Friday, December 2, 2016

A Walk in the Park

I am spending the week with United Church of Christ colleagues in San Antonio.  It has been a rich and fruitful time as we talk together about the church and the nature and purpose of authorized ministry.  Committees on Ministry do such important work--discerning gifts and assisting in the formation of our clergy, living in that tension between extending support and exercising oversight, saying "yes" and saying "no."  The church is always changing.  God gives us minds as well as hearts, so that we may reason together and think critically about where we are and where God is calling us to go.  I am glad to be here and a partner in this circle.

Most mornings I have been going outside early in San Antonio to take a walk and to pray.  As I walk, I think about churches--local churches--in places like Tamworth and Temple, Hillsborough and Haverhill, Milton and Madbury, Winchester, Westmoreland, Wolfeboro--and many others too.  I think of pastors--faithful servants of the gospel, who have responded to Jesus' call to be set apart for service, for preaching and teaching, for administering the sacraments, for pointing others to the grace and glory of God.  My prayer is that pastors will love their churches and that churches will love their pastors.  I pray that they will mutually engage in building up one another, that they will respect and honor each other, and especially, that they will continue together to listen for the voice of Jesus and be stirred by the Holy Spirit to change the world.  We have such important work to do.  The world needs the church to be light and salt, a beacon of hope.  The world needs the church to break down the walls that divide and destroy God's children.  The world needs the church to sing an old song:  Miriam's song (Exodus 15:21), Hannah's song (1 Samuel 2:2ff.), Mary's song (Luke 1:46ff.).  The world needs the church to witness for justice and to work for peace.

It's time for another walk in the park.  Where will you walk today?  What is your prayer as you walk?

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Reflection on the US Election

I have been thinking a lot since Election Day about what word I would offer and why it is important to say anything about what has happened.  Our society is saturated with pre- and post-election commentary.  In New Hampshire we have barely completed one election cycle when another begins.  Along with that comes pollsters and pundits' predictions.  The editorializing is immediate in social media.   The commentary can become excessive, wearisome with everyone expressing an opinion.  Sometimes we need to pause, to feel, and to pray.

Last week, I heard much anxiety about how preachers in our pulpits would address the outcome of the election.  Would they further divide the country and the churches they serve by expressing their personal disappointment and anger?  Would they cause their members to feel ostracized because they voted for one candidate or another?  I read the counsel and concern that was posted by other church leaders and seminary teachers on Facebook.  Some organized immediate support groups for clergy to gather and talk through their reactions to the election.  

I trust that the Word of God will get through and will have its way with us.   I trust the Word to speak its consolation and challenge in the local context, in the congregations where God's people gather-not once for a pronouncement from on high, but week by week, Sunday by Sunday to build a community of compassion and justice.  I trust the Word of God to move us to care and protect those who are more vulnerable now.  We are called to make sure that all God's children are safe.

Do I have disappointment and concern about the election of our new President?  Yes.  I am concerned about the man we have elected and about the multitudes that propelled him to victory.  I am concerned about his rhetoric becoming our reality.  I am concerned for our children and our neighbors and the building of impenetrable walls around our souls that will isolate and separate us one from another.  I am concerned, but I also believe that the Word of God will have its way--transforming hearts and minds, changing lives, and creating justice.  I have faith that the Spirit of God will stir in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

So I thank the preachers and the prophets for their proclamation of the Word.  I thank them for modeling "courage in the struggle for justice and peace."  I thank them for pointing us toward the One who is with us always, announcing God's "presence in trial and rejoicing."  I thank them for calling us to find our voice and to be vigilant in our witness to love all the people.  In the words of the United Church of Christ's Mission Statement:  United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all. 

Today, tomorrow, and in the end, may we be found faithful to the values that we have learned in our sacred sanctuaries.  May we follow Jesus who stills every storm.  May we look to our God, our Sovereign and our Savior.

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
      the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people!
            May the LORD bless his people with peace!

~ Psalm 29:10-11, New Revised Standard Version
 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

It's Only Words

Last night I listened to the second Presidential debate.  What I heard was a candidate who said, "It's only words, folks. . . . Locker Room Talk."  Only words?  Really?

I am concerned because words evoke actions.  "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Luke 6:45)  Rhetoric that diminishes and demeans others is real; it is powerful, world-wrecking words.  Words can wound.  Words can break another human being's spirit.  Words can injure others for a lifetime.  Words can cause others to act out in harmful ways toward themselves or others.

The old adage about "Sticks and stones breaking bones, but words never harming" is wrong.  Words can  be weapons that destroy others.  I think of the cyber bullying that causes children to hate themselves.  I think of parents who provoke their children to anger and prejudice that endure for generations.  Words can build up; words can break down.

This is particularly important because at the center of the Christian faith is a God who speaks.  The speaking of God creates the cosmos . . . the universe . . . God's good earth and all that is in it.  God's creative word and breath shape human beings in God's own image, giving them the capacity to communicate, to feel, and to love.  We believe that in Jesus the Word became flesh, revealing the glory of God in the darkest days of our living and our dying.

Integrity means that our words and our acts are in sync.  Our yes is yes.  Our no is no.  Our faith and ethics are one.  We can be counted on to speak the truth in love and to be loving people, who build up and respect all others.

I write this not from a place of superiority, for there have been times throughout my life when my words and my deeds have not been well connected.  Even so, the lessons learned through self-reflection have been sources of growth, and my spirit has been enlarged through honest encounters with others. 

May God have mercy upon us, our leaders, and our role models.  May our words and our deeds bring glory to God whether we are in pulpits or church pews, board rooms or locker rooms.  May God guide us in paths of justice, care, and love.  May it be so!  

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Morning Walk

I've started walking in the mornings in our neighborhood.  Walking is good exercise, but it is also a form of prayer.  Rev. Paul Nickerson suggests to the churches that he coaches that congregants walk through their community, pausing to pray for those who live in the houses and work in the businesses.  Walking clears the mind and helps us observe things we would not otherwise see.  With each step there is connection and communion with God's good world. 

I've noticed that most people will wave in greeting when I'm on foot. I wonder why that is?  When we are in cars meeting each other on these same streets, there is no gesture of acknowledgement.  We hurry on.  But when I'm walking, vulnerable to the approaching vehicle, there is usually a wave, an expression of neighborliness.  I like that, for the world seems a bit less cold and impersonal when I'm on foot.

The other morning, a big yellow school bus lumbered past as I walked.  I saw the back seats and the emergency exit door, and I was transported by a memory to a time about 55 years ago.  It was the morning that I entered first grade.  I had boarded the bus with my friend Glenn.  We sat in the very back seat of the bus as it took us to the little elementary school in Swiss, Missouri.  I remember seeing Glenn's parents following the bus.  Ray and Marilyn were going to Swiss to enroll Glenn in the school.  He was riding the bus, they were coming along in the family car.

It never dawned on me until I got to Swiss that my parents had not come along in our car.  They had just put me on the bus and sent me off to school.  I don't know whether they missed some memo or had made previous plans to have me enrolled.  I was, after all, their eldest child.  They had not been through the routine before.  So I rode the bus and got off at the Swiss School.  The principal, who was also my first-grade teacher, welcomed me; but I could tell she was confused.  I had no parent present to enroll me.

It was at that moment that Evelyn Meyer came to my rescue.  Evelyn was our neighbor.  She was the cook at the Swiss School.  She knew me.  She enrolled me.  Thus began my educational journey--because of a kind and caring neighbor.  The village took care of me; we were all family.  I remembered Evelyn as I walked along the road last week, watching that school bus make its way down the road.  I hope the children on the bus also know that they have neighbors who are kind and caring, who will look out for them and help them to make their way in the world.

Lots of good things happen when I take the time to slow down and just walk, breathing in the cool morning air and the wonder of God's creation.  Goodness and mercy accompany me.  I am not abandoned or alone, and life is very good. 

God, you meet me in the morning when the day is new.  You lead me to find my way through this world one step at a time.  I give thanks for the memory of Evelyn and all those who have accompanied me along life's path.  May I be that kind of friend to those in need of family in these days.  For the beauty and wonder of your creation, I give you thanks and praise, now and forever.  Amen.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Long-Haul Ministry

Today marks a milestone in my ministry.  On August 21, 2006, I became the Conference Minister of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ, a role that I both admired and resisted.  I really did not know what would be required at the time that I was called here.  Ten years later, after a decade of service in the New Hampshire Conference, I reflect on the paths we have walked.  It is clear that together we have been engaged for the long haul.  It is by the grace of God that we have endured and persevered in love.  I rejoice in the gift of time and the faithful saints who seek to follow Jesus on the journey of faith.  They inspire me with their example.  I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is at work in this Conference.  I meet the God who creates and resurrects as I worship in the midst of Christ's people here in New Hampshire.  We are not alone.  We are never alone.

There are some predictable rhythms to this ministry.  Annual meetings come around regularly, as do Prepared to Serve, Clergy Convocation, General Synod, and the monthly meetings of our seven Association Committees on Church & Ministry.  There are sad moments in this ministry--great disappointments--when churches and their pastors fall out of loving relationship, when ministers act in ways that violate their vows, when church folk forget that they are disciples of Jesus Christ.  There are endless transitions in this ministry.  With 135 local churches, someone is always coming or going.  Simultaneously, there is sadness, and there is joy.

Tonight, as I reflect on what has been accomplished in these ten years, I am grateful for the kindness, generosity, and spiritual encouragement that I have received from so many.  Your prayers have upheld me.  I am exceedingly grateful to God for the gift of colleagues and co-workers who have been exceedingly patient with me and deeply faithful in their own service.  Together we have made a difference in the life of Christ's Church in New Hampshire.  There will always be more that might  have been done, but we have served to the best of our God-given gifts--and we have changed hearts and lives with the grace and mercy of God in the process.  That is satisfaction.  That is a source of joy.

So, I conclude with these texts that fill my heart and undergird my hope today:
  • In the words of Paul, "Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart" (2 Corinthians 4:1, NRSV).  
  • In the words of the author of Hebrews:  "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" (Hebrews 12:1, NRSV). 
  • In the living word of Jesus, who continues to call:  "Follow me" (Mark 1:17, NRSV).
Holy One, who summoned me to serve as a little child in baptismal waters and in broken bread, your call continues to motivate and move me in ministry.  Thank you for all those who share life and ministry in your holy Church.  Thank you for those whose ministry changes the world in amazing ways.  May Jesus be glorified in what has been and in what is yet to come.  Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Civility

There was a season some years ago when the ministerial alliance of which I was a member worked with the local VFW to create an essay contest for middle school students.  We believed that, beyond partisan political rhetoric, there was a need for reasoned rational discourse in our community and country.  Civility matters in our society.  In those days in that community, Rush Limbaugh was the media personality whose voice that many heard as virtuous and true.  I recall one evening at choir practice when the basses and the tenors started arguing about the merits of Mr. Limbaugh's commentary.  My contribution to the conversation, "He's saying everything my mom taught me not to say and to be," got the guys to thinking.  Their moms had taught them similar lessons.   

Those days seem tame to me compared to these days.  I should not be shocked that the biggest ego provokes followers with vitriolic rhetoric, calling others disparaging names and building barriers between peoples.  I should not be shocked that xenophobia and racism are still alive in our nation.   I should not be shocked that fear seems to defeat love today.  I should not be shocked, but I am.

The Jesus who summons me to follow is not one who divides with words of fear and hate.  He is not boastful or arrogant or rude.  Among his words are these:  "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."  "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."  (Matthew 5:7-9, NRSV).   I find in Jesus an alternative to the path many are walking today.  I find in Jesus an antidote to the spirit of maliciousness and meanness that permeates American politics in this troubled moment in our history.  I find in him a model of courage and civility worthy of emulating today.

God, who knows every heart and mind, whose speaking is creative and loving, steady my hope, strengthen my resolve to follow wherever you lead me to go.  Grant us all courage and compassion to bind up the wounds of our neighbors and to be kind, gracious, and generous to all.  Give us, O God, the mind of Christ now and always.  Amen.    

Monday, July 11, 2016

Facing into Our Trouble

When the news of the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge last Tuesday and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul on Wednesday, I had a flashback to August 9, 2014, the day when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri.  One tragedy connects us to all others.  Then came the massacre of law enforcement officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest on Thursday night.  A solitary sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven others.  My grief was compounded.  These killings are not about a distant race problem in places far removed from New Hampshire.  This is as close as our own hearts and minds.  This is our trouble.

I spent much time last week just trying to get all this sadness out of my soul, to push it far away and to focus on other things.  In the midst of my work, I still heard Alton Sterling's fifteen-year-old son wailing for his daddy. I saw the graphic videos and heard the shots reverberating in the streets.  The truth is there is no easy escape from this trouble.  Friends on Facebook, journalists, President Obama and the presumptive presidential candidates, pastors and preachers in the churches--all are talking about racism and the deadly fear and violence that have captured our country.  These events challenge Jefferson's lofty ideals:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [sic.] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  All are created equal?  Life?  Liberty?  The pursuit of happiness?

And from our scriptures, we hear God speaking through the words of Paul, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus"  (Gal. 3:28, NRSV).  I hear God speaking today to bridge our divisions:  "There is no longer black or white, powerful and powerless, privileged or deprived; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Differences still matter, but they do not divide.  

There is no hiding and no denying that we have a problem.  The trouble does not reside in someone else's house, it is in ours.  It is in our spirit.  It is evident the way that we judge others without ever knowing them.  It is evident in the way we select our friends and our social circles.  It is evident in who gathers in our houses of worship.  It is evident in the way that we separate and segregate--always offering ourselves as the standard that is superior to all others. 

Too much!  It is all too much today.  Of this I am sure:  This is the time for facing up to our trouble.  It is time to repent and allow our hearts to be touched and transformed.  It is time for a reconciliation that is born of hope that a better day is surely coming.  This is what the psalmist teaches us to sing:  "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living"  (Ps. 27:13, NRSV).    I believe that I shall see God's justice rolling down, right here and right now, in this time--while there is yet time.

God, in your great wisdom and mercy, visit us in our trouble.
  We have witnessed the killing in our own streets.
  We have heard the wailing of children for their parents and parents for their children.
  We have seen peacekeepers killed in the line of duty.
  Our trouble is ever before us.

Who is innocent, O Righteous One? 
  We are all caught in these terrible cycles of fear and violence.
  We play roles that we do not fully understand.
  We speak and act in ways that perpetuate the trouble.
  Our trouble is ever before us.

God, let your justice wash over us.
  Bridge the brokenness.
  Let all peoples find their way together.
  Restore our trust; End our violence.
  Our trouble is ever before us,

O Suffering Christ, your love alone can set us free.
  Your love alone can raise us to new life.
  Your love alone can change us.
  May it be so . . . today.

Amen.