Starting out in ministry, it was one of the first illustrations I can recall reading. Although I cannot recall that I have ever used it before, it remains with me. The story goes that there was a beautiful Monastery in a beautiful wooded setting but it had fallen on hard times. It had once been the home of a great Order but no one wanted to join a Monastery any more. Only five monks – the Abbot and four others remained – and they were all over 70 years old. Clearly their Order was dying. The monks were all discouraged and you could tell it in the way they treated each other.
Also close to the Monastery was a cabin a local Rabbi used for personal prayer retreats. One day, while out walking in the woods, the Abbot, contemplating the trouble his Order was in, noticed that the Rabbi happened to be at his cabin. He knocked on the door and introduced himself to the Rabbi. Graciously the Rabbi invited him in, and they began to engage one another in conversation. During the conversation , the Abbot told the Rabbi about the plight of his Order and asked him if he had any suggestions. The Rabbi looked at the Abbot and said, “I have only one thing to say – the Messiah is among you!” The conversation ended and the Abbot returned to the Monastery, even more frustrated and dejected because of the Rabbi’s less than direct answer.
Once arriving at the Monastery, the Abbot shared with the other monks about his visit with the Rabbi and they were as puzzled as the Abbot about the Rabbi’s answer. “The Messiah could not be one of us, could he?” They all looked at each other and wondered. In the days to follow, however, something began to happen. On the chance that one of them could be the Messiah, the monks began treating each other with more dignity and respect. And, on the outside chance that they may be the Messiah, each monk began acting in more loving and caring and devoted ways.
The Monastery was known throughout the community for its beautiful grounds which often led to the locals choosing an afternoon and having a picnic there. Yet, ever since the Abbot’s visit with the Rabbi, as they picnicked, the guests noticed something different about the monks that seemed to permeate the grounds themselves. They were friendlier, more devout, and more respectful. The guests liked what they saw and felt on the Monastery grounds and began coming more often, inviting friends and before long, it was not unusual to find large numbers of people taking advantage of the beautiful setting, either for picnics or simply a retreat for solitude. Lo and behold, some who visited were so attracted to the lifestyle they saw the monks now living that they decided to join the Order, and within a few years, the monastery was once again filled with devout, respectful monks.
Maybe there is a reason I have carried this illustration for so long, saving it for such a time as this. I have no clue how many more newsletter columns I will write, but I do believe that God is not through using us.
See you Sunday,
I find it to be a powerful article written by the Rev. Waltrina N. Middleton in the most recent issue of The Christian Century. Her cousin, the Rev. DePayne V. Middleton, was one of nine members of Mother Emanuel who was gunned down and murdered by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina five years ago. Three survived. As you recall the story from your memory, that night on June 17, 2015, Dylann was offered “one of the most humblest and beautiful offerings one can extend to a stranger: a seat at the table,” as Middleton shared.
This hospitality and love arose out of Mother Emanuel’s rich tradition as a congregation and each individual’s faith. Treated as a guest, without any thought of racial profiling or judgment, Middleton’s cousin reportedly shared her Bible with Roof and as a result was one of the first to fall to his murderous act. Just moments prior to the shooting, thirteen people were singing, studying the Bible, and closing the study by standing together, holding hands, in a circle of prayer.
Like the other eight victims, “Dep” as Waltrina called her, did not get to go home that night. Four daughters were left without a mother. They knowingly did not get to have one last meal with their mother, while Roof was treated to a meal from Burger King before he was ever taken to jail. Twelve people who had gathered for worship were targeted for the color of their skin. Unimaginable grief fell not just upon their families but the community and the nation as well. A problem too often ignored and normalized, a rush to push a narrative of forgiveness, all the while the wound is wide open and the situation calls for nothing less than lament.
Several years ago, I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where on September 15, 1963, four beautiful young girls, dressed in their Sunday best, were killed when a planted bomb exploded, courtesy of the KKK. Even now with the bronze plaque and the park of statues across the street, I question whether we had moved too fast in pushing the narrative of forgiveness without allowing us the needed time to lament, to do some deep soul-searching and truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing that might have prevented the tragedy at Mother Emanuel.?
Yes, forgiveness is a Christian response but so is lament. Middleton writes: “We can be committed to love and radical hospitality, to welcoming the stranger into our midst, to extending a seat to join us at the table – while also maintaining our right to be angry and to righteously resist the violence against our humanity.” Speaking for myself, as a white person, I tend to be more comfortable with the idea of forgiveness, as difficult as that might be to extend to someone who has wronged me. But then, have I really considered at what cost?
Even now, we continue to witness a racial divide because of our failure to name the sins of this brokenness and allow opportunities for grief work. Middleton shared her story, no doubt, in light of what we are experiencing since the George Floyd killing. Folk are already growing weary of the protesting and marches, not even seeking a stage of forgiveness but simply as a measure to appease those in authority. But the work of lament is what is needed now if we are ever to see ourselves seated next to one another. Forgiveness will come in due time.
See you Sunday,
Around thirty years ago, I picked up a CD that was a compilation of songs written and recorded by folk living on the streets. I lost the CD in Hurricane Irma along with a lot of other CD’s I had collected over the years but that one I have missed the most and not been able to replace it. These were heartfelt songs from “nobodies” until someone gave them the opportunity to let their voices be heard.
I really hadn’t thought so much about that CD until I saw on the evening news a few years back how a small nonprofit group called Miracle Messages reached out to the homeless in the San Francisco area and through the use of technology and video recordings and a lot of investigative work attempted to reconcile the homeless with family members. Years, even decades could have elapsed since the last contact was made between the family members and as founder and CEO of Miracle Messages, Kevin Adler shares: “There’s a mix of digital illiteracy and a lack of access to technology, along with these emotional barriers like the shame of being homeless, that leads to this perfect storm that can keep people on the street.”
People either write text messages or record short videos directed at whomever they are seeking, and Miracle Messages team members try to track that person down to pass along the greetings. They average about a 60% success rate where family members (parents, siblings, children) are re-connected and life changes. Hoping to reunite one million people by 2021, Adler’s goal is ambitious, yet also points out to the scope of the homeless problem around the world. Miracle Messages has even set up a 1-800-MISS-YOU number for the homeless to tap into to share their stories. “Our mantra is, ‘Everyone is someone’s somebody,’” Adler said.
What prompted me to share these two stories about a CD recording and the work of Miracle Messages is yet another story I came across this past week. In 2003 Dave Isay opened the first StoryCorps booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal with the intention of creating a quiet place where a person could honor someone who mattered to them by telling their story. Since then, StoryCorps has evolved into the single largest collection of human voices ever recorded.
Five years earlier, Isay made a documentary about the last flophouse hotels on the Bowery in Manhattan. Guys stayed up in these cheap hotels for decades. They lived in cubicles the size of prison cells covered with chicken wire so you couldn’t jump from one room into the next. Later, Isay wrote a book on the men he met there. With an early version of the book in his hand, Isay returned to one of the flophouses and showed one of the residents living there a page dedicated to him. The man stood there in silence looking at the page, then he grabbed the book out of the author’s hand and started running down the long narrow hallway holding it over his head, shouting, “I exist! I exist.”
For years now, Dave Isay has worked to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Just by interviewing the “forgotten,” particularly those who had been told their stories don’t matter, he shares how he could literally see people’s back straighten as they started to speak into the microphone.
Folk need to be heard; they need to be seen; they need to be loved. Until then, our work is not over!
See you Sunday,
So the countdown has begun! We will re-open for public worship on Pentecost Sunday, May 31. As we return to worship in the sanctuary, things will be different. It won’t take long for you to notice the changes. Doors leading into the sanctuary will be open. A hand sanitizing station will greet you and you will have the option of wearing your own mask or grabbing a mask that we will provide. You may choose not to wear a mask, although it is strongly encouraged.
Every other pew will be closed off, so you are not guaranteed the same spot that you have sat in for years. Worship bulletins will be placed on pews prior to the doors being opened, also giving you an idea as to where to sit, as we will be observing social distancing as we worship. There will be no time for getting up and shaking hands or greeting one another. We will be using the screen for words to the few hymns we sing and the Scripture verse as all Bibles, hymnals, cards, and special envelopes will be removed from the pew racks.
As we are now live streaming our services, we will be limited by the hymns that we can sing because of copyright violations. We will also be singing fewer stanzas of the hymns. The offering will be collected by the offering plates that will be placed on each table near an entrance, and you can place your gift in the plate, either before or after the service. We will still recognize the act of giving within the worship service. For communion, the trays will not be passed from person to person. A Deacon will hold the tray and you will pick up two cups, one cup holding the cracker, the other cup filled with the juice.
Once the service is over, you are asked to not linger inside. We have suspended all the OJ/Coffee Fellowship Hours for the time being, so if you choose to visit, do so in the parking lot. A crew will be then clean the sanctuary in preparation of the next church that will be coming in. We know some churches in the area will not re-open until July or August while there are some churches in town that never closed. Now is not the time to invite those folk to come join us, as difficult as that is for me to say. Space is limited.
You may want to continue to worship online at home for a few weeks once we re-open. This will give us the opportunity to see if there are things we need to do differently. These
changes aren’t permanent. We will find a “new” normal. But this time does give us the opportunity to re-image church differently in a world that has revealed its vulnerabilities, all because of a pandemic.
See you Sunday on-line,
The chances are that by the time you return to church, the subdivision adjacent to us will be almost built out. The sounds of hammering, loud machinery, and even louder radios have filled the air for the past three weeks, making it hard to concentrate. Granted, having the normality of one’s life upended has not helped with concentration. Auto-pilot has been disconnected as the calendar is less uncertain every day about what will demand my attention.
The downtime has allowed me to tackle some projects that have been put “on hold,” and invest hours researching the type of equipment we need to bring in as live streaming our worship services will now be a permanent fixture for our days ahead. I see it as more than just “busy work” to fill the hours of the day. This whole idea of re-imagining church doesn’t come easy!
The one image that keeps popping up in my mind almost on a daily basis is the story from the gospels when the Master leaves the home, entrusting its care into the hands of his servants. When will the Master return? Who knows? The real question is how we, the servants, tended to the home while he was gone. Wanting to be found faithful, I push through my thoughts of frustration and confusion, trusting that God will lead me on the right path for this time of ministry. I must confess that there are some days when such thoughts seem to have the upper hand.
I guess what I am saying is that the work is hard! Moving through uncharted waters, having to develop a new normal, wondering how to do this better, and working through scenarios to ensure that we are on top of things and are not left surprised. I know I am not alone. I am pretty sure that many of you are facing similar thoughts and feelings, maybe not as it relates to church work but your life in general. It has been upended and put on hold, restricting travel and time with family and friends.
This week Linda and I were supposed to be spending anniversary vacation time in Banner Elk, North Carolina and closing out the week, celebrating with our granddaughter’s college graduation. Instead, we had a short 3-day staycation. Disappointing, yes, but you make adjustments and move on, right? What else is there to do?
That recurring image from the gospels reminds me that you try your best to remain faithful. That is what you do! When the Master returns, I want him to know that he was right to entrust his home to me and others. I am so glad that I get to share this home with you!
See you Sunday on-line,
For the past five weeks, I have opened our Sunday worship live stream with a welcome to Week #_ of “this season of being together while we are apart.” When I first came across that description of this time we are in, it stuck with me, and so I set it aside to use it. The description is attributed to the Rev. Catherine Foote of University Congregational Church UCC in Seattle, Washington. Seattle, as you remember, was the first and hardest-hit American city at the start of the coronavirus.
Faced with a decision of offering worship online or just waiting until the congregation could gather again, Catherine and church leaders chose to go “live,” only the service was held outdoors, on Catherine’s farm. Throughout the walking tour, elements of worship were offered: reflections, prayers, and songs – especially familiar ones. She had two associates wielding cameras, one for Facebook and another recording for YouTube. This began on March 15 and online services continue today.
Since the church already had a YouTube channel and live streamed their services before the pandemic struck, their learning curve has not been as difficult as other congregations, ourselves included, in trying to get up to speed and learning to dance in the midst of a storm. But they could have opted not to move forward in “being together while we are apart.” I had little idea when I first started introducing viewers that we would still be doing this going into Week #6 with the possibility it could be an additional four more weeks before we re-open the church for public worship.
Another thing Rev. Foote shared in that first outdoor service that struck me was to remind her congregation that “What we know by heart matters.” And then she continued, “And we also have to open our hearts to what new things are coming.” In this day and time, we need to have sure footing in our faith when the ground underneath us seems to be so unstable. Now is the time to claim what we believe as true! I would invite you to read through the Psalms during this time of uncertainty or the Gospel of John. Stay in the Word until the Word stays in you.
And her second statement – new things are coming. I know not all of us like surprises or changes. New things does not necessarily mean “bad,” only different than what we may be accustomed to or even comfortable with. It may also challenge us to stretch our faith and re-discover our first love, the God who is our Creator, Redeemer, and our Sustainer!
See you Sunday on-line,
The question still lingers from the Palm Sunday reading: “Who is this?” as Jesus makes His entry into the Holy City of David. His followers offered an answer but it fell short of who we now know Jesus is. Yes, a prophet, but more than a prophet! And later when some Greeks who had gone up to worship at the festival approached Philip about “seeing” Jesus, instead of leading them to meet face-to-face with Jesus, Philip instead went and found Andrew and the two of them went and told Jesus, leaving the Greeks in the dark. It was almost as if Philip and Andrew were either embarrassed, unsure, or shy to point the way to Jesus with any clarity and eloquence. Without doubt, the coming days would certainly unsettle all of Jesus’ disciples for whom they had gauged Him to be as Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified.
This identity question wasn’t limited to Jesus’ followers and His disciples. In an article that explored the various texts for the upcoming Lenten season, Elizabeth McGregor Simmons, now pastor emerita at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, in Davidson, North Carolina, writes about Jesus’ own doubts and fears, even as He works through them. In John’s gospel, a gospel where Jesus is more omniscient than He is in the other gospels, He owns up to having a troubled soul. And yet, He goes forward to the hour of His own death. Stepping towards the cross, Jesus adds a gracious word for all who doubt, for all who are afraid, for all who find it difficult to believe: “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all peoples to myself.”
Simmons’ article was written on the heels of the 2008 recession. It was a troubled time, a time littered with doubts and fears, much like what we are living through today with this global pandemic. She then went on to share a tragic story that happened not long after a colleague, Joanna Adams, began a new ministry. A long-time member and elder of the church, sixty-five years old, first killed his thirty-one year old son and then turned the gun on himself. The son had been diagnosed eight years earlier with schizophrenia, had ceased taking his medication, and had become more and more violent. The father had become deeply concerned that his son would hurt someone else.
At the Memorial service for both the father and the son, Adams quoted from theologian Karl Barth who once said that “people come to church on the Sabbath with only one question in their minds: Is it true?…” She then added: “When we come to church on a Monday afternoon for a memorial service for two people who died untimely deaths, the question is even more compelling. Is it true? Can God be trusted on a day like today?”
Lifting up all the painful questions which such tragedy births, Adams then concluded her message with these words: “We are not dealing today with a God who comes around only when things are rosy and the birds are singing. There is a cross up there! The God we know in Jesus Christ knows about suffering. The God we know in Jesus Christ gets to the valley of death, gets to loss, to doubt, before we get there, so that He is ready to catch us when we stumble blindly in, so that He can guide us through the dark….It is true that God can be trusted.”
It may be Friday….but Sunday’s coming! Christ is drawing all to Himself. Thanks be to God!
See you Sunday on-line,
“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for the day.” For most of us, we are not very adept at change. Over time, we have settled into our set ways and we like things the way we like them. No surprises! Maybe life is a bit boring, but boring is not all bad, is it? Maybe there are times we wish we could spice it up a bit, but I question if anyone would want to go the route we have been going over this past week or so.
A global pandemic has changed lives forever as over 15,000 people, young and old, have lost their lives thus far and the number rising every day. Entire countries have shut down in an attempt to “flatten the curve” and reduce the chances of spreading. We have learned new words such as “social distancing” and are left wondering when we can let down our guard and life return to a new normal. This pandemic has forced the Church to be Church differently. Honestly, the Church is no better at adapting to change than we are individually.
I want to know who put this pandemic on the calendar for this time of year. It is the season of Lent. This is the season where we move from the season of Emmanuel (God-with-us) to that season where we grasp just how much God is with us. We were only half-way through our “Soup & Substance” series and The Passion Play study. We had plans for New Member Sunday and new members stepping forward. We also had a Baked Potato luncheon scheduled at the end of the month. “The best laid plans of mice and men…”
But there is HOPE! If the season of Lent, whether this year or previous years, has taught us anything is that even though this journey includes suffering and addressing those things within ourselves that we tend to ignore or repress, from death there comes resurrection! For us, as Christians, this is not some false hope to placate us, but it is the very rock upon which we stand.
I have heard a number of my colleagues express that we were made for such a time as this. As I read their words, I cannot help but think to myself, “But we weren’t really planning on being tested.” But here we are and we will get through this, thanks to the help of one another and by the gracious hand of the Almighty God who has promised to be with us every step of the journey, leading us!
See you Sunday on-line,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Drawing from the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” Episcopal priest Michael Marsh began his Ash Wednesday’s sermon with Oliver’s question, believing it to be the perfect question we need to answer as we navigate through Lent. Marsh remarks that “sometimes it feels like Lent gets overly focused on our past, the things we’ve done and left undone, the life we have already lived. But what if Lent is really about the life yet to be lived? What if he gave as much or more attention to where we are going as we do to where we have been or come from?”
Not having grown up observing the season of Lent, I must confess that the years of observance since then have centered mostly on the past rather than the future. It just seems to fit the season, if you know what I mean. But I don’t want to dismiss Marsh’s venture into addressing Oliver’s question. He goes on to say that “I’ve begun to think that maybe our greatest sins are ones in which we tame and impoverish our own lives and the lives of others…we let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regrets, disappointments, or wounds tame our life. Every time we try to control life, guarantee outcomes, or live within the boundaries of what is safe and predictable we tame our life. And when our lives are tamed, regardless of how that happens, we live less than who we truly are and want to be. Something is broken. Something is lost.”
I doubt Marsh was listening to the rock band Steppenwolf and their song, “Born to Be Wild” in the background as he was writing his sermon, but he could have. In talking about living a wild life, he is not talking about doing “crazy stuff, or being disobedient, or living an unruly life. I am talking about being open, unbounded, and free – not so much to do whatever you want but to receive whatever comes to you, to stay open to what you can neither control nor foresee. I am talking about not letting the past define or domesticate you, and not letting the present moment close in on, capture, and cage you.”
I could easily point to others I know who have adopted this posture of taming their lives. In some or in many ways, we all have held back for whatever reason. But if we were to use these 40 days of the season of Lent to choose a wild life over a broke life, what would we need to do or reclaim such a life? A life – wild with love, wild with compassion, wild with mercy, wild with forgiveness, wild with kindness…you get the idea.
But not only a wild life, a precious life as well. Life is short and uncertain, with no guarantees outside of no one is getting out of here alive. But that doesn’t make life meaningless! Instead of negating the value and beauty of life, such reality only intensifies them, making life even more precious. Marsh begins to wrap up his Ash Wednesday sermon with these words: “The preciousness of life means that we are of infinite value. Do you see and believe that about yourself? Or are you devaluing yourself or another? We are the treasure chests that hold God’s heart. So maybe this Lent you divest yourself of everything that diminishes your preciousness. How would your life be different if your lived from a place of preciousness? If you saw others as precious?”
See you Sunday,
From the Executive Director of Week of Compassion, Rev. Vy T. Nguyen:
There is something sacred about investing in the future. Working toward a better future is an act of faith in and of itself. Whether we invest time, energy, or resources, we give a part of ourselves to a future time that we can’t yet see, trusting that God will bring about good things in a new and unknown season. Even more sacred is an investment in the future of our children . Across time and space, and across the many cultures and places that I am privileged to visit in my work with Week of Compassion, people share this in common. Everywhere I go, families and communities are thinking about what is best for their children and what investments of time, talent, and treasure right now will build the best world for them tomorrow.
Sometimes it is hard for families to dream of a hopeful future. In many of the places where we serve, families have been hurt, separated, or displaced. Their community or government might not have the infrastructure or resources to help them recover, or they might not have the possibility of education for their children. They might not have access to safe water, adequate food, or medical care. With so many challenges, it takes everything just to survive the day, much less dream of a future.
So we dream about the future – for our own children, and for theirs. We dream of a future where all are empowered to thrive; where every child has what they need to grow and reach their potential. We dream of a world where everyone can be safe and healthy, sharing the gifts God has given them. More than twenty years ago, a group of young men were living in a refugee camp in southern Mexico. Their families were preparing to return to their home village in Guatemala, and these buys had the opportunity to go to school in Guatemala City. With support from WOC, they completed high school, and then university.
From the beginning, these young men made a commitment to give back, using their education not only to make a living but also to improve conditions for others. Now, more than twenty years later, some work as human right attorneys; some provide agronomy services; and some are teachers. They serve in leadership roles in their village of Santa Maria Tzeja, where one of them is even in local government. Recently, a group from Central Christian Church in Indianapolis traveled to Guatemala for a visit. Pastor Linda McCrae says, “I wish all Disciples could see the impact that these scholarships have made. One of the men, Emiliano, is the oldest of five children. When he finished his studies and began to work, he paid for the education of the next oldest brother. They continued that practice until all five had completed college. In addition to supporting their siblings, this group of former students has contributed about $5000 to educate eight other young people in the community who are not related to them.”
Through your support to Week of Compassion, 50 members of this community are now going to college – more than two decades later. As one of the men told the recent visiting Disciples: “We are the fruit of the sacrifices that you have made.” We plant, and we water. But God gives the growth…Giving to this ministry and planting seeds of a blessed future is a sacred act; and the land that we water together is holy ground. Thank you for participating in this year’s special offering. Your partnership, throughout the year, makes a big difference throughout the world. On behalf of Week of Compassion’s board and staff, thank you for your compassion and care for the least of these. With much gratitude, Vy.
See you Sunday,