Community as a Core Value for Peace Community Church

January 21st, 2015

Here are this week’s Reflection Questions for Sunday. You all shared such varied insights last Sunday. It was so rich and textured and insightful! If you have the opportunity…think on these things!–Mary

On “Community” as part of the name, Peace Community Church:

What does it mean to you to have the word ‘community’ in the name of the church? Is this important to you? Why or why not?

Do you see this congregation as having a commitment to community? What does that mean to you?

Some people are drawn to PCC because of our community. But others may feel that a commitment to community brings with it commitments to engagement that they may not want to make, and this may keep them away. Are we hurting or helping ourselves and the long-term future of the congregation in our focus on community?

What do we have to guard against in our understanding of community? Do we expect too much or too little of community?

Should our understanding of community be widened or deepened? If so, how?

How does ‘community’ fit with ‘peace’ and with ‘church’?

From Jane Story…
Community is intensely important!! We have such busy lives and can keep our noses in our separate phones so easily, that it is easy to forget how much we need each other to reflect Jesus’ love and support to each other. Here is why community is so important to me: When I came for Sarah’s funeral, my spouse kept telling me how PCC would have changed and that it would be different. It wasn’t. We were able to be together in the Community Room at PCC and support each other in our grief. We heard each other. We laughed. We knit (literally, I mean!!). We hung out. And we all belonged–to God, to PCC (the church entity that has shaped so many of us), and to each other. We belonged whether or not we knew each other, because we walk in the door, we all identify as a community committed to Christ.

Peace as a Core Value for Peace Community Church

January 13th, 2015

As we move toward the future at Peace Community Church, one of the things we are doing is exploring and defining the core values of the congregation. It was suggested to us by our Area Minister, Rev. Alan Newton, that since we changed the name of the congregation 15 years ago, examining those three words in our name might be a good place to start when it comes to our core values. So for three Sundays in January 2015 we are doing just that. Here are the questions we asked for ‘Peace’ week.

What does it mean to you to have the word ‘peace’ in the name of the church? Is that important to you?

Do you see this congregation as having a commitment to peace?

Should it have a commitment to peace?

Does a commitment to peace focus our mission or distract us from other things we should be doing?

Some people are drawn to our congregation because of our commitment to peacemaking. But that turns some people away. Are we hurting ourselves and the long term future of the congregation by focusing too much on peace? Does it make us too political?

Do we talk too much about peace, involve ourselves in too many issues related to peace?

Should our understanding of peace be widened? If so how?

Does peace fit with community and church?

We had a great discussion during and after worship. We also had input from some folk from the PCC Scattered people which you can find below. Two of the book titles that came up in our discussion were “I’d Rather Teach Peace” by Coleman McCarthy, and “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howder Yoder.

From Anita Peebles…

Peace and church are both political, and I think it’s really good to have a church that is open about what it’s about. Instead of discussing peace and being open and affirming inside the walls in hushed voices, PCC lets everyone know…that’s what we’re supposed to do, I think. There are not so many churches out there that have peacemaking as one of their values and top priorities, so I think it’s important to let people know that’s what we do so we can draw in people who are looking for a congregation like that and feel safe bringing up political things in church.
I think PCC has a wide definition of peace already. From interpersonal to mental health issues to racial issues to the environment to Israel/Palestine…we talk about all these things and think critically about them. People who preach aren’t telling you what to think about these issues, either, but suggesting some new reflection points that have shaped the way they themselves have thought about these issues.
I think peacemaking is something Christians or “Jesus followers” and the church are called to do, so I don’t think it distracts from other things. Yes, everyone’s calendar is really hectic with vigils and marches and meetings and subgroups and committees, but that’s because we are all engaged in what peacemaking means to us…and that is so special. That Linda and Roger are making a home for Jonathan sometimes and that’s their way of peacemaking. That you and Mary are working with ECO and attend college convocations and work with ORSL, and that’s a way you are engaged in peacemaking. That Al writes letters to the editor and hosts events at Kendal and stands on the corner each Saturday, that’s his way of peacemaking. That Peggy plays music for shut ins and people who are ill, and that’s her way of peacemaking. That Franklin is always so genuinely open and friendly at his job at the IGA, and that’s his way of peacemaking. Everyone has their thing they do, and I hope they all see it as equally important in the work of making the world a better and safer and more beautiful and community oriented place. We can’t all be serving directly in war zones and places of unrest in the world, but those of us that can, do. We can’t all be teaching preschool environmental education, but those of us that can, do. We can’t all be living in a co-op or raising sheep or organizing for UniteHere, but those of us that can, do.

Love all of you at PCC.

From Kate Mooneyhah…

Peace seems on my mind a lot these days, with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the increasing militarization of local policing. Yellow Springs is an ideal location to meditate on peace – there is a weekly “peace protest” every Saturday downtown – a number of dedicated seniors holding up signs promoting peace! Plus the community is active in peaceful protests over the John Crawford shooting. I love the mix of religion and peace. I can’t say how it works for you, since I am not there. I wish every church had a passion for peace, in the world and in every day live. Every week at the Cathollic Church I go to (for my Catholic kids) we offer each other the sign of peace. I look forward to reading what other think.

From Jessie Downs…

What does it mean to you to have the word ‘peace’ in the name of the church? Is that important to you?
The fact that “peace” is in PCC’s name means a lot of things to me, but the first thing that comes to mind is that it sets the church apart from other churches. A lot of people have a negative view of “the church” (and often especially of “Baptist” or any signature “American” churches), but by saying that PCC is a “Peace Church,” I think it tells people that it is a place that is not about fire and brimstone, not about violent exclusion, not about a war-mongering Jesus. It speaks to me of the Quakers and similar groups who have a legacy of working for peace in this country, but it also almost suggests a new kind of church all together. It’s important to me because it labels the church as “counter-cultural.”
I also think that it sets up a high standard for what the atmosphere of the church is to be like – truly PEACE-ful. It speaks of a gentle people with a gentle practice.

Do you see this congregation as having a commitment to peace?
I think back to how members of the church go out to the street corner on a regular basis holding signs saying something along the lines of “Honk for Peace.” That takes a lot of commitment in my mind. Things like that, as well as PCC’s consistent alliance with student initiatives for peace, whether peace vigils or peaceful protest, etc, makes PCC a committed part of the Oberlin atmosphere.
I also think that the social justice issues that PCC is passionate about often have to do with peace. What is difficult here is obviously that social justice has to do with more than peace. I remember here a quote from Al Carroll (I think, or maybe Steve?) about putting the FIST back in PaciFIST. I think that notion is important, but the FIST doesn’t negate the “PaciFIST,” you know? It just means that PCC looks at Peace in a complex manner.

Should it have a commitment to peace?
“Should” questions are difficult. I had to ask Doug for input on this one. What he said is that what the church “should” do is whatever the members of the congregation are passionate about. So I guess that at the moment the answer here would be “yes.”

Does a commitment to peace focus our mission or distract us from other things we should be doing?
See above and below.

Some people are drawn to our congregation because of our commitment to peacemaking. But that turns some people away. Are we hurting ourselves and the long term future of the congregation by focusing too much on peace? Does it make us too political?
I honestly think that PCC’s involvement with politics is one of the main reasons why it is so attractive to “Obie”-types. Yet, at the same time, the church is very much a spiritual place. It never does politics without the Bible, without contemplation, ceremony, fellowship. I do think that this is partly because of the Mary and Steve tag-team, and so if we are thinking of a time when PCC gets “passed on” to new leadership, there might be concern for communicating this need to balance out the political with other things. This said, I don’t think that the “peace” part is strictly political, as it also speaks to spiritual peace.

Do we talk too much about peace, involve ourselves in too many issues related to peace?
I personally don’t think so.

Should our understanding of peace be widened? If so how?
I think it’s good to talk about “peace” and think deeply about it, as we are doing in this exercise. However, it’s also good to have commitment to peace. The fact that the church is so committed to its ideals without being close-minded is REALLY important to me.

Does peace fit with community and church?
It’s interesting to think about how the three words of the title are supposed to be read. Is it the Church of the “Peace Community?” Is it kind of like an advertisement/ list – “Peace. Community. Church.” Is it a “Community Church” that focuses on “Peace?” Is it a “Peace Church” that focuses on “Community?” I would say “yes” to any of these readings, but these are things to think about. I think that my usual reading is “Peace – Community Church.” So it’s a spiritual place for the community but then peace is the signifier that tells you that this is not just a fluffy comfortable place. It’s about something much deeper.

This is from Bob Cothran…

Hi folks,

Sorry to be so invisible and apparently disconnected currently. Two or three more weeks to go.

But I have been following email updates and I wanted to chip in my perception of the word “Peace” in the church’s name, while it was still a current issue.

The name of the church was one of the things that first prompted Rosalyn and me to come and visit when we first came to Oberlin five years ago. The sense in which I took the word “Peace” then is still what I understand it to mean in this connection.

The famous quote, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way” (which I’ve generally seen credited to A..J..Muste although it’s often attributed to Ghandi) captures the root sense of the word in a wonderfully elegant and profound way I think, even though at first glance it sounds a little pat. People often speak of “the way to peace” when they’re talking about cessation of hostilities, about how to quit fighting. To say that there is no way to peace makes clear that you’re not speaking of ending a war — there are ways to do that — but rather of universal harmony, of shalom, of the interconnectedness of everything in perfect balance, which, of course, is The Way.

That’s what I understood the word to refer to in the name of PCC (and still do of course): a central element involved in the convening of a group of people joined together to search for and follow The Way.


The Pink Candle

December 18th, 2014

John 1 and many more
December 14, 2014
Steve Hammond

Do you know why there is a pink candle in the Advent Wreath? It’s not because we ran out of purple ones. But the pink candle actually does have something to do with the purple ones. I’m not really much of an expert in the liturgical stuff, but I do know there is another time of the church year when purple is big. Do you know when that is? During Lent.

In the early church, and I don’t mean the early church when the Apostles were around, but in the days of the church when folk started doing things like Advent and Lent, those two seasons of the church year were pretty much the same. How many of you think of Advent as one of your favorite times of the year? Would you still think of it in the same way if we did Advent now like they did it way back when it and Lent were just about the same thing. No parties. No feasts. Fasting from just about everything including things like all the food you really liked and sex. Advent like Lent was originally conceived of as a time of repentance, brutal examination of self and others, and self-denial. No Christmas decorations or celebration of the birth of Jesus (that all had to wait until December 25).

We don’t see many hints of that during Advent, and even Lent is nothing like it used to be. But there are still vestiges of Lent around in giving up something during Lent, as compared to most everything in the old days. And there even is, at least, one church in town that won’t do weddings during Lent because you shouldn’t be doing that kind of celebrating during Lent. And the same would have been true during Advent. No weddings then, either.

It was all pretty harsh. That’s why both Advent and Lent had some breaks built into them. During Lent you don’t have to fast and abstain on Sundays. And since I am so uninformed about all of these things, added with I don’t really care, I can argue that for those who are concerned about these things that you can do weddings during Lent on Sundays, and feel okay about it.

Did you know that also during those way back days of Advent and Lent that weddings were usually performed on Sundays, anyway? I actually have a worship manual that has the wedding taking place in the offering section of the morning worship service. The couple would come forward, say their vows, be pronounced husband and wife, and go back to their pew until the worship service was over. Maybe have a little reception afterwards.
We’re talking about the time when Mary and I are eventually going to retire. Before that happens I would love to do a wedding service like that. Any volunteers? And what if you came to church and had no idea that a marriage was going to take place that day? All of the sudden James and Rebecca are saying their vows, or Amy and Jane are being declared wife and wife and they go back to their pews.

It would be so cool to do that, but we need to get back to the pink candle. The pink candle represents what Sundays used to be during Lent, a rest from the harshness. So we have the candle of hope, the candle of peace, and for the third Sunday of Advent the candle of joy. Now back in those old days they didn’t give each candle it’s own theme. That just came to be somewhere along the way. But they did have this thing where on the Third Sunday of Advent you were allowed to do joyful things. You got one day to have the parties, play the games, have the feast, watch the equivalent of the football game, visit with friends, have some alone time with your partner. You got that one day and then it was back to the preparation of your unworthy self for the birth of Jesus. That pink candle in the middle of the wreath is a vague hint of how Advent used to be.

There is something else that pink candle does for me, and maybe for some of you, too. It makes me ask how can it be? How can we think about joy when there is so much sadness? There are too many hard things going on in too many places and in too many lives. There are wars everywhere. We are even at war with the water, the earth, the sky, and all of creation. There’s Furgeson, Staten Island, Cleveland. The weak are being crushed by the rich. They’re telling us that the rich are too poor and the poor too rich. The powerful turn against the powerless. There are divisions among us everywhere. There are people we love who are going through horrendous ordeals. We see these pictures and read these stories online that just make us weep. This can be said every week during Advent. Where’s the hope, the peace, the love? What can we do?

I want us to look at one of the creation stories. Do you know how many creation stories there are in the Bible? There are actually a lot of them. The one I want us to look at this morning is from John 1. It’s such an interesting story for so many reasons. It starts out talking about the Word who, it turns out, is Jesus. “All things came into being through him…what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” Then all of the sudden we are hearing not about the Word, but about John the Baptist. But what we learn about John is that he was not the big deal. He came to bear witness to the big deal, to Jesus. Now John was seen as being in the line of the prophets, and the prophets were always the big deal. But not John. He simply came to bear witness.

Where’s the hope, the peace, the joy, the love? What do we do? I wish you all could have heard Bishop Daughtry last week. Remember I left right after church to go hear this 84 year old Black preacher who was there in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, who stood at Nelson Mandela’s graveside, who held the Mothers of the children shot by the police. As he talked about all the heartache that goes on in so many places, all that changes that need to take place in our world, he said, like John the Baptist we are called to bear witness to Jesus. And he said what he didn’t mean by that was we were supposed to go around talking about Jesus, but to bear witness by being present like Jesus was present.

The Word became flesh and lived in our midst, God with us. Incarnation is about God being present. The witness we bear is to the one who is here with us, And we are called by Jesus to be with the God who is with us.

I came across a question this week that I’m going to pass on to you. It was this. What makes Jesus a Christian? With the people sitting around you take a couple or three minutes and see what answers you come up with.

For me, what makes Jesus a Christian is his trust in God. Jesus trusted that the way God calls us to live is the right way to live. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Invite the outsider in. Tear down the walls that divide us from each other, and build new and inclusive communities. Give up on violence. Call the powerful to account. Lift up the lowly. Surrender some of your power and privilege, unless you don’t have much of either. Practice forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. Don’t live as if your life is only a matter of what you own, how much money you make, or your status. Stand tall because God loves you. Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable. Live at peace with each other and the Community of Creation. Jesus really trusted that God has a better way for us. And he trusted that God is a God of life and that life, not death, is the final word.

The creation story in John says that John was not the Light but that he came to bear witness to the light, the true light that was coming into the world. But, Jesus said this most amazing thing. John may have not been the Light, but Jesus once said this to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” That’s how we bear witness, bringing the light into the dark places of the world. It turns out that Jesus believed that the God he trusted trusts us. We read that Christ is in us, but that we are also in Christ. And the Apostle Paul really gets this when he writes about the church being the Body of Christ. We bear witness to Jesus by being who he is. The same things that make Jesus a Christian are what make us Christians.

Where’s the joy? It’s not like the folk who thought about joy, even if for only one day during Advent weren’t asking that same question. These are not the first tough times the world has experienced. We aren’t the only ones who have ever had to confront the sadness. But that pink candle, all the candles of Advent point us to something more than what we see. There are always new possibilities, new creations ahead of us. There are lots of creation stories in the Bible. At the end of the book of the Revelation we read about a new heaven and a new earth. From Isaiah 65. For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity; [e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

In Isaiah and Micah we read about the day when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. There’s that creation story that begins in Job 40. And then there is this creation story in 2 Corinthians 5. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything is new.”

There are a million million creation stories. That’s where the joy comes and not for just one day. And it’s the same with hope, peace, and love. I think we do Advent better than they used to. It’s not just about us getting ready for Jesus, but us getting everything ready for Jesus. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for God. Jesus is coming, but he’s expecting us to show up too. That’s what makes us Christians. And there’s a pink candle in it for us.

Shalom-Traveling: Off to the Hard Places

December 18th, 2014

Jeremiah 6:13-15, Mark 1:1-8
December 7, 2014
Mary Hammond

Today we lit the candle of peace as we began our Advent service. What fools for Christ we are, lighting the candle of peace when wars rage around the planet, refugee populations swell, and winter begins to stalk the dispossessed. Here at home, impunity for police officers involved in excessive force takes center stage in protests nationwide, exposing fissures within race relations that have been present since our nation was founded.

Is our proclamation of peace crazy optimism, blind faith, or false naivete? Or might we be embarking on a daring journey into new territory? Could we be ‘shalom-traveling,’ facing toward the hard places?

In the year 2000, the congregation changed the name of the church from “The First Baptist Church of Oberlin” to “Peace Community Church.” This transition came as the result of a six-month discernment process followed by a consensus decision. How many of you here today were part of that process?

At the time, the church wanted a name to “live up to” and “into,” a name that called us forward to deeper commitments and greater faithfulness. And here we are, nearly 15 years since we began that process. As we soon enter 2015, the need to be peacemakers and reconcilers, to seek the common good, could not be more urgent.

Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, recently spent a weekend with the congregation. He challenged us to revisit our name and who we are as a congregation. Steve and I have been pastors here a long time, and it is important for the church’s identity to stand on its own and not simply be tied to our ministry. What does it mean to embody Peace as a primary calling, to live in community within a fractured and frenetic world, and to proclaim to the world that “we are church” together?

As we ponder all of this, I want to share part of an e-mail from Jessie Downs, an Oberlin College alum who began attending PCC her junior year and graduated in 2013. Jessie reflects:

“When I think about being at Peace Church, I feel a joy that is of the purest kind I know. There isn’t even necessarily longing in it; though I miss you all–miss the space, the community, the wisdom, and the list goes on–there also seems to be a Peace Church that, while I was with you all on a regular basis, got erected in the inner space of my soul. I feel so blessed–blessed a hundred times over–that it is there. Aside from anything else, when doubt comes (which of course, it must always do), there is a place I can return to inside of myself where I do know God.

“I feel like I really became friends with Jesus while I was at PCC. Of course, that didn’t exactly happen at church itself, per se, but in the times between PCC events where I finally had the tools to go knocking on God’s door and ask if we could talk for a while. Things happened. It became not too different than going a couple houses down to see the Hammonds!

“Sometimes I forget to nurture that friendship, to show up, but it’s always a temporary forgetting. There’s too ‘firm a foundation’ to ever forget entirely. Without PCC, I wouldn’t be there.”

This church may be a small congregation, but we have much to offer one another as we join hands to create an oasis of peace in a world of chaos. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. Community-building can be hard work at times. It can be both joyous and painful. Through it all, in the midst of our human frailties, we seek to weave a fabric of love, compassion, and welcome.

Jeremiah, known as “the weeping prophet,” lived in times much like ours. It wasn’t easy for him to be a prophet. He struggled. He wept. He complained. He even despaired at times. Hear the words of Jeremiah 6:13-15: “From the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed; they did not know how to blush.”

Jeremiah decries a false ‘peace’ that is masked in privilege, self-gratification, and denial. It is callous to the needs of the most vulnerable. It papers over the gross inequities and brutalities of a tragic period in Israel’s history. This ‘all is well’ theology of and for the elite of Jeremiah’s day contradicts his understanding of peace, described in the Hebrew scriptures as shalom. This peace, God’s peace, envisions the Community of Creation restored, redeemed, renewed, and whole.

Fast forward many centuries to John the Baptizer. His diet of bugs and honey and his simple attire may sound like he comes straight out of Oberlin in the 1960’s. But Oberlin fifty years ago is no Judea of the first century.

John preaches primarily to a people of his own faith waiting for a Messiah, expecting a deliverer for centuries upon centuries. His message attracts many who have grown weary of the mighty power and expansive influence of the Roman Empire. John comes, preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry, calling people to turn their lives around and be reconciled to God.

What does it mean, in our own social location, to watch and wait together for the coming of Christ? What is the “good news” that we need to speak and live, amid all the “bad news” of this world? Where are we being sent as “shalom-travelers”?

As we come today to the Table of Christ, may these questions and meditations remain in our hearts. Amen.

The Old Future’s Gone

December 16th, 2014

Isaiah 64, Mark 13
November 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

Have you noticed it’s brighter in here this morning than it has been of late. It turns out there has been an Advent parable unfolding right before my eyes.

Some of us on the Building Ministry Team had a meeting with the energy consultant that the city provides for free. Ron Gibson had already had him over to the church before so he was familiar with us. We told him we hoped he had ideas about how we could not bother to rewire the way high lights, and replace the lower ones with something that would make up for the loss of wattage from the other lights. His name is Tom and he has lots of ideas, most of which were really relative inexpensive.

First of all, he assured us that there are lots of helpful alternatives to the current lower lights that will provide good lighting for us. And he said we could supplement those lights by placing various spotlights that would bounce off our white ceiling and provide not only additional lighting but a nice ambience. He also pointed out that those two lights that hang below the balcony could be easily and quickly replaced with tract lighting that would be very helpful. We talked about how we have those flood lights that illuminate the rose window. The wiring is already there to simply put flood lights on the other side of the beam that would help light the sanctuary. He is going to send us some free compact florescent flood lights we can experiment with. He talked about the subsidized LED lights that will be available to everyone in Oberlin sometime in January.

And then he said that one of the things we can do in this interim period as we figure out what fixtures will best work to replace those lower lights, is to put brighter bulbs in them. None of us had actually thought about that. Initially we were going to use some clear bulbs that are the same wattage we are currently using. That would have helped some. But then Ron Gibson said if we are going to get the ladder out and change all the bulbs, why don’t we just go ahead and increase the wattage. So we did. And now it’s so much brighter in here, even though we aren’t using that whole row of lights way up there.

So here’s the parable or the moral of the story. Sometimes we sit in a great darkness and don’t realize that we have alternatives that are maybe easier than we realized. And Tom, the consultant, also told us that there are lots of things we can try. If these kind of bulbs don’t work, try something else. If there’s not enough light, there are simpler ways than we thought to add more lighting. When you’re sitting in the dark, there may be alternatives, and there may be people who can help us find out what they are. That sounds like hope to me.

Now that we are sitting in a great light, l’m going to plunge us back into the darkness for a bit. When I was reading and preparing for this week, I came across a commentator who has a blog called by a person named Lawrence Moore. I don’t know who Lawrence Moore but from reading this article, anyway, I would call him a truth-teller. A prophet is a person who points out things we aren’t noticing. A truth-teller points out things we are noticing, but don’t want to talk about. Another difference between a prophet and a truth-teller is that more often than not we are grateful for what the truth-teller is saying. The response to a truth-teller is often something like “Yes, that’s true. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” Or, “I’m so glad somebody is finally talking about this.” Now the problem with truth-telling, of course, is that the truth-tellers aren’t always telling the truth. They just simply misunderstand what it going on, blow things out of proportion, or make the false assumption that what they are experiencing is what everyone is experiencing. It turns out the sky is not falling after all, but the damage is already done.

I’m pretty sure, though, that Bruce Moore is doing some important truth-telling in his writing about the realities facing the church in the Western world these days, which is what this blog post is about. And, of course, we are doing some hard thinking and exploring about our own congregation and the larger church as we move into the future. So here is some of what Bruce Moore rights. It’s hard. But I think it’s true.

One way of preparing properly for Advent is to take seriously just what a mess the Church is in. The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.
We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. We recognise the global village in every other aspect of post modern life: the same is true of Church. However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!
Let me say something clearly: I have no doubt that, in twenty years time, church as we know it will be alive and well. We will still be singing the same sorts of hymns, having services and activities that we have now, and living as we always have. The crucial difference, though, is that we will be a tiny, shrinking minority – a sort of “Christian train spotters” society. In other words, we will be one of those tiny, harmless groups of consenting adults (one difference between then and now is that we’ll have virtually no children at all) whom society indulges, leaving us to get on and do our thing because we don’t disturb or hurt anyone. And that is not Church. The Church is here to make a difference to the world. We might talk loudly and often about being salt and light and yeast in the world, yet if that is not a reality, we are deceiving ourselves and God. We are playing at being faithful (.

These are dark days for the church. Do you know why there are so many inexpensive alternatives to replace what I consider to be those tacky lights hanging above the pews? Churches are closing everywhere. There are church lighting fixtures that are no longer in use all over E-Bay awaiting the not very highest bid.

There is, though, more truth. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light…” Somebody likened the present status of the church to Holy Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Death has come. But it’s still Saturday. We don’t know yet what resurrection is going to look like. But it’s ours to find. The old future is gone for the church. We get to help make a new one.

There are all these transitions we have been talking about around here, so I’m thinking about the church a lot these days. But, obviously, there are other dark and semi-dark places where we find ourselves. Some of us are maybe bordering on or crossed over to despair. But this is Advent. “The light came into the world and the darkness did not overcome it.” As the signer Bruce Cockburn puts it, “there’s hope in a baby’s cry.”

The truth that we tell is that Jesus doesn’t make it all better. You can’t pray everything away. But there are ways out of the darkness that maybe we haven’t thought of yet. And often the way out of the darkness or at least toward the light is with each other. That’s the hope Jesus brings to this world.

I’m going to turn off half of the lights for a few moments. We didn’t double the wattage, so it’s not exactly going to be same in here with half the light turned off. But when I turn the others back on we will see that there’s more light than we thought. And Jesus came to tell us that.

On The Move

November 14th, 2014

Matthew 5:14-16 and Ephesians 3:7-12
November 16, 2014
Steve Hammond

We had a good weekend a couple of weeks back with Alan Newton and have lots to think about in the coming weeks, months, and years. As I have been thinking about things, though, it seems important that during these transitions that are ahead of us, we need to be thinking about the many transitions that are taking place in the life of our congregation, the larger church, the community and society at large. It seems that all of these transitions can inform each other.

So I wanted to put some thoughts and reflections into writing for folk to think about. I’m not making any proposals or recommendations, just offering some thoughts about things I’ve noticed, trends that Mary and I and others are talking about, etc. There is no particular order of priority or even rhyme or reason to the order of these thoughts and observations. Nor, I hope, is this an exhaustive list or even the list of things we will want to explore together in the coming months and years.

I want to start with the Tuesday night study group. There is a lot of excitement, energy, learning, and community happening there. Some of the folk in that group are more regular on Tuesday nights than Sunday mornings, and a few aren’t Sunday morning attenders at all. I’ve been a bit surprised about how this group has continued to thrive rather than fizzling out like most groups do. In the past I have done study groups with three people. The Tuesday night group is consistently having 12-18 people over what is now the years. And there are other gatherings for the Tuesday night group that aren’t on Tuesdays nor at the church. That group has also started another gathering where folk will be meeting with and encouraging each other throughout the year to continue working with the book we just finished.. Obviously, not everybody can or wants to get involved in the Tuesday night study group. But there is an important need that is being met for some there. There is something important going on on Tuesday nights that I think we need to pay attention to

Another trend that I have been noticing for the past couple of years, at least, is that there are many weeks where we end up with more people in the Community Room for a variety of gatherings than are in the sanctuary for worship that week. Some weeks it’s way more people. Some of those folk are, of course, repeat offenders being at church several times during the week as well as on Sunday morning. But a lot of them are people who are not likely to end up in worship on Sunday mornings, but this congregation is adding something to their lives.

I kind of half joke about taking the pews out of the sanctuary, but I can’t imagine that worship in the coming years is going to continue to be a person or two up front and everybody else looking at the back of other people’s heads. I think what people at large seem to be saying is that they want more community. We do our best to foster that during worship, but it seems to me that people need to be able to see each other. If I could ever get the consensus and the money to get the pews out of the sanctuary I would love and, I think, people would actually appreciate how much more of a community feeling we could create with chairs we could arrange for different configurations. I don’t think that the things we currently do would necessarily change that much; hymns, readings, sharing, special music, choir, sermons, dance, organ and piano preludes, etc., but things would feel different. And who knows what new possibilities new settings might engender for worship. Imagine what Tuesday night or any other study group would feel like if we did it in the sanctuary. I do think the setting makes a difference about what happens. Obviously, Tuesday night and Sunday morning are different things, but maybe not as different as we think.

I’m also thinking about what Alan said about making worship more family friendly. I think that is more than adding a children’s story time to the service. It might mean something like bringing tables into the sanctuary so children could draw or do a craft and their parents and other adults have a place to put their coffee during worship. Pews do get in the way of that kind of thing. (Remember I am not making any recommendations, just sharing thoughts. Don’t panic).

Mary and I continue to be amazed at the number of PCC Scattered folk who stay in touch with us and many of you. For some of them, this is the only church they have. We need to keep them in mind during the coming days of transition for the congregation whenever Mary and I are no longer the pastors. But even if that transition weren’t happening, I think what PCC Scattered represents is really something that points to the future of the larger church. We are simply ahead of the curve. Mary and I continue to be surprised by the comments we get from PCC Scattered folk about our sermons that are online. They are actually being read and even recommended to others. We have 84 members of the church’s Facebook page. We don’t have 84 people in church on Sunday mornings, and of the folk we do have, many of them aren’t on the Facebook page. People are finding ways to stay connected and forming a different kind of community without being physically present with each other. It shouldn’t surprise they expect to be connected to the church without being present. Nor should it surprise us when they find that satisfying and helpful. There is a lot more we can be doing to make the connections between PCC Scattered and Gathered more concrete for more of us. I’m just not exactly sure what that is, but it has something to do with the internet, social media, etc.

Another trend Mary and I are noticing is that among the things that have fundamentally changed since the Great Recession of ’08 is the financial situation that the college graduates from the church are encountering. It used to be that students graduated, got jobs, and some of them started sending money to the church. Now they are sending requests to the church to help fund them as they try to start or work for some kind of non-profit. And they are doing some pretty important and amazing things. Some of those who aren’t looking for such funding still don’t have money they can send to the church because they are unemployed or severely underemployed. Plus they all have an amazingly heavy debt load from their time at Oberlin. And it’s not only recent graduates. There are others among PCC Scattered who are no longer able to send as much money to the church as they did in the past because the new economy has taken a big toll on them, as well. And then, of course, among PCC Gathered there has been plenty of fallout since 2008.

This is a mobile society. And I don’t simply mean that people in our society are moving to other places. We have lost some dear people because they have moved, but also gained so many wonderful folk because they have moved to Oberlin or the surrounding area. Think Kendal, for example. Or Oberlin College. Or most of those places that most all of us didn’t use to live in. But even more significantly, I think, is that we are mobile in that we are off seeing kids and grandkids, going to conferences, reunions, seminars, and workshops, taking care of parents and other relatives, seeing a wonder or two of the world, visiting friends, getting away, marking things off the bucket list, or just getting out of town. It wasn’t that long ago that many folk, at best, could get out of town for a week or two in any given year. They were in church on Sunday morning because they were in town. But lots of us are gone on any given Sunday. Look how many Sundays Mary and I were out of town this year. That’s not likely to happen again in that extreme, but it’s just an example of the protection that Sunday morning has lost because we can travel more easily. And if we aren’t traveling somewhere else, we might have friends or relatives visiting us on Sunday morning. Or the reunion might be coming to us. Those non-Sunday morning times are going to become the places where more folk connect with the church.

People relate differently to institutions than they used to. Their commitments are more fluid, and the competition for their time and resources more intense. More and more people are looking to the church and other institutions with the desire to know what those institutions can do for them rather than what they can do for the institution. And there is a growing suspicion about the place of institutions and organizations in their lives. This talk of being spiritual but not religious is another way for some of saying that they want to find their way spiritually in the world without having to conform to the expectations of what we call organized religion.

Since last year, we’ve begun to use the phrase “The Community of Creation” at church. Though we have been talking about environmental concerns and issues for a long time, It seems to me that in the coming years, it is going to become more and more important for us, and all of the church, to figure out what it means to live in the Community of Creation. That’s one of the reasons we will be adding the environmental organization Plant with Purpose to the groups we are supporting with our Missions giving. And, of course, Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy meets in our building. One of the visitors in church last week talked for a while to both Mary and me about how important it was to him that we were talking about the Community of Creation in church.

Obviously Campus Ministry is an important mission of this congregation. But there are transitions happening in progressive Protestant ministry as well. ECO is currently having it’s own struggles for viability that the group is starting to address. Folk from other Christian groups on campus have been talking with Pastors in town about some of the struggles their groups are having. Those concerns and coming transitions aren’t a dis-ease that has originated n Oberlin but the symptoms of something much larger going on in church and society. [Have Mary read that section from No Longer Invisible]

The transitions the church is facing as we contemplate the time whenever it might be that Mary and I no longer pastor this church or the larger transitions all churches are facing in the coming years, like all transitions, are times of danger and opportunity. Now is the time for us to risk the danger because the opportunities are so great. One of the Pastors in the support group Mary and I are in commented recently that the changes we used to say were coming are here.

Alan suggested so many good things while he was here. Some of them are very practical nuts and bolts things, others will help fuel some important discussions and actions as we work through this time and process of discernment. One of those suggestions he made was that the congregation explore what our name means nearly 15 years after changing the congregation’s name. What does Peace mean to us? What does Community mean to us? What does Church mean to us?

Not to get too Zen here but one of the things I’ve been trying to practice more consistently is more fully entering into the moment. I don’t know if you find yourself doing what I do too often, like thinking about the next meeting while I am in the current meeting, or thinking about the next person I need to talk to while I have somebody else right in front of me. We do need to make sure we enter the moment more fully, but we also have to remember there is more than the current moment. It’s important to remember that as we face the church’s transitions and our own transitions. We need to enter into these moments of transition with great intentionality, but there is more going on than these particular moments of transition. We don’t want to lose the moment, but we don’t want to get lost in it, either.

So there are some of my thoughts and observations. I am excited to hear reactions to this and all the thoughts and observations that will come from so many of us in the months and years ahead as we make these transitions and help build together the future God has for us.

I do think it’s really interesting we are going to be doing a lot of transition work as the congregation approaches it’s150th anniversary in 2016. We have been left an incredible legacy going all the way back to 1866, and are the current manifestation of a church that has gone through lots of transitions over a century and a half. Throughout that time, through all the changes in church and society, through transitions large and small, the call has been the same. We get to discover with each other what it means to follow Jesus Christ in our own changing times. We get to continue to be the Body of Christ and Light for the world, even in some very dark places. We discern the times, undergo the transitions because we don’t want the light to be covered up. As we said at the beginning, Jesus was always on the move. His was always a call to the future and all the changes that implies, all the new ways of being and living and doing and understanding. He was in transit, moving forward. That’s a metaphor worth noting. This church, and all congregations big and small, people like us are the mystery hidden for the ages in God. Isn’t that an amazing thing to think about and keep in mind as we make these transitions? Grab tight, because here we go.

Come, Join the Dance

November 12th, 2014

Psalm 65
November 9, 2016
Mary Hammond

Steve and I were recently visiting our daughter Grace, her husband Dave, and our twin grandbabies in Wyoming. The last morning there, we took a chilly pre-dawn walk to watch the sunrise in the Grand Tetons. I knew it would be a stunning experience, but I never expected the dancing.

A few clouds illuminated the sky here and there amid the darkness. “Ah, this sunrise will be even more magnificent!” I said to myself, as the presence of clouds always previews greater color in a sunrise. I’d watched enough sunrises in the last several years to know that.

As morning slowly, imperceptibly dawned, colors danced across the sky. Pinks here, purples there. Still some grey in the clouds. Hints of white. Colors reflecting other colors from east to west.

Then the shadow show began. Snow-covered mountain peaks were illuminated in the changing light. The shadows shifted. Other mountain peaks joined the dance. More shifting. Steve’s was clicking his camera wildly.

“Look over there!” I’d say, and we looked behind us. Pinks.

“Look to the side!” I called. Shadows danced on the highest mountains to our left. To our right, we waited for the sun to rise.

We were undone.

Steve and I finally spotted the first burst of sunlight peaking over the mountains. The pinks and purples to the south gave way to hues of yellow and orange in the east.

But there was more.

As we turned around and walked back to the car, my gaze was redirected to the wild grasses on the sides of the road next to me. Pearls of frost reflected off the sunrise, dancing on top of them– glistening, shining.

“Take a picture for me, Steve!” I asked. “Take another!” I implored.

It looked like a field of diamonds.

Sadly, ‘dance’ too often in some religious traditions has been separated from our spiritual story and experience. We may attend dances or take dance lessons. We may be afraid to look clumsy if we dance. We may not feel like we have enough “rhythm” in our bodies to dance easily or well. Can we turn this all around, however, and see our whole journey with God as one big, huge dance?

Our daughter Rachel’s husband is Venezuelan. I so appreciate seeing how intrinsic dance is to culture in his background. Rachel sent us a video via Facebook of their little Viviana, not yet 3 months old, legs jerking, hands flailing. She titled it “Viv dancing.” Children learn to move with their bodies from the start. In Latin America and in so many cultures, dancing becomes one with children as they mature, not a separate activity.

Rachel’s Ecuadorian host brother attended her college graduation Open House. As we prepared for the event, he asked me, “What do people ‘do’ at Open Houses?” I told him that, basically, people talk and eat. “No dancing? Just talking and eating?” he asked incredulously.

The psalmist declares, “Dawn and dusk take turns calling, ‘Come and worship.’ Oh, visit the earth, ask her to join the dance!”

As the psalmist continues, it is clear to me that the earth doesn’t need an invitation. She is already deeply engaged in the dance of Creation, and it is the humans who need to join in!

Dancing with the Spirit is intrinsic to our very being. We offer rowdy, happy dances of praise and gratitude; slow dances of contemplation and surrender; spontaneous dances requiring juggling and improvisation. Repeatedly rehearsed dances are forged in the face of chronic conditions, big research projects, and challenging work loads.

Amid the Dark Nights of the Soul, we dance the wild and chaotic rhythms of lament. We join group dances of Christian community, couple dances of teamwork and love, solo dances of solitude and individuality.

Sometimes we cannot dance very easily with our bodies. Age and illness takes their toll. Then we may be called to “dance in place.” Our hearts continue to dance amid our bodily limitations.

I have been longing for an extended Silent Retreat. I finally found three good days this month to get away, but the Retreat Center was full. I expressed my yearning for a Silent Retreat to my Spiritual Director, and she suggested that I “retreat in place” with my old journals from previous Silent Retreats.

“Let your writings speak to you anew, for this time and place” she suggested. “Be at River’s Edge now through them,” she urged.

The 2009 week-long Silent Retreat has been my home for about a month now. It is full of metaphors of dancing—butterflies, leaves, birds, and music. At present, I am called to “dance in place.”

As the ancient Song of Creation arose, the Community of Creation began to dance. Come, people, join the dance! Amen.

Anita Peebles Sermon from the Festival of Young Preachers in Nashville, TN

October 27th, 2014

Luke !0:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

In late January 2012, I found myself in a little tiny car driving up Black Mountain. Black Mountain is in southeastern Kentucky on the border with Virginia, and is known for its black bears, cougars, and coal. It is also the highest peak in Kentucky. As I drove up that mountain, the January fog got thicker and thicker, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see anything but clouds at the peak. Up and up and up I drove, around breakneck bends with no guardrail on the side. Up and up and up I drove, until I rounded the last bend and pulled over into a gravel parking area.
What I saw when I stepped out of the car made me weep.
What I could see over the border into Virginia was Mountain Top Removal. Mountaintop removal is the process of using dynamite to blast off the top ridge of a mountain to expose coal seams; in many places it is used instead of deep underground mining. The phrase “laid waste” took on a new meaning. Where there were supposed to be endless parallel ridges of Appalachian glory, there lay only the long ropy scars from the naked coal seams. Where there had been vast forests, there lay pits excavated by dynamite blasts. Where there had been a skyline that humans had born witness to over thousands of years, there lay only the flat triumph of human power and greed over the breadth and beauty of God’s creation.
This sight moved me deeply. Black Mountain was also in line for Mountain Top Removal.
Right there on that mountain, I decided that I could not live in the way that I had been before—namely, in chosen ignorance about the destruction of extractive industries. Standing there in the cold on top of that mountain, I vowed that my children and grandchildren would see mountains. Right there on that mountain, the paradigm in which I saw my life shifted, and I was faced with a choice—to pass by or to act.

Do I have an obligation to help this mountain?

It was a cool and lonely evening as the Samaritan man walked down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road he walked was known for being dangerous, full of breakneck bends and merciless robbers. The sun had already set and the man was tired from his travels, a merchant heading home to Schechem, a city in Samaria. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, leading his donkey. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, until he turned his head and looked to the side of the road.
What he saw in the roadside ditch made him pause.
Just visible in the ditch beside the road was a human figure who had evidently been brutally beaten, lying naked, exposed to the elements. The person’s face was bruised and bloodied, barely recognizable. No clothing or identification or possessions accompanied the man, who had been robbed of all he must have carried with him, valuable or invaluable, on this dangerous road. Only long ropy scars marked this man’s back.
This sight moved the traveler deeply. He also knew the despair of being robbed of his dignity, of living in a world of oppression, and of being seen as unworthy of anyone’s assistance because of the walls people set up between each other.
Right there on that road, the traveler had to make a decision. What if this person was a Jew? What if they didn’t want to be helped, seeing only danger hovering above them in the form of an oppressive Samaritan? What if other Samaritans found out he had shown mercy to a member of a hated ethnic group? What kind of world did he want to leave for his grandchildren?
The traveler didn’t even know that he was not the first person to pass by the man in need, that others had seen and not taken action. But that night on that road, he didn’t ask the wounded man’s name or country or station before he tended the man’s injuries. Instead, he decided to offer an extravagant grace, a radical hospitality, in caring for someone in need by virtue of them being a fellow Creation of God.

Who is my neighbor?

In the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer at the beginning of this passage, Jesus does something really cool. The lawyer, like many of us today, is looking for instant gratification; he simply wants to know how to gain eternal life by doing something simple, by crossing something off his to-do list (AJL). He is wondering, “Whom must I treat as a friend? Whom do I have an obligation to help? How far do the limits of my responsibility extend? Where can I draw my borders?”

Jesus, however, turns these questions around, asking, “Who in the story acted as a friend?” He includes action in his rephrasing, changing the conversation to one about verbs—gaining eternal life is not about believing one thing, but it must be combined with actions. In this back-and-forth, “Jesus changes the definition of neighbor from one who is the object of kindness (in need and receiving the compassion and mercy) to one who bestows it.” There is mutuality in the word “neighbor”: it is a two-way street of loving “your neighbor as yourself.”

Many of us are good at this. We volunteer in soup kitchens, deliver water to people whose water is contaminated, donate clothes to the needy, visit folks in prison, and (sometimes) we even welcome the stranger. Jesus does not only expect us to bless others with our privilege as a community service project, but he paints a picture of a society in which there is mutual benefit from assisting and accepting assistance from each other. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interpretation of this parable: “[King] said something like: ‘I don’t know why [the priest and the Levite] walked by the man in the ditch, but here’s what my imagination tells me. Perhaps these men were afraid. The priest and the Levite say to themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? There are bandits on the road.” And the Samaritan says, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” So the Samaritan asked the right question.’ King goes on to say: If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers in Memphis, what will happen to them?’ And we know what happened to King.”

So: no more can we view ourselves simply as the givers and distributors of aid. No more can we simply view ourselves as waiting for someone to haul us out of the ditch and fix the world for us. And certainly, no more can we wear our tunnel vision through our lives, missing the stranded travelers and people in need along our path. Gaining eternal life is living into a beloved community over time—being a “neighbor” is an ongoing process of being fully engaged and committed to community. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a simple story about just one person showing compassion to one other person in need. It is about different ways of being in a community, and how we should treat each other as neighbors.

What if a mountain was our neighbor?

Knowing what we know about human-enabled climate change, we cannot continue to pass by on the other side of the road. No matter how much differing views say humans contribute to environmental issues, if we are part of the problem, then we can also (and should also) be part of the solution. We cannot continue to think that recycling our plastic-ware and planting a tree every Arbor Day are going to fix everything. We cannot watch the Appalachian economy suffer while coal companies shut down, without having another solution ready. We cannot watch people going hungry when there is enough healthy food in the world and not do anything. There must be a verb enacted so that we can truly be neighbors to our fellow created beings. How far does our responsibility extend? Whom and what must we love in order to be true neighbors?

Philosopher William James writes, “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Though humans find many reasons to separate ourselves from each other and from nature, we must realize that we are all part of the same Creation, the same dream of God. Environmental justice is not just about saving a tree for a tree’s sake, but it is about the health and wholeness of all the beings that share this planet. It stretches across race, class, gender, sexuality, geographical location and even time. Many indigenous cultures emphasize understanding all actions we do as affecting the world even to the 7th generation from now. All things—you, me, a tree, water, animals—we were all formed intimately by God’s own hands, raised out of the dust and given the breath of life. And God loves us extravagantly. It is our job to reflect that love back—around our neighborhoods, in our communities, and throughout the whole world.

Right here and right now, I challenge you to live into a beloved community of creation. Support school gardens. Help reduce your church’s waste. Listen to children’s stories. Get to know your neighbors. Share a meal with friends. Witness the season’s change. Reflect the extravagant grace and hospitality that God showed the world—even to the 7th generation.

The radical hospitality that the Good Samaritan showed the Jew lying in the ditch–that Jesus showed the Earth by coming to us incarnate in human flesh—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of a community that upholds justice and love of neighbor—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God, the community of all Creation.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “Once the scales have fallen from one’s eyes, once one has seen and believed that reality is put together in such a fashion that one is profoundly united to and interdependent with all other beings, everything is changed. One has a sense of belonging to the earth, having a place in it along with all other creatures, and loving it more than one ever thought possible.”

Imagine you are traveling up a mountain. The air is cool. You see your surroundings clearly—every rock, tree, animal, and person gets your attention. You see the homeless person and the river contaminated with coal dust. You see the endangered woodpecker and the children living in food deserts. You see the mountains lying naked, scarred from demolition–their dignity ripped away by extractive industries’ violation. What do you see? What do you do? What kind of world do you want to leave your grandchildren?

Candles and Prayers

October 27th, 2014

1 John 4, Romans 8
October 19, 2014
Steve Hammond

As I was waking up one morning last week, I was listening to an interview on BBC radio with Frederick Taylor who wrote a history of the Berlin Wall. It was actually the morning of October 9 because it turns out, October 9, 1999 was a crucial day in the history of East Berlin and the Berlin Wall. I put something on Facebook about it.

Earlier in the summer of 1989 a weekly Monday night gathering had begun at a Lutheran Church in East Berlin where people were beginning to organize for greater freedom in East Germany. The crowds got bigger and bigger each Monday, and the authorities were getting more and more irritated. Everybody sensed that October 9 was going to be some kind of watershed moment. The folk gathering at the church were prepared for a government crackdown, the government was expecting some kind of attempt at an overthrow of the government. Lots of people stayed in their homes that night because they were expecting trouble, so there weren’t nearly as many people at the church as there had been on the previous Monday nights.

The folk who were at the church decided to have a prayer service and then they lit candles and marched through the city. And nothing happened. When writing the book, the author asked one of the government officials why the Army backed off that night. She told the author that they were prepared for everything, except they hadn’t prepared for candles and prayers. The author went on to tell the interviewer that October 9, 1999 was the night the people of East Germany lost their fear. In the next weeks the crowds marching through the streets with their candles and prayers got bigger and bigger. Finally, they marched right past the stunned soldiers and started tearing down the Berlin Wall.

So that got me thinking pretty quickly about what things would be like if we lost our fear in this country. We have become such a fear based society. That is nothing new for us. In his famous first inaugural speech in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt told the people of the United States that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” There is a long history of politicians manipulating peoples’ fears in this country including things like the red scare after the Russian revolution and the McCarthy years which were a prelude to the Cold War when we were supposed to be afraid of everything. Here is the well known quote famous lines from a commentary by Edward R. Murrow. “The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthty’s methods to keep silent. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.”

Once politicians and the media could no longer use the Cold War to stir up our fears, they turned to terrorism. It’s amazing how quickly we surrendered our civil liberties in our country after 9/11. In the debate between liberty and security we have chosen our security. Fear has won again. And fear causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Just look at the perpetual war we now have going in the Arab world. Lots of people knew that there was no justification for starting the war in Iraq, that has led to such disastrous consequences. The emperor had no clothes but, like everybody in that story except that one kid, we were too afraid to say anything. And that’s just the way emperors like it.

Just the past few days I read some commentary in the New York Times that said the overarching theme for Republican Campaign for the 2014 elections is “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Be afraid of terrorism, be afraid of ebola, be afraid of same sex marriage, be afraid of tax increases, be afraid of regulations that would curb climate disaster, be afraid of Hillary Clinton, be so afraid that you have no choice but to vote for us. And the democrats response is basically be afraid of Republicans. But you can’t build a country on fear. And these same people who insist this is a Christian country seem to be the ones who appeal so quickly to fear.

A couple of weeks ago there was a seminar that Al Carroll helped plan and organize about conflict transformation with Iraq as a case study. Professor Mahalliti put forth an audacious proposal suggesting that our foreign policy should not be based on what’s best for the national interests, but on making friends. What if we gave up fear for friends in our international relations? Making friends instead of making enemies seems to be not only more productive, but much more in line with what those who claim as a Christian nation would want to endorse.

. Bruce Springsteen sings a song where there is a line about a man having tattoos on the top of his fingers, right below the knuckles. On one hand it says love and on the other fear. You see, hate is not the opposite of love, fear is. And truth be told, most of us I think, live in that land between love and fear. I think the writer of the First Letter of John is on to a universal truth. And it’s not just nations and politicians. It’s us. And it’s perfect love that casts out fear. That’s also a universal truth.

So I am not what one might call an anxious person. I am not what I heard referred to the other day as a catastrophic thinker. Maybe me talking about getting over our fear is a bit presumptuous. But, in my defense, this passage about perfect love casting out fear does speak to me. I may not be anxious, but there is plenty I worry about. And it may seem trivial, but it’s real to me. I think about things like what if nobody likes this sermon, or what if somebody gets upset with me because of something I said, or something I didn’t say? If someone visits church and doesn’t come back, I assume it has something, if not everything, to do with me. What happens if we don’t meet the budget next year, or this electrical work ends up costing way more than we imagined? What if I don’t offer someone what they really need at the time they need it most? What was that funny look on that person’s face after church today, or that pause on the phone? Why didn’t they respond to that email? Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, is coming in a couple of weeks. What if that is the day lots of us are gone or decide just not to come? What’s he going to think about me if that happens, think about my ministry? (Please be here. And if you wanted to invite a bunch of your friends to church, that would be a good time to bring them with you). So my fears may not be world class fears, but they do exist. I’m not assuming this passage about perfect love casting out fear is directed to others, and not me.

I’m also aware that I don’t struggle with fears on the same level as others do. It’s easy to say let love cast out your fear if you don’t have any trouble loving yourself. I don’t experience that personally, but for most of her life, I and so many others worked so hard at helping our daughter Sarah try to love herself just a little bit. But she could never do it. So I have seen how hard this can be. And I hope I am not throwing out some simplistic answers here.

Here is what I think I know. When we lose our fear we can trust love. But it’s hard to lose our fear alone. We need each other to lose our fear. We can stand tall with and because of each other. Fear is contagious, but so is fearlessness.

What if, together, we kept remembering day in and day out that God loves us. That’s the whole point of why Jesus came to us, to show us that love. And what if we remembered every day that there are people who love us. And what if we focused on those who love us and we love rather than those who don’t or might not love us? What if that love began to crowd out, at least, some of the fear?

I guarantee that everyone in this room is loved. By God and, if nobody else, loved by others in this room. But I also bet there are plenty of others who love each of us as well.

And think about all the people you love. There is plenty of love to draw on both what you give and receive when those voices of fear, within and without, are trying to cast out love. When fear is at the door, don’t cower but stand tall. God and the people who love you and that you love have your back.

If you can’t love yourself, trust the love of God and the love of others for you. It may not sound doable or really helpful, but what’s it going to hurt to try? And if just a tiny bit of the fear gets cast out for just a little bit of time, it seems to me to be better than nothing.

Rob Voyle, who was Bible study leader at Peace Camp in 2011, talked about perfect love casting out our fear. I remember him talking about how for so much of our lives we are waiting for disaster around the corner. You know that feeling of what can go wrong, will go wrong, and it’s just about to happen. The person you don’t want to see, the email you don’t want to receive, the bank statement you don’t want delivered, the doctor’s appointment you don’t want to go to, the test you don’t want to get back, the conversation you don’t want to have, the boss or board member you want to avoid. Those kind of things do seem like they are right around the corner and we can run into them at any time. But Rob said what if we start expecting Jesus around the corner, rather than the things we are afraid of. And even if those things really are right around the corner Jesus is, too.

One of the other things I remember so clearly Rob Voyle saying is to ask ourselves what we want, more life or less death. The love that Jesus showed us, the love that casts out fear is about more life. He doesn’t want us to settle for less death, even though, sometimes that is the best you can get. But don’t settle for less death if you don’t have to.

Some of you have heard me tell this story that I want to close with. Back in the days when we were still a part of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio I was the point guy for the Ohio Baptist Peace Fellowship. We would have a display table every year at the Annual Meeting and there was one very memorable encounter at that table. This man got very angry with me and said that we were not only wrong-headed in working for peace, but that if we had peace in this world then Jesus couldn’t come back. I don’t quite get it, but it is something lots of people believe. They have this whole end times thing going that says the world has to get worse and worse and when it gets bad enough Jesus will come and rescue his followers.

The man finally settled down and we actually got into a good conversation. Here is what he said that continues to move me. “Christians are not supposed to be afraid,” he said, “but everybody in my church is afraid. What you could really do for me is come to my church and speak to our fears. But I know my pastor would never let that happen.”

He knew the way to deal with our fears and more deeply experience God’s love is with each other. He also knew there is lots that keeps that from happening. If I speak to anybody’s fears, all I can do is talk about love.

You’ve got candles. We are going to light them and pray. What walls do you want to tear down?

Do you remember this from the Apostle Paul? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When Life is Not So Easy…Remembering Mental Health Awareness Week

October 27th, 2014

Psalm 69, selected verses; Job 2:11-13
October 12, 2014
Mary Hammond

Many years ago, I proposed a topic to the student discussion group, Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin. 99% of the time the students suggest topics and lead the discussions, not me or Steve. I don’t think I’ve actually led a discussion in the group since that time. However, for some reason, I felt it would be good to talk about Mental Illness and Spirituality.

The night of the discussion, one student opened up about her family. All her life, her mother had struggled with mental illness, and that had profoundly impacted her childhood. As she shared her story, she wasn’t the only teary-eyed person in the room. Others began to speak of personal struggles with depression or anxiety. Some mentioned friends they were concerned about. It was an intense and honest conversation.

That evening we also explored the question, “What contours does spirituality take when entangled with mental illness, either in one’s own life or in the family?” This is an issue that deserves a lot of attention, and is often overlooked.

I never forgot that evening. Mental illness mainly seems to come out of the shadows when a prominent figure like Robin Williams commits suicide, or some young man completes another horrific mass murder. Politicians and families call for reform in one area after another—mental health services, gun laws, and education. Other politicians and special interest groups push back. And then mental illness returns again to the shadows.

I’m always glad when Yvonne Garland, one of our dear parishioners who is currently shut-in, speaks up during Sharing Time about her own journey with mental illness. On occasion she will make remarks like these: “Someone in the congregation today is depressed and wonders whether life is worth living. I just want you to know, there is no shame in mental illness.”

The gift of Christian community is to provide a safe place for everyone to come out of the shadows, whatever those shadows may be. Our hearts’ yearning is to be able to speak our truth and be received with compassion and openness.

There are a few things that I have learned along our family’s journey as our oldest daughter struggled so long with mental illness before her death nearly three years ago. These are simple but hard-won lessons worth passing on today. They are also applicant to many other situations people face in life.

The first of these is amply illustrated by Job’s friends before they start trying to come up with explanations for his misfortunes and sorrows. Hear the words of the text: “When they [saw Job], they began to weep and wail, tearing their clothes in grief and throwing dust into the air and on their heads. Then they sat there on the ground with him for seven days and nights without saying a word, because they saw how much he was suffering” (Job 2:12b-13).

This is the ministry of presence. We so often think we are doing nothing when we are just there, lending a shoulder to cry on, offering an encouraging word, or simply listening. But these are precisely gifts that can be in short supply for someone whose family may be un-supportive, whose colleagues cannot know, whose church tells them to “pray the devil away,” or who is simply feeling too alone and overwhelmed to reach out very much. Never underestimate the ministry of presence.

Along with this ministry of presence is the importance of not trying to fix things. We want to fix things. In American culture, we are do-ers more than be-ers. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We cannot “fix” another person. What we can do, however, is love them unconditionally. That love takes time and commitment. It may also come bathed in sacrifice. Sometimes it is gushy and gentle, all hugs and helps. Sometimes it has to be heartbreaking, tough love. Soaking that love in prayer matters, but here’s the catch:

There are some things that are not healed in this life, in spite of mountains of prayer and reams of unconditional love. Compared to 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, substantial relief for many forms of mental illness exists through prayer, meditation, medication, therapy, support groups, body work, experimental brain stimulation, community, and so many other means.

But it can still take the mentally ill a herculean amount of strength to get through each day. This is not only true for this population, either. It can be a reality for any who face a long-term disability or history of trauma. The effort to continually choose life amid the temptation to just “give up” needs to be honored and appreciated, even celebrated, every single day.

As we close, I invite you to let the music of Ken Medema fill your soul, the light from the dancing candles touch your heart, and the voice of the Spirit speak deep within yourself. Amen.