Category: Pastor’s Blog

CHRISTMAS ACCEPTANCE

CHRISTMAS ACCEPTANCE

The very familiar Luke 2 Christmas story, the one told every year, the one re-enacted live in many places, the scene depicted in a make-shift lean-to across the country; is, for the most part, burned into our memories like our own name. It is a story of humble beginnings, of a man returning to his ancestral home, but unable to find a home. A story of a young woman giving birth in conditions we would consider unfit for a new-born, and it is a story of the beginning of a life that would impact the world for all time. An unwelcomed visitor to town finds comfort and shelter in a shed out back.
It is a story that is, of course, written down decades later with the benefit of hindsight and filled with symbols; shepherds pay homage, mysterious travelers from the east seek out the new “king” and most strikingly, for me, there was no room for him in traditional lodgings.
This sacred story is relevant today, whether religious or non-religious, born again or progressive Christian, literal interpreter or seeking the meaning behind the message. Whether a person reads the story and understands its core element as understanding Jesus born as God-among-us, or reads the teachings of Jesus as simply a great prophetic message … each of us must ask this time of year, “Where do I find room?”
If a person accepts the story as literally true, where does that person find room for the humility of Christ in their lives that the message these humble beginnings offer?
If we interpret the story as a metaphorical symbol out of which grew the story of a man who changed all of history; where do we find room for his teaching in our lives today when we are part of this capitalistic society that wants to reject the foreigner?
Whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, whether Evangelical or Mainline, Conservative or Progressive; if you consider yourself to be at all Christian, or even marginally a follower of the moral and ethical teachings Jesus offer, then this question must be seriously considered.
Is there room?
Does our country have room?
Do our churches have room?
Does this community have room?
Do we, in our hearts, have room for the humility, the compassion, the love, and the acceptance that Jesus’ birth suggests?
Or are we inn keepers struggling to maintain what it is we have, working to preserve the status quo, trying to keep things as they are?
The story is so familiar, so filled with warmth for our hearts and comfort for our spirits, so much a part of December; that I think we forget to ask … is there ‘room’?
Fact or Sacred myth, Jesus, and his family, were rejected in Bethlehem and there was no room for them at his birth and later at his death he was laid to rest in a borrowed tomb. But in between he taught a message of acceptance that changed the world and today motivates mission trips, food pantries and resale shops, self-sacrifice and generosity beyond measure . . . and . . . I pray the acceptance of the stranger among us today.

Defending Christmas

Defending Christmas

This is an article I wrote recently for the local paper.

There has been a great deal of conversation, articles, and BLOG posts referencing the “war on Christmas” as if there was an all-out effort to do away the holiday or that there might actually be an organized effort to do so. Be assured it is never going to happen in a capitalistic country — too much money to be made.
The question really has more to do with the spirit of Christ and whether or not there is an effort on the part of some to minimize the Christ-Spirit during the holiday season. That, I believe, is worth talking about.
First, let me say a few words about what I mean when I refer to the Christ-Spirit. It is, in my opinion, living the teachings of Jesus and it is what Jesus himself longed for others to do. The Christ-Spirit is being compassionate and kind, accepting and tolerant, generous and giving; it is being Christ-like in what we do. Is there an effort or a war against that? Some might think so. There has been, after all, several trillion dollars spent on a twelve-year war that literally devastated a country, overthrew a government, and created a situation where over one million people are homeless while also giving birth to a militant organization bent on doing away with all freedom of religion. That does not speak of compassion and acceptance. There has been a rising tide of refusal to accept refugees to our shores, an increase in the number of people who are homeless in this country, and an increasing intolerance of the religious practices and customs of others; that certainly speaks against the Christ-Spirit of compassion and justice being alive in the world. And on the day after we celebrate a spirit of gratitude by gathering around tables overflowing with an abundance of food; we are witnesses to a stampede of greed in stores across the country.
If there is a war on Christmas, it is certainly not being led by the people who design the Starbucks seasonal coffee cup.
I do not believe that there is a war on Christmas. I believe that the Christ-Spirit, the Christmas Spirit is alive and well and continuing its struggle against the abuses that have been around since long before the birth of the Christ-Child. I believe that Christmas is being defended when the live re-enactment of the birth of Jesus to refugee parents is celebrated here in town. I believe that Christmas is defended when communities of faith here in Sturgeon Bay celebrate a worship service for those who are depressed, alone, and for whom Christmas is a difficult time. I believe Christmas is defended well when schools and churches and businesses here don’t just tolerate all manner of people but openly accept everyone into their midst. I believe that Christmas is defended when, as individuals, we show care and compassion, justice and mercy, and promote peace among those with whom we share this planet.
I have seen Christmas defended by an eight-year-old child collecting money to support a foster child program and an eighty-year-old offering “words of hope” to friends. I have seen Christmas defended in July and January. Christmas is a compassionate community willing to work together. Where do you see Christmas defended? Where can we, as the community we are here, defend Christmas together? Each in her or his own heart, nothing can take the spirit of Christmas away. Blessings Friends.

Renewal Time

Renewal Time

When I began at Hope United Church of Christ five years ago it was with the eagerness of discovery that I came to each meeting, each gathering of people, and each worship. I could imagine no place I would rather be. I was learning and listening and discovering more and more about the congregation, its history and its personality. I know there is still much more to learn and many more stories to hear but it is time for a break.
This will be my last BLOG post for a while. I am entering in to a period of refreshment and renewal. My three month sabbatical begins next Monday and I will be traveling nearly two thirds of the time. The goal is rest and regeneration of my spirit.
During the month of May I am beginning the time away with two weeks of being at home and with Peggy. We will do some short camping trips, just a couple of hours away from home, with the intent being to just rest my mind and tend to some relaxation time. In the middle of the month I will be attending the Festival of Homiletics, held in Denver this year, it is a week-long opportunity to hear some of the best preachers in the country share important thoughts and practice their craft. I am excited about that opportunity to hear and observe the best.
Next Peggy and I will enjoy two different opportunities to have some family time. First we are being visited by Peggy’s oldest and her significant other then we are visiting Texas where our oldest grandchild graduates high school.
Following that I will be taking some time for spiritual development by attending a ten day silent meditation retreat at Dhamma Visuddhi, then another family week, this one on the beach in Mississippi, and finally a two week trip on my motorcycle through the mountains of Colorado, camping and hiking as much as possible. In short the sabbatical is made up of an educational opportunity, spiritual development, and some time in nature; interspersed with some meaningful family time. It will be awesome. I am deeply appreciative to my church for granting this time away and helping to pay for some of the opportunities that I have.
When I return I am certain that I will have stories to tell, some sharpened skills, and a new fresh outlook on the future of my ministry. I will be journaling a lot while gone so that the memories and events will remain with me and I will be storing away insights to life that I hope will enable me to reflect thoughtfully on how we encounter the sacred in our lives. I look forward to returning and rediscovering the congregation with a fresh look and a refreshed spirit. I look forward to being able to listen and learn in a newly relaxed way being once again the calm presence through which I am empowered to serve that which is sacred in this place. I look forward to having a fresh new outlook and a renewed introspective view through which to see all the good that happens through all the people that comprise of Hope UCC. I still cannot imagine anyplace I would rather be than serving Hope.
Blessings Friends!

Interpreters and Interpretations

Interpreters and Interpretations

Once I had the great privilege of meeting a woman who was an interpreter at the United Nations building in New York. She fluently spoke more than seven languages and was contracted to be able to simultaneously translate at least three of them for the international meetings held all the time at the United Nations. It was one of those moments that I felt thoroughly in awe. Learning languages has never come easily for me and the idea of being able to listen in one language and speak the same words out simultaneously in a different language, well, to me that seems incredible.
The other day I was having a conversation with a parishioner when it struck me. In a way, that is exactly what I do in order to be able to listen to some ministers in other churches. And, it is what I often do even when singing hymns in my own church.
Here, we sing the hymns because they are beautiful, the words flow, the message is sincere, and we respect the traditions out of which they have grown. While there are some hymns that I definitely steer clear of, the militaristic sounding ones for instance, that call for us to, “take up arms for Christ.” I still understand, when I hear them, the power they suggest it takes to stand up for what one believes. “Marching as to war” speaks to the struggle of owning one’s beliefs in the face of disagreement and ridicule. I would never say that we have been, “washed in the blood of the lamb and our sins cleansed for all eternity.” I do believe that Jesus’ death paved the way for a new message of compassion and togetherness for all people, and to me, when I hear the first; it is simultaneously translated into the latter.
There are many phrases, words, and messages shared and taught by many ministers which I find I must listen to with the ears of an interpreter.
Jesus as God incarnate (in the flesh) = Jesus lived what the followers envisioned as the message of a loving compassionate God.
Jesus died for our sins = Jesus died sharing a message that leads us away from separateness and towards togetherness.
Resurrection from the dead = The message of Jesus lives on forever.
God, The Father Almighty = Love and compassion lead us and guide us in all things.
Creator of Heaven and Earth = The essence of all that is good and right and just.
GOD = that which we worship.
Christ / Savior = The message that lives on and guides us to wholeness.
Communion of Saints = unity of all people.
Resurrection of the body = ‘The body’ is the sum total of all the followers of faith and it lives to be shared with others so that all people have the opportunity for a new beginning.
Life everlasting = the permanence of love and compassion in the world.

So if Jesus was the great unity builder and sin is “that which separates”, then yes, the great unity builder lived to free us from that which separates. It is simple, logical, and quite reasonable. Jesus’ message brings us together in acceptance. All we need is a simultaneous translator and we can all worship together in one place!
Blessings friends!

Resurrection, Yes It Is Real

Resurrection, Yes It Is Real

Resurrection is real, absolutely. And we, as Christians, are a resurrection people as are many others. It is not metaphorical and it is not a bodily, living, breathing resurrection, but it is real. It is made real every day by each person who takes the opportunities they have to begin life anew. It has happened to me and it can happen to you, if you allow it.
Then again, I guess it is living and breathing. Have you ever been in a dead-end relationship? Have you ever had a job end unexpectedly only to have a brighter better opportunity open up and present itself? Have you ever been in a dead-end situation where it really looked as if your life itself might be over, only to have some rescuing force pull you out of the rotten situation and deliver you to a new opportunity? Each of those examples is a resurrection happening, a new life being presented or new opportunities coming to fruition. Many of those opportunities are by the grace, compassion, and understanding of people of faith who are inclined to gently nourish and nurture others towards a healing path.
Every day there are people whose lives are turned around by the help of a neighbor, the intervention of family members, or the care of a stranger who picks them up, dusts them off, and sets them straight again. There are people whose lives might be in shambles, people who might be on their fifteenth fresh start, or who may have hit rock-bottom for the umpteenth time; all of them experience resurrection first-hand when given the opportunity to live life anew, again.
Our task, as followers of faith teachings, is to help people find their way to acceptance of themselves by being accepting of them first, and then, by showing them the opportunities for a resurrected life. I have seen that happen here at Hope Church for people who have very nearly given up on organized religion. I have seen it happen at strongly evangelical churches by people who have desperately needed to believe in something greater than themselves. I have also seen and heard it happen in AA, at church camp, at Baptist revivals, and at Buddhist retreats. Thank goodness that there are multiple ways to find one’s own resurrection for there are multiple kinds of people. There are people who need meditative practices and there are people who need the praise worship styles of the Pentecostals. There are people who need to know and feel the baptismal waters rush over them as an adult and there are people for whom the inclusion of a spiritual blessing is sufficient to fully realize their inclusion into the family of faith. Whether Muslim, Christian or Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, or a follower of an Indigenous Native religion; there are opportunities for finding and leading a resurrected life because in every instance there is an avenue to the faith that guides one where one needs to go.
Resurrection is real and Christians do not have a monopoly on it. New life, rising out of the ashes of the old, is found in stories with universal settings because it happens all the time. It can happen every day. It can happen to any one of us, at any time. There are opportunities awaiting for new life now. It can be yours or it can be that you are called to show the way. It is a journey friend.
Blessings to you, on that journey.

AN EASTER SONG

AN EASTER SONG

It is not always easy for me to think and write about Easter. This Holy Day comes with a great deal of emotion attached for me. Someone I loved a great deal died one Easter morning a long time ago so personally it is difficult to reflect on all that Easter includes. I do want to say, with no disrespect towards anyone from my past, Easter is about the opportunities that come with the future. And I am in love with the future!
Easter is about the resurrection, the new life that comes after a tragic end, the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, the flower from the seed, the music from the reed. It is about tomorrow. It is an all too difficult truth to face but much of the time one thing has to die, for another to take on life and new meaning. We can probably all reflect on jobs or relationships lost which seemed to be devastating only to have a new opportunity present itself, one that never would have come to be without the first ending, sad as it seemed at the time.
I love where I am, the people I am in relationship with today, the church where I minister, the hope that is ahead for Peggy and I, and the progressive nature of the Christ message that I have the opportunity to share here in these writings, at church, and in this community. There is great opportunity ahead for compassion and justice and equality. There is an opportunity for all of us to be the voice that brings the new age of respect and understanding among people of faith, all faiths.
Today on the news there is great uproar about the law in Indiana that gives people the “right” to discriminate against individuals born different from themselves if they claim it is against their religion to be born that way themselves. It is beyond my ability to understand how people who call themselves Christian, that is following the teachings of Jesus, who ate and drank and walked with all manner of people, can use that same teaching to discriminate. That is a Christianity that I would love to see die so a new form of Christianity can come alive in all its fullness.
Perhaps what we need is another Good Friday and another Easter. Perhaps what we need is the death of something long considered beautiful and allow the birth of spirituality that respects all faith traditions and realizes our great cultural diversity, one which is as rich in its differences as the foods from around the world. No one would stand today and claim that the only food for the body there is has its roots European traditions (some of it is quite boring). Why claim the same for the spiritual food that feeds people around the world. We are nourished in body and spirit by a great variety of beneficial ingredients.
I am nourished today by the death of Jesus and the teachings that came to life afterward. I am nourished by the death of a love lost and I am nourished by the love shared with my wife of nearly sixteen years and the many friends that are part of Hope Church.
There is much to live for that lies ahead for us all. Look to the future, look to the emerging truth that feeds our spirits and avoid the toxicity of language that strives to separate and divide. There is great joy in the morning when life is alive with bells that ring in celebration of the new life. Sing an Easter song of joy!
Blessings Friends!

SCULPTOR OR SCULPTEE?

SCULPTOR OR SCULPTEE?

In college I took a number of sculpture classes. I imagined myself a professional artist one day sculpting away making a handsome amount of money, or at least enough to live comfortably on. Then I realized how few sculptors actually made a living doing that. At the time however I was taking the formless scraps of clay, or idle chunks of metal, sometimes even wax, or sandstone and giving shape and new meaning to otherwise ordinary pieces of miscellaneous “things”. I was giving shape and new life to objects. I felt in control and I felt like a creator.
Life is different today. Today rather than shaping things I am very aware of what shapes my life.
Oh I suppose I still help shape other things, people’s lives, the pathways to the sacred they may be on are, hopefully shaped by my words and thoughts. I trust I am shaping the lives of those I am in relationship with, either through family or by calling. But I am caught in a place that begs the question, “who is shaping whom?” In other words am I shaping the lives of others or are their lives shaping mine? Which is dominant? And, then the even larger question, what is the dominant influence that shapes my life?
Look around a little. Think about the people you observe. What shapes their lives? Is the man who collects the garbage for the city shaped by what he does, or the desire to serve, or his desire to have enough money to fish on weekends or provide an education for his children? Maybe his life is most dominated by a desire to provide for his family and do whatever it takes to care for an ailing wife? And maybe he does all those things and still seeks most to serve at his local church? Maybe he is truly driven or shaped by a desire to share compassion and love with all he comes in to contact with?
What shapes your life? Recently a colleague of mine made the comment, “whatever gives shape to a person’s life is their god.” In other words whatever a person allows to dominate their life, be it feelings for another person, money or the accumulation of wealth, a hobby, or an ideal such as compassion, high ethical standards, or the pursuit of justice for all people; that is their god. It may also be their devil.
Throughout our years of growth and maturity we are all influenced, or shaped by, multiple factors. Parents, our surroundings, and the friends we choose; but eventually we allow a single factor or combination of influences to become the dominant factor in what we choose to do and why we choose to do it. For many it is, or becomes, a religious practice. The teachings of Jesus, the Tao, Buddhist teachings, the ways of indigenous people of this American continent; are all ways that we are led to God. They are ways that we have chosen to commit our lives to becoming better citizens of this planet. They are the dominant factors that we have chosen to shape our lives.
Sometimes it is unfortunate that the dominant shaping factors have become so over institutionalized that it becomes the institution that shapes life. The institution has then become an idol blocking the ability to live the teachings the institution longs to teach.
Each of us still has the opportunity to pick up the pieces, make a conscious decision, and sculpt the future. You do have the ability to choose what shapes your life. Choose well friend.
Blessings to you!

Know your own strength

Know your own strength

Growing up I was always a little bit bigger than most of the kids my age. I have said before that I was born overweight and so I have a good excuse for always being overweight. I was one of those ten pound plus babies that moms tell horror stories about. When I became old enough to go to school I was close to the youngest in my class, with a birthday late in October, but still the largest.
There were expectations that were always put on me by others because of my size. People thought I was older, more mature, and ready to do things before I was quite ready. Coaches and classmates always thought I should be on the football team (it didn’t work; I didn’t have the mean gene). Very often, however I was larger and stronger than even my own maturity was able to process and from time to time it got me into trouble, mostly with my little brother, sometimes at school.
One of my mother’s lines was, “You just don’t know your own strength.”
Being self-aware of our impact on others is something to be cautious about. Being oblivious to our impact on others can put us in a difficult situation. Not long ago I was waiting around church for a memorial service to begin when a young man came in and went right to the sound system and started to slide things out, turn knobs and pull cords. “Wait, please, can I help you?” I said. Later the same young man was moving furniture, sliding tables and clearing the counters; again without saying a word to me or anyone else. When he removed the candles from the altar and began to put them in a cupboard I finally had to stow my courteous minister restraint and say, “NO, those will stay there for the service!” The young man’s actions were driven by a lack of awareness of how he might impact others, he was focused only on what he wanted to accomplish.
I have been in committee meetings where my influence is stronger than I wish it to be. I have been involved in the workings of business arrangements where I might have gone a little easier on someone. I have even stated my case a little too strongly at church a time or two failing to realize that people listen to me and will yield to my wishes when I feel they should speak up more for their own concerns. Sometimes I still don’t know my own strength.
While I believe it is important to express our feelings, being straightforward and direct, we must strive to balance that and be sensitive to etiquette, the other’s feelings, and the situation we are in so that we don’t inadvertently put ourselves ahead of the needs of others. Knowing one’s own strength is a lifelong learning process. Think about the other person or people and strive towards the more humble approach.
Thank you for reading.
Blessings to you friend.

Church Thoughts

Church Thoughts

I ran across this quote from Richard Rohr about today’s church, “We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on the same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing, instead of a religion of transformation’.”

Indeed, it is sad to reflect on the truth of that statement. I began writing this BLOG out of a desire to share some thoughts, inform and encourage the body of faithful people who are part of the community of Hope Church. I want to include in that group anyone who worships with us or who “drops in to read” so that, all would be on a journey together striving to follow a path I believe is laid before us by Jesus. I believe we are followers of the sacred teachings, not believers in Jesus as God, but as the manifestation of God. I strive to express a view that the sacred teachings, regardless of their source will reveal to us the sacred and Holy One we call God.

I believe we should all strive to be less religious and more compassionate, less of a believer and more of a doer, and less worried about defining how we are different and more concerned with building unity. One of the most “sacred” acts in churches today is participating in the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper; but yet it remains, in many congregations, a place of divisiveness. Arguments about trans-substantiation vs. con-substantiation vs. remembrance, and to what end? So we can more clearly define how we are different, or so we can determine which one of us is right so the other must be wrong? Where in that argument are we offered the opportunity to transform lives and become a stronger community? Where in any argument regarding doctrine and creeds and the differences we attest to, are we given the opportunity to broaden the community instead of working to more narrowly define it?

The thoughts I have do not claim to be doggedly researched against prior heretical teaching or thinking. I do not attest to having spent hours in research cross checking the dogma and doctrine of the ancient scholars. I do not even claim to be a scholarly thinker. But in the extremely broad ways of the teachings of Jesus as I understand them, alongside the teachings and writings of Mohammed, Lao Tzu, The Buddha and the indigenous religions of the North American continent, I see a consistency that calls for all of us to be building bridges, not walls; roadways for one another, not roadblocks.

Committees in churches want more members for the sake of the budget, for the comfort some have in seeing fuller pews on Sunday, or for the ease of finding another person to serve on another committee. What we should be focusing on more is feeding people in mind, body, and spirit; quenching the thirst of those who are thirsty for the truth and for good clean water; and clothing people with compassion and justice. ALL religions of the word strive for those basic ends and when we begin to work towards those ends, together, we will be doing the work of Jesus, The Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu and literally hundreds of other great teachers around the world who long for unity, peace, and justice. That, friends, is what I believe Jesus taught and it is what I long to teach the people in the community that is Hope Church.

Blessings Friends!

 The Joy of Serving  

 The Joy of Serving  

What an awesome surprise it was last Sunday to be honored with a gift and cake for my fifth anniversary at Hope Church. I was given a beautiful fountain pen; leather bound journal and gasoline gift cards for my upcoming sabbatical. They are gifts I will use to make and record the experiences and encounters along my journey.

It took me a moment to realize what was happening Sunday as the Moderator took the microphone and began to speak. I was confused. I felt oddly undeserving of the attention. I was humbled by the appreciation offered and deeply moved. To all the members of Hope Church I do say, Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve. It has been a wonderful five years and I do look forward to being here pushing the edges of traditional theology and offering a different look on the old stories for several more years.

To say that it has been a complete joy would be quickly recognized by some as not entirely true. There have been some trying times and some difficult days, sad losses and worrisome hours. I have experienced difficult conversations and heard some of your stories that have caused me great concern. In the past the burden of all those difficulties would have been enough to cause me to begin to wonder if I had experienced all I could in one setting and that it might be time to move along. I am not going to let that happen this time. I am going to continue to journey with you and pray for your continued acceptance of me.

The joy of being here and sharing life’s experiences in an environment as welcoming and accepting as Hope Church is one of the greatest gifts I have ever experienced. I will continue to seek the strength of the sacred that enables me to continue to serve.

I will be the first to admit that I have not handled every situation in the best way that it could have been handled. I have not always been as calm and thoughtful at meetings as I could have been. I do become passionate about some things. I have not always been as detached and professional as I might have been; I am a deeply emotional person. I have reacted instinctively at times and failed to be cautious enough at other times. I will continue to seek the strength of the sacred that enables me to continue to serve among you in the best way I can.

There have been times when I have felt elevated to a place of honor, almost giddy with excitement, and times when I have been hurt in ways that I could not talk to anyone about; but that is precisely what all relationships are about: being with one another through good times and difficult times.

I am both strengthened and guided by the community in this place. Overall it is a great honor to be able to be here and I do find it a gift to know all of you. My longing is to be a caring, compassionate minister guiding and encouraging people to pursue their paths to the sacred as part of a community of faith. To all of you who are part of Hope United Church of Christ thank you for these five years. To you who read these BLOGs, thank you, for you, too, are a part of the wider family of Hope.

Blessings to all.