From our (refreshed!) Pastor

Twelve weeks ago I drove away from church.  This week I return ready to be back and grateful to have been gone.  Family and friends have tracked the time with me and recently wondered what the last couple of weeks have been like.  "I want to go back to work!" was always my answer.  I have been blessed at St. Paul to have now taken four sabbaticals and I clearly remember each time the desire to be back here before the time away was up. 

Here was something I took with me last May: Wheat Ridge Ministries defines a ministry sabbatical as a period of time . . . when ministry leaders and congregations set aside the leader’s normal responsibilities for the purpose of rest and renewal toward sustained excellence in ministry.  A ministry sabbatical is not an extended vacation nor is it an academic sabbatical that normally involves extensive study. A ministry sabbatical is a release from the routine of the call for the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual well-being of the ministry leader.

The last three months have been a great sabbatical. Body, mind, and spirit have been renewed.  The time with family and friends, and time alone were the best and most important elements.  The time off (especially evenings and weekends) meant freedom to travel all over the country to visit adult children, a beloved mentor, and nine different churches in five states.  The time… was such a gift. 

I was fed spiritually by the diverse worship experiences in First Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon, Bethesda Lutheran Church in Bayfield, Wisconsin, Wooddale Church in Minneapolis (not Lutheran!), Trinity Episcopal in Copley Square, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bethesda, Maryland (my home church 40 years ago), and Congregational (United Church of Christ) churches in Winchester and Cambridge.  I also worshiped at Redeemer Lutheran in Woburn and University Lutheran in Harvard Square.  I got to worship with Janice and be a regular member of the congregation.  While we were often among the younger folks in church and saw no more than a total of ten children in all those churches combined, worship was lively, the communities seemed healthy and all of the sermons were good!  It was inspiring and rare for me to see and experience so much of the church on Sundays. 

I backpacked alone for a spell in the White Mountains and communed with silence and nature.  This fellow--looking a lot like Jesus--came walking toward me early one morning, above the tree line, in bare feet.  You can see why I wondered. We greeted each other and had a wonderful and deep conversation about the meaning of life.  Maybe it was him! He hikes everywhere in bare feet. It was one of many memorable moments of just trying to be fully present.  And if you noticed the mountain-man beard, don't worry, I will look normal when you see me next! 

So, I am thankful for the time I’ve had; I know most pastors don’t get to take sabbaticals. But more and more churches are starting to realize how valuable they are.  Indeed, rest is important to all.  Sabbath is woven in to the fabric of life, even as God commands it and calls it holy.  We need rest every day, every week, and sometimes for longer spells.  Perhaps you've had some time off already this summer or August will be the time.  I hope and pray you can move into that sacred space quickly and savor it. 

As I return and I'm reminded that "it's not possible to board a moving train with a perpendicular leap." Even in August I will need to run alongside for a while to catch up with the church's momentum.  I am grateful to be back!  Feel free to call me to reconnect or share any urgent concerns.  

Faithfully,  Ross

The Down Side of the Reformation

As we prepare to celebrate Reformation Sunday here at St. Paul, it seems fitting, and in the spirit of the Reformation, to tell the whole story, or at least the rest of the story. One of the ongoing reformers of our day is Stanley Hauerwas, an American theologian and professor at Duke, famous for continuing to call the church out on its sins. What follows are some reflections and notes from one of his lectures 20 years ago..

Even as a Methodist, Hauerwas hated Reformation Sunday, reminding us that it does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We Lutherans and many others want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name 'Protestantism' is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. But indeed, Protestantism has become an end in itself through all the mainstream denominations in America. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church's division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.

What if the Catholics are right that salvation consists in works. Hauerwas writes: "To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of-or perhaps better, because of-the world's fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ's death and resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we have been made part of God's salvation for the world so that the world may know it has been freed from the powers that would compel us to kill one another in the name of false loyalties. All that is about the works necessary to save us."

Indeed we Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. Instead we celebrate it partly because we no longer know or experience unity in the church.

Roman Catholics know and experience unity because they have an office for it in the person of the pope who watches over some 1.2 billion souls. It is rather extraordinary that all those Christians hold together in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.

Catholics know that their unity does not depend upon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

Consider this difference: Protestants say, "How much of the faith do we have to believe in order to remain Christian?" We too easily think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than the Catholic sense of unity that comes through the celebration of the sacraments. Once Christianity becomes reduced to a matter of belief, as it clearly has for Protestants, we cannot resist questions of whether those beliefs are as true or useful as other beliefs we also entertain. Once such questions are raised, it does not matter what the answer turns out in a given case. As James Edwards observes, "Once religious beliefs start to compete with other beliefs, then religious believers are - and will know themselves to be consumers of values. They too are denizens of the mall, selling and shopping and buying along with the rest of us."

Hauerwas notes that Catholics do not begin with the question of "How much do we need to believe?" but with the attitude "Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!" Isn't it wonderful to know that Mary was immaculately conceived in order to be the faithful servant of God's new creation in Jesus Christ! She therefore becomes the firstborn of God's new creation, our mother, the first member of God's new community we call church. Isn't it wonderful that God continued to act in the world through the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe! Mary must know something because she seems to always appear to peasants and, in particular, to peasant women who have the ability to see her. Most of us would not have the ability to see Mary because we'd be far too embarrassed by our vision.
Therefore Catholics understand the church's unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another.

In Luther's day he was right to point out that the pope and the church had become unfaithful and corrupt, but at least Catholics preserved an office God can use to remind us that we have been and may yet prove unfaithful. In contrast, Protestants don't even know we're being judged for our disunity.

I realize that this perspective on Reformation Sunday is not the usual one. But remember that Luther never intended to start a new church. He meant to reform the one he belonged to. The usual perspective is to tell us what a wonderful thing happened at the Reformation. The Reformation brought freedom. No longer would we be held in medieval captivity to law and arbitrary authority. The Reformation was the beginning of enlightenment, of progressive civilizations, of democracy, that have come to fruition in this wonderful country called America.

And yet what a disaster it was for the Jews, who were made out to be even more "other" than Catholics. Luther utterly failed to see that justification by faith through grace is a claim about the salvation wrought by God through Jesus to make us a holy people capable of remembering that God's salvation comes through the Jews. When the church loses that memory, we lose the source of our unity. For unity is finally a matter of memory, of how we tell the story of the Reformation. How can we tell this story of the church truthfully as Protestants and Catholics so that we might look forward to being in union with one another and thus share a common story of our mutual failure? How might that perspective change the way we celebrate the 500th anniversary?

So on this Reformation Sunday long for, pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation - not mainly or only as a celebratory moment, but also as the sin of the church. Both-And. Now more than ever we pray for God to heal our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity in our midst between classes, between races, between nations. Pray that on Reformation Sunday we may confess our sin and ask God to make us a new people joined together in one that the world may be saved from its divisions.

Prayers for Presidential Candidates

"I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." - 1 Timothy 2:1-3
            Timothy's admonition seems particularly timely in this election season.  "The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know," is how The Message translates that first verse.  A colleague of mine commented recently that he thought the presidential campaign thus far has been about as godly and dignified as a bar fight. Who knows what's to come in the remaining weeks? Whoever is chosen, it will be an unusually historic election.
            I'd like to invite Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to stop by Saint Paul for a visit, not at the same Sunday morning service mind you, just to greet us--nothing too political. I trust that we are diverse enough as a congregation that there would be some who would love to meet and hear from each of them. And I know there would be lively debates among ourselves, expressing admiration and good will, distaste and even contempt for one candidate or another.
            If they stayed for the whole service they might notice that we often pray for rulers and those in high positions, but not often by name. Perhaps the names are left out because if we get too specific we cannot pronounce them without some of us shuddering. But our leaders all have names. I remember that the writer of First Timothy is a follower of the one who told us to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Both candidates deserve prayers from friend and foe alike.  
            We pray for our leaders and future leaders because, like it or not, like them or not, we need them to lead wisely and well, so that "we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."
            Those words remind us of qualities that are precious, rare, and endangered in this political season. Quiet. Peaceable. Godliness. Dignity.
            Just uttering these words seems like a kind of prayer. And an urgent one at that.
            P.S.  Our prayers are often at the intersection of religion and public life. We wonder anew what churches can and cannot do or say in the political arena. What does the first amendment say and how did in get included? What is the balance in living our faith and being patriotic? On Monday September 26 at 7pm you are invited to join a webinar sponsored by our church on the topic of Religion and the Constitution led by Thomas Cunniff, Assoc. General Counsel for our denomination.  Log in at https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/176762941

Absent God


 
            My mother loved Mother Teresa and that made a big impression on me as a kid. The poor mattered a great deal. There are amazingly good people on earth. A nun I worked with for years at Children's Hospital in Boston hated Mother Teresa. I didn't think that was possible but she said when she worked with the Missionaries of Charity in South America, she found the recently canonized saint to be dictatorial, cold and even mean to the sisters of her order. Indeed we are saints and sinners at the same time which applies even to Mother Teresa, and here was a nun telling me so.
 
I was pleased that the new saint's well known doubts did not disqualify her. We learned of the darkness she struggled with in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.  The woman who was hailed as a “living saint” during her lifetime also was tormented by doubt. It seems that for years on end she doubted the existence of God.

Many of those who have greatly admired Mother Teresa as a shining example of faith in action found these revelations unsettling, but not me. Many of the towering examples of believers within the Christian tradition were not people who were free from doubt. Belief and doubt are not found in isolation within human lives, even in the lives of the saints.

As a preacher I am called to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has drawn near (this was Jesus' basic sermon) and that God is with us. It's just as important for me to acknowledge the absence of God. Sometimes we think that if we work hard at our spiritual practices we are bound to experience God, to feel God within us. But not everyone feels God, no matter how hard they try or how much they want to. Many know the ache of absence. The truth is that God is hidden, often silent, dark, and distant—so much so that it can be annoying to be around people for whom God is cheerful, close, and chatty.

Jesus knew the 23rd Psalm "Surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life" as much as he knew Psalm 22: "I cry to you, but you do not answer."

James Martin, a Jesuit priest, reported in The New York Times that Mother Teresa eventually concluded that her doubts actually aided her ministry. They helped her identify with the abandonment of Jesus on the cross and the abandonment that the poor face every day. He also made the point that Mother Teresa’s doubt helps us identify with her. Her self-sacrificial ministry can seem so distant from our daily life, yet she harbored some of the same doubts that may touch our lives. Martin was also quoted in Time as saying, “Everything she’s experiencing is what average believers experience in their lives writ large.”

The Christian life isn't about feeling feelings or acquiring spiritual experiences. Baptism ushers us into a life of greater depth than that—a life of faith. And faith is almost always a journey through the desert and the dark. Knowing the absence of God doesn't make you a second-class Christian. It can be a gift. A hard one, but a gift all the same. Your heartache—faith's heartache—can lead you straight to the heartache of others, to neighbors whose abandonment is human, not divine.

Mother Teresa not only kept company with the dying but also the doubting.

Prayer
Hidden One, they say you are still speaking, and even if it isn't to me right now, give me faith to trust that you are as real as the poor, as close as the suffering, as audible as the cry of the abandoned; and let me find you there.

Your Work as Your Ministry; Remembering Karen Fischer

Your Work as Your Ministry    Remembering Karen Fischer

"Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamation of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart." Philippians 1:3-4

I've never met a dental hygienist I didn't like. The odd thing about being in the chair with someone inside your mouth is it's hard to talk.  I can get a garbled word or two out every now and then and a full sentence after rinsing. Years ago there was one who began a non-stop monologue that lasted for the entire cleaning. I appreciated how all her interesting stories took my mind off of the strange sounds and sensations inside my mouth. The one I have now is precise and highly competent. 
 
But there is one dental hygienist I always wanted but was too afraid to ask, because I didn't want a member of my congregation putting her fingers in my mouth. Karen Fischer, a member of Saint Paul who died recently worked for almost 50 years in the same Lexington practice. She was famous for her gentleness. The teenager in braces on her first day of work would be retired by her last day.  The work itself came pretty easy for her and I'm sure it got boring at times. What she loved the most were the people she cared for and the parade of co-workers over all the years. She became the one constant person in that practice and brought stability and dependability.  Karen was also a terrific mother, raising three children, demonstrating great sensitivity to each of them at all their various stages of development. She stopped work at 76 to care for her dying husband whom she adored.  She had a sense of calling in all her various jobs and found joy in all of them. Her manner and attitude made a difference in the lives of all those she touched.

Karen's life offers a beautiful reminder that every type of work can be a ministry. Anyone who deals with people can be a loving pastoral presence, even someone wearing a mask and sticking sharp things in your mouth.  Think of all the people you encounter on a given day and the work they do to make your life good.  

Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer. Labor Day is a holiday from work that is meant to celebrate work, honoring contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our communities and country. Work can be good for the soul and I hope you see the work you do (paid and unpaid) as a form of ministry. May the work each of us do bless the lives of others. 

Faithfully, Ross

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