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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!


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!

August Pastor's Pen 2016

This coming weekend, on Saturday, we will once again be hosting a worship service and providing a meal at the Urban Mission in Steubenville. This is a yearly tradition for us at Zion, and a wonderful opportunity for us to live out our faith in service to others.
It's striking how many times in the Bible, gathering together to eat dinner or a feast is used as a symbol for the beloved community and sometimes heaven itself. One of my favorites is the parable Jesus tells in Luke 14:15-24.
In the parable, a banquet table is set for those who are influential and have status in the community. The table is set and the invitations are sent to those with whom the host wanted to share. One by one they send their regrets stating a number of reasons why they are unable to join the guest list. “I’m just married” says one. “I have just bought a new house”, responds another.
The table has been set, but no one shows up. Ultimately, the invitation is sent out to the “whosevers”, the “outsiders” – those who often get forgotten, forced-out and excluded from the tables of power and plenty.
In our world today many feel forgotten, forced-out or excluded from the tables of power and plenty. Either “they” don’t fit, or their viewpoints are not welcomed. Race, gender, gender-identity, status, class, physical ability, and sexual orientation are often used to exclude and leave such folks off the invitation list.
In the parable, Jesus help us understand that the table of invitation is set for all. The story speaks to the values of Jesus and to the value of Zion United Church of Christ when we proclaim our extravagant welcome of all people.
It is a welcome that must be lived out today perhaps more than ever in a world where we witness the results of close-mindedness, discrimination and exclusion. The lesson that Jesus teaches the early followers was one that moved them beyond their understanding of “who is in.”
The invitation for us today is to continue to move beyond our own individual prejudices and understandings of “who is in and who is out” and allow the Holy Spirit to speak as we put into practice the radical welcome of the United Church of Christ here at Zion, and in our communities.
With the Greatest of Hope!


May Pastor's Pen

Pentecost is Sunday May 15. It's the day in the church year when the church is decked out in red. It's the day when fire and wind are common images. It's the day the church celebrates and remembers God's gift of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. We recall how the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire floating above the heads of the disciples. We are amazed by the power of language and tongues that was given to the disciples; and how that gift enabled the Gospel to be preached and heard by thousands.
But, Pentecost is more than just a day, it's a season. The season of Pentecost begins on Sunday and continues until the Sunday before the beginning of Advent in November. It's the longest season in the church calendar. Why? Because the gift of the Holy Spirit marked the beginning of the church, and Holy Spirit continues to be present in the church, guiding it and strengthening it.
The initial gift of the Holy Spirit equipped the disciples for the sharing of the Good News. Through the power of the Spirit, walls were broken down, people from different cultures, who spoke different languages were united as one. In the years that followed as the church grew from Jerusalem out across the Mediterranean people from all walks of life, all cultures, all languages, all genders, people who had held all sorts of differing religious perspectives, came together as the church. Empowered and equipped by the Spirit, not only for the sharing of the Good News, but for the continued breaking down of the barriers that divide us one from another.
One of the truths that we in the church are especially aware of is the central role and power of love in our lives, and in our faith. God's love for us shown in Jesus, and our calling to love our neighbors as ourselves. Loving is often difficult, it's tough to do it on our own. Yet, we are not on our own. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is empowering us to love. When we are open to the Spirit, we are open to love. When we open ourselves to receive God’s love, then we abide in God’s love, and we allow God to love through us.
There is plenty of division and animosity in our world. The wounds of exclusion run deep in our culture and in the church. But God shows no partiality. The Holy Spirit breaks all our boundaries. In Christ there is no slave or free, male or female, black or white, gay or straight. All are one in Christ, and all are acceptable to God. When we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, we can become agents of reconciliation.
All we need is love. But we also need to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit to help us break down the barriers and divisions we create among ourselves. We have to be open to the dangerous, provocative, unsettling work of the Holy Spirit. We have to be willing to be transformed. Jesus calls us into friendship in order to bear the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit – to love as God loves – in order to be salt and light and to be agents of reconciliation in our struggling world.
With the Greatest of Hope!


Pastor's Pen September

A few months ago, we put a rainbow on the lectern in the sanctuary and on our church sign. I'd like to take the opportunity to explain why.
We put the rainbow on our sign as a declaration of welcome; yes, to the LGBT community, but that welcome is much broader. Many folks have a story where the church has hurt them, betrayed them, made them feel unlovable, caused them to doubt whether they are loved by God. Single parents, divorced couples, mentally or physically disabled folk, to name just a few have experience hurt.  The damage that has been done by churches and by people claiming to be followers of Jesus is astronomical. And it continues.
Which is why the rainbow is important. Because I dream of a world where no kid wonders if God loves them or not. I dream of a world where no person shies away from a community because they don’t know if they can be authentically themselves. I dream of a world where we don’t have to put a rainbow on our sign as a public witness that God unconditionally loves ALL people because it’s just a given, that of course God welcomes all.
I dream of that world. I think God has been dreaming for a long time about that world. Every time I see rainbows, I think about the covenant made to Noah, after the flood. In the story, God hangs the rainbow in the sky and tells Noah never again will that damage happen. From there on out, God was all in. No matter what, God promised that nothing would come between God and people again. And that sign, that boldly colored rainbow, would remind both God and Noah of that.
The rainbow on our lectern and on our sign is meant to proclaim that same message. It proclaims a message that every person (not just gay, lesbian, bi, and trans folks), needs to hear and know: God’s church is open to all. No qualifiers. No conditions. Just come as you are. That’s the core of what Jesus knew and taught.
Gay or straight, white or black or brown, tall or short, fat or skinny, poor or rich, extroverted or introverted, left-handed or right handed, child or adult, democrat or republican, abled or disabled, whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are beloved, both just as you are and as who you are growing to be day by day.
The rainbow matters to me because it shares a message every person ought to hear: you are loved by God and by a gathered group of Jesus following folks who strive to be bold enough, crazy enough, to affirm and celebrate the worth of every single person.
May we ALL be bold enough to proclaim that.
With the Greatest of Hope!


August 2015 Pastor's Pen

During the next few Sundays we will be reading from the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John. This is a long passage explaining that Jesus is the “Bread of Life”. This is a sometimes difficult time for us pastors, because we are asked to preach multiple sermons on the same subject, there is only so much that can be said. Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be said is that bread (food in general) is essential to life. Therefore, when we call Jesus the “Bread of Life” we are saying that he is in some way essential.
The other thing about bread is that it is basic, it is physical, bread is down to earth. It is not just “spiritual”. Jesus has come to us in the flesh, as a real human being that walked the earth and ate bread himself. He has connected himself to you and me and all of creation in this way.
When something is essential to life, God seems to make a lot of it. For instance, we need air and water, so God has created more than enough for everyone. We also need food. (Yes, Jesus said we do not live by bread alone, but we also don’t live long without it.) In the same way, God has provided more than enough food for everyone. We need to think about this. None of us would deny allowing another person to breathe or have a drink of water. Can we let someone go without food when God has provided it in abundance?

On Saturday August 1, a group of volunteers from Zion UCC encountered people who often go without food when we provided a worship service and a meal at the Urban Mission in downtown Steubenville. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, there are nearly 12,000 people in Jefferson County that are food insecure, meaning that they don’t always know where they will find their next meal. That's 1 in 5 people! This is not just adults, there are a large number of children that go to bed  hungry every night, and wake the next morning unsure if they will eat that day.
I hope you can see that we are not talking about a problem that is far away. This is not a problem caused by famine, or poor distribution, or corrupt governments. It is caused by poverty and the cycle of poverty that hunger creates. Think about the children: poor nutrition causes poor mental development, causes lack of energy and poor performance at school, which causes poverty level employment. Then the cycle begins again. We are a people that shares Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life. We break that bread together at worship. It is essential. It is real. And sharing our bread, our food with the hungry is not something separate or different. It is part of that communion with Christ, with creation, with all of God’s children.
With the Greatest of Hope!

July 2015 Pastor's Pen

Greetings people of Zion! I trust you are enjoying our summer months, even though we would all like them to be a bit drier.
With the landmark ruling of the US Supreme Court on same-sex marriage announced last month, we enter into the celebration and joy that many within the LGBT community have sought and fought for their whole lives. We must honor the sacrifices and pain of those who have exposed their private lives to public scrutiny and criticism. We must also be aware of and sensitive to the pain and turmoil this will cause for many who have a different understanding of this issue. We must all be prepared to meet anger with love and hatred with understanding. Please find time in your day to give thanks to God for the opportunities this decision presents as well as the wisdom and courage we will need to embrace those who find this decision troubling. We will still need to work for the acceptance and belonging that all of us would claim as God’s children.
Let us remember the words in our Open and Affirming statement: At Zion, “We extend God's Extravagant Welcome to persons of every gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, social and economic status, faith background, political and theological beliefs, marital standing and family structure.” At Zion, we are a diverse community of people, young and old, progressive and conservative. We have found a home here because we have learned that we do not all need to agree on everything in order to sit with one another in the pew, lifting our voices and our prayers to God.
In the coming weeks and months, it is likely that Zion will be asked to host weddings for gay and lesbian couples. It is my hope and prayer that you will join me in welcoming those couples, and celebrating with me the love they wish to declare in our historic and beautiful church. I am not asking you to change your mind on issues that you may find troubling, what I am asking is that you remember that Jesus' challenge to us is to seek not to judge one another, to find ways of including people rather than excluding them, and to love others as we ourselves would want to be loved.
If you would like to speak with me about this issue, or any other, please contact me. I want to hear from you. I desire to know and understand your thoughts and positions on this issue, as well as many others. I will be more effective in my service for you if I know you better.
With the Greatest of Hope!

May 2015 Pastor's Pen

In the daily “Still Speaking” UCC devotional that posted the day after Easter, Pastor Emily Heath reminded us of something vitally important. “If you go in any kind of store (the day after Easter), you will see that Easter is over. The plastic eggs will be half-price, and the Easter candy will be on clearance, never to be seen again until next February. There's just one problem with that: no matter what the stores are saying, Easter isn't over. While Easter may have been the day of the empty tomb, the 50 days after are just as much a time of new beginnings. We have until Pentecost, May 24, to celebrate Easter. And beyond that, we celebrate the new life that Easter brings.”
As Christians we celebrate the re-creation and renewal of all things at Easter, it's about the transformation of the entire universe, not only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, or the opening of heaven's doors to us. When we say “I believe in the Resurrection” we mean a bodily resurrection where heaven comes to earth and earth is transformed. And everything we do now to participate in God’s transformation and renewal of the world will be blessed and magnified at the time of the Resurrection. What we celebrated on Easter morning is the foundation for a renewed way of life in and for the world both today and in the future.
What can we do? Here are some ideas for wrapping up this season of resurrection and renewal. Offer forgiveness to someone with whom you have a long-standing grudge. Let yourself feel forgiveness for an action that you now regret, and for which you feel remorse. Tread a little more lightly on the earth, use less, and be more mindful of the impact of your consumption patterns. Share a joyful moment with a friend, show appreciation for your spouse, let a co-worker know how much you value their contribution. Offer a prayer for peace, get involved in political action for change, or just pick up some trash along the roadside. Tell one of our young people that you’ve noticed their involvement in church and that you are proud of them. Or send a note to someone whose presence in church you’ve been missing. If you have been among the missing, realize that you are missed.
You will be doing your part in God’s transformation and renewal of the world. And you don’t need to stop at Pentecost…God plans to keep this project going as long as necessary!
With the Greatest of Hope!

April 2015 Pastor's Pen

As our family settles into life here in Ohio, I find that I am keeping my eyes open much more so than I have in the past. I know that much of that has to do with being in new surroundings, new neighborhoods, new stores, new streets. I want to be sure I don't miss anything. In a few years, I'm sure I won't be looking around quite as intensely as I am now. My awareness of seeing things more intensely now, makes me wonder what things I missed seeing in the past because I wasn't looking for them.
We have to develop the eyes to see certain things. Moses saw a burning bush and turned aside, and was rewarded with a conversation with God Almighty. But I doubt that the sight of that bush was all that spectacular, and maybe most people would have walked right on by…not even curious. Moses always had an eye for the sacred and was tuned in to the God channel. That’s what made him a good messenger.
Unless you have eyes to see, unless you are looking for something, it's easy to miss what might be right in front of you. My guess is, if you don’t know anything about God, if you’re not on the lookout for God, God would also be easy to miss. In the Easter story, Mary Magdalene comes to the cemetery garden early in the morning. She meets someone who she initially supposes to be the gardener. But then the gardener calls her by name. As one who knew the power of Jesus’ love, had felt his special friendship, Mary recognizes the risen Jesus. I imagine that others might have passed on by this “gardener” and never known  that the Risen One, the Son of God, was right there in front of them.
You have to know what you are looking for if you want to find it. Mary was the first witness to the resurrection because she had the eyes to see. Her words ring through the ages, “I have seen the Lord.” We should  never let our familiarity with Easter jade us to the surprise of those words. And we should never stop looking for the Lord in new and surprising places (like a cemetery.) God always has something new to show us, which is the power of the resurrection. Tune into the God channel, keep your eyes peeled, and be on the lookout. Easter is breaking out all over, with new life everywhere.
Let’s walk with our Easter eyes wide open, and bear witness to the ways in which we see God. Embrace the new life of Easter. Be a messenger and tell the Easter story to someone who has not seen the Lord. You will open up to them a whole new world of new life and possibilities. Hallelujah! Christ is Risen!

March 2015 Pastor's Pen

A few years ago, it became popular in many churches for people to wear wristbands with the letters 'WWJD' upon them. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do?”, and were supposed to serve as a reminder to think about our actions and words before speaking or doing. What would Jesus do in the situation if he was in our position?
Lent is a time in the church year when we are called to pause and reflect on our lives. A time to pause and think about the things we have done, and still do. Lent is when we also think about what Jesus did for us on the cross, and the things he did amongst us as he walked the earth.
Last fall, the author Mick Mooney wrote a short piece as a comment on the question, “What would Jesus do?”
Once upon a time, a mother made her son a wristband. On it was written: WWJD? This, of course stood for: "What Would Jesus Do?" She instructed her son to look at the wristband before making decisions on how to live his Christian life.
A week later she was shocked to see that her son had become friends with prostitutes, was hanging out with 'sinners' -- even buying people who were already drunk yet another round of beers!
Worse still, he had walked into their church the previous Sunday and tore down the book store, overturned the tables and threw the cash register through the window, he then made a whip and chased the pastor out of the building, declaring he was turning God's house into a den of thieves.

Most shocking was what happened when his mother went to picket the local abortion clinic. To her embarrassment, her son was also there, but he was standing with the women who just had an abortion, and yelled at the protesters: "You, who are without sin, throw the first stone!"
The mother was very distressed, but fortunately she found a solution to this terrible problem. She made another wristband, this time it read: WWAPD? This, she explained to her son, stood for: "What Would A Pharisee Do?" She took the old WWJD? wristband and burned it.
Since her son has been wearing the new wristband, looking at it to help him make his decisions, he has become a dedicated tither, a public prayer warrior, an active condemner of 'sinners,' a passionate defender of the Old Covenant law, and has a great reputation as a godly young man amongst other religious people.
Needless to say, the mother is very happy now. She only wishes Jesus would take notice and follow her son's good example.
During this season of Lent, may we think about who we follow as Messiah and Savior. May we truly think about his words and actions. Can we be honest enough with ourselves to admit that there are times when our answer to the question of “What would Jesus do?” is actually a better answer to the question, “What would you like Jesus to do?”
The journey of Lent is a journey of discovery and self-discovery; a time when we come to see God in new and deeper ways. May the God we discover be not of our own creating, but the Creator of the universe.
With the Greatest of Hope!