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