Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Memorable & Meaningful Christmas

It is no coincidence, I think, that some of my best Christmas memories are those associated with being in church on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Morning.  So many sparkling memories and so much meaning are attached to events that happen in the local churches.

It's almost Christmas again, and I remember . . . The 11:00 o'clock Candlelight and Communion services at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Old Monroe.  The Sunday School Program in the new Friendship Hall at California. Spending Christmas Eve with Debby's brother David, who drove all the way from St. Louis to visit and worship with us.  The Christmas Eve at St. John's United Church of Christ in Chesterfield with my good friend, Pastor Dale Bartels.

I remember a particular Christmas Eve when cousins, Charles and Herb, came to church at 11:00 o'clock.  Herb wasn't known as a fastidious dresser, but on this Christmas Eve he was dressed very well, including a little beret atop his balding head as he entered the dimly-lit sanctuary.  He was not a church-going member.  In fact, this was the only time I saw Herb in church.  We had Communion by intinction just before the candles were lit and we sang Silent Night.  Herb was the last one up the aisle.  He took the bread and ate.  Then, he grabbed the chalice from my hands and tipped it up, drinking deeply.  Some were horrified at the sight of this outsider, who did not follow the ritual.  They were worried, perhaps, about getting germs in the blood of Christ.  Maybe Jesus would catch something from Herb.  Well, I think it went the other way that night.  Every time we commune, we catch something from Jesus.  We catch the hope of heaven, the courage to live life to the fullest, the faith to transcend earth's troubles, and the assurance of God's salvation that will see us through everything that comes.  It was truly a memorable and meaningful moment.  Thank you, Herb.  Thank you, Jesus.

And tonight, as we go to worship anew on Christmas Eve, may you and I be ready to experience the great gift of God in Jesus Christ, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, the Light of the World, our Savior.  May yours be a memorable and meaningful celebration.  Drink deeply, receiving the Gift that God gives you.  Drink deeply of the love of God for you and for many - for all.

With Phillip Brooks, we pray: 

"O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel!"

~Phillip Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1868.


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Road Through Rosebud

Sad.  Very, very sad.  That's how I feel when I hear the news from Rosebud.  Rosebud, population 409, is tiny town in a rural landscape that had been my home.  I know it well.  A highway runs through the heart of the town.  On December 3, residents of Rosebud stood on that highway to block the passage of the "Journey for Justice" March between Ferguson and Jefferson City--a march sponsored by the NAACP to protest the grand jury's decision about the death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. 

In recent months our nation has been confronted again with the power of prejudice and racial profiling.  Something is very wrong when folks are viewed suspiciously and treated as sinister because of the color of their skin.  When what appear to be petty crimes are met with fear and excessive force, something is terribly wrong in our land.  The reports from Rosebud leave me sad and depressed.  The hateful signs, the outlines of bodies painted on the highway, a Confederate flag and a white hood--these reveal an evil of the heart. 

Certainly not all residents of Rosebud should be judged by the actions of a few.  But the words and deeds of people, who may well be sitting in the Sunday morning congregations, singing about Jesus and the grace of God, need to be confronted.  This "counter protest" was intended to intimidate and humiliate other human beings, other children of God.  It may all be legal, but it is not right.  This display of intolerance disturbs the peace, perpetuates the distrust, and may lead to the escalation of violence.  It leaves me very sad. 

I wonder what I would be preaching were I a pastor in a pulpit in Rosebud in this Advent season.  I wonder whether I would have the courage to mention the trouble in a prayer of confession or a  sermon or a pastoral prayer.  Would I have the conviction to converse about it in the coffee shop?  The lesson from the First Sunday of Advent inspires a sermon:  "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down" (Isaiah 64:1a).  Come down to the streets of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland . . . and Rosebud right now.  We need you down here now, O God, to help us get things right.  Come with your justice and set everything right.  We're stuck in the ruins of violence and racism.  We need your intervention.  We're sad and mad and confused . . . mired down, stuck.

When I was a child in a country church about ten miles from Rosebud, we learned a life-shaping Sunday School hymn:  "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world . . ."  In that church, missionaries from distant lands would come and teach us the importance of loving and serving others whether they were next door or around the world.  African American choirs would come from St. Louis to sing gospel songs in our little church.  From earliest days, I pictured a lowly Jesus who identified with the little ones of the world and gave them a voice to sing out with courage, naming their oppression and praying for deliverance.  It was the church that taught me to love and to transform the highways of hate.

Well, I'm not in the neighborhood of Rosebud now.  But what will I say and what will I do in response to the hostility that divides people in this world?  The road through Rosebud is connected to all the other roads where old prejudices and profiling still occur.  In this Advent time, I long for new hope, peace, joy, and love to be born--true gifts of God for all the people of God.  My spirit is strengthened by the Gospel news:  "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory" (John 14:1).  The Word becomes flesh--complicated, connected flesh.  God shares our flesh and blood, our sadness and our sorrows, our living and our dying.  God in Christ comes to the world, in vulnerable flesh--our common flesh.  This is the Good News!

O God, come:  Look at the mess we have made of things in this world! 
O Jesus, come:  Walk the road with us that leads to understanding, harmony, and life!
O Spirit, come:  Empower us with your courage that we may embrace one another in peace!

May it be so! 
May it be so now!


Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor and Rest

It took 176 scoop shovels of corn to make one batch of cattle feed, as I recall.  My dad worked for the Kreter brothers for many years.  Their mobile grinder went from farm to farm, preparing custom feed for the livestock.  It was a noisy, dusty job that required a laborer with strength and stamina to get the job done.   My dad had both . . . and feisty determination to boot.  I wonder how many shovels of corn he threw into the elevator in his working days.  It was exhausting work, but he took pride in it and the fact that he could support our family.

I remember, too, how work was so much a part of our lives.  When dad took a week of vacation it was often spent painting the wooden picket fence that marked the boundaries of our back yard.  Every couple of years we would take a road trip to Oklahoma to visit relatives.  It was the only family vacation destination for us.  And even while on vacation, dad would relish opportunities to work on the relatives' farms.

I know there is a lot of my dad in me.  The work ethic got passed along from father to son.  While I do not scoop corn into a bellowing machine, I also have a drive to work hard--sometimes too hard.  My ministry is not about manual labor, but about serving in ways that reflect God's care for the church and love for the world. 

I am fortunate to have more opportunities for rest and renewal than my dad enjoyed.  I get to go to many places both alone and with my family.  Even so, I know the value of putting heart, mind, soul and strength into my ministry . . . my work.

On this Labor Day, I am grateful to God for the ability to engage in work that makes the world a better place, that "keeps faith sweet and strong," as an old hymn taught me to sing, and that is a testimony to my love for God and for my neighbors.

Even so, tonight, as I prepare to call it a day, the words of one of my favorite psalms come to mind.  These verses help me to put it all in proper perspective and let me rest when the day is done.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
      Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, 
      eating the bread of anxious toil;
            for he gives sleep to his beloved.
--Psalm 127:1-2, New Revised Standard Version
May God give sleep to all who labor in love.    Goodnight!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Does It Have to Be This Way?

The vacation continues.  In recent weeks, we have traveled several thousand miles to Missouri and back--back to the heartland, to a place that was long our home.  We visited with family, celebrated birthdays, and caught up with good friends.  It was good for the soul.

But while we were traveling in Missouri, on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, the news of a horrible shooting in Ferguson, Missouri began to break.  The death of Michael Brown, Jr. has caused me to ask:  Did it have to be this way?  Did an unarmed black teenager have to be killed by a police officer in that St. Louis suburb?  Was this the only way it could go?  Did it have to be this way?

In the week following the shooting, while traveling home, I have listened to a lot of CNN reports from Missouri.  I have heard the Governor and Ferguson's Police Chief and other white leaders stumbling and stammering.  They don't know how to respond.  They are standing in a foreign place.  My heart breaks as I hear of violence provoked and perpetuated by the firing of rubber bullets and tear gas at grieving and angry protesters.  Did it have to be this way, really?

I have also seen a panic perpetuated by a kind of mob mentality, pulsing through the Ferguson community.  Rioting, looting, and burning of a neighborhood convenience store are familiar scenes in the night.  Desperate, fearful, and oppressed people do desperate things.  This is not to condone violence for violence, but I do not know how I might respond were I not privileged by virtue of my race and ancestry.  Again, I ask, did it have to be this way?

Well, it is this way--at least for now.  So, what can I do?  I cannot be there.  I cannot physically stand there in the middle of the troubles, in the middle of the sorrow on the streets and in the homes of Ferguson, Missouri.  What good would it do if I could?

I am much impressed with Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson. I realize he has been authorized to stand in the midst of the trouble by an establishment that is tongue-tied and unable to relate for itself.  I think Johnson is a hero because he walks beside his protesting people and communicates in the midst of their fear and grief.  I know he wears his uniform and weapon, but he is not defined by or protected by those.  They do not separate him from the people.  He is out there on the streets, sharing the deep feelings of a community in its anger and grief.  He is part of that community.  Johnson is not a savior, but a servant.  Sadly, we see that he hasn't even been given authority to take command of the situation; but he is there in the midst of it all.  This is the kind of minister that I aspire to become.

The vacation continues and so does my prayer for clarity, for justice, and for peace.

O God, you know . . . it did not have to be this way!  This was not ordained by you, but shows the sinfulness that mars and scars our souls and our society.  Be with the family and the community that mourns the loss of this young man, Michael Brown.  Be with the family and those who attend to police offer Darren Wilson.  Lives are lost here, O God.  Lives are lost.  It doesn't have to be this way.  Show us another way, even the way of Jesus, who knows and walks with us in every place of trouble and leads us forward to a new day, a new way, a new life.  In his name.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Standing in the Storm

In the late 1960's in my social studies classroom, I sat at a desk that had been scarred by someone's pen.  Carved into the wood and shaded in blue was one word: "Vietnam."  As an adolescent child, I lived with a blissful naiveté.  I did not read papers or watch the evening news.  Our family did not discuss the war in Southeast Asia at the supper table.  My pastor did not raise the issue from the pulpit, nor did my Sunday School teachers challenge me to think critically about the intersection of biblical faith and secular society.   I was totally unaware until is saw that word, "Vietnam," and wondered what it meant.  I lived a sheltered life to my own detriment.

As a young pastor, there was always some church member who would counsel me, "There will always be wars and rumors of war.  Those people in that part of the world have never been able to get along."  The message was, "Don't spend your time with the conflicts of the world, but do something that will make a difference.  Leave the earthly troubles to God, who will judge the world at the end of the times."  Such counsel is a call to Christian isolationism and an acceptance of the status quo.  I never agreed with that argument, but neither did I engage it in a deeper conversation. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about the conflicts that are threatening to destroy the world.  The atrocities of warfare, famine, and poverty are evident in every newscast now.  The trouble is not isolated and remote, but touches us all.  We are all interconnected.  What happens in one place affects everyplace.  The numbing of the spirit to the violence and sufferings of others is pervasive.  An old hymn from my childhood taught me to sing, "Let none hear you idly saying, "There is nothing I can do,' while the souls of men [sic] are dying and the Master calls for you."  Those lyrics are like a single word carved into a school desk.  They are ingrained in my spirit.

At an upcoming meeting of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ, we will likely debate a resolution intended to address the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  Specifically, we will debate whether to endorse economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions against companies deemed detrimental to the Palestinian people and to the peace of this troubled region.  I also pray for peace in the Ukraine, where a recent downing of a Malaysian jetliner has brought the atrocities in that conflict into sharper focus.  And, in our own nation, the treatment of immigrant peoples--including children--is weighing heavily on my mind.  "Let none hear you idly saying, 'There is nothing I can do.'" 

In the concluding paragraphs of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Jimmy Carter focused on the "rewarding burden" that is ours to carry as citizens of the world and as disciples of Jesus Christ.

But tragically, in the industrialized world there is a terrible absence of understanding or concern about those who are enduring lives of despair and hopelessness. We have not yet made the commitment to share with others an appreciable part of our excessive wealth. This is a potentially rewarding burden that we should all be willing to assume.
Ladies and gentlemen:  War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.
--Jimmy Carter, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 2002
Today, I am thinking about engagement beyond isolationism.  I am thinking about how conflicts, whether interpersonal or international, affect us all.  I am thinking that one need not be an expert in resolving or transforming these troubles; but approach life with a willingness to engage in bringing peace to our troubled world.  Yes, the "rewarding burden" may require much of me, but it reminds me of the cross of One who stood in the midst of the storm and spoke his peace.
O God of Love, whose peace seems so elusive in this time, grant me the courage to engage as a child of your peace in this very moment and always.  Amen.


Monday, July 21, 2014

So This Is Ministry

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, . . . ."  (Ephesians 4:11-12a, NRSV)

In the months following my call to become New Hampshire's Conference Minister, I lamented with a colleague, "So where is the ministry in this?"  My question was not answered directly.  In fact, it was ignored.  I had come to the New Hampshire Conference directly from parish ministry with the notion that I could engage in this ministry with a pastor's heart.  I did not want to become a manager, but hoped to remain a minister as I continued to live out God's call and claim in my life.   The role of Conference Minister requires that one be an astute and competent manager.  It goes with the territory.  My question persisted for a long time:  So where is the ministry in the midst of the management?

In recent days, I have come to answer to my own question.  When I described the type of engagement that I have with churches of the Conference, a friend pointed out that this is ministry.   Showing up in settings where folks are sad and conflicted, confused and angry is ministry.  Even when there is no clear path through the tangle of feelings, a willingness to show up, to be present, and engage with others is ministry.  Curiously, I had never really stopped to consider this.  It was a break-through moment.  I am glad that my colleague had not offered a quick and simplistic answer years ago, and that I was given the opportunity to discover it for myself through the diligent practice of this ministry.

Yesterday after worship, as I visited with the pastor and members of Monadnock Congregational United Church of Christ, I asked, "How might we bridge the geography between Colebrook and Pembroke?"  This local church is farther from our "Conference Center" than any other.  Afterward, a member approached to say, "Our pastor is the one who keeps us connected.  She helps to keep us connected with God.  That's the most important connection of all."  And, that's ministry!  Ministry is connecting and building up everyone in their relationships with God and each other . . . and with the world where God moves us to love and serve with Christ.  I am grateful for this local church and its faithful, creative witness . . . and I am grateful for this pastor who makes ministry real in the life of her members.  It was a wonderful day in this ministry.

Yes, I have learned much in the past week.  Being a faithful administrator and manager of the resources of the New Hampshire Conference, United Church of Christ is ministry.  Engaging in ministry--connecting and being present through seasons of celebration and sorrow--sitting prayerfully with the perceptions and experiences of others--this is truly holy work.  This is my ministry.  Thanks be to God!

O God, send your Holy Spirit upon every minister of the church, including this one!  Help us to be and to do, following wherever Jesus leads us to minister.  Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, and grant us peace.  Amen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Fireworks and Rainbows

God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters again shall never become a flood to destroy all flesh.  When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."  --Genesis 9:12-16, (New Revised Standard Version)

This week there is quite a contrast of symbols in the sky.  I am writing on the Fourth of July, Independence Day in he USA.  Tonight there will be fireworks.  According to a 2010 article in Forbes, Americans spend $600 million on fireworks with two-thirds of that money being spent on backyard displays (Forbes, June 29, 2010).  The fireworks remind us of the "Rockets' red glare, the Bombs bursting in air."  They reassure us that our flag, the symbol of our nation's courage and resolve, is enduring through every time of trouble.  Tonight many will gather in backyards, on beaches, and in public parks to see the sky illumined and catch another glimpse of our national symbol. 

On Wednesday night, I traveled to a little village in southern New Hampshire to meet with members of a local church, where the congregation is praying that it will have a new settled pastor soon.  This is a beautiful place with thick forests lining the winding roads.  As I was preparing to seek a call as New Hampshire's Conference Minister, the Rev. John Thomas, our General Minister and President, counseled me about the closed-in feeling of New Hampshire's geography.  It is a beautiful place, but one seldom sees the horizon here.  I remembered John's wise words as I traveled to meet with that search committee at Mason on Wednesday.  The reality is that we sometimes do not see a storm coming until it is right on top of us.  Conversely, we often do not see the possibility of empowering hope and great joy until it is nearly too late.  Unlike those who live in the Midwest, we do not see the clouds gathering and rolling toward us long before they actually arrive.   That is true for the churches of New Hampshire, as well. 

On Wednesday evening, there was a bone-drenching summer thunderstorm with bombastic thunder and flashes of lightning.  Winds blew, tree limbs fell, and power failed in many towns across the state.  But as I prepared to leave the search committee, I caught a brief glimpse of the sky after the storm.  The light was diminished because evening was drawing to a close; night was descending.  But there, in the sky, just above the steeple was an unmistakable symbol of hope and promise:  A rainbow.

Today, I think today about the symbols that appear in our skies.  The rainbow at Mason is a sign of reassurance for a little church that has experienced changes and faces challenges.  We cannot see the horizon, but we still see a symbol of hope in our sky.  It is a gift from God, who promises to be present and to love us no matter what--that's covenant!  The United Church of Christ embodies that hope.  Our congregations are not isolated and alone--we share a covenant that brings us together to love and serve God--no matter what.

Some years ago, as I was driving home from a hospital where a beloved member of our little congregation had just died, I passed through an intense thunderstorm.  And just beyond that storm, a brilliant, beautiful rainbow appeared.  It was not faint but bold against the fleeting storm clouds.  I remember alluding to that symbol of hope at the funeral several days later.  The grieving family had also seen that rainbow and received it as a symbol of hope on their journey home from the hospital.

So the contrast, fireworks and rainbows--one part of our annual civic pride and patriotism, reminding us of the wars we have fought and the enduring strength of our flag, and the other, a reassuring gift that appears quietly after the storm to remind us that God loves the earth and all its creatures.  I may see some fireworks tonight, but it's the rainbow that I cherish most.

God of thunder and lightning, God of covenant making and covenant keeping: Thank you for every glimpse of your grace and every reminder of your love.  Bless the little village churches as they seek to be faithful n calling new pastors to become agents of your peace and prophets of your truth.  Open our eyes to see rainbows--especially in times when we cannot see all the way to your horizon of hope.  Amen.