Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mourning at Church

Since the beginning of May, three congregations up in the Adirondacks have been in a season of loss and mourning their pastors.   On Friday, May 5, 2017, Rev Linda Hoeschel died.  Then on May 12, 2017, Pastor Joyce Bruce passed away.  Both women served congregations in rural communities and provided splendid leadership during their time as ministers.

I write this column on the other side of these life transitions, responding to the needs of the congregations going through a very unique form of loss and grief.  As I shared with Linda's two churches recently, it's one thing to go through the loss of a congregant, especially one who was engaged in the midst of the life of a local church.  The loss and grief of losing a pastor is even more complex as pastors are woven into the fabric of a congregation.  It's a shared loss as congregations are families in their own way, regardless of how many people are actually kin by blood relation. 

When Jesus called together his first followers, some of these men and women were indeed related (the brothers Zebedee).  Each person who followed Jesus navigated a challenge with their own biological family, as they would take leave of their kinfolk with no small measure of disruption to the "normal" life they led before hearing Jesus' call.  Dropping your fishing nets to go "fish for people" continues to vex generations of Christians about what it means to hear and follow.  Congregations can be a place where believers can gather together and learn together what the faith calls us to do.  (I realize churches are also prone to circle the wagons and avoid anything that disrupts comfort, but I keep having hope that the Spirit works at ensuring our foundations are solid but our forms are not so set in ruts that we lose our way.)

Pastor Joyce Bruce

About my colleagues in ministry:

Pastor Joyce Bruce served the Jay Baptist Church in the upper Adirondacks for nearly twenty years.  As a lay preacher, she provided her gifts and care to the congregation in this small town church.  The church recalls its origins in a barn, using hay bales for pews back in 1798.  The church has a long history of lay women preachers, as her predecessor served for many years before Joyce was called in 1996.  For the past two generations, the minister of Jay Baptist has been a laywoman preaching, teaching and caring for the needs of the flock!

At her visitation hours on Tuesday afternoon, I brought words of greetings and thanksgiving for her years of service to one of our Region churches.  Her family had musical instruments close at hand, and from time to time, they would take a break from greeting friends and family to play a bit on guitars, clarinets, or mandolins.  A number of persons spoke about Joyce's own musical gifts, starting Sunday morning worship for many years with some "ragtime Gospel" at the piano.


Rev Linda Hoeschel
Rev Linda Hoeschel served a shorter season of ministry, called in March 2015 to her first called position with the shared pastoral call of the Village Baptist Church (Fort Edward, NY) and the First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, NY.  Ordained in 2016, she was a second career minister, called later in life to prepare for the ministry.  She was remembered throughout the May 12th memorial service and celebration as a person with great enthusiasm, care and love for her call and the two flocks who called her to serve. 

After joining the Region staff four years ago, I worked closely with the Ft Edward and Glens Falls pastoral search.  Like the congregation in Jay, NY, the ministry model for the two churches leaned toward a part-time model.  Linda dove into the ministry of two churches, and even as her health challenges came from time to time, her sense of call and the drive to serve God and neighbor sustained her in remarkable ways. 

Grieving a pastor's death is difficult.  Remembering the minister for their gifts and graces, their strengths and their challenges--all of these things allow congregations to rehearse their beliefs in life, death and the Resurrection.  We mourn and grieve differently in such times and at differing pace, yet churches can be a place of remembering well what death means for Christians.  Such memory recasts the loss with hope, the sorrow with a foretaste of faith's promises being fulfilled in God's good End.

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Note:  A resource on the unique situation of a pastor's dying while serving a congregation is the book  "Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church's Voice in the Face of Death" (Brazos, 2012).  Learn more via this link: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/speaking-of-dying/338880.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Pilgrims on the Journey (Luke 24:13-35)

The writer Nora Gallagher speaks of being “outside” the church for many years, until she went to a place where she felt something different within herself about faith and being among others keeping the faith. Her wonderful line is that she came to the church “as a tourist, but stayed a pilgrim.”

Over time, her time in church became less of attendance and became participation, and her faith less a matter of inquiry and more of belief. The beauty of her writing is not skill but of depth: the depth of belief and experience growing in the faith in the care of a congregation that did likewise.

On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, two disciples of Jesus are walking back home, despondent with the news of the crucifixion and unaware of the Easter Good News.  The Resurrected Christ joins them on the journey, yet the two disciples do not "see" him (an ongoing motif of the Gospels, where God's mighty works unfold in plain sight, yet people reserve their judgment to near epic proportions).

Hearing their woeful tale of belief crushed by the powers that be, Jesus engages in a time of “bible study” while walking alongside them. He guides them through the texts that speak of what God had in mind through the patriarchs, prophets, and other writings. Jesus walks them through these narratives so that when they have made the trip, they will see the Savior who weaves all of these threads together.

When I was in seminary, I helped with a congregation in transition. They had endured a church split, and the folks who “left” form fed a separate congregation. The immediate problem, however, was the fact that the newly formed group had no place to worship in. They were fortunate to find an old urban neighborhood church that had been turned in a community outreach center. The current occupants had kept the pews, pulpits, and the stained glass, so it was quite a good rental opportunity for churches in transition who came inquiring about space.

However, as the church folks settled, they realized that they were missing more than (literally!) a roof over their head. They had to create and recreate a number of things that they didn’t realize one took for granted, including Sunday School curriculum. How could they teach the young children without what they used to have?

 I sat in on a Christian education meeting where they wondered what direction to go. I suggested that they could do something without spending any money. The congregation had these beautiful stained glass windows with a bible story in each one. And so the next Sunday, the children got led around the sanctuary of this old church, the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah’s Ark (a crowd pleaser for the tots), Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac (not a crowd pleaser for the tots!). Moses on the mountain with the two tablets, and so forth. As they rounded the sanctuary, the kids were asked who this person was in the last stained glass. They said, “Jesus!”

That’s the sort of work that Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, building up the knowledge among those who needed to be acquainted with the texts that led them to this point on the road to Emmaus. It’s drawing close to evening by this point, and the disciples invite him to stay for dinner. Jesus consents, though he is ready to go on the way. (Another sly Gospel shorthand: if the disciples cannot “see” Jesus, they also cannot go “on the way” with Jesus either!) They gather at table and have a simple meal. It’s when Jesus breaks bread that these disciples finally “see” Jesus.

For those perplexed why food and not words get the message across finally, read Luke and its companion, the Book of Acts. There is a great deal of eating that happens in these two books. There are scholarly books that trace the importance in Luke/Acts of the Christians and their meals, because in the breaking of bread, something so simple, the abundance of God becomes clear. In particular, recollect how Jesus breaks bread in the Last Supper, and notice the repetition here at Emmaus: Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. In the Last Supper, Jesus foretells of his broken body in the symbolism of the last supper. In the Emmaus meal, the same words and actions are used. And over in Acts, when the early Christians break bread as part of their prayers, proclamation, and sharing in common, they call it not “suppertime” but “Church.” And when it happens at that table in Emmaus, it’s not just a meal. It’s “belief!”

“Were our hearts not burning eagerly within us?” these disciples ask. This experience of the risen Lord prompts them to get up from their table and head back to Jerusalem. They went home despondent, and now they run back to Jerusalem with the news.

Pilgrims. You go to a church service, and you see them out there in the pews at worship. They might light a candle, read the pew Bible, or sit or kneel in prayer. They come in all shapes and sizes, all walks of life. But there’s one thing that sets them apart from the tourists.

What is it that does that? 

They have seen the Lord.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Way of Belief (John 20:19-31)

During my first year of college, an introductory course engaged students around questions of critical thinking. College takes your worldview and challenges your suppositions, convictions, and myopias alike. Other life experiences can do the same, a time when life challenges you to the extent you learn a new way of seeing things.

As part of this college course, we looked at an image of a young shepherd boy. Somehow, he has stumbled and fallen to the ground. As he picks himself up, he realizes that he has left his familiar meadow and the hillside full of sheep, discovering instead a strange and different world, a place where the unknown and fantastic lurks in a landscape of unknown planets and stars. The college instructor loved using this image as a teaching tool. The little shepherd has a choice now before him: does he crawl back to what he has known (the meadow and hills of a shepherd) or does he crawl forward into this strange and different world?

At the end of John's gospel, we encounter Thomas, crawling through the world in the valley of the shadow of death.  At first, he denies what has happened (i.e. Resurrection) and lists his pre-conditions for belief.  Yet when he beholds the cross-marked Risen Christ, Thomas decides to leap up and confess his faith that something new and different was happening.

“My Lord and my God!” is the resounding confession of the first Christian believers, the culmination of a theological narrative woven throughout the gospel by John, who tells us in the first chapter, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known."

Belief is seeing the world beyond the obvious, seeking to see God at work in the world even when we feel as if God is absent or we obsess about the signs we expect, even demand, to see if we are to believe. Belief asks us to engage a worldview that surprises us anew and sends us off on journeys previously unimagined. As Raymond Brown translates Jesus’ word to Thomas (and to us): “Do not persist in your disbelief, but become a believer”.

This month, a number of commemorative events took place to remember Dr. Martin Luther King's speech against the Vietnam War. During the period from 1967 to 1968, King challenged the Johnson administration’s ongoing war in Vietnam and the critical needs of the poor. King found the result of such prophetic vision resulted with immediate challenge from critics, ranging from the White House down to fellow religious and civil rights leaders. The advice was “stick with your field”.

King rebuffed the criticism,
Before I became a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. When my father and others put their hands on my head and ordained me to the Christian ministry, it was a commission. Something said to me that the fire of truth is shut up in my bones. When it burns me, I must tell it.

King’s social witness is part of that same Easter witness required of those who believe in Christ’s resurrection. The gospel is not just a mere set of beliefs or a collection of wise sayings and tales given by a first century Jew from backwater Nazareth. The gospel is about being a believer in Easter, not just when it is time to break out the Easter baskets and enjoy the beautiful lily on the mantle. The Easter story should be deep down in you, words that confess Christ as Lord and God. The struggle to believe is mighty, for you wrestle with the life of faith all along life’s journey. Yet, there is truth found in the resurrection that cannot be tamed, one that pushes us beyond the world as we know it, beyond a sense of inevitable fate.

Belief in Christ, rightfully understood, is one that dances with joy and burns deep down in our bones, knowing that there is a greater reality where God is made known.

Becoming a believer is what the Easter faith calls us to embrace. As John's gospel puts it at narrative's end, these things are written down so that you may come to believe. These words are offered to you so that you, who have never seen Christ as these disciples did, may believe and have life. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter is always upon us

http://savannahnow.com/slideshow/2012-02-22/savannahs-civil-rights-movement#slide-1
 
For the first time in awhile, I had the opportunity to preach on Easter Sunday with two congregations in the Adirondacks.  A piece of that sermon also made it into a blog post for Ethics Daily (www.ethicsdaily.com).  Here's the part that I shared via pulpit and blog over the last few days:
 
Years ago, I was in Savannah, Georgia, for yet another Baptist meeting. Spreadsheets, memorandums, and documents to read, meetings to sit through, and then, the dreaded conference hotel meal: “chicken ala something” for lunch or dinner (and occasionally breakfast). However, at this meeting, I felt an earthquake.
Toward the end of the meeting, our committees boarded chartered buses and toured the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Recounting the history of segregation and the crucible of birthing civil rights in Savannah, the museum displayed many historical reminders of the era before and after the mid-20th century. In the midst of these exhibits was a collage of various signs created by protestors during the 1950s and 1960s. One sign stopped me in my tracks. The sign said, “We sacrificed Easter”.
For years, the downtown Savannah stores practiced segregationist ways: no African Americans could sit at the food counter, yet the merchants still sold to the African American community, especially at Easter time, when the demand for “Easter best” clothes was high. Businesses made a bundle, but Jim Crow still ruled without question.

That is, until the black church leaders called for a boycott of stores at Easter. Soon, the businesses discovered that they faced either changing the rules or boarding up their stores from the loss of business. The witness of a group of disciples willing to speak truth to power made a lasting change possible in their town.
Again, I wonder what would happen if we stepped back from the overly familiar way of thinking of Easter (positively, the “fluffy fun” of Easter bonnets, baskets, and bunnies and negatively in many churches with the lament of “our pews are not as full as Easters long ago”). Instead, could we read this text and ask ourselves, “What does this story tell us we need to be seeing as we live out and share the gospel in this community?” Instead, could we let go and experience this text as a story powerful enough to shake the ground beneath our feet?
Easter is not just this one Sunday. Easter is the beginning and the end: the end of our world in its sinful and broken ways and the beginning of a gathering of disciples who do not fear but move forward in the confidence of a faith that summons us not to familiarity and indifference. Rather, we are told “go forth” as a community that can move forth, even though the earth be shaking, even though Caesar would rather have us not being the radical and contrary types that Jesus’ followers are called to be, and speak and live as if Easter is always upon us.
Alleluia! He is risen! Let the people say, “AMEN.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Following Jesus, Despite the Crowds

When we gather the children with palm fronds (and pray they don’t start whacking each other over the head!), we engage in recreating the Palm procession of Jesus. It’s wonderful, euphoric and full of beaming congregants watching the familiar drama unfold.

Ironically, what appears cute and photogenic is really more along the lines of political street theatre. What type of grown-ups are we if we do not tell our kids that this waving of palm branches is being faithful to a king who is unlike no other king or ruler they will learn about in school?

If we do things right, we will raise our kids what it means to be a follower of Jesus, who was unafraid of empires and “powers that be”, speaking of God’s sovereign claim to the world.

As Holy Week unfolds, we tell a story of colliding worlds; as the differences are drawn between the Roman empire/Jerusalem’s political and religious elite and the Reign of God with its Servant King Jesus. The question for Christ’s follower looms: can we give a witness when our world collides with the one proclaimed by the gospel?

In the mid-20th century, the unthinkable happened. A woman named Grace Thomas ran for governor of Georgia. Not only breaking customs about women running for high office, Grace also ran on a desegregation platform. She finished dead last.

A few years later, she ran again in 1962. As the Civil Rights era was gaining momentum, her platform of racial tolerance was still unthinkable.

 On a campaign stop in Louisville, Georgia, she deliberately chose the town square for her remarks. The town square was once a slave market in times past.

Telling her story, the preacher Thomas Long recalls:

As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come. This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

The crowd stirred. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. She said softly. “I am not.”

“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get all those [blasted] ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to a steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”

 (From Long's book Preaching From Memory to Hope, p. 19-20).

Hosanna...praise be....Hosanna....Lord, save us.....Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.

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An oral history interview was conducted in 1979 with Grace Thomas. Listen to her reflections via this link: http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ggdp/id/5330

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Remembering Dr Hazel Roper

Burying the saints is part of ministry.  I have long become accustomed, though not numbed from the familiarity of being part of a funeral service where a beloved congregant, family member or friend has died and the people of God gathered for the holy task of burying a beloved one.  Presiding or officiating as a pastor at funerals is particularly difficult when you have to manage your own grief in the midst of this sacred yet fraught moment.  I find such work keeps us connected to our core beliefs, as clergy are tasked with leading people to remember that we are dust at best and this life and its pain and success is fleeting.

On Monday, a difficult yet joyous day happened at the Calvary Baptist Church of Lowell, MA.  A sanctuary full of mourners gathered together to say farewell to a beloved family member, friend, colleague, mentor and veritable legend.  The Rev. Dr. Hazel Roper lived out her ministry in local church pulpits, around the table with churches all around upstate New York and advocating for clergy and churches in the sometimes difficult discussions about clergy compensation, clergy pensions and everything else that most of us struggle to speak about, let alone discuss frankly about "money and church" matters.

Hazel Roper excelled in pastoral ministry, whether in local church or denominational work.  I count myself as one of the many pastors who benefited from her keen insight, firm resolve and wise ways.  She assisted a congregation I served with understanding the complexities of clergy pay and pension, something that when I myself retire in the 2040s will be most thankful got started years ago with her skillful advising.  She kept in touch after I moved into the Regional ministry work with upstate New York churches myself, working with a number of congregations in pastor searches and other needs where Hazel's interactions years ago created moments of clarity during conflict and challenge.  Indeed, as I told her once, I could work with healthier churches in the present day thanks in part to the helpful and insightful work she did with pastors and congregations.  Indeed, I have heard it said in recent days that Hazel is considered the reason some churches remain in better shape all these years later, thanks to her careful work in the 1990s and early 2000's. 

As I passed word to colleagues about Hazel's unexpected passing, I kept hearing stories of mentoring conversations.  A number of clergywomen serving today give thanks to Hazel as a mentor, an inspiration and an exemplar of a determined Baptist woman called to serve God and the Church through ordained ministry.  A pastor at the funeral gave a brief testimony, simply saying Hazel was her example and a "she-ro" of the faith.

When the family offered their memories, it was noted that Hazel was a long-time member of the Lowell church, going back to her childhood.  When she retired decades later from ministry, she served again as a lay leader, providing her talents as the church moderator.  When the Calvary church burned when Hazel was nine, she offered the pastor her piggy bank's contents to help rebuild the church.  Fittingly, memorial gifts in her memory are suggested for the present day church's roof repair fund! 

As I listened to the many words of testimony given by family and friends, congregants and colleagues, I noticed the two stained glass panels flanking either side of the altar area.  To the left, the traditional image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, benevolently tended the sheepfold.  On the right, the image was of Jesus kneeling in prayer with his gaze heavenward, most likely in that moment alone in the time just before his betrayal and death.   While such images are overly familiar subject matter for stained glass, the two images paired well with the liturgy and testimony unfolding in the altar area.

As we journey through the Lenten season, I ponder mortality and what it means to live a life of significance.  Hazel left a legacy that is like faith itself, a matter of things seen and unseen. As the call went forth that day earlier this week, we have the challenge to raise up more Hazels to serve Christ and God's people.  Her legacy is already enriching the lives of people who attend churches who are healthier for her ministry work years ago.  Her legacy lives on in the women and men she encouraged to stick out ministry's most difficult moments or when vocations seemed too distant to be "ours" to accept and undertake.

When somebody asked how the funeral went, I said, "It was the best type: you laughed, you cried, you listened to the Good Word and good words and then you went downstairs for a great big meal."  How else should a Baptist be remembered than a rousing time to sing, to give thanks to God and to be nourished by the memories and table fellowship afterwards?

Thanks be to God!

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Dr Hazel Roper's obituary appears via:   http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/lowellsun/obituary.aspx?n=hazel-a-roper&pid=184705560&fhid=2434

A retrospective on the occasion of her 50th year of ordained ministry appeared in 2014:  http://www.lowellsun.com/lifestyles/ci_26183585/living-history

Friday, March 24, 2017

Wandering the Park and Facing the Future

In Albany, New York’s Washington Park, you will be able soon literally to “tiptoe through the tulips” with the annual Tulip Festival.  If you like tulips, Washington Park will be laden with many beautiful beds of tulips.  They crown a Tulip Queen and the festival weekend provides all manner of amusement and enough fried foods to make a cardiologist weep.
 
In the midst of the Park, the great fountain will be soon home to pennies and quarters tossed in, the screams of joy as children splash in the waters (especially on a hot summer’s day) and undoubtedly, more than a few youth and grown-ups who decide to give in to their own urge to splash in the waters as well!
 
When I first visited Washington Park, I noticed the beautiful statuary all around the fountain’s center.  From a distance, I wondered if it was Poseidon with his trident upraised and attended by his court.  As I got closer, I realized that it was a different scene being recreated.
 
I knew what the subject of the fountain was thanks to years spent in Baptist Sunday School.  The fountain recreates this moment of Moses striking the rocks with his staff and the waters pouring forth. For many around the statue that day, some likely had no clue at what inspired the fountain’s subject matter. 

As an obviously religious person (the robe is always a dead giveaway at church, isn’t it?), I found myself wondering how the generations of Park visitors saw this same fountain.  Surely when it was dedicated, it was with great pride and common knowledge of this story from Scripture.  But today, with the Capital District ranking highly (and nearby Vermont the same) with a distinct “religiously disinclined” or “nones” populace, did the fountain in Washington Park resonate with mere aesthetics (for it is beautiful) and really not with the biblical text inspiring its creation?
 
For all of us, those who see Poseidon, those who see Moses and those who just go “cool fountain” and move on through the snow banks today (wishing for the tulips sooner than later), I say “Welcome to 2017!”   This is the context every local congregation (American Baptist, Christian or otherwise) deals with on a day to day basis.  The brave faith communities are the ones who understand it, mourn the change and then look for ways to move into the challenges such a time as this presents.
 
When I visit congregations, I find that for many, there’s a very offensive four letter word that I likely get into trouble for bringing up.  The word is (and I hope your ears will not burn as I utter it):  RISK.
 
Risk is what makes a church or any other organization do something other than feel left on the sidelines by change.  Change comes at us, change rushes past, without looking to see if we’ve reacted to it.  Change, after all, is not the “enemy”.  It’s part of the world we live in.  How we decide to engage what change brings, well, there’s the big question.
 
Most of us would enjoy church if it were more like the park we can visit in Albany.  A stroll, a bit of leisure and beautiful fountains and tulips appeal far more than church business meetings, balancing budgets and counting attendance.   Yet that park is also the creation and ongoing commitment of a city to keep up the park, plow the snow, plant the tulips and repair the fountain when Moses strikes the rock yet the piping underneath is being difficult and requires more of a plumber than a patriarch to bang upon it.
 
Church is about brick and mortar (and if you are a Trustee, you pray for the brick and the mortar each night as you remember the last time pointing had to be done and the bills and headaches that followed).  Church is about the worship services that happen (and if you are involved with worship, you know it comes with the weekly wrestling match of getting a sermon to come together, preferably before 3 AM Sunday morning, and the difficulty of getting everything “just right” to help the gathered worshippers sing and pray together, unless a snow storm rolls through the night before).  Church is about the little stuff that makes a person feel connected enough to move from being a visitor to becoming a member (and even learning how to pitch in with committee work, while praying that a term on a church board is for three years, rather than a life sentence).
 
Church is a lot of things, but it’s more than all of this.  It’s also about evangelism, outreach and being part of a community and its needs.  You’ve undoubtedly heard this over the years in various forms and with opinions about what was tried and what failed.  Indeed, you may have heard the people and Moses and thought to yourself, “Are sure that was back in ancient times?  Some of it sounded quite familiar and hits close to home!”
 
Every congregation has its ups and its downs.  How it learns to thrive, how to become more resilient to challenge (and in fact even energized by taking the punches and rolling with them as well) will be a matter of learning how to risk and live to tell about it.
 
What the future holds is uncertain and involves a decision about what risk you are willing to explore.  But remember that whatever each person has on their hearts and minds, whatever each person here wishes to say out loud at the meeting (or outside in the parking lot afterwards), each of us has the blessing of this story about Moses, the people and a rock that sprang forth with water.  God is with us, even when we think God has given up on us (or we’ve just given up on our own).
 
I’d like to think that the church can be that park where much toil and effort happens by the work of many hands willing to engage in the mundane tasks of day-to-day needs as well as the short moments when tulips are admired briefly over a weekend.  Churches are places where much good can come even from people wearied or worried by the circumstances at hand.   For God is the God of abundance, and with that hope, how can we not move from grumbling and wanting to being given the refreshing sustenance of holy waters that lift us back up and out into the desert once more, knowing that indeed, there will be a Promised Land?