Notes from Our Pastors

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin

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.

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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Keeping an Open Door in Troubled Times

February 17th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Recent events · Social justice · No Comments

A Report from Our February 5 Congregational Conversation

In his February 1 pastoral letter concerning the proposed change in immigration/travel status for individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, Pastor Steve invited members and friends to “reflect together on what it means for us to offer an Open Door witness in the midst of these divisive times.” About 30 people gathered in the Chapel last Sunday to begin this process.

They shared their gratitude for our church’s commitment and witness, both historic and in the present, in welcoming and supporting immigrants and refugees to the Fox Valley. And they spoke of specific steps of we could take now to reaffirm that stance. Some of these are:

  • Offering multi-language yard signs that members could display, expressing welcome and hospitality for new neighbors
  • Beginning the study and discernment process leading toward declaring ourselves an “Immigrant-Welcoming Congregation” of the United Church of Christ; perhaps we could form a network of churches of several denominations having similar conversations at this time
  • Connecting our congregation’s leadership and membership with Islamic congregations in the Fox Valley in hopes of coming to know each other better
  • Providing information and support for our members who want to contact their elected representatives about issues like these

Turning these ideas into action starts with finding people who want to work on them. If you are interested in helping our church express its “Open Door” faith through these kinds of projects, please read Pastor Steve’s letter below.

Steve Hirby
Congregational conversation convener

Moving Forward

Thank you to all those who responded to my recent pastoral letter. It is my privilege and responsibility as senior pastor to initiate conversations of events that call for a faith response from our church and its members.

There was great energy and commitment expressed by those gathered last Sunday to pursue two things further: 1) an exploration of the process involved to declare ourselves an Immigrant-Welcoming Church, and 2) looking at ways to deepen our church’s relationship with our interfaith neighbors and their houses of worship. I would like to invite those interested to join Pastor Jeannie and myself between services on Sunday, February 19. The Immigrant-Welcoming working group will meet in the Chapel. The Interfaith Relationship working group will meet in the Upper Lounge.

Please know that you are welcome to join in these meetings whether or not you were able to attend the conversation last Sunday. As in all that we do as a church, all are welcome and we will seek to let all voices be heard as together we seek to be a faithful church of Jesus Christ in our place and time.

Special thanks to Steve Hirby for his leadership!

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Steve Savides

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The ‘Whatzit’ of God

February 2nd, 2017 by Steve Savides in Epiphany · No Comments

A long, snowy winter brings the usual February and March Wisconsin doldrums. As the cold settles in with no break, the old pioneer in the back of our brains whispers to us, “We aren’t going to make it!” And that’s how we enter into the wilderness time of the year.

Why were THEY out there in the wilderness, those Hebrews? It wasn’t because, as the old joke goes, Moses was a man and couldn’t bring himself to ask for directions. No, they were out there to be tested, to learn something, to BECOME something, and then to be sent back into the world.

The first and most important lesson they learned was when God brought them bread. There’s a special name for that bread—manna. Do you know where that word comes from? In Exodus, as soon as they see it, they ask, “What is it?” This is something new, something they don’t recognize: bread that came without labor, without toil or industry. The Hebrew word for “What is it?” is “manhue.” So, they called the bread “manna.” They called it, “What is it?”

It’s the whatzit, the watchmacallit, the I-don’t-know-what, the whozit, the framastan, the thingamabob, the “je ne sais quoi.” We don’t know what to call it—the manna, the whatzit of God—because we didn’t make it. We didn’t buy it or develop it or market it. We didn’t see it on TV or hear about it on the radio. It wasn’t on the cover of a magazine or the subject of a best-selling new diet book. There aren’t 15 versions of it on the shelves at Pick ’n Save (including a Roundy’s brand manna). We don’t know its market share or if Vin Diesel and the Rock eat it during breaks in filming on the set of Fast and Furious 14. It just comes from God. It comes because we need it. God GAVE it to us. It’s free.

No wonder we don’t have a word for it, this “whatzit” of God. For what could be more at odds with the way this world operates than a truly free gift?

Some of us have been in the wilderness ourselves. We have come to a time in our lives when the need was open and aching and we had no way to meet it ourselves. We looked around and it seemed like our lives had reached a place without food, without water, without hope, without love. We thought, “I’m not going to make it.” And there, in that place of wilderness, in that time of need, we met the Creator God, the one of loving abundance who met our need, gave it to us for free, and delivered us out of fear.

What exactly did God give us in that time and place of wilderness? Maybe it was peace of mind. Maybe it was a patient, loving friend. Maybe it was healing. Maybe it was a miracle. But let’s just call it manna, the “whatzit” of God.

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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It Is I Who Must Begin

January 26th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

Have you ever had the experience of finding just the right words about 10 or 20 minutes after the conversation has ended? Or having the perfect comeback rise inside of you in the middle of the night of the next day? Or the converse—having it finally dawn on you after the fact what a boneheaded thing it was you said or did?

All those experiences are particular afflictions of the preacher, but I would imagine they have been your experience as well. How many Sunday afternoons have I prepared to settle down for an exhausted nap when I suddenly cringe with a jolt of recognition/remembrance over something I said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do on Sunday morning? And how many times have I come away from a counseling session or committee meeting when the right thing to do/say suddenly slaps me across the face?

But let’s add one more to this list—those moments when a fulfilling or completing or correcting word has been given to us and brought deeper understanding or closure to an existing mental struggle. Such was my experience this last week after preaching on the courage required to dive into the deep waters of discipleship (see Luke 5:1-11) when I came across these perfect words of Václav Havel. Perhaps they too will bring you understanding, courage and peace.

Your friend and fellow minister,
Pastor Steve

It Is I Who Must Begin

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying that things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

~ Václav Havel ~

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A Prayer for Our New President

January 20th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Recent events · No Comments

I know that all of us would like to offer up prayers for our nation and its leaders during this beginning of the Trump administration. As I began to work on my own prayers for our new president, I came across this lovely prayer offered by Peter Gomes of Harvard University at the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan. His words transcend the moment in which he wrote them and in which President Reagan received them.  Perhaps they can serve as a model for our own prayers in the days to come.

Pastor Steve

Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage, we humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners. Save us from discord, violence and confusion and the frailty of our own hearts. Defend our liberties, preserve our unity and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Imbue with the spirit of wisdom, prudence and fortitude Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage, we humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners. Save us from discord, violence and confusion and the frailty of our own hearts. Defend our liberties, preserve our unity and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.

Imbue with the spirit of wisdom, prudence and fortitude the President and Vice-President of these United States and all those to whom is entrusted the authority of government to the end that justice and peace may flourish at home and abroad. Make us, with them, equal to our high trusts, reverent in the use of freedom, just in the exercise of power, generous in the protection of weakness. May wisdom and compassion be the stability of our times, and our deepest trust in thee in whom we live and move and have our being. Unto thee, O Lord we ascribe all honor and glory and in thanksgiving and in hope we commend now to thy eternal protection, ourselves, our nation and our world.  Amen

Rev. Peter Gomes, Chaplain, Harvard University
1985 Inauguration of President Ronald Reagan

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