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Rummaging around on Facebook the other day, I came across a picture that moved me. It was taken on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine. There has been a lot of political unrest in Ukraine in recent weeks as anti-government protestors have gathered in the streets to call for the resignation of the current president. The protests and the government’s reaction against them have grown violent, and the situation is volatile.

The photo that caught my attention was of a Ukrainian priest who was standing between a group of protestors and a line of government riot police. He was dressed in his clerical robe and was calmly holding a small cross toward the crowds.

At the same time that I saw this picture, I was in the middle of studying the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, and I couldn’t help but hear Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If you were in worship this past Sunday, we explored a few of the Beatitudes together: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who mourn.” But we didn’t have time to go into all of them, and we quickly sailed by “the peacemakers.”

What does it mean to be a peacemaker? For much of my life, I have thought of myself as a peacemaker. Maybe it comes from being the youngest of four children and always hoping that “we could all just get along!” But I always thought being a peacemaker just meant staying out of conflict. I avoided conflict like the plague. When people in my family or at school or in the workplace were in conflict, I stayed out of the way. I didn’t provoke conflict. I never started a fight, and I escaped one that involved me in any way that I could. I thought that made me a peacemaker.

But in recent years, I have been learning that “peace” does not just mean the absence of conflict. Two nations or two people can come to a cease-fire, but they have not reached God’s reality of peace. God’s peace comes when we do the hard work of reconciliation. When we come face-to-face with those who oppose us, speak the truth, listen earnestly, ask for and offer forgiveness and commit to doing things differently.

So, a peacemaker is not one who simply avoids conflict but one who is willing to enter into the midst of it. A peacemaker will step into the crossfire and invite others to a new way of dealing with each other. That is what that Ukrainian priest in the photograph represented for me. He was willing to risk his own safety. He didn’t take one side or the other but stood in the middle. He offered a vision of the cross and invited the opposing forces to consider a different way.

How can we be instruments of reconciliation? In our daily living–especially in the church–it’s much easier to run from conflict than to walk toward it. But if we walk toward it holding onto the cross, then we can trust God to protect us and/or use us to build real peace. Maybe we start within our family. With a friend. A colleague. Who knows where God could take us from there? Maybe even across the world.

Looking Ahead

Can you believe that January is already half over? We are well into the new year, and our congregation is looking ahead to a year full of worshiping, learning and serving together. As we move forward, I wanted to make sure all of us were informed about where we stand financially as a congregation: how we ended 2013, what the budget looks like for 2014 and how our capital campaign is going. It’s important for all of us to be on the same page as we move ahead together.
I know, I know. Talking about “the family budget” does not always make for exciting dinner conversation or newsletter articles. But, in this case we have good news to share and celebrate together! And money is not just a topic for the Finance Committee or a small group of people in the church. It’s for all of us. We are a household of faith, and, as I’ve said before, we all need to have as much information as we can about how our congregation is doing financially. (Besides, Paul’s going to write this article next week and tell you all about how much fun the youth had on the winter retreat. So you have that to look forward to!)
As you may know, we found ourselves in December with about a $50,000 deficit in our revenue. Although that caused a little stress for those who are stewards of our finances, we were able to celebrate at the end of the year that we had met our budget. Due to a little less spending than we planned and a lot of generosity of giving, we came within a few hundred dollars of our 2013 budget! We were able in 2013 to expand our ministries, sustain our staff and pay our apportionment to the United Methodist Church in full. I would call that a financially successful year!
Looking ahead to 2014, the Finance Committee and the Administrative Council approved a budget that is slightly lower than 2013. By the end of the year we had received $889,962 in pledges, so we felt it best to keep a conservative budget. The budget does include modest raises for the staff and our full apportionment. And a generous designated gift outside the budget has allowed us to continue our handbell and children’s choir ministries under the leadership of Amanda Craft. Amanda will be coming on as Associate Minister of Music through this wonderful gift. So ministries will continue to grow and thrive as we move forward into this new year.
Our 2020 Vision campaign to reduce the debt shows the generosity of this congregation beyond our annual budget. We had hoped to raise $500,000 toward the goal of being debt-free by 2020, and to date we have received $358,254 in pledges. (If you haven’t made a pledge but would like to, it’s never too late!) We feel confident that we will reach the $400,000 mark soon, which is good news indeed.
I am so grateful for our Finance Committee and their faithful work. We have changed the structure of that committee so that members serve for three years in tead of the old “serve ‘til you drop” model. Chip Higgins will continue one more year as our fearless leader, and I am so grateful for the faith, hope and love he brings to that work. And if you see Bryan Richardson, please say “thank you” for the many years he dedicated to this team. He has been a rock and has been a steward of the financial work of this congregation through good times and hard times.
And, finally, I am grateful for all of you and your generosity. May God continue to shape us as a congregation to be more generous, more loving, more faithful and more compassionate with each day.


Where am I in my journey with Christ?

I have spent half the morning looking for a note that I received this fall shortly after my mother passed away. It was a note from Dr. Ellsworth Kalas, a pastor and a longtime family friend. You may have heard me talk about Dr. Kalas before. He has preached at my family camp meeting every four years since 1964 and is one of the best preachers I have ever heard. More than that, though, he has been for me a mentor and an example of what a disicple of Jesus Christ looks like.

When I called him and his wife to let them know about Mom’s death, I left a message on their answering machine. A couple of weeks later, I got a note from him saying that they had been out of state and were so sorry to have missed my call and Mom’s service. Of course, I set the note aside in a special place so that I could read it again, and this morning I can’t remember where that special place is. Please tell me you do that, too.

Anyway, there was one sentence in his note that really struck me. Since I can’t find the original, I just have to summarize what he said: “As I reflect on my years as a pastor, I realize that the most important work that we do is to help God make saints.” After nearly seventy years of ministry (he is in his 90’s now), he has come to the conclusion that the primary job of the church is to make people more holy.

As I reflect on Dr. Kalas’s words, I realize he doesn’t mean that we are supposed to churn out people who are “holier than thou.” Our job is not to set ourselves up within the church as more saintly than people outside the church. The job of the church is not to draw perfect people inside its walls so that they can stay there. No, the point of the church is to help people become more like Christ. To become his disciples and not just church members. Holy people make a difference in the world. Saints are not saints for their own sake but for the sake of the world. That means that what matters most in the church is not growing numbers and higher budgets but greater humility, justice, compassion, kindness, hospitality, generosity and love.

In worship this past Sunday we blessed twenty-four young people who are beginning the journey of confirmation together. Over the next few months they’ll be studying Scripture, learning about the teachings of the faith, growing in relationship with each other and going out into the community to love and serve. They are on a path of spiritual growth. What about you and me? Shouldn’t all of us be on the path toward sainthood?

As we head into a new year together, I invite you to ask yourself, as I will be asking myself, “Where am I in my journey with Christ? Am I growing? Am I learning how to be a disciple and not just a church member? What would help me to go deeper?” Let’s begin asking these questions of ourselves and of our congregation and see where God takes us next.


The Light Within

Early in September, right at the beginning of my renewal leave, I traveled to the Isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Actually, it’s off the coast of the Isle of Mull which is off the coast of Scotland. It is remote, to say the least. It took two planes, a train, a ferry, a bus and another ferry to get to this holy place where Christian monks first built an abbey in the fifth century.

Today there is an ecumenical group of Christians who live at the abbey, and every day they host worship services for anyone who would like to attend. On the first night that I was there, I decided to go to the 9:00 p.m. service. I left the Bishop’s House, the small retreat house where I was staying, and trekked up the hill to the abbey. The sun was still setting and the cows watched me placidly as I made my way through their field to the abbey’s back door.

When the worship service was over, I stepped out into the night. The weather had been cloudy all day, and now it was nearly pitch black outside. I hadn’t even thought to bring a flashlight. I mean, when in our day-to-day lives do we need a flashlight to see at night?  We have so much ambient light in our neighborhoods and streets, so many cars coming to-and-fro, that we rarely experience pitch black. I admit I was a bit scared. In my head I knew that no “boogie men” were going to bother to take a train, two ferries and a bus to get to Iona. There’s probably no safer place in the world. But walking in total darkness, no matter where you are, is scary.

Then I heard a voice behind me. It was one of the women who had checked into the Bishop’s House at the same time I had that morning. She had remembered a flashlight. She called my name and asked if I wanted to walk with her so that we could together see our way through the cow pasture back to the house. I was so grateful, not only for her company but for her light.

The prophet Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” There are so many different ways to “walk in darkness.” We’ve all had seasons of our lives that have felt dark, when we could not find our way and weren’t sure where the next step was. No matter where you are, walking in darkness is scary. And when you’re in darkness, even a little light can make a huge difference.

During the season of Advent, we watch the light grow among us. We light one more candle as each week passes. We sing, “I want to walk as a child of the light” at the end of each service. And on Christmas Eve, we will light the Christ candle and watch the light spread around the sanctuary. That’s not something we do just because it’s beautiful. We do it because Christ’s light is given to each one of us, and we are meant to take it out into the world.

As you hold your candle in your hand on Christmas Eve, I invite you to ponder how you can bear the light of Christ in the world. Even a small flame is enough to dispel the darkness. It’s amazing how one little flashlight made all the difference for me on that dark night in Scotland. There may be someone in your path who is walking in darkness, who is scared and unsure where she is or where to turn. It just might be Christ’s light in you that can help her find her way.


Holy Moments

Every Sunday in worship, God gets my attention. There’s always something that touches me or hits me over the head. Or both. It usually happens several times a Sunday. Sometimes it’s the choir anthem. Sometimes it’s the Prayers of the People. Sometimes it’s a phrase of the Scripture that I hadn’t quite noticed before. But always there are unexpected, holy moments in worship.

One of those holy moments came this Sunday when we were starting to pray the Lord’s Prayer together. From where I was sitting up front, I could hear the voice of a child saying the prayer, just a millisecond ahead of all of the grown-ups around her. I don’t know who  she was. In fact, I’m not even sure that it was a little girl because I couldn’t see behind the Advent wreath. But her voice led me in that prayer. Isaiah had just said in the scripture reading that “a little child will lead them,” and it touched me to know that a child that small would know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and recite it with such clarity and confidence.

During the three months of my renewal leave, my family worshiped most Sundays at home. We visited a couple of churches, but most of the time, if we were in town, we practiced “home church.” One of the kids would light a candle. Another child would pick our opening hymn and I’d struggle through it on the piano. The next thing for us to do, of course, was to say the Prayer for Illumination before reading the scripture for the day. Then we’d hear the scriptures and talk about what we thought they meant. We’d pray together and then I’d try to play “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” like Jon Calvin. (Believe me, it just wasn’t the same. I only did it once.)

Several things struck me in those times of “home church.” The first was that our children knew the pattern of worship. They knew by heart the Prayer for Illumination. It felt natural to them and to all of us to pray for others after exploring the scriptures. The pattern of worship has sunk into them and shaped them, not because they have sat in a classroom and learned about them but because they have practiced them, week in and week out. For now those prayers and practices may seem like rote, but one day, I’m sure, one of them will stop and think about what it means to open your heart and mind to what God has to say. One of them might find comfort when the phrase “give to us our daily bread” comes unexpectedly to mind. Practicing “home church” made me realize more deeply how important patterns and practices are in shaping our lives in the faith.

Another thing that I learned was how much we missed being part of a worshiping community. Doing church at home was different and fun and good for us in a lot of ways, but we realized how much we love and need the church. After visiting another church in  the area, one of the kids said, “Can we go back to our church, where we know people?” Yes, it seems, it is about relationships.

As a parent, it was a gift to see how our practice of coming to church every Sunday (and Wednesday) has really formed our children. How coming together with other believers every week to worship God and love one another has shaped them. Wow! Revelation! Going to church matters! Of course, going to church every week doesn’t make you holy. We know that. But, maybe there’s more to it than we thought.


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