Monday, July 31, 2017

When Did We See You?

The Parable of the Great Judgment ( Mt. 25:31-46) has shaped my faith and ethics from my earliest days.  I realize the story is about the nations who are gathered.  The verbs are plural, rather than singular.  This is a parable for a group, for a society, for a community.  It calls people to see and serve Christ in "the least of these."  It might be addressed to a country whose policies do not extend care to those who are sick, suffering, and dying.  It could also apply to a church or a denomination that has defined "spiritual" so narrowly and personally that it does not engage in social and political arenas.

A clergy colleague once took the edge off these words by saying that Jesus was really concerned here with "brothers and sisters" in our church.   He claimed that Jesus was not teaching us to see and serve those who were outside our circle, those in the world around us.  That pastor had it all neatly exegeted in a way that resolved much of the tension in the text.  Perhaps it is easier just to focus on the faith community that is right before us.  Well?  I think Jesus had a larger understanding of kindred, and he wanted us to see him in the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider--those who are invisible and vulnerable in the world.  Can you see the Christ in that other one?  Can you serve the Christ in that person, that human being, that beloved child of God?

As a child, I was taught to fear and exclude those who were different economically, racially, or sexually.  The message came in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  But then I met Jesus in church, and he challenged me by focusing my faith on the "least of these."  His parable shapes my service.  So, here's what I've learned:  Jesus will not be co-opted to shore up our prejudices.  Jesus always challenges those who think they have it all put together.  Smug spirituality that ignores the poor and needy leads to his condemnation.

In recent days, we have heard an explicit threat to the human rights of the LGBTQ community.  These people are my kindred.  They are worthy of respect and care as God's beloved ones.  As a disciple of Jesus, I see and stand with my kindred and my neighbors.  I am called to testify to God's love with loving words and deeds.  I will seek to serve the Christ in those who are despised and rejected by others.

Such care may be costly.  It may take us to people and places that we had never intended to go.  It may challenge us to stand up when we'd rather just sit down.  It may move us to speak up when we would rather be silent.  But then, we may also remember our Faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, and hear his call to follow and to rekindle our love and courage.  He knows well how it is to serve at the edge.  He risked becoming despised and rejected because he loved God and loved his neighbors.  He humbled himself, not  building a secure fortress to isolate and protect himself.  And, in the end, there was resurrection, glorious life, and great joy.

Righteous One, give me eyes to see my kindred wherever they are and whoever they are.  Make me a loving and engaging servant of Jesus.  Grant me his compassionate and courageous spirit.  Teach me to trust and to serve with all those who cry out for justice, mercy, and love.   Amen.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"The Burden of Eternal Incompletion"

From the cross in John 19:30, Jesus speaks a final word, "Tetelestai."  In the passive voice, the verb signals perfection:  "It has been completed, . . . accomplished, . . . fulfilled, . . . finished."  This passive verb also suggests to me that such completion rests not with Jesus himself but with that One who acts through and beyond his words and deeds.  The word reveals a deep and abiding trust.  Jesus dies, surrenders his spirit, in the assurance that he is one with the Father and that his relationship is made complete.  He has accomplished what he was sent to do.  It is finished.

The news of the ending of my ministry in the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ has now been widely shared.   I am receiving expressions of appreciation in emails, cards, and spoken words.  Yesterday, following worship at the Conway Village Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, there was a special gift, cards from the Moderator and Diaconate, and a cake.  Coffee hour became a farewell celebration.  I am deeply grateful for the people whose lives have been affirmed and supported by this ministry.  I am also grateful for those who have challenged me to grow and become a more faithful servant of the Gospel.  I appreciate the voices that have spoken the truth to me in love.  Endings are not easy.  They are complicated and messy.  The memory of one's ministry is not controlled by the one who is leaving.   I look to Jesus on the cross, not as a model for my own ending, but rather as my Savior who is able, finally, to bring it all to completion in the sweep of God's eternity.

I have been reflecting recently on a phrase that comes from the Rev. Lillian Daniel in an essay that she wrote about being an associate pastor.  It is in the book, This Odd and Wondrous Calling, that she authored with the Rev. Martin Copenhaver.  The phrase is this: "The burden of eternal incompletion."   I know that burden well!  It is a heavy one because it says that this ending will not be perfect.  No matter how much I might want it to be otherwise, I cannot control it.  Something will, of necessity, be left undone.  Relationships will change and end.  This ending will have some rough edges, good-byes left unspoken, and projects left in pieces.  It will never be complete, but I will move on in the assurance that the burden is not mine alone to carry.  The goodbye belongs to us all.  It is part of the reality that comes with our mortality. 

I trust in Jesus, my faithful Savior, to shoulder this burden and release me from its weight.  I trust that others will come who will sort out what is really important and what must be discarded.  The time that remains is short.  What is most important now is saying goodbye in order to prepare to say hello in a new ministry with joy and wonder.  And, in the end, it will all be well because this is not about me or us, but about the God who has claimed and named us all as beloved ones.  In the end, it's all about grace, mercy, and love.  In the end, as is true of every ending, there is the blessed hope of a resurrection; there is gratitude; and there is great joy. 

Eternal God, I give you thanks for your Church and for this ministry that I have shared with your people in the New Hampshire Conference, United Church of Christ.  Your call was clear when I began.  Your call is clear as I end.  I entrust this ending and the future into your hands.  Amen.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Generosity Begins with Fifteen Cents

I remember with thanksgiving the lessons I have learned about generosity.  As a small child, who was drawn to the church by the sounds of happy children playing at Vacation Bible School, I looked forward to Sunday mornings.  On those mornings, without fail, my mom would give me a nickel for the Sunday School  offering and a dime for the worship service offering.  Generosity began with small and simple gifts, totaling fifteen cents.  When I was confirmed at the age of eleven, I received my own offering envelopes--a symbol of discipleship and a visible reminder that I had gifts to offer the church.

My ability to give has increased over many years.  What began with fifteen cents became twenty-five cents.  When I got a part-time job, I increased my giving to a dollar.  I remember moving through levels of giving, from a dollar, to ten, and then to twenty . . . and more.  It felt good to give.  It was good to participate and do what, I believe, God expected from me as a member of Christ's church.

Fundraising is done from the perspective and need of the receiver.  It is a corporate concept.  Generosity begins in the heart of the individual disciple and is rooted in gratitude.  I give because I am thankful to God for the gift of the community that seeks to faithfully live out the love of Christ.  I give because giving was modeled for me by my parents, who made sure that I had my fifteen cents in a coin purse before I went to Sunday School.

I have encountered many generous disciples through my ministry.  The woman who brought a tithe of an inheritance that she had received.  The parishioner who gave his gifts while still alive to be able to see and enjoy the effects of his generosity.  The child who saved up pennies to send someone else to church camp.  I have been privileged and exceedingly blessed by the witness of the saints who responded to the blessings of God by living generous lives.

Last night at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, a vote was taken to change how we support the Church--in particular the Church in our National Setting.  The old pattern of giving that had covenantal partners sharing with one another from the Local Church to the Conference to National Setting is passing away.  It is no longer the norm.  That vote, I believe, moved us from generosity to fundraising, from disciples to donors, from an offering to a donation.  I understand why our denomination needed to do this, but I grieve what it signals.  The Church becomes another non-profit in search of funding for its missional purposes and its very survival.  We reach around the covenant to contact those whose pockets appear to be deep, ignoring the child with a purse that holds but fifteen cents.

I will continue on, giving because God has loved me through the waters of baptism and has included me in a community of compassion and care that extends far beyond the walls of my local church.  I love the United Church of Christ and will do all that I can to support it in every way.  I still believe that generous gifts, consecrated collections, still can and do change the world.  The denomination will be supported and be faithful if we live with grateful hearts, trusting the generosity of God who makes all blessings flow.

O Generous God, whose grace and mercy we behold in the outstretched arms of Jesus on Good Friday's cross.   We see how you love all and call us to serve all with glad and generous hearts.  Receive my gift, multiply it and merge it with those of others, and use them all to magnify your hope for justice in the world.  Amen.

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!