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"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 Brigit FB profileSharpening, 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,

Brigit

By Brigit Stevens - November 9, 2017, 12:33 pm


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    Relinquish

    By admin - November 2, 2017, 2:25 pm

    readingA few weeks ago I got to spend a long weekend with my grandson Richie and his parents. Richie is still of an age where he thinks having Grandpa read his bedtime story is a treat and I am, of course, delighted to comply. Maybe I was a bit too euphoric, or maybe it wasn’t a good idea to be padding around in my stocking feet, or maybe the treads on the carpeted stairs in their new-to-them (but not new) house are just a tiny bit too narrow – but whatever the reason, as I came down the stairs from upstairs I fell – and hard. I was carrying a Kindle in my right hand and though it all happened too fast for me to have any precise clarity about exactly what happened, I obviously jammed that Kindle into my thumb in such a way as to do damage. It’s not broken-bone damage – my physician assured me of that – but even a month later it still hurts. But finally I’m beginning to regain function. And what’s the sine qua non of thumb function? Why, grasping of course! It’s the source of ubiquitous joking in our house – at the expense of Quincy the dog: “Oh…of course you can’t get your own Dentastix; you don’t have an opposable thumb!” (nor very many teeth either….but that’s a story for a different day!).
     
    Grasping. It’s an essential part of facile manipulation of the physical world. But it’s also a metaphor for what humans are altogether too good at – holding too tightly to that which can’t be held forever or shouldn’t be held at all.
     
    Some months ago one of our bright young pastors suggested I read a novel by the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. The book has a jarring, one-word title: “Disgrace.” And assuredly there is disgrace in the life of the main character.
     
    But there’s something else that struck me powerfully – maybe because of the point in life to which I’ve come. This story isn’t just about disgrace….it’s also about relinquishment. About letting go. About not grasping that which can’t be kept regardless of the efficacy of one’s thumb function.
     
    By now you know how much I love the biblical story and its fascinating – at times perplexing and even oxymoronic themes. I love the way heroes and villains are all over the place and how often the heroes and the villains are exactly the same person! I love the stories that are grace-filled and tender and I love the stories that are crude and unworthy of God…but there they are!!
     
    And as I get older, I am drawn to biblical implications of relinquishment. It’s rarely a main theme, but it’s frequently lurking around the edges. The suggestion that losing is finding and that saving one’s life is the surest way to lose it.
     
    We are all of us today one day closer to death than we were yesterday. Some find that observation morbid, but I find it merely honest and even a motivation to make just as much of today as I possibly can. In these recent weeks, I’m been thinking of another relinquishment – soon I will be losing all of you.
     
    Part of the deal when a pastor accepts a call is that the relationships formed in the work have an “end by” date attached to them. It’s part of the reality of healthy boundaries. It’s part of having clarity that churches (or conferences) don’t exist for pastors – it’s the other way around. Clergy exist (as clergy) only for the service they are gifted to render. Yes, of course clergy have needs – but most of those needs are to be met elsewhere – not in the context of their work.
     
    But there is a down-to-earth reality that seemingly contradicts what I’m saying here – that being the reality that ministry done well is very rewarding. It isn’t always easy, or fun, or immediately satisfying – but in the long run it is profoundly rewarding.
     
    And the fact is, I’ve been profoundly rewarded to be your conference minister for 12 years. But now it’s time for me to give it up – to relinquish it. And I will. But even though we won’t work together any more, I will still carry you in my heart. I will pray for you. I will read the conference newsletter and your Facebook posts. I won’t comment on them if they have to do with the conference – but I will gobble them up – because even though I relinquish my work with you, my love for you cannot be so simply extinguished.
     
    At the planning retreat of the Conference Board of Directors late in October it was made official that I will stop being Iowa Conference Minister on December 31. But for practical purposes, I’ll be done December 22. By the end of that Friday I’ll have my stuff out of the (my?) office and will have driven with Ruby to this house in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, that we built in anticipation of this day. We both knew this day would come and we looked forward to it…but until recently it still seemed very far off. But now it’s nearly here.
     
    This isn’t my last communication with you – that will come at Christmas-time, but it’s important to leave with clarity and resolve – and I intend to do exactly that. It’s important so that you can move on – with each other and with your new Conference Minister.
     
    Relinquishment. I relinquish you to Brigit….but I will not let you out of my heart. Blessings!
     
    Rich Pleva
    Conference Minister
    The UCC in Iowa

    By admin - November 2, 2017, 2:25 pm


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    God is there through it all

    By admin - September 27, 2017, 2:36 pm

    “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.”         Psalm 23:1-2

     

    I rarely see it coming. But it always does.
     
    Things are going smoothly. I’m checking things off my to-do list, making every social engagement, planning ahead for the program year, visiting all my shut-ins – and despite the regular meditation and prayer practices that keep me centered, I get  stopped in my tracks.  I get made to lie down right there in the middle of God’s green pastures whether I have time for it or not.
     
    houserThis past month has been exactly that. There’s been one personal, congregational, national and global devastation after the other. Flood, hurricane, wildfire, racist rally, protest, Iowa kids garbed in KKK hoods, cross burning, funeral, infant loss, illness, medical scare…there’s been A LOT!   And I know I am not alone.
     
    Our Christian Education Chair asked me to start the program year off focusing on Psalm 23 with the kids and if I’m honest, at first I rolled my eyes because this familiar Psalm seems so over done, so sanitized that I was at a loss.
     
    But as I was made to lie down, to stop in my tracks, to be still after such a devastating and chaotic month I read that psalm and was reminded that God is there through it all with us. That God is curled up with us as we sleep in the lush meadows.  That God is offering us a refreshing drink when we’ve worn ourselves out and are trying to catch our breath.  That God is our mapping system when we’ve lost our way.  That God is our light when we are in a dark place.  That God is our bodyguard when we’re in an even darker place.  That God is our mediator when we are feeling stubborn or acting childish with people we don’t like-maybe even with people we hate.  That God is our joy as well as the one who gives us blessing.
     
    And that is a message for all generations to hear, more than once.
     
    Being made to lie down, being stopped in my tracks, I’ve felt a bit of guilt creep up. The “shoulds,” if you will, that have been left undone because of all the things that have taken priority. But as I get older I’m learning to respect those rhythms of life a bit more. Much less hustle, much more flow. Even if that flow means I’m made to stop and simply lie in God’s presence.
     
    May you feel the presence of God whether you are laying in the green pastures or the dark valleys. You are not alone.
     
    —Pastor Samantha Houser, Waukon Zion UCC and Program Support/Adjunct of Youth Ministry in Iowa Conference UCC

    By admin - September 27, 2017, 2:36 pm


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      New for "y'all"

      By Brigit Stevens - September 15, 2017, 10:06 am

      “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11

       

      Jeremiah 29:11 is a popular verse. You can see it on greeting cards of encouragement, sewn into needlepoint wall hangings in church school rooms, etched into worry stones to keep in your pocket, etc. It is a popular verse to have handy to remind us when we are in times of stress or uncertainty that God has a big plan for us and we can relax a little into God’s plans.

       

      There is a little problem with the translation of this verse into English however, at least how most people read it. It really ought to say, “For I know the plans I have for all y’all, declares the Lord,” because, “you” in this phrase is plural, not individual. This is Good News for a nation of people, not for one well loved individual.

       

      Brigit FB profileYou may have heard the news recently that the boards of directors of the Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska conferences have approved me as the candidate to be presented to the conferences for vote as the Executive Conference Minister for our new unified conference staff. This is an exciting time! And although it has been my singular name in the recent announcements, this isn’t really about me at all.

       

      WE have been called to a new time and a new place as the church! And the Lord has big plans for US! And thank goodness for God’s plans for us! Because even our wildest imaginings can only begin to scratch the surface of the depth of the love, grace, abundance, and hope that God has in store for us and for the world!

       

      To be sure, there is hard work for us, and God’s plans don’t live on our timeline, but on God’s eternal timeline, so there will be disappointments along the way as well. But, we have been called to this new day and this new time and this new church together! Praise be to God!

       

      Blessings for the Journey,

      Brigit Stevens, Associate Conference Minister

      By Brigit Stevens - September 15, 2017, 10:06 am


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      Let your light shine

      By admin - September 8, 2017, 1:25 pm

      “What happens when we live God’s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity.  We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.  We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

       

      Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way.”

       

      Galatians 5:22-23
      (-The Message)

       

      I have two fruit trees in my backyard – a Montmorency cherry tree and a northern variety of peach. I planted each from a sapling and for the first time this year I harvested a respectable crop from both.  It will be hard to leave them behind when the house sells and I move away.  Not because I can’t get cherries and peaches elsewhere – of course I can.  For me, at least, there is something remarkable about seeing the transition from flower to fruit in my very own yard.

       

      richreading 20130502There are things I do to help the process along – not least of which (having learned from hard experience last year!) was the rather arduous process of covering each in a bird and animal-proof mesh. But I can only take a little bit of credit.  For all my fertilizing and watering and animal-proofing, each tree finally did what it was genetically programmed – I might say divinely programmed – to do.  The cherry tree produced cherries and the peach tree grew peaches.  The cherries made a couple fabulous pies and a few batches of Door County cherry stuffed French toast.  The peaches were eaten out of hand, made into peach/raspberry freezer jam and frozen for other use later this winter.  The peaches were small and juicy and full of flavor.  Almost to die for!

       

      Ages ago the Apostle Paul wrote about the natural produce of a life oriented to and by the Spirit of God. In the traditional translations that fruit is characterized as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  I love that list, but I also love the way Eugene Peterson has paraphrased and unpacked that list of nine characteristics (above).

       

      We live in a so-called “Christian nation.” One of the dangers of that notion is the temptation to believe that one is Christian by virtue of the passport she holds.  Ultimately, it is for God to “KNOW” whether I or anyone else is a Christian, but God has not left us without powerful hints.  Just as a cherry tree proves its identity by producing cherries and peach trees by producing peaches, so Christians give evidence of their identity by Spirit-fruit.  Conversely, without spirit-fruit, there can be confident assertion of connection with Christ.

       

      Much has been written in recent years about the increasingly “post-Christian” state of North American culture. I see no reason to quibble with that assessment.  But neither do I see reason to despair over it.  However, I do think it’s important – very important! – to draw a distinction between behaviors and attitudes and practices and policies that are Spirit-ish and those that are not.  Because many people still imagine this to be a Christian nation, it’s likely that some people imagine that the behaviors and attitudes and practices and policies that we are seeing every day in the news are “Christian.”  But let us be clear, there is nothing Christian about hate, and fear and warmongering and violence threatening and meanness and chaos and bullying and unfettered capitulation to the impulse of the moment.

       

      Followers of Jesus bear witness to the love and justice and kindness of God not because doing so is either “nice” or “obligatory” but because it’s fundamentally who we are.   Just like cherry trees grow cherries and peach trees grow peaches, so those born of Spirit produce the fruit of the Spirit.

       

      We live in odd and challenging times, but we are far from the first to live in such times. Perhaps, like Esther of the eponymous Old Testament book, we are called to bear Spirit-ish fruit precisely for such a day as this.

       

      As Jesus himself admonished his followers, “Let your light shine so that folk will know who you are.” That’s important in easy times…. it’s even more important in hard times.

       

      Let your light shine!!

       

      With great hope!

       

      Rich Pleva
      Conference Minister
      UCC in Iowa

      By admin - September 8, 2017, 1:25 pm


      • Bob Butterfield says:

        This was your best-ever e-mail sermon: inspired and beautiful.
        Now that you are ending your service as CM, why not start your service as a missionary?! You and Ruby would make a great team in the mission field.

      • Sue Johannsen says:

        Applause! I am reminded of the song, They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love. Just as the we identify a cherry tree by what it gives, so we can identify people by their love. Some years the harvest is bountiful and other years the apples may be few and somewhat spoiled by worms or weather. We, as people, are not always on our best behavior, but you are absolutely on the mark when you say we are programmed to love each other. Every new day is a another chance to measure.

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