Simple…warm…inviting…joy…love…gratitude

February 2018

Column for February, 2018

A few weeks ago, I received a note from someone I knew when he was a teenager growing up in another state.  He said that, although he grew up going to church, he has had a “rather strained history” with Christian faith and the church, and he doesn’t feel comfortable in churches.  However, he said, someone close to him recently asked him a particular question that got him thinking:  was there ever a church in which he did feel comfortable?  The memories of his childhood church flooded back.  He said that it was a “simple, warm, and inviting space” where he encountered people who “embody a Christianity based on joy, love, and gratitude.”

 

That got me thinking.  It got me thinking about how we live together here at White Bluff Presbyterian; although none of us gets it perfect all the time, generally I think we all try our best to embody our Christian faith by showing joy, love, and gratitude, especially when we are here at the church.  It got me thinking about the many people, young and old, who have come through here and moved on, but who, I pray, have experienced this as a simple, warm, and inviting place.  It got me thinking about the fact that many people, especially young people, do not trust the church, and what we can do about that in our little corner of God’s emerging kingdom.

 

I shared the story with the Session and Deacons at the joint meeting of the two boards in January.  A couple of them wanted to make sure that we all agree that we generally do pretty well at showing joy, love, and gratitude, and at making this a simple, warm, and inviting space.  I do, and so did the folks at the meeting.  I assured them that I was not putting my friend’s reminiscence out there as a critique, but more as a vision.  Yes, we do those things, but how can we aspire to do better?  How can we keep these words in front of us all the time, especially when we are here at the church, as a focus for everything we do, everything we say, and everything we are as White Bluff Presbyterian Church?  How can we make sure that every person who comes through this place see the things that my friend saw in the church where he grew up?

 

Simple…warm…inviting…joy…love…gratitude:  one of the Elders suggested maybe we should paint those words on the wall somewhere.  I doubt we will do that (although if someone is especially good with stencils…), but I do wonder how those words could focus our life together.  What would help you let those words guide you, especially when you are here at the church?  What words would you add to my friend’s words to describe what we do well here and to remind us of what we aspire to be as followers of Jesus?  How can we help others to know that, whatever strains they feel in their relationship to Christian faith and the church, we want to make a space here for them, and we will do our best to make their experience here look like that?

 

I pray we can all find ways to keep this vision before us!  Thanks be to God for this community of faith!


Settling In

January 2018

Column for January, 2018

If you haven’t seen us in the past six months or so, you might not know that our family went on a vacation to South Africa in November.  If you have seen us, you have undoubtedly heard about our excitement; it was a little hard for all three of us to contain it!

 

The trip was incredible.  We got to experience the variety of landscapes throughout the country of South Africa:  the big cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, the highways of the southern coast on the Indian Ocean, the arid farms and vineyards of the Klein Karoo, the mountains and canyons along the Sabie River, and the bushveld near Kruger National Park.  We toured interesting neighborhoods, towns, and farms; we learned about the complicated history of the nation; we tasted different foods, wines, and beers; we took in the natural beauty; we saw all kinds of exotic animals in the wild; and we even learned to drive our rental cars on the left-hand side of the road!  We came home with new friends, new knowledge and perspective, plenty of souvenirs, and over 1,600 photographs.  If you want to see any of those photographs, we would be happy to show them to you and tell you more about what we did and what we learned!

 

We were gone a total of 16 days, which included the days it took to fly halfway around the world and back again.  As we returned, we talked about whether we really felt ready to come home.  All three of us loved our adventures, and if we had a chance to stay in South Africa even longer, we all agreed that we would have done it.  But I was also feeling ready to go home.  I was glad to have a break from all of the excitement.  I needed to get caught up on my rest, to pick up my habits of regular exercise and better eating, and to check in with our friends and our church and others who are important to us.  I missed our dog.  And there was all that laundry that wasn’t going to magically wash itself, either. I wanted to settle back into my routine, at least for a little while, before I am ready for more adventures again.

 

That is similar to the feeling I often get at this time of year.  The awe of Advent and the excitement of Christmas is wonderful.  I am always glad to put up special decorations, to exchange gifts, and to see family and friends we do not connect with often enough.  It is nice for Isaac to have a break from school so we can all sleep in a little bit.  I especially like worship during those times, with the dramatic words of the prophets and angels, the festive decorations, the special music, and the extra reminders that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

 

But in their wisdom, the church fathers and mothers who established the Christian calendar did not jump straight from Advent and Christmas into the next special seasons of Lent and Easter.  There is a gap in the special church seasons for a few weeks in January and February.  It is a period called “Ordinary Time,” and it usually feels like just what I need.  It is a time to get back into a routine and have a break from all of the excitement.  It is a time to pay attention to the ordinary elements of life:  the day-in-and-day-out rhythms of working and resting.  It is a time to connect with people, creatures, and disciplines which we just don’t have time for during the hustle and bustle of the holy seasons.  And it is a time to engage in regular habits of worship, scripture reading, prayer, service to others, and other ways we connect with Christ and with our fellow believers.

 

This month, we have a number of ways we will settle back into our routines.  Our new Bible Study will start January 11 and continue every Thursday through Ordinary Time and Lent.  Our Tutoring Program will host its annual Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser to continue supporting our community’s children with their school work and their lives.  Our new Elders and Deacons will engage in training and will be ordained and installed to serve for a term to do the ongoing work of discerning what God wants us to do and how God is equipping us to minister in Christ’s name in this time and place.  The groups who use our buildings will get geared up again to help refugees, to help families at risk of homelessness, to educate children, and to gather around common interests and hobbies.  There is plenty going on, but it is the work of ordinary time:  the routines, the relationships, and the disciplines which carry us through our lives.

 

I am grateful for our family’s chance to travel.  I appreciated all of the wondrous miracles and special proclamations we experienced together in Advent and Christmas.  And I am grateful, too, to settle back in to Ordinary Time.  Thanks be to God for all the adventures and for the ordinary times, too!


Early Sunset

January 2018

Column for December, 2017

In early November, we set our clocks back one hour.  Before that, I could easily plan to go for a nice walk with my dog, Otis, bringing Isaac and Mary along when they were available, after supper.  After the time change, it was getting past the time when Otis wanted to be outside.  He’s older now and a little more opinionated, and perhaps a little more afraid of what lurks in the shadows, so he would really rather not go out after dusk.  That means we have to get our walk in early, and it makes the whole evening feel a little bit more rushed.

 

In the season of Advent, which starts the first Sunday in December, we begin a time when we talk a lot about shadows and light.  Many cultures and religious traditions have some sort of commemoration this time of year that celebrates the light that dispels the long nights.  That is because here in the Northern Hemisphere, all of us have longer hours between dusk and dawn, and we need something – anything – to remind us that we do not always dwell in the darkness.

 

For us, we will celebrate the coming of the Light of the World at Christmas.  We will repeat those words of miracle and hope which John used to open his story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection:  “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Before that Holy Night, though, we have the season of Advent, when we seek hope like that.  We remember that we are dwelling now in the shadows of midnight, and we are waiting, some of us desperately, for a new day to dawn and a new creation to be realized, with the new heaven and a new earth God has promised for us after everything we know now is destroyed.

 

As we begin Advent this year, I was brought to some words from Howard Thurman, a 20th-century preacher, theologian, mystic, activist, and spiritual father for the Civil Rights Movement.  We printed a series of Howard Thurman’s reflections during Advent a few years ago.  The one that came to mind for me at this time is called, “Lord, Lord, Open Unto Me.”

 

Open unto me – light for my darkness.

Open unto me – courage for my fear.

Open unto me –hope for my despair.

Open unto me – peace for my turmoil.

Open unto me – joy for my sorrow.

Open unto me – strength for my weakness.

Open unto me – wisdom for my confusion.

Open unto me – forgiveness for my sins.

Open unto me – tenderness for my toughness.

Open unto me – love for my hates.

Open unto me – Thy Self for my self.

Lord, Lord, open unto me!

 

And I think that makes a good prayer for our Advent this year.  As we continue to bear our griefs, face our challenges, and celebrate everything God is doing here, I wonder if all of us should put these words on our refrigerators or our bathroom mirrors or by our bedsides or wherever we can force ourselves to pray them every day.  As we begin the season of reminding ourselves to be ready for God to re-make the world and for Christ to come again, I wonder if we can pray together for God to open to White Bluff Presbyterian Church the gifts of light, courage, hope, peace, joy, and all the rest.

 

Amen.


Commitment

January 2018

Column for November, 2017

If you have not spent any time at the church on a weekday recently, you might be amazed at what goes on. Almost every day, we have people coming and going in our church. They come here to get help with rent and utilities, as well as some coaching with a social worker, classes, and other help to bring stability to their families.  They come here to learn, from our little babies and toddlers in PMO to the third through fifth graders in our Tutoring Program to other students who are part of programs that meet here. They come here as refugees learning to negotiate their way through the systems of education and support in their new homes.  They come here to dance, to meet, to strategize, and to dream.

 

One way people talk about whether a church is “successful” or not is by asking the question, “If your church disappeared tomorrow, would anyone miss it?”  And the clear answer here is yes!  Yes, not only would our members miss this place as a home for faith, fellowship, support, learning, and growing together, but many, many people in our community would miss this church. God is changing lives here and changing our community here by using all of these resources to serve.

 

It is a privilege to be a part of it.  But I also do not take for granted everything that goes into making all of this possible.  We are able to welcome so many people here because the people who were here before us had the vision to establish the “Community Meeting House” here.  Through the years, people have contributed energy, time, sweat, prayers, and money to build these buildings, establish programs, share the faith of Jesus Christ with each other, and maintain these grounds.  And year after year, many of us spend many hours here doing all of the work that keeps this place open as a place where Christ can be found in tangible ways.

 

And we all give money, too.  The Session has been looking closely at our income and expenses for this year, and we have also started looking ahead to next year.  You will see a report of the year to date income and expenses later in this newsletter.  For next year, we are looking forward to new possibilities to be even more faithful in praising God and serving our neighbors. We hope that you will take some time to plan ahead, too, considering what God has given you and what God is calling you to give to the work of the church.

 

For those of you who are a regular part of our congregation who receive this newsletter, this year, instead of doing a separate mailing, we are enclosing in this newsletter a sheet for you to tell us what you think you might be able to give to the church in 2018.  If you can give more than you are giving now, we would be grateful; if not, we understand.  Either way, please fill out this form and bring it with you to worship on Sunday, November 19.  That day, we will be celebrating the season of Thanksgiving during worship, when we remember all of God’s good gifts for us. If you cannot be in worship that day, please return the pledge sheet to the church office before then; you can put it in the offering plate on Sunday or mail it to the address above. The pledge sheets will be given to our bookkeeper, who will tally them together and give us a total commitment; she will be the only one to see your personal pledge.

 

And some of you who receive this newsletter are former members, visitors, family members, or guests.  If you would like to honor your attachment to this congregation and support the wonderful things we have going on here, we certainly would be grateful!  There are a couple of ways you can contribute.  You can mail a check to us at the address above.  Or, you can give online using a credit card.  Simply click on the “Donate” button on the very bottom of this page.  You can then follow the prompts to give through PayPal.

 

It is such an honor for me to be part of this great community of people dedicated to doing deep, important work to share the faith of Christ through our worship, learning, and service together!


Semper Reformanda

October 2017

Column for October, 2017

This month is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to challenge church leaders about the practices of the church.  All month, we will have bulletin inserts and posts on our website telling the stories of Martin Luther, his challenge to the corruption of the church in that time, and his courage and conviction to follow only the word of God as witnessed in Scripture, even at the risk of his life. On Sunday, October 29, we will have a special worship service remembering and celebrating the beginning of the Reformation.

 

But why should we care?  A lot of faithful followers of Jesus have stood up for their convictions and challenged corruption over time.  Why do we especially remember Martin Luther?

 

I want us to remember Luther’s acts of faithfulness because what he said and did speaks to our time.  Many denominations, including our own Presbyterian Church (USA), require clergy to study church history as a part of the academic preparations for professional ministry.  The clergy then teach the whole church about the conflicts of theological understandings and practices in the past, how those conflicts were resolved, and how we can avoid going down the same paths in the present and future of the church.  But there are many people and many churches who dismiss the value of learning our history as boring, irrelevant, and a waste of clergy’s time.  And from what I see, the old proverb plays itself out time and time again:  those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

 

Three truths of faith Luther and his followers asserted based on his study of the witness of Scripture which we need to be reminded of today come to mind:

  • God’s grace alone saves us. Luther was anguished by a question:  How do I know I have done enough good to merit God’s love?  The answer he found in scripture which finally relieved his anxiety was simple:  we cannot be saved by anything we do but only by what God does.  These days, I hear a lot of people saying they are loved by God because of their works.  Some are physical works, such as following a particular moral code or work ethic.  Others are intellectual works, such as simply “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”  Those are not necessarily bad things to do, but they do not win us God’s love or save us from anything we need to be saved from.  God alone saves us, entirely on God’s initiative, because God’s love is greater than anything we can do.
  • All believers are priests. Every one of us is called to have one foot in the realm of the holy and one foot in the realm of the everyday.  This truth helped the people of Luther’s congregation to understand that their work was every bit as holy as that of the priests.  It also helped those who have followed Luther to understand that they share in the responsibility of running the church and promoting the mission of Christ through the church.  Many people today seek teaching and preaching from the church which is “relevant” but appears as little more than self-centered advice.  Some people look for pastors who will drive the vision and the mission of the church so that all the members have to do is show up to programs and “be fed.”  For Luther, the work of the church is never self-centered.  The teaching of the church is always centered on Jesus Christ alone as witnessed through Scripture.  All believers are called and equipped to discern how to live faithful to Jesus Christ in their jobs, family life, and civic engagement.  All believers are also called and equipped to provide leadership in serving Christ together with their neighbors through the church.
  • The church is always being reformed. Luther did not seek to start a new church, but thought that, with his reasoned reflection on Scripture, the church would correct its errors and reform itself.  While that did not happen in Luther’s time, his daring challenges reminds us that we are always called to humbly open ourselves to being reformed by the Word of God.  That means we do not simply accept what we have always been taught or what others have told us to believe, but as the world changes, we constantly examine scripture for truth which speaks to new circumstances.  Some people want the church to be a place which shelters them from change and bolsters their long-held prejudices and traditions.  To be faithful to God’s Word, the reformers and their followers have taught that we are ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is, “a church reformed and always being reformed” according to the Word of God.  We do not preserve the past simply for the sake of preserving the past, and we do not change simply for the sake of change.  Instead, Luther and his followers taught us with their courageous acts that we always must be open to change in order to preserve and restore what is most authentic about our faith and life as the followers of Jesus Christ.

I look forward to hearing what you think as you encounter the stories and the ideas which drove the Reformation beginning 500 years ago this month.  I look forward to worshipping with you in our special service on October 29.  And I pray that we may all open ourselves in humility to God’s grace, to God’s calling, and to always being reformed according to God’s Word.