Friday, December 22, 2006

The Nugget, Jan 2007

Peace is the only battle worth waging.
Albert Camus

I was on my way to visit one of our members just up the hill from town, when I noticed I was about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I turned up a side street and stopped in a quiet neighborhood to look at my calendar and get my head together for the week that had just begun. After no more than 2 or 3 minutes I saw out of the corner of my eye an elderly gentleman approach my truck with a little white dog in tow.

“Can I help you?” he said with very little emotion, not at all preparing me for what was to follow.

“No thanks. I am just going to be here for a few minutes, before I visit a friend across the highway.”

Then his entire demeanor changed. “This street is only for people who live here. We don’t want your kind here, so get out!” The speed with which his emotions and tone of voice accelerated was quite amazing.

“If I ever see you here again, I will drag you out of that truck myself and kick your ass!” The little dog was getting into the spirit of things by this time, yapping excitedly and baring his teeth at me, as if on cue. For a moment I thought I had been transported into a Quentin Tarantino movie or a Stephen King novel.

What had been a quiet, peaceful, even serendipitous moment, turned nasty in the twinkling of an eye. Thinking I had found a few moments to be alone, I was astounded to discover I had wandered into enemy territory. And I was the enemy! I was a mere 10 minutes from town, but I might as well have been in Sadr City.

Needless to say, my ass and I left that neighborhood, and as I rolled away, the little white dog was barking at my truck with a clear message: “And STAY away!” It was an ugly experience – surreal, baffling – and it stayed with me all day. I couldn’t shake it off. I am not sure I have even yet.

What has helped me in my effort to do so, however, was seeing the film Joyeux Noel, a remarkable true story from World War I. In December, 1914, the Germans were engaged in trench warfare with some French and British troops. Numerous dead bodies lay in the space between these enemy combatants.

Late one night, during a period of calm, one of the Germans began to sing Silent Night. The tones of the music drifted across the frozen No Man’s Land between them, and captured the attention of soldiers on both sides. Then a British bag piper began playing the same song in accompaniment as the German singer, from his own trench, continued singing. They were making music together!

D├ętente escalated. Gradually officers and soldiers met each other in the middle and agreed to an informal cease fire. Later there would be hell to pay for this little escapade, from military brass on all sides. But for this one day these soldiers found something remarkable, as they shared life stories, discovered unexpected connections, experienced a common bond, and for a short time made their own peace with one another.

They engaged in the worst possible military offence – at least in the minds of the organizers of the war – fraternization with the enemy. Desertion is one person’s choice to run from the conflict. Fraternization is going nose to nose with the very idea of war, and bringing others with you. It's an in-your-face statement, a refusal to fight. It takes the very heart and soul out of the conflict. It makes a fellow human being out of one’s enemy.

Late one morning not long ago, I wandered into enemy territory unexpectedly and tasted something of the darkness of the human spirit. What happened on that European battlefield long ago, was just the opposite. Those enemies wandered unexpectedly onto the field of friendship and peace, and it changed their lives forever.

We would like to think that the worst conflict of our day is raging on foreign soil far away. But the darkness of fear and hatred can be very close to home. As we look to the promise of 2007, know that peace is not where you find it, but where you make it.

Blessings to you and your family for a wonderful, peaceful new year!

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Audacity of Hope

(a sermon delivered at First Congregational Church of Murphys, Dec 3, 2006 – First Sunday of Advent)

We lit the first advent candle this morning, the candle of HOPE. It burns brightly as our reminder that if Advent is about HOPE. If it isn't, then – in the words of Ann Weems – “what is all the noise about?”

The hope that our candle represents is not just wishful thinking; nor is it just being optimistic. It is not something that we individually generate within ourselves like we would come up with a new idea, or remember a happy memory, or drum up a few lines for a poem.

Hope is not our own contrivance. The hope that our candle this morning represents is far deeper, much richer and more pervasive than that.

When I first picked up Senator Barack Obama’s latest book, the title itself jumped out at me: the Audacity of Hope. Part of the reason it so attracted me became clear when I read in his book that this title – which is not original with me – was not original with him either. It is a phrase that this Senator’s pastor – a UCC minister in Chicago – used in a sermon.

Senator Obama found the phrase useful to describe hope, which for him is, “a relentless optimism in the face of hardship, [believing] despite all the evidence to the contrary; the gall to believe that we have some control – and therefore responsibility – over our own fate.”

Emily Dickinson referred to the same thing much more lyrically when she said, “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops... at all.”

That kind of hope is absolutely the best place to begin this season of Advent. Because we live in a time of such great hopelessness.

Some of us have family situations that seem hopeless – a child or grandchild whose life seems out of control, a marriage or work relationship that seems impossible. And think of the places around the world where hope is all but nonexistent....

-Some estimate that in Iraq upwards of 100,000 nationals flee every month, because they consider their future hopeless.

-In the middle east we hear again and again of suicide bombings where a young man or woman will strap explosives close to their hearts and blow themselves up, taking as many others with them as possible. Is there any other single act which can be called the quintessential 21st century expression of hopelessness?

-Around the world, over 25 million people have died from one of the worst health crises of human history: AIDS. There have been more new infections in 2006 than in any previous year. As a result a sense of hopelessness descends like a dark blanket on countless lives.

The candle of hope that burns on our altar is needed more now than ever before. For some it seems little more than a cruel joke to consider having HOPE. And it is a cruel joke, IF you think of hope as simply wishful thinking, or optimism, or just putting on a happy face. Genuine hope includes those things but is much more. It has an audacious quality about it; it needs some gall, some “chutspah’, a Yiddish word for courage and daring.

Wishful thinking is to hope, what a Xmas Tree is to Christmas. We have and need our trees, but Christmas is so much more than just trees and the gifts beneath them.

Optimism is to hope, what a Thanksgiving dinner is to family. We love Thanksgiving dinners, but the richness of family life goes far beyond that.

The HOPE that advent beckons us to consider is HOPE based on solid ground. It is not just extreme optimism or very positive thinking. It is different in quality as much as quantity. Let me suggest to you two solid rocks that comprise some of that ground on which the audacity of hope is built.

The first is the rich history of which we are an integral part. We are not reinventing the wheel here. We do not find ourselves in this 21st century starting all over again to imagine what hope means. We will soon sing about Jesus with these words, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Our faith history from “all the years” is a solid rock on which we stand with confidence to live out the hope we have in Christ. It includes family members, friends, spouses, ancestors, whose lives were lived with boldness. We have in our collective unconscious, in that “reservoir of experiences”, a sense of an historical flow of people who have preceded us in living with a courageous hope.

It includes the faithful saints of this congregation, the life of Jesus himself and his disciples, our Hebrew ancestors, all of whom are people on whose shoulders we stand and sense a hope that can be described as nothing less than audacious.

Part of that rich history we read about in Hebrew scripture, where Jeremiah says, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise.”

Part of that history is the faithful witness of Jesus, who in this morning’s reading said, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not… “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life… Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength… to stand.

Part of our rich history is those 7 hearty souls we heard about during our 140th anniversary in September. They were what was left of the participating members of our church in 1906, but they continued to carry on the congregation’s witness, just the seven of them, week after week. They could only dream the dreams of the hopeful for the day with this congregation would be strong and robust. We don’t know those people firsthand, but we stand on their shoulders, and we walk with hope in their footsteps.

As we honor the audacious hope by which they lived, we find a reason to believe, and are given a foundation on which we live in hope. Our history is like a river, where we find ourselves in the current of faithful and hopeful predecessors. They guide us down this river, helping us to avoid the dangerous places, as we navigate the tricky waters of our day.

Our rich history is one of the rocks on which we stand to affirm an audacious hope. The other is a sense of mutual obligation to one another. Paul in the epistle lesson for this morning, said in a letter to one of the first century churches, Now may our God… and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. (I Thessalonians 3.11-12)

Paul found in his relationship to this community of faith a sense of mutuality, a covenant with them, an obligation of love, that gave a depth to his relationship to them. One of the rocks on which we stand is our sense of mutual obligation to one another. It is a second part of that foundation that gives us a reason to have hope that exceeds simple optimism.

In our relationship to one another we discover the truth of Vincent McNabb, who said, Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them.

Charles Osgood tells the story of two women who had to enter a retirement hope. Neither one was happy about it. Each of them was nearly hopeless about their own futures. Their physical limitations were rather profound. Each of them had enjoyed playing the piano but had impairments that kept them from playing any longer.

After they got settled in their new home, the director of the facility had an idea. It seems each of the women had lost the use an arm, one the right, the other her left. But when they sat down together at a piano, they made a remarkable team, and after just a few times together, were able to play beautifully a single piece of music. And they learned the importance of a sense of mutual obligation within a community of people. It was so impressive it created a new spirit of hopefulness in the entire facility.

They became living witnesses to the truth that Christopher Reeve spoke when, after becoming paraplegic in 1995, he said, “Once you choose hope, anything's possible.”

As Anne Lamott wrote, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

Choose hope this Advent season, a daring hope, that refuses to take things as they are. Reach with that bold spirit, for the grace of God to resist the darkness and to live with the audacity of hope.

The Nugget, Dec 2006

It's coming on Christmas,
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer,
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river, I could skate away on.
(Sarah McLachlan, “River”)


We talk so much about the joy and happiness of the Advent and Christmas season, and we invest so much of ourselves in the celebration of the holidays, that it seems traitorous to remind you that this is a very difficult season for some.

Many among us wish that we could simply “skate away” from this time of the year, echoing the sentiments of Sarah McLachlan in the song “River” on a newly released collection of holiday music. Now to be sure, most of us would think long and hard before saying that out loud, of course. That would be like advocating the abolition of mother’s day. Or church potlucks. It seems unthinkable or rude or bad-mannered to say those words. But for far too many of us, Christmas is a very painful time.

And then there are those of us who wish we could “skate away” from this month of December because we feel that Jesus has somehow been kidnapped, removed from the center of the celebration. The heart of the season has been hijacked by those who have made it more a time of worship at the altar of commercialism than honoring the child of Bethlehem. What can we do? How can we skate our way with integrity and meaning THROUGH this season rather than AWAY from it?

As you read about the various programs and activities in this edition of the Nugget, consider carefully those that will enhance your journey through Advent and into Christmas. Take special note of the workshop on “Coping With the Holidays”, with Dr. Liz Armstrong, on Saturday, Dec. 9, as well as the other activities. They are designed to make this month a time of enrichment and not exhaustion, an opportunity for being deepened not weakened.

And heed the warning of Ann Weems, in these words that draw upon the imagery of the Jesus’ birth story,

If there is no room in our inn,
then “Merry Christmas”
mocks the Christ Child,
and the Holy Family is just a holiday card,
and God will loathe our feasts and festivals.
If Christmas is not now,
Then what is all
the noise about?
(from Kneeling at Bethlehem)

I want to say a special thank you to all who are working diligently and planning for some very special worship events this month, in particular our music staff (Kim and Ron and Caitlin, who are working with the choir) as well as our Christian Ed and Youth leaders (Teddie and Tami and Cynthia, who will direct the Christmas pageant). Our Christmas worship services and the children’s pageant will be a special treat for everyone.

Blessings to all of you for a joyous and healthy Advent and Christmas!

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor