Persons with Roman Catholic background are the majority of new members we receive into our congregation. St. John’s United Church of Christ is normal in that regard. Throughout our denomination around 40% of newcomers were raised Catholic, according to “Catholics in the United Church of Christ”, a booklet composed by two former Catholics who became UCC clergy. Our church council has a significant portion of former Catholics as well.
In that sense it strikes me as odd that we avoid the term “catholic” when we recite the Apostles’ Creed. We need to fix that. As a united and uniting church our main goal is to bring the body of Christ closer to oneness and that is what “catholic” means: the ecumenical church universal. From now on we will go back to the traditional wording as printed in the hymnal.
The experiences of being Catholic are at least as diverse as they are in Protestantism. Whether you received your education before or after Vatican II makes the world of a difference. Whether your weekly CCD classes were top notch or you hardly ever went, determines how familiar you are with the church’s traditions.
Many Catholics, as Mary Luti and Andrew Warner describe it, “would have stayed in the Church ‘if only…’ If only it were okay to be gay, or for priests to marry, or for women to be ordained, or for divorced and remarried people to receive Holy Communion.” These Exiles usually remain Catholics with Mary and the Saints in their hearts. Who can blame them? Complex spiritual journeys are always welcome in the United Church of Christ.
Culturally they are easy to spot. Sometimes a Freudian slip will have them talk about mass, parish, or priest. Please remember: A Catholic priest typically covers a flock of 1,600 whereas the average UCC pastor only shepherds 200. You have more and easier access to your pastor in our tradition. Make use of that!
When we receive new members we celebrate their journey of faith that has brought them to where they are. The book of worship provides beautiful words for the occasion:
“By your baptism you were made one with us in the body of Christ, the church. Today we rejoice in your pilgrimage of faith which has brought you to this time and place. We give thanks for every community of faith that has been your spiritual home, and we celebrate your presence in this household of faith.”
If you want to learn more about “Catholics in the United Church of Christ” the 32 page pamphlet can be ordered here.
The traditional period in the northern hemisphere for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is 18-25 January. Those dates were proposed in 1908 by Paul Wattson to cover the days between the feasts of St Peter and St Paul, and therefore have a symbolic significance. In the southern hemisphere where January is a vacation time churches often find other days to celebrate the week of prayer, for example around Pentecost (suggested by the Faith and Order movement in 1926), which is also a symbolic date for the unity of the Church.
In Houston our 3rd Annual Ecumenical Prayer Service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be held on Friday, January 22, 2016, starting at 7pm. The 2016 host is Pleasant Hill Baptist Church at 1510 Pannell St., Houston, TX 77020. All are welcome!
The oldest baptismal font in Latvia dates from the time of the great evangeliser of Latvia, St Meinhard. It was originally located in his Cathedral in Ikšķile. Today it stands at the very centre of the Lutheran Cathedral in the country’s capital, Rīga. The placement of the font so near to the Cathedral’s ornate pulpit speaks eloquently of the relationship between baptism and proclamation, and the calling shared by all the baptised to proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord. This calling forms the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for 2016. Inspired by two verses from the First Letter of St Peter, members of different churches in Latvia prepared the resources for the week:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Archaeological evidence suggests that Christianity was first brought to Eastern Latvia in the 10th century by Byzantine missionaries. However, most accounts date Latvia’s Christian origins to the 12th and 13th centuries, and the evangelising mission of St Meinhard, and later of other German missionaries. The capital, Rīga, was one of the first cities to adopt Luther’s ideas in the 16th century, and in the 18th century, Moravian missionaries (Herrnhut Brethren) revived and deepened Christian faith throughout the country. Their descendants were to play a central role in laying the foundations for national independence in 1918.
However, the totalitarian darkness of the 20th century estranged many people from the truth about God the Father, his self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, the post-Soviet period has been one of renewal for the churches. Many Christians come together for prayer in small groups and at ecumenical services. Conscious that the light and grace of Christ have not penetrated and transformed all the people of Latvia, they want to work and pray together so that the historical, ethnic and ideological wounds which still disfigure Latvian society may be healed.
I hope you will come and attend this most marvelous service on Friday, January 22, 2016, when the Rev. Joshua Lawrence will represent the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ.
Yes, Virginia, there is a war on Christmas.
No, it is not happening right after Halloween when the self righteous do not like the design of disposable coffee cups. By that they only admit not to prepare for their coffee runs by bringing a reusable travel mug. No, the actual war on Christmas is going on right now, between Christmas and Epiphany. Most of our neighbors had their decorations down by December 27th. The Christmas radio station disappears as soon as Christmas begins. Virginia, that is where the war on Christmas is real.
In America there is confusion to when Christmas is happening. Many people and businesses confuse the holiday season with the Christmas season. Christmas is a church service: It is the Mass celebrating the Birth of Christ, short Christ-Mass. Since the 5th century Christians have celebrated the birth of Christ this time of year. Leading up to Christmas is the liturgical season of Advent. Christmas does not start until after Christmas and it goes on for 12 days all the way through Epiphany on January 6th. Whoever insists on saying “Merry Christmas” before then is waging war against one of Christianity’s most important holidays.
How did all of this come about? Well, in America we have a thing called the holiday season. It is the period of time from Thanksgiving until New Year, including such festivals as Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. That is where misunderstandings happen: Most major religions have their festival of light this time of year from Hindu to Jewish and Christian. And the retail industry loves this time of year. The cultural commercial holiday season is there to lead up to and support people in celebrating whatever their faith holds dear. The greeting for the season is “Happy Holidays” because it celebrates a variety of wonderful occasions.
As a Christian I indulge in both, the civil holiday season and the liturgical Christmas season. Not everybody knows that they are distinctly separate things and you will always find the terms used interchangeably. But it is my job as pastor and teacher to remind myself and my readers that, yes Virginia, please leave your lights and decorations up until Epiphany. And you, FM 99.1, please play Christmas music not only during Advent but also during Christmas!
The holiday season is supposed to be jolly and merry. Let me tell you that it does not always work out that way. As a matter of fact there are more deaths this time of year than any other. The sun setting so early leaves us in darkness. And the pressures that come with expectations for the festive season add to the burden.
There is a reason that most major religions have a festival of light in the winter season, because light and hope are in short supply when it is dark and cold all around us. You may call it Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Christmas. The point all these festivals make is: Light a candle in the darkness.
Dr. Martin Luther King Junior expressed it most beautifully:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
In 2015 I have worked on five suicides. On the Army Reserve side of my ministry two Soldiers killed themselves. On the local church side I know of three families who had people commit suicide. The military has an aggressive strategy where us chaplains regularly teach suicide prevention and suicide intervention. In the church we do not have such a thing. But since 2015 has been so deadly I intend to change that. I will speak up about suicide on a regular basis. You may call it my new year resolution: In 2016 I will work harder on training the church in suicide prevention and intervention.
Yes, you read that right: Suicide can be prevented. It is not a tragedy that strikes from the outside but it is human behavior that can be changed. It can be done. It is hard but possible. And to get one thing out of the way: Suicide is not a sin! The person who kills themselves is not bad for doing so. When the Psalmist talks about walking through the darkest valley, that is where that happens. If you cannot find a way out of the dark you may end up killing yourself. Yes, you too, as you read this right now.
If you feel that happening to yourself, please snap out of it and ask for help!
If you see that in a family member, friend or coworker, wake them up and show them the light!
In the epic battle between the empire of darkness and the rebellion of light the good guys always win. The death star will be destroyed. And make no mistake, I am not talking about a galaxy far far away. That struggle is happening right here, right now, in every heart.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Merriam-Webster has picked a word of the year. Actually they did not: they declared 2015 the year of a suffix: -ism.
Since 9/11 the world has been flushed with -isms related to terror-ism. The recent shootings in San Bernardino brought it back to the top of the agenda.
This trend toward -isms gains steam in a presidential election cycle that is fueled by labels: conservatism and liberalism. One candidate gets accused of promoting fascism, another embraces socialism. Pick your label that you like or hate.
In the United Church of Christ we are intentional about exposing and ending the negative labeling of persons: sexism, genderism, ableism, racism. We have consistently stood up for the equal treatment of all God’s children. Whenever a group of people has been singled out via an -ism we have stood right there with them.
“You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15)
It is so tempting to look at people and judge a book by its cover. We slap labels on people so we can categorize them. That is useful to a certain degree in order to find orientation in the world. But throwing -isms around as a method of judgement is just lazy because it cuts short a deeper exploration of a person or idea. We must acknowledge the sin of -ism. Because when we don’t we are bound to commit it because it is so convenient.
The Lord be with you!
Und mit deinem Geiste!
Lift up your hearts!
Wir erheben sie zum Herrn!
This is how over 100 people started the Communion Prayer for our German Christmas Service last Sunday. A few times a year we have multilingual events whereas Holy Communion is usually celebrated once a month. It so happened that our Adult Sunday School class worked on the topic of Holy Communion as well. When I stop by towards the end of their time I sometimes get to attend the final round of conversation and sometimes there are issues they request my input on. Communion was such an issue and their question was: Who can receive Holy Communion?
The short answer is: Everyone!
The main reason for that is simple: Holy Communion is nothing but the Word of God made accessible to those who wish to receive it. It has the same message that every sermon has: God loves you. Everyone is invited to hear the Word of God in the sermon, so everyone is invited to eat and drink the Word of God in Communion as well. Bread and wine are tangible sermons.
Some traditions have tried to limit access to the table by excluding those who are not considered worthy. By that standard nobody would be allowed at the table because we are all sinners. Jesus had Judas at the table of his Last Supper knowing full well he would betray him. He was not excluded but on the contrary Jesus has consistently dined with sinners. That includes you and me. That is also the reason why on Communion Sundays the order of our service includes a Prayer of Confession followed by the Assurance of Forgiveness. We need to acknowledge our sinfulness because it actually makes the Lord’s Supper all the more important.
There used to be a variety of age limits on the participation in Holy Communion. The argument usually went like this: Children do not grasp the meaning of Holy Communion. Yet understanding is not a prerequisite for participation: Family Ministry brings Communion to people in retirement homes and I can assure you that some of the residents do not even recognize that they are holding a cup of grape juice in their hand. What they do understand though is the feeling that there is a group of people that cares for them and that is after all what communion means – being together with one another and with Jesus Christ.
I have read two pastoral autobiographies lately. You would say they could not be any more different:
1. Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor is about him starting a family-oriented home town church in suburbia at a time when his baby boomer generation was just moving into their starter homes.
2. Nadia Bolz-Weber found her call to ministry later in life and is kind of a poster child for the postmodern, meaning-making, downtown hipster church culture.
To me the secret to their successes in ministries has more in common than meets the eye. Behind the obvious cultural differences they do the exact same thing: They open their lives not only to friends and parishioners but the broader public. They are low-boundary people.
I cringe when church functions are invited into their homes. I get uncomfortable when the privacy of church members is at risk when pastor talks too much. I worry about the example they set for colleagues to the left and to the right. If this model of doing pastoral ministry were the norm most pastors, including myself, would not be any good. People who open up that much intimidate me.
Wow, did you see what just happened? I opened up! All I set out to do was to write a book review for Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber. And now here I am becoming more like her. At first I was appalled by the book, but reading what I write about it, I must admit: You cannot argue with its transformational power. I guess I am one of those Accidental Saints, too. I guess everybody is to a certain extent.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
The Rosenberg City Council has invited me to give the invocation for tonight’s meeting. World AIDS Day is held on December first each year. This is a time when we remember people who have died from AIDS-related illnesses and people who are living with HIV; a time to give thanks for the progress that has been made and to reflect on what still needs to be done. It is an opportunity for people around the world to unite to eradicate AIDS and show support for people living with HIV. It is a time to commit anew to ensuring that no one is left behind.
The Ecumenical Council of Churches provides a beautiful World AIDS Day Liturgy this year. So I will adapt the Prayer of Confession that was originally composed by Rev. J.P. Mokgethi–Heath, Church of Sweden, to fit the occasion at City Hall tonight and offer the following prayer:
God our Creator, we confess that we have not looked upon all whom You have created with the same love and celebration as You have. We have not affirmed all Your people as having equal worth and equal dignity. We have stood by as others have been humiliated and cast out; Creator God, Have Mercy on us.
Jesus our Redeemer, in Your life on earth you lived the inclusivity you preached. You reached to the margins of society and drew all to salvation through Your sacrifice on the cross. We confess that we have not lived your inclusivity. Day by day we encounter people whom You have redeemed and walk past without recognizing the dignity you have bought for them; Redeemer God, Have Mercy on us.
Holy Spirit our Sustainer, You breath life into all around us. Your breath fills us with life and draws us to want to praise You. We confess that our community has not been a welcoming place for all. We have associated with those we feel comfortable with and been apathetic about the countless people who have felt barriers to entry, barriers to full citizenship; Sustainer God, have Mercy on us. Amen.
As a United States Army Chaplain this Veterans Day I celebrate all my brothers and sisters in the service, past, present and future. As a Christian Minister I also recognize November 11 to be Saint Martin’s Day. But then again, these two commemorations are really one: Saint Martin is the Patron Saint of Soldiers after all and the US Military Academy at West Point has a St. Martin Chapel for a reason.
Saint Martin’s Day
Martin of Tours was a soldier in the Army of the Roman Empire. One day as he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens (modern-day France), he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. Eventually Martin became a Saint and his cloak has been venerated as a relic in the Roman Catholic tradition. The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived.
Even though this is a reflection for Veterans Day and Saint Martin’s Day really what pulls it together is the Chaplaincy. The bearers of Martin’s cloak are no longer limited to the Armed Forces but you can find spiritual caregivers in Healthcare, Law Enforcement, Congress, Prison and even the Corporate Sector.
Serving all God’s Children
As I honor our Soldiers, Sailors, Airwomen, Airmen and Marines today I am reminded that they all serve all Americans. And I mean literally all the great diversity of people in the United States. The same is true inside the service where Department of Defense Directive 1020.02E states: “All Service members are afforded equal opportunity in an environment free from harassment and unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.”
Saint Martin did not care who the beggar was or where he was on life’s journey.
Martin shared his cloak with this child of God.
Veterans Day events are growing fewer and smaller every year. Those who show up are more faithful and committed than ever. Veterans organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion are scrambling to keep local chapters operational. As a pastor I enjoy having military honors at the funeral of a veteran but in our community the American Legion cannot even get enough people together for a 21 gun salute. This is a problem because more often than not this time-honored tradition will just have to be skipped.
The decline in veteran culture and organization has one simple reason: The size of the American military has been shrinking for decades. The total number of service members is only half of what it used to be through the 50s, 60s and 70s. From over 3 million we are now down to 1.3 million people on active duty. That is a good thing. We do no longer have wars that are a clashing of the masses, killing tens of thousands in one battle field. We utilize more technology and that means we put fewer bodies in harm’s way. We are keeping American lives safe and fewer families are affected by the horrors of war.
But under the condition of the fallen world that number will never reach zero: “But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (Romans 13:4) And that means that brave men an women will have to pick it up for all of us. We only want to send as many to war as we need to but when they come back we pledge our sacred honor to them as they pledged their lives to us. That gets harder the fewer there are. So the decline in veteran culture and organization is both to be mourned and celebrated at the same time.
Happy Veterans Day!
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