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Oct 7, 2015

Let’s talk about money

Congress pulled it off this time. There is no government shut-down even though the new fiscal year is here and a budget is nowhere in sight. Spending bill after spending bill keeps our country stuttering along. As a church we are charged to be a witness to the world. Not only through our words but especially through our actions. And at St. John’s United Church of Christ we do have a budget for every year, we pay all our bills when they are due. We increase care for the elderly and educational opportunities for all. We do not leave the next generation with a pile of debt. We update the infrastructure of our facilities before huge repairs become due. That is our way of showing the world how to prudently manage your affairs in a Christian spirit. That is a powerful witness to young people learning how to budget and congressmen and congresswomen alike: Make a plan and stick with it.

Granted, our affairs are not nearly as complex but still we need to do all the things we need to do. And we always want to do more and better. It is a miracle how the generosity of our givers allows us to do more good for more people. The math is pretty simple: We are about 180 members. Our budget is about $180,000. That makes an average giving of $1,000 per person per year to keep us going. A lot of giving happens through the offering plates on Sundays. So let me break down the math even further. If everybody makes it to church 50 Sundays a year and gives $20 each time, we make budget. That is of course an average and reality looks very different. But it illustrates that it can be done.

But your generosity is not limited to that. The Endowment Fund and the Memorial Fund receive generous contributions above and beyond our budget. But please keep in mind that these are additional giving options. Our first and primary ministry is to serve God’s people here and now. Jesus said: “Let the dead bury their dead” (Luke 9:60). While the maintenance of our assets and gifts on behalf of passed loved ones are very much appreciated, primary effort has to go into our active ministries in our community and around the world.

The problem in Congress is that they are willing to let the whole budget process collapse over one or two line items. As a United Church of Christ congregation we value unity over separation. We come together across ideological spectra and send a powerful witness every-time we create and meet a budget: All God’s children need all of us to pitch in and to do our part. That is the stewardship God has entrusted us with – not only over the church, but the world.

Sep 22, 2015

Father Abraham had many sons

abrahamic religions
“Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them and so are you.” Are you humming along yet? Right arm, left foot…
This is not only a nice little children’s church song but also a very profound truth that speaks to three major religious events that are all happening today:
1. Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the US.
2. The Hadjj attracts millions of pilgrims to Mecca.
3. Yom Kippur reminds Jews around the world of God’s forgiving grace.

Why should I as a Protestant care about the Pope?
The Bishop of Rome is a fellow Christian! All our denominational split identities mask the truth that there is only the one holy, catholic church. Now in Rome they think they perfectly embody it like nobody else. And as Protestants we cannot recognize that. But the way the Roman Catholic Church symbolizes and lives unity of a global Christian community is a beautiful witness in the body of Christ. As a Protestant I care for the witness of our Catholic brothers and sisters because we are called to work together toward unity in the body of Christ. We share a common Baptism and we are sent by one Lord to serve all God’s children. We are called to work together and be one.

Why should I as a Protestant care about the Hajj?
Pilgrimages are one of the oldest and most profound spiritual exercises there are. The once-in-a-lifetime journey to Mecca is a beautiful symbol of people putting a lot of effort into their faith life. Jihad means making effort for God. As Protestants we talk about free grace all the time and that is true. But the huge amounts of time, money and effort every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to invest in this journey is a powerful expression of dedication. Like our Muslim brothers and sisters we are called to make an effort for our spiritual well-being.

Why should I as a Protestant care about Yom Kippur?
The Jewish Day of Atonement has a clear message: People can change. Yom Kippur symbolizes getting rid of our sins and starting afresh. A new start with a clean slate. Our trespasses are forgiven. You think the Reformation invented that? Think again! The power of God’s forgiveness has always been important to God’s people. When we are reminded that God forgives, then we are free to forgive ourselves and others. The blame game ends: I am okay. You are okay. God loves you. I love you. We can all change for the better. And we will be in need of change again next year for Yom Kippur.

Father Abraham has many sons. Many sons has Father Abraham. The three most important sons of Abraham that we need to understand as siblings in faith are Jacob, Isaac and Ishmael. As Christians we subscribe to the lineage of Isaac. Abraham was almost prepared to give his son’s life to honor God. Ultimately the early church saw Jesus’ death as a reflection of Isaac’s sacrifice. As sons and daughters of Isaac it does not matter whether you are the Bishop of Rome or just a regular Joe. As Christians we are all children of Isaac. The Jewish people are descendants of Israel which is another for name Jacob. And Jacob is Isaac’s son. Families are complex: Abraham had another son: Ishmael and eventually Islam develops in his lineage. As Jews, Christians and Muslims not only do we all serve the same God but we are also part of the same family. And when family members have special days you celebrate with them.

Sep 15, 2015

Change is the only thing that remains constant

Last week I wrote about the concept of time. Let’s stick with that another week because fall is in the air! How do I know that: Well, it is cooler and we are in that period between Labor Day and the September equinox both of which are commonly used to determine the beginning of fall. On a personal level people talk about the fall season of their lives either when the kids move out of the house or when they retire.

I like fall because it is easier to spend time outdoors. And the prospect of a quiet house and more free time sounds appealing as well. But in reality retirement is not as calm as people usually expect it to be and an empty nest can feel pretty lonely. Every season has its advantages and downsides. Here is the good news: Every season is just that: a season. This too shall pass. All aspects of life go through cycles: Relationships, finances, and yes, also faith expressions.

A lot of times churches tell themselves that they need to have the biggest and greatest children’s ministry because young families are the future of the church. Don’t get me wrong here: I am one of the strongest proponents of youth and children’s programs, but: I am not interested in a church that focuses on young families. I love the church when it has something for everyone. Here is a radical suggestion for people who are church shopping: Don’t look at the congregation that you visit only from the angle of how it fits into your life right now. Also consider how it will serve you in the fall season of your life: Are you confident they will provide the best memorial service at your death?

Yes, I know I am a dinosaur of pastor that actually still believes in this old-fashioned church model of cradle to grave. Only if there is something in it for everyone can it be relevant to all the people in all their ever changing seasons of life. “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” as Martin Luther said.

Sep 9, 2015

As Time Goes By

A kiss may still be a kiss as time goes by, but exactly how time goes by has always been up for debate: At sunset on September 13th, our Jewish brothers and sisters will welcome the new year 3776. That is based on a lunar calendar and used to schedule holidays and other religious observances. You may compare it to our liturgical calendar which starts on the first Sunday of Advent. If you are following politics you may be aware that the fiscal year ends on September 30th.

Every entity has its own calendar. The dates that we commonly use nowadays are from the Gregorian calendar. It is named for Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582. It replaced the Julian calendar which was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. Initially Protestants like us did not want to make the switch because it was imposed by the Pope. Who gets to set the world schedule? Who is in charge here?

And after thousands of years of calendar-making the whole system is still far from perfect. You may think you know how many days there are in a year but reality is that there are 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds. We need a leap year every four years except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. Confused yet?

Bottom lime: Time is not real, or at least it’s not objective: It’s a way in which we tell out stories. Every family has its own time line:
Remember when we moved from that town to this city?
Oh, everything changed after our baby was born!
Those were interesting times when I worked at that place.

Truth is: your time is yours alone and calendars are just attempts to synchronize us together into larger contexts like business schedules or holidays. Time is fundamentally relative, as Albert Einstein put it. Tell your story your way and be aware that everybody else does that, too.

To our Jewish friends: Shanah Tovah!

Sep 5, 2015

Two things to ponder for Labor Day

Here are two things to ponder this Labor Day Weekend:

1. How come women are still paid less than men?

2. What do labels like “employee” and “employer” mean in the sharing economy?

What are your thoughts?

Sep 1, 2015

Labor Day through the Millennia
Labor Day started as an important reminder for all the benefits that workers have gained from organizing. These days it seems to have turned into an occasion for mattress sales. The issues of fairness and justice have always been important to God’s people. God’s law is in large part instructions for social justice like this passage from Deuteronomy 24:14-22

“You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.”

In all aspects of daily life we are trying to optimize the use of resources. We want to get the biggest bang for our buck. We are looking for the very best deal on mattresses as it is. So it is totally counter-cultural to read this biblical mandate of inefficiency:
“When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”
Let me translate that into our reality: When you put together a shift plan be mindful of the single mom who needs to pick up the kids from daycare. The immigrants working in your business deserve a fair wage and you cannot exploit them because they do not have better opportunities. When kids go from foster home to foster home you owe it to them to provide public schools for them that help them get ahead in life.

At first glance all this is not economically efficient: typically you want to reduce labor cost as much as you can. Typically you can tell your workers to show up whenever you need them. Paying higher taxes for other people’s children does not directly benefit your own. But God commands inefficiencies like these. Be intentional about it.

Why? Well, you might find yourself in a situation where you require the assistance that only a fair and just society has to offer. Or as spoken to Israel remembering their former yoke :
“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.”

Aug 11, 2015

One Ministry in Two Uniforms

two uniforms

For my ministry I have two different uniforms: My Prussian robe is my Sunday best that connects me to the deep and rich roots of our tradition. One weekend per month I change after church to put on my uniform as a United States Army Reserve Chaplain. It may look like two separate ministries that are at odds every now and then. In reality though it is one ministry, endorsed by one body. The United Church of Christ connects me with my congregation and endorses me for military chaplaincy. Serving in two worlds comes with a unique set of challenges and benefits:

It is challenging for me: Last year I had to miss my wife’s and our middle daughter’s birthday. Besides the monthly drill, reservists also have annual training during the summer which lasts from two to three weeks. This year I missed our big family trip to Germany because of it. It is a big commitment that cuts substantially into family time.

It is challenging for the congregation: Some things can be scheduled well in advance like finding supply preachers to fill the pulpit while I am gone. But then there are pastoral needs when people need a visit and they know it is not going to happen. Or when someone dies and the memorial has to be conducted by another supply preacher.

It is beneficial for me: Serving in the military besides full-time church ministry keeps me on my toes. It makes me more efficient in my planning and I welcome the change of pace that comes with serving in different settings. It makes me a better pastor since serving both uniforms offers unique experiences that you cannot get anywhere else.

It is beneficial for the church: My congregation views its support of my military ministry as a service to our service members. They take pride in the fact that they allow me to be there for our Soldiers in need. The large veteran population in our church finds it easier to open up about the time when they served and oftentimes I see men in their 80s revisit their Korean war demons for the first time. When budget time comes the board members are appreciative of the fact that the Army provides me with continuing education and a comprehensive benefit package which equals added benefits for the church.

Serving both as a local church pastor and an Army Reserve Chaplain is something God calls me to do and by entering a covenant with me the church has agreed to make it their call as well. In return they get a well-balanced pastor.

Jul 15, 2015

Good Deal

The so-called Iran nuclear deal is a good deal. For years I have retweeted President Netanyahu‘s calls for tougher negotiations. He is still not content but I am. Here is why:

Time: In almost all provisions the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will be in effective for at least ten years. While some critics call that too short let’s be honest: What in life last longer than ten years? Just compare your own life to where you were ten years ago. In my estimation that is a significant amount of time.

Inspections: They will be ubiquitous and very thorough. Hiding a nuclear arms program will no longer be possible.

Sanctions: Lifting sanctions at the front end instead after good behavior is a classic carrot and stick approach: You behave, you can keep your carrots but once you start cheating we will get the stick out again in no time. That builds positive incentives.

Use of force: If all fails the international community now actually has a tool in its hand that allows for military action. Judging from the experience with Iraq and its non-compliance in the years leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom it seems wise to have that stick available. Should inspections not be satisfactory Annex I, para. 78 states:

“If the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities
inconsistent with the JCPOA cannot be verified after the implementation of the
alternative arrangements agreed by Iran and the IAEA, or if the two sides are
unable to reach satisfactory arrangements to verify the absence of undeclared
nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at the
specified locations within 14 days of the IAEA’s original request for access, Iran,
in consultation with the members of the Joint Commission, would resolve the
IAEA’s concerns through necessary means agreed between Iran and the IAEA. In
the absence of an agreement, the members of the Joint Commission, by consensus
or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means
to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. The process of consultation with, and any action
by, the members of the Joint Commission would not exceed 7 days, and Iran
would implement the necessary means within 3 additional days.”

Politics: Now the real good news is in the composition of the Joint Commission: Outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action every step would require the UN security council to come to an agreement that would not be vetoed by China or Russia. According to Annex IV, para. 1.2:

“The Joint Commission is comprised of representatives of Iran and the E3/EU+3
(China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United
States, with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security
Policy), together, the JCPOA participants.”

That means in order to establish non-compliance it only takes an agreement between the EU, France, Germany, UK and US. This majority is what makes me most confident in the JCPOA.

You can find all the documents of the agreement with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and SecurityPolicy.

Jul 14, 2015

Touch the Screen!

Healing in American Christianity has a somewhat bitter flavor in my mind. The stereotypical TV preacher was perfectly depicted and ridiculed by Genesis in their 1991 music video “Jesus he knows me”. A sad affair where show and business mingle. That said there is room for healing services in the church. The United Church of Christ even has an Order for Healing for Congregational Use. Our next healing service will be held on August 9, 2015. Here is an introduction, taken from the Book of Worship with a local Rosenberg twist:

Services of healing have a biblical heritage appropriate for the full life of a local church. Anointing and the laying on of hands are acts closely related to the covenant of faithful love between God and Israel and between God and the church. In scripture, monarchs are anointed, prophets commissioned, the Holy Spirit conferred, the sick healed, and the dead raised in acts of faith accompanied by anointing with oil, the laying on of hands, or touch in another form. The symbolism of touch has survived almost universally among churches in the laying on of hands at confirmation and ordination. The power of touch in healing is finding renewed acceptance as is the unity of the total person.

In the New Testament, faith, forgiveness of sins, and healing are frequently inseparable but distinct aspects of one experience. Out of mercy and compassion, God works to bring about reconciliation that restores peace between God and humanity, among individuals and communities, within each person, and between humankind and the creation. Guilt, anxiety, fear, broken relationships, and the loneliness of alienation all contribute to human sickness. Healing, in the Christian sense, is the reintegration of body, mind, emotions, and spirit that permits people, in community, to live life fully in a creation honored by prudent and respectful use.

In this healing service, four themes are intertwined: God’s word, growth in faith, forgiveness of sin, human touch.
At St. John’s United Church of Christ our healing service is part of Holy Communion: Together with the confession of sin and the assurance of pardon the whole person is strengthened to approach the Lord’s table with a sense of integrity.

In scripture, God’s word reassures us of the Creator’s love and compassion. Jesus’ acts of healing, the healing ministry of the New Testament church, and contemporary experiences of healing all testify to the health and fullness God makes possible in human life.

Faith in the inclusive sense of trust and belief in God’s unmerited goodness is an integral cornerstone of the New Testament understanding of healing. Individuals and communities of believers nurture each other in their mutual growth in faith. God does not promise that we will be spared suffering, but does promise to be with us in our suffering. Trusting that promise, we are enabled to bear the unbearable and recognize God’s sustaining nearness in pain, in sickness, and in injury.

Forgiveness of sin is often closely associated with healing in the New Testament. The connection of forgiveness and healing affirms the psychosomatic unity of individuals recognized by modern health sciences. It admits the importance of openness and honesty to every relationship of love. It sets health in the context of relationships restored by confession and forgiveness.

In the New Testament, touch plays a central role in the healing ministry. The power of touch is recognized, whether in the anointing with oil, the laying on of hands, or the less formal gesture of holding someone’s hand or touching a wound. Jesus frequently touched others: blessing children, washing feet, healing injuries or disease, and raising people from death. Jesus also allowed himself to be touched, washed, embraced, anointed. To allow oneself to be touched is an act of openness. To touch another is an act of acceptance in which a person transfers something of oneself to another: love, affection, protection, strength, power, acceptance. Touch in the healing ministry embodies the embrace of God for the redeemed creation when in the mystery of last things God will make all things new.

Jul 7, 2015

Praise Mother Earth during Parks and Recreation Month

I am grateful for the opportunity to be once again invited to lead the Rosenberg City Council in a prayer of invocation tonight. As always you have a full agenda and tonight you are making two presentations that I want to reflect on for a moment: Our Lady of Guadelupe Catholic Church is being recognized for the beautification of their property and the month of July is recognized as Parks and Recreation month in the City of Rosenberg. The Bishop of Rome just a few weeks ago released his ENCYCLICAL LETTER LAUDATO SI’ celebrating the beauty of mother Earth in a similar attempt. Let me share the first couple of paragraphs with y’all and then lead into Francis’ prayer that can be found at the end of his encyclical ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME:

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Remembering our beautiful city parks that survived recent flooding and celebrating America’s independence with a fun filled evening at Seabourne Creek Park, let us pray:
“All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.”