Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent Blessings

Many of you know that music is a gift I’ve incorporated into my ministry. I’ve sung in many good choirs in some wonderful settings. I’ve missed that since coming to Michigan. However, this Advent that love has been reawakened in me! The First Sunday of Advent I participated in a Messiah Sing Along, the Second weekend of Advent I attended the Western Michigan University School of Music Christmas concert at First Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. The choirs were awe inspiring, filling the sanctuary with glorious music that filled my soul with joy and wonder! Sacred music serves me as a “thin place,” as my Celtic colleagues describe, “where the distance between heaven and earth is tissue thin.” So on the Third Sunday of Advent, I changed my plans and joined in singing a Christmas Cantata with the Westminster Presbyterian Church Choir at Portage. Here are a few reflections on surprises from those three experiences:

First, of the many times that I have sung the Messiah, I don’t ever remember singing Chorus #45 from Part Three “But Thanks, Be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No doubt the director included it because it was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I wasn’t the only one who stumbled through the unfamiliar chorus. It made me pause to think, we really aren’t very attentive to giving thanks…too busy slaving away trying to get things right ourselves…we miss this song!

Second, the WMU University Choir moved me to tears singing “O Magnum Mysterium” by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) in Latin. It’s one of my favorites. “O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in their manger! Blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!” I knew it by heart from singing it with my college choir which toured Europe. I mouthed the words with this new generation of singers. Tears fell! I wonder if and when they will be moved by the glory of Christmas’ great mystery?

Third: the final song at worship with Westminster on Sunday was “Star Child,” a new carol by Shirley Erena Murray based on Matthew 2:1-12, and printed in the 2003 Presbyterian Hymnal Supplement “Sing the Faith”. A phrase in the first verse jumped off the page to me, poetically describing the Christ child, “heaven’s lightning rod.” Wow! I know about being a lightning rod. Most all ministers of the gospel know what it’s like to become a lightning rod, recipient of someone’s misplaced grief and wrath! What a tragedy if we are not grounded, not connected to Jesus, heaven’s lightning rod to channel that thunderous power right along to where it belongs… to the ground. No burnt offerings for us! In Christ, we have heaven’s lightning rod. Check it out, #2095.

These are some Advent blessings I’ve noted this year. May God bless you and those you serve and love this Advent/Christmas season!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Just Say Yes

I was moved by Margaret Haney's sermon at the Synod Assembly of the Synod of the Covenant, November 6, 2010. Margaret has served as the interim Synod Executive. Through this sermon Margaret shares a vision for the Synod and the church today struggling with its barrenness, its fidelity to its Traditions, and struggle with change, transitioning with openness to the new thing that God is doing. Margaret finds in the characters and themes of the Advent story a rich vision for the church today. Margaret has given me permission to share her sermon, "Just Say Yes" here. As you read it, ponder these questions:

Like Zechariah, performing our religious duties in the church, what shocks us about what God is doing today? How might we be struck dumb, silenced in our unbelief.
Like Elizabeth, barren of offspring in the faith, and seemingly too old to give birth, how might we be pregnant with new life? What joy might that bring?
Like Mary, dare we say yes to the risk of participating in what God is doing...has already done? May your Advent be blessed as you live and ponder these question!

“Just say ‘Yes!’”

Luke 1:26-56
Sermon by Margaret Haney, Interim Synod Executive
to the Synod of the Covenant Assembly, November 6, 2010

Today--we are celebrating many things in our life together--it is a great privilege for me to report to you this morning since I can feel us on the verge of something new--and as I pondered the message, the notion of Advent entered my mind and would not go away. Certainly, the season of Advent is only a couple of weeks away--a time when we wait upon the Lord to give us the greatest gift of the entire cosmos--the birth of the Savior of the world. I am also aware that in the next two months, I will be stepping away from this synod and all the wonderful opportunities you have given me to see some part of the vision that God gives the church in all our flaws and our beauty. This is truly an Advent time for me personally for I know that a new life is on the horizon for me and for the synod--as each of our lives enters into a time of waiting upon the Lord to give us again, the Good News. Jesus Christ is born to set us free.
My great love is story telling and so I wanted to share this story as a mark of our transition. We read today from Luke the phenomenal announcement of the birth of Jesus--to a young woman in some little out of the way place called Nazareth--that nobody ever heard of much until all this happened.

But before we get too far into that part of the story--let's rewind the tape to a spot just earlier in the first chapter of Luke--for the text we have just heard is best understood in the context of the whole story.

Picture in your mind--two people: an old couple of considerable status in their community, Zechariah, who is a priest in the temple--a man of some power and importance--and his wife Elizabeth. The Scriptures say they are both from Aaron's line and both are pious and as good as anybody you'll ever see--"they follow all the regulations of the Lord", Luke says--I guess we could probably add in our context the Book of Order. But they have no children--Elizabeth is barren (a condition considered in their time to be a reproach from God) and they aren't getting any younger.

Zoom the camera in on Zechariah--who is performing his priestly duties around the temple one day--when lo and behold--an angel drops in. Well--as would be true of any of us, I'm sure--Zechariah is scared out of his mind. But the angel says, "Don't be afraid" and then adds something that would also scare the bejeebers out of most of us--"your prayers have been answered." And with words of considerable eloquence, the angel announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth will be the proud parents of John the Baptist--who will be the one to cry in the wilderness—“prepare the way for Christ!”

So--Zechariah does the only sensible thing--he tries to explain the facts of life to the angel--"Get real!" he says. “I’m old”--and ever the diplomat--he is, after all, a priest--and "my wife is getting on in years! (Just read it, that's what it says!) We prayed that back in 1957--but we didn't mean now!”

So--the angel says, "Listen, bucko! because you hold the position you do and you don't even believe that God can do what God can do--you are now effectively silenced until all this happens!” The angel exits stage left--and Zechariah is standing there clearing his throat, trying to make a sound! And when he goes out to the people to bless their prayers--all he can do is motion to them--and they know something has happened--they guess he has seen a vision or something which has stunned him into silence!

Next scene—Elizabeth! She is jumping for joy! She has conceived a child and the disgrace of her barrenness is removed. And--as is the custom, she goes into seclusion--or maybe she didn't think anyone would believe her if she told them. At any rate, as the scene fades--Zechariah is silent--Elizabeth is in seclusion--and we are left in a mood of expectancy.

Now before we move on--I ask you to note two things: 1) I suggest to you that Zechariah and Elizabeth symbolize for us something of ourselves and the traditions in which our own understandings are anchored--they try to be good, to follow all the rules, and God knows they are powerful and significant people in their church and community; and 2) you notice that God does not do away with those old traditions--No! God takes the old ways and makes them pregnant in order to usher in the new! That sounds like a strategic plan to me!
As with us--God takes us where we are--stays with us within our present understandings so we're not completely blown out of the water--and plants new life even in the most barren of situations. How we do fight it, sometimes! We wring our hands, we argue with each other, we bring Power Point presentations about how serious things are, we hold five more meetings to study it and try to think of all the reasons why it can't be done. Just remember--be careful what you pray for--like Zechariah and Elizabeth, you just might get it! As this story tells us --the old may be silenced but it will usher in the new! Prepare to rejoice!

So--now we fade out on that part of the story--and shift the camera to Mary--a young woman in Nazareth which is, as I said earlier, not any place anybody ever heard of much. Now you see the words on the screen--SIX MONTHS LATER--. The story is different now from the one we just saw--look at it! A young unmarried woman in an out-of-the-way place--and an old couple, who live within the power of the Temple.
But there are such striking similarities that--unless we are asleep at the remote, we can see that it is exactly the same story--an angel appears, followed by fear, followed by good news, followed by doubt, a response, and the departure of the angel! But--in this case, the announcement comes not to a man but to a woman--and equally striking, a woman, young, not married (although Luke says she is engaged, an arrangement made by families often when a girl was quite young). And even though we often think of Mary as very obedient, worshipful, thoughtful, believing--still we must be careful to notice that none of these qualities are mentioned as the reason God chose her. In fact, we don't really know why God chose her--but she clearly is the one!

Picture it--here's Mary--very young--in our time, she could likely have just texted her friends to go to the mall--when that angel drops in. "Greetings!" he says. "Have I got a deal for you!" And Luke says—“Mary was perplexed”-- which as to be an understatement. If you can remember the last time an angel dropped in on you while you were going about your everyday life--then you can understand how Mary must have been taken aback. Luke says, "She couldn't figure out what kind of greeting this was." (At least Zechariah was in the temple, where God's messengers sometimes appeared.) "Don't be afraid" the angel said (sound familiar?) and then he drops the news--she will become pregnant, will carry a child in her body “who will sit on the throne of David and will be called the Son of God." And then just to make it seem even plausible, he mentions that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, will also give birth to a child. And then--just to cement the whole thing, he quotes right out of the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah (who by the way had been in a similar situation as Zechariah and Elizabeth.) “With God”, he says, “nothing is impossible.”

And Mary--she does what Zechariah did--she tries a little lecture on the facts of life--"You've got to be kidding! To put it nicely, I'm a virgin, if you get my meaning!" But I suspect that, even if she didn't say it, she was thinking about the considerable cost to her personally, if what this messenger says is true. Pregnancy out of wedlock, in her culture, is a capital crime--Joseph could have her put to death--so you see, as happy as we may be about this in our traditional telling of the story--we are not on a Sunday School picnic here! Being God's chosen comes with some considerable risk in carrying something new. And don’t you forget it!

So--the angel tries to sell her on the idea by telling her how important it will be--your child will be no ordinary child--Prepare to rejoice! God is bringing in a new time and is inviting you to be a significant part of it! And here--Mary differs from Zechariah--she gets it! And she does three things! Listen carefully--this is important for us as a synod and as individual persons--on any day of the year but especially in this time of Advent--transition and change.

First, she says "yes". “Here I am. Let it be as you say." I've always wondered, haven't you, whether Mary had a choice. And I believe, because God is a God of choices--that she did. She could have said "No". It is possible, don't you think, that Mary could have been the 37th person that God asked--but Mary was the first one to say "yes." And because she was willing to take the risk, considerable as it was, she got to participate in the most wondrous part of God's plan for the Universe--to give birth to the Savior of the world. She said "YES".

Second, Mary took a journey to visit Elizabeth--up in the hill country of Judea. If you look at a map of the region, you can see that Nazareth was not exactly in the neighborhood--so we can assume that Mary made this trip with considerable determination--maybe to find someone to talk it over with--a support group, in our jargon; or maybe she knew that her elderly cousin would need help in her own time of pregnancy; or maybe she knew the wisdom of being a little less visible given the jeopardy that she is in.

But wonder of wonders! When she arrives--when Elizabeth heard her voice--the child in Elizabeth's womb leapt for joy at the sound! “And Elizabeth cries out,” Luke says. (If you have ever been six months pregnant and felt the child within leap for joy, you know why Elizabeth cried out. I still remember that foot that caught me in the rib cage when I was carrying those babies of mine. But what joy you feel because you know that there is not only life here--but it is vibrant and energetic--full of health and rambunctiousness. That is enough to rejoice over!) But there is a deeper message in this passage for all of us--and Elizabeth knows it--Even new life placed within the old traditions witnesses to the great and wonderful news that God is abundant beyond our wildest imaginations--even that new life within us says “yes!"

And third, Mary sings the Magnificat--a song of great rejoicing--"My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, "for God has done great things for me." Notice, she doesn't say "will do great things"--she says "has done." And then just to show us what she means--she continues to sing of God's inverted order of things—“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly." “God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty." This goes far beyond Mary in its newness--this is cosmic in its proportions. And then she reminds us that it is also part of the old--she reminds us of the promise that God made to our ancestors, to the whole nation, and to the very universe. Mary sings "Yes."

So what about us! Here in the Synod of the Covenant--in this time of transitions for all of us. We are gathered here to make promises about our work together and to celebrate the great joy of the coming of Emmanuel, God with us! We can rejoice in God's abundance in our personal lives and in the life of the synod and all the presbyteries--rejoicing that God has invited the likes of us to participate in his plan to redeem the world. The wonder of these accounts from the Scriptures is that they are about us. We, like Zechariah, have some difficulty believing that we might actually be part of the cosmic plan--that it is possible for us to be pregnant with God's possibilities, given the length of time that we have been barren.

But I tell you friends, on such a day as this, we can quit trying to explain why it isn't possible. All the scientific, financial, bureaucratic arguments we use to show God and ourselves why this can't be done--they need not apply. We must remember--today and all days--with God, nothing is impossible! We can say yes. We can rejoice. Like Elizabeth, God will take away the barrenness in our ways of doing things--We can feel the leap of new life in our very being--we can feel the vigorous kick in the rib cage--when we hear the sound of the voice that speaks--not only for us--but to the whole world; the whole Universe! As Jesus said—“even the very stones will cry out!” With God, nothing is impossible--in ourselves, in this synod, in all our presbyteries, in the universal church, in the whole world.

Rather than being anxious because we do not have enough to keep all the things we are accustomed to--we can rejoice with Mary at what God has already done to redeem the world! And on days like this, we can sing for joy that God invites us to be a part of it.

A word of caution, however--this is not about selfishness and winning; it is not about keeping everything the way it is now. In all the decisions we make, we had better be sure that we are with the poor and the lowly--for that, says Mary, is where God's promise is playing itself out. The mighty will be toppled from their seats in high places--and the rich will be sent away empty. We know, that when in our own land of plenty--one in four children live in poverty (that's double the rate of any other developed country in this world); that there are approximately 50 million poor people in this country alone--many of them right here in the boundaries of our synod; and we know that for want of clean water, thousands of children around the world die every day. We know that poverty and war are destroying people all around this world--along with those who suffer as victims of hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and greed and indifference.

I pray that we can find the faithfulness to accept God's invitation to live into the promise as servants of the Lord. That is what Advent is all about--Believe it--God has come to dwell among us--God has said to us--Hey, I'm doing a new thing here! Can't you see it? The desert will bloom and the dry land will sing for joy!

Like Mary, we can say Yes! “Here we are--let it be as you have said." We know that God calls us to show that we believe in the abundant love and grace that we are offered for the taking--that Christ is here in our midst gathering us up into the presence of God. We know that God calls us by name--that God searches us with loving eyes--and asks us, the humble and the powerful, to make the leap of faith, trusting that God has already set it in motion--and because God loves us and desires our companionship--we are invited--think of it--to come along! To share the abundance that God has placed in our lives so that we can be a part of the mission of Christ's church--serving not ourselves but those whom God loves.

Can't you feel the pregnancy in this room--the new life that God has placed within each of us--and within this synod--as this season of Advent approaches--can't you feel the new life that we celebrate? It may seem that it is more than we can do—But we know that with God--nothing is impossible! Do we want to be a part of it? Prepare to rejoice! Just say "Yes."

Let us pray: God of small heartbeats and cosmic truths--who are we that you should invite us to be a part of your gift to the world--who are we that you should place new life within us! Sometimes we have all the power of the tradition with us, like Zechariah-and still we don't get it! And sometimes like Elizabeth, we dance with joy because we know that you have taken away our barrenness--we hear the voice of newness call us and we feel the joy of new life leap within us. Sometimes, like Mary, we get a glimpse of the cosmic nature of what you have promised--to us and all people in the world. We ask your blessing on us--we bow before you in praise and thanksgiving for your promise of new life. Please, we ask, for each person here in the issues of their own lives; and for this synod as we begin a process of seeking the new--give us the courage to not be afraid, but to say "yes"! To be your faithful people in knowing that with you, nothing is impossible! Give us hope! Help us to believe. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Report to Presbytery - November 2010

Ron Ferguson, of the Iona Community once wrote: “Geese in a flock have seventy per cent greater range than a single goose on its own; Geese in formation fly seventy-five per cent faster than a single goose.”(from "This is the Day: Readings and meditations from the Iona Community,(c)2002 Neil Paynter)

It is my joy to serve as a leader of this flock, the Presbytery of Lake Michigan. I serve not alone but with the Leadership Team members, trustees, staff, many committee and ministry teams, all of whom could have panicked during an historic economic crisis, but have not. By the end of the year, we will have traveled this journey together for three years. So I want to provide a reality check perspective and highlight some accomplishments.

The proposed 2011 budget to be considered at the end of this meeting is based on 34% less shared mission support than in 2007 when you called me. That's an average decrease of $64,000 per year.

How have we positioned ourselves to absorb this? In 2008, we moved from two part time program associates to one. In 2009 we withdrew support from the Cherry Valley new church development project, when designated funds were exhausted. In 2010 we challenged the Greenwood Agency to run its ministry on its revenue and support, with modest program support. For 2011 and 2012, Higher Education ministries will be reduced. And we managed with a lot of belt tightening, using more technology, less postage and paper, and by refocusing our expenditures on a new ministry plan based on conversations with you at our June & September meetings last year. The Ministry Teams have been working this year on strategies toward meeting 4 goals. The 2011 proposed budget year was prepared with these goals in mind.

Another Reality Check for perspective: In 2009, in the teeth of the worst economic crises since the depression, you collectively reported contributions of nearly $16 million, up 1.7% from 2008, the second highest in the Synod per member giving. Collectively our membership change in 2009 was a net loss of 227 members, down -1.4%. Comparatively, again the second best in the Synod. Seven Presbyteries reported actual net gains in membership, with the highest gains by far in three non-geographic Korean Presbyteries, which is why the General Assembly is encouraging us to grow this church deep & wide.

In 2009, PCUSA congregations reporting contributions of $2.1 billion, and with capital and building Funds,investments, bequests, other income just under $3 Billion. Together we still have means to do great things. Congregations reported expending these funds this way:
71% Local Congregational Programs
14.3% Capital Expenditures
5% Local Mission
3.2% Validated PCUSA Mission
3% Other NonPCUSA Mission
2% Investments
1.5% Per Capita Apportionment.

A couple of comments on three of those numbers:
First, PCUSA Congregations spent 1.5% in 2009 for Per Capita: we run this church on 1.5% of the expenses. That's pretty incredible!

Second, Congregations spent 14.3% Capital Expenditures: We also have invested heavily in capital improvements! Many of our congregations have done major renovations to position yourselves for ministry in this 21st Century. Kalamzoo First and Grand Haven First just before I came, Westminster Grand Rapids, Fairplain, and Okemas before them, and since, Brooklyn, Eastminster in ELansing, Hastings, First, North Westminster in Lansing is undergoing a capital campaign now. Collectively this amounts to a multimillion dollar investment in our future. With that investment we are carrying significant debt service, and for which the Presbytery is ultimately responsible. All this impacts why 5 or 6 churches alone are giving $200,000 less in mission support in the past 4 years.

Third, Congregations allocated 3% or $86 million to Other Mission groups: Do you remember the $50 million campaign? If we redirected half of what we are now giving to other institutions to support our mission we would nearly match that huge campaign with one strategic decision
to shift 1.5% to PCUSA Validated Mission. Presbyterians are still generous people with power to effect much good. It’s a matter choice. As you make your mission budget choices I challenge you to shift one half of what you are giving other mission entities to your flock’s mission. Focus your support on your local mission and PCUSA validated mission. We are stronger, faster and more effective when we fly in formation.

I have worked hard and covered a lot of miles to engage you all. I am proud to report that on December 14th I will complete my goal of worshiping with every congregation in the presbytery. What out come do I hope for, from all this effort? In every encounter, whether at worship, at a Session consultation, or pastoral visit my goals have been to built relationships and establish trust, to nurture a culture of respect for our diversity, to inspire a faithful response in this time and place to the amazing grace we've received in the Lord, and to instill a sense of urgency in our response. I've tried to do this by providing transparency, speaking the truth in love, giving encouragement pointing to hope. Praise God if I’ve managed a fraction of that.

Finally, I want to recognize a few people. Many of you know that Rev. Christine Barnes, associate pastor at Brooklyn, has served this year as Moderator of Synod of the Covenant. You may not know that elder Bill Sorensen, of Kalamazoo, First, was elected the new Vice Moderator of the Synod. I served on the Synod Executive Search Committee this year representing the EP/GPs and our presbytery. The Synod is recognizing Lake Michigan Presbytery’s assets! The Synod elected the Rev. Dr. Raafit Saaki, an Egyptian born Arab by birth, a grandson of missionaries raised in the Sudan, he married a Korean woman. He has a passionate vision for compelling hospitality, and in his person represents the future. I hope we will invite him soon to preach for us.

I also want to recognize some leaders who has served this Presbytery extraordinarily well, and who are concluding their particular service and will ask to stand if present: Dave Milbourne, end his service on the Leadership Team last year, and the Budget and Finance Committee this year and was on the task force which guided us in the development of our ministry plan;
Andy Thorburn, has served on the Leadership Team, the Action Planning Team and liaison to the Greenwood Agency, and was our interpreter of the Ministry.
Nelson Lumm, served long on the Staff Services Committee, on the General Presbyter Search Committee that called me, and this year leaves the Administration Ministry Team.
These three have been stalwart pillars of the Presbytery for many years. Thank you! Those of you who are new to the presbytery, get to know these leaders. They will give you insight into the ethos that makes this Presbytery what it is.

And finally I want to recognize someone who is newer to us, who I will ask to come forward, who has lit up the Administration Ministry Team with incredible energy, intelligence, imagination & love, Pat Ramsden, would you come forward? Pat came onto the AMT my first year & took this team’s ministry to a very high level, with workshops for stewardship leaders and then personnel committees, preparing manuals for personnel committees, Clerks of Session, and an upcoming one for treasurers publishing the Stewardship Program “Building Hope”. How many of you are using it? We want to hear from you. And recently held a gathering for Elders and Deacons with Joan Gray, here at Westminster. Pat I have nothing to give you today be the esteem of your colleagues.

It is a great joy for me to fly with this flock we call Lake Michigan Presbytery,
on this incredible journey we call ministry. “Geese in a flock have 70% greater range than a single goose on its own; Geese in formation fly 75% faster than a single goose.” Thank you for your trust and respect, for the gifts of your time, your energy and your treasure.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ascension Day Reflections

I am writing this on the Day of Our Lord’s Ascension. It is not easy to say good-bye. This year the ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday will have a lot more power for me and some of our congregations in transition. I just recently had to say good-bye to my mother. Several of our congregations have said good-bye to their pastors. Can you imagine saying good-bye to the Lord like the first disciples had to do? Wow! Our mission remains the same, but to fulfill it alone without that pillar of strength by our side? How does one do that? The first believers, who had to say good-bye to the shepherd of shepherds against their wishes, responded by gathering together in one place as companions, worshiped and waited. Then the Holy Spirit came and empowered them to move forward in their mission. Such is the beginning of the book, the Acts of the Apostles. In my mind, the Book of Acts never really ends but continues to this day, as God calls and sends and empowers believers for that same mission.

Based on the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures, this was not the first coming of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was always present, and always will be. But in the Pentecost story told in Acts 2, the Spirit came in a convincing way. What convinced the first disciples of the Spirit’s presence was their surprising and miraculous understanding of those different from themselves. The Holy Spirit united what was divided. I believe the Spirit continues to do so.

Every deacon, elder and minister of the word and sacrament is asked the constitutional question at ordination. “Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry...?” (Book of Order W-4.4003e). Every person with a voice and vote at a Session or Presbytery meeting, and Synod or General Assembly has answered, “I will.” Yet, we don’t all see eye to eye on every matter. Evidently the first apostles didn’t either. A little further into the story in Acts, there was a big to do when Peter came back from baptizing Cornelius and his family, who were gentiles (Acts 10-11). “Why did you go the the uncircumcised and eat with them?” Peter was asked (Acts 11:3). He explained how the Holy Spirit had led him not only to eat with them but to baptize this family. In Chapter 15, Paul and Barnabas argue over whether or not to take John, called Mark on their second missionary journey. Knowing the sacred story, should we panic when mentors are not around when needed we need them, and we must act ourselves relying on God’s help? Or should we be surprised when colleagues disagree and argue an issue.

Our convictions sometimes do tug to divide us and they probably always will, as people of faith care deeply about their convictions. In our polity, we govern ourselves by vote and majority rules, knowing full well that councils sometimes err. It is always a bitter pill for those in the minority to swallow. We are especially mindful of our differences of opinion leading up to and after General Assemblies. The 219th General Assembly is coming up on July 3-10. Yet, surprisingly commissioners often return from such assemblies looking like Moses, who came down from the mountain with his face shining. They are moved by the unexpected unity they experience there amidst the diversity of a larger group, the Pentecostal evidence of the Spirit’s presence. It is evidence because it is so surprising and unexpected.

This June 18-28, Reformed Christians from around the world will gather in Grand Rapids for the World Communion of Reformed Churches Uniting Council. THIS IS A BIG DEAL! Don’t miss this opportunity to visit, volunteer, welcome an international delegate to worship at your congregation, AND to be surprised and convinced of the Holy Spirit’s presence uniting us in Christ across so many cultural barriers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week 2010 Reflections

As I watched the historic Health Care legislation unfold last week, my heart ached watching congressmen and women walk the gauntlet of hecklers as they entered the capital building to vote. The crowd shouted racial and homophobic slurs, and spat on elected officials of our government, who support the Health Reform bill.

Now in Holy week, I am reminded of the sacred story we rehearse every year. How the fickle crowd, who sang Hosanna to Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, turned into an angry mob shouting, "Crucify him!" on Friday. One can imagine the taunting and spitting he underwent as he carried the cross through Jerusalem's streets on the way to Calvary. Pilgrims today visit that route called the Via Dela Rosa.

Last week in our capital, encouraged by the heated rhetoric of some elected officials and media pundits, the anger of the crowd once again spilled over into acts of violence. A gas main was cut at the home of one legislator's family home, and stones were thrown through legislator's office windows around the country. Protesters are being called to rally with a show of guns on April 18th, the anniversary of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma, and the raid by Federal agents of the Branch Davidian Compound in Texas.

This Holy Week is the most dangerous I’ve known. We, who call ourselves Protestants, and have a history of protest and reform need a word of caution. Granted the American public, including we Presbyterians, are divided on issues. We likely always will be. Yet I remind us of our civil covenant. I call upon my Presbyterian colleagues and friends, especially those who happen to be Republican, to step up as leaders in your community to tone down the rhetoric. Violence is not the answer. Democracy functions only with civility. Our social compact is that the majority rules and that the rights of the minority are protected.

This is just as true in church disagreements as in public matters. Commissioners are now preparing for the 219th General Assembly this July. They will be party to some hotly debated issues. It is healthy to have a good hard debate on the issues. Yet, we must do so respecting the bond we have in Christ. Debate rightly highlights differences, but becomes unhelpful when it degenerates into personal attacks, and tragically forgets the shared common ground. When a decision is made, we then have the obligation to move forward together as a people. Councils sometimes do err. We must then work to correct or improve decisions. This is the American way. It is the Presbyterian way. Our Book of Order concerning our principles in Presbyterian governance states, “Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ. Decisions shall be reached in governing bodies by vote, following opportunity for discussion, and a majority shall govern” (G-4.0301 d, e). Dissent may be declared expressing disagreement with an action or decision. The names of those dissenting are recorded for history and the sake of integrity. There may be protest of an irregularity or delinquency(G-9.0303 and 4). But then we move forward or withdraw peaceable for sake of the unity of the church.

Secondly,I watched the first episode of the new TV series, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. We frown on reality TV shows, but I commend this one to you. Oliver is an English chef, who challenges the food culture of a West Virginia town, which is reported to have the worst health statistics in the country. A local pastor noted the crisis, and welcomes Oliver’s intervention and is confronting the food culture of his congregation. These are real people and real issues. Health Care should be more than doctors treating symptoms. Our prayer concerns should be more than lifting our loved ones illness to God in prayer. We should be addressing the causes of our poor health. Our society's unhealthy diet and eating habits need confronting, particularly in our public policy for our schools and church gatherings. As with any change, we tend to want to hang onto old patterns, even if they are making us ill. Deny their effects, ridicule and challenge those who want to offer a healthier, more life giving way. Oliver's Food Revolution airs on Friday nights. Record it and watch it when you return home from your Good Friday service.

Thirdly, the good news is that the sacred story of Holy Week, which is our story, ends with Resurrection. The bad news is that according to a recent survey reported in the Kalamazoo Gazette, less that half of Americans link Easter to the Resurrection of Jesus. “Just 42 percent over all and 37 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25, tie Easter to the Resurrection… Only one out of every 50 adults, or 2 percent, said they would describe Easter "as the most important holiday of their faith.” How sad! The Resurrection of Jesus is a cornerstone of my faith and of the church, the reason for hope.

Some wise person wrote and I have preached, that Easter is about more than a supernatural intervention of God to resuscitate the corpse of Jesus. The meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, after confronting the powers and principalities, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality. The church is built on the foundation of those witnesses, who experienced the risen Christ as a living presence. For Brazilian theologian, Ivone Gebara, the empty tomb is itself the key to our understanding the Resurrection and to our living the Resurrection in our own lives. She writes, “The empty tomb returns us to the manger, the place of the child, the place of rebirth of hope. The empty tomb returns us to ourselves, women and men capable of giving birth and rebirth to the divine, the essence of our own flesh.” So like his birth, Jesus’ resurrection is an event that is ultimately beyond our ability to understand or reason. As mystery, the only way we can hope to “get” the Resurrection is to live it. The empty tomb is thus not an ending, but a beginning, an invitation to each of us to birth and rebirth the divine in the confines of our own lives.

The Living Risen Christ gave the saints before us and now gives you and me the back bone to stand against the crowd and do what is right. Resurrection is our foundation for hope for the life abundant of which Jesus spoke (John 10:10). Not just for ourselves, but for our families, our communities, our nation and the very creation which is crying out for it.

I’ll close with a story of when I was a missionary in Brazil. It was our first Easter in our new church building of a new congregation just being organized. I was directing the passion pageant with the youth. Following scripture as our narrative, I was choreographing the story with them when I discovered a problem. The story jumps from Friday night burial to Easter morning empty tomb with the stone already rolled away. We had no stage curtain, no special lighting. We had constructed a stone out of palm branches and paper and placed it in front of the door to the Sunday school room, which we made the tomb. “How do we get the stone rolled away?” I asked myself and the kids. I looked at a little girl sitting on a church pew patiently waiting, and asked her, “Do you have a part?” “No.” “Do you want a part?” “Yes.” “Come here, I need you to play the part of God. Hide here behind this stone and roll it to the side at the right time.” And she did!

When new life comes, God enlists us to give a hand, to join in the interventions that transform old dead patterns that imprison into new abundant life. However, I've learned, that moving the tomb stones is a God thing. We can’t do it ourselves. Resurrection is God's doing!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Report to Lake Michigan Presbytery--Februay 9, 2010

Two years ago at our January meeting in Okemas, you installed me as your general presbyter. Neither you nor I knew how this was going to work out. I am grateful for the confidence and support you have extended to me. You projected a lot of trust and hope on to me. After six years of two years and good bye to my predecessors, I think you needed and wanted our relationship to work. So I want to begin by acknowledging our milestone, and say, I’m not going anywhere. I love this ministry, this presbytery, and this place we call SW Michigan. I also can say this is hard work! There have been some tough moments. I am no longer the green rookie I was. By the grace of God, we navigated our way through two of the toughest economic years of our lifetime. We did not panic. Not knowing the outcome, we stepped forward in faith. I am proud of our treasurer’s report of a $51,000 operating surplus last year!

Psalm 119:105 has become a meaningful verse to me in this position of leadership. “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” APCE (the Association of Church Educators) has in its seal a lamp. A lamp was given to my wife Eileen in her installation as the APCE president a few days ago. Notice how this model of an ancient lamp is no high powered car head light that shines done the road, but rather as Ellen Marquardt, a mentor of mine often said, “shines enough for us to take one next step in faith.” In this dynamic time, when old patterns don’t produce the same results, we are called to open our hearts and minds to the new thing God is doing in our midst, step out in faith where we do not see, take a risk and trust.

In my training and reading on leadership, I’ve learned that leadership is more about speaking the truth with integrity and love, than casting a vision. We minister in a time when no one as a clear vision of the future. Beware of these too sure about themselves. Rather, God is calling us to be a community of learning, in which we covenant to journey together, inquire, explore, and discern what God is doing in our particular time and place. We must be bold to experiment, test the spirit, by trial and error. The answers lie within each person, each congregation, and each community. There are no cookie cutter patterns for us to follow, except for Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.

We are kind of like Al Pacino’s character in the movie “Scent of a Woman,” a retired army colonel now blind and depressed, angry and belligerent. He exploded to a hired prep school student in a powerful scene, “I’m work’in in the dark here!” But the student challenges him in fear and love, and accompanies him back to life. So we must venture into the dark following Christ, accompanying one another, loving each other back to life, one step at a time.

Having ventured out in faith together and having come down the road together a ways, we can look back and see a few things.

1. We have transitioned our presbytery staff from a talented, loyal and dedicated staff, to a new talented, loyal and dedicated staff. There have been some twists and turns, but praise God, I am so proud of them. I thank God every day for the team we are becoming. We are equipped to communicate with each other and you with Skype, a computer assisted communication. We have a bi-weekly e-bulletin which reaches 600 people. How about we grow that to be 6000 people, or a third of our members? We have a new interactive web site, which has just about everything you can get from our office. But you have to register and log in to access some information. Jane McCookey, our communications coordinator, is leading the way and is offering regular workshops to learn how the these new technologies.

2. The Leadership Team is living into its role as leader of this learning community as they move from a council decision maker to coordinator and leader of our conversations and study. They are doing this by taking responsibility for worship at Presbytery, setting themes and shaping meetings for engaging each other and learning together.

3. Presbytery meetings are becoming more worshipful, educational and inspirational, with focused the business. We were led by church growth consultants Allen Latta and Charles Arn at the Delta Church. We had three regional gatherings last winter with no business but to learn and discuss a matter that divides our denomination. We worked together at our June and September meetings on a ministry plan. Ministry Teams are now building strategies for the identified goals that emerged.

4. Camp Greenwood has moved from the identified patient list and ground zero for our grumpiness to a platform for new and exciting ministry. They had a phenomenal year last year on many fronts with a successful consultation with a PCCCA consultant. The culture of the agency was challenged to shift from micromanaging the camp to policy formation, strategy and funds development. They are taking a bold step this year toward a self sustaining financial plan. They are pursuing alternative funding sources, and have received a $5,000 grant for this year. A new strategic partner has been identified in Alma College with an internship program. They are seeking new ways to support presbytery in our focus of growing our congregations.

5. North and Westminster Presbyterian Churches in Lansing are forging a new ministry together as a larger cooperative parish under Timothy Chon’s leadership, their new designated pastor. A presbytery advisory team made up of representatives from New Communities of Faith, Transformation/Redevelopment ministry teams and COM is in place to support this initiative. They are learning as they go, and taking one step at a time.

6. A new clergy group in Lansing, facilitated by associative presbyter Rich Lichti, has formed to be a learning community together. They are looking at their context and the dynamics of ministry there, seeking news ways of partnering together in ministry, and no longer working as lone rangers.

7. Eastminster in East Lansing, and Brooklyn Presbyterian Churches are in the midst of major capital improvements to there facilities. Hastings Presbyterian Church is in the middle of a $7.5 million construction project on property outside of Hastings with most of the money needed is in the bank. Praise the Lord!

8. We commissioned two CLPs (Commissioned Lay Pastors) last year, not to small struggling congregations, but to serve on staff in two of our growing congregations: Hastings and Spring Lake.

Not everything came up roses.
1. Presbytery stepped out boldly several years ago to establish Cherry Valley Community of Faith, a congregation in Caledonia. Last year we did a most difficult thing bringing that venture to closure. All involved are grieving! We took a risk. Clint and his family took a risk in coming here for this ministry. Not every venture succeeds. Who is to say but God what is a success and what is not. We need to keep our heads up as we pause to learn from the venture. Zoe Wilcox, our past moderator will be leading a group to listen and learn and report back to us in June. Now we need to pray for Clint and his family as they seek God’s calling in what is next for them.

2. We also grieve the death of two pastors: Judy Shaver and Oyo Nsefik, who died before we were ready, God rest their souls. We are never ready for death when it visits us. Death is never convenient. Yet we are a resurrection people. God works in a mysterious way, new life is given, eternal life is promised. Thank you for supporting the Good Sameritan Fund. Over $7,000 was given for Oyo’s funeral expenses and bring Oyo’s family to help them with closure.

3. During these past two years six of our congregations have moved from full time pastoral ministry to part-time, to join the ranks of many others who preceded them. North-Lansing, Concord, Ionia, Stockbridge, Allegan, Mt. Hope. This is not an easy transition. We need to pray for them.

Are we where we want to be? No. Do we have a lot to learn? Yes. Yet God’s call remains and our vision challenges us to grow by faith deep and wide. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in the epistle lesson last Sunday, “By the grace of God, I am what I am (or we are what we are), and his grace toward me/us has not been in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10)

Finally, because of my cancer diagnosis and treatment, I am ever more aware that God calls us to ministry with gifts that are contained in the clay jars, treasure in the fragile earthen vessels of our lives. Our very lives are the tools, the means, the stuff we have to use in partnership with God. May we go forth to do so with courage and faith to give our witness and to show forth God’s glory. Today is my turn to give God the glory for the effectiveness of my treatment last fall. And I thank you for accompanying me with your encouragement, making tangible and real the loving and abiding presence of God on that journey. Thank you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New Years Reflections

Many of you know that I like to sing John Bell's song, “Glory and Gratitude and Praise.” These are what we have to offer God. Similarly, I begin this new year and new decade with three sentiments: gratitude, joy and challenge!

I am grateful for my recent respite after eight weeks of daily radiation treatments. I was reminded again and again of God’s love through many expressions of support and prayers. Support came sometimes in the form of rebuke such as an email that said, “If you are reading this, you are working. Stop it!” I made sure to not hit the reply button on that one. Such permission giving helped me to let go of the guilt of not doing. In a performance based culture and profession, clergy often struggle with “inactivity.” What a gift we have in Christ and in Christ’s body, the church, to be valued and loved not for what we do, but for just being—claimed, redeemed, loved by God. Gratitude is the right place to begin a day, a week, a year, a decade.

I am joyful for a couple of reasons. In both cases, joy is the sister of relief, and the brother of trust. Specifically, my oncologist told me on Friday that my post treatment blood test numbers were really, really good! Better than expected! See you in three months! Yes joyful relief and trust affirmed. Praise God! I also have been watching our Presbytery treasurer, Larry Nelson’s face as he works to close Presbytery’s financial books for 2009. I observe a smile of his face. He’s given me no number yet, but assures me it will be a healthy position number! Praise God! Again joyful relief after two brutal years and trust affirmed. We could not sustain the financial deficit we experienced in 2008. Instead it looks like we will recoup much of that lose! I am proud of our Presbytery leaders who did not panic, kept their cool, managed what was in our control, and trusted God and each other. I am grateful for the dedication and sacrificial giving of many members and Sessions!

I am also feeling pretty challenged. I bet you are, too! Our Presbytery foci are to grow our congregations and to support our church staffs to do so. After years of declining membership and aging demographics, growth is an unfamiliar synapse. The last growth year was 1966, the year I was confirmed! Growth is a tough measure for success, but an important measurable outcome to which we must aspire. Today’s leadership requires an ability to focus on matters over which we have control and dismiss those which we don’t. And it requires us to learn things we don’t know and which our experience will not provide us. Albert Einstein once described insanity as doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. We are not called to do things better and harder these days. Rather God is calling us to be adaptive communities of learning, including the leaders, who must lead without having all the answers.

Yet, we have God's promise still as we enter the second decade of this wild, young, scary, exciting century. And if some of us are feeling our age to be part of what God is doing, remember Abram and Sarai. Yes, God’s people have been there and done this before. Like them, may we also be transformed as we live the promise. May the decade before us be equally adventurous, filled with trustful risk taking and new mind bending learning about our mysteriously awesome God. May it be a time of learning who our neighbors are, what their needs are, their language and how they communicate. May we recognize Jesus in “the others” we meet, and understand what God is doing and passionately join God in it. If we do, our foci will shift from self and church to God and community, the sacred story, our holy identity, and the precious gift we are commissioned to share with those in our neighborhood. It really is about “glory, gratitude and praise.” Happy new year!