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.
I believe that life is eternal and that there is an afterlife. Some struggle more with this belief than I do, and that’s okay—no judgment. It just seems to me that there must be an ultimate purpose in living—that our lives are leading up to something more. I believe this because resurrection is also a key Christian message I see patterned throughout the cosmos. Richard Rohr says it so beautifully: “…[T]he pattern of transformation is always death transformed, not death avoided. The universal spiritual pattern is death and resurrection, or loss and renewal…We ordinarily learn to submit and surrender to this scary pattern only when reality demands it of us, as it is doing now. Christians are helped by the fact that Jesus literally submitted to it and came out more than okay” (https://cac.org/death-transformed-2020-04-12/. I find this very good news, and I keep thinking of what the Apostle Paul said in that powerful passage about love in 1 Corinthians 13: Love never ends. The love we experience in relationship never ends—it, like the energy that animates our earthly bodies, just gets transformed. Love, relationship, and energy are eternal, like God is eternal.
Our congregation suffered two great losses earlier this month: Jim Gaspar and Fred Rhoads. We mourn those losses because our loved ones are not physically with us the way we are used to. It was good the way they used to be here with us—with their spouses, their families, and with their friends, singing in the choir. It was good because God intends and creates this life to be good. In Genesis 1 God repeatedly calls material creation “good.” And yet, good as it is, there is more. We just don’t see it clearly yet. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul puts it this way: For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. We can’t fully know the enormous Presence that underlies material reality—not yet anyway.
And so, we say our goodbyes to Jim and Fred, at least for now. Actually, the German language says this much better (theologically speaking). “Auf Wiedersehen” implies that we will see each other again. I believe this with all of my heart. In the meantime, let us be with one another in our mutual losses even as we have a blessed hope.
At our Zoom meeting last Thursday afternoon, we all shared the heaviness on our hearts over the still-unfolding, tragic events in our country. The unjust death of George Floyd is just the latest in a seemingly unending cycle of violence against our brothers and sisters of color. One thing I hope we are all getting from this is that we, as white people, cannot really fathom the depths of racism’s legacy. Slavery in this country existed from 1526-1865. Segregation existed from 1865-1964. The social ills from these terrible legacies will not resolve until we commit to fight racism wherever we encounter it, including in ourselves.
If we say, “I’m not racist,” then we are kidding ourselves. All of us have likely been raised under the influence of racism. The messaging in my own family and formative community was awful. I am recovering from it only by intention and commitment. The American writer Ijeoma Oluo, who wrote the book “So You Want to Talk about Race” said, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend you are free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself, and that is the way forward.”
One of the ways I am fighting racism is by reading the gospels with fresh eyes. I know some are resistant to the Black Lives Matter movement and prefer to say that All Lives Matter. Yet if you really look at the words and actions of Jesus, He repeatedly calls us to pay particular attention to the ones being marginalized. He never says that we don’t all matter, but there are contexts—places and times—when some need preferential attention. In the long wake of slavery and segregation, I would invite you to reread Luke 15:3-7 or Matthew 18:11-14: Both passages tell the story about the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for that one lost sheep. Yes, the 99 are important, but we see what lengths Jesus goes to restore that one who has experienced trouble! For the Christian, Black Lives do Matter. Saying so and fighting racism are acts of restorative justice, which are sorely needed in the long and unjust legacies of slavery and segregation. Let us continually examine our hearts as we expose them to the light of the gospels.
Many of you are asking when we might return to in-person worship and our (newer) summer tradition of meeting around the brunch table in Hayden Hall. At this time, the leadership of CCOV still feels that it is best that we hold off and then re-evaluate come September. We want to base our decision to resume regular worship on the best science available at that time in order to keep everyone safe. The Southwest Conference and the National Setting of the UCC have continued to guide churches through the process of deciding how and when to return. Here is my takeaway from them in short: We have been urged to make our decision based on how it will affect the most vulnerable among us. That, I believe, is a thoroughgoing Christian principle and the one that should guide us in our decision making.
I know some churches are clamoring to reopen and justify this by saying that worship is essential. And I would agree that worship is essential, but worship does not necessarily mean gathering in buildings where we might spread contagion to the most vulnerable among us. The Rev. William J Barber II recently said this: “Houses of worship are not essential, but true worship is: “When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me a drink? When I was a stranger, did you invite me in? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was sick and in prison, did you visit me?” These practices are the outcomes of true Christian worship everywhere. We continue to give and to serve as a means to worship God—now perhaps in more powerfully conscious ways than ever before. We see the urgency of unemployed folks needing food and supplies, and we are stepping up. Let us continue worshipping God by our collection of nonperishable goods for Vista del Camino Community Center for the foreseeable future. What an excellent way to say that the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and well! See you on line!
One of the professors from my seminary, Dr. Steve Harper, penned a thoughtful quote a few weeks ago that I keep thinking about. He wrote, “Narrowmindedness is the reduction of life until it is so small all you can see is yourself. And in that tiny world, you can justify whatever you say or do.” For me, Dr. Harper’s quote calls to mind Jesus’ frequent sparring with the scribes and Pharisees, whose old, worn narratives Jesus sought to disrupt with his telling of parables. Those parables were stories designed to interrupt the narrow places that the natural mind would go, those well-worn tracts that upheld the status quo and old prejudices that were so antithetical to the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom that Jesus came to announce. One good example is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the old story, which Jesus tells to a scribe: A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and beaten within an inch of his life. Both a priest and a Levite, two folks who should have known about God’s law of compassion, passed by the injured man. But then a Samaritan, one considered to be low class and of mixed race, stopped and went above and beyond in his rendering of aid. Jesus countered the narrowmindedness of the scribe’s prejudice in this parable as he drew a contrast between those who knew the law and those who actually put it into practice.
One of the things that Jesus frequently did was cause people to step back and look at their own attitudes and behavior in deeper ways. We all need to examine our well-worn attitudes and perceptions with more objectivity. I wonder if we can use this on-going time of quarantine to cultivate deeper self-awareness so that we might come closer to seeing the world as God would have us see it. One way to do this is to revisit the parables in the Gospels and ask ourselves, “How is this story jolting me out of my narrowmindedness? How is this story changing my usual thought patterns and moving me on to a larger world?” May the time we spend be enlightening and fruitful.
The past two summers we met Sunday mornings in Hayden Hall over a potluck breakfast. In 2018 congregation members offered various presentations and facilitated discussions, and in 2019 we had worship services around the table with a brief discussion to follow. Those intrepid enough to brave the Valley summer heat (and who didn’t flee to more temperate climes) came to enjoy these more informal and intimate fellowship experiences. This coming summer, starting on June 21, we thought we would try something still informal but a little different. We will open with a prayer and then engage in a discussion based on questions that you all pose ahead of time. Everyone has faith/biblical/theological questions that they always wanted to explore, so this summer will be a great time to get to those. My aim is to explore one question per week. I can’t promise you pat answers, but we can talk about how various scholars and traditions have answered some of those questions. Here are some examples to get you thinking: Why are there pain and suffering in this world? How would Christianity and other world religions fare if we found out for certain that there is extraterrestrial life? What happens to us when we die? I ask you to start submitting your questions by email either to me or to the church office, and we will explore them over Sundays in the summer. If we can’t meet safely in person and share a breakfast potluck by June 21, then we can certainly meet together by Zoom for these 10 AM Sunday discussions. I look forward to seeing you all—in person or on Zoom! In the meantime, please let me know if any pastoral needs come up; we can easily talk by phone, etc.
Dear CCOV Family and Friends,
I hope your home Easter celebrations were blessed even if they were pared down this year. Also, a hearty thanks to Patty Hersh and Carol Powell for baking and distributing Easter cupcakes to spread some much needed love and cheer to the congregation! It warms my heart to see all the creative ways people are serving and reaching out to one another from their quarantines.
I know the news can get overwhelming and seem so bleak at times, but if you dig around, you will find wonderful stories of people serving others and finding joy during this unprecedented time. Consider these uplifting examples:
- Amish communities join people from all walks of life to sew thousands of masks for hospitals and other facilities in need.
- A Maryland mom puts bag lunches on an outside table every day for folks who need them.
- A Santa Barbara teen and his friends develop a website for vulnerable seniors in need of grocery delivery; then, those teens deliver the groceries.
- Jewish families and friends organize Zoom Seders to commemorate Passover.
- A neighborhood math teacher teaches a struggling algebra student on her porch, separated by a window, using an easel and paper pad.
- The CEO of Texas Roadhouse forgoes his salary and bonus to keep his employees afloat.
May we all continue to find joy in sharing creatively, even during this unprecedented time. Again, please let either one of your pastors or church know if you need anything!
Grace and Peace,
this finds you sheltering in place, healthy, and well supplied. If you need anything, please let the church
office know or immediately get in touch with one of your pastors or council
members. We will continue calling you in
the coming days to check in.
One Christian recently quipped this on Facebook: “This is the lentiest Lent I’ve ever lented.” If we think of the church season of Lent as a time when we traditionally give up something, then yes, this is probably the lentiest Lent ever, because we’ve give up more than we could have ever expected. In our efforts to maintain a safe physical and social distance, we’ve given up physical contact with one another. Our social calendars are wiped clean for several months. We’ve given up groceries that just aren’t available at times in the stores—including more than just toilet paper. My daughter panicked over the weekend when she ran out of food for her dogs and couldn’t find any in the stores. We’ve given up our gyms, trips, and restaurants. Some of us have given up our jobs or in best-case scenarios, have had to do them in a whole new way.
through all of this, in some ways I’ve gained new things. I’ve learned to Zoom, or use my computer or
smart Phone to attend gatherings and meetings.
Yesterday I even connected with family back East by Zoom to celebrate my
sister’s birthday. We’ve adapted to
offering worship by video. My neighbors
are keeping close tabs on one another, texting daily to check in, and in some ways
we are all feeling closer than ever. Without
the usual gym routine, Clint and I researched and found new Prescott hiking
trails that have astounded us by their beauty.
My dog and cats are thrilled that we are home so much. I have all day to gaze at the gorgeous peach
tree in full pink bloom out back. So is
this really the lentiest Lent ever? I
guess it’s all a matter of reframing.
Thessalonians 5:18 exhorts us “to give thanks in all circumstances; for this is
the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
We don’t have to give thanks for all circumstances—only in
all circumstances. We can certainly look for things to be
thankful for in the midst of this strange new world. Let us therefore start each day at a place of