Words can break another human being's spirit.  Words can injure others for a lifetime.  Words can cause others to act out in harmful ways toward themselves or others.

The old adage about "Sticks and stones breaking bones, but words never harming" is wrong.  Words can  be weapons that destroy others.  I think of the cyber bullying that causes children to hate themselves.  I think of parents who provoke their children to anger and prejudice that endure for generations.  Words can build up; words can break down.

This is particularly important because at the center of the Christian faith is a God who speaks.  The speaking of God creates the cosmos . . . the universe . . . God's good earth and all that is in it.  God's creative word and breath shape human beings in God's own image, giving them the capacity to communicate, to feel, and to love.  We believe that in Jesus the Word became flesh, revealing the glory of God in the darkest days of our living and our dying.

Integrity means that our words and our acts are in sync.  Our yes is yes.  Our no is no.  Our faith and ethics are one.  We can be counted on to speak the truth in love and to be loving people, who build up and respect all others.

I write this not from a place of superiority, for there have been times throughout my life when my words and my deeds have not been well connected.  Even so, the lessons learned through self-reflection have been sources of growth, and my spirit has been enlarged through honest encounters with others. 

May God have mercy upon us, our leaders, and our role models.  May our words and our deeds bring glory to God whether we are in pulpits or church pews, board rooms or locker rooms.  May God guide us in paths of justice, care, and love.  May it be so!  

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Morning Walk

I've started walking in the mornings in our neighborhood.  Walking is good exercise, but it is also a form of prayer.  Rev. Paul Nickerson suggests to the churches that he coaches that congregants walk through their community, pausing to pray for those who live in the houses and work in the businesses.  Walking clears the mind and helps us observe things we would not otherwise see.  With each step there is connection and communion with God's good world. 

I've noticed that most people will wave in greeting when I'm on foot. I wonder why that is?  When we are in cars meeting each other on these same streets, there is no gesture of acknowledgement.  We hurry on.  But when I'm walking, vulnerable to the approaching vehicle, there is usually a wave, an expression of neighborliness.  I like that, for the world seems a bit less cold and impersonal when I'm on foot.

The other morning, a big yellow school bus lumbered past as I walked.  I saw the back seats and the emergency exit door, and I was transported by a memory to a time about 55 years ago.  It was the morning that I entered first grade.  I had boarded the bus with my friend Glenn.  We sat in the very back seat of the bus as it took us to the little elementary school in Swiss, Missouri.  I remember seeing Glenn's parents following the bus.  Ray and Marilyn were going to Swiss to enroll Glenn in the school.  He was riding the bus, they were coming along in the family car.

It never dawned on me until I got to Swiss that my parents had not come along in our car.  They had just put me on the bus and sent me off to school.  I don't know whether they missed some memo or had made previous plans to have me enrolled.  I was, after all, their eldest child.  They had not been through the routine before.  So I rode the bus and got off at the Swiss School.  The principal, who was also my first-grade teacher, welcomed me; but I could tell she was confused.  I had no parent present to enroll me.

It was at that moment that Evelyn Meyer came to my rescue.  Evelyn was our neighbor.  She was the cook at the Swiss School.  She knew me.  She enrolled me.  Thus began my educational journey--because of a kind and caring neighbor.  The village took care of me; we were all family.  I remembered Evelyn as I walked along the road last week, watching that school bus make its way down the road.  I hope the children on the bus also know that they have neighbors who are kind and caring, who will look out for them and help them to make their way in the world.

Lots of good things happen when I take the time to slow down and just walk, breathing in the cool morning air and the wonder of God's creation.  Goodness and mercy accompany me.  I am not abandoned or alone, and life is very good. 

God, you meet me in the morning when the day is new.  You lead me to find my way through this world one step at a time.  I give thanks for the memory of Evelyn and all those who have accompanied me along life's path.  May I be that kind of friend to those in need of family in these days.  For the beauty and wonder of your creation, I give you thanks and praise, now and forever.  Amen.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Long-Haul Ministry

Today marks a milestone in my ministry.  On August 21, 2006, I became the Conference Minister of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ, a role that I both admired and resisted.  I really did not know what would be required at the time that I was called here.  Ten years later, after a decade of service in the New Hampshire Conference, I reflect on the paths we have walked.  It is clear that together we have been engaged for the long haul.  It is by the grace of God that we have endured and persevered in love.  I rejoice in the gift of time and the faithful saints who seek to follow Jesus on the journey of faith.  They inspire me with their example.  I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is at work in this Conference.  I meet the God who creates and resurrects as I worship in the midst of Christ's people here in New Hampshire.  We are not alone.  We are never alone.

There are some predictable rhythms to this ministry.  Annual meetings come around regularly, as do Prepared to Serve, Clergy Convocation, General Synod, and the monthly meetings of our seven Association Committees on Church & Ministry.  There are sad moments in this ministry--great disappointments--when churches and their pastors fall out of loving relationship, when ministers act in ways that violate their vows, when church folk forget that they are disciples of Jesus Christ.  There are endless transitions in this ministry.  With 135 local churches, someone is always coming or going.  Simultaneously, there is sadness, and there is joy.

Tonight, as I reflect on what has been accomplished in these ten years, I am grateful for the kindness, generosity, and spiritual encouragement that I have received from so many.  Your prayers have upheld me.  I am exceedingly grateful to God for the gift of colleagues and co-workers who have been exceedingly patient with me and deeply faithful in their own service.  Together we have made a difference in the life of Christ's Church in New Hampshire.  There will always be more that might  have been done, but we have served to the best of our God-given gifts--and we have changed hearts and lives with the grace and mercy of God in the process.  That is satisfaction.  That is a source of joy.

So, I conclude with these texts that fill my heart and undergird my hope today:
  • In the words of Paul, "Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart" (2 Corinthians 4:1, NRSV).  
  • In the words of the author of Hebrews:  "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,  and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1, NRSV). 
  • In the living word of Jesus, who continues to call:  "Follow me" (Mark 1:17, NRSV).
Holy One, who summoned me to serve as a little child in baptismal waters and in broken bread, your call continues to motivate and move me in ministry.  Thank you for all those who share life and ministry in your holy Church.  Thank you for those whose ministry changes the world in amazing ways.  May Jesus be glorified in what has been and in what is yet to come.  Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2016


There was a season some years ago when the ministerial alliance of which I was a member worked with the local VFW to create an essay contest for middle school students.  We believed that, beyond partisan political rhetoric, there was a need for reasoned rational discourse in our community and country.  Civility matters in our society.  In those days in that community, Rush Limbaugh was the media personality whose voice that many heard as virtuous and true.  I recall one evening at choir practice when the basses and the tenors started arguing about the merits of Mr. Limbaugh's commentary.  My contribution to the conversation, "He's saying everything my mom taught me not to say and to be," got the guys to thinking.  Their moms had taught them similar lessons.   

Those days seem tame to me compared to these days.  I should not be shocked that the biggest ego provokes followers with vitriolic rhetoric, calling others disparaging names and building barriers between peoples.  I should not be shocked that xenophobia and racism are still alive in our nation.   I should not be shocked that fear seems to defeat love today.  I should not be shocked, but I am.

The Jesus who summons me to follow is not one who divides with words of fear and hate.  He is not boastful or arrogant or rude.  Among his words are these:  "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."  "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."  (Matthew 5:7-9, NRSV).   I find in Jesus an alternative to the path many are walking today.  I find in Jesus an antidote to the spirit of maliciousness and meanness that permeates American politics in this troubled moment in our history.  I find in him a model of courage and civility worthy of emulating today.

God, who knows every heart and mind, whose speaking is creative and loving, steady my hope, strengthen my resolve to follow wherever you lead me to go.  Grant us all courage and compassion to bind up the wounds of our neighbors and to be kind, gracious, and generous to all.  Give us, O God, the mind of Christ now and always.  Amen.    

Monday, July 11, 2016

Facing into Our Trouble

When the news of the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge last Tuesday and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul on Wednesday, I had a flashback to August 9, 2014, the day when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri.  One tragedy connects us to all others.  Then came the massacre of law enforcement officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest on Thursday night.  A solitary sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven others.  My grief was compounded.  These killings are not about a distant race problem in places far removed from New Hampshire.  This is as close as our own hearts and minds.  This is our trouble.

I spent much time last week just trying to get all this sadness out of my soul, to push it far away and to focus on other things.  In the midst of my work, I still heard Alton Sterling's fifteen-year-old son wailing for his daddy. I saw the graphic videos and heard the shots reverberating in the streets.  The truth is there is no easy escape from this trouble.  Friends on Facebook, journalists, President Obama and the presumptive presidential candidates, pastors and preachers in the churches--all are talking about racism and the deadly fear and violence that have captured our country.  These events challenge Jefferson's lofty ideals:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [sic.] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  All are created equal?  Life?  Liberty?  The pursuit of happiness?

And from our scriptures, we hear God speaking through the words of Paul, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus"  (Gal. 3:28, NRSV).  I hear God speaking today to bridge our divisions:  "There is no longer black or white, powerful and powerless, privileged or deprived; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Differences still matter, but they do not divide.  

There is no hiding and no denying that we have a problem.  The trouble does not reside in someone else's house, it is in ours.  It is in our spirit.  It is evident the way that we judge others without ever knowing them.  It is evident in the way we select our friends and our social circles.  It is evident in who gathers in our houses of worship.  It is evident in the way that we separate and segregate--always offering ourselves as the standard that is superior to all others. 

Too much!  It is all too much today.  Of this I am sure:  This is the time for facing up to our trouble.  It is time to repent and allow our hearts to be touched and transformed.  It is time for a reconciliation that is born of hope that a better day is surely coming.  This is what the psalmist teaches us to sing:  "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living"  (Ps. 27:13, NRSV).    I believe that I shall see God's justice rolling down, right here and right now, in this time--while there is yet time.

God, in your great wisdom and mercy, visit us in our trouble.
  We have witnessed the killing in our own streets.
  We have heard the wailing of children for their parents and parents for their children.
  We have seen peacekeepers killed in the line of duty.
  Our trouble is ever before us.

Who is innocent, O Righteous One? 
  We are all caught in these terrible cycles of fear and violence.
  We play roles that we do not fully understand.
  We speak and act in ways that perpetuate the trouble.
  Our trouble is ever before us.

God, let your justice wash over us.
  Bridge the brokenness.
  Let all peoples find their way together.
  Restore our trust; End our violence.
  Our trouble is ever before us,

O Suffering Christ, your love alone can set us free.
  Your love alone can raise us to new life.
  Your love alone can change us.
  May it be so . . . today.



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.