We find ourselves in December and in the
middle of the season of Advent. In Advent we wait for the coming of Jesus and
the expectation that Christ will be reborn in our hearts. As we wait with
expectation, we celebrate Peace, Joy, Hope and Love. This is a special time in
the church year as we celebrate the new beginning of Christ.
As I ponder new beginnings, I'm reminded of
the new beginnings Melissa and I had as new parents. Yes, there was
indescribable joy and happiness, but also many sleepless nights and restless
days. New beginnings can be like that, often bringing stress, agitation,
financial burdens, and additional tasks to name a few. Advent, a time for renewed
hearts can easily become about expectations of gifts, decorations, baking,
visiting Santa, etc. But it also can bring about generosity, family gatherings
and compassion in those that are not regularly practicing those things.
I also want to acknowledge that the season of
Advent and eventually Christmas is also a depressing time for some. There are
many circumstances that lead to this time of hope, peace, joy, and love to be
considered instead as despair, turmoil, sadness and loneliness. There are many
people who are grieving the absence of people in their lives that would
otherwise be present. There are many people going through financial struggles
that a Christmas meal, let alone any sort of gift make this season a season of
I want you all to know that I am with you in
this journey, wherever you find yourself in this season of Advent. I am here
with you in your joys and celebrations, I am here in your lowest of moments,
and I am with you to remind you that waiting the rebirth of Christ in our
hearts is why we break out the candles, the banners, the Christmas trees and
our generosity to those who need it.
And I always am going to remind you that we
remember Christ’s new beginning and celebrate our continued journey together.
And in the spirit of the season, we must share the Good News with all who will
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from my
family to yours!
With the Greatest of Hope!
We have entered into the holiday season.
Halloween is past, Thanksgiving is around the corner, and the stores are full
of the reds and greens of Christmas. This is the time of year when we tend to
think about what has happened in the past year, what has happened in previous
holiday seasons. As the holiday reminds us, it is a time for thanks giving.
We just celebrated and remembered the 500th
Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. With so much emphasis on Martin
Luther over the last month, my mind has found itself wandering to my time in
the Lutheran Church in my youth and young adult years. When I was confirmed, at
Central Lutheran Church, one of the requirements was to have Luther's Small
Catechism memorized. I don't have it memorized at this point, but its words
still influence me greatly.
In his discussion of the Lord's Prayer, Luther
speaks about the good things that God gives us in our “daily bread”. In this
season of giving thanks, that list could also be a list of what we are to give
thanks for. Luther lists food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field,
cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and
faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline,
honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
There are things he listed that speak to me,
and others that seem less pertinent. Do I really have the discipline or health
that I want? Do I always consider my children, spouse, friends or neighbors to
be “good” much less pious (whatever I might imagine that means)? Some days,
maybe especially in the political environment of division and infighting, it might
seem like hard to give thanks for government systems. Yet we are called not
only to give thanks for them, but also on behalf of them.
Giving thanks for someone, whether we
personally find them to be a blessing or burden, forces us into a position of
humility, and requires us to remember that those people, too, are children of
God, made in the image of God. The people sitting in the halls of government,
and the people gathered around your Thanksgiving table. Even if they make us
crazy. Even if they don’t think like we do. Even if they won’t pass the gravy
quickly enough. They are, each and every one of them, someone for whom Christ
lived and died. For whom Christ was raised. The good news of Jesus the Christ
is for each and every one of them.
Thanks be to God!
Fall seems like it is finally coming. After
the last few weeks of unseasonably warm weather I was wondering if we were
going to skip the whole Fall thing and jump straight into Winter. Hopefully we
will be able to enjoy a few weeks of open windows, no heating or
air-conditioning, and the glorious colors of fall painted across hills and
Fall is a great time to remember things. We
celebrate Homecoming at the schools we attended. We gather with friends around
warm fires. We celebrate holidays with family – Halloween, and Thanksgiving.
Fall is for me one of the happiest seasons.
This year at the end of the month we are
remembering another special event: the 500th anniversary of the Protestant
Reformation. This year marks 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95
complaints about the church to the castle church doors in Wittenburg. It had
never been his intention to create a new church, simply to reform what he saw
as failings in the existing church. Yet, his critique ended up creating a new
branch of the Christian faith, a branch of which we are a part.
We are a church of the Reformation, a church
that came to be out of a desire to look deeply at our practices and change
those that were leading us farther away from God, those that placed an
unnecessary burden on people, those that allowed those in positions of
leadership and power to misuse those in less powerful positions. As such, not
only should we be a church that was formed through reformation, we should be a
church that is always in the state of reformation. Reformed, yet always
What are some of the ways you feel we need
reforming? Is it the form of our worship services? Is it the way we do church?
Is it our buildings? Is it how we interact with those of other faith
traditions? Is it our inclusion of folks different than us? Is it our awareness
of how minority groups should be part of our faith communities? Is it the way
we treat children and youth, the way we do Sunday School? Maybe it's the size
and way our bulletin is put together.
If you were to write your own list of
grievances or areas of growth in the church (both locally at Zion, and within
the wider Christian community), what are the things you would put on your list?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
With the Greatest of Hope!
Like many of you, my thoughts and prayers over
the last few weeks have been with the millions and millions of those affected
by the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and throughout the Caribbean. There was a
time in our not too distant past when we may have been largely unaware of
events that distant from us; and may have never learned of the damage and loss
on many small and remote islands. Now, we watch the storms in real-time as
reporters and correspondents brave the winds and torrential rain to give us up
to the minute reports.
The images we have all seen have been a
horrific reminder of the power of nature. Regardless of what we know about
science, how powerful our phones are, the presence of the internet giving us
all the knowledge of the world, nature will always find ways to remind us that
it is more powerful than we. We are to care for it, always aware of its ability
to provide but also be aware of its power to destroy.
In the wake of the catastrophic damage from
both Harvey and Irma, many of us are giving to various charities that are
providing for those affected. Each of us have our charity of choice, a group we
have supported often in the past and will continue to support in years to come.
Many of those groups are a result of people of faith coming together to be of
service to those in need.
Did you know that the United Church of Christ
has a ministry of response for those affected by disasters (both in this
country and around the world)? UCC Disaster Ministries is a program of the
United Church of Christ that responds to natural and human caused disasters all
over world and is well positioned to respond in most events. Through our
volunteers, congregations, Conferences and partnerships UCC Disaster Ministries
seeks to serve the most vulnerable populations that require spiritual,
physical, financial and psychological support.
In times of domestic disaster, UCC Disaster
Ministries office provides a platform and facilitation for much of this work
while collaborating with and through UCC Conferences and a network of
Internationally, UCC Disaster Ministries maintains direct relationships and
partnerships with organizations and faith communities able to appropriately and
effectively respond to emergency and long-term needs.
To find out more about UCC Disaster
Ministries, and to donate go to: http://www.ucc.org/disaster. You can also
contact Zachary Wolgemuth the Executive for UCC Disaster Ministries by phone at
With the Greatest of Hope!
Last weekend, we participated in Mission
Rejoice at the Urban Mission here in Steubenville. We had a relaxed worship
service, then provided a wonderful meal to those present – many of whom would
not have eaten if not for the kindness of others. In conversation with Pastor
Hubbard that evening she shared how few churches are actually volunteering
anymore. My heart broke. Isn't that what the church is supposed to be about,
helping others? What was perhaps more disappointing to me though, was how she
treated it like a normal thing – churches not participating in Mission Rejoice;
it was like our local churches couldn't be expected to do that.
It struck me that our culture has learned to
expect little from the Church, and perhaps we are reaping the results of
expecting the least. (When I say the Church, I'm speaking of all mainline
Protestantism, not just Zion UCC.) Many would say we have seen a rise in apathy
about religion, a decline in church attendance, a loss of solid leadership at
the local and national levels. And with an economy still recovering, there is
less money in churches. We look around our world and wonder about the future of
the Church. And we lower our expectations. We expect few people in church. We
expect decreased giving. We expect declining membership. And unfortunately,
this lack of expectation can lead to two things: acceptance without resistance,
and the inability to see when things are actually improving.
Sometimes I hear people speaking about Zion
like it is a church in decline. My response is both surprise and frustration.
Where is the decline? Our attendance in worship has been rising over the last
few years. We are adding new members regularly. We see new faces and visitors
more often than in the past. The community is talking about us in positive
ways. We are seeing children and young people. We are reaching out in service
to others. There is a new energy, love, humor, and extravagant welcome
developing. Decline? Where? Maybe we need to set our expectations higher.
Is there an area at Zion where you have low
expectations? Is there some aspect of life at Zion about which you find
yourself expecting little? Sometimes low expectations are a sign of a place
where energy, effort and time need to be placed.
Share with me your low expectations. I'd love
to tackle them with you.
With the Greatest of Hope!
Beginning on June 11th, I will be moving away
from the appointed lectionary readings for worship and preaching. In their
place I will be presenting a longish sermon series: On Faith.
Over the last few years one of the
conversations I have had on many occasions regards what it is we in the United
Church of Christ believe, how we approach the Bible, what we understand about
God, ourselves, and the world. So, for several months, each Sunday we will be
looking at another statement in the United Church of Christ's Statement of
If you grew up in another tradition, if you're
just curious, if you want to know more about our denomination and who we are,
this is a great opportunity to make a journey of discovery outside of an
In preparation for the series, here is the
UCC's Statement of Faith:
believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our
God, and to your deeds we testify:
call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before
each one the ways of life and death.
seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and
Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have
come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling
the world to yourself.
bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus
Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.
call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your
servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and
resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.
promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage
in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
I hope that you will find this interesting,
that your faith will be challenged, that you will come to know God in new and
With the Greatest of Hope!
the sinner, hate the sin. It's a phrase we all have likely heard, especially in
faith circles. When it's said, it's supposedly meant in love. Trying to show
someone the error of their ways, seeking to help them to escape the eternal
torment of hell. Yet, for many, those words are not received as loving words,
as words meant to point to a loving God. Instead, for many those words leave
behind a question, “Why does God hate me?”
wandering around the internet, I came across an article (https://www.nytimes.com/…/seth-stephens-davidowitz-googling…)
about the things people search for on the internet. When it comes to God, the
number one question is: 'Who created God?' Then comes, 'Why does God allow
suffering?' The third question is, 'Why does God hate me?' When Google looked
into the way people finished the internet search, 'Why did God make
me_________?' The results are heartbreaking. The number one word was 'ugly',
then 'black', then 'gay'. Other common words were: short, stupid, fat. It makes
we like it or not, whether we want to face it or not, those internet searches
are in many ways a rephrasing of the question, 'Why does God hate me?' It
breaks my heart, and forces me to admit that there are way too many incorrect
and damaging ideas about God. And the damage being done isn't to God, it's to
the least among us. The church may teach that we are all sinners that have
failed in doing that which God desires, but, it also declares and affirms that
each of us is created in the image of God, that each of us is loved
that message, the one of love and being made in God's image has not been heard
by many. Instead what is heard is that God is judgmental, that Christians are
hypocritical, that God has favorites – with some being made beautiful, and
others ugly. With some being made gay, and others straight. And that that
difference was a punishment of some kind.
thing is, God doesn't play favorites. God isn't the one who labels and
excludes, who determines who is in and who is out – it's us human beings. We
are the ones who have divided people into categories, who have created
societies where a person’s physical appearance or their being a part of a
specific demographic group is what is important, rather than the content of
their heart, the character of their lives. A practice and message that
contradicts the message we see in the Bible over and over again.
message of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation is that God has come into
the world to reconcile all people, that God's love is for all people, that
God's grace is freely given to everyone. It is the mission and calling of the
church, both as an institution and as individuals of faith to spread the
message of God's love and grace far and wide. We must do all we can to counter
the damage done by the poor theology that has resulted in so much pain and
unhappiness in others.
can do that, even just a little bit, it could bring the hope and peace that may
cause people to change their Google searches from wondering why God hates them,
to: “Why does God care for me so much?” and “Why did God make me so beautiful
With the Greatest of Hope!
Happy Easter!! What a wonderful way to begin
my note to you. This is a time of celebration, a time when we are reminded of
the goodness and graciousness of God, a time when new life is literally making
itself known in our yards and gardens. This is a time to celebrate. It is also
a time to remember. A time to tell our stories of resurrection and new life.
In recent years, Zion has seen an influx of
new members, new faces, new friends. Some are faces that were common in years
past, others are new. But, a new community, a new life is springing up in the
heart of Steubenville.
Some of our new faces had been told they were
going to hell because they were gay. Others have pulled themselves out of the
abyss of addiction. Others have gone through other times of trauma and
disillusionment. They all should have been in the tomb; indeed, they knew how
cold and silent the tomb could be. But they aren’t in the tomb any more. The
stone has been rolled away and they've been raised to new life. They know that
Jesus rose from the dead because they, too, have risen. Resurrection isn’t an
abstract belief to them; they have experienced it. And they know resurrection
is going to happen to everyone who walks through the church doors––not just
that it was possible, that resurrection was inevitable––because that was their
experience of God.
We have come to the church, because it
provides something nothing else does - resurrection. We need to be part of a
community that proclaims that story every week through its music and words and
actions. The church reminds us, on those days when the cold stone of the tomb
is close around, that God always, always, always triumphs over death. And the
church doesn’t let us get complacent about that Easter triumph; it lets the
story of resurrection sink deep into our bones, then it pushes us out the door
to share that story with others who are as hurting and lost as we once were. We
keep going to church because Christians are at heart a resurrection people, and
we want to be one, too.
Whatever brought you to church, whether you
are here every Sunday or just every once in a while, your presence brings you
into that central story of resurrection. Perhaps at some time in your life you
have found yourself in the cold, silent tomb. Maybe you are waiting for the
stone to be rolled away and you or someone you love to be raised to new life.
Perhaps you have emerged from the tomb and are standing among the graves, eyes
watering as you adjust to the sunlight, wondering what happens now that you
have received new life. Wherever you are, whatever brought you here, the story
of resurrection belongs to you. It is your story, my story, our story of God at
work in our lives. It makes us a resurrection people, proclaiming new life to
all those who lie in the tombs of this world.
The Lord is risen indeed; we are risen with
him. So, whether it’s a regular part of your life or just one day a year, I
hope you will join with the church in crying out, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
With the Greatest of Hope!
Lent is a season of awareness of sin and death
and of the possibilities of new life in Jesus Christ. For many, it is also a
time of increased devotion – extra prayer services, added prayer disciplines,
and fasting from a certain meal, food, or other indulgence. We begin Lent with
the public act of placing ashes in the shape of a cross on our foreheads as a
remembrance of our own mortality.
Within this attention to devotion and
discipline, we must also be aware of Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount:
the dangers of sin are as close as the expression of piety to which we are
called. “Beware,” Jesus says, “of practicing your piety before others. (Matthew
Jesus assumed his disciples would fast, pray,
and give alms; these were the marks of a good Jew and would have been deemed
worthy of praise in both Jewish and Gentile society. They are commended also
for the followers of Jesus and the church in Matthew's day. The difference for
followers of Jesus was not the acts themselves but rather the motives and
manner in which they were to be carried out.
Instead of being done with fanfare that would
attract attention and admiration from other people, these deeds were to be done
modestly and in secret. In that way they became a challenge to the “honor” and
competition, the desire to be seen and rewarded that characterized Roman
society and that Matthew accuses the local synagogue of adopting in his gospel.
What reward are we seeking in our fasting, our
generosity, our busyness? Of each of the pious people Jesus describes – the
almsgivers sounding their horns, the pray-ers piling up words, the fasters in
ashen misery – Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
They have been recognized for the religiosity. That recognition is their
The “treasures” Jesus warns against storing up
on earth include not only literal treasures that can be stolen or destroyed but
also the praise and honor accorded by one's culture, which can prove utterly
fickle. “Treasures in heaven,” on the other hand, do not refer to reward
reserved for after death, but the valuable treasures that one find in company
with God and in accord with God's sovereign will. The quest for that kind of
reward is what guides our devotion to God during Lent and throughout the year,
as we prepare to follow Jesus in a life committed to God's reign.
With the Greatest of Hope!
Ah, February – the month of Love!! Love is
wonderful. There is perhaps nothing better than to know you are loved. And when
you think of the love God has for us, Wow!!, that's love.
But, let's be honest - it isn't always easy
for us to always remember God's love for us. Our eyes can turn to the pain and
struggles of life, especially when those pains and struggles are our own. Even
if our own life is going along in a way that pleases us, that makes us feel
successful and valued, we can look around us and see those who are being harmed
by life and by others. We can see the impact of disagreements between nations
and powers, and we see the innocent suffer from those conflicts. We see a world
of plenty, but are aware of so many around the world that have so little, not
even clean water or simply enough food to survive.
For many, as they look at the world in all its
complexities and problems, they cry out to God, or about God, and say "how
can God allow these things to happen?" But at some point, we need to look
at our own part in the difficulties and struggles our world faces.
Living in relationship with God is more than
just receiving the blessings and gifts God shares with us. In this month which
contains the holiday of Love it's important that we remember how God invites us
to respond to the incredible love we have received by loving in return.
Now God does not love us the same way we love,
and so we don't return God's love in the same way either. God invites us to
love in return by sharing our love with all the children of God. When Jesus
asks Peter if he loves him, He calls Peter to "feed my sheep" and to
"tend my lambs". This call to demonstrate our love for God by loving
others is not some new idea.
God has made it clear from the very beginning
that if we desire to show our love and devotion to God, we need to show that by
treating one another in the way God would treat each of us. This invitation
into "one anothering" is more than an invitation to respond to the
needs of those around us, it is an invitation to create the kind of community
that God intends for all God's children.
With the Greatest of Hope!