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!

Détente 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

Friday, November 10, 2006

None So Blind

None So Blind
A sermon delivered Oct. 29, 2006
First Congregational Church of Murphys
Mark 10.46-52

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” It is an old saying that carries a powerful truth – a truth regarding blindness and how it is often more a matter of the heart than the eyes.
Jesus encountered a blind man one day – a man who was really blind. Jesus and his disciples and a crowd of people were moving along a street alongside which this blind man sat. His name was Bartimaeus, suggesting that he was a regular on this particular roadside.

Imagine being Bartimaeus – if you can – on the side of the road that day when Jesus walked by. Your sense of hearing is heightened. There on the side of the road you hear more footsteps than usual. There is lots more rustling of clothes, more movement of people. Your ears perk up as you listen closely. You hear the name “Jesus.” Is he in this crowd? Has he come to your city? You’ve heard that he has the ability to heal. You get excited. “Could he heal MY blindness?”
It becomes apparent that Jesus and his attendants are very near. You want to get his attention. You may never have another opportunity like this one. From your place of darkness, you begin to shout and say,

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This took place while Jesus and his entourage were on their way out of the city of Jericho – that legendary city in Israel’s history. The city of Jericho is best known as the place Joshua and the army of Israel had conquered many centuries before, by marching around it for 7 days until the city walls came tumbling down. Throughout those 7 days the people of Jericho refused to see that this invading army was about to conquer them. They suffered from a kind of self imposed blindness, and as a result, the city fell.

Jericho was also the city of the woman Rahab, a prostitute whose eyes were opened – in a manner of speaking -- to welcome the Israelites. She believed that “whoever they were and wherever they were on life’s journey” they were to be welcomed and not shut out. As a result Rahab is referred to in Hebrews 11 as one of the great cloud of witnesses who testify to God.
But Rahab and the tumbling walls of Jericho happened long ago. Now, centuries later, Jesus is in this legendary city encountered a man who was literally blind; blind as a bat.

We don’t know how LONG Bartimaeus had been blind, but it must have been for a considerable time, because he had resorted to the profession of many a blind or otherwise disabled person; he was a beggar and sat on the side of the road waiting for a handout.

We don’t know HOW he became blind. Later in this story he asks Jesus if he can see AGAIN, so he was not born blind. Had there been an accident? Had he been in a fight? Was he a victim of abuse or a vicious attack? Did he have what today would be a very treatable condition that brought on his blindness? It doesn’t make any difference. He could not see. That was all that mattered.

But what he lacked in vision, he made up in voice. He had a strong set of lungs, and often had to yell to be heard, especially when people were telling him to get out of the way, quit bothering them.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he yelled.

The first response to his shouts was a negative one, which often happens when people – children or adults -- inappropriately seek attention like this. We are told that, “many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ ”
You can imagine some in the crowd who knew Bartimaeus saying to him as they had many times before, “Be quiet! We have a guest here in town, and we don’t need your embarrassing outbursts. Sit quietly and listen to what he’s saying.”

Then “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ ” Here is the first indication that this story is not just about the blindness of Bartimaeus. Others are blind too. Those who tried to quiet Bartimaeus and put him back in his place were blind to Jesus concern for him – a concern for even this obnoxious panhandler on the side of the road.

In this story we are being asked to open our eyes. Even us, here and now; we of First Congregational Church. We who can see so well. Many of us have even had that common laser surgery that gives us new sight when our eyes grow dim.

The first thing that we are invited to open our eyes and see is God’s love for hurting people. Long before this story took place, when Jesus spoke in his hometown synagogue at the beginning of his ministry, he set forth the goals for his life’s work by saying that he had come to free the captives and to give sight to the blind. Here in this story he’s doing precisely that.
Do not to miss the most important thing here. Though we are sighted, we can suffer from a kind of virtual blindness. We must open our eyes to the needs of people around us; people we often overlook, people whom God loves, just like Jesus loved Bartimaeus. Virtual blindness happens when we fail to see the needs of others.

Remember the story of ZACCHAEUS? Who – by the way – was also from Jericho. The Bible tells us that because he was a short fellow, and because tall people were in his way, he was unable to see Jesus. As a result he climbed a tree and overcame his “short-sightedness.” Like Zacchaeus, we sometimes do not see because other people are in our way.
Virtual blindness also happens when we get so busy, so preoccupied, that we fail to see the needs of others.

Remember THE GOOD SAMARITAN story? It is about two very religious people who were on their way TO JERICHO -- by the way -- and came across a beaten and robbed man on the side of the road. Could have been the same road where Bartimaeus sat. The two men in the good Samaritan story were so busy with their religious concerns that this bleeding and dying fellow was invisible to them. So they walked on by. Did nothing. They had perfect eyesight, but they were blind, blind as could be to the needs of the man laying there. How does that kind of thing happen? Are there people in OUR lives whose needs we are blind to?

In the Bartimaeus story we are invited to open our eyes to people in need around us. Sometimes those people are close to us, family, neighbors, coworkers, fellow church members. We must open our eyes to them because God loves them and invites us to do the same. Ours is a merciful God whose heart breaks whenever people are in need.

It may have been Bartimaeus’ request for mercy that caused Jesus to halt. “Have mercy on me!,” he shouted. Upon hearing those words Jesus stopped what he was doing, and called to him. Bartimaeus sprang to his feet like a jack-in-the-box and “blindlessly” hurried to the sound of Jesus’ voice. With a racing heart he stood before Jesus ready for anything.

Jesus looked at Bartimaeus and asked him a question -- a question with an obvious answer. “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man said, “My teacher, let me see again.” He had been sighted at one time and he desperately wanted to see once again. He longed to see,the colors of a sunset, the smile of a baby, the dark greens and browns and reds and oranges of the trees and leaves and plants and flowers,the brightness of a full moon,the snow on mountain peaks.

He had heard the words of the psalmist, “I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence my help comes,” but he could no longer have that experience of actually seeing the hills. And he wanted so much to be able to do that once more.

“My teacher, let me see again!”

Jesus then spoke those words of hope and encouragement and possibility that he had said many other times before, “Go; your faith has made you well.” He immediately regained his sight and followed Jesus.

Max Lucado in his book “God Came Near” tells this modern day story of a character much like Bartimaeus:

I was returning to my office when I saw him. He was singing. An aluminum cane was in his left hand; his right hand was extended and open, awaiting donations. He was blind. This man stood tall. And he sang. Loudly. Even proudly. All of us had more reason to sing than he, but he was the one singing. Mainly he sang folk songs. Once I thought he was singing a hymn, though I wasn't sure. His husky voice was out of place amid the buzz of commerce. After a few minutes I went up to him. "Have you had any lunch?"

He stopped singing and turned his head toward my voice. His eye sockets were empty. He said he was hungry. I went to a nearby restaurant and bought him a sandwich and something cold to drink. He was grateful for the food. We sat down on a nearby bench. Though sightless, penniless, he still found a song and sang it courageously. I wondered which room in his heart that song came from. His song was all he had. Even when no one gave him any coins, he still had his song. Somehow this eyeless pauper had discovered a candle called satisfaction and it glowed in his dark world.

I looked at the faces that flowed past us. Grim. Professional. Determined. But none were singing, not even silently. The irony was painfully amusing. This blind man could be the most peaceful fellow on the street.

[And then it hit me:] "Faith is the bird that sings while it is yet dark."

I helped my friend back to his position on the street. I tried to verbalize my empathy. "Life is hard, isn't it?" A slight smile. And he said, "I'd better get back to work."

For almost a block I could hear him singing. And in my mind's eye I could still see him. Though the man I now saw was still sightless, he was remarkably insightful. And though I was the one with eyes, it was he who gave me a new vision.

Open your eyes. To the needs of this globe we call home. Let God open our eyes to the needs of our planet. The way many of us treat this planet of ours, it is clear that there is plenty of “virtual blindness” when it comes to care of this earth.

Open your eyes to the needs of the homeless. I fear that many of us have “blind spots” when it comes to being concerned enough to do something for those even in this county who need affordable housing. In your bulletin is information about Habitat Calaveras, and their efforts to build homes for those in need. But the work will only succeed to the extent that good people are willing to open their eyes to the good that can be done.

Open your eyes to a vision of what we can yet be because of God in our midst. I know that some of you fear for the future of this congregation in this time of pastoral search. I encourage you to open your eyes to the one in our midst who secures our future. The same one who stopped and opened the eyes of that blind man so long ago. And gave him his sight.

May God give to us the vision to see the world, and our community as God sees it.

The Nugget, Nov 2006

"God is able to provide you
with every blessing in abundance…
God scatters abroad, God gives to the poor;
God's righteousness endures forever."
(2 Cor. 9.8-9)

November for us is a time when two key concerns get brought into clear focus. Our Stewardship campaign and Thanksgiving.

I hope you are making your plans to be with us for that special day Sunday November 12. That is when we will gather for worship at 9 a.m., and then share together in fellowship hall a Stewardship Brunch after worship, about 10:30. It will be an opportunity to celebrate our life together, as we think and plan for the financial support of the church in the coming year. We want everyone to be part of this important effort to underwrite the work of our congregation.

November is also a time of Thanksgiving, to celebrate that holiday, but also to find with ourselves the genuine spirit of Thanksgiving. There is no better way of doing Stewardship than by thinking of it in terms of gratitude. We have been blessed by God and need to respond with grateful hearts.

This whole matter of being blessed by God is something that the head has trouble with. But because we are people of faith, it rings true. We cannot escape it: we have made a place for God in our lives, and we cannot discount that. We hear words like those at the top of this article from the writings of Paul, about God being able to care for us. We hear words about not worrying endlessly about how we will get by if we give to the church. And deep in our hearts a familiar tone is struck. This language of faith strikes a responsive chord. The culmination of the whole matter was, for Paul, an expression of gratitude: "Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift."

A more lofty celebration of the gifts of God could not be made. A simple outburst of love and devotion and worship. This was the outpouring of a heart touched by God's abundant grace.

A couple was visiting a beautiful cathedral in a Midwestern city. They had just
wandered in off the street and wanted to rest for a few minutes. They sat down and admired stunning stained glass windows and solemn pillars and mostly empty pews on this Tuesday afternoon. The organ began playing, so they listen for a bit.

It was fabulous. After a few very impressive pieces, they saw the organist step away from the organ and start to walk out of the church. Only then did they noticed that this man seemed rather unkempt, not too different from some of the street people they had seen. One of them complimented the man on his beautiful playing.

“Are you the regular organist? Do you play here often?”

“Mine is an interesting story,” he said. “Are you sure you want to hear it?”

“Why yes, of course.”

“I once lived in this community, and am just back here for a visit and to play this organ,” he said. “A few years ago I was quite wealthy and was active in the life of this church. I did so well that I actually gave the funds to purchase this organ.

“But then I lost virtually everything. And now I am barely getting by. But I like to come here and see this great church, because it reminds me of how much good my giving is still doing. Do you understand what I am trying to say? All I have left is what I gave away.”
There will come a time when that will be true for each of us. And we will understand that all our giving does far more than we might imagine.

“Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Nugget, Oct 2006

“Jesus did not speak to them except in parables.”
(Mark 4.34)

After one of my children’s stories several years ago, an elderly gentleman in the congregation asked me, “Was that story true?” My mind flashed back to one of Andrew Greeley’s novels I read probably 25 years ago. He writes at the outset that not all of the events in his story actually happened, nor are all the characters real people, but the story is nonetheless true.

At the beginning of the movie Big Fish, the narrator says that what follows is the story of his father’s life, probably not the way things actually (factually) happened, but the way his father told it to him, which is the truest telling of the story.

A boy of 4 or 5 came up to me several years ago while I was serving First Christian Church Stockton and said, “Pastor Steve, where do you get all these stories?”

“Well,” I said, “Some I hear from other people. Some I read in books. And some I make up myself.”

“What?!” he replied incredulously. “You mean some of them are

“No, not fake,” I said. “They are all real. Sometimes the things that come from our imagination are as real and true as anything else.”

Why is it so easy to dismiss the value of stories? We need our stories. We have to have them. We ARE our stories.
  • What is our faith, if not a story?
  • What would communion be apart from the story it tells?
  • Who is Jesus apart from his story?
  • And what was his message apart from the stories that he told? The Gospels of the New Testament even say that Jesus told his followers nothing BUT stories. (Mark 4.34)
First Congregational Church of Murphys is not just a building at Church and Algiers Streets. We are not just bank accounts and programs and committees. We are not even simply a set of beliefs or a collections of historical facts that go back 140 years. FCC is a story, a drama that has been playing out for longer than any of us can remember. And as best we can tell, it will continue for a long time to come.

As with any story, the unfolding of it, the dénouement, takes time and requires patience. It has a life of its own. We wish we could control and steer it in exactly the right direction. We would like to manipulate it for our purposes and determine the precise times when things happen. But it does not always work that way.

As our Search Committee knows. As they continue their work, and as their quest gets extended beyond what most of us expected, it behooves all of us, myself included, to let the story unfold in God’s good time. This does not mean that we throw up our hands and say, “What ever happens, happens.” Not at all. We are partners with God in this whole drama. Not passive partners, but partners within whom God dwells, the God who is still speaking, the God whose spirit moves among us to advance the story as it moves along.

October is a time of celebrating World Communion Sunday and the power of God’s love to turn our hearts toward the needs of the whole world. How else can we do that faithfully without a sense of the story that we are, and the God of all humanity that gives our story its credibility and its soul?

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Nugget, September 2006

“Forgetting what lies behind
and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal
for the prize of the heavenly call
of God in Christ Jesus.”
(Phil. 3.13-14)

Few things ever get to be 140 years old. No person has ever lived that long. Few buildings, especially in the U.S., survive that long. Of all the things in which we invest lots of money and resources -- furniture, clothes, animals, cars, jewelry, books, computers, appliances, etc. – few, if any, of them will survive 140 years. Look around you right now. What can you see that was around 140 years ago? Anything?

The month of September is the opportunity for us to celebrate the 140th anniversary of First Congregational Church of Murphys. Sunday, September 24 is the day that it will all come together and we will worship and celebrate in a fashion worthy of the event. Give close attention to the details in our Newsletter of the anniversary events that are planned. Your help is needed to make it a memorable and enjoyable day!

140 years is a milestone well worth celebrating. Not just because it is a remarkable thing for a congregational of people to be able to trace their existence back that far. After all, none of us were here back in the beginning. None of us are even old enough to be the children of the founders who first worshipped at Church and Algiers Streets. The farthest that any person in this church can trace their presence here is not even half way back to the beginning!

This 140th Anniversary is worth celebrating because it helps us get a clearer idea of who we are and where we need to go. That is why the theme of this anniversary is “Celebrate the Past – Embrace the Future.” Our theme is NOT “Worship the Past, Eschew the Future,” or “Live in the Past, Wonder About the Future,” or even “Embrace the Past, Forget the Future.” None of those get at the heart of what’s important in this anniversary. We want to celebrate the past, so that we can embrace the future.

Charles Kettering, in the spirit of the Apostle Paul as quoted at the top of this article, once said, “I am not interested in the past. I am interested in the future, for that is where I expect to spend the rest of my life.” This is true even though it is in the past that we learn some valuable lessons, and find strength and courage for moving into the future.

This last year and a half has been an Interim Time for our church as our Search Committee has worked hard at searching for a settled Pastor. This time has been a unique opportunity for us to regroup as a faith community. We have reflected on where we have been and who we are, and have done some thinking about where we are headed. That endeavor comes into even sharper focus as we pause to consider the meaning of turning 140.
We are in a unique position to build on the experiences of those who have preceded us, that “great cloud of witnesses,” to use language of the Book of Hebrews. Because of who they were – their faith, their sacrifice, their energy, their creativity, their foresight, their courage – we are uniquely positioned to plan and build for the coming years.

Even after 140 years, it can be said that the best is yet to be. This month’s anniversary will be one more step toward reaching for all that God has in mind for us, for realizing yet again that “God is STILL speaking”. Join with your church family and friends in making this anniversary event something that will catapult us into the next chapter of our life together.

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Nugget, July, 2006

“Just as you did it
to one of the least of these,
you did it to me.”
Matthew 25.40

It was a unique privilege for Cindy and me to be a part of a Heifer Study Tour to Albania and Kosovo in the early part of June. These two parts of the Balkans are not vacation spots like so many other Mediterranean locales. Albania and Kosovo both have been through tremendous hardships in recent years and are very deserving recipients of Heifer’s ministry.

Our trip consisted of daily visits to numerous Heifer sites where small farmers have been gifted with cows or goats or pigs, as a way of helping them avoid poverty and be self-sustaining. They not only receive an animal, they also learn to feed, protect and shelter it, and are also required to pass on the first born female to a neighbor.

One of the farms we visited is owned by a woman who lost both her son and husband in the Kosovo war of the late 1990s. (The “farms” are often small parcels barely large enough for the house, a few animals and maybe a garden.) Heifer had given this war widow a pregnant cow with the expectation that the first female offspring would be passed on to another family in need. Surprisingly the animal had twin female calves, although the vet warned that one of them was so small and weak that it would not survive. But this woman was resolute. “There has been enough dying in this village,” she said, and she tenderly nurtured the animal through bottle feeding and other special attention.

The animal in fact did survive. And when the time came to “pass on the gift,” her heart would not let her relinquish the smaller animal. Instead the stronger twin sister became the gift for her neighbor. The nurtured animal is still in her stable, a milk-producing testimony to this war widow’s determination and strength of spirit.

In Albania one of our many visits was to a poverty stricken, hillside community in the south of the country, where Heifer has given 150 goats in the last couple of years. The animals have provided the families with daily goat’s milk for increased nutrition, for sale in the local market, and for making cheese and butter. At one of the farms we viewed a “passing on the gift” ceremony after which we were invited to the local school for a community gathering.

Lining the entrance to the school grounds were dozens of cheering children who handed us flowers as we walked in. I felt like I was caught in a scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The accolades were overwhelming. But then I realized the depth of this community’s appreciation, primarily for the work of the local Heifer staff, an outstanding group, and then secondarily for the donors from the U.S. and elsewhere who are contributing to the betterment of this community.

At this celebration there were children singing, live music playing, recitations passionately offered, food enjoyed, Raki (the national drink of Albania) toasts made, and dancing. Their traditional dance is a kind of line dancing to Albanian music. It includes everyone, in this instance even one old gentleman who tossed aside his cane to take a young lady’s hand and high step with such passion, I feared for his safety.

It was humbling to see the indomitable spirit of the many people we met and the quality of life that they share. But most of all it was enlightening to experience first hand this work that I, like many of us, have supported from a comfortable distance for many years. The poverty of so many places in this world is staggering, but there is hope. The support that our congregation has generously given to Heifer for many years really does make a significance difference.

Thanks to Rev Jo Siders for filling in for me the Sunday we were away. And special thanks to the Camp Tam Work group who accomplished so much, all without this pastor’s onsite support. It is good to be back with you and to swing into the summer season, with all the many activities that are detailed in the latest edition of our Church Newsletter, the Nugget.

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Nugget, June 2006

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit…
binding in covenant faithful people
of all ages, tongues, and races.

The theme for the recently concluded Annual Meeting of our Northern California – Nevada UCC Conference at Asilomar was "In Covenant… God is Still Speaking." It was a terrific weekend for the 8 of us that represented our congregation in Pacific Grove and enjoyed the fellowship, the weather, the setting and the activities. So what that there was a little rain. So what that it tended to be cool and a little foggy. The fellowship and the activities more than made up for it. All in all it was a very pleasant and enjoyable few days.

The theme of the Asilomar weekend brought home to me once more that God is still speaking. And what God has to say is inextricably bound up with the covenant we share with one another, the bond that unites us, as a congregation and in the wider church. God has never been one to speak in a vacuum, nor one who speaks just to me or just to you with a message irrelevant to our relationship.

Unfortunately there are those who say, “God does speak to ME, in a unique way, and I don’t care what you say, MY word from God is all that matters.” That sounds very affirmative, very assertive. The problem is it leaves out the covenant, the relationship we share with one another. But most alarmingly it ignores the fact that in covenant God’s people have ALWAYS understood God best.

In COVENANT God is still speaking. "We are members one of another," the apostle Paul said. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said.

The Annual Meeting at Asilomar further reminded me that the Covenant we share is a covenant between a collection of rainbow people who are very diverse. And in that diversity we find our uniqueness and our joy. And confirmation of our obedience to God through Jesus Christ.

I heard a news report not long ago that referred to our 7th President, Andrew Jackson. In 1829, when Jackson was sworn in as President, all his old buddies from the South descended on the White House and created quite a stir. They ate like it was their last meal, tracked mud into the mansion, swung from the drapes, spat tobacco, and just about wrecked the furniture. To elect Andrew Jackson meant having to deal with those he counted as friends, much to the chagrin of the elite in Washington, D.C.

It is the same with Jesus and the Covenant we share as Jesus people. He does not come alone into our hearts and affections. He always brings somebody with him. Often those somebodies are the lost, the least and the last. Often they are what we call losers or rejects or undesirables.

Not only does Jesus bring with him bodies you won’t see in Esquire or Cosmopolitan, he brings work to do. And the work is often among the poor or the outcast or the despised of this world. The work he brings is also among the richest among us, who are sometimes among the poor in spirit. Jesus comes to us offering us covenant with persons we would not choose, had we the choice, and with work we probably wouldn’t normally select.

As God’s covenant people in this place at this particular time, we are invited to love all those God loves, to help those God seeks for the circle of God’s love. To do otherwise is to miss the nature of being in covenant, the covenant through which “God is Still Speaking.”

Special blessings to the family of Bob Henning. He and Mary were scheduled to attend the Annual Meeting but had to cancel when his sister in Elk Grove died unexpectedly. And special thanks to Rev Al Valentine who filled in for me, and to all of you who had to pick up the slack while the 8 of us were away at Asilomar.

Steve Shepard, Interim Pastor

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Nugget, May 2006

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.
Maya Angelou

Back on the first Sunday of Lent I said in my sermon that Lent is NOT my favorite time of the year. Almost as a confession I said that there is something about Lent that I just don’t much care for. But as I ponder NOW those words I spoke THEN, I can only ask myself, “What was I thinking?” I take it all back.

Lent at First Congregational Church was a wonderful experience. And now the presence of Easter is just as wonderful, despite the rain on Easter Sunday, or -- in our case up the hill -- the snow. With out-of-state family visiting us, we were hoping for some warm California weather to offer them, to complement their Easter weekend in our fair state. But it was not to be. Instead they had to hustle down the hill on the afternoon of Easter Sunday as the snow deepened and their fears of being snowed in increased. It was no way to treat good people like them.

But it was an appropriate reminder that the heart of Easter is not just sunshine and warmth. It is more about the presence and power of God arising from within, despite the darkness and gloom. Jesus’ promise is that God’s presence is with us not just in the brightness of spring and the joy of happy times. Instead, as the resurrected Christ remarked, “I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth.”

Truth be told, I do not mind the rain and the winter weather, even in these weeks of spring. The way I see it, we will get the warmth and heat of summer soon enough. One of our folks came up to me during the wedding reception for Teddi and Joe at Native Sons Hall and said, “I am so tired of all this @!#$! rain. Can’t you pray for good weather? Enough is enough.” I swallowed hard, and then admitted to her that I may be part of the problem: it appeared God HAD been answering my prayers.

If only our prayers could affect the weather. In fact, they don’t. But it is in prayer that we can find our way to the fullness of Easter. It is in prayer that we discover the spiritual strength and wholeness to become God’s Easter people, come what may.

Speaking of being God’s Easter people… Faith Roberts was the first one to mention to me that she had seen the new United Church of Christ commercials on TV. Others of you have seen them: the so-called “ejector commercials” that humorously remind people that “whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus did not reject (or “eject”!) people and neither do we. By the way… if you do not see the commercials on the TV stations you watch, just go online to the UCC website.

I cannot see the calendar take us into May without raising a toast to all of you on our one year anniversary together. I celebrate this congregation on how well you are progressing through this Interim period. I raise a toast to the Search Committee on the work they are doing. I commend them on their serious commitment to the task that is theirs, and the spirit and discretion with which they are approaching their job. I feel from many of you a sense of excitement as their works gains momentum.

I raise a toast to the leaders of this congregation. This has been a different year because of the transition we have been in, and that has caused us all to approach our work with a heightened sense of what is yet to be. I raise a toast to all of you – church family and friends -- who have had to think about your church life a little differently knowing that the pastoral leadership of the church will be changing in the not too distant future.

As God's Easter people we are on our way. Thank you all for the joy of the journey so far.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Nugget, April 2006

So then let us not fall asleep as others do,
but let us keep awake…
For Christ died for us,
so we may live with him.
(1 Thess. 5)

It has come to my attention that some of you have been sleeping during worship. This surprises me. Not that certain people are actually sleeping in church. That doesn’t surprise me. Sleep happens. I know that. I learned a long time ago not to take it personally. It happens in every church.

What surprises me is the fact that those who were mentioned to me were not the ones I had SEEN sleeping during worship. Yes, I do notice when people nod off. But evidently I don’t ALWAYS notice. Which is to say that some of you have been getting away with dozing off during worship.

I realize there is not a lot I can do about that. I am not about to stop my sermon and ask one of the ushers to go over and thump you on the ear. Nor would I want to suggest that the dozers refrain from coming to worship. That doesn’t make sense. But it does lead me to suggest a couple of points of etiquette associated with sleeping in church that I must share with you.

First, the sleep offenses: One of the more serious offenses often committed by church sleepers is dozing off in such a way that their neighbors are compelled to elbow them in the ribs. This happens if you snore or if your head falls to your chest or if you stay seated when everyone else stands.

Then there are those who commit what I call the “two elbow offence.” This occurs when people on BOTH sides of you have to elbow you in the ribs in order to get you awake. The only thing worse than that is the two elbow offender whose friend in the choir is forced to communicate silently but expressively from across the sanctuary to your neighbor that you must be awakened.

In truth however, none of that is really necessary, if only the sleeper would position himself or herself correctly. And I don’t just mean position yourself behind a tall person like Alan Thode or Charlie Sutter, where you can be somewhat hidden. I am talking about positioning yourself correctly, so that even if you are on the front row, you can sleep undisturbed.

You see, when you sleep in church you must not LOOK like you are asleep. You should look like you are praying, or pondering thoughtfully. It is not that hard. All you really have to do is adopt a pious pose. It need only be pious enough so that there is reasonable doubt in your neighbor’s mind. If you can create that doubt, you should be home free. Who is going to jab the ribs of someone who “appears” to be praying or meditating?

After all, Lent is a time for reflecting and pondering, so if you can adopt this pious pose when you sleep in church, you should be safe. At least for now. With Easter coming however, all the aforementioned advice will have to be re-thought. When Easter comes, my sleepy friends, all bets are off.

Because Easter is a time to be awake, alert to the rising of Christ in our midst. It is a time to be fully aware, attentive to the newness and the life that God creates among us. Paul’s advice will have to be heeded: “Awake sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5.14)

So get your sleeping in church done during these weeks before we celebrate resurrection. Remember, “Friday’s Here, But Sunday’s Coming” – the reflective season of Lent is nearing its end, the celebration of the Easter Sun/Son is drawing near.

Steve Shepard
Interim Pastor

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Nugget, March 2006

In the daily round of life,
dust and cobwebs accumulate in our souls.
The hidden corners of our hearts
become encrusted with grime
or filled with forgotten debris.
During the weeks of Lent,
God's Spirit is given opportunity
to clear away the clutter,
sweep away the dust and wash us clean.
We are invited to prepare ourselves
heart, soul, mind and body
for the new life of Easter.
-Marlene Kropf

Spring Cleaning for the Soul. There are many different aspects to the traditional observance of Lent, but the most important thing about it, as Marlene Kropf reminds us in the quote above, is the way it beckons us to clear away the clutter of our lives and find spiritual renewal. It is a kind of "spring cleaning for the soul."

Like Easter Sunday, the first day of Lent always falls on the same day of the week each year — Wednesday, but not on the same day of the month. This year Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls conveniently enough, on the first day of March. I invite each of you to make this season of Lent a time to be on a spiritual journey; a journey you can understand in three ways: in terms of numbers, in terms of the drama of the life of Jesus, and in terms of experiences to which we are invited.

Crunching the numbers. Beginning March 1 and ending April 15, Lent lasts 46 days (31 days in March and 15 days in pril). Those 46 days include the 6 Sundays of Lent (days of worship historically thought of as “little Easters”) and then 40 other days that represent the 40 days of drama, fasting and struggle that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the start of is ministry.

Divine Drama. Lent is also a time to follow the drama of the life of Jesus. It begins with a consideration of the time Jesus spent in his own personal wilderness, wrestling with evil, but it also includes a look at other dramatic moments in his life. During these 6 weeks the Sunday gospel readings will set the tone as they invite us to ponder
During Lent we will ask how the life experiences of Jesus speak to us about our lives and our church.

Living Our Faith. Most powerfully, Lent is also a journey during which we participate in experiences that invite us to live out our faith. These experiences include
  • the ecumenical March 1 Ash Wednesday Worship at Faith Lutheran Church,
  • the Soup Supper and "Video Vespers" each Wednesday evening March 8 through April 5,
  • the 6 Sunday morning worship services,
  • and the Holy Week events of April 9 -16, including an ecumenical Maundy Thursday Communion Service, a Good Friday Service in our sanctuary, and an Easter Sunrise Service at Buena Vista Cemetery.
Each event is designed to help us experience the meaning, the power and the promise of following the one we know as Savior and Sovereign.

I want to say a very special thank you to those groups in the church who will be hosting the Soup Suppers on Wednesday evenings through Lent: Christian Ed Board (March 8); Diaconate (March 15); Music Committee (March 22); Mission Board (March 29); and Health Ministry Committee (April 5). Join us to appreciate the fruit of their labors and then to share in a time of prayer and worship as we experience Lent to the fullest.

Pastor Steve,
Interim Minister

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Nugget, Feb, 2006

And I said to the one who stood
at the Gate of the year:
"Give me a light
that I may tread safely
into the unknown"
And that one replied:
"Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
and safer than a known way."
-Minnie Haskins
As we make our way into the new year it is important to affirm that we have a God in whom we can trust. After all there is much about this new year that is uncertain.

For many reasons we want to have some guarantee, some sense that life for this congregation will go well, that there will be no unexpected events that will test us. But as we know, that is not the way life is, either for us as individuals or for us as a church.

We can plan well. We can set ourselves up as best we can to make sure that we can deal with whatever comes our way. But when it is all said and done, we find ourselves needing to be reminded of the truth in the quote at the top of this article. We want light to be able to see clearly as we make our way into the future, but there are times when all we get is the hand of God in the midst of the darkness. But that will have to be enough.

Thanks to all of you who were in attendance at the congregational meeting recently when we approved the Budget for 2006. And special thanks to our Financial Advisor Alan Thode and all those who worked with him in preparing the Budget. It is very encouraging and gratifying for me to read that the church’s financial situation is better than might be expected at this particular time. During an Interim time it is not unusual for a congregation to struggle to maintain its financial health. People tend to wonder how the church will do and what changes might be occurring. And some are reluctant to pledge or to give with the same generosity to the work of the congregation. For this reason it was noteworthy at our congregational meeting to hear from those responsible for financial matters that we are doing very well. It was even reported that our initial pledges to the church for 2006 set a record for our congregation. Needless to say, this is a good sign!

I am also encouraged to see that attendance figures for worship are remaining up. And that participation in the various programs of the church remains good. These are all indications of the good health of MFCC. You are to be commended for the way you have remained faithful to the mission and ministry of our life together even during this period of transition.

What Minnie Haskins knew is something we must learn. As important as it is to plan well and to be ready for whatever might come, the key to being a faithful church requires one other thing. And that is being able and willing to venture into the darkness by the grace of God. 2006 promises to be an important year for our church. Let us make it all it can be by placing our trust in the hand of God, which is something “better than light and safer than a known way.”