Notes from Our Pastors

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin

The New Life of Easter

April 20th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Easter · No Comments

There are certain socially accepted verities, certain baseline truths that we think our lives rely upon. We often think of them in terms of opposites: male and female, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, right and wrong, heaven and earth. You’re either on one side or the other, we think.  You can’t be on both: winner or loser, Republican or Democrat, Taylor Swift or Kanye West.

Easter morning brings us face to face, nose to nose, with the one baseline truth that rises up above all others: living or dead. Isn’t that it? Aren’t we terrified of death? Isn’t it all about who lives the longest, has the most stuff, avoids disease, looks younger, is most successful, holds off death the longest and best? And then when you die it’s all over?

That’s why Paul’s attitude in Philippians is so astounding. He upends all the old verities, all the rules we have been told to live our lives by: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-8,10).

All the old truths are cast aside. Gain and loss: Paul thoroughly mixes them up.  Suffering and power: Paul sees the first as a path to the other. Death and life: It’s only by sharing in Christ’s death that we will share in Christ’s life, according to Paul.

I know what Rev. Joel Osteen would tell Paul—you’ve got it all wrong! It’s all about success! Acquisition! Using faith to increase your territory, to increase your personal power! To pray-for-success-type Christians, new life is pretty much living by the same rules as your old life except this time you win! And I mean, Donald-Trump-style WIN!  One percenter income! High rise apartment! Golden fixture bathrooms! Latest model wife, husband or partner!

Nope, says Paul. No thanks. Paul doesn’t like the old rules, the old truths. Paul understands that Easter changes everything, and that coming into relationship with Christ means an old life has ended and a new life has begun.

In the aftermath of Easter morning, are you ready for your new life?

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides­

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Don’t Miss Easter

April 20th, 2017 by Jeannie Douglas in Easter · No Comments

Dear members and friends,

As I was thinking about our Easter Sunrise Service, I remembered one sunrise service I especially enjoyed. I was in my 20s and lived in Santa Barbara, California at the time. The pastor had decided to have the sunrise service on a cliff, overlooking the ocean.

We all thought it was a great idea because, after all, we could get there when it was still dark and be able to watch the sun rise during the service. Wouldn’t it be beautiful? The thing was, we were all directionally challenged because, as you know, the sun comes up in the east and the ocean in California is in the west.

The colors over the ocean that day were fabulous and we had a wonderful service, followed by a tasteful breakfast. I remember some of us singles stuck around and enjoyed the day by climbing down to the beach and enjoying the water. A typical Easter Sunday in the state of California.

In the book of John, there is the story of that first Easter after Jesus’ death. John 20:1 tells us, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” These women were not getting up early so they might watch the sun rise. They were not excited to see what the day would bring. They were there to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. But when they arrived, there was no body.

We read that Mary went to tell Simon, Peter and another disciple what she found and they all went back to the tomb. However, when the disciples arrived, they found no body, and so they left, leaving Mary in her grief. Now here is the interesting part of the story: They are among the first to see the tomb empty, to witness the events foretold, but they missed the point.

They missed that first Easter.

But Mary, she stood there weeping outside the tomb. She and the other women had come to the tomb prepared to see a body, to touch a body, to prepare a body; their entire task depended on a body. And then, there was no body. We know that as she stood there weeping, Jesus appeared to her and when he spoke her name, she realized who he was. Mary, because she stayed, because she could not bring herself to leave this place, she was the first one to experience Easter.

On this Easter morning be careful—don’t miss Easter. Don’t walk away, disillusioned, from the empty tomb, wondering what you missed. Don’t find yourself feeling empty, like you didn’t quite get it. In the midst of celebrations and special meals with loved ones, don’t rush out, like the disciples did, feeling that what you came to see wasn’t as special as you thought it would be.

Don’t hurry away. Just stay, wait a little, stand at the door of the empty tomb. Realize that Christ is here. Christ’s Resurrection, power and presence are with us here, even today, as He promised.

Easter is a celebration. Some celebrate it with the Easter Bunny, but you and I know that the true meaning of Easter is Christ’s Resurrection. We know that His Resurrection means that death has been conquered and we have been given life. Now we can truly see God in others, in ourselves, in nature and in all that surrounds us.

Easter means that we can shout out “I have seen the Lord.”

And we know that when we hear “Christ is Risen!”, our response can be “Christ is Risen indeed.”

Easter blessings to all,
Pastor Jeannie

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Spreading Our Palms

April 7th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Lent · Spiritual living · No Comments

Today is Palm Sunday, a traditional Christian observance of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We celebrate with palms because in Matthew, it says that some people “cut branches and laid them on the road” as Jesus rode into his hometown. Others laid down their cloaks. The Bible says that many celebrated by shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in Highest!”

It’s a very upbeat picture with imagery of a grand party and royal welcome. But this celebration came at a great cost and a great sacrifice for Jesus, who wept of his beloved city.

Standing in the Narthex on Sundays is one of my favorite times of the week. I get to see people I have not seen in a while, check in with folks I know, and greet visitors or those considering membership. It is not unusual for a complete stranger to candidly share why they are visiting, recalling of some deep pain or longing and a correspondingly deep hope to become involved with a community that values them regardless of their circumstance. Will First Congo be a place of healing, abiding fellowship, and a home for me and my house? Can I come as I am? Will branches of welcome be laid down for me, or will I become ensnared in a thicket of painful thorns or turned away?

I was talking with a young woman who said that because she was a young, single mother, her church would not agree to baptize her 1-year-old daughter. She clearly wanted to have her daughter baptized and had been repeatedly turned away.

She asked, “Is your church a place that would consider baptizing my child even though I am not married?”

My heart broke for her and for this little child I have never met.

“I am sure we could find a place for you at First Congo,” I replied. She looked at me with joyous disbelief, and then downward with a pained expression.

This is not an unusual kind of conversation to have: joy and grief all mixed up together as the Holy Spirit moves to encourage and grow Christ’s church. So too was Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem; before the palms and cloaks were laid down, before the shouts of Hosanna, he looked over his city and wept for them. He carried a great burden for his people and somehow trusted God that the uncertain road he followed would take him home to everlasting wholeness, acceptance and life eternal.

The fact that Christ’s celebration and our celebrations, happen amidst our broken world, amidst Christ’s impending sacrifice, amidst our own betrayals and failures, this is what makes the joy of celebrating the Holy Spirit truly divine and truly profound. There is no place that God cannot work through us for joy and life.

We need to remember to spread our palms for others out of compassion, and to celebrate when others spread their palms for us. By saying: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” we have a mini Palm Sunday celebration every week amidst our everyday lives: right where Jesus wants God’s love to be, right where the Holy Spirit is meeting us.

So, who do you know that needs to hear these words of welcome this week? How might you hear these words anew? What palms of welcome do you have to offer and how have palms been offered to you?

Grace and peace,
Pastor Nick

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Our Common Lot in Lent

April 3rd, 2017 by Steve Savides in Lent · No Comments

When I began ordained ministry, Rev. Jim Parker had been pastor of a neighboring UCC church for (seemingly) forever. I was with Jim in a lectionary/sermon preparation group one January day when he announced that he wouldn’t be with us in February and the first half of March; he was heading down to Florida for vacation. This was unimaginable to me, leaving church in the middle of the Holy Season.

“What about Lent?,” I asked him.

Jim smiled. “This year I’m giving up Lent for Lent.”

I think of Jim in these dog days of winter, when we know the season can’t last forever but it sure seems like it will; in these dark days of Lent when the Good News of the Resurrection still seems so far away. I can’t blame him or any other snow birds for fleeing to warmer climes, avoiding the worst of winter, side-stepping the darkness of Lent. Sometimes it all gets too heavy, too hard, too depressing.

But I also want to remember what we proclaim in our UCC Statement Faith, that God in Jesus Christ “has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world” to God’s self. This season reminds us that God does not side-step our sorrow and suffering. God does not flee from darkness and death. It’s because of this that we too can endure.

The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova who suffered so much loss in Stalinist Russia, wrote the following entitled “Instead of a Preface” for her Requiem:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):

            “Can you describe this?”

            And I answered: “Yes, I can.”

Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

This is Jesus Christ, the one who chose to live as one of us and can remember and describe the terrors of human existence. The season of Lent reminds us that because of Jesus and the choice he made, we can see our way through the sadness and darkness of the present moment and present season to hope and purpose, life and love. Easter’s coming soon. Spring too!

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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The Beauty of ‘New Life’ All Around

March 23rd, 2017 by Jeannie Douglas in Easter · No Comments

This year, spring snuck up on me. Before I knew it, it was March 20 and warmer weather and longer days were upon us. Spring reminds me that Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are just around the corner and we have a lot to look forward to as Christians.

When I was young, I remember that my Dad’s favorite holiday was Easter. I never really knew why, but I did know that Easter Day was a day that we would spend together as a family. We would always get up early and go to church. Then when we got home, we would change our clothes, pack a picnic lunch, get our fishing gear together and take off on a family outing. It was always the perfect day (remember I was in California where we really didn’t know that snow lasted longer than a day).

Spring does that to us. It brings new life, a feeling of freshness and a new outlook on life. Even the word “spring” has a bounce to it. So I am looking forward, once again, to a beautiful spring, an exciting Easter and all that follows.

Easter, of course we all know, means new life. “The Easter story is the axis of Christian faith. Our lives orbit the mystery of the empty tomb like the earth around the sun. In the Resurrection, the God of new things transforms reality and offers hope and life to all.”

My hope is that as we prepare for spring and Easter, we begin to notice the “new life” that is developing before our eyes; that we enjoy the colors, the warm weather and the freshness that is coming our way; and that, once again, we begin to realize the awesomeness of all that has been done for us and all we have to be thankful for.

As I think about new life and all that I am thankful for, I am reminded of a Navajo prayer that expresses gratitude:

I walk with beauty before me;
I walk with beauty behind me;
I walk with beauty above me;
I walk with beauty below me;
I walk with beauty all around me;
Your world is so beautiful, O God.

Also, during this season of new life, let us try to remember all those who are in need, those who are away from their families, and those who struggle during this time and may we enjoy all the beauty that surrounds us.

Easter blessings to all,
Pastor Jeannie

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In God’s ‘Heel’

March 16th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Spiritual living · Uncategorized · No Comments

Sometime in the late 1800s, a family immigrated from Sweden to the United States. They came by boat and crossed through Ellis Island. Trying to bring something from their homeland to make their new lives familiar, one of the women hollowed out the heel of her shoe. In it, among other things, she placed a small handful of tiny snowdrop bulbs. They went undetected and eventually, the family arrived in Illinois where the bulbs were planted.

Her daughter then divided the bulbs for decades at the home she purchased. She never married and she kept her last name: Renfrew. Ms. Renfrew filled her life with children from the neighborhood. One little boy, Terry, who lived across the street, grew fond of her and she would babysit him.

Years later, after Ms. Renfrew died, Terry took his youngest child to the dilapidated remains of her home one spring and dug up a whole trunkful of snowdrop bulbs. Terry’s child, Nick, helped to plant them at their home in Mahomet, Illinois. Nick’s mother carefully divided the bulbs over decades. Finally, Nick had a family of his own. His parents brought him a bucketful of snowdrops, which he and his children planted in front of his home.

Now you know the story of the small white flowers that are about to bloom in front of Elijah’s bedroom window.

It’s hard to fathom all the hazards that these tiny, beautiful plants faced in their harrowing journey to grow strong and bloom beautifully. A lot of care, patience, planning and time went into providing for a future for such insignificant creations. Yet, this is how God cares for us and for our families: carefully, intentionally, over generations and across continents. God’s love provides. God’s love makes a way against all odds. God’s love seeks to give life and multiply it abundantly. Hear this passage from Matthew:

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

God’s persistent love can bring us a new perspective in our daily troubles. It makes us wonder,  when has God paved a way for one to feel at home as an immigrant? Where have you overlooked God’s unfailing nurturing presence in your life? How might you to respond and show care “for the least of these” today?

God has provided a million ways for life to flourish amidst impossible circumstances. Therefore, let us not dwell in worry. Let us be free to cultivate and multiply the beautiful life entrusted to us, for our greatest hopes are held safely in God’s heel.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Nick

Snowdrop flowers

Snowdrop flowers

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In Secret

March 1st, 2017 by Steve Savides in Fellowship · No Comments

“When one member of the body suffers, then all suffer together,” the Apostle Paul tells us. Our sufferings, our sins, our confusion, our failures, our struggles and our doubts are to be shared, according to Paul, just as we share the good news of our triumphs and joys. We human beings are social creatures. We church people are a community. We’re meant to be in communion with one another, sharing our sorrows and joys.

One of my clergy mentors told me a story about how one of her church members had stopped coming to church. In fact, this gentleman had loudly announced his intention to never come to church again. He could worship God just as well in the fields and countryside as in the church, he said. So, one winter evening she called on this member for a friendly visit.

The two of them made small talk for a while, but studiously avoided the issue of church attendance. After some time, the pastor took the tongs from the rack next to the fireplace and pulled a single coal from the fire. She placed the glowing ember on the hearth. The two of them watched as the coal quickly ceased burning and turned an ashen gray while the other coals in the fire continued to burn brightly. The pastor didn’t say a word. The man said, “I’ll see you next Sunday.”

That man got the point: we human beings are social creatures. We church people are meant to be in community. Without community, we burn out and fade away. That’s why our sufferings are not supposed to be secrets. Unfortunately, we usually get it wrong. We make a great public show of our piety, of our religious faith, but we’ll keep our sorrows a secret. And isn’t that precisely wrong, according to Jesus? Isn’t that the exact reverse of how it’s supposed to be?

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” (Matthew 6:5-6).

That’s what Jesus tells us. Keep your piety a secret but let your sufferings out. Share your sorrows. And remember always to do this with your brothers and sisters in Christ. We truly love and care about you!

Your friend and fellow minister,
Pastor Steve Savides.

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Reaching the ‘Tipping Point’

February 24th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Uncategorized · No Comments

It was my freshman year in high school and a group of youth from the church drove to my house to try to get me to come on a Boundary Waters canoe trip. I was reluctant, but eventually said yes.

Coming from a small town with the same classmates most of my life, this was the first week I would spend with peers from outside my hometown. Like many hometown relationships we had become close in some good ways, and confining and restrictive in others. So, this small community that formed as we traveled through the wilderness was like a new beginning for me as a freshman: a new beginning to make new friendships, explore who I was, and experience people from outside my hometown.

It was a very impactful experience for me. God’s creation was the backdrop to it all. We had Bible studies, faith conversations and prayer, which gave shape to our days together and grounded our relationships in love and kindness. It’s hard to be hard-hearted or close-minded when you are thrown into a new situation surrounded by such breathtaking scenery bespeaking the great love, artistry and attention to detail that our Creator has for all creation. Our little community formed as we moved through the wilderness together and the Holy Spirit moved through us.

This trip was a tipping point for me in my life and I am not sure where the road would have led without it.

When we combine God’s good creation and manifestations of faith-filled community, lives can be changed. Our camps, Pilgrim Center and Moon Beach, serve hundreds of congregations from around the state. They are powerful resources that enable both creation and community to be further built and dwell richly in our lives. Our camps are not just for kids: their diverse programming serves all ages, affording everyone the opportunity to recreate themselves and find their personal “tipping points.”

We have many children, youth, and adults at First Congo who are deeply invested in our church camps. Maybe it’s time that you reach out and make a connection; who knows where this road might lead?

Grace and peace,
Pastor Nick

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The Power of Touch

February 17th, 2017 by Jeannie Douglas in Epiphany · Spiritual living · No Comments

“…she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” Luke 7:38

I read an article on the internet the other day that told the story of a teacher who was teaching about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After the lesson, the teacher asked her students to write down what they would consider to be the seven wonders of today’s world. The notes that were turned in included items like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon. As the teacher was looking at her students’ notes, she noticed that one child had not turned in her assignment.

She asked her student, “Mary, are you having trouble with your list?”

Mary quietly replied, “Yes, I can’t decide, there are so many.”

Realizing that the girl had written something on the paper, the teacher persisted, “Well, just tell me what you have so far.”

Mary hesitated and then said, “I think the seven wonders of the world are to touch, to taste, to see, to hear, to run, to laugh and to love.”

The teacher was speechless. Mary, in her innocence, had captured the true wonders of life—the wondrous gifts from God.

Mary’s list is composed of common, everyday things we take for granted. By labeling them wonders of the world, we can gain greater appreciation for how extravagantly God has blessed us.

But, for me, today, one stands out: the wonder of touch. Touch is essential for us to be healthy. Research on animals found that animals deprived of touch develop serious behavioral and physical problems. Research studies also show that premature infants who are touched are healthier than those not touched.

Diane Ackerman, an American poet, says, “In the absence of touching and being touched, people of all ages can sicken and grow touch starved.”

Jesus used touch to heal, although he didn’t need to. With his words, he was able to make the afflicted well and the crippled whole. Even so, he included touch as part of his miracles:

  • He touched the eyes of blind men and healed them
  • Peter’s mother-in-law was healed when Jesus touched her hand
  • He touched the hand of a lifeless girl and raised her from the dead
  • He put his fingers into the ears of a deaf man and healed his hearing

Touch is the most basic expression of love, and touching creates a connection between the ones who are touched and the one who touches. So, it’s no wonder when the sinful woman, while weeping, wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and kissed them, that Jesus forgave her sins. A connection was made and Jesus knew her true heart.

We are called to be a people of love. If we’re going to learn to love like Jesus loved, we need to learn to touch others as Jesus touched us. Jesus calls us to be people who are determined to touch people who need to be touched. As we face our daily routines, let us be on the lookout for those who need a touch and, as Jesus did, let us reach out and touch one another with the love of God.

Blessings,
Pastor Jeannie

The Power of Touch

The Power of Touch

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Listening and Witnessing in Washington, D.C.

February 17th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Recent events · Social justice · No Comments

On January 19, 50 people from across the state boarded a bus bound for Washington, D.C. as part of our conferencewide Listening and Witnessing event.

Once we arrived in D.C., Friday was spent preparing for our march experience and attending an interfaith and interracial worship service at Emmaus United Church of Christ in Vienna, Virginia. Hundreds attended. On Saturday, we joined almost 1 million demonstrators at the Women’s March in downtown D.C.

A powerful and hope-filled experience was shared by all participants. The following is a brief reflection from one of the five participants from First Congregational Appleton.

Pastor Nick

Why I Marched

I will be honest, after the 2016 election I was angry, I was hurting and, truthfully, I was scared. I felt hopeless and out of control. I have never experienced those feelings due to an election, state or national. I have felt disappointed or annoyed, but never the raw fear that sat in my stomach.

I needed to do something; I needed to feel like I had a voice. So when the opportunity to participate with the greater Wisconsin UCC Conference in the Listening and Witnessing in Washington D.C. event became available, I jumped on board — literally.

Fifty men and women from around Wisconsin (and Germany) loaded a bus and headed for D.C. We drove 13 hours to Vienna, Virginia, where we meet with members from Emmaus UCC to discuss and listen. On Saturday, January 21, we stood with over 500,000 other people on the streets of D.C. We held signs, we talked to those around us, we felt the energy that comes from so many people coming together in one place.

I have been asked why I marched and I have a hard time finding the right words, but here goes:

I marched so no one feels they can touch my daughter without her consent.

I marched so my friends will not be told their marriage is wrong and not legal.

I marched so my friend who has left her whole world behind can become an American citizen.

I marched so that feeling of raw fear does not turn to hate, but turns to action and love.

I marched so that our leaders know we want what it best for this country, for the world.

I marched because I am proud to be an American.

I marched because I truly believe it is what I was called to do by Jesus.

Maja Glidden

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