Monday, October 14, 2019

In the Face of Overwhelming Challenges

It is once again my turn to contribute an article for the “Faith & Values” column in our local newspaper (the Helena Independent Record). This is what I wrote. It will appear in the paper on Saturday, October 19, 2019.
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These are challenging days in which to be a person of faith. And by “person of faith” I mean anyone who seeks to bring their life into alignment with the presence and character of God. We might disagree about the specific nature of God. We might even disagree about what language to use when we talk about “God.” Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs speak of “a Power greater than ourselves” and “the God of our understanding.” So we might disagree about many of the details, but I suspect that beyond our disagreements many of us are striving to bring our lives into alignment with a positive, life-affirming, life-transforming reality which is greater than ourselves. And as we do so we find ourselves confronted by a whole host of situations in the world that we find confusing, distressing, and even abhorrent. In these days in which we are living we are faced with so many crises that we can barely even name them and keep track of them, let alone adequately address them. There is the climate crisis, the refugee crisis, the gun-violence crisis, the opioid crisis, and on and on the list seems to go. What is a person of faith to do? How are we to respond in the face of such overwhelming challenges? Fortunately, for us and for the world, we need not attempt to tackle all of the challenges in the world alone. Indeed, we cannot. It is beyond our capacity. But we are not alone. All over the world there are people of faith and good will who share our concerns and our desire to heal the brokenness which seems so ever-present. We have partners who are already walking with us on this journey, even when we have not yet become aware enough to notice. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once offered this helpful reminder. “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” But even when we recognize that we are not alone and not on our own, the challenge of what to do and how to do it remains daunting. In the face of such diverse and seemingly overwhelming circumstances in the world, how do we go about figuring out where to begin? Author and theologian Frederick Buechner offers one possible template to consider as we discern our calling. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is easy to feel pulled in so many directions, which can leave us feeling completely inadequate to the task. It can be helpful to remember that we will be most useful and make the most difference when we bring our best selves to the task. If we are doing something purely out of guilt or because someone else expects us to, then we are far less likely to be in a position to give it our best. Remembering that we are not alone in addressing the needs of the world offers us the perspective that no one of us is responsible to do everything. We need only do our best in responding to what we feel called to do with the gifts we have been given. The Talmud put it this way, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” So, may we remember that in the face of “the enormity of the world’s grief” we are not powerless to respond. Each of us has gifts which can be brought to bear. And perhaps the greatest gift of all is the gift of community. We are not alone. In community we have not only our gifts, but also the gifts of everyone else as well. Your gifts will enable and empower you to respond to some of the crises we face, while my gifts will enable and empower me to respond to other crises. Together we are far more than the sum of our parts. Together, as each of us seeks to bring our lives into alignment with the God of our understanding, we have the power to transform the world. How is God calling you to respond today?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

How I Respond Is Always A Choice

As I write these words it is the end of September, the autumnal equinox occurred just a week ago, and there is snow covering the ground. Life is full of surprises and each new moment offers a fresh opportunity for us to choose how we will respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I can choose to grumble because I’m not ready for winter to arrive, or I can notice how truly beautiful the snow is. Either way the snow will still be here, but one choice leaves me feeling bad and one choice lifts my spirits. And I get to make that sort of choice in every moment. I am constantly confronted with situations and circumstances which are beyond my control. What is within my control is how I respond. It’s not always easy to make the helpful choices. It takes practice. I often forget that I even have a choice. But the more I practice paying attention and being intentional about exercising my choices, the easier it becomes. And I am further empowered when I remember that I am not alone in my choosing. I always have the sacred presence of God waiting to support and encourage me. All that is required is that I open myself to this source of support. So, I invite you to join me in practicing this approach to faithful living. May we, with God’s help, learn to respond rather than react. It really does make all the difference.

- Pastor Roger

(keeping my feet firmly planted in the flow)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Love, Loss, and the Presence of God

Abundant and grace-filled life has been on full display for me in recent days. In the span of a week at the end of August I was in the Puget Sound area twice – once for a family funeral and once for a family wedding. At opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, both occasions were filled with family, love, and the powerfully tangible presence of God. Loss and celebration are both part of what it means to be human, and what allows us to experience those realities fully, deeply, and richly is the loving connection we share with those around us. We are not in this life alone. One of the remarkable ways in which we feel the touch of Sacred Presence is through the touch of human companions. I watched my cousin and his family face an unimaginable loss because they were surrounded by a loving community of family and friends. I watched my daughter shine with joy as she stepped into a new level of love and commitment with her beloved while they were surrounded by a loving community of family and friends. In both cases the presence of Spirit was palpable. Something extraordinary was happening right before our eyes. And the truth is that while it can be more obvious in the midst of special occasions like weddings and funerals, it really is possible to experience the touch of God’s presence in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary moments of our lives. It just requires that we practice paying attention. Maybe it’s something as simple as the smile of friend, or even a stranger. Maybe it happens in the midst of a moment of pain – a skinned knee or a skinned heart. Maybe it takes the form of a memory that brightens our day or troubles our sleep. In good times and in challenging times, we have the opportunity to avail ourselves of the presence of God and the loving support of family and friends. How will God show up in your life today?

- Pastor Roger
(keeping my feet firmly planted in the flow)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

No Sense Arguing With Reality

As many of you are by now aware, while I was at Church Camp in July I broke my arm. It was not how I thought I would be spending the rest of the summer. It’s not what I would have chosen to do. But it is what happened. And, as my lovely and brilliant partner, Susan, frequently reminds me, there’s no point in arguing with reality. So I am concentrating on making the best of the situation. I am looking for the blessings, and finding them to be abundant. In whatever direction I look, I am experiencing God’s ongoing and active presence in my life. I am surrounded by people who love me and care about me and are praying for my healing and speedy recovery. I have access to quality medical care. It appears that I will not need surgery. And I am profoundly aware of so many ways in which my life is filled with blessings. The fact that I can write this article by simply speaking into my phone is but one example. So I invite you to join me in being on the lookout for the many ways in which God is actively present in your life. I am confident that what you will find is far more than you could ever have imagined. God is good and life is a blessing.

- Pastor Roger
(keeping my feet firmly planted in the flow)

Friday, May 31, 2019

Summer Is Upon Us

As we move into the summer season things around the church tend to slow down. There’s lots to do during this beautiful time of year, and sometimes that keeps folks away from church. Sacred Presence can be experienced in nature as well as in the sanctuary, so go enjoy. But I would invite you to not forget about us completely. We slow down but we don’t shut down. If you are in town on Sundays please join us for worship. Remember to continue your financial support, because the bills still need to be paid. And there are some important things happening in our UCC Conference that you might consider participating in. See articles elsewhere in this edition of the Waymarks about upcoming meetings related to Camp Mimanagish in June and July, and the Conference Annual Meeting in August. Enjoy your summer, and please remember that whether I see you or not I will continue to hold you in prayer.

- Pastor Roger
(keeping my feet firmly planted in the flow)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Expanding Our Awareness of a Really Big God (article for Helena Independent Record)

This is my latest contribution to the “Pastor’s Column” on the Religion Page in our local newspaper (the Helena Independent Record). It will appear on May 4th.
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In the movie “Men in Black” there is a secret government agency responsible for monitoring and regulating all of the extraterrestrial life-forms living on Earth. One of the agents has just revealed this secret to a potential recruit. In helping him reflect on the enormity of this new information, Agent K says, “1,500 years ago everyone knew the Earth was the center of the Universe. 500 years ago everyone knew the Earth was flat. 15 minutes ago you knew people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you will know tomorrow.” That is something like the ways we human beings experience God. We catch a glimpse of the edge of God’s big toe, and we think we have an understanding of who God is. We “know” that God must be like this. Then we have an insight with a little more perspective, and again we think we’ve got it all figured out. In each moment we are doing the best we can with the information and experience we have available to us. Usually the problem is not that we get it wrong. We simply mistake partial understanding for complete knowledge. When we are at our best, we recognize that faith is always a matter of exploration and growing awareness. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. What he offers them is a brighter, bolder, bigger faith when he is gone. He promises them that his physical presence will be replaced with God’s Sacred Presence that will be with them always and forever. In essence he tells them, “I need to get out of the way now, so you can begin to experience God in bigger, more comprehensive ways. As long as I’m with you, all you will see is as much of God as can be revealed in one person’s flesh and blood life. But when I’m gone, you will be able to broaden your perspective and begin to experience the God whom I have been trying to show you, the God who is always as close to you as your breathing.” And then he goes on to say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” It is when we are open to the ongoing presence of God in our lives that we begin to discover this peace which is always waiting for us. This is God’s peace - shalom, healing, wholeness. It is not the peace we hear about on the news - the peace that means the absence of any major fighting in that particular moment. God’s peace is not about the absence of something, but about ongoing Sacred Presence. In that awareness we begin to find wholeness and fulfillment, not only for ourselves, but for the world.

This radically inclusive Presence is all around us all of the time. And when we begin to open the eyes of our hearts to see it, that presence lights up the world. Near the end of the book of Revelation there is a dramatic vision of what this new light-filled reality can look like. No corner is deep enough for shadows to hide. No darkness remains to frighten or distress. Only light. Only life. The gates of the city are opened wide. The invitations have been extended. All the lights have been turned on. There is water enough for everyone, flowing down the middle of the street. And food in both abundance and variety. Even the leaves of the trees contain a soothing ointment which can be used to heal the brokenness of the world. This is what it means to live fully in the embrace of God’s love. It is all around us all of the time. We have only to accept the gift and begin to unwrap it in our living. 

But how do we do that? How do we keep from getting trapped in our small and limited images of God? How do we keep from becoming so frightened of life and the world that we simply close our eyes and hide in a dark corner someplace? How do we truly open ourselves to God’s loving embrace? We begin by remembering that God is always bigger than what we can perceive at any given moment. No matter how full our understanding, no matter how well-thought out our theology, no matter how rich our faith, there is always more of God waiting to be experienced. And once we begin to live into the reality of a really big God, we can also begin living into the awareness that God can be trusted. The little glimpses we catch of God’s love, the small awarenesses we gain of God’s healing, the fleeting insights we experience of God’s presence, are not isolated and random. They reveal the larger pattern of God’s brilliant light shining in our lives and our world. When we begin to watch for it we discover that it is everywhere - in the smile of a friend, in the song filled with wonder and joy, in the unexpected encounter with a stranger. What we begin to recognize, if only slowly and falteringly, is that we are never outside of God’s embrace. Indeed, we cannot be. We can only be outside of an awareness of that embrace. And when we open our eyes and our hearts and our lives to this reality, when we really begin to live in that embrace, then there are no limits to what is possible.

It Takes A Village . . .

“It takes a village to raise a child.” This bit of folk wisdom speaks to us of the value and, indeed, the essential necessity, of living life in community. The same sentiment is true when applied to Church. It is not a solitary endeavor. None of us can do it alone. For the Church to accomplish its mission requires the active participation of each of us and all of us, working together for the common good and the benefit of the whole world. This plays out in a whole variety of ways both large and small. On Sunday mornings I watch the official ushers and greeters welcoming people as they come in for worship, and I also observe the countless other people who are not on “official” greeter duty that morning also helping to make people feel welcome. When we have fellowship events such as the after-worship gatherings in the Fireside Room and the occasional potluck meals, there are lots of folks who sign up to bring food and take care of the various details required to make things run smoothly, and there are also others who just pitch in to get things done without being asked. During worship we collect an offering which enables us to keep the doors open and to reach out beyond ourselves to touch the world with God’s love and grace and compassion. None of us on our own could make all of that happen, but when all of us join together, each contributing our own unique gifts, the results are truly remarkable. “It takes a village . . .” Plymouth is such a village. Thank you.

– Pastor Roger
(keeping my feet firmly planted in the flow)