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Pastor's Pen

Pastor's Pen August

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!

Erik

Pastor's Pen June

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 Faith.
 
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 educational setting.
 
In preparation for the series, here is the UCC's Statement of Faith:
 
        We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:
 
        You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.
 
        You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
 
        You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.
 
         In 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.
 
         You 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.
 
          You 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.
 
          You 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 amazing ways.
 
With the Greatest of Hope!

Erik

May 2017 Pastor's Pen

Love 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?”
In my 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 me cry.
 
Whether 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 unconditionally.
Somehow, 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.
 
The 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.
 
The 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.
 
If we 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 and beloved?”
 
With the Greatest of Hope!

Erik

Pastor's Pen April

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!

Erik

March Pastor's Pen

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 6:1)
 
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 reward.
 
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!

Erik

February 2017 Pastor's Pen

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!

Erik

January Pastor's Pen

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 resolutions fail.
 
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!

Erik

December Pastor's Pen

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!

Erik

November Pastor's Pen

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 relate?
 
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.
 
But wait!
 
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!

Erik

Pastor's Pen October

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 God for.
 
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 theory.
 
 
»A church where following Jesus is just as important as worshiping Christ.
 
 
»A church where the clergy are on neither a pedestal nor a chopping block.
 
 
»A church where learning is not subversive and science is not the enemy of faith.
 
 
»A church where fear is never an instrument of religious conversion or conversation.
 
 
»A church where the enemy is not death but rather our failure to truly live.
 
 
»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!