Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Reflection on the Wedding Day

Reflection on the Wedding Day

Ecclesiastes 4: 9 - 12
1 Corinthians 13: 4 - 12 

It is always a pleasure to be invited to officiate a wedding ceremony. Truth be told, more than once, couples have backed out of the invitation when I told them I required three meetings in advance of the service. A lot of folks have no desire to spend meaningful time stuck in a room with a clergy person talking about life, love, and commitment. 

I explained to Melissa that this requirement would also apply to her and Clinton, they agreed without hesitation. So you might be interested in what goes on in these sessions. 

In the first session, we talk about their relationship. We talk about the families that raised them. We talk about what it means to them to love and be loved. We also ask each one of them to express what “unfaithfulness” looks like in their eyes. 

I invite you to consider this idea. As individuals we are quick to justify and explain away our actions and behaviors from our own perspective. One of the greatest gifts human being enjoy, is to totally lie to ourselves and be very happy to believe that lie until it explodes and we are covered in our own BS, and that is not short for Bachelor of Science degree. 

When we listen to what unfaithfulness “Looks Like” to our partner, we encounter a shift in reality. If I want my partner to love and trust me, then I must be trustworthy in their eyes. The ability to deceive ourselves is greatly diminished - when we declare the opinion of our partner to be the determining criteria, not our own self-justification. This is a useful moment of awareness as we prepare to make a lifelong commitment. 

Yes, I am a clergy person. Yes, I believe that having a church home and a pastor are useful and important. Believe me when I say that I find a moment or two to speak to that. But what I find most important is to give the couple some hints that will help them get through some tough moments, and help their relationship last. 

In our second session, I provide them with feedback based on the information about their families of origin. Our position in the family among our siblings, the roles our fathers played in our upbringing, often predispose us to patterns of behavior within our marriage. 

Often folks believe that if they have lived together for a while, all of these things have been worked out. It can and does happen that way - with very secure and mature couples. For most of us ordinary humans, with ordinary levels of self doubt, making the promises of marriage really change the nature of the deal. At some internal level, our expectations revert to a life and relationship we have dreamed of, but rarely expressed. But now that we are married, we kind of thought that “happily ever after” would line up with our expectations. 

So I try to name the places where they are most likely going to find reality is less than dreamlike. We name out loud where natural frictions might come from. We try to make it seem normal, and in a way predictable, that these are the places where we might be disappointed in each other. 

The hope is that this bit of warning will make it possible to talk about these frictions when they appear. Instead of getting angry, or feeling like our partner does not care, or is being selfish, we can name the source of discomfort, and work it out. Love is working it out together when life turns out to be harder than we thought it would be. 

And Clinton and Melissa, I want you to know that life always turns out to be harder than we thought it would be. Everyone will encounter pain and illness and disappointment. You are not a failure when life becomes hard. When life gets hard, your relationship may carry you through the toughest moments. 

Then, when you survive together, friends will tell you that you have never known heartache. You can smile. Some pain can be avoided, but wisdom can allow us to use our strengths, and not make it worse. And as you trust and cling to each other, you may be able to survive together what would break you standing alone. From a distance, it may appear easy. 

The sober writer of Ecclesiastes, recognizes that for those who have been given a valued partner, and the wisdom to defend and preserve the health of that relationship, much can be endured. And you also chose the words from the apostle Paul, who was likely a difficult and maddening personality, but we find it helpful when reading his letters second-hand, when we are not defensive. Love exposes us to our partner, in ways that are both flattering, and embarrassing. 

In a relationship where our reality is known, the good and the bad, the grace-filled and the anxious, when we trust our partner to love us in that reality, we have a true blessing from heaven. A relationship like that, is the best description of the love of God for each of us. That is what I wish for you, and why I am so happy to share this moment of your life together.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Assignments End - But the Power of Love Goes On

This Sunday I completed my contract as Interim Pastor to the congregation at Union Congregational UCC in Somonauk. Several folks commented that they felt the Children's Time was an important part of the message this week, so I have included it here. 

Kids Time 

      What is a Pot Luck Dinner? 
Many times the church will have a Pot Luck. The word is shared that everyone should bring a dish to pass. In most churches, some of the leaders work it out that some will bring an entree’, like a casserole or chicken, some will bring salad, some will bring dessert. 

I was once part of a church where we called a new pastor. It was his first time being a pastor. The church planned a Pot Luck. People asked the Pastor what they should bring. He told all of the people who asked him, that he liked Brownies. There were more than 20 different kinds of Brownies, and not very much else. Nobody ever asked that Pastor what to bring to a Pot Luck after that. 

A Pot Luck means that we expect that everything will be ok - if we all bring something to share. We trust that there will be enough to go around. Even in my example, there were plenty of Brownies for everyone. 

A Pot Luck dinner is one of my favorite images of church. We are all hungry and happy to eat. We are happy to be hanging out with our friends. The whole scene is enough to make you smile. 

You will likely have a number of people in your life that you will call Pastor. Some will tell silly stories. Some will sing songs. Some will always be tasting the Brownies. All of them will have a way to help you understand God and life. You will have a rich life, when you have memories with different pastors in the midst of the memories. I am so happy that I have had the chance to be a Pastor to you. 

Let us pray. Dear God, thanks for the Pastors you send to love us. Thanks for the ways they teach us to love you. Being part of the church makes my life better, and helps me love you more, amen.

Love Is   

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
John 20:19-23  

You heard me tell the kids that I like a Pot Luck as an analogy for the local church. I told the confirmation kids last Sunday that the kitchen table is where the love learned in the church is most visible. 

When Martha and I were freshly married we lived in Ottawa. We visited the UCC congregation in town. I had become very interested in the UCC during the pre-marital counseling sessions we had at her grandmother’s church in Western Springs - where we were married by the Rev. Robert Kemper, one of the Illinois Conference’s most recognized saints. 

Rev. Kemper lost the greater part of his eyesight as an adult. This loss was a real sacrifice for a man of great education and wisdom. Despite that loss, the congregation rallied to his support, and he continued to lead as the Senior Pastor of that large congregation for many years. What impressed me most, was not so much the pastor, but the way that an entire denomination celebrated the love of God without the guilt trips and oppressive hierarchy that was the burden of being a Roman Catholic. So we went to the UCC church in Ottawa. 

The people in the pews were friendly. The pastor was warm, but very boring. He preached long sermons debating and contrasting fine points of theology written by men whose names were unfamiliar to me. But I appreciated that this church would allow, permit, and even encourage people to have their own opinions on matters of faith. 

The pastor called and asked if he might stop by. We talked a while. He indicated that he had heard from the congregation that I could sing. Choir practice was on Wednesday, for an hour, beginning at 7:00. I joined the choir. There were two other, more polished tenors in a very good choir. 6 or 8 months later, Martha and I joined the church. 

Renee Marks had intended to join the church today.  However, she has taken a job, and nearly all hourly pay jobs require folks to work 7-day schedules and a wide range of hours. We live in a 24/7 world. So she cannot be here today. Renee still intends to join the church. She thinks being a part of this faith community makes her feel close to God. It has given her the courage to join the Bell Choir, well outside of her comfort zone, joining the choir before joining the church. She is willing to help in any way she can. She wants to belong. 

She wanted to close the deal before I left. It was her way of tipping her cap, acknowledging that my service was a part of what made it easy for her to join. But it is my last hour as your pastor. No one is fooled. She is joining “your” church, not the church of Pastor Chuck. 

I tell you that her joining makes the perfect sermon. We belong to God. We are a part of the “great cloud of witnesses.” Each congregation has unique gifts and talents. Each congregation has its own traditions and perspective. Renee gets it, and Renee is signing on.  

My love for the church, is wider now than when I first came here. I brought with me the things I have learned from what is now Open Table in Ottawa, and United Church of Christ (Congregational) in Spring Valley, and the experiences I had serving the Church and Ministry Committee of the Prairie Association. 

As you opened your heart and shared your love and experiences, we grew together. I understand that the church I love is many congregations, complete with distinct personalities, all of them being faithful in their own way. 

Together we have made a point of noticing and commenting on the unique voices of the gospel writers. We have found ourselves noting the different ways the stories of Jesus are told and remembered, and have hailed that as a sign of the diversity that is an honored part of our faith. 

As I leave, I will change the settings on Social Media, “Unfriending” and “Un-Following” the folks of Union. This is not because I love you any less, but I came to be your Pastor. I leave, as you have called a new pastor. I will do everything I can to honor the position of your pastor, because the future of the congregation is best encouraged by your willingness to accept the new pastor, and share your future with him. 

Clearly the most distinct growth I have had in faith during my time with you, comes from a new understanding of the person of God. I came considering the Trinity - God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost - as a convenient handle for saying that the attributes of God are more diverse than the attributes of any one person. By identifying God as three persons, made it possible to accept what might otherwise seem like contradictory statements. 

Today I see God as love in action. The communication between the Creator to the Redeemer - and the way the expression of the Redeemer - is sustained in the Holy Spirit, is the flow of love. We are not idle observers of this divinity. When we are at our best, real power is expressed in the world, because the communication that passes around the Trinity - passes through this community of faith. We have a share in all that is good, all that is just, all that expresses love. 

The greater sin, is stepping away from the love God. When we make God a distant artifact of belief, and not a part of our engagement with the world, we isolate ourselves from the power of God. When we step out of the loop of God’s communication, we choose to turn away from God. Not only is that a sin, it is a darn shame, and a foolish choice. And the whole world is less loving. 

So I am not truly leaving you. You are being carried in my heart and you are part of my sense of who God is. I will never be the same after having walked with you. I have been touched by the faithfulness of Dealas Willey. I have appreciated how Debbie Matthews finds music that the choir loves to sing, making choir a joy in both practice and worship. I admire how Madeline charges forward, asking for opinions and listening well, but never stopping, never suffering from paralysis by analysis. I could go on marking the faithfulness of Cindy, Ginny, Jim Williams, Pam and Heather, but I trust you know what I mean. 

When I came to you in November of 2015, you were honoring the work Michelle Prentice-Leslie did in helping steady the ship after a turbulent parting of the ways with Pastor Moore. In fairness, Pastor Kirk was called during a boom time, when growth felt inevitable. When the economy tanked, all of the plans and intentions became moot. It just ended badly. While Michelle was here, with an endowment Fund that had suffered devastating losses, you still replaced the roof without taking on debt. You put a cap on your troubles. 

Today Union Congregational UCC celebrates a peaceful and pleasant Interim period. The Search Committee has found an experienced, ordained, UCC pastor - who wants to be here, and chooses to live in the parsonage right here in town. And that is very cool.

You have the peace of Christ, just as you have the power of the Holy Spirit. It belongs to you, not as a personal attribute. It belongs to you as a collective. As you are the church, you share in God’s love and God’s power. As you are the church, you sing your part in the choir, a physical and mental activity that expresses faith. As you are the church, you have a mission, and a future, and the ability to grow in faith and in practice. May God continue to bless you, as you have truly blessed me. Amen.