Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Nugget, Jan 2006

Just being here among you is a joy!
Unending thank-yous
rise within me
for these beloved ones
within your Church, O God.
Blessed be their lives!
Blessed be your Church!
(Ann Weems, Searching For Shalom)

The past year has been one of the most significant in the long history of this congregation. And the church’s history has indeed been long – in 2006 we will celebrate our 140th Anniversary as a congregation.

In the past year, the church said goodbye to not just one, but two pastors who had served the church very well during their time here. In my many home visits, again and again words of appreciation and gratitude have been spoken about the ministries of both Brenda Brown and John Randlett. Their good work is evident in the health and vitality of this church. Saying goodbye to them was a difficult experience for this church. It will be one of the ways that 2005 will be remembered.

The past year will also be remembered as the year we said goodbye to several people who were loved and appreciated and whose deaths have left a void in our hearts and in our church. All these losses thrust this congregation into a time of significant transition as we were forced to examine ourselves, see what we are made of, what our mission is, and where we are headed.

In the midst of all that, 2005 was a year during which we invested significant energy in consideration of becoming an “Open and Affirming Congregation.” It was a process that got everyone’s attention, and helped us see the difficulty but the importance of relating to one another in regard to a controversial matter. Our decision to table the matter was frustrating for some (on both sides!), but has enabled us to turn our attention to other important things. When we will return to a formal consideration of ONA is undetermined.

It appears that 2006 will be as important a year as 2005 was. In the coming year our search committee will continue their important work of finding a new settled pastor for this congregation. Nothing First Congregational Church does in the coming year will be any more important than finding the right person to be the church’s next pastor.

This is not to diminish the importance of the transitional work we are doing during this Interim time. The ways we are evaluating our life together, and are continuing to support the programs and ministries of the church are very important. 2006 must be a time of giving attention to our life together, and focusing our efforts on the goals that we have before us, which were honed during our planning retreat back in October.

One of the best ways we can support the Search Committee’s work in 2006 is by making sure our church life remains strong and healthy and that all our many activities and programs are supported.

This congregation is poised to make 2006 a year of building for the future, a future that will be the best yet. As good as our life is now, and has been in recent years, the future can be even brighter! It will take the best we have to offer, with prayer and guidance from the God who loves us and will be with us, come what may.

Thank you very much for your fine support of me as your Interim Pastor. And special thanks for all the many gifts of love that were given to Cindy and me during the recent Christmas season. The cards, well wishes and the many goodies were appreciated very much. I look forward to serving you in the coming year as long as I am needed. It is a great privilege to be with you and to enjoy the wonderful life that is yours as Murphys First Congregational Church.

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Sunday, December 11, 2005

What We Need Is More Light!

Several days before Christmas a woman named Mary Beth was doing some Xmas shopping. As she stood in line paying for her purchases, she wondered how she was physically going to manage them. She was in too much of a hurry to get a shopping cart. She quickly looked at her watch before stacking them high in her arms.

“The Church Council meeting starts in 30 minutes,” she reminded herself. “If I am careful with these packages, I can make it to the car and then get to church right on time.

Why didn’t they just skip this meeting? It is the week of Christmas, for God’s sake!”

A stroke of luck. As she approached the exit of the store, a teen with green spiked hair and pants half way down his rear was holding the door open for her.

“God’s grace comes wrapped in some very strange packages,” she thought. The craziness of that moment distracted her just enough. She ran smack into another shopper who was on his way into the store. Packages and people flew everywhere.

As Mary Beth gained her senses she sat on ground and realized that, thankfully she was not hurt. Her own mood was reflected in the comments of the other crash victim whom she heard say,

“Darn it! Christmas has a way of turning everything upside down.”

Mary Beth had to chuckle, grateful that God had a sense of humor. “How true. How very true,” she mumbled under her breath. “In more ways than that fellow thinks. Christmas does indeed have a way of upending our lives.”

She was thinking not only of this crash scene here in the shopping mall, she allowed herself to think for just a moment of how different the world is because of the life of Jesus, born so long ago. And it is true. Because of Jesus, the course of human history has been forever changed.

In the first century, the Disciples who originally followed Jesus were able to create such a stir that their communities and their world was remarkably altered. They were even accused by the authorities of turning the whole world upside down, as if that in itself were a crime.

But that was long ago. Over the years it seems as if that radical movement has become way too domesticated. The revolutionary Jesus has become the Christ of the status quo. At least that’s what many among us would say.

But in another sense, whenever men and women, boys and girls, allow their hearts and their pocketbooks and their time commitments to be changed, it is still true that Christmas turns everything upside down.

Back at the mall, Mary Beth picked herself up, and gathered her packages. The other fellow wasn’t hurt too bad. He at least had the good humor to suggest they exchange insurance information like they do at car wrecks. They both apologized and went their separate ways – he into the store; she out to her car.

Needless to say she was late for the Council meeting. As she walked into the Fellowship Hall, with a scowl on her face, she hoped her tardiness was a subtle message to the Moderator to skip the December meeting next year.

She was not in a good mood. She wondered if half these folks even understood what Christmas was really about. As she sat down, she noticed on her agenda a poem the Pastor had included for them to read. But before she could read it, she heard a proposal from a well meaning woman on the Council to buy a new Chandelier for the church. The woman had seen it at Costco and thought it would be just right for them.

“Poor Alice,” Mary Beth thought. “She doesn’t know how these things work.” Alice was new on the board and could not have anticipated the response she was about to receive.

Before the Moderator could say anything, a middle-aged man spoke up. Hank was the self appointed voice of reason on the Church Council. Whenever a proposal to spend was brought forward, he always had something to say and some good reason why the money should NOT be allocated.

“I have three things to say about this request.” He was very determined.

“First, I doubt if anyone can spell the name of the thing, so we probably can't even order it. Second, there is no one in this church who can play it. I am sure of that. And third, instead of this newfangled thing she is proposing, what we really need around here is more light!"

For the second time that evening Mary Beth was grateful she believed in a laughing God. And she could not help but think, “How do people like this become church leaders?” Then she caught herself and said, “But maybe it is more light that we need.”

It is not by accident that Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. It exists as a deep, nearly unconscious, human longing for warmth and more light – right here in the darkest part of winter.

There are those, you know, who are convinced that Jesus was really born in the springtime, not in winter. They tell us that Shepherds would not be out under the stars tending their sheep in December. It was some other influence, totally unrelated to the ancient writings, that made Christmas a midwinter feast. For whatever reason, there is no doubt that Christmas, as we celebrate it, is a timely event. There is no denying the appropriateness – at least for us in the northern hemisphere -- of celebrating the star light of Christ just when the darkness of the world is most profound.

After Hank’s comments in response to the Chandelier proposal, the moderator completely lost control of the meeting, but Mary Beth was not a part of the ensuing squabble. Instead she was reading what the Pastor had offered them that night, and was nearly in tears at the wonderful message of the Poem in front of her.

Written by Ann Weems and titled Star-Giving, it put the whole evening in perspective for her. This is what she read…

What I'd really like to give you
for Christmas
Is a Star...
Brilliance in a package,
Something you could keep
in the pocket of your jeans
or the pocket of your being.
Something to take out
in times of darkness,
Something that would never
snuff out or tarnish,
Something you could
hold in your hand.
Something for wonderment,
Something for pondering.
Something that would remind you of
What Christmas has always meant;
God's Advent Light
into the darkness of this world.
But Stars are only God's for giving.
And I must be content to give you
words and wishes and
Packages without Stars.
But I can wish you Life
As radiant as the Star
That announced the Christ Child's coming,
And as filled with awe
as the Shepherds who stood
Beneath its Light,
And I can pass on to you
the Love
That has been given to me,
Ignited countless times by others
Who have knelt in Bethlehem's Light.
Perhaps, if you ask,
God will give you a Star.

The rest of the evening was just a blur for Mary Beth. It took about 15 minutes for the moderator to get people’s attention and back to the agenda. She, however, was in another place. As she mused on the poem, to her mind came the Magnificat – Mary’s wonderful song of joy and adoration in the gospel of Luke – words that had been read in church just the previous Sunday, words that seemed to describe the feeling that even now welled up inside her.

She wasn’t sure if she could remember exactly how it went. It was a song that had meant so much as the exclamation of a young woman who found joy despite great stress.

She remembered hearing it said that the song was a response to God’s call for Mary to be the one to bear Jesus. But even more this song was really the voice of the gospel writer Luke and the earliest Christians who had had a profound experience of Jesus raised from the dead. In this song was their expression of great joy, joy in experiencing not only the wonderful birth of Jesus, but a wonderful life from beginning to end, and even beyond its “apparent” end.

Then the first part of Mary’s song came to her...

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is [God’s] name.”

How can someone – anyone, you or me -- find that kind of joy in the midst of the babble and the chaos that we are so good at creating at Advent? I don’t know. I only know that it happened for her.

And I know that the joy Mary sang about is there for us. I also know that it won’t force its way into our hearts and lives. But it can be ours. Because the star still shines, and the darkness has not -- and never will -- overcome the light of that star.

There are a limited number of days left before Christmas. Let that star shine in your life, and let it bring you the joy that God is just waiting to give you.

“Perhaps if you ask,
God will give you a star.”

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Nugget, Dec 2005

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us.
Isaiah 9.6

A Christian Ed Director went to his church one Saturday during Advent to put up a sign advertising the upcoming Children’s pageant. As he began putting it all together, he realized he had forgotten the name of the program and the exact dimensions of the sign.

He and his wife had been discussing the pageant just that morning, so he called her for the information. She said she would find the information and call him back. A few minutes later she called but the janitor answered the phone. He was shocked as he relayed a very strange

“Unto us a child is born; 8 feet long and 3 feet wide!”

This Advent season at First Congregational Church, we prepare our hearts once again for the gift of Bethlehem. It is a gift that is always much bigger than we can ever imagine. What an awesome thing it is to understand that phenomenal truth yet once more: “To us a child is born!” That is indeed a gift from God that can make our heads spin when we consider the depth of its meaning.

It has meaning for us as we consider this time of transition in which we find ourselves. It has meaning for us as we look with faith to an uncertain future. It has meaning for us as we seek to deepen our spiritual life together as people of God.

With all that will be happening in the church in this month of December, the real challenge is how to appreciate this amazing gift we have been given, and not let all the “busy-ness” keep us from doing that.

Arnold Palmer was invited to play golf in Saudi Arabia some years ago. The King with whom he played was so impressed that he wanted to give Arnie a gift.

“Please,” Palmer said, “That is not necessary.”

“But I insist,” the King replied.

After a moment’s thought, the American golfer said, “How about a nice golf club, then? That would be a pleasant memento of my trip.”

Just before he return to the States, expecting to receive a gold plated driver or a fancy new 9 Iron, Arnie was presented with the TITLE to a golf club, complete with 1,000 acres of real estate, on which was a golf course, club house, trees and all the rest!

Our Sovereign has given us something that boggles our minds as well. As Advent makes its way into Christmas, may each of us receive a truly amazing surprise. Because the gift we have been given is far more exquisite, far more valuable, and carries a far greater promise of peace in our lives and in our world than we think.

May God’s richest blessing be yours this Advent and Christmas. And may the activities and opportunities for worship and witness that you read about in these pages enable you to make this glorious season everything it can be for you and your family.

“Thanks be to God for the inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 5.19)

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Nugget, Nov 2005

“When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadow
and look out upon the beautiful world,
I think God I am alive.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

November is the month of gratitude.

With gratitude we share in our stewardship campaign this month. No other motivation is sufficient for the promises we make. Yes, the needs are great; yes, giving has been falling off some in recent months; and yes, there will be some special expenditures in the coming year related to the Search Process. But, the best reason to give and to pledge to the church is still a grateful heart, a heart that has known and that appreciates the love of God and church.

With gratitude I want to express how much I appreciate being able to serve you as your Interim Pastor. This first six months that Cindy and I have been with you have made me very thankful for this congregation and the wonderful life that we share together.

Barbara Cartland, in the “Book of Useless Information,” reports that in 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris and was missing for two years. In those two years, more people came to the museum and stared at the blank space on the wall than had viewed the masterpiece in the previous 12 years!

That may indeed seem like a bit of useless information, but maybe not. Because our lives are filled with treasures that we sometimes fail to appreciate until they are no longer there. Then we can only wonder why we did not appreciate them more.

As Thanksgiving approaches, take a moment to ponder the wonders of life all around you that often go unnoticed, and say a prayer of gratitude to God. Do something to show your appreciation to your friends, your church, your neighbors, your family. Appreciate your health, the gift of this day, the beauty of creation and the other masterpieces of God’s making that exist in the world around you.

It was the habit of the Apostle Paul, in writing to churches, to remind them that he continually thanked God for them. Paul knew the importance of prayers of gratitude. Our prayers are often little more than prayers of requests. We sometimes find the whole matter of prayer unexciting or ineffective because we assume it just means asking for things!

The prayer of thanksgiving is the noblest prayer of all. It puts us in a reflective frame of mind. It focuses our attention on good things rather than the negative. It can chase away the critical spirit. It lifts our hearts and broadens our horizons. It gives us a sense of spiritual and emotional well being.
George Herbert wrote,

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more
– a grateful heart;
Not grateful when it pleaseth me
As if they blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.

Be thankful and treasure the Mona Lisa’s in your life.
Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Nugget, Oct 2005

“Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors,
for we are members of one another.”
Ephesians 4.25
We are members of one another. We understand that. We appreciate that. We try to live by all that it implies. And truth be told, it is a powerful truth – "members of one another."

Because we are members of one another, there is a bond that unites us no matter what, a bond rooted in the understanding that we are united, in our experience of community, in an undeniable connection rooted in our faith in Christ.

Because we are members of one another, it makes it very difficult when find ourselves at odds with one another. And – let’s be honest -- those times do arise. I am not just talking about our current consideration of becoming an Open and Affirming congregation, although that is definitely something that makes us extraordinarily thoughtful. Part of the reason for the energy we have invested in those considerations is precisely because we are members of one another.

We also understand this truth about being “members of one another” in a larger context. The first Sunday after Hurricane Katrina struck, one of our children came to me wanting to do a special fundraiser for those in need. She understood that being “members of one another” meant her larger community, a community that extended as far as New Orleans. She felt called to do something for the children who were affected there. As a result she set up a table at our Ice Cream Social a few weeks ago and collected from many of you who were touched, as I was, by her efforts.

Clearly she was not the only one in our congregation to ask the question of how we can respond. But she was the first. Others of you have also expressed an interest in doing something, and as a result the Stewardship Committee has made appeals and has coordinated our giving. It has been barely 3 weeks since Katrina struck, and nearly $2,500 dollars has been contributed so far through our congregation to the relief effort. And I know that others of you will be making further contributions.

I also know that some of you have also given through your employer or school or in others ways, so that the total giving by our people is much larger than just that one amount. We give because we take seriously that we are “members of one another”, and we feel a kinship with those who have been affected.

I am not just talking about a kinship with our denominational mission efforts, like the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi which has suffered great losses and is in tremendous need. Nor am I just talking about our kinship with those UCC Congregations in the New Orleans area that have been devastated. We give because we feel a kinship with everyone who has felt the pain of loss as a result of Katrina, people with whom we identify because they and we are “members of one another.”

Despite the tragedy the Hurricane has visited upon the Gulf Coast, we celebrate and rejoice in all that we can do to respond to the need. Thank you, for your great generosity!

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Folly of the Rat Poison Cocktail

Refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison
and then expecting the RAT to die.
(Anne Lamott)
Even the seasons remind us of the forgiving nature of our God. I have been very grateful for the relief we have experienced in the last week or two, from “the unforgiving heat” of these past few months. Forgiveness is much more than that, of course, as Matthew 18.21-35 makes quite clear.
“How many times do I have to forgive someone in the church who has wronged me? As many as seven times?” Peter asked Jesus.

Jesus responded, "One should forgive not just 7 times, but 77 times!" Obviously that is a bit difficult to get one’s mind around. So a story is told which helped to clarify.


A king brought a certain servant before him and said, “You must pay what you owe me.” Unfortunately this poor fellow had had an enormous credit line that he maxed out, far beyond his ability to repay. There was no way in his entire lifetime that he would ever pay it off.

As a result of this incredible indebtedness, his life was in danger, as were the lives of his wife and children. They were all about to be sold into slavery to pay his debt. How could he have been so stupid to endanger his whole family by running up this kind of debt?

As we know this kind of thing happens all too often in our own time. Not the slavery part of course, but countless families today have ruined their lives and those of their loved ones by going into serious debt.

The fellow in the story, overwhelmed by his inability to pay, fell at the feet of the king and pleaded for mercy.

“Give me a little more time, and I will pay you what I owe.”

He was dreaming. The guy could never have paid his debt. But the king listened to the man’s pleas and decided to release him completely from his obligation! It was an amazing act of benevolence!

The man goes home to celebrate his great fortune. But in the very act of celebrating, he notices a friend of his, who owed him a few dollars. So he grabs him by the neck and says “Pay me what you owe me! Right now!”

He has been shown extraordinary generosity, but cannot extend even modest generosity to a friend. Can you believe the man’s audacity? Of course we can. Who among us has not held on to a grudge and refused to forgive someone?


The story is Jesus way of explaining the difficulty of forgiveness. And it is hard. There are times when we just cannot bring ourselves to forgive some wrongs. There are some that are too immense to be forgiven, we think.

Today is 911. If there was ever a time when forgiveness SHOULD be hard to offer, it is today. Or so we suppose. When we think of other high profile criminals – from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson to Timothy McVeigh – they are instances of great evils that we find difficult, if not impossible to forgive.

Each of us has memories of things that someone did to us – a family member, a co-worker, a fellow church member, a spouse – things that we cannot forget, and that are impossible to forgive. Because we think that forgiveness means excusing or ignoring or forgetting. But forgiveness does not mean any of that.

When I say, “I forgive you,” it does not mean that I am tolerating your bad behavior or that what you did to me was okay. It is just the opposite. It means that I refuse to hold onto my right to get back at you. I release my need to hold a grudge despite the fact that what you did was wrong. Lewis Smedes (Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve) put it this way:
“Excusing someone for a wrong they’ve done is a cheap substitute for the more difficult job of forgiving.”

Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It is all about letting go of resentment. It is not really about the other person at all. C.S. Lewis once talked about finally forgiving a man who had been dead for 30 years! Forgiveness is an individual, unilateral act centered solely in your heart. You may never have a chance to reconcile with those who have hurt you, but you can still forgive them, and if you do, you will find an incredible healing waiting for your soul.

Forgiveness is not a cheap substitute for justice. When I forgive you, that does not mean you will not be held accountable for your actions.

The Christian writer
Anne Lamott has said, "Refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison and then expecting the RAT to die.”

Now that is not a very heartwarming image. But it is absolutely true. Drinking rat poison, like withholding forgiveness, has a devastating effect on the drinker, while the rat goes free. Not to forgive but to be resentful, does not hurt the one about whom we hold the grudge. But it is death to the one who holds it.

The famous South African novelist,
Alan Paton, says, “There is a hard law… that when a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive.”

“It is God’s cure,” as
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “for the deformity that our resentment causes us. Forgiveness is how we discover our true shape and every time we do it, we get to be a little more alive.”


Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells a true story about an incident that took place at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission down in Cape Town, South Africa. The commission followed a set of very simple rules. If a policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed to his crime and acknowledged his guilt, he would not be punished. Hardliners grumbled that criminals would go free, but Nelson Mandela said that his nation needed healing even more than it needed justice. At one hearing, a white police officer named Van de Broek told how he and other policemen had abducted and shot an eighteen year old boy and then burned his body in order to hide the evidence. Eight years later, Van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. This time, the man’s wife was forced to watch as the policemen bound her husband, threw him on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body and set him on fire.

The courtroom where all this was being recounted was hushed in stunned silence as this elderly woman who had lost her son and then her husband was given a chance to confront their murderer.

“What do you want from Mr. Van de Broek?” the judge asked. Everyone listened intently as the old woman spoke. She said she wanted Van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her son’s body and gather up the dust of his remains so they could give him a decent burial. Staring down at the table, Van de Broek nodded in agreement. Then she made a further request.

“Mr. Van de Broek took my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month I would like for him to come to the township and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God and that I forgive him also. Finally, I would like to embrace him so he knows that my love is real.”

It was amazing! At that moment the courtroom spontaneously erupted into a chorus of Amazing Grace as this old woman made her way from her chair to the witness stand. Poor Mr. Van de Broek never heard a word of the singing. Overwhelmed with emotion, he had collapsed on the courtroom floor.


What that woman understood and what Jesus understood, and what he hoped Peter would understand, and that WE would understand is that once we begin to forgive, something marvelous happens.

Once we get into the habit of letting go of our hurts and resentments we discover the freedom and the peace that it breathes into the weariest parts of our souls. When that happens forgiveness ceases to be an obligation.

Somewhere between the seventh and the seventy seventh time, we lose count; because forgiveness is no longer what we do. It has become who we are. And by that time, as the courtrooms of our lives burst out into choruses of Amazing Grace, we will realize that forgiveness has no limits, because it is a way of being true to life of Jesus Christ.

Feel the fresh air of forgiveness, whether it is with family members, neighbors or coworkers, who are far from perfect, or church friends with differing ways of thinking about sexual orientation or church finances or the color of the pews or the music of worship or anything else.

And know, as
Thomas Long has said, “that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.”

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Nugget, Sept 2005

The one who was seated on the throne said,
“See, I am making all things new.”
(Rev 21.5)

One of my favorite films is “Dune,” based on the classic novel by Frank Herbert. Early in the film, one of the main characters, Duke Leto, says to his son, young Paul, as they are about to embark on a major change in their lives,

“A person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing [us] to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.”

One of the things I enjoy about being an interim minister is the opportunity to meet new people and experience new congregational settings. This summer has certainly been an occasion to do that very thing. I have been blessed very much, as a result of experiences such as our recently concluded VBS, to our
Camp Tam Work Camp, to various outings with our youth, to our Church picnic, to visiting with many of you in your homes.

This Interim Time, which the Church is now four months into, is also an opportunity for MFCC to be Church in a new way, with experiences that may jar something inside, but that awaken us to new possibilities and enable us to grow in ways we would never have imagined. Change is not always easy, it is not always what we would choose, it is not always comfortable, but it can always be an opportunity to experience the grace and goodness of God in fresh ways. And it can be a reminder of the truth of those words at the top of this column, spoken by the Sovereign One: “See I am making all things new.”

I want to say a special word of appreciation to our Church Secretary Mary Cole for all the energy and enthusiasm she has brought to managing the church office this summer, and in particular for the fine work she did in coordinating our Church picnic. Special thanks also go to our Christian Education Director Teddi Black for her fine leadership of last month's VBS. She and her team of teachers and helpers did an excellent job of creating a very memorable event for our kids.

With September now upon us, I look forward to being with you through all the opportunities and challenges of the fall season at First Congregational Church, from Rally Day Sept 11, through the Planning Retreat and the Stewardship Campaign and then the holiday season that takes us to the end of the year.

Please give special attention to what you will read elsewhere in the current edition of the Nugget regarding the change in times of worship beginning Sept 4, the all Church Planning Retreat in October, and other important events. Also, for those of you who are online, you can now read the Nugget online at our Church's Website.

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Nugget, July 05

We, your children, in your likeness,
Share inventive powers with you;
Great Creator, still creating,
Show us what we yet may do.
- Catherine Cameron
Scenes from my first two months with you:
  • getting warm with other adults and youth around a wonderful Karl-Graves-built campfire at Camp Tamarack early in the morning on the first full day of summer, a day of work that is starting out at about 38 degrees;
  • meeting with our other staff in the Church office, planning worship, calendarizing events, discussing common concerns, and marveling at the diversity of our leadership team;
  • singing “Spirit of the Living God” at Helen Ormsby’s home, at the end of our Monday morning prayer session, during which we have asked God, “in your mercy” to hear our prayers for friends and family;
  • tearing my hair out because my new computer at the last minute has decided not to cooperate; therefore the PowerPoint presentation of Asilomar will not be shown at worship on this particular morning, despite the best efforts of Jim Lashbrook and me;
  • playing ultimate Frisbee with our youth in the forest behind our home, while the other adults and I anxiously hope no one (especially me!) encounters a tree head-on;
  • sitting at a Mark Twain Hospital bedside, praying with a patient who is in remarkably good spirits and hopes to go home the next day;
  • winding my way down Hwy 4 toward Stockton for a clergy meeting, marveling at the distances we Calaveras County residents are willing to travel, distances that many city folks seem not to understand;
  • standing in the pulpit during worship, preaching what feels like a 360 degree sermon, thinking, “Do I look as weird as I feel, trying to address people way over on the left as well as those who are way over on the right?”
  • being amazed as I observe day after day after day, all the activity at the Eastman Education Center under Ed Williams’ fine leadership, and wondering, “What is it about this project that commands so much attention?”
These are only a few of the many scenes that capture the spirit of my time with you to this point. Here we are in July already, into my third month as your Interim Minister. In the midst of all that is happening, I am very pleased to observe that we appear to be moving quite well though the early months of this transition time.

When John left a number of you felt the anxiety that naturally comes with the departure of a beloved minister. And you may have wondered whether the church would be able to do without him, which is a natural reaction. We make a great investment of ourselves in relationships with our pastors, especially those who do good work and are easy to love.

My prayer is that this Interim time will be an opportunity to come to terms with where we have been, and then to make that shift, with the help of God, toward a view to the future. I have all the confidence in the world that our Church has a bright future. Sure there are things that might threaten that future – but when is that ever NOT the case? Let our prayer be the words of that song we sometimes sing, “Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.”

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Friday, May 27, 2005

The Nugget, June 05

Whoever you are,
Wherever you are on life’s journey,
You are welcome here.
(From the “God Is Still Speaking” initiative)

In these early weeks of my time as your Interim Pastor, I am coming to discover that you are a well organized congregation with committees and boards that appear to be on top of things. At this point one of my goals is to try not to get in the way! Yet at the same time I want to be supportive and encouraging of the programs and ministries we have, and offer you some feedback that a new perspective might provide.

My work schedule will be Sunday through Thursday. And even though I plan to be off Fridays and Saturdays, I understand that there will be times when things happen and needs arise on “off” days for which I will make myself available. I look forward to visiting you in your homes and have enlisted Edie Jones’ fine help in scheduling those visits. In the meantime, if you would like to get together, do not hesitate to call on me.

I want to say a big thank you for the opportunity to attend the Asilomar Annual Meeting so soon after arriving in Murphys. It was a terrific experience. The other eight people from Murphys who attended all seem to say the same thing.

The worship services were inspiring, the breakout groups were stimulating, the accommodations and the surroundings were breathtaking, the weather cooperated quite nicely, the food was pretty darn good, and the business sessions were… well okay, they were business sessions. What can you say?

Actually there was some important business that was transacted -- from our decision to create Youth Delegates to the Annual Meeting, to our decision regarding Equal Marriage Rights For All, plus a number of other decisions. One highlight of the weekend was the recognition of Faye Morrison as the outstanding woman of the year. It was a well deserved honor that made all of us Murphy folk very proud.

The weekend was an opportunity to feel good about being part of the United Church of Christ, the larger church body to which we belong. It is one thing to be our congregation with our mission and our work in our community. But there is something very significant and altogether different about being part of a covenantal fellowship much larger than ourselves. There is a measure of strength and credibility and wholeness that we could have no other way. Special thanks to Ken Compton and Charles Lindberg for filling in for me the Sunday I was away.

The first month of our time together has been a wonderful occasion to get to know one another, to feel the spirit of God moving among us, and to generate a positive sense of moving into God’s future together. It is unclear exactly what that future will look like, but we are on our way!

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Rising To Meet The Interim Challenge

The following was delivered May 8, 2005 on my first Sunday at Murphys First Congregational Church. Feel free to share your responses, thoughts, insights or other comments.

Today is a very important day because it begins a journey of faith for First Congregational Church and for me as your Interim pastor. I am excited about being with you because I am convinced that this period of time between settled pastors can be a time of real growth, of positive change, of moving to even greater levels of church life than you have experienced to this point.

Today is Ascension Sunday, a time to observe that often overlooked event in our faith history when Jesus, after his resurrection, and before the day of Pentecost, ended his time on earth and ascended into heaven.

In the very first chapter of the book of Acts, the disciples were together, with the risen Christ among them, and they asked him if now was the time that he would “restore the kingdom to Israel.”

“Don’t worry about dates and times,” he said. “The important thing is that you witness to me, here and wherever you are, and as far as you can go.” And with that he lifted up and rose into the sky, and was gone.

This was totally unexpected. No one knew what to say. Until a couple of other fellows -- or were they angels? – spoke up and said “Why are you gazing into the sky? Jesus who was taken from you will return and will be with you.”

So these disciples got together with the other believers and devoted themselves to a time of prayer as they awaited and anticipated what would happen next.

I find this text very fitting for today because it is all about rising, about Jesus rising to the heavens. And it becomes for us about rising to meet the challenge and opportunity of this Interim time.

The story is about Jesus lifting off into the air. Now in the first century they believed in a three story universe – there was earth (which was of course flat at that time), there was the underworld below the earth, and there was heaven which was over the earth.

In Luke’s thinking when Jesus ascended he went up a certain distance and into the heavenly realm. It was like Jim Carey at the end of the film The Truman Show. In that film the main character sails off into the sunset, but instead of finding a sky that goes off into infinity, he finds a door that opens into a whole different realm of existence.

But the richest and the most important meaning of the ascension story is not found in a literal reading. For 21st century people in this day of space travel, and understanding the far reaches of our universe, there are difficulties with a literal reading.


Bishop Spong tells the story of being at a conference with his friend Carl Sagan. Now as you may know Carl Sagan was an outspoken atheist, but what you may not know is that he enjoyed talking about God. Bishop Spong said he was approached by Sagan who asked,

“Jack, have you ever thought about the story of the ascension of Jesus from the standpoint of an astro-physicist?”

Spong said he hadn’t, so Sagan continued,

“Think of this. If Jesus had ascended as the Bible says, and if he had traveled at the speed of light – 186,000 miles per second – do you realize that by now he would not have even left our galaxy yet? And there are billions and billions of other galaxies out there!”

For many modern folks – maybe for some of you -- a literal reading of the story is difficult. The good news is that the ascension is most importantly about Jesus rising into the higher consciousness of the disciples. That’s what the story tells us. It is about that group of believers – in an “Interim Time” by the way -- between Resurrection and Pentecost -- coming to a new understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

The disciples at that time were in a transition... from dependence on the presence of Jesus with them to an understanding of his presence within them.

The mood of the story is a positive one – it is about rising, moving upward; it is about awareness, it is about meeting the challenge of the future. In other words it is a story with unique relevance to First Congregational Church.

I say this because that is the mood needed in this church – the mood of thinking upward, of rising to meet this new challenge that is yours, of growing in your awareness of who you are now and what your place will now be in the world.


The mood reflected in the ascension story and that is needed by us today, is captured well by Maya Angelou in her poem, Still I Rise:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise…

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Hers is a powerful message of choosing the upward way, deciding to be a person who will rise to the occasion.

My hope for this church is that together we will make this transitional time an opportunity to develop our life together, to come to terms with history of this congregation, to move into the future with an attitude that will make the months and years to come the best yet.

But to do that will require a strong will, as we sense that presence within us of the one whose rising so long ago made all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Nugget, May 05

From the end spring new beginnings.
-Pliny the Elder

As your new Interim Pastor, I look forward with great anticipation to being with you. My first Sunday will be May 8, although I will actually begin my ministry with you the Monday before that.

Let me tell you a little about myself. I have been doing Transitional (aka Interim) Ministry for 8 years, and settled ministry for many years before that. My life partner Cindy and I have been together since we were very young, and have one grown son who lives in San Francisco and works in Information Security (read: computer geek). I am a native Californian, and enjoy skiing, playing racquetball, and traveling to see family up and down the West Coast. I am also a movie buff, enjoy reading, and love to use technology and multimedia to the best advantage of the church.

Eight years ago Cindy and I built our home up the hill a ways, in Dorrington. As an Interim Minister my work has taken me to different places -- usually around Northern California -- and our time at our home has been sporadic at best. But Dorrington has still been home to us and we have returned as often as possible, always reluctant to leave when commitments require us to go back down the hill. So it will be a special joy to live at home for the time we are with you.

As your Interim minister, I will serve you in every way that a Pastor normally serves a congregation, but with two unique differences. One, my work with you will be for a limited period of time – determined by the time it takes the Search Committee to find a permanent Pastor. Which is to say we need to keep the end of our time together in sight from the very beginning. And two, my focus will include helping the church get ready for the next Pastor. Which means I will be something like John the Baptist, who was said to be ”the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way… make [the] paths straight’.”

My commitment to the church – and the church’s commitment to me – is initially for 6 months, although we understand that it may be necessary to extend that, should we each choose to do so, and should the search process go at anything less than supersonic speed.

Each month I will share with you my thoughts in this column that I will call “The Shepard’s Crook.” I am trying something new (for me anyway) and will also make this column part of a blog (internet web log -- which you have obviously found if you are reading this!).

I want to say a big thank you to the leaders of the church for the confidence they have shown in me by inviting me to be your Pastor during this in-between time. Pastor John’s 10 years with you have brought the church to a new level of growth and stability. I accept the challenge of building on the strengths of this congregation and invite each of you to join me in making this transition time an opportunity to move to yet another level. It is a very fertile time in the life of MFCC. Let’s make the most of it!

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Monday, April 11, 2005


This is the initial post to this blog. Welcome to friends, family, visitors, colleagues, antagonists and all others! Here you will find my articles from the church newsletter, as well as other periodic posts on a variety of topics, from church to film, from current events to family.

My hope is that this blog will be a place stimulating reading, civil discussion and honest sharing. You are welcome to offer whatever thoughts you might have in response. Thanks for visiting.

[NOTE regarding the history of "The Shepard's Crook": The first two years of this blog were written when I was the pastor of a local church and the posts reflect that perspective. Since December of 2007, however, it has been a family blog, and the concern has been the family of Will and Bura Davis Shepard.]