Be A Beacon of HopeBy Brigit Stevens - October 29, 2018, 12:59 pm
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
I am holding you all in my prayers. As clergy and faith leaders in our communities, you are called to an incredible responsibility. There are days and weeks when that responsibility also carries with it great joy and hope! Then there are days and weeks, like those we are living through recently, that carry with them deep pain and despair.
As we have listened to the stories and read the accounts of events in the past weeks, we have heard and seen an undercurrent of hate, judgment, and division on full display in our culture and our country. In the assertion that immigrants walking thousands of miles to move away from fear and despair in search of hope and security are a threat to our security, the very real threat of death and damage posed by pipe bombs mailed to those who oppose our current president and his administration, the shooting of two unarmed African Americans in a grocery store after the accused shooter initially attempted to enter a church, and this weekend’s massacre of 11 Jewish Americans during services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it is hard to find cause for hope in our country. This is where we are called into action.
The constant and deafening rhetoric of hate and divisiveness calls for a response from the faith community. Regardless of which boxes we check on any ballot we may cast (side note: please vote!), it is our responsibility to speak up on the side of justice, humanitarian treatment of our neighbors, and safety in our places of worship. We have the blessing of living and serving in a diverse nation. That diversity is a divine gift from God, as each of us are created in the image of our Creator. As leaders in faith, we are called to seek out opportunities to share our voice, amplifying the voice of Christ, in ways that bring peace, call out injustice, and offer inspiration and compassion to our communities.
Please join me and write a note of encouragement and love to our neighbors at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Invite your congregation members to do the same. Mail them from your local church to them at 5898 Wilkins Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217. And seek out local synagogues and Jewish Community Centers near your congregation and send them notes as well.
Participate in a vigil or a peaceful worship process in your community. And if there isn’t one nearby, please plan one!
And, dear ones, tend to your own souls. Find moments to connect with ones who know you and love you anyway. Cuddle pets, or babies, or pets and babies. Walk. Drink water. Say, “I love you.” Watch a movie. Read a book. Nap. Take another nap. This is a beautiful and profound calling, to love the world with God’s heart. Remember that you too are a part of this Creation in need of loving.
Read these poignant words written by the Rev. Enno Limvere, Pastor at Brentford Congregational UCC in Brentford, SD:
I want to stand in front of the world and scream, “I don’t care anymore.” But the problem is I do care.
I want to stand in front of those I oppose and scream, “You aren’t worth anything.” But the problem is to God they are worth everything.
I want to retreat to my corner with people who agree with me and say, “We are strong, we are good, and we are justified.” But the problem is that God places me out in front of the world to say, “You are strong, you are good, and the only actions and words that have justification are those of love, mercy, and justice.”
I want to stop caring, for I see many hurting and angry and held down and held back, those of all ages, tongues, cultures, and orientations. But I can’t and my heart breaks and in those cracks God’s light pours forth to shine in the world.
Rev. Brigit F. Stevens
Executive Conference Minister
IA-NE-SD Conferences of the United Church of Christ
Care of a childBy Brigit Stevens - December 18, 2017, 1:39 pm
If I were alone in a desert
and feeling afraid,
I would want a child to be with me.
For then my fear would disappear
and I would be made strong.
This is what life in itself can do
because it is so noble, so full of pleasure
and so powerful.
As we await the birth of the infant Christ is our midst again this year, I am held by Meister Eckhart’s beautiful words. There is power in the charge to care for a child. There is purpose and strength that stands in front of fear. Sacrifices are made, assurances are offered, and caregivers forget their own needs while offering care for a vulnerable little one in their arms. There is power in the charge to care for a child.
What an important lesson God gives us each Advent and Christmas, teaching us that the way to God is through the care of a child. Strength is summoned, another’s needs are primary, and webs of relationships are the best way for individuals to succeed. And, we are at the same time reminded that we are also, still yet, just children ourselves in the heart of God. We are called to care for others and be cared for ourselves, each and all of us as children of God’s.
Your heart goes out
to insignificant and little things,
to children, to the poor-
these are your kingdom.
For you became yourself
defenseless and humble,
resembling a human word,
a piece of bread, a name
that has to die.
We ask you then,
let us resemble you,
let us imperfect as we are,
become your children,
your own beloved…
Blessings for the Journey,
Brigit Stevens, Associate Conference Minister
Iowa Conference UCC
We, too.By Jonna Jensen - December 8, 2017, 11:24 am
Time magazine has named The Silence Breakers as their Person of the Year.
I’ve been wondering in prayer about the ways we, as followers of Jesus, have chosen and acted in ways that encouraged silence from persons who experienced sexual disrespect, violation, and violence. I’m grateful to you for wondering alongside me.
I’m grateful to you for wondering alongside me about how your congregation ministers and more faithfully ministers to those in silence, to those who break silence, and to those who have acted in ways that are sexually oppressive.
Taken together, this is a large group of people among us. In large measure, this is us. Many of us have taken a deep breath and typed “me, too” in social media threads gathering the voices of those who have experienced sexual oppression. Many of us have taken a deep breath and realized that we have acted in ways that are sexually oppressive. We are experiencing a Spirit-stirring, beckoning us to break silence and tell truth; to come into the Light and walk in the Light.
I’m grateful to you for wondering alongside me about how your congregation becomes a sanctuary, a safe and holy shelter where those who have been harmed can break their silences, find their voices, and tell truths that need to be told.
I’m grateful to you for wondering alongside me about how your congregation becomes a sanctuary, a safe and holy shelter where those who have harmed others can tell their truths and experience support and accountability on journeys of repentance.
I’m grateful to you for wondering alongside me about how your congregation’s ministries of preaching, witness, spiritual care, and faith formation proclaim profound honor for others’ bodies, minds, and spirits – and for our own – as works of sacred art shaped by an infinitely loving Creator.
We boldly follow the one who came and who is to come as the Light of the World. We, too, will be silence breakers.
—Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister
Prep for the story!By admin - December 1, 2017, 1:09 pm
Advent calendars, the kind with the pull open windows and chocolates inside, began their annual appearances just moments after the trick-or-treat-ers finished their rounds on Halloween. Some folks grumble about this, but I smiled when I saw them, thankful for the reminder that Advent was on its way.
Advent is the churchy word for the season of preparation leading up to Christmas. Those calendars and their tiny treats are our modern take on ancient practice to mark sacred time. For Christians, Advent is a time of waiting, listening, and preparing. This is not the kind of preparing that requires to-do lists, running around buying gifts and groceries, or cleaning in anticipation of guests filling every sleeping space in the house. Advent is different.
Advent is a kind of preparing that is required to be able to eventually join our voices with the mighty and the lowly, the shepherds and the wise ones, to announce with trumpets and shouts that pierce through the silence of night, to say that implausible has happened. Heaven has bent low and touched the earth. The holy is present. The age old promises are true. God is with us.
We will declare this come Christmas Day by looking towards a baby in a manager as evidence, surrounded by a teen mom and an adoptive dad who will have to wait weeks before the court makes his role as a dad official. Truth is, we have to prepare to hear this age-old story. It is simply too strange to hear without a bit of preparation and reading through some of the preface.
We often begin Advent with the words of the prophets or the story of Israelites in exile, so that by the time we hear Jesus’s words, we can see that hope, peace, joy and love….aren’t just a new fad. It’s what the divine in our midst has always been striving for. We begin at the point in the story where folks are anticipating and pointing towards a new day, a new way, of peace and provision.
All the while, as we hear the ancient story unfold, it is important to remember that Advent isn’t some intellectual exercise. Advent requires some heart work. Advent brings with it an invitation to become enchanted with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the world as it is is not as it always will be. Our world tells us peace and provision aren’t possible, that’s its too difficult, that it’s futile to even entertain it. Our world conspires to convince us to follow after the new shiny object as though it will make us happy. Our world says that we’ll never get along, that we’ll always need our weapons, be they bullets or words meant to pierce the depths of the soul. For generations, the primary story is that one group of people in power will rule another and that we need borders and aisles, anything to distinguish us from enemies and threats. We’ve believed to some extent that these messages are true, that there is a quick fix, or that resources are too scarce or we’ve got to look out for ourselves and our own. We’ve bought into fear, and though we find it in glimpses sometime, hope seems rather futile.
It takes a lot to ready ourselves to hear a different story.
This is why Advent practices are so important. One of the ways many churches prepare is by lighting an Advent wreath. While it’s a beautiful tradition in the life of the church, it is a beautiful tradition to build into our own daily Advent practices. So the invitation this day is to build a wreath for yourself, dedicate some time to lighting it daily, and to a bit of time for reflection and prayer.
On Sunday here in Decorah, we started Advent. Yes, I know it’s a week early, but we wanted an extra week. We taught folks about the symbol of the wreath and handed out packs of candles, bags of sand, and a calendar to help people journey through using the wreath each day. The design is simple: find a bowl, pour sand in the bottom, stick five candles in, and cover the sand with some evergreens. You’ll have a simple wreath. Folks were also invited to take a calendar so that they had daily prompts for reflection.
I invite you to the same. I hope you will grab some simple supplies, make a wreath, light it daily, and make space in your life to practice Advent. The calendar we are using is available to you as is a resource that explains a bit more about the meaning of the wreath. Adapt it to be what will be life giving (our church changed the order of the candles).
Friends, I hope that your Advent season is a beautiful and meaningful one,
—Laura Arnold, Program Support/Adjunct Lay Education and Pastor at Decorah UCC
(If you wish to download this blog story, just go to http://decorahucc.org/celebrating-advent/.
By admin - December 1, 2017, 1:09 pm
"They" are "us"By Brigit Stevens - November 9, 2017, 12:33 pm
Just like much of America, my heart is broken this week with the events of last Sunday where a man opened fire inside a house of worship, killing 26 people and injuring 27 others, at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, TX. From the earliest reports of the tragedy, many of our hearts and minds quickly started to attempt to figure out what happened and why. I am convinced we want to know, “why,” in order to make plans to avoid such situations in our own futures. To know why something happened helps us to feel a modicum of control, that we might be able to predict, and therefore protect ourselves and our loved ones, from future violent events.
In our diagnosing of the latest horror of gun violence in our nation, I am saddened and concerned about the quick conclusions of some to blame the gunman’s mental health issues as the defining reason why for his horrific behavior. The reason I worry about this conclusion is that I am afraid it will continue to demonize and stigmatize our friends and neighbors who struggle with mental illness. It will paint a picture that is just plain wrong, and we will make decisions and laws about public health and safety based on these wrong conclusions.
As we learned from Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund and Angela Whitenhill at last month’s PRO2017 Day of Sharpening, people with diagnosed mental illness are ten times more likely to be the VICTIMS of violence, than be the perpetrators of violence. They are in need of health care and protection.
We also learned that “they” are “us.” What I mean is, mental illness is much more common than any of us like to admit. As reported by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services in 2014, one in five American adults have experienced a mental health issue. One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. And suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. It accounts for the loss of more than 41,000 American lives each year, more than double the number of lives lost to homicide.
So, I worry. People I am very close to and love very much are managing their mental illnesses today with the help of doctors, medications, therapists, pastors, and friends. I assume you have friends and family doing the same, given the statistics reported above. So, I worry that in our profound grief and fear in the aftermath of the horror in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX, we will draw quick, and wrong, conclusions. I worry that our friends and family with mental illness will be further stigmatized, isolated, and feared. I worry that we will focus energy and resources into prisons instead of clinics and hospitals. I worry that we will again throw our hands up and declare it impossible to create sensible gun legislation that protects our rights to LIFE, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And when I worry, I pray.
My prayers are joining all of yours. Seeking the way that Jesus would lead us. The way that chooses life over death. May we be guided by Christ to love our neighbors and friends in ways that reveal the depths of love and compassion available through him.
Blessings for the journey,
BrigitBy Brigit Stevens - November 9, 2017, 12:33 pm