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Light up God's World

By admin - March 10, 2017, 7:54 am

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40

Last month Judy Taylor, Jeff Graham, my husband Jim, and I hired three tuk-tuks and loaded them with five 50# suitcases jam-packed with items donated by members and friends of Zion UCC of Burlington, Iowa. We climbed in and headed down a road that is best described as a dry creek bed, to Konojel Community Center in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala.

A tuk-tuk is a small three-wheeled taxi, similar in size to a riding lawnmower, which holds the driver in the single front seat and two or three passengers on the bench seat in back. I could describe it as a motorized rickshaw. It is the primary source of transportation in San Marcos. That, and by foot.

At Konojel we were joyfully greeted by Andrew, Maria and Laura with hugs and kisses. As we unpacked the suitcases, sorted and stacked the items on shelves in the small office, we found space for eight laptop computers, four toner cartridges, 57 packages of Feminine Hygiene Products, 110 children’s books, 34 cans of Similac, 20 baby bottles, 83 tubes of toothpaste, 114 toothbrushes, 17 dispensers of floss, and floss picks. Each and every item is needed and will be used. We also contributed $720 in cash which will go to Konojel’s ongoing meal program. It costs $300 to feed one person for an entire year, and Konojel has 65 beneficiaries in the meal program.

Afterwards Andrew Raphael, a Jewish transplant from New York City who made his way to Guatemala and founded Konojel in 2011, gave us the grand tour. He explained the solar oven, wood-burning pizza oven, rocket stove, and dehydrator; just four of the methods Konojel uses to improve life in San Marcos. We visited the Women’s Sewing Coop with their three sewing machines and two ladies at work.

Konojel means “All Together” in Katchikal, the Mayan dialect spoken in San Marcos. The Center provides nutritious lunches each weekday to the most at-risk individuals in the village, including children, pregnant or nursing mothers, and neglected elderly citizens who are often overlooked when there is a food shortage at home. Seven out of ten children suffer the effects of chronic malnutrition in this impoverished community of 3500 people, and the food served at Konojel represents a tremendous improvement in their diet. The menu includes fresh vegetables grown in organic gardens, proteins and other components of a balanced diet, including as many vitamins and minerals as possible.

Looking to enable these people to raise their standard of living, Konojel includes programs in children’s education, sustainability, women’s empowerment, nutrition workshops and organic gardening. A large solar oven uses the sun to bake nutritious snacks. A wood-burning oven is used to bake pizzas. The rocket stove is a custom-designed kettle-like stove that uses 90% less firewood and produces measurably less smoke. (Most homes in San Marcos cook with wood. The resulting fumes are unhealthy and firewood is a major household expense.) The food prepared at Konojel is used for the lunch program or to sell at a comedor in the village for income. The ultimate goal is to escape the cycle of poverty through education.

On this day the ladies of Konojel tearfully expressed their gratitude for the gifts we brought. Maria gave me a hand-woven shawl. Laura offered a lovely blouse with ornate stitch-work and a scarf for Judy. Laura, the children’s enrichment program coordinator, is 20-years-old and head of her household. Her mother died just over a year ago. See, we don’t do this for thanks; we do it for these beautiful people. Jesus is in them. And then, like the widow’s mite, they give so much back to express their love and appreciation. My cup runneth over.

When the children came for lunch they were surprised by the wonderful additions to their meager library and immediately selected books to read. Judy and I spent time reading with them, and they sweetly helped with pronunciation of our Spanish.

San Marcos la Laguna on Lake Atitlán is like the land that time forgot. There is a weird combination of the ancient and the modern. Here they fish in dugout canoes made from hollowed tree trunks and scavenge for firewood, but almost everyone has a cell phone. The women dress in traditional clothing and many weave their own fabric on backstrap looms in the early Mayan tradition. The language spoken in the home is Katchikal, but when the children enter school they learn to speak Spanish. Then we gringos came along and out of necessity some, but not all, became trilingual. In my grandson’s school, every lesson is taught three times: in Katchikal, Spanish and then English.

Mother Theresa said that each one of us is merely a small instrument. When you look at the inner workings of electrical things, often you see small and big wires, new and old, cheap and expensive. Until the current passes through there will be no light. That wire is you and me. The current is God.

Let us continue to light up God’s world and change lives.

—Sandra Levins 


Sandra Levins is the author of “Either Way: Story of a Gay Kid”, a graphic novel for teens published by American Psychological Association imprint Magination Press. Visit “Sandra Levins, Children’s Writer” on Facebook.

By admin - March 10, 2017, 7:54 am

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    What is truth?

    By Rich Pleva - March 2, 2017, 2:21 pm

    “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”


    -Jesus of Nazareth



    One doesn’t get a choice about being older. It happens.  Unless one dies first, one gets old.  Everyone understands the disadvantages of being old – they are real and I won’t rehearse them here.  But there are advantages of advancing age and they are also real and important.  One of those advantages can be broadened perspective, and I’ve been thinking a lot, of late, about perspective.


    I started voting for president in 1972 and have voted for president every 4 years since then. Even though in 1972 I lived in a staunchly Republican part of the country and grew up mostly surrounded by those with a politically conservative outlook, I resolutely cast that first ballot for George McGovern.  I was 20 years old at the time – just old enough to be at the tail end of the generation that was mostly anti-Viet Nam war.  I was assuredly not an activist – I never attended an anti-war rally – but somehow I knew that this war was at least tragically wasteful and perhaps deeply immoral.


    My candidate lost. A year later the winner, Richard Nixon, negotiated “peace” with Hanoi and a year after that he resigned in the presidency in disgrace.  Since then I’ve supported winners and I’ve supported losers – more losers than winners, but the record is close.  I’ve invariably been disappointed at the loss of those candidates I’ve supported and at times have been (irrationally?) pessimistic at that which I imagined that loss to portend – but invariably my bleak anticipations have been overwrought.  These decades of experience have taught me to doubt my fears of apocalypse!


    Is it the same this time? In one sense, it is too soon to know.  We are only one month into this most recent presidency.


    Before going further, I want to be clear: this isn’t, first and foremost, an article about politics – it’s about faith. But I resolutely disagree with those who suggest that faith and politics should be kept separate – or even that they can be.  I can imagine no way to practice my faith with integrity and do so while avoiding political comment.  If God is truly God of the entire universe then the doings of kings and potentates – or presidents and nations – are assuredly of interest to God…and therefore of interest to God’s people.  How can one possibly read the Old Testament prophets and miss the point that these figures were political dissenters?  One might conclude they were disloyal or perhaps merely misguided, but assuredly they were political.  And interestingly – perhaps tellingly – those to whom it fell to curate what we now call “scripture” were convinced that the stories of these dissenters were – and are – sacred and therefore to be preserved.


    richreading flipped 20130502For me, at least, there is no counter argument to the conclusion that the people of God are called to public and political comment – and the comment must at times be dissent.


    The harder (and more interesting) question is knowing when followers of Jesus should compliantly assent to the existing authorities (which is also a biblical admonition) and when we should raise our voices (and placards) in dissent. Both attitudes are – at times – taught in holy writ.


    I worry about Donald Trump not first and foremost because of what policies he will (undoubtedly) promulgate. Many of those policies will fly in the face of what I understand to be Christian values, but we’ve been to this place before.


    But not in my lifetime have we seen a leader as openly, brazenly, and shrewdly antagonistic to facts and to “opponents” as is this one. Never before have we seen a political leader as dismissive of civility and kindness.  Never before has a president employed a staff with the apparent mandate to create “alternative facts” when and if the established facts run counter to his preferred narrative.


    Pontius Pilate famously opined “What is truth?” just before authorizing the crucifixion of Jesus. I sympathize a bit with Pilate.  Truth is slippery and evasive and at times subjective.  I get all of that.  But just because truth is hard to get at does not mean its pursuit is to be dismissed as irrelevant.


    The heart of the Gospel is a matter of “truth.” It is also hard to nail down.  But Jesus taught that truth is not merely something “nice” – he asserted that it has the power literally to make free.  “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”


    I’m not oblivious to the epistemological challenge in all of this. Many different “true believers” loudly and assertively claim possession of apparently oxymoronic truth.


    But there are some common sense indicators that seekers of truth – and wisdom – might look for:


    • Truth is humble and graciously self-confident. It is not insecure and grandiose.
    • Truth is collaborative. It is never the exclusive possession of only the “one.”
    • Truth is kind and gracious. It edifies. It evidences the fruit of the Spirit. It never tears down.
    • Truth is not the same thing as facts, but truth and facts are relatives. Any system of supposed truth which necessitates the suppression of facts should be viewed with suspicion.
    • Truth is open. It allows itself to be tested. It makes itself accountable. It is never authoritarian.


    When our current president began his campaign for president, he delivered a remarkable speech built around a remarkable assertion: “Only I…..” can accomplish that which needs to be done.  It is an audacious claim – one bordering on the idolatrous.


    Audacity is not, of itself, incompatible with truth. Jesus was nothing if not audacious when he asserted that “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Do note, however, that for 2000 years now, this claim has compelled countless millions to live lives of gratitude and service and hope.


    Followers of Jesus are called to lives of accountability and we are called to advocate for the same in all spheres of life. The welfare of the poor and disadvantaged and marginalized is our calling.


    The constitution of our nation bars the government from entanglement in religion, but there is no corresponding prohibition preventing people of faith from exerting influence in and on the nation. Assuredly we do NOT elect a president to be minister-in-chief, but assuredly when a president advances values at odds with those of the Gospel, then followers of Jesus must dissent.


    That has been and remains my intention. May God have grace on us.


    Rich Pleva
    Conference Minister
    UCC in Iowa

    By Rich Pleva - March 2, 2017, 2:21 pm

    • Jane Ryan says:

      Right. Christian values are important, but, I still find that nobody, not even our mosteducated ministers, is in posession of “the Truth”. I’m glad you have not made that claim!

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    What is the best time to plant?

    By admin - February 23, 2017, 12:53 pm

    There is a Chinese proverb that says that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.


    Nearly twenty years ago, when my husband and I moved into our home, we had to cut down what seemed like WAY too many trees – they were overgrown and planted in the wrong places. We replanted. In places that would provide shade for the house without threatening its foundations. And those trees grew! Today they grace our yard with shade and shelter. Every summer morning, when I sit in the yard and sip my morning tea and listen to the birds sing….I am grateful…for the seeds that were planted…and for the trees that have grown.


    Last summer we lost one of the trees that we had specifically saved. A beautiful gnarly old maple tree. It split in half during a windstorm. So now it is time to replant again. We won’t see this new tree grow to magnificent heights. We will only see its beginning. And twenty years from now, someone (probably not me) will sit in the front yard and (I hope) give thanks for the tree we will plant this spring.


    I think churches are a little like that. I’m not sure when the best time to plant a church would be. Maybe 75 years ago when the World War II soldiers were returning home to set up housekeeping and build their families? Maybe 500 years ago when the Protestant Reformation was spreading like wildfire across the northern hemisphere? Maybe 200 years ago as the Westward Expansion opened up the prairies and the plains to farmers and ranchers? May 50 years ago as suburbs and new communities sprang up all over the country? And the second-best time? Today? Really?


    katherine officeI don’t know the answer to those questions, but here’s what I do know. We are living in a time when there’s a lot of “”cutting down” happening all across the church. Even in churches that are thriving, it feels as though things “”used to be” different (bigger, more children, more young adults, more money…..you fill in the blank). In some places, the church literally is falling down. The building is failing, the congregation is floundering, and it seems that the only thing left to do is to wait for it all to die of natural causes, or cut it down before it falls down.


    And yet! We have forgotten the replanting! We have forgotten the pruning that brings forth new life! Just because one part of the church is withering doesn’t mean that pruning or replanting won’t yield something strong and healthy and beautiful….in about twenty years. And we have forgotten that this Gospel has a life of its own. It is bigger than our churches. It is bigger than the number of people in our pews or in our Confirmation classes or in our choirs.


    When we plant the seeds of faith today, we may not see the results in the way that we want or expect to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Hearts and minds are changed – one person at a time. Justice and peace emerges – one issue after another after another. Worship calls us to humility and awe – week after week after week. Teaching calls forth wisdom and compassion. Hospitality is offered, human worth is upheld, the God of miracles and transformation is at work – both through us and in spite of us.


    Every Sunday, I find myself grateful for the people of faith who have gone before me. The ones who cut out the stuff that wasn’t working anymore. The ones who planted seeds of faith. The ones who built buildings and gathered communities, and taught kids who didn’t want to be there (myself included). The ones who saw a need and organized the resources to fill it. The ones who didn’t know what to expect but tried it anyway.


    That proverb may be right. The best time to plant a tree may well have been twenty years ago. But the second-best time IS today! Maybe instead of wringing our hands about how things “”used to be” should get busy and plant something new! God promises that we we will be surprised by what grows.


    —Katherine Mulhern, Program Support/Adjunct 2030 Iowa


    By admin - February 23, 2017, 12:53 pm

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      By Jonna Jensen - February 16, 2017, 1:39 pm

      Ask. I’ve been thinking and praying about asking for some hundreds of miles.  God is pulling me in to conversations about asking, even taking the trouble to come to this morning’s oil change, dressed as a woman in work clothes, to start an entirely unbidden conversation with me about asking.  What a blessed pest God is!
      Ask. Think and pray with me, if you will, about all the holy adventures, all the amazing blessings in your life that began with someone asking.jonna recharge prayer flipped-resized
      The holy adventure of ministry began for me when someone asked me to read the scriptures at a Sunday worship service. Someone just asked.  God began to seal the deal through my pastor, Russ Fate, who asked me to preach and lead worship for him on the Sunday in a Memorial Day holiday weekend.  He just asked.
      The ten years I spent traveling around doing comedy began with a question. Glenda told me no one was signed up for the adult talent show at the town doings.  Could I help? She just asked.
      This holy adventure of service on the staff of the Iowa Conference launched when Jim called me on the phone and asked. I’d experienced the Holy Spirit calling from Jim’s phone before and I confess one little whispered barnyard expletive before “o.k”.
      Most of the holy adventures of romance in our lives begin with someone asking. “Can I carry your books?”  “Would you like to dance?”  What was the question that sparked your romance?
      Our life’s work, our opportunities for service, our travels, our relationships, our risks, our seasons of blossoming and fruit bearing all likely began with someone asking.
      I invite you to join me in thanking God this week for wondrous things we’ve been asked. I invite you to thank God alongside me this week for life-changing questions that shaped our journeys.  Let’s raise blessings and thanksgivings for the precious souls who asked us, sometimes following a God prompt, sometimes with no idea how their one question might move us, maybe hating to ask folk for things just as much as we do.
      I invite you to join me in prayerful paying attention this week. God may well have a question for someone and may well seek our voice to ask it.  If you (like me!) don’t like asking people for things, draw courage and fuel for asking from the memories you have of folk who pointed your life in holy directions.  Just because they asked.
      –Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister




      By Jonna Jensen - February 16, 2017, 1:39 pm

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        Hidden Figures Hidden Histories

        By admin - February 9, 2017, 1:03 pm

        Edith-GuffeyThere’s publication in the UCC entitled Hidden Histories; http://www.ucc.org/about-us_hidden-histories edited by Barbara Brown Zikmund. Barbara is a retired historian of the United Church of Christ, and also former president of Hartford Seminary. Hidden Histories tell the many untold stories of racial and ethnic communities and “strands” beyond the Congregational and Evangelical and Reformed denominations that have influenced and helped to shape the United Church of Christ. In the editor’s introduction Zikmund talks about “historical orthodoxy” You can read the entire article about historical orthodoxy here, http://www.ucc.org/about-us_hidden-histories_beyond-historical-orthodoxy but in short, she explains how history is framed through oft repeated patterns of interpretation that over time become the prevailing norm. Zigmund goes on to state “some parts of the history are lost forever when only half the story is told. Certain individuals and groups remain invisible. After a time, they seem to have never existed or certain events seem to have never happened. The histories of women and of many racial and ethnic groups do not fit into the scope of historical orthodoxy, and they are forgotten or selectively remembered.”

        The church and the UCC in particular is not alone in this “historical orthodoxy” and I was reminded of this when I went to see the movie Hidden Figures. If you haven’t seen it, I hope you will. It’s a great movie about the role of African American women in the space program. It’s well acted, an incredible story, and has sort of a happy ending. There’s no need for a spoiler alert here, we all know that the US space program has had many successes over the years. What we haven’t known about is the role of African American women behind the scenes. So in a way, I was thrilled to see the movie and applaud the story.

        But I was also irritated, unsettled, maybe even a little angry. How long has it been since that story happened? Why is it just now being told? And I wonder how many more stories and accomplishments of women and African Americans remain hidden and untold? Is it just NASA or is it only in the areas of math and science? Probably not; I suspect this “historical orthodoxy” is quite prevalent. My guess is that NASA did not intentionally hide or not tell the story of the African American women that we see in the movie. My guess is they never gave it a second thought because then and sadly now too often persons of color are simply invisible to many. Allowing others to be or making others invisible (intentionally or not) can be part of the privilege that so many enjoy in our country even at the expense of others.

        This is Black History Month and while I agree with so many that Black History is not something that should be relegated to one month in the year, but celebrated as part of our history all year long, the truth is that historical orthodoxy still prevails. Black History Month is an effort to highlight some of the untold, forgotten or hidden histories of our country and the contributions of African Americans that have been crucial in building this country. But if we really want to make a difference long term, we have to find ways to stop the often unconscious exclusion of the histories and experiences of persons of color in our country, our society our own communities, and yes our own churches. That’s a hard thing to do when much of our lives are so racially segregated. That is especially true for our sisters and brothers in the Conferences of the UCC that we call the West Central Region (Northern Plains, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri Mid-South and Kansas-Oklahoma). But that doesn’t let us off the hook; groups of people are invisible because we allow them to be or maybe even unintentionally make them invisible. We can change that wherever we are; we can explore, claim and acknowledge white privilege that feeds historical orthodoxy and begin to reject that narrative. We can commit to going to movies that tell stories of persons of color, reading books, and poetry and exploring art, teaching our children history beyond the dominant culture. There are so many steps that can be taken to let go of assumptions and stereotypes and fully embrace and celebrate the gifts, contributions and history of all. That is how Black History Month can endure and become a year long, hopefully lifelong celebration.

        —Edith Guffey, Conference Minister of Kansas-Oklahoma Conference


        By admin - February 9, 2017, 1:03 pm

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