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Pastor's Pen

July Pastor's Pen

Every year, summer comes around with its cookouts, lemonade, vacations, high electric bills, and lower numbers in church. It's a given you can pretty much plan on, the number of people coming to church on Sundays in the summer is lower than pretty much any other time in the year. Lower numbers means it can be harder to find the volunteers and attendees at meetings and events (people aren't there to hear the announcements). It also means that the amount of giving also goes down.
 
In the last few weeks I've spent some time looking at the giving here at Zion, and I want to share with you what I've found out. I think it's interesting and also challenging.
 
(All of these numbers are based on 2017)
 
Annually the members of Zion contribute $17,945 in the offering plate. That averages out to $345 per week. Our average attendance in 2017 was 27.91 so that means each person put $12.36 in the plate per week. Now, our attendance numbers include infants and children so that's not really accurate; and, there are individuals who contribute to the church, but are not able to join us for worship on Sunday.
 
Of the 49 households that are members at Zion, 23 actually contributed. Not even 50%! That's shocking! In Jefferson County the median household income is $42,327. If our 23 giving households contributed a tithe at that level the annual giving would be $97,352.10 (MUCH larger than our current giving of $17,945). Now, I fully realize that there are a large number of folks who don't make the median household income, and are on a fixed income. Did you know the average Social Security disbursement is $14,760 per person? If our 23 households (not all of whom are retired) gave a tithe at that level our annual income would be $33, 948 – almost twice our current income.
 
These numbers were surprising, so I dug a little deeper with our Treasurer, Jeff Knauff's help. Of our
23 giving households only 3 contributed at least a tithe at the Social Security disbursement level
($1476), and 6 contributed annually at half that ($738). Of those 9 households, only 3 are not of retirement age, which means 6 are.
 
I share with you these numbers for several reasons: First, looking purely at the numbers it appears that few of us are following through on the Biblical call to give ten percent of what we make to God. I'm sure all of us can do better. I fully realize that many of us are living paycheck to paycheck and we give financially as we are able; there are other ways to contribute. So, secondly, when was the last time you volunteered to prepare or serve a meal? When was the last time you called the church to ask if you could help out planting flowers, or cleaning the nursery? When was the last time you served as a lay reader, a greeter, an usher?
 
So I challenge you: Are you giving what you can? Either in acts of service or money? What would it look like if you did? Can you imagine what the church could do to further the Gospel of Jesus Christ if all of us gave what we could? (Whether it's Summer, Fall, Winter, or Spring.)
 
With the Greatest of Hope!

May Pastor's Pen

In just a few short weeks summer will well and truly be upon us. Already in the last few weeks, as the temperature has been going up and the days have been getting longer many of us are beginning to get itchy for the months to come. We are getting our summer toys out of the garage, we are making sure our bikes are in good shape, that the lawn mower is running smoothly. We might be looking at our summer calendars, trying to see if there is a time that will work best to get away for a day or two, perhaps a week or so. Summer is a great time for many of us to relax, for many of us to “get away from it all.”
 
Getting away from the chaos of our lives, getting ‘unplugged’ is something that we all hunger for. We like to have those moments when we can sit on the front porch and just watch the world go by as we sip on our lemonade. Many of us long for those mornings when we can just lie in bed while someone else takes care of the kids, or the dog, or the laundry. Moms (and dads) can all relate to the phrase, “Calgon, take me away!” For some people getting away from it all can truly be as simple as locking the bathroom door and slipping into a bubble bath. For others, there needs to be greater space.
 
As Christians, though, we are not called to “get away” from the world. We are called to be in the world, just not of it. As Christians we are to be about the work of God in the world. It might not be easy, but you can engage the world without being a part of it. An astronaut can go into space, live in space, but not be a part of space. An astronaut puts on a spacesuit, and can work in space, do the things that need to be done. The spacesuit gives the astronaut the ability to be in space, but not of space.
 
As Christians, we are called to put on Christ; that is our spacesuit. Because of Jesus we are protected from the atmosphere of the world around us, we can safely breathe in the Spirit. But just because we have a spacesuit, just because we have been found by Jesus, does not mean we can just safely hang out in our little space station of faith and watch the world go by. No, we have been given our spacesuit, our Armor of God that we might go out into the world. Putting on Christ is not just about allowing ourselves to live, but equipping us to live out; to live out our faith, to live out our calling.
 
We have been set apart, we have been chosen for a reason, for a mission, for a calling. We have come to know the truth that God is love, that God’s love for us is beyond our understanding. We have been set apart so that we might bring the good news of that love to the world. We have been set apart, so that we might in our own awkward stumbling ways seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, seeking to live our lives in a reflection of how he lived. We have been set apart from the ways of the world so we can fight against the ways of the world; so we can fight against the many ‘isms’ that we encounter in our daily lives. We have been set apart so that we may have life, live that life to its fullest, and help others to live their lives to their fullest.
 
We cannot do that by escaping from the world, we can only do that when we enter into the world. Put on your spacesuit, put on the Armor of God, claim your identity, claim your calling, and live!

With the Greatest of Hope!

Erik

March 2018 Pastor's Pen

In just a few short weeks we will be celebrating Easter.  We will make the journey of Holy Week from Palms to an Upper Room to a Cross, and then to an Empty Tomb.  So often when we leave the church on Friday we do not reflect on the time between that dark night and the bright morning of Easter.  Yet, perhaps God is calling us to pause and reflect in this in-between time.
 
We know about Good Friday and the cross, about sorrow and death.  All humankind knows about suffering, brutality, and injustice, about tragic endings, about death, all of which are part of the human condition, in our private lives and in the life of the world.  We Christians also know about Easter Sunday and the promise, the hint of resurrection for the rest of us, because Jesus is risen from the dead.
 
However, our lives are not all about Good Friday or all about Easter Sunday.  We experience suffering and abandonment, exile and loss, and we face death, our own and the deaths of those we love.  We know ourselves as sinners, and our lives as broken.
 
And we also taste forgiveness, we taste hope, and we taste new life, we catch sight of it here and there, get word of it, listen and wait and hope...we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and yet we know ourselves also as destined for glory...pain and hope, dying and rising again...all humanity waiting, waiting, waiting...and we understand a little more why faith is best described as trust. We live most of our lives in that in-between, Holy Saturday-feeling time, the longest day as it is often referred to.
On that longest day we come face to face with the reality of our powerlessness. We couldn't stop Friday from happening, and there is nothing we can do to make Sunday come any quicker. We must face that emptiness (even if we choose to ignore it with plans for Easter dinners and Easter egg hunts.)
 
In the emptiness of waiting, we begin to learn something that the gods of this world cannot bear, the knowledge that they do not want us to know: at the very point of our failure and betrayals, when we taste our own impotence and limit, if we are not afraid to live in the absence, we discover God.
 
The in-between time is God's time. It is the time when we learn to trust Jesus' sacrifice of love which death can neither conquer or understand. In this in-between time we begin to see that it is God who has made death not an instrument to terrorize us into submission, but to call us more intimately to God's side. In the darkness of Holy Saturday we discover the power of our waiting. We come to the end of our way and the beginning of God's way. It is only Christ who can carry us over into Easter morning.
 
So let us journey, focused not on the end point, but on the journey itself. Allowing God to become present to us in an ever-new and ever-more intimate and personal way; and on that bright Easter morning our cries of “Alleluia! He is Risen!” will rise with even greater passion and joy.
 
 
 
 
With the Greatest of Hope!

Erik

Pastor's Pen December

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 struggle.
 
 
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 hear.
 
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from my family to yours!

With the Greatest of Hope!
 

Erik

November Pastor's Pen

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!

Erik

October Pastor's Pen

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 valleys.
 
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 reforming.
 
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!

Erik

September Pastor's Pen

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 216-736-3211.
 
With the Greatest of Hope!

Erik

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