Let us Reflect: The Inertia of Love

Why do we do all of this church business? I was sitting with a friend at a local restaurant discussing the challenges of the church earlier. We talked about the people that we loved and the challenges they had faced. Our mutual affection for various individuals was very obvious. It made me wonder about how those friends and loved ones have been doing in recent years.

Why do we do all of this church business? I was standing in the kitchen at church talking with a parishioner about the challenges of denominational life. One wrong set of directions from MapQuest and suddenly there’s no chance of making it to a meeting. One wrong set of directions and suddenly there are thoughts of letting people down. We were talking about how colleagues and friends gently rib us when we miss meetings. We smiled at the fact that there is not only room at the table, but the chair is often pulled out and waiting for us.

Why do we do all of this church business? I have a theory that I would like to propose. I believe one of the many reasons that we engage in the act of church business is that we are victims of a strange set of relational physics. I believe the church is a place where we see the effects of the inertia of love.

An object in motion stays in motion. A person in love stays in love. Think for a moment about the people you grew up with in your church. Very rarely are they perfect people. Some of them might have a bad reputation in your memory because they were a bit cross or a bit temperamental. I would imagine others have a fond place in your memory after teaching you in Sunday School, teaching you songs, or even going camping with you on a church retreat. They did wonderful things and you came to love them.

I remember Rev. Lange. He wasn’t my pastor but a retired pastor who went to our church. Every Sunday he’d come up to me and shake my hand. I remember it fondly because the first time I went to shake his hand I learned that he had lost his thumb. He laughed really hard at that point and then smiled at me every time we shook hands after that first Sunday.

Rev. Lange wasn’t perfect in the least, but the way he smiled, the humor with which he approached the world, and the content of his good character made a deep impression. To this very day, I would not hesitate to stand up for this man. There is an inertia to the love and respect I have for him that has lasted years after his passing.

Many of us who are in church leadership have the same love for the church. As a Campus Minister why their ministry is important and I would bet most of them will come to the point where they say “When I was a student…” Ask a camp ministry worker about their love of camp and I’d bet they’d regale you with a tale about a great camping ministry. Ask a minister… Ask a church planter… I believe that we all have our own love and affection for the places that we have seen Christ in the church.

I believe that love is also why it can be hard to see that inertia at work in times of challenge. We all have our own inertia and while they often run parallel there are often moments when they go on a different course. There’ll be conflict if there are only so many dollars for ministry with people under the age of 35. Camping ministries, campus ministries, and youth groups can love each other, but there will be tension. Speak about the power of funding for electronic ministries and you will find someone passionate for the printed word of their youth. I think there’s a place where the inertia of love can be challenging.

For me, I think what’s most important is to recognize the love we hold for our ministry and each other. Keeping my eyes open and seeing that love in other people is especially important to me as I prepare to head out to Annual Conference. I pray that we all keep our eyes open and recognize God’s love shared in each other.

Let us Reflect: Life between denominations

Today is a day of transition for me. Last week I attended the 54th Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. After celebrating the Ascension of Jesus Christ and Memorial Day in my town, I am preparing to head out to Syracuse for the 8th Session of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As a pastor at a Federated congregation I am authorized to serve as a minister within the United Church of Christ even as I serve within my ordained capacity as an Elder within the United Methodist Church. I serve within the one church and have my membership and service within the other.

A relative of mine once said that it must feel like I am being constantly torn in two. I often get asked questions about the local church’s way of being, questions about how I balance responsibilities, and questions about how I manage to make all of the meetings. To be fair, I often ask that last question. Yes, it can be challenging when you have twice as many denominational meetings as many of your colleagues.

This time of year is often difficult for me professionally. I go to one denominational meeting. I celebrate the successes, embraces the challenges, and mourn the losses of colleagues and friends. I proceed to then go to the other denomination’s meeting. I am again called to celebrate the successes, embrace challenges, and mourn losses. I often share ideas that are working within the other church with friends from the others. Sometimes that is accepted as a good thing. Occasionally, I am told to keep what I am saying to myself. For the record, people are not necessarily being mean—tradition has a very bad habit of enshrining itself as unchangeable.

I was pondering this strange place between congregations the other day at the meeting of the UCC. In the middle of a prayer for the ministry of the UCC I was drawn to think about that balance between denominations, Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention.

Prayer-portions.jpg

As I thought through this prayer I was drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the words. The Spirit of God is indeed shown in each person. The blessing of the Spirit is not just for our own life, but for the good of all. Each person is blessed and called to be a part of God’s ongoing work in the world.

The Window

In this office window hangs a plastic stained glass window of a boat at sea. It reminds me of the call to be a missionary, especially as it came from my first pastoral parish (Canisteo First UMC). Next to the window is a cutting of catnip for our cat from a member of our local UCC Society here in Maine. The bush outside has peeked in at ministers from both denominations.

I am a blessed man. I am blessed while going about my service with the community of saints that span two denomination. I am blessed to be able to see the connections and relationships between the two churches. I am blessed to Christ’s body in each of the lives of the saints. Some are United Methodists, some are members of the United Church of Christ, and all are a blessed part of God’s body.

Yes, balancing two denominations is somewhat challenging. Yes, the number of meetings can get a bit long. Yes, some days I am just plain lucky that my head is firmly attached to my neck. I am blessed to be in this strange place. This place is more beautiful than most people know.

Let us be Honest: This is long enough to be a treatise

Welcome to the longest blogpost that I have ever written… Also, I am going to go ahead and state that I’m writing this as a well-educated, white, Protestant male who has a lot of privilege. I use a lot of “we language” to talk about the overwhelmingly white church. I own it and am trying to learn new ways of being.

Yesterday I share a quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. I adore Walter Brueggemann and I really loved the quote. Here’s what it said: (original quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional “A Way Other than Our Own”, pgs. 2-3)

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”

I received a bit of pushback for sharing this concept by a few people that come from a different place in life than I am. In particular, a colleague and friend of mine said that there was no context for the quote. I normally wouldn’t mind letting Walter Brueggemann stand up for himself as he’s a world famous theologian who has more street credit with people in almost every corner of the church. I normally would leave it alone, but my colleague was just the most openly vocal person. I respect him for his openness and boldness. Such boldness is a gift in this profession.

I have private messages questioning my patriotism, my theology, and in one case my integrity for daring to share such divisive words. I decided to respond on my blog so that I could create lots of links to sources.

I do not mind people questioning my patriotism. I stood in the rain for over an hour waiting to pray for God to bring comfort into the lives of people mourning soldiers who passed in the service of this nation. I stood glumly and thought of my friends in the armed forces who have lost friends. I listened to people complain about the rain. To be fair, it was really cold and wet. I have learned to have thick skin due to the circumstances of my ministry.

I do not mind people questioning my theology. Theology is necessarily limited by the person who is approaching the divine. I stood in the rain and prayed at the beginning of the service. The Baptist minister who believes different things than me about God prayed at the end of the service. We don’t need to agree to show love and respect to each other. Theology is always a matter of perspective unless you know all things, in which case you’re navel gazing because only God knows everything.

I do get a little irked when people question my integrity. I stood in the rain to pray for others so that they might have comfort today. While standing there I realized that I have no place to rest my bones. Following Jesus has meant that I no longer have a home like many of the people that I serve. I find home in my loved ones, my community, and even in my relationship with God, but there is no grave for me to rest within at the end of my days. My responding to God has led me to forego that blessing. That takes commitment and is more than a little disconcerting.

I am a servant of the Most High and I do my best to live out my service well. My quest is to live out that service with integrity. I have decided that I am going to respond to these criticisms in the best way that I can. I am going to respond with a defense of this statement and encourage others to engage in the conversation. I mean no disrespect to those who disagree with me, but there comes a point where one must be clear, concise, and accurate when talking about challenging issues. I might not be concise, but I pray this is both clear and accurate.

So, what does Brueggemann say:

  1. There’s a crisis in the US church that has nothing to do with the theology wars that people love to engage in between liberal and conservative camps.
  2. The crisis has to do with an abandonment of the identity found in our Christian identity which is best expressed in the faith and discipline connected with our baptism into Christ.
  3. We settle for an identity that is partially patriotic, consumeristic, violent, and affluent. I think it is safe to say that Brueggemann has a negative view of this approach.

So, let’s get into this. Is there a crisis in the US church? Well, the Pew Research Center might be indicating that there is a problem. Attendance is dropping and the mission of the church according to Matthew 28:18-20 the purpose of the church is to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

There’s a numerical issue that might show a problem, but why is that issue taking place? Is this the problem or a symptom? Are we the victims of a cultural shift or is it more insidious? Matthew 28:20 says that Jesus will be with us when we do what we’re supposed to be doing. So, what is going on?

Do you remember that point where Walter Brueggemann talks about violence? We were called to make disciples of all nations. We were called to teach them, love them like Jesus loved them, and to embody what Jesus commanded. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. Jesus taught that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to Jesus.

When I was a teenager I read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” We were called to embody and teach love. We broke promises. We killed women and children. We believed in a manifest destiny that destroyed cultures, families, and bordered at times on cultural and physical genocide. If it makes you feel sick to your stomach you aren’t alone. The General Conference of the UMC engaged in a sincere attempt to draw the church into repentance in 2012 and voices in our church have been asking us to continue that work ever since, but we continue to bring violence to our sisters, brothers, and neighbors over subjects like pipelines and corporate rights. We should be sick to our stomachs. This isn’t the way that Jesus taught us to live. We were called to teach people to live as Jesus’ commanded us. If we have trouble seeing where Jesus is at work it may be our own fault.

In seminary trusted friends invited me to consider reading further. I was invited to read books like “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I was invited go on trips to places like Window Rock, Arizona where I stood by the graves of soldiers who died for our nation. I talked with widows whose loved ones made it home safely and could only find work in uranium mines. I stood in the middle of a tribe of proud people and saw how the culture that I had been taught to love and honored had crippled a noble community, tribe, and nation. I shook my head when I realized there were no trees in the town of Sawmill because they’d been shipped away to build the impressive towns populated by people who looked like me. I wept openly by the statue erected in honor of the Windtalkers who served so proudly. My heart broke in pieces because the Jesus I know would not have done these things.

It goes further. I’ve married a woman who has stood in the towns where my nation dropped nuclear weapons on women and children. I’ve read about the 200,000 people who died in the name of expediency. Most of them died from burns, but some of them died when the pieces of the place they called home flew through the air and killed them. I have stood by sights where Confederate soldiers stood up for their rights to own other people and thought about how their blood was shed into the very water which once carried people as property from one nation to another.

As a lay person I have served food to hungry people on the streets of Rochester and done my best to give dignity to folks who are in need of food in the communities I have served as a pastor. I have seen people die when basic needs like health-care have not been met. For the want of an antibiotic I have seen people sicken and rest on their deathbeds. I have seen that our nation is not perfect. I have seen it with my own eyes and my eyes have wept with pain for what they have seen.

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. It was a challenging time and the beginnings of division were starting to tear apart the connections of the young nation. Lincoln said the following:

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

I truly believe Lincoln’s fear is our reality. We have become a people who believes that we have a manifest destiny which can and should control the lives of people around us. Some people feared the other. Mob violence was tearing apart our nation as people oppressed and fought against people that they saw as property. Their fear was that the other would ruin the future, much like we are afraid of the terror that others can bring into our lives. Lincoln pointed out to the people that the true danger was coming from within. His fears would prove true. The way of being the early American nation was headed was leading to soldiers, neighbors, and families slaughtering each other all across this nation.

We are a people who it seems honestly believes that we have a right to control the lives of people around us. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. We preach our doctrines on television and demand that we bring prayer back into schools because we honestly believe that the people praying in the school will pray in ways that will agree with our beliefs! We would cry bloody murder if someone called for Islamic prayer every morning before school, but we are okay with it if we are the ones leading the prayers. We do the very things that Jesus told us not to do and it is killing us. This idolatry is killing us very quickly. We need to repent.

Brueggemann questions the connections between patriotism and our baptismal identity, but he isn’t the first. Consider the works of the prophets who came to the people of God cajoling, pleading, begging, and trying to convince them to remember whose they were. Consider the judges who asked the people not to seek an earthly king and how their decision caused grief, destruction, death, and exile. Consider Jesus who refused to be an earthly ruler and was crucified for His trouble.

How many books of the Bible are filled with these stories? How many times does God call on the people to repent of their earthly addictions to power and greed? How many times does God call on people to live lives marked my love, kindness, and humility? How often can we read these words and not understand the most basic of messages? Do we need to live out Lamentations in addition to Jeremiah?

I am a child of this nation. I have to live a life which honestly reflects on who we have become as a people. We were a nation of immigrants and we murdered the people who lived here before us. We were a nation of refugees from the struggles of an old world and we imported people as slaves from another part of the world. We were a nation that stood up to Hitler’s terrible acts. I do not doubt the importance of those actions and honor those who died to put an end to the Holocaust. That bravery does not change the fact that we are also the nation who nuked civilians (including women and children). Knowledge, history, and experience have taught me that my identity cannot rest in my place in this nation. If my identity as an American is all that defines me, then history teaches me that a prophet is needed, because this is not good.

Violence like the violence that we have brought into the world is like the violence that is described before the flood in Genesis. Arrogance like the arrogance we have shown through depopulating a nation, enslaving others, and mistreating our own neighbors is absolutely horrendous. This arrogance is like the arrogance that led to the Tower of Babel. This is not good.

I truly believe that Walter Brueggemann is right. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the red letter words of the New Testament brought through Jesus. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the call of the prophets. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to define ourselves less by where we happened to be born and more by who we have chosen to become in the life.

I am a Christian who happens to be a United Methodist. When I share in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s table it is with the understanding that you cannot share in the body and blood of Christ if you’re not ready to partner with Christ in the ministry of undergoing suffering. I am a minister in the United Methodist church. When I baptize a child it is with the honest expectation that the child must come to a place where they believe in their own faith and identify with their own baptism into the life and death of a man who suffered.

In my own personal theology these beliefs are not optional. I have already said that I do not need people to agree with me, but on my end they are a part of our identity as Christians. If we cannot find our identity in Christ then we have lost our way and need to pray for forgiveness. As the foundational documents of the Methodist movement say all that is truly required to enter into the society of believers is ““a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.”

If it makes people feel better, the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ just affirmed their belief that God’s vision for the church is to be “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” They connect this to their mission which is to be “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” Seeking justice requires repenting of the things we do that cause pain.

For that matter, during the benediction at the American Legion’s service in the rain this morning, the Baptist minister around the corner lifted up Jesus Christ as the soldier who laid down his life so that people of every nation would enter the Kingdom of God and find salvation. By the way, Pastor Jim prayed a really powerful prayer. I’m looking forward to hearing more as time goes on.

For that matter, here’s a pretty good work of theology by a Roman Catholic scholar written on the subject of patriotism and our Christian duty is a pretty good bit of research too. By the way, it was written only a few months after 9/11. I still find it to be very relevant 15 years later. Too old for you? Here’s Pope Francis calling people to move towards justice and mercy earlier this year.

Baptists, Roman Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ, and even United Methodists like me. If you’re keeping track, that’s every denomination that has a congregation in the hamlet of Maine. We may worship different, but we all seem to be united in understanding that salvation rests in Jesus and that Jesus calls us to repent of our sins. We might not agree with what that looks like, but we all seem united in understanding that God is calling us.

As for Brueggemann’s words on affluence and consumerism, I realize that I have probably annoyed enough people already. I can go into that another day if people desire. The long and short of it is that I personally believe that John Wesley got it right. He did earn all he could and save all he could. He also gave all he could and died with less than 30 pounds to give away despite having an annual income of 1,400 pounds. It is said that he never had more than 100 pounds on him, which is pretty impressive given how easy it must have been to hoard his wealth instead of using it to bless others.

Let us Ramble: Opinions and Call

What do you think is the role of the pastor in a church? Are we prophets? Are we priests? Are we bearers of the light? Do we embody and carry tradition with us? Are we all of these things?

I took a ride after eating lunch today so that I could think about these questions. I preached a particularly somber sermon in church today about the importance of Memorial Day. I remembered the lives of folks who gave their lives for this country and I encouraged people to think about the reason we have this holiday. I encouraged people to seek peace in their lives and to work for a day when we no longer need to add names to the list of loved ones who can no longer come home to their families.

I was immediately questioned about my viewpoint after the service ended. I needed to know more history, I needed to change my point of view, and I needed to change what I believe. To be fair, I had been expecting someone to say these things, so it wasn’t a real shock to me. These kinds of conversations happen pretty often in the life of a pastor.

The conversation did raise questions in my mind though. I don’t require people to agree with me. I do my best to be humble and to consider other points of view, but sometimes I wonder what people actually want out of me as a pastor.

I went to Roberts Wesleyan College and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. My education at Roberts Wesleyan would come to $151,976 in today’s economy. My seminary education would cost $57,440 plus the cost of books. Effectively, the educational process I have undertaken would cost around $210,000. I underwent this educational program willingly and without regret. I began ministry as a pastor when I was 26, so that effectively means that my education would be about $4,500 dollars for each year I serve (If i make it to mandatory retirement at 72). Effectively that’s a little more than a tithe of my income every year just to pay for my education even without student loan interest.

On top of this educational requirement I am required to undertake ongoing continuing education and development. I take all of this education and I am sent out into a local church where I am expected to help educate my congregation. I am trained to teach orthodox beliefs and to teach practices that line up with the best traditions of orthopraxy.

So, why are people continually surprised when I do my job? I don’t have my master’s degree because I was bored one day. I earned my degree in order to use it and hopefully use it well. I am not studying the spiritual disciplines because it is something to do or because I need to continue to engage in continuing education. I am training so that I can teach the practices as well as put them into practice in my own life.

I am a pastor. I do not get paid a ton of money and a lot of it goes to pay for both my education and my wife’s education. I do not have easy hours or a cushy job. I carry God’s love into the world in courtrooms, coffee houses, and to people’s porches. I sit with the sick and dying. I visit with those who cannot come to church anymore. I grieve with the mourning and I celebrate with those bringing life into the world. I am a pastor because I am called to be a pastor. I am a pastor here and do my job here and now because this is where God has sent me for this season in my life. I am right where I am supposed to be at this point in my life.

So, why are people so surprised when I do my job? I wouldn’t be being faithful if I did not take what I do in my ministry seriously. I would not be being faithful if I didn’t tell the truth even when it doesn’t line up with people’s preconceived notions. I would not be being faithful if I did not occasionally raise the questions that absolutely need to be raised.

Let us Seek: Broken Images

Yesterday afternoon at the Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ we had a break between our afternoon session and our evening meal. I spent the time preparing for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was distracted from my inevitable comparisons between the Annual Meetings of the two denominations I serve. I was distracted by reading through my favorite (and technically only) book on shame, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy called “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write on internalized images of God and perfectionism: (pg. 85)

“As in Jesus’ time, much of the inner suffering that people struggle with today is abetted by an impoverished religious imagination that is unable to envision a God of unfailing love-a love that embraces all of us unconditionally just as we are. Instead, our projections of a harsh and demanding God leave us with feelings of shame and a sense that we have disappointed God. Many of us are burdened by a strict conscience that demands perfection, thinking this what God wants. We have an image of holiness that is out of reach for the simple reason that perfection is beyond our grasp. When we inevitably fail, we feel guilty and ashamed and are confirmed in our belief that we are unworthy of God’s love.”

The honest truth is that I could spend this blogpost talking about the idea of a frustrating and badly-considered image of God from a personal perspective, but I believe this may be a case where personal ministry experience might be helpful. I have walked with many folks who have struggled with understanding a God that accepts them unconditionally with their “warts and all.” A lot of people have difficulty seeing God lovingly walking with them during challenging moments of life. The situation is like trying to see clearly through a broken window.

"Abandoned Church - view through broken window" by Nicholas Mutton

“Abandoned Church – view through broken window” by Nicholas Mutton

I remember walking with a brother in Christ who did not understand how God could love him. The man was lonely, sad, and isolated. He wanted to be in a relationship badly, but every relationship ended up in disaster. While he would love to believe God loved him unconditionally, it was hard to believe. God loved him and understood that he was lonely. God loved him even as he felt lonely. I believe God was compassionately and completely in love with this man. That man could neither see nor believe in that love easily.

I remember walking with many people over the years that were absolutely furious over the death of a loved one. Some people were angry with God because their loved one had passed away. Other people were resolutely angry that their loved one had done the things that led to their death. How could God love them when they still feel anger towards someone that they love? How could God love them when they are angry with God? Faith in God’s unconditional love can be difficult to obtain when anger is involved. It can become very difficult to understand that God loves a person despite the anger that they harbor in their souls.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking situations are those that involve abuse. While God is neither male nor female, it can be difficult to trust in the love of God when someone is abused by another person. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and caring mother hen when a woman in your life has engaged in abuse. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and protective father when a man in your life has engaged in abuse. Moving beyond parental images, trust can be difficult to carry into new life with Christ as your brother when a brother has been abusive.

Walking through the challenges of life can make it very difficult to trust in God’s love and grace. The images of God that a lot of people carry around in their lives are often powerful and unjustly harsh. These images do reinforce a lot of challenges that people normally face in their lives. Praying with sincerity after a heartbreaking crisis can be almost impossible if God seems to be stern and foreboding. Seeking forgiveness for situations where everything has gone downhill can become impossible when God seems hard, cruel, and unrelenting. The weight of shame can be overwhelming when you believe that God could never forgive you for what you have done in your life.

So, what do we do with this? Well, I do not want to hamstring a future blogpost, but I will say that my family and I listened to the new NPR podcast “Wow in the World” this afternoon. The very first episode spoke about an article that was recently published by researchers from the University of Montana on the benefits of gratitude. A quick synopsis of the research is that there is a strong correlation between expressing gratitude and a person’s well being.

If a person can make their life better through regular expressions of gratitude then I believe a similar theory can be proposed. I would suggest that there may be a correlation between the health of a person’s image of God and what opportunities that person engages in to experience a loving God. Regular spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship might help to reinforce a loving experience of God. The authors of the “God’s Unconditional Love” argue persuasively about the use of imagination to go deeper into the scripture and consequently into God’s love.

I would also suggest that engaging in compassionate acts alongside God might assist in retraining one’s heart to see a loving God more clearly. Volunteering with the hungry, assisting with rehabilitation programs, working to build and repair homes after disasters, and thousands of other opportunities exist to engage in ministry alongside a God who is neither hard nor callous to people’s pain. Partnering in ministry with others to seek God through compassionate acts might allow someone to understand God’s compassion for their own lives and souls more clearly.

In the meantime, my hope and prayer is that God might be gracious to you. May you see the love of God in your life.

Let us Reflect: Purpose

What does it mean to have purpose? How does someone define purpose? What does it mean to be successful in ministry? I ponder this as I sit and listen to Rev. David Gaewski speak to the state of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. I ponder success as I listen to the good news that the Conference has created 20 newly affiliated congregations. I ponder success as I listen to words about a course correction around sacred conversations around questions of race and white privilege. I ponder success as I wonder about the variety of voices around the room. I wonder about the folks who are present and the folks who are not with us today.

I wonder about these questions and more as I ponder the alteration of the mission statement of the New York Conference. The new statement reads:

“Our Mission: ‘United in Spirit, and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.’

Our Vision: ‘United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.’”

Rev. Gaewski has invited us to consider the question “How can we make disciples of Christ and how can that take place in our context?” Rev. Gaewski speaks of a movement of evangelism into (in my own words) a movement towards deeper discipleship. We are invited to be seeking the well-being of folks for the betterment of the world. We are invited to do these things boldly.

As a United Methodist who serves in this context, I find myself moved deeply. The UCC is seeking to be bold about inclusion. The UCC is seeking to be bold about loving everyone. The UCC is seeking to be a church that seeks justice for all people. This is a bold mission to undertake.

Is this different than the United Methodist mission? Is the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world radically different than a vision of being united in Christ’s love with a just world for all? Well, yes. These are different goals with different purposes.

Is it better to speak of justice or to speak of transformation? Is it better to be bold about loving everyone or about making disciples of everyone? I serve in a place where both missions have a role in the life of my congregation. I don’t know that I could or should decide, but I’ll be thinking about these sorts of questions.

Let us Ramble: Wild Lettuce

Have you ever found a blessing where you expected none? A few days ago I went outside to take a picture of a zucchini plant for another blogpost when I noticed something bright green alongside the path through the garden. I looked closely and I found a wild lettuce plant!

Random lettuce plants!

Now, it wasn’t truly wild in the sense of being unexplainable. Last year we planted lettuce and some of it literally went to seed. All winter long it snowed and the dogs trampled over the garden. All winter long the path nearby was assaulted by shovels and ice removing salts. All winter long this section of ground underwent abuse.

This spring the earth had a gift for me before I even had a chance to till and plant. The lettuce was light, fragrant, and delicious. I know this because I gobbled down a leaf immediately after I took this picture. The leaf was quite tender and tasty.

It makes me wonder what other blessings are hiding just beyond my sight. I should keep my eyes open! There may be pumpkins hiding around the corner!

Let us Seek: Ascension Day!

Happy Ascension Day! Luke 24:44-53 reads: (NRSV)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

English: "Ascension of Christ" by Benvenuto Tisi

English title: “Ascension of Christ” by Benvenuto Tisi

Today is the day when the Western church has traditionally celebrated the Ascension of Christ up to heaven. By coincidence, today is also the day that the Eastern church celebrates the Ascension of Christ! No, those dates do not always align! Here’s an article why the dates of Easter differ from an Eastern Orthodox perspective!

As we celebrate this Holy Day, here are a couple of things you might wish to think about as we celebrate:

  • Not many modern churches celebrate the Ascension of Christ with large worship services. In particular, Protestant churches have tended to shy away from this celebration. As a result, do not expect to find Ascension Day cards at the grocery store. As a result, a good family activity might be drawing a picture of what it might have looked like and mailing it to a loved one.
  • Despite not being regularly celebrated in Protestant churches, churches which follow the traditional liturgy of communion silently reference this event every time they celebrate communion. The liturgy refers to the resurrection in the eyes of many when it says “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” In reality, Christ cannot come again without having ascended. Sidenote: All three parts of this great mystery have an unspoken component in my eyes. Christ was born before he died. Christ is risen and remains alive. Christ has ascended and Christ will come again.
  • Ascension is an important part of the two major historical creeds of the church. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both reference the Ascension. The poorly named Athanasian Creed also refers to the Ascension. Something about this event caused the early church to tie it into the most basic form of catechism within the church.

We hope you have a most blessed day and that you spend some time thinking about the Ascension of Jesus Christ! May God bless you on the journey through life today!

Let us Ramble: Tomato Border

Today was a busy day around the parsonage. Next Monday is Memorial Day and the town’s parade route runs right in front of the church and the parsonage. I will be occupied for the next few days, so today was the last real opportunity I had to straighten up the yard before the parade. There were obvious tasks to accomplish (plant the garden and mow the grass), but there was another challenge that needed to be faced.

Last year was the first year where we had tomatoes against the side of the garage. We tilled up the ground, planted the tomatoes, and then quickly learned how much more prolific they were than we had expected. Each of the cheap metal tomato cages died an agonizing death over the course of the summer. The tomato bed was a real disaster by the end of the summer.

This year we made plans. We researched methods of controlling the tomato plants more effectively. We learned about something called the Florida Weave and planted posts to support the plants. We mulched the ground in the fall and put some good nutrients back into the soil this spring. We scrounged through the leftover stones from the church’s septic project and put a stone border next to the tomato bed. It looked really nice.

Unfortunately, the stone border was not very good at dissuading the grass and weeds that wanted to grow into the tomato bed. For weeks I’ve been consistently and constantly fighting back against the encroaching lawn. Today I decided that I had enough.

We were planning on planting the garden tonight and I had been wanting to start an herb garden. Unfortunately, we went a little overboard with starting seedlings this spring. There was simply not enough room for what we already had prepared to plant. I looked at the problem of the grass and the problem of not having a space for an herb garden.

I thought about a comedic science fiction audiobook that I had recently listened finished. In that audiobook, humans were colonizing another world and the creatures on the planet found them tasty. They built fences but the creatures burrowed underneath the fences. The solution saved the people was placing steel bars under the fence to dissuade the hungry aliens.

I was struggling with an aggressive plant which wanted to attack my colony of tomato plants. I needed space to plant herbs. I built a fence and I sunk the roots below the reach of the grass. I buried thin cinder-blocks on their sides. The grass couldn’t get under the cinder blocks. I filled the holes with dirt and suddenly I had room for herbs and flowers! I could make the border wall functional, effective, and pretty!

Geranium-border

A geranium in the border wall

In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Proverbs 19:8 says “To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.” Last year one of the best ways I loved myself was to learn that I had made a mistake when I planted my tomatoes without a plan. I took that wisdom, understood how I needed to change, made a plan, and now I have the hope that I will find a way to prosper with my tomatoes in this new year.

I do not know if the herbs will succeed in the new planter-wall. I hope that they will, but I will seek a spirit of wisdom regardless of the outcome. In the end, I hope that I will approach next year with understanding, wisdom, and an even better plan.

The Catapult

via Daily Prompt: Catapult

My family has had two cats over the past few years. We have lived on church property and we need to deal with church mice. One of the cats had extra toes. My wife says she should keep her name. She called the cat Debbie. I called it Thumbs. Thumbs was a great mouser for many years.

The second cat is a black cat named Pepper. I’m allergic to cats. I didn’t need to rename this cat. Pepper makes me sneeze when it gets in my nose. Pepper make me sneeze when she rubs against my face. The name fits. Pepper is not the greatest of mousers.

Thumbs was very relaxed. Pepper seems a bit uptight. The two are almost completely different cats in terms of personality. I personally think it is because Pepper can’t operate the catapult. We have to get rid of those church mice somehow…