17 December, 2017

Light and Warmth -- Danger and Destruction

The mystery of the story, the familiar lyrics, the stillness of the night made all the more magical by falling snow, the fading canned lights giving way to flickering candles, the simple melody sung by young and old together:
Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm.
All is bright

Each of us has a different favorite part of the Christmas Eve service.  Each of our souls is drawn to worship on that special night by that element that makes our heart sing. 
For me it is the flame on the end of the candle.  Light emanates from the flame;  heat radiates from it.  There is both comfort and danger in this light and heat:  comfort for the lost and the cold; danger for those who misuse and abuse.  

Isaiah called it.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

John affirmed it:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

On this day of the longest night, let us be the light and warmth for those who are held captive to the yolk of oppression.  Let us be the witnesses to God’s coming light and hope for the world in the face of those who would misuse and abuse others.  May the Christmas Narrative shine brightly in our lives so that others might know the Light of the world.

Peace to each and all,


09 November, 2017

What Happened to Thanks Giving?

The first frost to hit our backyard garden struck just this week. The Halloween pumpkins sit in the leaf piles on the sides of the streets, the Christmas decorations are up in the stores, and today I heard holiday music as I sat in a waiting room. 

But what happened to Thanksgiving?  Why have we leapt over the only secular holiday that is based upon a biblical mandate? 

In the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God commands the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths — in Hebrew, Sukkot, "to rejoice before the Lord your God" at the time of the fall harvest [Lev. 23:40]. In Jewish tradition, the Festival of Sukkot is a joyous occasion to give thanks and praise to the Source of Creation for all the blessings, bounty, and abundance.  Joy is at the center:  scripture says that during Sukkot, "you shall have nothing but joy." [Deut. 16:15]
When they fled England, our New England predecessors saw themselves as fulfilling the biblical Exodus from Egypt.  Thanks to the indigenous people of Cape Cod, they survived their first winter and had a successful harvest of native produce and learned to hunt and fish.  Copying the three day festival of Sukkot, they celebrated for three days and gave thanks for their blessings, bounty, and abundance.

All over social media, people are posting their daily “thanksgivings” as part of a month of thankfulness.  I’m approaching this a bit differently: I think I should find something in everyday for which to be thankful; and to make up for the rest of the year of NOT doing it, I’m listing 12 things each day this month. 

Here’s today’s list of the experiences, people, and things that have made my heart sing by bringing unexpected blessings to me. There are, of course, too little room to fit more than one day here, and so I give thanks for the grace, forgiveness, and understanding of those who don’t find yourself in this list. Be assured you are not forgotten or overlooked.  Likely you are on another days list on the pad on my desk.
  • I give thanks on this 27* morning for a warm place to live and work.
  • I am thankful for abundance of our still-producing garden along the church walls.
  • I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside creative, thinking, and joyful sojourners.
  • I give thanks for the quiet evenings my soul mate, Dan, and I spend cooking and sharing dinner.
  • I am grateful for the opportunity to raise two sons who have blessed me with lovely daughters, a brilliant grandchild, and a cuddly grand-pug.
  • I am thankful for my furry feline lap fungi who intuitively find me when I need to be cuddled.
  • I am thankful to the person who prepared my lunch at a local restaurant today; it’s hard to adapt Italian food recipes to avoid milk products!
  • I give thanks for the many yes responses when I was sure there would be only no’s. 
  • I lift my voice in thanksgiving for music that warms my heart and lifts my soul.
  • I am thankful for a mother who did not put limits on the dreams of her daughters or sons.
  • I am grateful for books that expand my mind, challenge my preconceptions, and take me to new places.
  • I give thanks for medical care that makes my life so much easier than that of my ancestors.

We have a blessing board in the foyer outside our sanctuary; There you are invited to list those things and people for which you are thankful.


12 October, 2017

Magic Pennies

The gifts of God are greatest when they are shared.  

That's what I was taught as a teen.  I'm a logical person, so the idea of sharing something in order to increase it is nonsensical.  And yet, experience has taught me that logic is not applicable to the working of God.  

Early in our marriage, Dan and I were were confident that we could not afford to give anything but our time and talent to the church or to any other charity.  So we volunteered often and wrote checks to pay off our education debts and quarterly taxes. It seemed we always teetered on the edge of bouncing checks. We ate a lot of 10 cent ramen noodles from Aldi's.  And we were dependent upon food stamps and WIC supplements while our children were young.  

I'm not sure what it was that led us to budget differently.  Once we did, we did not look back.  We made two decisions that changed how we dealt with money. First, we changed the order of priorities in finances: rather than starting by paying the bills, we paid ourselves first by putting a set percentage of each paycheck into an "emergency fund";  and we made our offering to the church the second priority as a tithe that increased over time.  Once these were out of the bank, we paid bills and lived on whatever was left over.  Second, we learned to be choosy in what we purchased; we asked if we really needed something -- and if we would still need it in 2 months -- and then waited the 60 days before we purchased it -- and always paid for it with cash.

The habits we formed made a world of difference for how we live, for our health, and for our marriage.  Money (or rather the lack of money) stopped controlling us.  We learned to appreciate and prefer the things that don't require a purchase.  And, we became addicted to generosity.  There is no logic to this, but the more we give away, the richer our lives have become.  When we practice generosity, we depend more upon God and less upon ourselves; generosity builds and strengthens our faith.

Just as prayer, worship, daily devotional practices, and studying the Bible can enhance our spiritual lives, giving is one of the most significant spiritual exercises Jesus taught.  Well over half of the parables of Jesus deal with possessions and money.  Over 10% of the verses in the gospels are related to money and possissions.  In the New Testament, there are 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith, but over 2000 verses on money an dpossessions.  In other words, Jesus taught that our relationship to money and material wealth determined whether we were at a roadblock or on the path toward faith.  

Jesus teaches that giving is first and foremost a spiritual act and only secondarily a financial act.  In the spiritual practice of giving, our faith informs our giving.  Giving is something we do because of God's goodness to us.  The more we know and trust God, the more freely and graciously we give in every area of our lives.  
The topics of money and giving are often shunned in churches.  I believe, however, that if we are following the lead of Jesus, giving is our most important spiritual exercise.  What we give, why we give, and to whom we give speak volumes about our relationship with God.  

In this stewardship season, I encourage you to look at what your budget says about your relationship with God.  Then make a decision about what you want your relationship with God to look like in your budget.  

May God's peace and joy fill your heart.  


09 October, 2017

An Offensive Gospel.

The script that follows is from the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 8 -- a week after the massacre in Las Vegas.  It is based largely upon the conversation between two colleagues in the PRCL-L listserve, an international group of clergy who preach from the Revised Common Lectionary.  

This particular sermon upset a number of people.  Others found it an "interesting challenge to how [they] think about forgiveness."  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive because it is so inclusive, so extravagant in love, and so broad in its grace.  

Matthew 21:33-46 ..... The Parable of the Absentee Landlord

I’m struggling with what God will do, will say to the man who fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd at a concert in Las Vegas, killing some 60? people and wounding nearly 600 more.

Just before he killed himself, did he regret what he had just done? If so, perhaps, just barely, we might be able to accept that God forgave him.
But what if he didn’t? And, of course, we will never know.

So what if he didn’t? Did God … could God … would God, looking down on the devastation, on the bloodied bodies scattered on the crowd, the terrified survivors huddling behind whatever protection they could find, what would God feel? 
Certainly, the pain of the people below. Certainly, a great sorrow at such loss of life and ability and future. Certainly, the tragedy of the moment must overwhelm even God. Certainly, God’s tears mingled with those below.

According to the news, he was not a religious man. No ties to any particular religion. In our scenario, we’ve already determined that he is not repentant. Standing before God, he shows no remorse, even though showing some such feeling might make his sentence lighter. He simply stands there, no pleading for mercy, no phony tears of regret. He just stands there, waiting for the verdict. Does God extract revenge?

In the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, the landowner exacts revenge for the mistreatment of his servants and the death of his son. Such a response would be appropriate here.

But what if, instead of comparing the landowner to God, the intent of the parable was to contrast the two?* This is what the landowner would do, the human landowner, the landowner who lives by the ways of the world. Landowners in Jesus day were often, as in this parable, absentee landlords, people who might plant a vineyard, prepare it carefully, and then leave it in charge of someone else. The only contact he would have with the farm after that would be to send his servants to collect the rent.

People in Jesus’ day had plenty of experience with absentee landlords. Many of them farmed for them, not managing, but doing the actual farm labor, perhaps even working what had been their own land before they couldn’t pay back the mortgage. And the mortgage interest was always high, deliberately so, intended to make it impossible to repay the loan, allowing the wealthy to expand their land holdings.

Jesus was not telling a parable about God. He was telling a parable about the way the world works, about the way humans treat each other. “This is what you folks do,” he was saying. “This is NOT the way God works.” The tenants who beat the servants and killed the son deserved justice. Any court in the land would consider that to be a capital crime, deserving of equal retribution, with the death penalty the appropriate response.

But John 3:16 tells us something different for God’s response. God loved the world so much … the only begotten Son …

God’s response to the crucifixion? Not the death of the religious leaders who pushed him to Pilate. Not the destruction of Pilate’s palace. Not raining hellfire on Jerusalem.

God’s response was two-fold: the tearing of the curtain in the Temple, the curtain that separated the public part of the Temple from the Holy of Holies, entered only once a year by the very high priest, the dwelling place of God. The curtain torn in two. Torn in grief, as they might have torn their own clothing upon learning of the death of a love one? Torn to let the people in, to remove the veil of separation from the people? Whichever, the tearing of the curtain was not a violent act, not a punishment, not retribution. No violence. No one was harmed.We Christians don’t focus on the tearing of the curtain, because what was more important to us is what happened three days later, the opening of the tomb, the resurrection. Where humans would respond with death, God responded with life. Life everlasting.

For the disciples huddled behind locked doors, no condemnation for abandoning their teacher. Instead, “Peace be with you.” For Peter, who had denied even knowing Jesus, no condemnation. Instead, an assignment, “Feed my sheep.” For Saul, who persecuted the early Followers of the Way, no condemnation. Instead, a name change to Paul and a new vision of the world, a world in which both Jews and Gentiles would work together to bring about the Kingdom.

The human response to the death of the landlord’s son in the vineyard? Death to the tenants. God’s response to the death of the Son? Resurrection and life.So where does this leave the shooter standing in the judgment hall? Certainly he deserves justice. From God, what might he receive?

The man will receive from God what all of us have always received: mercy, forgiveness, and love.

This is the gospel: all have sinned. Christ died for all. All are loved.  ALL.

The question is not so much what God will do, but what I will do. Because the love of God shown in Jesus' death tells me that I am that man.  Yes, quantitatively, his sin is much more obvious. But qualitatively, he and I are the same, cut from the same cloth, stained with the same self-serving rivalry, envy, violence, and fear.

He is no worse than me. He is me— sad, lost, filled with anger and hatred.The cross says that he and I are no different. God loves us equally.

And that's the scandal of the cross. It's why we don't listen to Jesus. Because we want, we need, for that man to be so much worse than us. Because then… we can live with ourselves… because at least we are not that bad.

So how will I respond?

If I— even a little… even if I would just accept in principle, and with reservations… that I am equally loved and equally fall short, like that man… then I am free. I can get over myself. I can just be me …   instead of having to try to be good…     instead of having always to categorize other people as worse than me…   instead of having to worry because I am not as good as other people…   instead of having to fear being rejected…I am just me. God loves me. God gives me life. God will not let me go. God never lets go of anyone.

Or,I can double down on the hate I have for myself.He deserves to die.He must be punished.No one can be forgiven that…

Whenever we say those things, what we are really saying is that, deep in ourselves, buried under the blinders, that this is what we fear—  what we know— to be true about us. And we will never be free. Because we are no different. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If God cannot forgive him, God cannot forgive us…

But what's the point of it all if God lets him off scot-free?

First, God doesn't. There is a great cost. Jesus died, and countless other thousands have died, for and from our sin.

But here's the point:You see, that initial scenario I described might not be quite true. In the presence of God, I think no one will just "stand there waiting" for their verdict. We will meet God and know either great joy— know that we are home at last in the presence of utter goodness, or we will know utter fear. The great danger for us is that we may— still!— even in the presence of God— know only fear and condemnation. 

The longer and harder we fence God out the longer and harder we double down on our self-hatred the longer and harder we make it for us to simply accept the gift of love which has been given to us.

Love God.

Pray for the people killed in Las Vegas, and the many times more killed elsewhere last Sunday.

Pray for that sad, lost man.

And pray that you may know in every fiber of your being that God loves even that man…   so of course God loves you!

13 September, 2017

Friend or Follower?

One of differences between Facebook and Twitter is how one’s “associates” are labeled.  On Facebook, one has “friends.”  According to how one sets their privacy settings, friends can see most of what I post on my Facebook page, can write things on my “wall,” read my responses to other friends, and interact with me through private messaging.  On Twitter, one has “followers.”  These people can read what I post on Twitter, but the level of interaction is limited to hashtags (#), “retweets” (RT), mentions (@), and direct messages (DM). 
I recognize that to anyone outside of the world of social media, the paragraph I’ve just written makes absolutely no sense.  Such is the digital gap in technology use.  I would liken this difference to the difference between a church member a disciple.  In Jesus time, followers were more important than friends.  Despite what the popular song says, Jesus never wanted friends.  He said, “Follow me.” 
Membership usually means to be a part of something such as a family, a group or a club. membership carries with it expectations of participation and rules by which to maintain one’s membership in good standing.  These differ from group to group; the country club requires a stiff membership fee while the Kiwanis require regular attendance and fees. Some organizations regulate the expected behavior of members.
What does membership mean for the church?  This proverbial question has caused great conversation within congregations. In the United Church of Christ, each congregation makes this determination for themselves.  Some churches require pledges, participation, and receiving communion on a prescribed level.  Others are more lax and request only that the person let the church office know when they no longer wish to be a member.  Membership is an administrative box into which a person is placed for the sake of maintaining an institution.
More important to the Christian faith is being a disciple -- a follower or student of a teacher, leader or philosopher. Jesus asked that we follow him, not join him.  The most important part of being a disciple is having a desire to learn and grow in the knowledge and discipline of the Teacher. Rev. Carrie Call nicely worded it:  “The disciple listens, studies, practices, questions and follows. …. Instead, it is an attitude or orientation toward the teacher, one that includes devotion and openness.”
She goes on to say,
What I have come to believe is that not every church member is a disciple, and not every disciple is a church member. That seems odd to say. After all, if people are members of a church, doesn't that mean they are disciples of Jesus? Not necessarily. …. Discipleship has costs and it is a process - sometimes a very painful one. Making disciples is one of our tasks as followers of Jesus: to share an invitation to a way of life, not just membership in a particular group[1].
No one can force another to be a disciple.  It is a response to an invitation.  It develops and gains strength only through invitation and example. And it is recognized by its fruits - compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, kindness of spirit, generosity, gratitude and humility.
I encourage you to ask yourself what the difference might mean for your life. When we invite others to join us, is it so they can become good church members? Or, is it an invitation to a life of discipleship?

[1] Rev. Dr. Carrie Call, Conference E-Pistle (Indianapolis: Indiana Kentucky Conference UCC) October 27, 2014.

14 August, 2017

What is tithing?

Ask the Question, Part 5 

We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the final installment on responses to those questions. 

 What is tithing? 

Tithing is giving a set portion of your possessions away before any of it is spent, and living on what is left. 

Raising $2 Million   According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income for the community of La Grange is $102,500. Biblically, a tithe is 10% of your assets given away each year. Assuming that our congregation is a mirror image of the community, if every household in the congregation tithed 10% of their income to FCCLG, the member giving would be $1,927,000 (188 X $10,250). Can you imagine the ministry we could do with nearly $2 million each year?  Tithing is a practical means by which to fund the ministry of the body of Christ! 

Why Tithe?  Biblically, nothing on earth belongs to those who occupy the earth; it all belongs to God and humanity has been place here as a caretaker and steward of this resource (Genesis 1-2). So, tithing a practice that is required by the Old Testament Law in which the people are commanded to give a portion of the crops they grow and the livestock they raise back to God through the temple (Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:26; Deuteronomy 14:24; 2 Chronicles 31:5). 

There are several different tithes in the bible: a 10% tithe given to the temple to support the priests and the work of the temple (Lev 27:30); a 10% “festival tithe” for the celebration of the required feasts (Deut. 12:17–19); and a 10% “charity tithe,” given every third year to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut. 14:28–29). The total of these required tithes would be 23.3 % of your income each year! Those who didn’t tithe were threatened with a curse, while those who did tithe were promised blessing (Mal. 3:8–10). 

Why Tithe?   For me, tithing is a discipline: It is a practice that helps us to live within our means by living with less than we have rather than living on credit. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) While there is no New Testament command to tithe, it is clear that our gifts to charity should be “in keeping with income” (1 Corinthians 16:2). 

The New Testament talks about the importance and benefits of giving. We are to give as we are able. Sometimes that means giving more than 10 percent; sometimes that may mean giving less. It depends on the ability of the individual to live on what they have and on the needs of the community around us. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

03 August, 2017

Ask The Question, Part 4

We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the fourth installment on responses to those questions. 

Why is the Number 40 found so often in the Bible?

The number “forty” is used over 100 times in the Old and New Testaments.  It is the traditional Hebrew number used to represent or stylize the completion of a time of difficulty and trial, during which faith is tested. 

  • There were 40 days and nights of rain that led to the flood and Noah use of the Ark (Genesis 6 – 8)
  • Joseph spent 40 days in mourning over the death of Jacob, his father (Genesis 50:1-2)
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. (Exodus 16)
  • Moses was on the mountain at Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights after the golden calf incident and before returning with the “Law 2.0”. (Exodus 24)
  • Later in the narrative, Elijah spends 40 days and nights on the same mountain.
  • Jonah announces that Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days unless they clean up their act  (Jonah 3). 
  • Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tempted (the Synoptic Gospels)
  • There were 40 days between the Easter event and the Ascension (Acts 1:3).

  • In each of these examples, the period of 40 days or years was a time portrayed in the narrative as difficult and filled with challenge, pain, or trial.

    19 July, 2017

    Ask The Question, Part 3

    We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the third installment on responses to those questions. 

    halalWhat is the purpose of the complicated dietary restrictions of Orthodox Jews and Muslims?   

    The dietary code of Judaism, Kashrut, is one of the pillars of Jewish religious life and virtually every aspect of eating and preparing food implicates some Jewish dietary law.  The dietary code of Islam distinguishes between  halāl, lawful, and harām, unlawful, foods; these laws have both similarities and differences from Kashrut, but is equally important to the followers of Islam.

    Why?  By following a specific dietary code, one is forced to remember to act out one’s faith every day. By following a specific dietary code – especially when interacting with others who are not of the same faith tradition – the believer makes a public statement about their faith and its importance to the believer. The dietary codes of a religion turn a mundane act of everyday existence into a holy and reverent act of worship.

    How these laws and codes came into existence is up for debate.  It may be that  these codes came into existence for health reasons; certainly the bottom feeders of the waters (shellfish, lobsters, scale-less fish), or the flesh of animals that eat carrion (pigs, vultures) – all forbidden by Kashrut – might pose a danger for the consumer, the allowed beef or goat can just as easily carry tapeworm or other parasites.  It may be that some of these codes were developed to promote ritual purity; the food eaten by the believer might bring the source-animal’s impure spirit into the consumer. 

    For those who follow these dietary restrictions, the reason the holy writings mandate these are less important.  The Quran and the Torah state that they are the ways of their respective faiths; law is law and is to be followed as faithfully as possible. And so they do.

    What constant reminder of your faith do you need to keep you seeing all of life through the eyes of God?  What discipline do you use to keep you ever mindful of the commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?  Do you have a daily discipline to prompt your faithfulness?

    22 June, 2017

    Ask the Question, Part 2

    We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the second installment on responses to those questions.
    Why do some people quote the Bible when it suits them but don't follow all the "rules" in the 
       I cannot answer for all people, but I can respond for myself.  Everyone who reads the Bible with regularity has their favorite scriptures; most of us interpret the whole of the Bible through the lenses of our preferred readings. This is called one's "Canon within the Canon."  It is the filter through which we understand the faith.

       In the constitution of FCCLG quotes Matthew 22:37-39 when it states our purpose and covenant to be:
    We acknowledge our belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, and we take for our rule of life his great commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." We believe it is our privilege and duty to forward this teaching by union with those of like mind. We covenant to unite in this great mission of faith and service. We agree to maintain the institutions of the gospel, to promote the orderly administration of the life of the church, and to walk together in Christian love. We shall endeavor to fulfill these sacred obligations, God being our helper.
    It is likely that many who were raised within this congregation use the quote from Matthew 22:37-39 as their "Canon within the Canon."

      My Canon within the Canon is Micah 6:8:
    God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
    I read the rest of scripture and form my beliefs and practices around this verse.  That does not mean that I ignore other verses; I read them in light of this tenant: that we first do justice, love kindness, and be humble in all walks of life.

       The Old Testament books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus contain extrapolations and interpretations of the 10 Commandments; these number 637 laws.  

       Jesus knew these laws and realized they had become the focus of determining who was "in" and who was "out."  What was a simple code of 10 rules had become a millstone around the neck of people who sought to live within God's community and a source of exclusion.  He told people he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  His teachings emphasize God's extravagant love and inclusion.

       When asked which law is the greatest (of the 637 laws!), his reply in Matthew 22:37-39 encompasses the heart of the 10 commandments. 

       It is human nature to seek simple terms to understand complex ideas.  It is also a good debate technique to quote respected sources.  The problem with the Bible is that in it one can find justification for a lot of behavior - especially is one takes single sentences and short passages out of their context! 

       The best way that I know of to deal with individuals who choose to quote certain passages while ignoring the basic guidelines of faith is for each of us to know the Bible, to read it with regularity, to study it with others, and to learn as much about the social, literary, political and contextual contexts as possible.  Only then can we know for sure what is being appropriately quoted and what has been appropriated for reasons of ill.  And the added benefit is that we are more certain of what we believe and why we believe it.

    (Did you catch that subtle hint that everyone needs to be in Bible Study?) 

    08 June, 2017

    Ask the Question, Part 1

    We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the first installment on responses to those questions.

    • How will our current budget deficit affect our future?
    • Where do we go from here? We have worked very hard to keep FCCLG vibrant and useful; where do we go from here? (There is so much good here now!)
    Budgets are a guide and a plan. The old saying goes that when we make plans, God laughs! I've never taken a journey where I did not have to readjust my plans for one reason or another; likewise, we will readjust our plans and move forward with our ministries.

    Where we've been:

    In planning the income side of the church's budget, we use statistical data from a five year trend that includes member giving through pledges, unpledged income, and loose offering; the current property sharing covenants, and the previous year's investment income. This year, we overestimated what friends and members would pledge. Our estimate was based upon the growth of pledges in the previous years. While the average individual pledge did increase as anticipated, the total number of households pledging dropped. There are many possible reasons for this from a less aggressive pledge drive to members' lack of confidence in their economic future. Reasons aside, we misestimated what our members would pledge. Statistical data on giving and pledges is below.

    Where we are: 

    At the end of the first quarter, our income exceeded our expenses - primarily because we used our reserves and our allowed income from investments. 

    • A number of members have responded to the Stewardship's April letter by either increasing their pledges or giving one-time gifts to close the budget gap. To date, this totals just over $10,000.
    • As most are aware, our building costs are a very large portion of our expenses. Our building is really three buildings ranging in age from 57 years to 135 years old; it cannot help but to show wear and tear and requires ongoing maintenance as well as some expensive repairs. One of the goals of the Alban Plan is to strive to have the building pay for itself through property sharing - exclusive use office space and special events. While we have moved in this direction, we are not yet there.
    • Our ministries have pared down their spending to the lowest we can go without losing effectiveness and shortchanging our mission and values. There is little left to cut.
    • The office staff have made changes to how we operate within contracted services, are researching creative means to fund paper publications, and practice cost-cutting measures in the office operations. There is little left to cut without affecting the effectiveness of the administration of the church.
    • The church staff has been transformed into a lean, mean, ministry machine. Many of you are feeling the differences made by these cuts with less pastoral care, dependence upon volunteers for every ministry, fewer programs, and changing traditions.

    So, building, staff, expenses, and ministries have all been cut. It's a tough situation!

    Council has called together a team to examine the budget for 2017 and offer suggested cuts. They will report to the Council at 7 p.m. on June 14th at a meeting in the Drawing Room when we will discern a direction. Council meetings are always open to whoever has ideas to share or curiosity to feed.

    Where we are going: 

    We are journeying together in dangerous times. The world needs the message of a God who Accept All (no matter what), who Reaches Out (to everyone), and who Touches Lives (all lives). God is not done with us; we have much work to do. But, we must listen to where God is calling us and adapt our way of being the church to be effective in ministry in this new age.

    Finances are not the end-all of our ministry. While we have a fiscal responsibility to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us, if we focus solely upon the bottom line, we will miss opportunities to be witnesses to God's extravagant welcome, God's proclivity toward the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden, and to make a meaningful difference in the world around us.

    Our building is not the end-all of our ministry. Communities of faith who live solely for their buildings die of extinction. While the blessing of our building affords us comfort and familiarity, it is not the reason we exist. We are called as witnesses, as stewards, as prophets, as change-agents, as teachers, and as caregivers. Buildings don't do ministry; people do.

    Our staff is not the end-all of our ministry. Paying people to do ministry is a creation of modern times. Every person who follows Jesus is called to serve - to put on the aprons of service and participate in the life-changing ministries to which each of us and all of us together are called.

    The purpose of the community of faith is witness. Our witness is Accepting All, Reaching Out, Touching Lives. This requires neither staff, building, nor money; witness requires each member of the community to be active in their faith. Where we are going from here is into the future to which God calls us - and that is still unfolding. But we do know that it will be different than our present.

    I tell people that I rarely get lost. I may not know where I am, but I most certainly can learn something from where I am and in finding my way to where I'm going. The road to our future is not clearly mapped out; but we will learn and grow from the turns and avenues that we take to get to where God would have us be.

    Let's take this adventure together.


    24 May, 2017

    A Batty Post

    I have a thing about bats.  The symbol of darkness and death, they fly about in dimly lit skies and lurk in the dark corners of attics and barns. They have beady eyes and fangs that threaten to bite.  They look like flying mice.  They eat dirty bugs and leave behind fungus- and bacteria- laden waste that makes humans sick. They reek of evil and Halloween.  And I heard once that they might get caught in my hair, bite me, or give me rabies. Bats are to be avoided and kept away from my space at all times!  I was taught this as a child and it surely hasn’t changed.  Please don’t tell me otherwise.

    I have a thing about bats. I don’t see them unless I look for them, but every night they make my life better by eating thousands of insects.  If I sit quietly at dusk, I can see them flitting about in the darkening sky, quietly calling into the night and gliding as they locate their prey by echo location.  If I listen closely, I can hear their chirpy calls.  If I watch carefully, I can follow them back to their nesting place where their young wait to nurse or to be fed some of the evenings catch.  But I have to look, listen, watch, and wait; and by looking, listening, watching, and waiting – seeking to understand – I find the good these creatures provide for me. By seeking out information and getting to know these creatures, I’ve learned that they rarely carry rabies and even more rarely would bite a person because they are so very afraid of us.  By seeking to understand, I come to a completely different image of bats -- and even an appreciation for them.  I don’t want to find one in my living room, but I will still watch them from a distance with awe and wonder.

    We live in a culture that does not seek understanding, struggles to listen to differing ideas, and jumps to conclusions based upon hearsay and “fake news.” In our culture, people get their information from social media rather than personal investigation and seeking to understand.  

    We are a culture of fast food and easy answers that allow us to make fast, black-and-white decisions.  We are lucky enough to have the resources to provide ourselves with walls between us and those who are different, have different ideas or traditions, or live without means.  

    We can and do so isolate ourselves in echo chambers where we only see and hear the ideas and persuasions that match our own. We feel threatened by what we don’t understand, and there is so much we don’t understand. 

    When we isolate ourselves in echo chambers, we silence ourselves from the sources of understanding. Rather than dig for truth, we hear only those things that confirm and justify our fears, and bring us the comfort of feeling right. 

    Understanding – and the looking, listening, watching, and waiting required to understand – becomes something we avoid in so that we can remain safely walled within our comfort zones.

    Jesus had a habit of breaking down barricaded comfort zones:

    •  “You have heard it said…..but I say to you….”  (repeated 5 times in Matthew 5:21-43)
    • “turn the other cheek, give them your cloak also, love your enemies….”
    • "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.' "And in the morning, 'There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? (Matthew 16)
    • “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)
    • “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! …. Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things….” (Luke 24:25, 27)

    H. Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture, 1951) wrote that faith is a way of seeing the whole of existence in which we live and move and have our being. He pointed out that we can see things through any of three lenses.  Seen through the lens that the world is against us and hostile to us, we fear we’re all going to die and respond by seeking security to protect ourselves from the all-devouring powers.  Seen through the lens that the world is indifferent to us, we seek out systems that give us meaning and purpose, and we focus on our own well being.  But seen through the lens of world that is gracious, nourishing, and supportive of life, we recognize that this world has brought us into existence and continues to nourish us and we respond with a posture of faith and trust. 

    And so, I encourage you to reread those first two paragraphs about bats.  Through which approach do you see life as supportive, gracious, and nourishing?  Read again the scriptures above.  Through which lens was Jesus seeing the world? 

    We are called by Christ to live our lives with our eyes wide open, our ears fully engaged, and our minds wondering and expanding in knowledge, faith, and love because God is a the founder of grace, maker of life, and the one who nourishes us on this journey through life.

    26 April, 2017

    Base Pace. Push. All Out.

     Base Pace. Push. All Out. 

    These are the words I hear in the mornings as a coach at the gym tells us the routine for the workouts. The terms refer to heart rate zones and how fast my heart is beating while I'm on the treadmill or rower. Up on the screen, the background color under my name tells me where I am: Gray - resting, Blue - Moderate Activity, Green - Base Pace, Orange - Push, Red - All Out. Since the gym is all about working out, we focus on the last three. The goal is to spend at least 12 minutes of the hour in the orange and red zones. I'm a bit of an over doer (really?) and my personal goal is to spend at least 24 minutes in that zone each time I work out.

    That's fine for the gym and for an hour a day. It is not healthy to stay at that "Push" or "All Out" rate all day. It would be crazy to even try. Everyone and each body needs a time of rest and renewal, to re-tool and recharge.

     The same is true for the Body of Christ. Most of the time, we often operate at blue zone of moderate activity: the weekly schedule of Sunday School, worship, and fellowship. We get into the green zone when we throw in choir and bell rehearsals, meetings, fellowship groups, book club, or Messy Church. We take it up a notch into the Push range when we join a ministry team or committee, or in the weeks when we have special activities - fund raisers, holiday additions of activity, work trips, fellowship events. And, in the last 3 years we've had a couple of All Outs: a flooded church basement twice in 3 weeks, last minute preparations for renters, a huge clean - out of space, a long term remodeling project. This is a healthy balance for a congregation.

    When we factor in all the changes that have been made in the last 5 years at FCCLG, all the changes that continually happen in the community and world around us, and the adjustments we've made to adapt to these changes, we have spent a lot of time in the Push zone lately.

    We need our "workouts" with the base pace, pushes and all outs. But we also need our gray and blue zones. We need to take intentional time to just let it rest. If we don't take time to "walk it out," we will burn out - or worse, we will get hurt. Rest while still moving is important to the Body of Christ.

    Jesus did some intentional base pace time too. He took time to go off by himself and pray, to be alone with God, or just to get away from the crowds. In the blue and green zones, he regenerated himself, and retooled his mind for the coming challenges. Jesus' ultimate grey zone was between Good Friday and Easter morning. He did not just sit and do nothing in this time; he prepared for what was to come on Easter and following.

    Traditionally at FCCLG, the summers are our when the church schedule operates in the gray and blue zones and members recharge and retool. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, our Sunday attendance drops in half as many in our congregation spend weekends at summer homes, or doing activities that take them away from church activities. This is healthy and normal so long as we continue to feed our spirits, keep our souls in shape, and be ready for the Push that comes in late August.

    So what will you do to stay in good Spiritual shape this summer? Will you worship in churches near your weekend destinations? Make a goal of reading the Bible every day? Pray for each of the people on our Touch list each day? Will you look for the face of God in the faces and hearts of the strangers you meet in your travels? Will you do random acts of kindness for people who least deserve them? Or maybe you will make peace with a long time enemy.

    Where ever the travels of your base pace take you, I wish you Godspeed.

    06 March, 2017

    For Such a Time as This

    We are living in a difficult time in our world where historically stable nations are choosing leaders who are surround themselves with inexperienced and unstable advisors and administrators who appear to lack a genuine interest in the people they serve. This is a time in the life of our own country where we seem to have more interest in serving the two percent than the ninety-eight percent of our own population. When this happens, it's easy for us to forget our covenantal obligations that our own Christian gospel requires of us. As Paul has written,"...When one person suffers, we all suffer. When one person rejoices, we all rejoice..."1 Corinthians 12:26.

    In such a time as this, it is all the more important for the church to be present and engaged in the world. We must be a voice in the wilderness, a balm healing, and we must take to heart the words of the prophets and the apostle to be present with the marginal, the rejected, the stranger, and the alien. This is sacred duty that is guided, not by profits or bottom lines, but by compassion, empathy, and acceptance of all. This is the vision of First Congregational Church. 

    On Sunday, March 26th, we'll have another opportunity to live into our vision by sharing our gifts for One Great Hour of Sharing. When someone you care about suffers, all your truest words and most loving actions must declare: "I am here!"

    The Bible tells us that God is like us in this respect. When one of God's beloved children suffer, God declares, 'I am here.' God hears the cries of the poor and oppressed. The scriptures remind us that we must live our lives in such a way that people know that 'God is here!' God is here in our actions, in our words, in our ministry, and in our worship. The promise, 'I am here!' is a constant refrain from Genesis to Revelation.

    When we see the latest tragedy on the news, we might ask, 'where is God?' But we already know the answer before we ask the question - the answer - God is here, in the midst of those who are hurting. When Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, God reveals to us a mystery. God is most tangibly present in this world where people hunger, thirst, lack adequate clothing and shelter, or is sick and/or imprisoned. Christ cares for the suffering. God is present when we feed the hungry, care for the sick, or welcome the stranger. When we care for the least of these, we care for Christ.  

    We are living in a difficult time and we need to be present, anywhere in the world, including our own cities and neighborhoods. For those who are suffering, those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, or those who are imprisoned are not people over there or in another place, they are people right here in Chicago, in the suburbs or along the highways and byways of the state that is our home. 

    We need to be the tangible gifts that declare the same message as God declares: 'I am here.' By reaching out in this way, we let God's people know that they have not been forgotten. Even when the need seems far from here, by acting together as the body of Christ, we are able to declare, 'I am here! God is here!' Through our special gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing we proclaim a countercultural message that while some may have forgotten you, we, as caring, loving, disciples of Jesus Christ have not. Let us be present with all God's people so that one day we can rejoice together!

    Reaching out with joy and compassion!

    01 March, 2017

    Fair and Living Wages: A Justice Issue

    Scripture teaches us that each person is created in the image of God; we have a responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters - especially those who are working hard to keep their heads above water.
    Common sense tells us that all human beings get sick. But if a person is forced to work when they are sick due to fear they will lose their job or they will not be able to pay their rent, it diminishes their humanity and puts the public health at risk.
    Our faith teaches us to share in the abundance of creation, and that all workers are to receive an honest wage for an honest day's work.  In La Grange, the average family income is seven times greater than a minimum wage earner in La Grange. Should we not share our abundance with hard working people?
    I am concerned about a local movement that would exclude the businesses in La Grange from the Cook County Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Days ordinances -- and any future regional ordinances dealing with the same issues.  There has been very little publicity about this ordinance which will be voted on by the Village Trustees on March 13. Why would La Grange want to be known as a village that takes away rights from workers, the very people who help to make our village so enjoyable?  
    Will we choose profits or justice for hard working neighbors?  Will some have to choose between putting food on the table or a roof over their heads and their jobs? Will a local employee be forced to choose between staying home with a sick child or with the flu and paying their bills?  To ask our brothers and sisters to make such a choice is unfair to those who serve us food, who decorate and clean village streets, and who take care of our children.  I don't want La Grange to be known for our lack of caring for everyone. Will you help to keep this from happening?
    I'm putting on my Prophetic Cap and calling upon my sisters and brothers in faith to do the same. Will you join me in this struggle for justice? Will you make a stand for the Realm of God?
    You can help in three ways:
    1. I invite you to join a postcard campaign. There will be postcards available in the Founder's Room and in the back of the Sanctuary to write to the Trustees and voice your opinion of this ordinance. These will be presented to the Trustees at the meeting on March 13.
    2. Contact each of the village Trustees and voice your opinions about this ordinance, and ask each where he stands on the issue. (Maybe remind him that there is an election on April 4).  A list of the Trustees and their contact information available here.
    3. Join us as we gather to organize before the Village Trustees meeting.  We will gather at 6:30 at First Congregational Church of La Grange. We will walk together to the Village Hall for the meeting. 
    Lenten Blessings,