Monday, April 14, 2014

Playing Jesus

My faith was formed in a smaller-membership village church in the hills of Missouri.  In that congregation, Jesus was central to our faith.  Jesus was special, set apart.  I think this is why we never had a live baby, who was cradled in Mary's arms, in Christmas pageants.  There were babies in the church, but the manger was always empty, simply filled with yellowed straw.  We had to imagine the holy Child of Bethlehem, lying in that place.  Like the cross on the altar, the cradle was empty.  Perhaps resurrection was already there in the way we portrayed the birth story, but I think it was probably that Jesus was too special to be represented by another human being.

Several months ago, a pastor invited me to visit her congregation and share in a choral reading of the Passion Story from the Gospel of Matthew.  She asked me to read Jesus' part in the narrative on Palm/Passion Sunday.  Yesterday proved to be a humbling experience for me.  I noted, for example, how often Jesus spoke in the opening scenes and how silent he became as his crucifixion became a reality.  In giving voice to his cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I felt his forsakenness and abandonment.  I wondered what his final word might have been since Matthew doesn't record it, but only says, "Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last" (Mt. 27:50).  There is mystery deeper than understanding in the story.

I also noted how connected I felt with the congregants during and following that worship service.  Perhaps it is true that when we connect with Christ's suffering a bond is created that is deeper and more enduring.  It was more than a reading--it was a reorienting of life and ministry, a place of deep connection. 

So, my challenge to you in this Holy Week, is to find one of those old red-letter Bibles with the words of Jesus set apart, printed in red.  Read the whole Passion narrative in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--one each day.  Focus on the Jesus part.  Make it your own.  Take it to heart.  Let his word be yours as we journey to Friday . . . and to Sunday.

O Jesus, I have promised to follow you to the end.  That end is at hand.  Holy Week brings an ending I would rather avoid, and a beginning that I am sometimes slow to embrace.  Let this be a sacred time.  Lead me in paths of humility and hope.  Amen.


Monday, March 17, 2014

A Wider Ministry

"And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth." 
--Acts 1:8b, New Revised Standard Version

We are not there yet.  We are still in Lent.  We are in the wilderness.  We are nowhere near Ascension Day; and yet, we are always there at the place where the Holy Spirit takes us to people and to places we had not imagined that we would ever go.

I just came home from Cleveland on Saturday evening.  I had been in Cleveland for most of last week, participating in meetings of the General Synod 30 Program & Planning Committee and the United Church of Christ Board of Directors.  My ministry, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, has taken me to places of services in the wider church. 

Some of my colleagues contend that every Conference Minister's call should stipulate that at least twenty-percent of the ministry be lived in the wider circles of the United Church of Christ or in ecumenical or environmental ministries.  I am not convinced that such wider ministry can or should be legislated by a call agreement; but I do know that one cannot make one's calling body the exclusive focus of her/his ministry.  There are always wider concentric circles to which Christ calls us.  We must utilize our gifts for the upbuilding of the whole Church.

When I was ordained, I had no interest in the New Hampshire Conference.  I was quite content to be a parish pastor along the Mississippi River in a farming community in rural Missouri.  But I served on several Association and Conference committees during those initial eleven years.  My spirit was stretched greatly when it was time to move.  God's Spirit pulled me to a place I had never been--to California, Missouri--a very conservative community both theologically and politically.  I went reluctantly and found there a home and grew to see Christ in my congregants.  I loved my churches deeply.  Service on Association and Conference committees continued during those thirteen years.  The local churches were my calling bodies, but they were always part of something bigger.  The Spirit stirred me into wider ministry in the concentric circles.

In 2006, I was stretched yet again.  I heard and accepted a call to a ministry beyond the local parish.  As the Conference Minister of the New Hampshire Conference, United Church of Christ, I remember with deep appreciation the local churches where I once served.  They inspire me to hope for the best for the churches in the New Hampshire Conference.  I pray for the Spirit to engage us in ministry with people in places where we had not expected to go.  I have traveled to India and Zimbabwe in this ministry.  I have gone to Cleveland many times and to other places where the mission and ministry of the church is first and foremost in people's hearts and minds.  The call of Christ still propels me to a wider ministry.

On Sunday, I will go to Manchester, where I have been invited to speak about the death penalty and my own support of its repeal and abolition in New Hampshire.  The Spirit has taken this quiet, introverted kid from the country and called him to be a witness in God's big, wide world.  It is truly an amazing thing!  I am grateful for every opportunity to serve. 

O Lord Jesus Christ, may I never settle for a narrow ministry.  Continue to open me to sense the stirrings of your Spirit.  Make me fit for service in the wider settings of your church.  Help me to hear the cries and the see the faces of those who need me to minister with integrity and love.  Take me even to Samaria, to the wilderness, to the valley of deepest darkness--and may I follow you there.  Come, Holy Spirit, come!  Amen.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Let the Fasting Begin!

Is not this the fast that I choose:
     to loose the bonds of injustice,
     to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppress go free,
     and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
     and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
     and to not hide yourself from your own kin?

--Isaiah 58:6-7, New Revised Standard Version

We are on the threshold of Lent, a gateway to the wilderness.  Who wants to go there?  Who wants a gray and gritty smudge to remind us of our need for repentance, a mark of our individual and collective mortality?  Lent is the season to reorient ourselves to God's will and hope for us.  All we like sheep have strayed away (Is. 56:6).  In Lent we hear Christ's call, to come back to the fold and to fast together.

The fasting to which God summons us in Isaiah 58 reminds me of Jesus' parable in Matthew 25.  In the latter, both the righteous and the unrighteous ask, "When did we see you, and . . .?"  Lenten fasting requires that we have eyes to really see the prisoners who are oppressed, the hungry, the naked, and our own kindred.  Such seeing requires putting aside the lenses through which we typically view the scripture and our world--to see anew, to look upon the trouble around and within us, and to respond with prayerful attentiveness and compassion.  When we really see, we may discern God's justice and find the courage to respond.

The United Church of Christ's "March Forth" initiative is an invitation to this kind of fasting on Shrove Tuesday (March 4)--the day before Lent begins this year.  Rather than indulge ourselves in fatness, it will be good to begin the fast a day early.  It will be important to see those who need our company during the 40 days in the Lenten wilderness:  those on death row, workers whose wages are so low that they cannot sustain their life (maybe it is time to consider clergy compensation too), those who already experience the deadly effects of climate change, children who must grow up too fast and fend for themselves far too early, addicts of every kind, those who have no "kinfolks," and those who die before their time.

As I step through the doorway to Lent, I will spend more time in fasting, seeking that which is the true Bread from heaven.  I will spend more time in prayer and quiet reflection.  I will immerse myself in the holy scriptures.  I will try to see more clearly--with my eyes and with my heart--those who really need me to keep this fast with them, that--at the last--all may feast on the joy and glory that God intends for all of us and all creation.

O God, may Lent not be a time for the same old business as usual.  Stir my heart toward silence.  Help me to fast more deeply and completely.  Guide me, by your Spirit, to see those who struggle and suffer, and grant me the courage to engage with them for Jesus' sake.  Amen.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Space for Witness

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 
(Romans 15:7, NRSV)

In mid-November 2012, I had the privilege of traveling to Zimbabwe to experience the ministry and mission of our partner church, the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe.  While there, we traveled to Mt. Selinda, the birthplace of the church in Zimbabwe.  It is a beautiful place with a sanctuary and parsonage, school, hospital, and children's home.  The ministry of the church is visible everywhere at Mt. Selinda.

 One of the most memorable times in that trip was our visit to the Daisy Dube Children's Home at Mt. Selinda.  There I saw children--tiny babies, toddlers, and teenagers all living in with a fervent hope for the future.   The children were a community that looked after one another.  Staff members were present and engaged, but the staff-to-child ratio was not what we might expect in the United States.

At Daisy Dube, as we opened several large bags that were filled by partnered churches in the New Hampshire Conference, I initially felt very uncomfortable.  Would these toys and trinkets get in the way of a real relationship with these children?  Would we be perceived to be Western benefactors, as rich white folks, who share superficially with the poor little children of the world while never engaging deeply, prayerfully with them?  I worked through that feeling, but it still lingers with me.  How do we show the care and compassion of Christ?  What gifts do these children really need if they are to embrace the future that God has for each of them?

Several years ago, when I was a local church pastor in the Missouri Mid-South Conference, I heard Tony Campolo speak at our annual meeting.  Campolo, a powerful speaker with an evangelical heart, challenged us to care for the children of the world who are dying of hunger and hunger-related diseases at an alarming rate.  He invited us to give him a scrap of paper with our names and addresses, which he forwarded to Compassion International, a ministry based in Colorado that serves the needs of children across the globe. I responded to that "altar call," and for many years gave monthly to support a child named Zonia in Bolivia.  At the time, I did not realize our own church--the United Church of Christ--also had a child sponsorship program that is underwritten by Our Church's Wider Mission (Basic Support), so that every dollar donated for a sponsored child goes to that child's care.
In April 2013, Zonia turned 18 and was no longer able to remain in a sponsorship program.  She became an adult.  We pray that she is making her way in the world.  At that time, we switched our child sponsorship offerings to the program of our denomination; and we specifically requested a child in Zimbabwe.  Imagine my joy when the child who was identified for us lived at the Daisy Dube Children's Home at Mt. Selinda--a place whose children I had visited just five months earlier. 

This month we received a letter of thanks from the Global Ministries Child Sponsorship Program.  In it was a picture of our child, who is named Witness, a thirteen-year-old boy.  We are told that Witness enjoys reading books and playing ball with his friends, including his best friend, Kelvin. He is in school, and wants to be a business man or administrator when he grows up.  Sadly, Witness says that he does not know about his family members because he was brought to the Children's Home as a very young boy.  "I don't know a thing about my history or my parents."
 I have taken Witness to heart.  A small monthly donation is sent to Global Ministries for his support--a symbol of the care and love I feel for this child, whom I may never meet.  I pray that his dreams and hopes will be realized--that he will become the person that God calls him to be.  There is a space in the world, a space in my heart, for Witness.
O God, send your Spirit upon Witness, your beloved child.  Help him to grow in your friendship and grace, that his future may be filled with sustaining memories and abounding hope.  Guide him in his life's journey that he may reach his goals and offer his own gifts for the life of your world.  Thank you for this child and for all the children of the world.  Amen.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

And Then . . . . An Angel Sneezed

I remember Christmas in California, Missouri, a community with a lot of civic pride and hope.  We did "Christmas California Style" on a Sunday night in December.  The event was a curious merging of  expression of community spirit, public piety, and commerce.  The city park became our little town of Bethlehem for that night of celebration.   There were carols echoing in the night.  There was light in the darkness.  There was a moment of ecumenical togetherness amid dogmatic divisions.  We braved the winter winds to welcome Christmas.  Almost everyone went to the park to keep Christmas together.

For several years, the United Church of Christ was asked to do the live nativity during the city's celebration.  We had a formal schedule and had several shifts as I remember it.  One's knees can only kneel for so long at the manger.  Other costumed characters were ready to take the place of those who grew cold or faint.    For several hours, laborers and managers were together in costumes at the manger.  It was a holy time of togetherness with our focus on the baby in Mary's arms.

But one Christmas celebration was more special than all the rest for me.  That year, an organizer from our church decided everything needed to be absolutely perfect in our depiction of the nativity scene, as perfect as a glittery Christmas card.  We practiced posing as figurines in the stable.  We barely breathed.  We dared not whisper.  Youths were admonished about chewing gum and giggling.  This was to be a somber, sacred display. 

But then, just as a crowd of pilgrims came to view the nativity, an angel sneezed from up high atop a hay bale into the cold night air.  It was a high-pitched, Achooooo!  For an uncomfortable moment, the spell was broken because an angel sneezed.

Nearly a decade later, I still remember that moment when the angel sneezed.  Why?  Probably because I was identifying with that organizer who wanted everything to be just perfect.  We were trying so hard to live up to his version of Luke's Christmas story. We were all striving for perfection.  That angel's sneeze brought me to a deeper awareness.  Jesus was not born among stiff statues whose hearts were hardened like concrete.  Perfection has to do with being human--even as God became human, enfleshed for the likes of us.

Here's the humbling and hopeful thing about all of this:  When I'm tempted to be the perfect disciple and impose a rigid, frozen perfection on everyone around me, some angel will sneeze or hiccup or sing off key--and it will still be Christmas because God makes it so.  God still comes to save me from my illusions of perfection.  God moves me to laugh with old Sarah at a birth we thought incredible and impossible.  And, the scene will still be sacred and beautiful and a blessing.  It is so because God is in it.  God makes it so.  So, God, let your miracle happen again.  Let Christmas come anew!

Blessed Christmas!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Risk of Relationship

I just finished addressing the Christmas cards, an annual ritual of the Advent season in our home.  Each year I wonder whether this will be the last year that I spend the time pouring over a list of names and addresses that I have maintained meticulously throughout the year.  It takes lots of energy to maintain that list and to hold all those people in my heart.  Our list has names of family members and friends--both near and far--who have been with us over many years.  Though we seldom see them, yet these are people who have shaped our spirits.  I cherish the memories as I address each envelope and sign each card.  A prayer ascends as the ink is applied and dries.  I remember the relationship in a profound way.  I am anchored anew in great gratitude and love.

But, it also occurs to me as I write each address that this holy time summons me to build enduring relationships for today.  Advent invites a new risk--the risk of relationship.  When God came into Bethlehem's manger, an amazing risk was involved.  Jesus was born a stranger in our midst.  He didn't know a soul, yet came to save every soul, every life and every creature, all of creation.  God risked a relationship of love. The Gospel prologue puts it this way, "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."  My Jesus lives and dies with arms outstretched, reaching up, extending out for embrace--for relationship.

My prayer tonight is that someone somewhere will discover in me the outstretched arms of the Christ and know that his, her, our lives are not intended to be lived in loneliness and isolation.  It's not really about the card, but the care--the openness to reach out, to be vulnerable, and to stay connected.  The risk of relationship . . . I have seen it modeled well in a little baby, the Holy Child of Bethlehem.  It is revealed in the God who always finds a way to be with us, to embrace us, and love us to new life.

Our God, come!  Please come . . . soon!


Monday, December 2, 2013

Ah, Advent!

The period from September through November has not been easy.  The speed at which things have appeared and disappeared on my desk and in my schedule has been disorienting.  Maybe my age is catching up, mortality is settling in.  As I write today, I remember Abe, an outspoken church leader with a big, generous heart.  He said once after Sunday morning worship, "Reverend, if you ever lose your mind, we're all in trouble."  I took that as a compliment in 1993.  Truth be told, I probably did lose my mind back in those days of parish ministry and still am in the process of losing (and finding) it again in this crazy thing called conference ministry.  I also recall a service of installation in one of our churches early in my ministry in New Hampshire.  It was during the reception following the service that a short, elderly woman peered up at me over her the rim of her teacup to ask, "Now, who are you and why are you here?"  Such is life as a Conference Minister in the Untied Church of Christ:  Who am I?  Why am I here?

All this is prologue to Advent.  Ah, Advent, the beginning of something wonderfully new.  The old is passing away; God's newness is near.  There is more to come than what I have previously experienced.  The lost things are secure and will eventually be found.  All will be revealed for what it really is.  God is coming to judge and to save, to set things right, and to bless the world with hope. 

Yesterday, as I worshipped with the Congregational Church of Hooksett, I saw a single  purple candle that was lit in the Advent wreath.  It was designated, "The Candle of Hope."  Somehow the flickering flame brought home for me the gift of hope.  Amid gray and cloudy days in my soul--and the soul of our nation--there is hope.  God is coming!  God is coming!  God is coming!

Help me, O Coming One, to bask in this Advent time, to allow it to challenge and to change me in profound ways.   Prepare me to receive your eternal life.  Move me to be a child of your grace.  Grant your church space to reflect, to lay down all our preconceived notions and opinions as we listen long for your Word.  Keep us alert and awake,  so that we may be surprised and rejoice at your appearing .  O God, come!  Amen.