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.
 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

If Ever I Loved Thee . . .

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"  (John 31:15)

 
That verse with its piercing question introduces one of the most memorable dialogues in all of scripture.  It's confirmation day down on the beach.  The Risen Christ comes to re-commission and restore Peter, a disciple who had denied and deserted him in the time of trial.  Ready or not, this is a moment of grace.  Do you love me more than these?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?

This is the question of our confirmation day.  The old catechism of my youth, in its concluding question about communion, taught the church to pray:

Lord Jesus, for thee I live, for thee I suffer, for thee will I die! 
Lord Jesus, thine will I be in life and in death! 
Grant me, O Lord, eternal salvation! 
Amen.  

Amazingly, it is this prayer--exclamation points and all (old Germans were seldom given to exclamation points)--that has emerged from my spirit in seasons of deepest spiritual turmoil.  Grace comes, after breakfast on the beach.  "Gary, son of Marvin, do you love me more than these?"  In moments when life is hard, ministry seems impossible, and failures in faith weigh heavily on mind and soul, an old prayer taken to heart long ago returns.  This prayer with its piety and exuberant exclamation points reminds me of my loving Savior to whom I have pledged my allegiance in life and in death and in life beyond death.

I have learned from so many over the course of my ministry.  One of those teachers was a woman named Meta, whom I never met outside the hospital.  It was my first week in my first call.  Meta was hospitalized when I arrived.  She died before I had a chance to know her well--but she taught me so much in but a few days.  With a weak and whispering voice she would sing a chorus from an old hymn,  "If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, 'tis now."  Meta's family was perplexed.  Where did this come from?  It was out of character.  She had not been given to singing hymns, and this one was not familiar.  But Meta's young pastor remembered his days with the Elmhurst Hymnal in Sunday School.  Straight out of the deep heritage of the Evangelical Church of North America--one of the predecessor communions that became the United Church of Christ--Meta found a song to sustain her in her dying days.

My fervent prayers in these days is that our children will have a song to sustain them in their seasons of grief and loss, in their times of suffering, . . . even in the hour of their death.  May the song of faith anchor them in a deep love for Jesus--and, especially, in the assurance of Jesus' abiding love for them.  May the resources of their faith see them through their deepest valleys, keeping their hearts stirred and attuned to the mighty chorus of hope, and at the last carry them home.

We sang that old hymn, some learning it for the first time amid the tears at Meta's funeral:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign;
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
 
I love Thee because Thou hast first loved me,
And purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love Thee for wearing the thorns on Thy brow;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
 
I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath;
And say when the death dew lies cold on my brow,
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
 
In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow,
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
 
--Wm. R. Featherston, 1864
 
 
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for meeting us on the beach, where you reclaim us by your love.  Let that love reside in the deepest depths of our hearts.  Enfold us in your grace.  See us through . . . see us through.  Amen.


 

 

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.