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Epic failure?

By admin - July 16, 2014, 2:32 pm

“Does this mean we flunked our accessibility consultation?” someone asked as we waited for the firefighters to arrive.  From across the room came the words of truth, “‘Epic failure’ doesn’t even come close to describing this situation.”

 In my imagination, the weekend was going to be a beautiful, wonder-filled, inspiring moment in the life of the congregation that would launch us into an intentional period of reflection and conversation about differing abilities, disabilities, and disability rights.  As I imagined it, Rev. Diana would help us creatively think through how to best work with our historic building (and its unique quirks) and guide us further along in our process of becoming a church where ALL people are included in the full life of our congregation.  I imagined that in the weeks that would follow, we’d be happily having the conversations and working towards living into our commitment to extravagant welcome, both in our congregational culture and our physical structures. 

It had started off well.  On Saturday, we excitedly welcomed the Rev. Diana Coberly to Decorah, and she carefully went room by room, sharing wisdom in story and by example.  She celebrated with us what had already been accomplished: a wheelchair accessible lift, an automatic door opener, sound amplifying devices in the sanctuary, large print bulletins, coat racks easily reachable by someone sitting in a wheel chair, etc. She challenged us to be more intentional in our signage and to create better accessible parking.  She gave great practical advice and gave us guidance on how to make our rooms and bathrooms functionally accessible, not just ADA compliant.  And, on Sunday morning, Rev. Diana preached worship and after lunch led a short training workshop on disability rights and advocacy and the role of the church.  It had all gone well and prompted some of the hoped for conversations.  There was still a lot of work to be done and more conversation to be had, but it was a solid foundation for us to build upon.    

After the workshop, Diana and I went to retrieve her belongings from my office in the main sanctuary building.  Built in 1896, with an entrance sitting atop 15 steep stairs, the sanctuary building is dependent upon a wheelchair lift from another building to make it accessible for all people.  It was on that final ride up, that we heard the now infamous sound of mechanical failure and failure of extravagant welcome.  Suffice it to say that though Rev. Diana did make it all the way up the lift, it was clear that she would not be able to ride it back down to the ground floor exit.  The irony did not escape us.  Our accessibility consultant was trapped in our building.  Two minutes after the phone call was placed, firefighters, the EMTs, and the police were on scene, happy to help.  As the firefighters were carrying her and then her chair out of the building, Diana laughed and pointed out that a team of firefighters on Sunday morning might make for a fun group of ushers and a possible alternative to building a ramp.  

Had the lift not failed, we might still be having the comfortable-ish conversations we were a year ago.  But instead, we had to take a good, hard look at our priorities and start putting time, energy, and money into widening our welcome.  It hasn’t been easy, but it has made a significant difference in the life of our church.

The truth is, that all churches need to be having conversations around physical and cultural accessibility.  Churches aren’t required by law to conform to accessibility laws (though every other public place is), but as people who ground our being in a God whose love is deep and wide, we ought not use that as our rubric anyway.  When was the last time your church had a serious conversation about accessibility?  Not just the physical accessibility of your building but the congregation’s culture also?  If it’s been a while, here are a few resources to get you started:

 —Laura Arnold
Adjunct Staff Member who works with PATHWAYS at Iowa Conference and Senior Pastor at Decorah Congregational UCC



By admin - July 16, 2014, 2:32 pm

  • Heidi Hulme says:

    Nothing like a “gentle” reminder of how we are doing! As I read through this, I thought, “Well, our building is easy. We don’t have any steps from the door to the sanctuary.” Then I read further…….coat racks, bathrooms – which we have an accessible bathroom, but no bars to help get up and down – and automatic doors. Even some of the members now can’t get in the parking lot door without help. As we begin our visioning process, and talk about radical inclusiveness and extravagant welcome, these are things we are going to have to look into. Thanks for the “gentle” reminder to all of us!

  • Steven Jewett says:

    Hi Laura,
    Thank you for your respectful and challenging comments about making all of our worship centers ADA compliant. For more than twenty years I have serviced ADA equipment and I noticed a deflection in the face of the handicapped button in your opening photo that indicates that the button has been struck many times by other than a hand, it may have been the tip of a cane, a crutch or another foreign object. We should remain vigilant in our efforts to respect the needs of those who need ADA assistance, however those who need assistance should also respect our call to supply it.

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Blessed be the tie that binds...

By admin - July 10, 2014, 4:27 pm

Blessed be the tie that binds…our hearts in Christian love….  It’s a hymn that many of us can sing by heart (at least the first verse), and often – when a congregation sings it together – there are more than a few sympathizing tears  to be brushed away. The bonds that we form with the people who sit with us in worship each week are profound.  We pray for and with them in tough times.  We laugh and celebrate with them in good times.  We make casseroles, send cards, visit in the hospital, attend graduation parties and birthday celebrations.  We weep at their memorial services.  Week in and week out, we share the ups and downs of life together.


These people who worship alongside us are friends, surely.  But – whether we know it or not – they are more than that as well.  In the power of The Holy Spirit and the blessing of Christ’s love, we are disciples together.  We are bound by the Spirit of love and we are given a mission that is bigger than our understanding.  I believe that this is what makes a church more than a pretty building. This deep connection creates real communities of faith and makes us witnesses to our Risen Lord who makes all things new – even our tired old lives – even our tired, aging congregations.


Those ties that bind us together cast a net that is wider than just our Sunday morning pew.   In the power of God’s covenant with us all, we are connected beyond the walls of our churches, beyond even the separation of denomination or particular belief, beyond this time or this place.  We are a part of one another – whether we know it or not.  And, mostly, we don’t know it!


Until something bad happens.  When a church community in Cedar Falls is flooded…..other churches lend a helping hand.  When a new church is beginning….others reach into their pocketbooks to help turn that possibility into a reality.  When leadership in a church falters….the Conference is there with support and counsel.  When a church flourishes, representatives of the broader church come to celebrate.  When a tornado hits or an earthquake rumbles, compassion opens our eyes and our hearts, creating one body from many.  But maybe just for just a few moments.


The reality is that the church is bigger than my pew, my church building, or even my denomination during this particular time in history.  The church  -  whether we acknowledge  it or not – is a deep connection of souls and bodies bound together by the gift of God’s love.  We are joined together across time and space, across differences in belief, across age and race, gender or orientation, economic or educational class.   And then we are given a common mission – to seek to follow Jesus….together.


There are lots of reasons why this vision of church may seem outdated.  We live in a world that is increasingly individualistic, where connection is made through FaceBook postings and we are fast losing our ability to listen respectfully to different perspectives.  We live by texts and tweets – in short, staccato sentences.  We compartmentalize life, as though work or family have nothing to do with one another.  Technology is re-wiring not only our brains, but we expect it to transform the structures of our lives.


I suggest that, as Christians, we know better.  Generation upon generation, in good times and bad, all over the world, we have been bound together by God’s love, and we have been asked to share that love with one another and the world. We can use technology to help us do the work, but our strength is not technology.  Our strength is God’s grace and love to gathers us into this particular way of living together. We have been promised that – taken all together – these simple acts of compassion and justice will make a difference in the world.  It may not seem like much, but it is all we have.  And it is enough.


It is a gift to belong to a community of healing and blessing.  It is a gift to be part of a wave of justice and peace that is both ancient and brand new.  Each one of us lives a bigger and better life because we are so deeply. connected.  Only when we work together can we become the change that God is hoping to see!

Blessed be the tie that binds…

Katherine Mulhern
Iowa Conference UCC Adjunct Staff – 2030 Iowa

By admin - July 10, 2014, 4:27 pm

  • Judy Collins says:

    This is a wonderful way to stop and think about the value of all these things that remind us that we aren’t going through life alone. Especially in a world that is touched by the impact of climate change related to how we live. When I think that something that goes in the water from a farm up stream might end up being part of someone’s bath water for the new baby. There are so many wonderful things that we can do to support others, but we also must remember that the closeness also has some responsibility for whether we have safeguards in mind. We are blessed with so much while others go wanting. Is that giving us a message we should not be overlooking? Thank you, Katherine

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By Rich Pleva - July 3, 2014, 1:04 pm

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,

    Eating the bread of anxious toil;

For God gives sleep to his beloved.

Psalm 127:2


Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

Jesus – Matthew 6:26



There’s a remarkable Benedictine retreat center outside the small town of Schuyler, Nebraska.  I’m writing this from there while watching the shadows lengthen on this late afternoon in late June.  This is a beautiful place and I come here three times a year…partly to address the tyranny of time….and work.


Time and work aren’t the same thing, of course, but they are intimately related with each other.  Often they get tied up together in ways that make them difficult to separate.


I’m sure I’m like many of you when I confess that among the attitudes and perspectives I’ve inherited from others are deeply ingrained attitudes about the centrality of work.  Mom and Dad….the Protestant church…North American culture (at least the part of it that helped form me) have all conspired to tell me that work is an essential part of who I am….that without work…..maybe I’m nothing and nobody.


Certainly work is a good thing, but I’m pretty sure it’s NOT the only thing…or even the main thing.  But there’s something deep within me…an insistent little voice that whispers to the contrary.  To put it bluntly…when I’m not working I often feel guilty.


Among the counter-cultural values to which the Gospel of Christ witnesses is an affirmation that being is more important than doing.  Few of us would dispute this…but fewer of us have made sufficient peace with this truth that it has clearly and unambiguously come to characterize our living.  I know for sure that I’ve not arrived at that place of grace and peace.  That’s largely why I spent regular time with a spiritual director and why I leave the office for several days three times a year and pray with a small community of monks in the middle of an eastern Nebraska cornfield.  For me, at least, it’s important to regularly face my idolatrous commitment to work and call on God to help me keep it in its proper place. 


How is your being/doing balance?  Do you play enough to keep work in its rightful place?  Is there enough laughter and silliness in your day so that you aren’t overrun by the seriousness of your call?  Do you get the right amount of sleep…not too much….not too little?  Obviously we are called to be with people….are you sufficiently away from people so that your presence with them is gracious and undivided?  What about Sabbath?  Does it occupy more than just a symbolic place in your life?


The Apostle once famously asserted, “It is by grace that you are saved, by faith.  This is God’s gift and it isn’t a matter of work….lest anyone slip into boasting.”


In a day when church has lost its esteemed place of cultural deference (remember…it’s 2014:  Even if your building is on the town square, in terms of influence you’re on some hardly known back road), maybe it’s time for us to take up a few seemingly lost causes and proclaim them as central to the Gospel.  Maybe one of those central affirmations should be an ongoing critique of the idolatry of work…and maybe the critique needs to start in our own lives.


With great hope!
Rich Pleva
Conference Minister

By Rich Pleva - July 3, 2014, 1:04 pm

  • John Riessen says:

    Thank you, Rich, for commenting on your experience and the notion of being. We are human beings. Taking time to listen (dare one say, discern) in this age of motion and flux, to that still, small voice is so important.

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Happy Birthday!

By Jonna Jensen - June 26, 2014, 11:28 am

I write to you this morning, dear brothers and sisters, near the end of a week that has been more horizontal than vertical for me.  Thank you for graciously receiving words only slightly changed from some years ago when I wrote them to you.  I pray they still bring a bit of light to your week. – Jonna  


Birthdays!  What a wonderful blessing!  A chance, saved right on our calendars, to offer someone a tender, joyous, grateful word.  A chance to say to someone, “I thank God for you!”  A chance to write a love note.   A chance to light candles and sing a birthday serenade.    

This past Wednesday, we celebrated our 57th birthday as the United Church of Christ.  A bite of cake after worship this Sunday would be very nice.  There’s time to call a few friends and see if together you can come up with 57 birthday candles.  Raise up a rollicking, “Happy Birthday to you … dear UCC!”

Even a bit belatedly, it would be great to send a birthday card to someone who makes the United Church of Christ a blessing for you.  Maybe someone in your congregation who makes what is best in the UCC come alive for you.   Maybe your pastor.  Maybe a leader in your Association or in our Conference.  Maybe you’d like to address your card to 700 Prospect Ave. E, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100 and wish everyone at our national headquarters a happy birthday.  The most recent round of major budget cuts have left yet more empty desks at 700 Prospect and understandable grief among staff who continue their ministries on our behalf.  Your kind and encouraging words might be an answer to someone’s prayer.

Oh, and a gift?  Hmmm.  What do we give ourselves, our United Church of Christ, for our birthday?  You might find some pretty paper and a bow and wrap a present to your congregation – something as simple as crayons or copy paper for the daily work of your United Church of Christ congregation.  You might wrap a gift for one of the missions of your congregation –food or laundry soap for your local pantry or bright new socks for guests in a nearby shelter.  You might make a special birthday offering of $5.70 or $57.00 or even $570.00 to your local congregation, to the Iowa Conference, or to the national setting of the United Church of Christ with a bright “Happy Birthday” written in the memo line of your check.

Or might this be the time to think of another sort of gift?  One that fits less easily into an envelope or a gift box?  Now and then I have fun popping shiny bows on the children of one of our congregations, reminding them that they are gifts and then cheering them on as they pop shiny bows on each worshipper with the reminder, “You are a gift.”  Our birthday week is an excellent time to listen in prayer for the voice of the Holy Spirit, who gives each one of us gifts to share in the body of Christ.  Our birthday week is just the right time to listen for God calling or re-calling us to pop our bows on and pass along the gifts that are ours from the extravagant hand of God.

Thank you for the gifts you are.  Thank you for the gifts you share.  Happy birthday, everyone!

Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister

By Jonna Jensen - June 26, 2014, 11:28 am

  • Susan Reed says:

    You, sister, are a gift to many. Your infectious laugh, your smile, your ability to find humor in situations that are not always that funny, you, Jonna, are an extremely welcome, pleasant gift that I enjoyed at “Recharge”.

    Popping bows may be just what I need to do this Sunday at the installation service. We will be serving cake and ice-cream, and I will make sure to remind everyone of the 57th birthday of the UCC.

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By admin - June 19, 2014, 7:00 am

Deuteronomy 31:6 reads ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.’

Philippians 4:4 says ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’

Psalm 23:6 proclaims ‘Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.’

These three scriptures are just a few of many that I struggle with because of the authors’ word choice.  Never, always and forever are words that I try to keep out of my vocabulary for various reasons but mostly because I don’t like the way that people use them.

My kids say things like ‘I ALWAYS have to sit in the back’, ‘I NEVER get the green cup’, and ‘she’s been looking at that book FOREVER’.  But we adults are no better when it comes to the way that we use these words…

‘Summer will NEVER get here’, ‘ it’s ALWAYS so windy’, ‘this crazy weather is lasting F-O-R-E-V-E-R’.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said my fair share of statements similar to these; but I still struggle with hearing these words too often and so I remind my kids, my friends, my family, and my parishioners that it’s all about perspective when they use words like ‘always’, ‘never’, and ‘forever’.  But the other day while I was at the bus stop with my two oldest waiting for the school bus, I was reminded about perspective about these words.

A 6 year old named ‘Alice’ came around the bushes from the corner of the parking lot like she does every morning to wait for the school bus…but this particular morning she came crying into my arms.

When the sobbing had slowed down enough for her to rub her nose on my shoulder I asked what the matter was and she sniffed and said, ‘I will NEVER see my mom again.  My real mom I mean, she’s in jail and she’ll be there FOREVER because of her bad choices, she ALWAYS makes bad choices.’

*sigh* My three least favorite words, used in the most heart breaking way.

All I could do was hold that little girl and hope that she knew, or would soon learn that forever wouldn’t be as long as she thought, that always wouldn’t  last her whole life and that never would come sooner than she hoped for.

Before the bus pulled up to pick up the kids at the stop I looked ‘Alice’ in the eyes and reminded her that never, always and forever are really strong words.  She wiped her tears away and climbed up the steps to find her seat as I whispered a prayer that Christ would indeed ALWAYS hold that child and all others like her in his arms, NEVER forgetting a single one.

- Pastor Samantha Houser, Waukon Zion UCC and Program Staff/Adjunct Youth Iowa Conference

By admin - June 19, 2014, 7:00 am

  • Brigit Stevens says:

    Thank you for being God’s arms of comfort and encouragement for ‘Alice’ in the moment she needed you most. Thank you for the reminder of the strength of God’s promises to love us for always, never letting go of us, forever and ever.

  • Susan Reed says:

    Bless you Samantha as you continue to respond to the needs of those around you. I share this; ” For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that who so ever believes in Him shall not perish but have ever lasting life.” Not one of those words appears in this yet two of the three are implied. God’s peace be with you.

  • Jonna Jensen says:

    Beautiful, dear Sister. Thank you for guiding us to greater mindfulness of the power of these three words. Your message will often stir in my memory, I expect, when I hear them and use them.

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