Saturday, May 5, 2018

18 Annual Meeting Sermon

Michael Denton

PNCUCC Annual Meeting Sermon

April 29th, 2018

I'd first like to show my respect and acknowledge the Host Nations of this land, their elders past and present, on which this gathering takes place.

Pray

Micah 6:8

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 is no stranger to us. There are few verses that seem as clear and encompass so much of what calls many of us to be people of faith. It's the favorite verse of many and is one of those “go to” verses for those of us involved in advocacy or organizing work. Within our own conference - after Courtney listened and reflected back what she heard from of many of you - the ideas in this verse became such a persistent theme in conversations about vitality that the conference board has adopted deepening relationships, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God as our conference intentions for the last two years.

It has been a helpful as well as challenging tool in both broadening and narrowing our work together. The advantage of focus is that it gives you clarity of vision in the way time, finances and energy are used. The challenge, of course, has been recognizing how much does not fall within this area of focus and figuring out ways to let some of those other things go. The last few years have been challenging ones.

Personally, this verse has been an important one to me for a long time.  I’ve used it as a part of almost every benediction I’ve given for almost 20 years. When asked my own favorite verse, this is probably the one I’d quote.

But I have to be honest with you. Although I could recite to you the whole verse from several different translations, the most important translation - and most faulty - is probably the one I made in my head that went something like this: “Do justice.. and that other stuff.” I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. I chose to become part of the UCC specifically because of our commitment to and leadership in the realms of justice work. Recently, on the denominational level, what used to be two separate offices - Local Church Ministries and Justice and Witness Ministries - were merged because for so many of our many of our churches these areas are intertwined and inseparable.

Yesterday, in my report, I mentioned that last winter, I found myself struggling in my own ministry and my sense of purpose in life. I have been effected by the general state of what frequently seems to be a world in decay; the weight of church leadership in a time of loss and relinquishment; self-doubt of my own sense of worth; and the reality of turning 50. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions most years but, this year, I needed to do something differently. Somewhere along the way, I began to wonder: if building relationship and living into the elements of Micah 6:8 could point towards vitality in the conference, could re-committing and refocusing on these same things help me discover vitality in my life and ministry, too? So, I let go to these elements becoming a frame for my own life and work. Its made a difference. I started studying this text in more depth than I had previously and the richness in this text has been life changing.

Micah was a country boy living in a time of invasion by the Assyrians and displacement of the Jewish people. He spoke strongly against these and called for a just peace to be established. He was also - maybe primarily - deeply upset with what he saw festering in the growing centrality of larger, non-agricultural communities. He saw these hypocritical religious and economic centers as the places that used people for their own means as opposed to being in a more equitable, mutual relationship. Income inequality was emerging as an increasingly significant problem. He saw these as places where the poor within the cities were made poorer and from where policies that stole from the poor were blessed by those in power. He frequently spoke for the destruction of the city and its return to farmland.

This wasn’t opposition for opposition’s sake. The ideas and theology he was speaking for were ran deep than and Micah 6:8 is a small text with a large window into what was important to him.

This is a corporate call to a new offering. Just before this text, he rejects the idea that we need riches to get closer to God and live in to God’s will. Using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible he says that God “has told us what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?”

When I was learning about this text, I came across a few references to one of the most important words in this text. As a good UCC person, I generally bristle a bit at the finger shaking sense of the word “require.” However, I have to admit that I’ve liked the cover it provides for doing justice work. I’ve used it as cover for the closest I’ve gotten to fire and brimstone-ish sermon a few times. I’ve used it as cover when folks have questioned my use of time, energy or resources to this purpose with almost a shrug of my shoulders and the sense of “What can I do? Its required?”

But, over the last couple of months I’ve started to understand how wrong I got this. I had the shallowest understanding of this word possible. I read the most concise, deeper explanation of the word “require” in an United Methodist Reporter interview of a The Rev. James C. Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, N.C. who wrote the book, “What Does the Lord Require?.” In that interview, he said:

“The subtle nuances of the very strong (Hebrew) verb darash are just fascinating. ‘Require’ misses the heart of it, I think, for we resort to notions of rules or grading, as in ‘the teacher requires you turn in a three-page paper by Friday.’ The verb darash has undertones of affection, or the healthiest sort of dependency, as in ‘the child requires his mother’s love,’ or ‘the flower requires rain and sunshine.’ There is a mood of seeking in darash; lovers seek each other out, and a shepherd seeks his lost sheep—and in the Old Testament, both situations use darash. So when the Lord “requires” justice, kindness and mercy, it isn’t that the Lord “insists on” or “demands” these things. God seeks them, yearns for them, and frankly needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.”

So, in its essence as I understand it, God is not calling us in to simply our doing with this texts but into our being. We’re not being called to these requirements as part of some cosmic to do list. We’re being reminded of neglected ingredients for living. We’re not being disciplined by God. This is God seeking a relationship with us through our interactions with each other. This changes the face of the entire rest of the text as not just a call for “right acts” but “right relationships.”

In this light, “to do justice” is an invitation to those right relationships. It is a deeply personal call connected to deep relationships. Yesterday, one of our presenters - Joe Chrastil (of IAF NW) - spoke to the idea that within the organizing model that seeks to define self-interest is the intent to discover mutual interest. Chrastil, Bishop Dwayne Royster (PICO) and our own Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear  all helped make clear the dangers within the relational position of power over; the advocacy danger of power for; and the call of establishing power with each other. When - in relationship to this nuanced understanding of “requires” - we hear the invitation to “do justice,” it is about a mutually liberative work that makes our relationships right. It is not the blandness of the lowest common denominator but the joy and hope that comes from arms and purposes interlinked.

I’d never had a really deep understanding of “love kindness” before. I really took it at face value. Something more like “you should think that kindness is really, really great.” Nope. First of all, this is another place the understanding of the Hebrew helps a bit. The word used here is chesed and it describes the acts of “loving-kindness” that someone might do. Over the weekend, you may have heard me refer to this part of the text not simply as “love kindness” but to “doing acts of loving kindness.” I think it helps better explain the intent of the scripture. This idea is also deeply wrapped up in the idea of mutuality and relationship. There is a website called Torah.com that I’ve found to be a good launching point for some Hebrew study and an article by Prof. Elinoar Bareket reflects a good part of what I’ve read in other writings about this phrase. Forgive another quote, here:

“As already noted by the American archaeologist and rabbi, Nelson Glueck, chesed in the Bible generally refers to good deeds performed where mutual relations exist, i.e., the substance of a covenant between two partners. Similarly, Walther Eichrodt defines chesed in the Bible as ‘the brotherly comradeship and loyalty which one party to a covenant must render to another.”It is, therefore, marked by mutuality, friendship, fraternity, loyalty, and love.”

We help each other to help correct a what is hoped-to-be temporary situation in which our sibling is in need of help; knowing that this both helps the health of the community we are part of overall as well as reflects the reality that we are also the person that needs to be helped. It is not doing an act of loving kindness based simply on donating the extra time or resources we might have but an intent to correct the fact that anyone has more than what they need and anyone else has less than they need. Again, this is that mutuality that is deeply intertwined with the deeper understanding of “requires” and “to do justice.”

I’m still studying the “walking humbly with God” part but I will share two things I’ve been sitting with. In the past, I’d imagined this walking as a quiet, prayerful conversation with God or as sitting with God as almost a holy spiritual director. I still do but another image has come to mind, too. You may have noticed that we have a son who is super fast and more adept and weaving and spinning than any player in the NFL. The most effective frame of mind I’ve found to have when trying to keep up is humility because, let’s be honest, I can’t keep up but he really invites me to. If, as pop theology has suggested, a lifetime to us is like a second for God can you imagine God walking? I know this might seem trite or simplistic in some ways but the invitation to relationship means not only that God meets us where we are but that we are also invited to try and keep up with God.

Secondly, this yearning of God as expressed through our relationships with each other is, in and of itself, humbling. There have been days when I’ve had to confess that I have become a person I did not want to become; where I have fallen into patterns that are so focused on my own pain that I have not seen the pain of others or - just as dangerous - have only seen the pain of other and minimized sharing my own. Neither is right, helpful, fair or just. Both are a denial of mutuality. Yes, there are different roles we are asked by our communities to fulfill for the sake of our communities and - for the sake of our communities - we are freed to live in to those roles by boundaries. And, those roles don’t mean that within our relationships with each other we aren’t called to find ways to balance out the rights and responsibilities that are entrusted to people in those roles.

Micah 6:8 is, in and of itself, not a call to personal piety but an invitation to deepen relationships of mutuality with one another. This is revolutionary in a time when loneliness is increasingly used as a weapon for manipulation and control. Loneliness and isolation have become constructed and enforced by the powers and principalities to build dependency on them and get in the way of us being in relationship with each other. At the root of oppression is enforced loneliness and isolation. At the root of justice work is refusing to be isolated or to comply with the systems that isolate others. Therefore, in this time and place one of the most important calls to the church is to fight isolation and loneliness. Potlucks are revolutionary acts. We are called to insist that we are not the property of any corporation, institution or government but the we belong to God and each other.

In its essence, this is becoming the underlying theology of our conference. Vitality is a healthy, liberative mutuality. When we’re working at our best, it is at the heart of every church, conference committee, staff intent, offering and expression. When some of you ask the question, “Why can’t church be more like camp?,” I’m convinced that some of this sort of spirit is some of what we’re seeking. When we take an offering today for our Communities of Practice and Casa Hogar, it is with the understanding that this offering is a part of our work of mutuality and creativity that diminishes loneliness and isolation. When we are entering this work, we are answering God’s invitation with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

My Siblings in Christ, what does God invite us to but to deepen our relationships through doing justice, doing acts of loving kindness and walking humbly with God? Would you like to be part of a Church as expressed through all our settings that makes its purpose to accept this invitation?

Amen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

PNCUCC Annual Report (April 28th, 2018)

Michael Denton
Verbal Report
PNCUCC Annual Meeting
April 28th, 2018

I'd first like to show my respect and acknowledge the Host Nations of this land, their elders past and present, on which this gathering takes place.

(Prayer)

It’s no surprise to any of you that, for better and for worse, I have frequently been immersed in church and religion based statistics. Let me save you a lot of trouble by summing up what I’ve seen hundreds of times in many different ways: they don’t look good.

And yet…

Hear something else, too. The Spirit whispers in my ear sometimes. It’s usually somewhere on the continuum from gentle words of comfort to insistent words of  encouragement. The 2nd half of this winter, I was down. I was all wrapped up in that place of depressed panic other people call anxiety when the Spirit spoke. Maybe speaking isn’t exactly the right description because she grabbed my shoulders like the nun who who was my 5th grade teacher, made me look her in the eye and, with compassion and exasperation said, “Mike, I don’t care about those numbers. Don’t let those facts get in the way of the Truth.”

My Siblings in Christ, we have to get used to the Truth that - collectively - we in the Pacific Northwest Conference have to deal with something we haven’t had to deal with for awhile. Today, we have to accept that in spite of all the facts that may suggest it’s impossible, the Truth is that something - something contrary to all that should be happening - is happening. Our vision is becoming clear. We are coming alive. We have momentum. Something new is breaking forth.

Some of you have felt it, too, and have told me about it. In more and more places, the period of mourning our not being the church we once were is coming to end and the celebrations of the church we’re becoming are just starting. Something new is breaking forth. In more and more places, there’s the recognition of that Truth “that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” Something new is breaking forth. In more and more places there’s that growing recognition of the Truth that all God requires of us is do justice, do acts of loving-kindness, and walk humbly with God and that’s sufficient. Something new is breaking forth. In more and more places, there is the recognition of the Truth that perfection is a false god and that the God of Truth sees what we perceive as our flaws as raw materials for the building of God’s kin-dom. Something new is breaking forth.

Something new is breaking forth when I hear from a church taking a risk to provide a sanctuary for those Children of God the head of our government demonizes; when I visit a church that only used to have a sanctuary that echoed with pipe organ music have gospel music echo there now, too; when a church supports its members who, through civil disobedience, resist the idea that incarceration is ever the best option for children and young adults; when I learn of a small town church that is figuring out how to provide a home for the members of two other churches whose denominations determined needed to be closed; when I get the honor of participating in a combination church anniversary celebration and pastor’s installation that makes it clear that the kin-dom of God is not something we wait for; when I read about a pastor advocating for a mobile health clinic in the “health care desert” their church is right in the middle of; and there is so much more. When I see, hear and learn all these things, it is so clear that something new is breaking forth. And, beloveds, all these stories I just mentioned? All these are stories from just the last. Two. Weeks.

Last Fall, your conference board recommitted to the call to focus on vitality as a conference imperative. A little more than a year and a half ago, we called Courtney to this conference as our Minister for Church Vitality to help uncover what vitality is here and found this new call is best expressed through old words: committing to deepening relationships, doing justice, doing acts of loving kindness and walking humbly with God. The danger of having any commitment like this is that it gets reduced to a good idea and a catchphrase; that it becomes so broad a commitment that it becomes meaningless. But that’s not what I’m seeing. Our first year of living into this was getting our minds around it but this year has been devoted to building a strategy around it.

As a staff, we’ve wrestled with this calling and are still wrestling with it. This wrestling has made it stronger. Mark Boyd and Wade Zick have a very good working relationship and this has made both of our camps stronger. In the past it was appropriate for both camps to have mirrored programming but -  as our two good stewards have been in conversation with each other - it’s made more sense to begin to differentiate the work of these settings. N-Sid-Sen is expanding our traditional camping model while, at the same time, increasing the sense of partnership with all those UCC and non-UCC groups that use the facility. As the Port Orchard area grows and more and more development creeps closer to the boundaries of Pilgrim Firs, Wade has done an excellent job asking questions about how the changes to the setting might necessitate a change in function. As more people live there, might there be more opportunities for us to welcome people to use our setting for conferences? What might be our role as an oasis in the middle of a developed area? At both camps, we’ve frequently been somewhat of a silent partner with our non-UCC partners who use the facilities but what we’ve started to find is that as we’re more open about the kind of our church we are, our partners are feeling more welcome, not less. We owe both of Wade and Mark our thanks.

At both sites, UCC usage of the camps is down as churches are struggling with their own transitions. As a staff, we’re going to figure out ways to start to turn that around this year so that we can help provide settings and programming that will help local churches deepen their relationships with each other; build programming that will help churches move through the transitional moment that the whole church is living through; and figure out more ways that we can can model and promote the call to do justice, do acts of loving kindness and to walk humbly with God.

The idea of a position called a Minister for Church Vitality emerged from several different streams of conversation but was articulated by Wendy Blight and our Stewardship Committee at a conference budget summit a couple years ago. We decided, then, that this role and work was so important that we would use conference reserve monies to fund it. The momentum we have as a conference today is, in large part, because of the commitment to the vision Courtney has uncovered among us. We owe Courtney our thanks.

Arlene has deep relationships with you already. She continues to be that person I count on to help remember the history of this conference; help answer all those questions each of you may have; remind me about different voices that might otherwise be forgotten as well as historical commitments the conference is obligated to follow through on. We owe Arlene our thanks.

Michelle Doherty resigned her position last month as Accounts Manager in order to increase the time she spends with her family (Kara Newsome is in this interim role, now, and she’s doing a great job for us). I miss Michelle’s ability to ask hard questions along the way and having someone who knows us well enough to help us figure out the best ways our resources can serve our calling.

That said, we’re considering the ways we can best fulfill the functions of this position in a way that makes sense at this time and place in our conference’s life and calling. In particular, we’ve started conversations with another conference to see if there might be a way to fill some of our accounting and bookkeeping needs by working with their financial staff. I hope to be able to share more with you, soon.

Peter and Wendy have been a great as moderator and vice-moderator team. They both have great minds and great hearts that have both challenged us to do better as well as be in deeper relationship with each other. Most of all, they have helped us celebrate successes both large and small that have helped us have the energy we need for what comes next. They have both helped push me to be better at this work in more ways than they know. We owe both of them our thanks.

Still, in the midst of all these great things and great people, I confess to sometimes getting stuck with conference blinders on; where I wish we could do more.  At other times, I have conference envy when I look at other larger conferences and mourn that we can not or do not do as much as they do. But, I also have the advantage of being in rooms with those same and other conferences and hear them ask me how we pull off doing as much as we do with what we have.

How, they ask, are we the only conference in the UCC that owns and operates two camps that have been overall self-supporting and successful? In the last 20 years, close to 2/3rd of conference camps across the UCC have been sold or had their mission significantly reduced in scope. This is no small thing.

How, they ask, does a conference our size have Communities of Practice when other larger conferences have struggled with starting such programs? Our conference has a unique relationship with Rev. Tara Barber in her role ministering with churches and the ministers of our conference as a Specialized Minister for Support of Clergy and Congregations. She has a covenant that empowers her to help provide trainings for local churches in concepts related to basic congregational health as well as help form small communities where our authorized ministers have the opportunity to find the support and accountability that helps them live in to their calling. Tara has become a denominationally recognized resource for helping design these and other programming. I have been reminded again and again how her deep commitment to this work is rooted in a deep faith and a deep love for all of us.

How, other conference’s ask, does a conference our size have a program like the Justice Leadership Program? This program has one established part and one emerging part. The first is a residential program for young adults in which they live in community for a year while interning at a church and community organization; learning community organizing techniques; and reflecting on their faith and spiritual practices. The 2nd is a program for older adults that, although not residential, provides them with the same framework for learning and reflecting. This program came about because the pastors of a couple churches - Rich Gamble and Lauren Cannon of Keystone UCC and Greg Turk of All Pilgrim’s UCC - put together their resources, ideas and energy to see what might happen and, together with the conference, launched a program to try and change the world.  

And they are. They have steadily increased and expanded their organizational and congregational partners since this program launched. I am not overstating it when I say that those who have been involved in these programs are making a difference in the lives of thousands of people as they work to create a world that is more compassionate and just. There are many stories of many graduates I could tell but one of the graduates is in seminary at this moment; one is working with the Church Council of Greater Seattle advocating for fair immigration laws and practices; one is an organizer with the Faith Action Network; and - if you vote in the affirmative - one is about to become the Vice-Moderator of this conference. These examples really are just a taste of what alumni from this program have done.

I really could go on and on with some of the things folks look at our conference and go “How do you do that?” about. We have Amy Johnson as national staff teaching the denomination and the church international about faith based and fact based sex and sexuality education. We have Darrell Goodwin serving on the United Church of Christ Board and also working with the Pension Board to help clergy have clarity about their own finances. Meighan Pritchard recently moved out of our her position and the denomination’s Minister of Environmental Justice. We are the largest per-capita giver to OCWM in the entire denomination. We helped create the resource that accompanies the “Be The Church” materials for the UCC; a resource that helps local churches determine what areas they need to work on while reflecting on the “Be The Church” elements. Our staff are increasingly turned to as experts in their fields and being invited to participate in national initiatives and to be consultants with other conferences. We are faithful participants and leaders in our denomination and the world.

This is all being done because of your faithfulness and dedication in and through a conference that has the largest geography of any conference of any conference in the UCC. This is being done by a conference that is one of the most secular areas of the United States. This is being done by a conference with the reality that, out of 38 conferences in the UCC, ours is one of the smallest. Based on church membership, we rank 32nd in size.

The temptation is to look back on all that has been done and all we are doing, stick to how we compare to other conferences and simply be satisfied. But something new is breaking forth.

Many of you have given to your churches and the conference because of what has been needed. I can’t thank you enough for that. I also know that some of you waited to give because the timing hasn't seemed right for you to give of what you had. We owe our thanks to those who have given out of a commitment to help us be sustainable. You - many of you in this very room - have gotten us this far. Now, for those of you have been waiting for the right time to give or give more, I'm asking you to give, now, not just because of what we need to be sustainable but out of the reality of what is possible.

Our camps are great but they need some updating, maintenance and improvement in order to serve an expanding and changing mission in expanding and changing times. Our work regarding church vitality counts on the reserves that were built in this conference past. We’re going to need your help to make sure this work continues into the future. The Communities of Practice are making a difference in the lives of pastors and in the lives of the churches they serve but not every pastor or pastor’s church has the means to support the $250 per year needed to sustain this program. We need your help in helping provide scholarships for pastors that might not be able to participate otherwise.

We need your help, so I’d ask you to do 2 important things: 1st, go back to your local church and encourage increased giving to your congregation. As you know, local churches are one of the most important places where love of God and God’s people is expressed and shared. You represent all of us as you do work together. It is also the most important place that where we begin to discern the difference between the calling lived our in autonomy and the callings that need to be lived out in covenant together.

The 2nd most important thing I’d ask you to do it to become a sustaining member of the conference. You can do this one of two ways. On either your computer or your phone, go to www.pncucc.org , click on the donate button and become a monthly, sustaining giver of the conference. On your chairs, are envelopes where you can do the same.

Siblings in Christ, something new is breaking forth because of what you have already done. We have clarity of vision. We have momentum. Just imagine all that we are yet to do. God is doing something important with us. Something new is breaking forth. Amen.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Eagle Harbor Sermon (based on Mark 1:4-11)

Michael Denton

1/6/18

Mark 1:4-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 John the baptizer appeared[a] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[b] water; but he will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[d] with you I am well pleased.”

Mark’s one of my favorite books of the bible. It was the first written of the gospels. Its raw. The theology is thin. The language is not flowery. For me, it makes it seem a little more engaging and mysterious, somehow. When I read Mark, I always feel a little as though I’m discovering Jesus for the first time.

The different gospels start at the different moments. They reflected something about about what each writer understood about the importance of Jesus within the context of time. For Matthew and Luke, the unique birth narrative really helped explain that, from birth, Jesus was surrounded by what was sacred and born with sacred purpose. John suggests that Jesus was somehow connected to the beginning of time but that this holy sacred figure was revealed through this one place and time. Mark picks up a good deal in to Jesus’ life. His holy mission starts with a call. It starts with his baptism as an adult and moves through that brief bit of time he started a religious reform movement within an indigenous faith tradition. His is a life of full of holy rumors and mystery. There are many more unanswered or vaguely answered questions than clear answers of certainty. I love it. For me, if the only holy book we ever had as Christians was the Gospel of Mark, it would have been enough.

Today’s text from Mark begins with one of those lingering questions… Why was Jesus baptized? Those who were coming to John the Baptist were coming to repent of their sins. Was Jesus a sinner? I’m sure it’s no underestimation to say that there have been thousands of pages written about this one question but I’ve never found any of them to be fully satisfying and I’m good with that. When certainty and faith overlap too much, certainty becomes the false god of what is really fundamentalism. I’m OK with the question because the gift of having to think about who Jesus might be helps me feel closer to Jesus and more connected to who Jesus might be. So, if Jesus was a sinner and became my savior? I’m cool with that.

More generally, the whole idea of sin is problematic for a lot of people. I get it. One of the parodies of Christians has become people who considered themselves free from sin and willing to let others know they are drenched in it. The way sin has been used accusationally to shame other people or try to simply uphold dominant ideas of what is normal is awful. There is, however, a difference between sin being used in an accusatory way and someone personally recognizing they have something to confess…

I have done things in my life I wish I wouldn’t haven’t have done. Now, just in case any of you are worried, I’m not planning on listing all of these for you. For most of you, this list I carry with me would probably be more boring than anything else. But that’s the thing, it's not boring to me. Its meaning making and identity shaping. I’m not talking that realm of wondering or simple regret that point towards decisions I’ve made that now I’m not as certain about. That could be another sermon. I’m talking about those ways in which I hurt someone by my direct action, my inaction or somewhere in between. I’m talking about those acts that range from the deeply personal to those acts that were done on my behalf because of the social group I’m perceived as belonging to. I’m even talking about those ways that, in this role as conference minister, I’ve leant in to fulfilling the role - or hiding behind it - more than I lean in to what I think I might be called to do in that moment.

For me, sin is partially defined by that feeling in the pit of the stomach somewhere between nervousness and nausea. Its that thing that sometimes haunts me in the middle of the night but is as likely to haunt me in the middle of the middle of the day when something spurs this or that memory. It's those things that make me feel angry with myself; angry and alone. These are the things that I spend a lot of time over trying to rationalize or put into a wider context. Sure, almost every time I can figure out what might have been going on that made the decision I made feel like the best possible decision at the time. Sometimes others help me with this context setting but, when it comes down to it, there is a good bit that sticks to me like the tick that burrows into your skin after a walk through high grass. I know I’m not alone in this. Most of us probably understand this very well.

So, here comes John the Baptist. It's easy to portray him as suffering from some mental illness or another but here was this guy out in the wilderness living a life many at this time may have considered a punishment. He was living out the punishment many of them may have thought they deserved. Remember, this was a time before therapists or any other understandings of mental health. There weren’t many ways to deal with some of those things that might have caused you mental or spiritual pain. Here was this guy saying come over here, confess, repent, be put in the water and you’ll have an opportunity for wholeness again. No wonder folks went flocking to this man. So many people had been hungering for something just like this.

And then this guy points to Jesus and praises him. “You think I’M something,” he says. “Well.” And then Jesus comes along and, again, I don’t fully understand why. Jesus come along and asks to be baptized, too. We don’t know if he confessed anything or what he might have confessed. We don’t know what he might have had to repent from if anything at all but, there he was. He was baptized and as he was lifted up out of the water by John’s tough love, the skies seemed to open up. Jesus saw a link between heaven and earth established.  

The text from Mark doesn’t say anyone else saw it. This was Jesus’ experience. This was a story that he must have told. The Holy Spirit came down and, with it, he heard a voice that called him God’s child; a voice that called him Beloved; and a voice that told Jesus that God was well pleased with him. The experience was so powerful that the next line of scripture says it drove Jesus out into the wilderness for awhile. When he came back, it was Jesus inviting people to repent and receive this gift.

The most remarkable aspect of this story for me has been what Jesus heard and the seriousness with which he took the message right away. The answer to dealing with that corrosiveness in our soul that wakes us up in the middle of the night is expelling it through confession. It doesn’t mean we’re not unchanged but it does mean that we make room for this other message.  We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. This can be a hard message to receive when so much interior room is being taken up with messages of self-loathing and shame. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us.

This message can sometimes be harder to live in to, even though we want to. We tend to build our lives to protect us from our fears more than to receive grace, forgiveness and real love that cuts through all the crap. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. This message didn’t first lead Jesus in to interacting with the world, it lead him to the wilderness. He had to disconnect a bit in order to connect with this most important truth. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. We tie so much of our affirmation to how much money we make, or the approval we receive, or even a stupid little thumbs up emoji on Facebook. This attempt to corner the affirmation market is intentional. It works to get our attention for a while and a more than a bit of our money. It can even add noise that makes that central message of Christ harder to hear. Jesus didn’t have facebook or TV or a smartphone or the internet and he still needed to get away to hear this message more clearly. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. It's no wonder it might be hard for us to hear this from God with so many competing voices that want to market this affirmation to us. It's hard to remember that these words are more than an affirmation that is sold to us again and again and again. This is something that’s given to us. Its free. It's forgiveness.

This is one of those days of the year we get to think about or remember our baptism and think about what it might mean. At its root, remember this: You are a child of God. You are God’s beloved. God is pleased with you.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Post-fall gathering report

“What is the future of the church?”

It's probably no surprise to anyone that this is a question I get a lot. Different folks are trying to figure out what to do and and how to do it. There are concerns about whether or not we’re putting our resources into the right things or putting together the right programs. There are concerns brought up about the number of youth, children, families and young adults in our pews. There are concerns brought up about whether we are putting all we need to into the work of social justice. All these are great concerns and important questions to bring up but none of these have ever felt like the right place to focus, ultimately. Sometimes, the resources we think will save us - money, buildings, time - become less of something that serve a forward looking purpose and more of something we serve. Focusing on one program or another begins to feel more like a magical formula than a faithful one. We end up treating youth, children, families and young adults as a resources for a transfusion of idealism and energy more than equals. Although our faith and works of justice and service are inseparable, we sometimes look at the doing of this work as a marketing or evangelism campaign of sorts. Again, recognizing that we have to do more in all the areas is important but these things, in and of themselves, do not guarantee the future of the church.

Two weeks ago was the first fall gathering of the PNC at N-Sid-Sen. Most of you may remember that the initial intent of splitting the one spring meeting into two was to give people more of choice about what kind of meeting they wanted to attend. The intent was that the spring meeting would be the business meeting and the fall meeting would more of the programmatic meeting. But, as the committee did their planning, something changed in a significant way. The primary focus moved from being an extension of what we might learn together to providing a place and a format to deepen relationships with each other. The further along in the planning process the committee went, the more I became convinced this was the right thing and the more I became excited about what the planning committee was creating. What I saw at N-Sid-Sen proved that the right choices were made.

The best way I can describe it is that I saw the future of the church start to wake up. We had many of the same topics we’ve had during lots of workshops at Annual meeting relating to everything ranging from “Best Practices in Mission Trips;” the search and call process; deepening faith and relationships; community outreach; church finances and stewardship; “Overcoming Obstacles to Change;” and much more. The difference was that the task of those leading these sessions weren’t there as experts in one topic or another (although they frequently were experts). The task was to help facilitate conversations among those who were interested in the topic with each other and, in so doing, uncover the expertise that was already there and build relationships among those gathered. Over the weekend, I saw these conversations continue and anxious energy replaced by relational energy. What surprised me was that I also heard about conversations between people that helped bring clarity to some lingering interpersonal challenges; apologies made with sincerity and vulnerability; the emerging recognition that being in better relationship with each other and the world is what we are really seeking. In a whole new way, I saw us resisting the dominant idea of “power over” and discovering the untapped strength of “power with.”

This, I have come to believe, is the future of the church. A lot of the work of Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear (our Minister for Church Vitality) has been pointing in this direction but the more and more we begin to live in to practicing what this might mean, the more I’m convinced this is key to living in to what God is calling us to become. Somewhere along the way, we began to lift up commitments to the institution of the church as the source of vitality as opposed to making our commitments to be in relationship with God, love, justice and each other as that source. There’s been more than one time when I’ve smacked myself on the forehead because as we’ve started to practice focusing on relationships as key it doesn’t feel as though this is a new thing as much as something we’d collectively forgotten. It’s something we know to do but not always something we know how to do.

The temptation of the Church is to become too self referential; our mission becomes our own perpetuation. We can become part shallow entities that insist on being served.  But by consciously and intentionally changing the focus of the church to serving God and God’s people through works of mercy, justice and compassion, something different happens. Churches can find new vitality as part of the larger God movement. Those involved in this work have the opportunity find meaning through service; faith grown in community; hope sustained by action; and relationships that nurture the soul of the world. We are called not to be inward facing, self-referential institutions but communities that turn ourselves inside out to serve God and God’s people.

In the coming months, we’re going to be focusing on this more and more as a conference and we need your help. To than end, I’d ask you to consider doing 5 things:

Make some time to sit down with a different person within your congregation you don’t know too well. Do this once a month for the next year. I know in small congregations this might seem like more of a challenge and there’s always more to know about each other. Try to know what is at the heart of their fears and motivations. What gets them out of bed in the morning or keeps them awake at night. Get to know those you share a congregation with and see what a difference this starts to make. Invite at least one of these folks to do the same.


Reach out to someone from another UCC congregation at least once this year and learn more about them and their church.


Attend at least two conference gatherings this year (a meeting, one of our gatherings, an installation, ordination, local church event, etc.) and have a conversation with a couple people there.


Please pray for this unfolding process with our collective life together in your private prayers and lift it up on your congregation’s prayers.


Encourage your church to increase their giving to the conference and denomination so that this work can be sustained. Personally, go to pncucc.org, click on the “Donate” button in the upper right hand corner and consider becoming a monthly giver to Friends of the Conference.

The future of the church is becoming clearer and it is rooted in things we know to do but don’t always know how to do. With God’s help and yours, I’m convinced we can get there.

Peace.
Mike

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

3/14/17 Tuesday Prayer

Inspired by John 4:5-42

Dear God:

“Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.”

Not reading. Not checking email. Not watching a video but...

Sitting. Resting.

There are so many ways we want to be more like Christ by doing more than we can but...

This we could do. This would be a good place to start.

Help us to be faithful in this way.

Amen.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent whispers.

I closed my eyes as she dipped her finger in the ash and oil and, as I felt the shape of the cross being drawn on my forehead, I relaxed.  It’s the same feeling every year for me. I relax. For at least a moment or two, I relax.

The temptation is to make Lent into some sort of meditation on failure and sin. I was having a quick conversation about my dirty forehead with a couple of folks. I’d moved beyond relaxing and was back into a rushing around mode. I made a sideways attempt at humor along the lines of “Yep, I’m a sinner” as I was walking away and, as I was walking away, one of the folks said something along the lines of “Not sin. Mortality.”

There is something about being reminded what we’re made of and what we return to that quiets all the internal and external voices that say we “should” do this or “must” do that.  This reminder of mortality isn’t a heavy voice of doom and gloom but a whisper in the ear that says, “Remember, beloved, you are mortal.” It’s such an easy thing to forget.

We seem to fluctuate further and further along a spectrum of with expecting everything from each other at one end and expecting nothing at the other. We shame those who fail to live up to the expectations that increase with each success and treat failure as the irredeemable, permanent condition of others. We make some into our own idealized or flawed image and praise or abandon them accordingly.

And then, along comes Lent who looks us in the eye, smiles and says, “How about you go ahead and set that all aside for, at least, awhile?”

We are human; nothing more, nothing less. We will not get everything done we AND do more than we knew we could. We let people down while doing our best AND help others out in ways that surprise us. We will be afraid AND we will show courage. We will get stuck AND know liberation. We will hurt people AND participate in healing. We can’t help it. Sure, there is a lot in our control but we are not gods. We are blessedly and painfully human.

Our churches don’t help escape this reality but are a reflection of it. In Mark, Jesus quotes scripture while purging the moneychangers out of the temple saying "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." Both are always in church and each of us brings it; all the sacred aspirations and the unholy temptations rolled into one place. Just as it should be.

Lent leans in and whispers, “You all need each other. You need God. You need honesty. You need forgiveness. You need accountability. You need support. You need love. And, beloved, none of this makes you needy. It makes you human. It makes you whole.”

Lean forward with that dirty, ashy forehead. God loves you. You are human and God loves you. You are mortal and God loves you. You are broken and God loves you. You are whole and God loves you. When you fail, God loves you. When you get up, God loves you. God sees you and sees beauty. God loves you.

A blessed, blessed Lent to you, God’s beloved...

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Tuesday Prayer for 12/27/16: What is done is done.

Dear God:

The hope candle burned down, today.
Peace will be next then joy then love.
Eventually, even the white wax from the Christ candle
will cool
And the purple, white and pink will all be cold to the touch.
The hope, peace, joy, love and Christ candles will all
go
dark.

It is tempting to make this into something more important than it is but
This is what candles do.

This year passes away
Like all the others before it.
Better than some,
Worse than others.
It passes away.
It passes away.

It is tempting to make this into something more important than it is but
This is what years do.

There will be those we will get to know and
Those that we will miss.
There will be those we know who were born and
Those who have died.
There will be those who were healed and
Those who suffered.
There will be those set free and
Those imprisoned.
There will be ways we will succeed and
Ways we will fail.

It is tempting to make this into something less important than it is but
This is what we do.
This is what we do.
This is what we do.
It is important.
It is living.
It is what we do.
It is what we do.
It is what we do.

Amen.

(Read the article about this picture at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/31/photo-of-101-year-old-woman-with-baby-response_n_6948860.html)


Amen

Friday, November 18, 2016

Post-Election Sermon at Plymouth UCC 11/13/16

I can’t tell you how many times during the week someone asks me for legal advice. In just the last week, I was asked about a church’s potential liability for an injury that happened at church; the tax implications of renting out church property to a for profit organization; a church’s liability for having non-church related youth on a youth retreat; and, for some strange reason, a lot of questions about the separation of church and state. Every response to this question starts off pretty much the same way: “I am not a lawyer so, just to be clear, what I’m giving is not legal advice. If you want legal advice, you really need to talk to a lawyer. What I can share with you is this clergy person’s interpretation of the legal advice I’ve heard…” and then I proceed.


The theme for today’s worship is about grief and I almost feel as though a similar disclaimer is needed. There is a wide territory where spirituality and psychology overlap and this is one of them. I am a pastor who has learned a lot from those in the field of psychology but I am not a psychological professional. There are some of you here who have been working on grief within your own life with with psychological professionals and there is a chance that my words, today, won’t apply to you at all and that’s OK. There is no way, within the time of a sermon, that I can address all the ways to consider grief. This is the work of lifetimes and I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, up this point, in this one.


Grief starts with trauma and trauma comes when some something our minds and/or souls experienced as a certainty, breaks, and is replaced with a new certainty. A loved one dies or begins the process of dying. We fall out of love or someone falls out of love with us. We fail at something. We’re fired or get laid off. A church we experienced as safe, kind and loving is no longer safe, kind and loving. Another black or brown person is killed through state sanctioned violence. The reality of our environmental decline and the fragility of our existence becomes glaringly clear. This week has been one in which the traumatic event for many was the elections. For many, the election of an autocratic president who built his campaign on white ideals of patriarchy and privilege abruptly changes our perspective of our country, your neighbors, your family. The quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain.


Grief is the process of our souls integrating that trauma; that revised reality. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is one of the names most frequently connected to the study of grief. As a point of United Church of Christ trivia, Kübler-Ross began her work when four seminary students at Chicago Theological Seminary (a UCC seminary and my alma mater) approached her with the request that she help them study what people go through when they’re dying. She brought together her work in the 1969 book, Death and Dying and it was through that she presented what she described as the 5 stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although frequently presented as a progression, Kübler-Ross herself said that it was rarely that straight-forward. These are more elements of grief than a step by step progression through grief. Any of these can come up at anytime, in any order, if at all. She also wrote that it is rare for denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance to only emerge once.  These are elements of grief that come in waves.


I want to point out one stage that isn’t part of what she named. I know that part of the theme of today’s worship is “letting go.” Let me shade that idea just a bit. There is a significant difference between letting go “of” something and letting go “to” something.


Some of you may have heard me say this in other contexts but I used to think I was, more or less, made of teflon and that every difficult thing I experienced in life would just slide right off of me; that I could - very naturally - let go of anything. Somewhere along the way, I started to figure that, actually, I was made of velcro and that, no matter how much I might try to remove it, at least a little bit of everything sticks. Not only that, the bit that sticks is part of me.


Grief is the process of our souls integrating trauma or, using Kübler-Ross’ language, accepting the trauma that’s become a part of our life. It is letting go to that reality. Thinking we can let go of it is closer to denial. Now, I’m not saying denial is all bad. It can be a way our souls give us the time we need to integrate something new and difficult. It is not an unhealthy element of grieving, it just is.


There is, however, some point when denial can also become a form of spiritual addiction; we put an unsustainable and unhealthy amount of energy into doing everything we can to insist and reinforce the worldview we had before a trauma irrevocably changed our perception of the world. Now, let me say that even as I say this it is not as a value judgement about the addict. For many of us, our addictions are rooted in what we thought was the best possible behavior at the time. It’s the point at which that repeated behavior starts to take an unsustainable amount of energy from our own self-care, our relationships, our health, our safety and our communities that we need to ask for help and move in another direction in order to integrate the initial trauma into our lives.


Although healing is a part of dealing with trauma, working out ways to integrate that trauma is the goal. The stages of grief are not a problematic part of that journey. Since the experience of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are such common ways of grieving that it’s important to move from problematizing these behaviors and, instead, welcome them as gifts from God to us that help us integrate life’s traumas. We are created in God’s image but we are re-created and renewed in God’s image, too. The ongoing process of grieving is part of the ongoing process of the integration of trauma.


I have conversations with a lot of pastors and local church members near the moment in time when their heart breaks around something related to their church. A conflict emerges and anger within the church is transformed into anger with church leadership. A conflict between the pastor and a group or individual takes the outwardly focused energy the church needs to serve God and God’s people and inwardly focuses energy in a way that causes damage to people in the church and the church overall. The way the church portrays themselves has little to do with the church they are. The financial covenant a church made is not one the church is actually able to fulfill. The pastor or a church member discovers that they are not as skilled at one thing or another as they thought they were. Someone fails at something they did not expect to fail at. Someone accidentally or unintentionally causes another person harm. People slide into behavior that is unethical. People discover that the burden of care for the church or their community is more than they can bare. They experience the isolating nature of leadership. They experience the isolation that comes from disagreeing with the majority or a determined minority. For many pastors, the conversation is a vocational one and integrating this new information means they can no longer pastor a particular church. In some cases, integrating this information means that they discover they no longer have a call to ministry, at all. Members realize that they no longer have a call to ministry in that place or have no desire to be part of a church at all. Now, these are frequently the best possible response for the sake of those they are in relationship with, their churches and themselves. These are all appropriate ways to integrate the trauma of brokenheartedness.


But there is still more. For many of us, surviving the broken hearted moments of ministry can also be the moments our ministry deepens and the reality of ministry blooms in us.  The way I’ve said it to many pastors is that you have a better chance to be the minister you’re called to be and the minister your church needs after your heart is broken by the church you serve. I’ve said something similar to members. The decision to leave a church and the decision to stay at a church are both decisions that, at their best, come from a genuine sense of call that is rooted in a steadily deepened understanding of what ministry is. Those heartbreaks in the life of church are when you really get to know who and what your church is and the idealism about what church life is fades away. Its when you have the opportunity to move from the fights with people you know into faithful struggle with people you love. The sense of call that emerges on the other end of this kind of heartbreak is where the most radical things happen; where the most radical things emerge. It is not the moment when grief is let go of and it goes away. It is the moment when trauma and grief are integrated into who we are and become a part of us. It does not go away. It just doesn’t. It becomes part of us. As denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance emerge at the different times they do, instead of digging our heels in and refusing their presence, we can get to a point where we can say, “Hello old friend. What have you come to teach me this time?” Grief is not our enemy.


What I want to say next may not apply to everyone in this sanctuary. I recognize that, for some, this may lean further into the realm of the political than some may be comfortable with but I need to say it. Sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, many of us experienced what can best be described as trauma. A self-professed advocate for sexual assault; hate crimes; racism; and war was elected as President of the United States. These bags under my eyes come from the stomach tightening fear that has struck in me in the middle of the night as a try and figure out how to best raise and protect my four year old child who will now grow up under a Trump presidency. I know the feeling I have burning a hole in my gut still pales in comparison to the feelings of those of us who are people of color wake with every day. I know know the feeling I have must pale in comparison to what our Muslim siblings - and other folks who are part of the interfaith community - must feel as they face the presidential promise of deportation and internment camps. I know the feelings I have must pale in comparison to what those of us who are Spanish speaking refugees and immigrants have as they wonder how long they’ll be able to remain in the country that’s become their home. I know the feelings I have pale in comparison to those in the queer community who, for the past several years, have been told they are welcome and included but now feel the real danger of having everything we’ve fought for rolled back. For survivors of sexual assault who are trying to figure out how they are going to wake up every morning and see the face or hear the voice of this man as they catch up on the news these days have impacted the integration of the trauma’s within their own lives. The world watches our elections and there are people throughout the world who are trying to figure out how many of our already weak environmental promises will be weakened still further.


We are only at the beginning stages of grief. The trauma is still fresh. I don’t think that any of us are so naive to think that the opinions Trump espoused didn't exist but the fact that there are enough people who agree to elect him as president is soul shaking. In one way, everything in my head knew this was possible but it is my heart and soul that are shocked. Even though my head always knew something like this was possible, my soul and my heart held out hope - more hope than I realized - that it was not. When I am even more deeply honest about it, I realize how the perspectives and worldviews of those who were part of the pro-Trump coalition are ones that I was taught or heard at different points in my life and how that if I’d had some of the life experiences that some of them did, today I might be celebrating instead of grieving. I am deeply thankful for those who loved me onto another path and taught me to work hard, something I do some days better than others, to resist the temptation of another way. I want to resist it so fully. I have to be honest and say that those have rioted in the streets and those that will have expressed with their bodies the howl of rage and grief that I have. As I said before, the quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain and, sometimes, lash out in pain and, sometimes, even want others to meet you at your point of pain so much that you’re tempted to cause others pain. There is some part of us that seems to believe that the only way to work our way through our grief is to cause the same grieving to others or to rage with others. I understand this impulse and recognize that there are some ways in which Trump’s campaign was not a simple electoral process but that it was also the anger and violence of a riot focused through a vote.


I also understand that there is some part of this that is looking not to be alone. This is the place some of the integration happens. Although there are definitely times and ways people want their space and that is key to the integration of grief, what is it in us that also makes us want to come together? Why is it that we come together for funerals? Why is it that, at moments of trauma, people want to reach out? Why is it that, we worship together, protest together and sing together? Why is it that, on the other side of this election, the call for unity has come from so many? This is part of the mystery of life that we take for granted but I find sacred and holy. There is a reason that communion is such a central and unifying part of our faith. This tendency to emphasize recognition of a greater good is not simply good post-election etiquette, it is a sacramental tendency.


If we, as people of faith, believe that there is any need for unity there are some ideas we may have to address and re-emphasize in ways that may, at first, be frightening for some. Shame became so integrated into the theology of sin that we ended up rejecting the simple idea that was at its core; the idea that we all mess up and fall short of God’s hopes for us. We somehow made sin out to be the exceptional failure of faith life instead of a part of the daily reality of being human. We used the idea of sin as a weapon to try enforce social norms instead of a normal part of our lives and our living. The progressive church, in an effort to reject the weaponizing of sin, rejected the theology of sin. Sin is part of our lives and the systems we participate in. When we reject sin, we also end up rejecting redemption and, at its core, this is the idea, this is the hope that many are seeking. As the church has rejected the theology of sin we have also inadvertently rejected the possibility of redemption, of change, and of rebirth for individuals. We have come to suggest that the state of the world is “their” fault instead of ours and reinforced the systems and politics of division that are crushing us all.


Belief in redemption calls for something else. Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers, summed it up this way, “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers need to be redeemed.” He was speaking to those systems that were set up to do good but have fallen far from that purpose. Now, we know it’s more complicated than that and that even some of those systems that were set up to do good were rooted in belief systems that did not regard all people as equally valuable but the message of redemption is still key.


The trauma of this week is still fresh, the grieving is fresh, too. As we integrate this trauma through the process of grieving I am certain of just a few things: integration will come; we are called to do this work together; we will be transformed; and redemption is possible.


We in the church have yet another word that applies to the time yet to come. They didn’t use it on Good Friday when Jesus was executed by the State. They didn’t use it on Saturday when the grieving was real and painful and fresh. But sometimes after that, when they were all together; when they started to build a community of wholeness and mutuality; when they started to recognize that their power was in what they shared; they started to use another word more and more. They started to talk about about resurrection. I believe in resurrection. I believe. I believe. I believe.


We are always called to serve and serve God’s people. That is our call at every moment and for this particular moment. I believe in resurrection. I still believe in hope. I still believe in justice. I still believe in love. I believe. I believe. I believe. May our lives reflect the reality of our belief.


Amen.