Over the past Decembers in recent memory, our church has participated in the UCC denomination-wide offering called Veterans of the Cross. This special Christmas fund “has been caring for active and retired United Church of Christ clergy and lay employees and their families for over 100 years, providing emergency financial help, supplementation of small annuities and health premiums, and Christmas ’thank-you’ checks to our lower-income retirees” (www.christmasfund.org). With all the hardships 2020 has seen, giving to this fund, if you are able, is probably more important than ever.
If you follow the link to the Christmas Fund website, you can click on a video and hear Rev. Cathy Barker talk about a time in her life when the love and care represented by the Christmas Fund made all the difference. It was December of 1968, and Cathy’s father had just died after a long struggle with cancer. She and her mother anticipated a lonely and humble Christmas. The check arrived and meant so much—they were touched that the wider church remembered them.
I know that we usually have pew envelopes for this offering, but this year it would be best just to give through the website, www.christmasfund.org. I know that we have all felt stressed by all we have lost this year, but ironically, joy comes with giving and knowing that we are making someone’s life just a little bit better.
I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, even though it won’t be anything like Thanksgivings past. I know many of us are sad, because large gatherings, travel, and the usual ways of doing things are all upended—or at least pared way back. It’s especially hard since we are, after all, such social creatures. So, we lament. There’s nothing wrong with lamentation; in fact, a whole book is devoted to lamentation in our Bible. Yet, the scriptural trajectory always moves us through times of lamentation toward restoration, hope, and resurrection.
We have much hope—an effective vaccine is coming. In the meantime, we still have a myriad of things for which to be thankful—and we have many opportunities to show our gratitude this season by giving. In fact, we can improve our mental health when we start each day being thankful for what we still have and what we still can do. We can also feel great joy when we give to others, whether through outreach projects at church or buying an extra turkey to donate to a local food bank.
I’m especially thankful that we live in a place where it will be 70 degrees on Thanksgiving Day, and we can gather in small groups and eat, socially-distanced, outside. I’m thankful for food, shelter, family, friends, and the technology that keeps us virtually connected. What are you thankful for this season? May you find joy in your practice of Thanksgiving 2020.
With Gratitude for my Church Family,
In the aftermath of a turbulent election, I want to share with you a prayer from our Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. Bill Lyons.
Holy One, elections always create winners and losers. Spirit, guide us to be ministers to friends and neighbors disappointed and grieving, friends and neighbors celebrating, and into the work of building unity as we take up tasks as healers, peacemakers, and justice builders. What joy is mine as the first woman in American history steps into her role a Vice President of the United States! Protect President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. Grant Mr. Trump the ability to put nation before self and to make a good ending for himself. Protect the nation from anyone who would seek our harm or who would use violence against others in the wake of this result. Heal us, O God. Heal our land. Bring us peace!
Rev. Dr. Lyons reminds us in his prayer that there are always winners and losers in elections, but we Christians are called to be ministers of healing, peace, and justice—first and foremost. I pray that even in our diversity we can be Christian ministers to one another. That, after all, is a hallmark of Christian maturity. Let us always seek to be bridge builders between those who are celebrating and those who are feeling defeated.
The weather up here in Prescott is crisper now—fall is really in the air. This weekend, of course, is Halloween, and if we were worshipping in our sanctuary together, we would be celebrating All Saints this Sunday. At CCOV UCC we celebrate All Saints by lighting candles as we remember loved ones who have gone home to glory before us, as well as by singing the hymn, “For All the Saints.” This week in particular I am remembering and missing all the dearly departed saints I have known throughout my life, and I am especially thinking about the ones at CCOV I have known throughout the years. This Sunday, if we were in worship together, we would read the names of Jim Gaspar, Fred Rhoads, and Hugh Schilling, our own dear church members who departed in 2020.
Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and All Saints’ are interrelated. For a good history and explanation of their significance, you can click here: https://www.hfcc.edu/news/2019/halloween-all-saints-all-souls-holidays. What I would like most to point you to is the comforting passage in Revelation 21:3-5a: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ’See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for this first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ’See, I am making all things new.’” Even though we won’t be in person to light candles together this year, perhaps you can light a few at home to recognize and celebrate that there are no real or permanent boundaries between time and space, this world and the next. We are on a continuum separated from our departed loved ones only by a thin veil and only for a time. God’s reality and our reality coexist! Know that God dwells with us here and there; for God’s home is among us, wherever we are. This is the good news of our faith!
Have any of you ever done an in-depth study of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples? If you have, you will know that so much more is packed into every last word of that prayer than we typically think. Let’s just focus for a moment on the first two words: “Our Father.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t start with “My Father” or “Her Father” or “His Father.” He uses the plural possessive pronoun, “our.” A deep message is contained in those first two words, which communicates the universality of God’s love and care. When we pray “Our Father,” we cannot consciously or subconsciously reject our neighbor, even our neighbors who don’t look, think, talk, or act like we do. “Our Father” is radically inclusive of different races, socio-economic statuses, genders, religions, world geographic locales, and political affiliations. Our God is truly everyone’s God.
I wonder how different life would be if those in power truly modeled Jesus’ leadership style. Jesus, right up front in the Lord’s Prayer, communicates that God belongs to everyone—not just to one group. Jesus, the servant-leader, washes feet. Jesus, the servant-leader, preferentially spends time with and cares for the orphan, the outcast, the poor, and the sick. The deep message for Christ followers is that we must be sure our decisions and actions take into account the whole, not just the parts. That’s not always easy, but it is the Christian way. Blessings,
Dear CCOV Family and Friends,
If there is any silver lining in this age of COVID-19, it may be the time it has afforded us to tackle long-postponed projects around the house. For many years Clint and I have wanted to digitalize the thousands of photos in our old photo albums, which are bulky and heavy to move. My dream is to have our life’s slideshow playing on an endless loop on our living room TV screen one day soon. So, we began this long-term project a few months ago, and it has taken us on quite the trip down memory lane. Not only are we digitalizing the photos, but also old letters, report cards, and other remembrances.
I realized that I never threw a single letter or card out during my high school, college, and young adult years. I’ve recently re-read every last one of them and found that they (along with old photos) told a story about those years of my life. Fuzzy memories have grown sharp again. Friends who were almost long forgotten are once again at the forefront of my mind, and I found myself longing for them. Because of that, yesterday I reached out and called a friend I haven’t spoken to in years. She and I were neighbors and grew up together—we were even in each other’s weddings! I can’t tell you how heartwarming our conversation was—and how timely, as she had just been through some real health challenges and reconnecting meant the world to her. It felt so good to catch up and reminisce, and we vowed never to grow apart again.
As I’ve been preparing for Pastor Dick’s and my upcoming sermon series called “Really Bad Ideas Not Found in the Bible,” I’ve been reflecting on this bad idea: everything happens for a reason. Actually, Pastor Dick will be preaching on this half-truth the first Sunday in October. But here’s a sneak preview: While there is cause and effect in this life, COVID-19 did not happen for a God-ordained reason; moreover, God did not send the pandemic to punish the world. That simply is not good theology. What we do know is that suffering exists in this world for a variety of reasons (including ones of our own making), but God’s work is bringing us through, all the while strengthening our souls and growing us into God’s own image. Jesus showed us that all manner of suffering can be used to reorient and transform us. Knowing that, how about we all keep using this time to tackle things we’ve been putting off? Who knows, our projects may even lead us to the unexpected joy of reconnecting with someone who needs to hear from us!
Recently my Prescott neighbors told me a story about a family of quail that visited their back patio. They were alerted to the birds by the insistent calling of the mother—a distinctive noise that went on for a full 45 minutes. She had 13 babies in tow. Finally, it got quiet when the father arrived with the 14th chick, which had been lost on the hillside below. It was only then that the covey of quail moved on its way. I said, “Wow! That’s a story with great biblical implications! Thank you for giving me an idea for my next newsletter blurb!”
We all know Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:11-14 and Luke 15:3-7), and how in God’s kingdom, God, the Good Shepherd, leaves the flock of 99 to go in search of the lost one, because that one matters most in that particular moment. This story tells us something of God’s preferential care of the lost, the marginalized, and the oppressed. In the context of being lost, that one life mattered most at that point in time. Like the parents in the covey of quail, the Good Shepherd would not move any of the flock on their way until He had restored the lost one.
This story has eternal application. Note that the 99 in the parable aren’t all baaing, “All lives matter! Let’s just enjoy our safe, privileged place and get on with things!” Jesus’ point in the parable is that there are contexts when we must depart from the “all” and focus on the lost, the least. In so many ways, God’s economy is very different from ours. We have such a context now. For us, in our time, the ones who have endured hardship generation after generation need us to redress wrongs and restore justice.
I’ve been actively immersed in anti-racism training through our denomination for the past four Saturdays. To hear people of color tell their stories has been emotional and heartbreaking—we just can’t imagine the depth of their pain, but engagement with them helped. I hope you can hear stories like the ones I heard. You can gain a deeper understanding by reading books like “White Fragility,” “So You Want to Talk about Race,” and “The New Jim Crow.” Or you can watch films like “Tell Them We are Rising” (on You Tube) or visit here https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/film-tv/gmp32961462/black-history-movies-anti-racism/ for other film suggestions. When we truly redress the roots of our wrongs, provide real justice for all, and seek out the lost, society may indeed find peace and quiet like that covey of quail finally did, and be able to move on.
Hello CCOV Community,
A little over a week ago Clint and I went on a Sunday afternoon drive to see the Buddhist Temple near Chino Valley, AZ. We took our Prius Prime on some bumpy but seemingly-decent dirt roads for a good ten miles into ranch land. While the mountaintop temple was closed, we did get a little glimpse of it from the road. When we turned around and headed back for civilization, we started bumping along a bit harder and realized that we had a flat tire. It was really hot and dusty, and we were already thirsty. Clint quickly discovered that Prius Primes do not have a spare tire or even a donut—just a pump and some sealant. Soon after we pulled over, three parties of folks stopped their vehicles to help. Several men tried to get the sealant and pump to work (they didn’t because the gash in the tire was too large). Meanwhile, women gave us cold water. I ended up calling AAA for a tow, and one of the men refused to leave us until the tow truck got there—over an hour later. In short, we were so touched and impressed with the kindness of those people that hot afternoon, though we were complete strangers to them.
So often we get fed up with the seeming nastiness of humanity that we see daily in the news. What we often forget is that people are mostly good—even strangers. Our Bibles have quite a lot to say in about rendering aid to the stranger—even though those stories are often fraught with tensions and risk. Jesus identifies himself as a stranger to be welcomed in Matthew 25:35: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” The Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman of the UCC Southern California/Nevada Conference once wrote this: “As our nation struggles with immigration issues and the enduring sins of racism, sexism, homophobia and the chasm between rich and poor; and as the nations of the world engage one another across hostile lines, we who follow Jesus, the stranger-savior, have an urgent mission to live this stranger life with him” (https://www.ucc.org/stranger-encounters). Yes, there are risks when interacting with strangers, but Christians are repeatedly called to assume such risk; Jesus did. I wonder if we can come to expect the best of one another rather than the worst and if we can always be as kind to strangers in need. I’ll end with another powerful, well-known verse about strangers, Hebrews 12:1-2: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Clint and I are very grateful for the people who helped us, even though we were strangers to them.
Grace and Peace to You,
Yesterday, a clergy colleague asked a good question about any helpful new practices we had established since Covid-19. She shared that she now begins each day listening to an uplifting podcast rather than the morning news, which she finds to be a downer. I thought about any new practice in this strange time and landed upon how I’ve come to exercise differently. I used to lap swim a mile each morning at the YMCA (which, of course, is closed) but now with the help of a high-tension swim tether and belt, I swim in place in the pool of our new Scottsdale house.
I’ve decided that I like this new swim workout even better than laps. Since I never learned to summersault at the end of each length to turn around, I lost momentum and time each time I got to the end of the lane. Not only that, but I ended up chatting with the other swimmers a lot, which interrupted my cardio. Sometimes they annoyed me when they would crowd the lanes. Sure I miss the social aspect, but I’ve gained a better workout. Swimming in place is better for me because I don’t stop, and the pool is my own, private paradise.
We are doing lots of things in place, thanks to Covid-19. My daughter started doing crafts. Some of you are perfecting your bread-baking techniques. Others are walking or hiking early in the morning before it gets hot. Some are sharing photos of previous vacations since no one can travel much. We humans are adaptable creatures, and stress can cause us to change—sometimes for the better. One thing I’ve learned: We can trust God to help us create joy and grow where we are planted. God is in the resurrection business after all! Here’s a verse for us to meditate on today: “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11). God has given me joy while swimming in place. I pray that you can find joy in whatever new practices you have established while sheltering in place.
Peace and Joy to You,
Greetings CCOV UCC,
Last week I had a phone conversation with the former pastor of the church where I was ordained. We talk every few months, and each time he updates me on how many churches in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area have closed their doors. This time it was 43. In fact, the very church where I was ordained is on the market, and the remnant congregation is in turmoil. We both lamented the seeming decline of church as we have known it in our lifetimes. For many, the Covid-19 crisis is putting a final nail in the coffin, so to speak. Yet, I think there is hope. It’s just that churches of the future might look a lot different.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, just as most churches had gotten services up and running on line, a cartoon was circulating that pictured both God and the devil. The devil was smirking over all the churches that he had now closed. God, on the other hand, responds something like: Nonsense! I just opened one in every living room!
It may be that the brick and mortar churches we and our parents and grandparents have always known are giving way to a new move of the Spirit. Indeed, many iterations of church have come and gone over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth. Christians of the early centuries met in homes, in caves, underground, or in outdoor gathering places. Then came the great cathedrals of Europe and elsewhere. Then came the plethora of brick and mortar churches with which we are most familiar. Perhaps future churches will all be on line or even return to small house gatherings—or maybe hybrid combinations of brick and mortar, on line, and homes. I refuse to worry about any of it knowing the promise that God’s holy church will continue—even if great change disrupts our nostalgic notion of church.
We all know that younger people generally don’t sit through long church services any more, but they are apt to interact with screens and technology (like they do for work and entertainment) as well as show up for service projects, e.g. serving at UMOM, which for them tends to be more meaningful than sitting through services. A 30-minute on-line service may be quite palatable for them coupled with opportunities to serve. What we do know right now is that CCOV’s on-line services are being shared and reaching many living rooms—beyond the usual bounds of our sanctuary—and that may be a real God thing. We humans only change when stressed enough, so the silver lining of the post-Covid 19 world may be that we’ve given birth to the new move of the Spirit and the next iteration of church. My prayer though for now is that we return soon to our beloved building but continue our on-line outreach.