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!
It's that time of the year again, when our New
Year's resolutions begin to fall away. If you are like most people, your New
Year’s Resolution is something like one of these (from USA.gov): Get a better
education; Get a better job; Get fit; Lose weight; Manage debt; Manage stress;
Quit smoking; Reduce, reuse and recycle; Save money; Take a trip; and Volunteer
to help others.
When observing these resolutions, each of them
requires real change that needs to occur in order to achieve these goals. But,
change, even when it is necessary is hard. That's probably why so many
But, maybe there is a resolution we can make
that we can keep: For this New Year, let’s be completely open to what God is
going to do in our lives and our church! Yes, it’s unpredictable, not always
under our control, maybe different, but if we go into the New Year expecting
that God is going to do a new thing among us, and are open to what God calls us
to do and be, it will be an exciting year!
We read in Isaiah, "I am about to do a
new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in
the darkness and river in the desert.” Isaiah 43:18-19 (NRSV)
What new things might God do among us? What
“way in the wilderness, river in the desert” might God lead us through? I get
really excited thinking about it! The Christian life, led by the Spirit, is
unpredictable, exciting, sometimes scary, life-giving and new.
The many stories of service of dedicated
members throughout the 155 years of Zion is a great example of God’s
faithfulness to this church, its members, and the evolution of new blessings
that have been experienced through this community of faith. Perhaps giving us a
great foretaste of God’s blessings for the year to come!
So, let’s get going living a life that is
hopeful and fulfilled by breaking out of the norm to take a new step forward.
For some of us, it might be amending our New Year’s resolutions to also take steps
growing in our faith, bringing friends and relatives to church, maybe starting
a Bible study or support group.
Resolve to let our faith help us to continue
on our journey together in this New Year, following the light of Jesus Christ,
and seeking the daily resolve that will help illumine our path.
With the Greatest of Hope!
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!
The happiest, most joy-filled season of the
year is upon us. For many of us, there is a new energy in our steps these first
few weeks of the season. We are filled with excitement as we see Christmas
being birthed around us – trees and lights and garlands. We walk into a store,
and are greeted by sales folk in holiday hats; by Christmas Carols being played
over the store's speaker systems.
We are currently in Advent, though, not
Christmas. We are in the season of preparation, of getting ready for Christmas.
It's not just about making sure our Christmas shopping is done, of getting the
presents wrapped, of decorating our homes. It's also about getting ourselves
ready to welcome Jesus into the world, and into our hearts. Preparing a place
for Jesus to be Emmanuel – God with us.
If you're like me, when I think about
preparing for someone to come, I get a little bit panicky. I want to make sure
everything is perfect. Are the floors clean? When did I dust last? Are the cat
boxes cleaned out? Is the bathroom safe to enter? Have the kids picked up all
their junk from around the house? I think about all the stuff I have to do, in
order to feel like I have done enough to make my guests feel welcome.
The reality is though, most guests really
couldn't care if everything is perfect, as long as they are welcomed with
smiles and handshakes, hugs and friendly greetings. So what if the bookshelves
aren't dust-free. So what if the bathroom mirror still has fingerprints on it?
Who cares if the floor hasn't been vacuumed in a week? Those things are
secondary to the welcome that is extended.
The same is true for us at Christmas as we
prepare for Jesus' arrival. God is well aware that we are far from perfect, and
doesn't expect perfection from us. Just look who God used as hosts when Jesus
came 2000 years ago: a teenage unwed mother, a bunch of smelly and dirty
shepherds, Magi from other countries and religious traditions; not exactly the
perfect hosts. Yet, God chose to come, Emmanuel to that motley crew.
As we prepare to welcome Jesus this year, and
in our lives, let's focus less on making everything perfect, dusting the
corners of our hearts, making sure we look great; instead lets focus on how we
live out that welcome, how we extend it; not just to our Savior, but to all
those who we encounter on our journey from the manger to the cross.
May the extravagant welcome offered by the
“least of these” to a babe in a manger, be our guide as we welcome the “least
of these” in our lives and faith.
May the blessings and joy of the Christmas
season be with you and your families.
With the Greatest of Hope!
As I write this, the nation is voting. As you
read this, we (hopefully) know who our next President will be. Some of us will
be happy, some of us will be disappointed. That's the way it is with elections.
This election, more than any other really
seems to have brought to the public setting our private conversations about our
disappointment and distress with how many people feel about our lives and our
country. It just seems like we have less and less control over our lives, that
more and more we are focusing on surviving life, rather than living it. Can you
Sometimes it seems the entire world is just
going down the toilet. Our very lives and dreams seemed to be flushed away with
it every day. We feel the adversity in our world all around us, closing in on
us. We try desperately to change our world, but seem never to get anywhere. We
seem not to be in control of our world, even our very destiny. Ultimately, the
world seems cruel and hopeless.
God does not want us to flush all our dreams,
our very lives down the toilet just quite yet. Know that God see us and is
aware of our pain. Look at Isaiah 66:2 - "But this is the one to whom I
will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word."
This is the 'Good News' God gives us today and
every day. But, if there is 'Good News', then we know there must be 'Bad News'
as well. So what is the 'Bad News?'
God knows the unjust manner by which the few
in our world oppress and neglect the many, the weak, and the poor.
"...because, when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not
listen; but they did what was evil in my sight, and chose what did not please
me." (Isaiah 66:4)
So never succumb to others making you live
your life beneath the aspirations that God has for you.
Dream your dreams into your life and live
passionately into that life. And always remember to make part of your life a
passionate offering to God. How do I begin you may ask? By never tiring of
giving of yourself, by caring and feeding, clothing and curing those less
fortunate in our world, by being a peace-maker fighting for justice in our
world, by being a guardian protecting and nurturing God’s Garden, our planet.
But don't weaken yourself or go poor doing
good either. It is a whole lot of work, so do it slowly in 'baby steps.'
Remember, you are not God. The easiest way to achieve this offering is to make
it a daily, personal trait. Make it an attitude about yourself, an attitude of
being aware and caring for the world around you. It is an attitude we all need
to live into for there we will find the true meaning of 'Heaven on Earth.'
You can do this. God's got your back.
With the Greatest of Hope!
It's Fall again. That time of the year when we
are blessed to see God painting the world with golden colors and striking
beauty. It's a wonderful time of year. Piles of leaves to jump in. Cool foggy
mornings. Clear star-filled nights. Friday night football games. Hot apple
cider. Pumpkin pie. We have some of the most loved holidays at this time of
year: Halloween and Thanksgiving. There is much to give praise and thanks to
There is another event that happens at this
time of the year in the church, the commemoration of the Protestant Reformation
on the last Sunday of October. This year mark 499 years since Martin Luther
nailed his 95 complaints against the Catholic Church at the time. His actions
were followed by other reformers: John Calvin, John Wycliffe, Huldrych Zwingli
(to name a few).
One of the realities that I have come to
believe in recent years is that there is once again a need for a reformation
within the church. In many ways the church has become unfocused, misguided and
out of step with the path Jesus taught and called his disciples to follow.
What might a new reformation look like? UCC
pastor Robin Meyers, in his book The Underground Church, imagines just what
that church might look like: Just imagine...
»A church where women are truly equal to men, and never patronized.
»A church where straights and gays worship together as children of God.
»A church where children are cherished in practice, and not just in
»A church where following Jesus is just as important as worshiping
»A church where the clergy are on neither a pedestal nor a chopping
»A church where learning is not subversive and science is not the enemy
»A church where fear is never an instrument of religious conversion or
»A church where the enemy is not death but rather our failure to truly
»A church where the waters of baptism, no matter how they are
administered, trap us all in the irreversible claim of God upon our lives.
»A church where being rich means having everything you need instead of
everything you want.
»A church where there is no acceptable alternative to hope, no
substitute for joy, and no excuse not to offer the same unconditional love to
others that has been so freely lavished on us.
With the Greatest of Hope!