Sunday, June 25, 2017

You Can Do This Hard Thing

I often imagine the upper room where Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples for one last time.  It was there in the midst of the supper that he announced that one of his closest friends would soon betray him.  The ultimate betrayal was at hand. This was the eve of an ending.   It was there in the upper room, amid the ancient ritual, that he instituted the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.  It was the farewell worship.  And the service ended with a hymn:  "And when they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives."  (Matthew 26:30, NRSV).  If your eyes blur or you rush too fast through the text, you might miss it. 

And when they had sung a hymn, . . . .  I have often wondered:  So, what was that hymn?  What were the lyrics that they sang and shared as the end came?  Would the song echo in Jesus' soul as he faced the cross?  Would it inspire him to be faithful rather than fearful?  Would it sustain him as death drew near?

Well, I think I may have finally heard the song.  It's not in my hymnal, but it is in the music of Carrie Newcomer, who sings "You Can Do This Hard Thing."  I share that song in this post, because I need courage to be faithful to my calling.  All disciples need courage today to follow where Jesus sends them.  We need courage to be the Church when there is so much anger and conflict among us, around us, and within us.  We need courage to do the hard thing--to face into our own endings, to carry our own cross in hope of life--glorious, new, and abundant life.  We need courage to embrace the future and to discover that joy dwells there within us..

My prayers are with friends in nursing homes, those enduring treatments in hope of healing, those retiring from a lifetime of ministry, and those leaving home for the first time or the last time.  I think of the little children who face an uncertain future around the world and right here at home.  I imagine those seated on the front pews at funerals--on the mourner's bench.  I pray that they will all have a song, a hymn that reminds them to be hopeful and alive.

So, I share this song with you, my friends.  May it touch your hearts and transform your fears as you face into the trials and transitions of your own life.  Let us sing and serve with courage and hope and joy.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, be with you now . . . and always.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The View from the Madison Porch

Over the weekend, the Board of Directors of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ met at Horton Center, our Conference's summer camp.  As I sat on the Madison Porch early on Saturday morning, fog obscured the view.  Then suddenly, I caught this glimpse of Mount Madison.  The fog descended and the light broke through--albeit briefly.  Just seconds after this picture was taken, the mountain was again shrouded in grayness.  It was there, but gone from my sight.

Somehow, this picture has become a metaphor for my life in these days.  I catch glimpses of God's grace, but there is much that I can only know by faith.  I trust that God is there even when tragedy and trouble block the view.  I trust that God is there when I cannot see the future with clarity.  I trust that God will never leave me nor forsake me. 

In the afternoon, at our closing worship on the Madison Porch, I shared the words of Psalm 121:  "I lift my eyes to the hills.   From whence does my help come?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth."  God, who creates forests and fog and mountains . . . and you and me, is our keeper.  God is our helper when we feel helpless.  God is our hope when we feel hopeless.

And, I made a move from the hills of Psalm 121 to Matthew 28:16-20--to a mountain in Galilee--where disciples were directed to go by the Risen Lord.  On that mountain in Galilee, they met him and worshipped him.  Some saw him clearly; others experienced him through the fog of doubt.  And in the end, after commissioning them, he promised them his presence:  "And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

As is our custom when the Board meets, we concluded with Holy Communion, proclaiming the Lord's death and resurrection.  We beheld him in broken bread and a cup of wine.  We felt his presence and were empowered for the journey ahead of us.  By then the sun was shining and the day was hot.  Mount Madison was clearly visible.  No fog anywhere, just a few floating clouds in the sky.

So, my friends, I take great consolation and courage in the assurance that the Risen One is with us always.  We are not left to our own resources.  We have a helper and a keeper.  Our lives are secure even when the future is uncertain and the view is obscured by the fog of fear and doubt.  May Jesus be near you today and in all the days yet to come.  May Jesus give you strength when you leave the table and move into the troubles of the world.  He is with you always . . . to the end . . . and beyond.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Let Us Be the Church

I recently read "Pentecost's Costly Gift" in the current issue of Journal for Preachers.  The article's author, Thomas W. Currie of Austin Theological Seminary, offers a deeper understanding of the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2. 

In the United Church of Christ, we have come to place the accent on the universality of the gospel--how the Spirit's coming breaks through the barriers of language and nationality.  Currie writes, "When interpreted in this way, Pentecost becomes merely a reaffirmation of our own commitment to tolerance and perhaps even an expression of a kind of limitless Christianity that believes in little more than its own open-mindedness."  

He claims that Acts 2, when taken in its entirety, offers an understanding of what a Pentecostal church that is shaped by the Spirit of the Risen Christ might look like today:

1)  It is not about being a utopian community.  "The church's life is not self-formed or an infinitely plastic thing but a received gift that brings with it a certain disposition, a posture of dependence, a sense of its own strangeness, even holiness.  This sense has a shape and a name.  It is called discipleship."  We are in the church not as privileged members but as followers of the crucified Christ.  We are Christ's disciples.

2)  Unity is the chief characteristic of this church.  "To bear witness to the Pentecostal nature of the church is, amidst all our brokenness, to confess that oneness that is ours in Christ and to pray that his Spirit would trouble our hearts and make us deeply ashamed of and uncomfortable with our disunity."

3)  This church is aware that it has limits.  The church is enlivened by the gift of the Spirit of its Risen Lord.  It is not self-made.  We are the Body of Christ in this time and in this space.  We are finite and limited.  "The gift is not in some vague spirituality that is only too happy to define itself, bur rather it is the concrete form of Christ's body in the world.  This gift limits our efforts to construct our own identity, . . . .  We receive our identity through the waters the Spirit bathes us in Christ."

4)  The church is together because of the Spirit of Christ shapes us to witness to those powers and principalities that claim to be in charge.  It is in the act of eating together that the church is formed.  Acts 2 speaks more about eating than doing.  The church's true identity and purpose is not in the idolatrous pursuit of a cause. "It is the life together that is formed and sustained by this eucharistic sustenance that gives shape to the church and enables it to challenge the culture at its roots."

5)  The church is not a capitalistic enterprise.  This church makes a conscious decision to reject consumerism.  It lives a holy life that makes it distinct and able to challenge the values of the culture.  "The idolatry of success, the blessings of prosperity, whether economic or political, the righteousness blindness toward the wretched of the earth, all of these are efforts to create a church without limits, to fashion something much more in our own image, a 'successful' church."

6)  The church is a place of joyThe church rejoices in the gospel.  It celebrates that resurrection is its reality.  "Joy is the gift of the Spirit that knows Easter is true.  Joy is the echoing response of those who have heard this word and eaten this bread and who refuse to look back.  Joy is the soil in which hope grows."

As I think of the local churches where my faith has been formed and where I have served as Pastor and Teacher, I have seen glimpses of what Currie calls the Pentecostal church   May we receive the church as God's gift.  May we be united at the font and the table.  May we live with values that are grounded in the gospel rather than the culture around us.  And, above all, may we be God's people in a place of great joy. 

Yes, let us "Be the Church!"

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

All Together in One Place

"When the day of Pentecost had come,
they were all together in one place."
--Acts 2:1, NRSV
It is hard to imagine.  For me, the miraculous thing that happened on that fiftieth day after the resurrection was that the disciples were "all together in one place."  I can imagine the sounds and sights as the Spirit descended to create the Church.  I can picture the crowds of curious Jews, who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world.  On Pentecost, they heard the good news in their own native languages.  But what is difficult for me to imagine is that all the disciples were able to gather in one place at the beginning of the festival.
It is common for someone to be absent.  We have good reasons for being away:  "I have a bad cold and don't want to spread it to others around me."  "We have a family reunion that always happens on the first weekend of June."  "We are taking a three-day weekend for some rest and renewal in the mountains."  "We are keeping our grandchildren while our son is away on business."  Yes, there are many reasons--most of them quite understandable--for being away from the community as it gathers.
But, back in the beginning, on that holy day when the church was created, "they were all together in one place."  The first movement in the Pentecost story is the gathering of all the disciples.  All were there, faithfully following Jesus' instruction to wait in Jerusalem until they received power when the Holy Spirit had come. Then, the community would grow and be empowered to be his witnesses in the world.   Then, the Church would be born.
What might it look like on Pentecost 2017 for the Church to be "all together in one place"?   Where is that one place where we might gather?  Where is our upper room where we wait for the power of God to shape us into a community of faith?  And more, I wonder whether it is possible for us to be gathered together in the one place of gospel grace that welcomes all, loves all, and creates a just world for all.      
May Pentecost truly bring us together.  May we be gathered, amazed, and inspired to be the Church.  Come, Holy Spirit!  Come!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Boundaries and Balancing

I once heard a pastor say that a guiding maxim in his ministry was "If it is to be, it is up to me."  I was uncomfortable when I heard it.  Where is God in such a philosophy of life and ministry?   Is it all really up to me?  Really?

May 30 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination.  I remember well that rainy Memorial Day weekend.  What I also know is that I have worked very hard over the past 35 years to be a conscientious, successful servant of the church.  Sometimes I have worked too hard--claiming as my own the responsibility that rightly belongs to others.  Was it really up to me?   Really?

Last Thursday, I went to a Boundary Awareness Seminar, which was led by Margaret Marcuson, a communicator and coach who helps "clergy make their lives easier."  During that session, I learned that over functioning is a serious boundary violation for over achieving clergy; and I learned that I am one of them.

So, what is my role and what is my schedule for today?  Can I avoid the incessant distractions that tear me from one thing to the next and leave me exhausted at the end of the day?  What is my priority for this day?  What are my goals?  Where is my focus?  Is there space in my life for renewal, creativity, and fun?  Is there space in my life--its routines and rituals--for God?

I share this because you also may be living with the idolatrous illusion:  "If it is to be, it is up to me."  I see this in congregations where clergy and lay leaders do not step back and teach others, allowing them to develop as gifted leaders for the church in the next generation.  The weight of being responsible over the long haul builds resentments and diminishes the overall ministry of the church.  The decline of the church is not only the effect of cultural attitudes; it is also about leadership that refuses to relinquish its power and dominance.   Others need to contribute and lead, shaping the church for new and effective ministry today.

The truth is it is not all up to me.  It is not all up to you.  Relying on God's grace and mercy, we will follow and serve Jesus Christ together.  We will pray for balance and for awareness.  Boundaries--knowing were my responsibility begins and ends--is essential for healthy disciples and healthy churches.

A memorable verse from Psalm 127 guides me as I seek to live with greater balance and faithfulness:

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
     eating the bread of anxious toil;
         for God gives to his beloved sleep.
                      --Psalm 127:2, RSV

May it be so!

Monday, April 10, 2017

If You See Nicodemus

I remember a night many years ago when I was sitting in my study on the Saturday before Palm Sunday.  Tomorrow would be a major gathering of the church.  It was not only Palm Sunday, but also the day when we celebrated the Rite of Confirmation.  The sanctuary would be packed with worshippers, with both the curious and the committed.  It promised to be a big day, and so I was alone in my study, preparing and praying. 

From down the darkened corridor, I heard the distinct rattle of someone tugging at the locked entry doors.  Someone had seen the light and was wanting to come in.  I walked to  the door, pushed the panic bar to open it, and saw a young man that I knew from our town.  He was walking away toward his car into the night.  Calling after him, I invited the man to my study where he sank into one of the chairs.  I thought to myself, "Well, so much for my preparation time.  Even on Saturday night folks find me."  I felt frustration and resentment when the visitor asked, "So what does this church think about homosexuality?"  So, here comes another hypothetical conversation--another opportunity for an endless argument about whether God accepts all people--especially LGBTQ people.  And, it's Saturday night before Palm Sunday!

I drew a deep breath that ended in a silent sigh . . . and during that pastoral pause my visitor said, "I'm gay."  Suddenly the conversation was no longer hypothetical.   This was not going to be another debate about conservative or progressive theology.  This was real.  My guest inquired, "Would I be welcome here?"  This was his only question:  "Would I be welcome here?"  Would this church be safe space for him?

We discussed that question for nearly an hour in the dimness of my study.  The United Church of Christ has declared that, yes, all are welcome; but the churches of our community, including the one where I was serving, were not really open and certainly not affirming. "Yes, you would be welcome, but . . ."  And my visitor--my Nicodemus--thanked me for opening the door and listening.  As he stepped back into the night, I wondered whether I had been helpful, whether he had been heard, whether he might come to worship.

Well, Nicodemus did not appear in the light of that Palm Sunday amid the throng of people who came for service the next morning.  But in the dimness of Maundy Thursday--sixth row from the front on the lectern side--Nicodemus took his place in a bench as we remembered Jesus' mandate,  "Love one another as I have loved you."  And he was there during the Tenebrae, as the lights were extinguished and we remembered Christ's death.  We left that service in silence, dispersing into the night. 

I never saw him again, but I've never forgotten him.  I keep watching for Nicodemus even now, many years later.  I pray that he has found a community of faith where he is known, and accepted, and loved as a beloved child of God.  I pray that he has found a congregation where he can worship in the light of day, as well as in the dimness and darkness of the night.  I pray that he has found his way to Easter Sunday--to the Risen One, to new life, to joy.

So, if you see Nicodemus, tell him that I remember.  Tell him that he is welcome in the daylight, welcome in the pew, and--if called by Christ--welcome in the pulpit too.   Let him know that he is loved.  If you happen to see him on a Saturday night when you are busy preparing for something that seems important, I hope you will open the door and open your heart.  We need him, her, them in God's church as much as Nicodemus needs us.

O Jesus Christ, who was open to those who came seeking in the night, thank you for the questioning spirit, the deep conversation, and the presence of Nicodemus in both the study and in the sanctuary.  Be with everyone who seeks, that they may find your grace, your hospitality, and your joy--now and forever.  Help us to watch for and to welcome our friend Nicodemus home.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sorting Things Out

In these early days of Lent, I remember a parishioner, who stopped by my study one summer morning.  Tim came by to visit and, after surveying my desk, offered a simple, matter-of fact observation: "Reverend, you've got to throw something away every day."  That memory connects with another, that of my Grandpa Witte, as we prepared for the auction of his property.  When things were carried down from the cramped and dusty attic, Grandpa would often speak a two-word command: "Pitch it!"  It was time to get rid of the stuff that had accumulated over a lifetime and was no longer needed.

Part of my Lenten discipline this year involves sorting things out.  It feels good to put things away in their place, to file documents that need to be saved and to pitch those possessions that just take up space and are never used.  There are so many artifacts that get accumulated in a lifetime:  That old garage door that was replaced nearly twenty years ago, but now rests on the rafters in my shop.  Why did I even keep that?  Those old books and college notes that I will never read again.  These old well-worn (worn out) shoes that were once new and so comfortable, but are not so any more.  The inventory in my museum is substantial.  Tim's counsel brings freedom:  "Reverend, you've got to throw something away every day."

Part of this sorting also leads to sharing.   Trips to the local thrift shop or church rummage sale to give away those things I no longer need may be a source of joy in someone else's life.  Maybe Tim's maxim could be expanded:  "You've got to share something every day."  What a life that would be for the one who gives and the one who receives.  We have so much--too much--while others lack basic necessities.  Sharing as spiritual discipline seems to fit well in the Lenten journey.

It is not just the tangible property that needs to be sorted out and saved for a while longer or to be discarded.  There are those haunting memories of grudges carried forward, the pain of grief and guilt, the burden of fears and doubts.  Lent is a good time to sort things out.  The voices of pastors from my youth still echo in my mind:  "Approach with me the throne of grace, and let us pray to Almighty God."  With that invitation we would pray the prayer of confession before Communion.  Lent is that season when the mercy seat, the throne of grace, is clearly available.  This is sacred time when lives are unloaded and burdens are laid down at the foot of Christ's cross.

So, it is time for me and, perhaps, for you to sort some things out, so that I may be forgiven, free, and alive again.  It is time to let go and to wrap myself in the mantle of God's acceptance and grace.  The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are transformative and true: 
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  (Mt. 6:19-21, NRSV) 

God, I have a lot of sorting to do.  Help me to cherish that which matters most and to let go of everything else.  Free me to love, to serve, and to enjoy your gift of life.  So, what would you have me throw away or give away today?  Amen.