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,
By Brigit Stevens - November 9, 2017, 12:33 pm
RelinquishBy admin - November 2, 2017, 2:25 pm
A 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!).
By admin - November 2, 2017, 2:25 pm
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!
The UCC in Iowa
God is there through it allBy 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.
By admin - September 27, 2017, 2:36 pm
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.
This 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
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.
You 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