Friday, June 8, 2018

Letting It Go

I am writing this morning from the Holiday Inn in Columbia, Missouri, where the Missouri Mid-South Conference, UCC is meeting for our Conference Annual Gathering.  This is my first Conference meeting since bidding the New Hampshire Conference, United Church of Christ farewell in August of last year, when I was blessed on my way.  This is also an anniversary.  It was one year ago on this same weekend at Horton Center that I informed the Board of Directors in the New Hampshire Conference of my emerging call and requested appropriate confidentiality until that call was accepted.  I remember hiking with the Conference President to the ledges to survey the expansive, magnificent view of the White Mountains before leaving the camp for the last time.  The photos are etched in my memory.

What I am concluding in these days back in my home Conference is that I need to let some things go.  Sometimes the memories are too pointed, too painful, and far too subjective to be helpful.  I miss my days in Conference ministry very much.  I miss the relationships, the colleagues, and the friends.  I miss pinochle games and Hallelujah Farm.  I miss the beautiful geography that had become home in a very deep way.  I miss the spirit of those rugged New Englanders.  I miss the engagement in the public square where we raised our voices in song and prayer and courageous witness to the love of God for all people.  I miss being up front and offering a word of encouragement, hope, and challenge to the Conference at an Annual meeting.

Yes, I am waxing nostalgic this morning, but I also know that I am again at home.  St. Peter's United Church of Christ is my calling body and I have promised to serve that setting faithfully--as faithfully as I know how--in this time.  I am grateful for those who continue to lead in the wider settings of the United Church of Christ, but it is good to be grounded again in a living community of faith.  It is good to get to know more and more people in Washington, Missouri and hear their stories and share their prayers.

So this post is a way for me to let it all go so that I can really be where I am called to be.  I cannot go back, but I can be here and look forward to what God has in store for us in the future.  Through it all, I know that in the baptismal waters, I am forever blessed to be a child of God, a disciple of Christ, and a member of the Church.

Thanks be to God!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Vacation

So, how was your vacation?  I am anticipating the question.  It often comes after some time away.  A simple, one-word answer, "Good!" is never quite sufficient.  So, today I've decided to say what this vacant time away means to me.

It is about self-care.  I cannot keep going incessantly, working day after day, week after week, weekend after weekend.  I am not God.  Yes, I know that theologically and intellectually, but sometimes I don't act like I know it.  It is important to disengage in order to reengage more faithfully.  It is important to lose focus in order regain focus and live with greater clarity.  It is important to step out of my routines and my role, to realize that life is more than what one does.  It is a gift to be cherished.

I am glad to have completed the course with my first confirmation class.  From World Communion Sunday to Pentecost Sunday was a long haul with many challenges, but I wanted to be present for our ten confirmation students.  I find myself praying for our confirmands, these newest disciples of Jesus Christ.  I am praying that the Holy Spirit will be evident in them throughout their lives and that the gift of faith will be sufficient to see them through their own challenges.  I pray that they will be filled with joy.  I pray that the community of faith will continue to be important to them.

My vacation was filled with joy at the birth of our grandson, Wyatt.  We have waited for his birth.  It is so good to be close enough to hold him and hope for a good life for him.  I pray that God will bless and keep him.  We are blessed.

My vacation was filled with some worry and waiting.  Early on, my parents took sick and were both in the ER in separate rooms with a similar illness.  It is one thing to visit the hospital as a pastor.  It is another to visit the hospital as a son.  Gratefully, both are home again and on the mend.

My vacation was sometimes disorienting.  I realize I like ministry more than I do the mundane tasks of sorting and settling, helping to manage a household.  I get depressed and disoriented when I do not have an appointment book that tells me what to do next.

My vacation brought deeper opportunities for prayer as I watched the local and national news broadcasts.  I have never prayed through a newscast before.  It may be an emerging spiritual discipline.  There is much that disturbs me in the news.  I am learning to "take it to our God in prayer."

Finally, I am reminded of the wise words of a clergy colleague who wrote an email to bless me on my way on the eve of my sabbatical in 2012.  Dick knew that I was reluctant to go away for three months.  My goal in that sabbatical was to get out of my role and need to control in the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.  The pastor said that sabbatical was a matter of trusting in God--a foretaste of times to come--retirement and, yes, even death, when I would need to release my grip on life and not be defined by my work.  In a similar way, a vacation is about growing in trust and entrusting myself to God who brings order from chaos and chaos from order, who resurrects the dead, and whose love in Christ never lets go of me.

I am grateful for the time, for this vacation.

Creator God, who hallowed the seventh day of creation as sabbath time and who modeled that even on that silent seventh day when Jesus lay dead in his tomb, help me to remember my own need for sabbath time.  You are God; I am not.  That, indeed, is good news!  Thank you!  Amen.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Ascension Day

It was just another ordinary day.  Nothing different than the day before.  I met with other church staff members in the morning; enjoyed a lunchtime conversation with some catching up; and made some pastoral visits in the afternoon.  It was an unremarkable Ascension Day.

That was not the case on the first Ascension Day, as Luke tells the story (Luke 24:50-55 and Acts 1:6-11).  Then, it was a big day.  The Risen Christ disappeared into the clouds and left his disciples alone again.  It was a mysterious moment.  There had to be feelings of uncertainty and a abandonment. There may well have been a return of those difficult feelings from Good Friday.  As their ears  received the parting promise, "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven," their hearts surely ached with confusion and sadness.  This was a big change.  This was another loss.

Arriving forty days after Easter, Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday.  Who has time to do anything different on Ascension Day?  It used to be that Ascension Day was the Mission Festival in the church of my youth.  There would be preaching in the morning and afternoon by someone who had experienced the foreign mission field firsthand.  Missionaries would come to enlarge our understanding and appreciation for the church's work in places like India and Honduras.  There would be an abundant lunch and visiting together in the shade under the towering maple trees.  It was a full day.  Farmers and business folk would take the day off to spend it at church on Ascension Day.  That was a long time ago, before the church became preoccupied with its own maintenance and survival.  We knew the world was large, and so was the purpose and mission of the church in those days.

In nearly forty years of ordained ministry, I cannot remember a time that I led or attended an Ascension Day worship service.  Now it is just another ordinary day--a very busy day.  I didn't have time to gaze up into heaven and wonder where Jesus had gone or whether he might be coming back soon.  (I am writing this in the morning hours following Ascension Day because I did not take the time to write during the day itself.)

Perhaps the reason that Ascension Day has slipped from our liturgical life is not so much that it happens during a work day, but that we do not want to face the fact that the Risen Christ is absent from us.  Waiting is difficult.  While he is away, we stay busy to avoid the feeling of grief that would quickly appear if we stopped.   So, we do something familiar to fill the time.  There is comfort in the routine of an ordinary day.  But, I wonder whether such busyness is really faithfulness.  Is it the best way to trust the promise that power will come when we wait?

And so, on this day after the Ascension, I confess my need to work and not wait.  I confess my resistance to change and loss.  I confess that I do not like the reality of an exalted, but absent Jesus.  Maybe next year, we will have a special Ascension Day service.  Or maybe we will, at least, remember that it is Ascension Day.  Maybe.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Friends and Friendliness

In the United Church of Christ Ministerial Code, those who serve in the church make this promise:  "Relying on the grace of God, I covenant with my ministry setting to preach and teach the gospel without fear or favor, regarding all persons with equal respect and concern, and undertaking to minister impartially."

I have seen the destructive effects of breaking this promise.  In times of conflict, pastors are tempted to sort a congregation into camps--my supporters verses my detractors, my friends verses my foes.  Moving beyond ministering "impartially" can have a devastating impact on a church for decades to come.  It is not only unwise to have friends in the church; it is unprofessional and unethical. 

I am thinking a lot about friendship this week because the gospel text from John 15:9-17 is about friendship with Jesus.  He says, "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (Jn. 15:15, NRSV).  Friendship with Jesus is to be drawn into the circle of awareness.  Friends are trusted.  They receive full disclosure of what God is doing.

I can remember a pastor who went to lunch every week with the same couples in the congregation.  There was a specialness and familiarity in the relationship that did not extend to other members.  I do not know the level of conversation that occurred in those weekly lunches, but there was the appearance of closeness and friendship.  I suspect that those friends of the pastor were more deeply aware of things that were happening.  They may also have had first-hand knowledge of their pastor's heart.  As a young member in the church, I was never included in those table conversations.  I was not invited.  How does one undertake to "minister impartially" in such a scenario? 

Here's what I believe to be faithful to the code of conduct:   I will be friendly toward all and to be present with all for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I cannot be the friend of a few.  Ministering impartially means that all receive my time and attention.  All are respected and have a right to expect that I will be available for counsel and care.  All can trust that I will maintain appropriate professional boundaries and keep confidences.  My sermons are not preached to win friends or to ostracize enemies. 

I am writing this today to reflect and to remind myself of my calling, for it is a high and challenging calling.  It would be far easier, to say, "These are my friends, my advocates, my benefactors in ministry.  I will allow their insights and influence to shape my ministry."  For the sake of the church that is and will yet be,  I will be friendly, but I cannot be a friend.

 

Friday, April 27, 2018

Finding Myself

There is a curious text in Sunday's lectionary reading from Acts 8.  That reading is about a mysterious encounter on a "wilderness road" between the Apostle Philip and an Ethiopian, a God-fearing foreigner.  Luke tells a great story, and it will be the focus of my homily on Sunday.  The curious text comes at the end of the story, with the Ethiopian and Philip still dripping wet with the waters of baptism: "The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea" (Acts 8:39-40, NRSV).

Philip "found himself" at Azotus.  He could not tarry with the Ethiopian to lead him to an even deeper understanding the scriptures.  He did not get to travel along to Egypt to meet the queen and perhaps dine at a royal dinner party.  It appears that Philip had no time to map out his next ministry, the Spirit "snatched him away" and put him at Azotus.  There Philip was found . . . he "found himself."

I think of where the Spirit has snatched me up and put me down in ministry.  In the United Church of Christ, we talk about "settled ministry" and value it highly.  We value stability in relationships--including those between pastors and their congregations.  In my first church--St. Paul United Church of Christ at Old Monroe, Missouri--when asked about my plans for my ministry, I said something about "putting down roots" after the intense and transitory years of preparation at college and seminary.  I stayed in that ministry for eleven years before the Spirit snatched me away to the west--to California, Missouri--to the ministry and the "mini farm" that I enjoyed so much.  After thirteen years, the Spirit snatched me away to do what I always dreamed that I would do: I became a Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ in a place that, initially, felt very foreign and cold but soon became our home in a very deep way.  And now, the Spirit has snatched me up and brought me to a new place and a new people with St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Washington, Missouri.  It is an amazing journey--never settled once and for all.  Ministry under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit is always dynamic, an amazing adventure.

Philp "found himself" in that adventure.  He found his true identity and calling in being available to the snatching of the Spirit.  I find myself most alive and fulfilled when I trust the Spirit to place me where I need to be.  Yes, I plan and schedule, but it is often the case that ministry happens in those moments when I am dropped in the midst of homes, hospitals, funeral parlors, and meetings--in places of great joy and deep sorrow--in places where I had not intended to be.  This is the work of the Spirit of the Living God.

May you "find yourself" as you trust in the leading, enlivening power of the Spirit, whether you are riding along with a stranger on the wilderness road or dropped down in Azotus or living your faith day by day in Washington, Missouri.

Come, Holy Spirit, even if that coming is unsettling.  Break us free to serve where you need us to be today.  Help us to find our greatest joy and purpose--to find ourselves--as we trust in you.  Amen. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Beginnings

Yesterday the Eastern Association of the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ gathered at St. Peter's United Church of Christ to install me as the Pastor and Teacher of this church.  It has been six months since I began to serve in this new ministry, and nine months beyond the candidating weekend and the calling vote.  So much has happened in the disruption and settling that is part of a new call.  Yesterday was also the sixty-second anniversary of my baptism into the faith and family of Jesus Christ.  The feeling today is one of deep gratitude to God for the life and ministry that I have experienced.

I thought during the installation of those who have surrounded me with prayers in such sacred moments: in baptism, ordination, installations and farewell services.  When the service ends, the gathered ones scatter.  The wider church and my colleagues in ministry go away.  I am left alone, but I am not alone.  We are never alone.  That connectedness that we have in Christ continues.  It gives us the strength and the courage to persevere in hope.  It shapes our spirits, challenges our attitudes, and moves us to action.

At Eden Seminary, I learned from Professor Brueggemann that prophets were part of a prophetic community.  They were not lone voices crying out for justice and preaching hope.  The prophets were surrounded by a community as they preached.  Their words live on and continue have impact long after the prophet is gone.  From the context of God's community, a prophet speaks with authority.  I seek to be such a prophet in this ministry which is anchored in the community of St. Peter's United Church of Christ.

The most difficult question in the past year came from a member of St. Peter's Church during the congregational meeting when I was called:  "So, why St. Peter's?"  The answer I gave was rambling and not really clear--even to me.  A call involves a mystery.  With each passing week, I am growing to see that God called me here to heal and to build, to be transformed and to become an agent of God's transformation in the lives of others who serve with me.  With each passing week, the call grows stronger to engage the scripture in a way that strengthens my soul and the souls of those who will gather to hear what I have to proclaim.  With each passing week, I become more convinced that the truth of the gospel needs to touch and change the world that is into the world that God desires it to be.  I pray that I will have the courage and the capacity to love and serve faithfully now and in the times yet to come.  I sense it will be so!  I am deeply grateful for this special community of Christ's disciples, with whom I am called to engage in ministry now.

And so, we begin to run this marathon with perseverance and joy.  I begin with a heart filled with gratitude to God for the church that has called me to serve.  Thanks be to God! 

 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Finally, Farewell


Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.


 --2 Corinthians 13:11, NRSV


Yesterday was a day of great rejoicing.  There were smiles, handshakes and hugs, and a few tears.  My heart overflows this morning.  I rejoice that the Spirit brought me here to be a Conference Minister. 

Through my In-Care years, in that extended time of preparing for ordained ministry, I was always appreciative of the ministry of my Associate Conference Minister, the Rev. Bill Schwab.  I looked up to Bill, and he taught me to appreciate the work of the wider Church.  I will soon become Bill's pastor at St. Peter's U.C.C., a church where Bill served with distinction after leaving Conference ministry.  Life comes full circle in this new call.


I remain convinced that the Conference is an important setting of the United Church of Christ.  It is the hub of connectivity.  It represents a living relationship with the Risen Christ   It is the gathering place for hearts and minds, a space to confer with one another about things that matter:  What is God calling us to be and do today?   Who are our neighbors?  What is essential now?  The Conference cares for congregations and clergy.  It moves us to mission with a larger vision than our local contexts.  It helps us to speak faithfully in the public square.  As I leave, I hope seeds have been sown to ensure the vitality of the Conference in the times yet to come.  The New Hampshire Conference matters.  The United Church of Christ matters.  Your support matters now more than ever.  


Thank you for your gifts--the words, notes, cards and symbols of appreciation.  My heart overflows with gratitude today!  I shall always be grateful for your support.  I will not forget.  Thank you! 

Finally, farewell.   God is with you as you journey in faith into the future.  

Peace & Power to you!

The Rev. Gary M. Schulte



A copy of my homily from the farewell worship is posted below.





A Homily for the End

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Hebrews 12:1-3

12:1            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,

12:2            looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

12:3            Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

~ New Revised Standard Version


Running the Race That Is Set Before Us
             Today, we are at end of the covenant.  God’s call is moving us all to new ministries.  We are here to celebrate the call that brought us together, and we are here to release one another from the vows that have undergirded our relationship.   It is time to say good-bye: “God be with you!       

             But before we do that, there is one last word for us.  It is fitting to return to the text from Hebrews, Chapter 12, to let it frame what has been a significant ministry for me—and I sense for many of you.  Some of you were at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ on November 5, 2006, when a covenant was created, promises were spoken, and I became your Conference Minister.  I remember.  It was All Saints Sunday.  My mentor and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Robert Baur preached from Hebrews 12 and taught us about the saints of the Evangelical Synod of North America—Joseph Reiger, Louis Nolau, and Sammy Press—whose legacy continues to have a shaping influence in the United Church of Christ. 

             In my sojourn with you, I have seen other saints and cherish their memories.  As I go, I cherish the saints who have shared life and ministry with me:  Lucy Alexander, Doug Hedstrom, Don Derse, Ray Burton, LouAnn and Ed Brueggemann, Doris and John Saturley, Gordon Sherman, Paul Shenk, David Slater (and Drama Dearie), and so many, many others.  I have come to cherish the stories of the saints of the Congregational Christian Churches.  They have run with perseverance the race that was set before them.  They have inspired our spirits and moved us to be faithful to the Gospel even when such faithfulness comes at a great cost.  They have taught us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” who endured the shame and suffering of the cross, assured that joy was “set before” him.  The finish line of Christ’s service was not death, but life; not sorrow, but joy; not suffering, but salvation in the fullest sense of the word.  

             If we are to be the church of Jesus Christ in this new day, we must also keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  We must see our lives reflected in his and his in ours.  We must “resist the powers of evil” and share in Christ’s sufferings.  We must, in the words of Marian Wright Edelman, stand up when we would rather sit down.  We must speak up when others tell us to shut up.   Being the church is not for the timid or faint of heart.  And, I see the church in you!  You are God’s holy sanctuary city.  You are salt and light.  You are God’s great hope for the world.

             Yes, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.   Living saints are all around us today—right here, right now in this sanctuary.  You have challenged me to be a faithful and courageous disciple of Jesus.  You have helped me to learn how to be a Conference Minister.  You have taken an introverted pastor from rural Missouri had encouraged him to find his voice and be a prophet in places of power—in the pulpits of your churches, in the streets of your cities and towns, in the State House in Concord, and in the Church House in Cleveland.  We have run a mighty long marathon together.

             I am leaving, but the race is not yet over for any of us.  In this moment, I want to encourage you—beloved saints in the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ and my dear colleagues in Conference Ministry—to keep running the race that is before you.  As I leave this call, there is still a race to be run.  Do not reminisce about the leg of the race that we have already run—its victories and its disappointments, looking back down the track and second guessing what might have been.  Nor can we rest prematurely, relying on what others have done in the 216 years that the New Hampshire Conference has been gathered—the race always remains before us—out there in front of us—where Jesus is. 

             There is still a race to be run out there where torches and crosses still burn . . . out there where walls are built to segregate and separate humanity . . . out there where religion is used as wedge to divide God’s children.  There is a race still to be run when children are hungry, when the addicted die by the thousands, when kindred are despised because they seem so strange and different.  There is a race to be run when white privilege remains invisible and white supremacy destroys the fabric of our society and leads our children to embrace hate and violence.  There is a race to be run when immigrant neighbors and asylum seekers, like Terry Rombot, are detained and deported.  There is a race to be run as God’s beautiful creation is destroyed by our greed and consumption of the Earth’s resources. 

             There is a race to be run when our churches imagine themselves to be so diminished that they cannot love God or their neighbors.  I am convinced that no church is too small or too poor or too old to matter and to make a difference in God’s world.  Our mission is not maintenance and institutional survival but faithfully following Jesus down paths of loving service—from the cross to the joy.  We are Christ’s ambassadors of hope, justice, and peace. 

             So, do not grow weary in running this race, breathe in the fresh, sweet breath of the Spirit of the Living God.  The breath of resurrection is within you.   Breathe it in, and then breathe it out into a broken and dying world.  Breathe it out into those whose hearts are filled with fear.  Breathe it out upon those whose hubris is sinful and whose egos threaten to destroy the world.  Do not grow weary when the hills and mountains loom large on the path before you.  One step, another step, yet another . . . and the race will be won.  Do not lose heart.  Do not lose heart, for you do not run this race alone.  You do not run this race in vain.  Your faithful Savior is with you.  The saints of the church—seen and unseen—a great cloud of witnesses surrounds you, inspires you, and cheers you on. 

             Know that I will always be grateful for God’s call that carried me to your Conference and for the privilege of having been your Conference Minister.  Know that I now join that cloud of witnesses—united in ministry with you somewhere out there in the hills of Missouri.  Know that in a sanctuary in a river town called Washington—a silent prayer will ascend for your endurance, your perseverance, and your faithfulness.  So, let us run with perseverance the race that is before us.  Farewell, my dear friends.  May God be with you.

gAmenh