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Time for Three Chapters?

By Jonna Jensen - January 22, 2015, 8:41 am

We are people of the Word and followers of the Word made flesh.  We are inheritors of a history that highly values education; that highly values learning ministers and learning laity who are continually curious about and continually shaped by the Word.  We gather as congregations each week to study the Word, to hear the Word read and preached and sung as we worship God.  We are lifelong lovers and learners of the Word.

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We are inheritors of traditions of immersion in the Word week by week, day by day and even hour by hour.  If we are people of the Word and followers of the Word made flesh, best we be generous with the hours we give to reading, learning, praying, and singing that Word.


We followers of the Word made flesh find different ways to immerse ourselves in the Word throughout our days and weeks.  How is it for you?


Sometimes, our pastors let us know what portions of the Word we will meet during our next worship service so that we can begin reading, learning, praying, and singing them in preparation for worship.  Some of us carry the Word home with us following worship, maybe with a few scribbled notes from our pastor’s sermon, and spend the days following worship reading, learning, praying, and singing the Word we received.  How do Sunday’s readings stir through your week of reading, learning, praying and singing the Word?


Many of us keep patterns of daily prayer that include rhythms of Word.  Quite a few of us in the Iowa Conference take up Common Prayer:  A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals in our daily prayer and are nourished by each day’s offerings of Word.  (Shane Claiborne, one of the gatherers of Common Prayer, will be our guest at Recharge this coming June 5-6 at Iowa State University in Ames.)  Earlier this month, the day’s page from Common Prayer included a note that Mohandas Gandhi long kept a daily practice of reading from the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7 in Matthew’s Gospel).


This feels very much like a time for daily reading from the Sermon on the Mount, dear bold followers of the Word made flesh.  I look forward to your emails and notes and to meeting you in the coming weeks’ travels; to hearing what words within those three chapters of Word are changing your mind, changing your heart, and changing what you choose.


                                    Thankful alongside you for three chapters of Word.
Again and again and again.
Looking forward alongside you to the changes they will stir.

Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister

By Jonna Jensen - January 22, 2015, 8:41 am

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    MLK birthday weekend

    By Brigit Stevens - January 16, 2015, 11:04 am

    BLM banner

    As I reflect this year on the birth, life, and death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have mixed emotions. I am overwhelmed with awe and respect for his leadership, his courage, his faith, and his sacrifice. I am ashamed of my white European and American ancestors who participated in perpetuating systems of injustice and denied the humanity of our brothers and sisters that required such leadership from Rev. King and countless others. I am heartbroken that we continue to need to fight for true freedom and opportunity and justice for one another here in our nation and all over the globe. And I am wondering about what the call from God is to me and to us regarding the work that needs to be done here and now.


    It is hard for me to swallow the bitter pill of truth, I believe, that we still need to say out loud that #BlackLivesMatter. We need to say it because some still don’t believe it. Our social systems like public education, criminal justice, social helps, etc. have edges and corners and detours that work best for those whom are white, straight, and male. Studies and statistics continue to prove that to us in wide varieties of ways. And so do our first hand experiences.


    But, the thing that’s extra tough in places like Iowa, even more so in the UCC of Iowa, is that many of us don’t have first-hand experiences to tell regarding the intersection of race and social injustice. Most of us are white. Most of us have only white friends and only white neighbors. A friend and colleague said to me this week, “You know, MLK Day kind of snuck up on me this year. If one of our mutual friends hadn’t posted something on her Facebook page about it yesterday, I would have completely forgotten about it.” It can be easy to forget about. For many of us. But for many of our brothers and sisters, it is not easily forgotten because it is a daily lived struggle.


    Now the hard question: what are we called to do now? What does God require of us, here in the United Church of Christ of Iowa? Where does Jesus invite usRev. Stevens to walk with him, in light of the needs, the wounds, the struggles, and the pain of our people, God’s people? What should this day of remembrance of Rev. King’s birthday spur us to do and to be?


    I wish I knew the full answer to those questions. I believe that the first part of the answers lie in the beginning, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…,’…And it was so. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:1, 26a, 31, NRSV) God made us all, each and every one of us, and saw that we are good, very good indeed.


    But being human, we didn’t all believe it. From very close in time to the beginning, we relied on our fears of scarcity and mistrust of God’s good intentions and provisions, instead of God’s abundance and grace and love. We started trusting our own plans over God’s, stepping on one another, pushing each other out of the way, and created stories and systems and institutions to justify our actions. Since just about as early as the beginning, all of humankind has been struggling with our inability to receive and revel in God’s abundant gifts of life, love, and grace for us ALL.


    We, the church, followers of Jesus Christ, believers of the gifts of God’s grace, love, and life for us ALL, need to tell the world that black lives matter, because some still don’t believe it. And some, even some of us, don’t know or believe the deep pain and suffering that still happens daily for our brown-skinned brothers and sisters. We need to tell the world that black lives matter because we believe that they do. We need to tell the world that black lives matter because God believes that they do.


    And we need to work to make the systems of our society to truly reflect that belief so that we may one day move closer to Rev. Dr. King’s dream, embedded as he said in the American dream, and may I be so bold as to claim it is God’s dream for us as well, the dream of when we will see that day, “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” (King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” Council on Foreign Relations. 28 August 1963. Web. 15 January 2015.)


    —Brigit Stevens, Associate Conference Minister



    By Brigit Stevens - January 16, 2015, 11:04 am

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      And it never gets old

      By Rich Pleva - January 8, 2015, 10:58 am

      In the Bleak Midwinter

      In the bleak mid-winter,
      Frosty wind made moan,
      Earth stood hard as iron,
      Water like a stone……

      What can I give (Christ),
      Poor as I am?
      If I were a shepherd,
      I would bring a lamb;
      If I were a wise man,
      I would do my part;
      Yet what I can given him –
      Give my heart.

      I’ve never been much given to New Year’s resolutions. My working class and pragmatic upbringing made things like Santa Claus and resolutions seem just a bit too fanciful – almost bourgeois.


      To be honest, “hardscrabble” would well describe a good part of my formative years. I thank God that my father (unwittingly, for sure!) exposed me to a richreading 20130502degree of emotional vulnerability because otherwise my life consisted mostly of an incongruous combination of stoicism in everyday life (that would be Mom’s influence), but pietism at church.


      What happens when stoicism and pietism are brought together? Well, a certain odd admixture of distance and emotionalism, at least. It’s dysfunctional in many respects, but it’s all I know and mostly it serves to get me from day to day and from challenge to challenge – including “the bleak midwinter.”


      A couple weeks ago we passed the winter solstice. As autumn ages and the sun sinks everyday lower in the sky, I long for the turning point of the solstice. Even though I can’t pinpoint it with the naked eye, I have enough faith in the calculations of astronomers to take some considerable solace in the certainty that from this late December day on, the days will not get any shorter….in fact, they will begin to lengthen.


      So…it’s about hope…as is so much of faith!


      I love the sunny days of summer – always have (and have an increasing incidence of skin cancers to show for it – please put on your sunscreen and hat, younger friends!), but for many of us, the “bleak midwinter” is a more or less constant companion. The Apostle Paul complained of a “thorn in the flesh” – mine, I suppose is this predilection to the dark side.


      I’ve no idea if anyone in the southern hemisphere has ever tried to make something constructive of this geographically parochial Christmas hymn – it would be hard, I suppose. I live in the north, however, and it works for me, and maybe it does for you too.


      It works for me because it ends with hope. Not the hope of the realm of justice and peace (though I long for that as well), instead it ends with a pointed suggestion that somehow I know I should and can embrace. When the writer suggests whole-self surrender to the divine infant I can imagine nothing more bracing and more helpful. I can choose to do that. If God can arrange to redeem creation through the birth of a helpless child in more or less hopeless conditions, then how can I resist the invitation to turn myself over to that God and to that child?


      So (in spite of myself!) it ends up being a sort of New Year’s resolution, I suppose. In fact, it’s an every-day sort of resolution, partly because I’m so given to recidivism. Over and over and over and again I do my best to give myself to Jesus. And it never gets old.


      And I’m grateful!


      Maybe you’d like to join me. Let’s give our hearts!


      With hope for 2015!
      Rich Pleva
      UCC Conference Minister for Iowa

      By Rich Pleva - January 8, 2015, 10:58 am

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        Let there be Peace

        By Rich Pleva - December 22, 2014, 11:21 am

        And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

         “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

        and on earth peace,

                  good will among people.”


        You and I are not the first to notice, of course, that “peace” is at best spread unevenly across the earth.   But the God who would deign to come among humankind in so inauspicious a form as an infant surely knows this.


        The premise of God’s incarnation is not one of magical reparation.  The God whose angels sang so spectacularly that night is assuredly not blind to the realities of intransigent evil.  This hymn is, I suppose, a tenderly contrarian word from the God who prefers subtlety and surprise and weakness over the exercise of force and violence.  It is an invitation to imagine the ridiculous…the absurd….yes…the “impossible.”


        My prayer and that of the entire staff of the Iowa Conference is that you will (if necessary) stumble into God’s peace and be so awed by the reality thereof that you will share this Good News with all you know and meet.


        Christmas blessings of joy and peace to you and those you love and best wishes for a New Year of grace and hope.


        Rich Pleva
        for the entire Staff of the
        Iowa Conference
        United Church of Christ
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        By Rich Pleva - December 22, 2014, 11:21 am

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          Advent blessings for the journey

          By Brigit Stevens - December 19, 2014, 9:09 am

          While I was in seminary, my mother was gravely ill and ended her own life. Her death was devastating for me and bewildering for my faith. Her long time struggle with depression and anxiety coupled with a new terminal diagnosis were too much for her to bear. On the one hand, I understood very well how and why she made the choice that she did that last week of November 2000. She wanted to choose her own fate. She was terrified of being a burden on the rest of the family. I really believe that she believed those pills were the best and most loving and thoughtful choice for all of us.  On the other hand, I knew of her prayers and mine for her healing, and I was so deeply grief-stricken and angry at God for not answering them. It wasn’t fair. How could it be that a child of God’s could be in such a cold and dark place without relief? I wept for the darkness of my mother’s pain and suffering. And my own soul was chilled and alone.


          There was a time in my early grief when I was not able to claim a belief in God. I couldn’t assert any hope in a benevolent force over and Rev. Stevensabove all else. I was unsure what I would do with my useless Master of Divinity degree because it wouldn’t be worth even the paper it was printed on.

          But, God found me, and God was wearing a tattered sweatshirt, aprons, and rubber gloves.


          My friends had told me to let them know whenever I needed them, as you do when your friend is grieving, so I did.

          One night, my grief had taken hold for a good long week, getting off the couch was almost impossible, and the pile of dirty dishes in the sink brought me to tears. I called my friend Hanna, cried about how hard it was to wash the dishes and how useless it all felt. And 30 minutes later she appeared at my door with our mutual friend Anissa, decked out in aprons and gloves and carrying buckets and feather dusters! They cleaned my tiny apartment and shared hugs and laughter and tears with me! They didn’t tell me to get over it or pray harder. They showed up and helped clean off the crusty dishes.


          I think of them at Christmastime because they were the very real incarnation of God in my life. They were Love, embodied and empowered. Just like the infant Christ, they showed up, right in the middle of the mess, and offered what they had to give.


          I pray that this Advent season has unfolded for you and yours with surprising gifts of hope, peace, joy and most of all, of love. May you witness the great in-breaking of God into the dark and cold places, so much so that it spills over into the rest of the world!


          Advent blessings for the journey,

          Brigit Stevens, Associate Conference Minister

          By Brigit Stevens - December 19, 2014, 9:09 am

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