Notes from Our Pastors

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin

Stewardship Sunday, November 5

October 20th, 2017 by jnotzen in Uncategorized · No Comments

Bob Sturtevant, member of Plymouth Congregational UCC of Fort Collins, Colorado, recently shared his Top Ten Reasons for Giving to the Church:

  1. Because my parents set the example by giving generously to the church;
  2. Because it feels good to give;
  3. Because I believe in what the UCC stands for and what it does to make our church, our community, and our world a better place;
  4. Because, during tough economic times, I know that other people are hurting much worse than I am. I still have my home and my job. That’s more than many others have;
  5. Because when my money is gathered to your money it has greater power;
  6. Because there are many other things I could buy with the money that I really don’t need and which will not add to the value of my life. Yet the same money can make a huge difference to someone with more basic needs;
  7. Because it is a way to say “thank you” for all the gifts God has given me;
  8. Because this is one more way I can make a difference in the world;
  9. Because as someone who has dedicated his life to the stewardship of our natural resources, carrying this same concept into my church life is very easy. I want to make sure that this church, and its ideals, is here for the generations to come;
  10. Because God asked me to.

We will be celebrating Stewardship Sunday on November 5th.  In advance of that time of dedication, I want to invite you to reflect on Bob Sturtevant’s Top Ten list and add to it with some of your own reasons for giving.  The church depends on you and me and all of us to join in a spirit of loving generosity to support the ministry of this congregation.  That’s what Bob Sturtevant would remind us.

Remember – we’re in this together.  And remember – Stewardship is always a “Journey to Generosity: The Way of Jesus.”  Your generosity not only blesses the church’s ministry, it blesses you as well by touching, enlarging, and enriching your own heart.

Your friend and fellow steward,

Rev. Steve Savides

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It’s About Relationships

October 13th, 2017 by jnotzen in Recent events · Social justice · Spiritual living · Stewardship · No Comments

Yesterday I heard a brief radio interview with a young woman in Las Vegas who was desperately searching for something she could do to help in the aftermath of the horrific events there. She tried to donate blood, but the center she visited told her they had enough for now. She tried to donate food and water for those continuing their investigation, but they told her it wasn’t necessary. She was trying to offer an example of volunteerism for her 4-year old daughter, but the pursuit of “something to do” left her feeling frustrated.

I could relate. I’ve been wanting to do something all week. I wonder if some of you have felt that same urge toward action. I think it’s a fairly typical re-action – to want to counter some expression of evil, with a more powerful and tangible expression of good, as if we could possibly “balance the score”.

This Sunday in worship, we are celebrating our Kenya Partnership. Our 19 year relationship with our friends in the Kerio Valley started when one man, Kip Elolia, visited our congregation and felt moved to invite us on quite a unique journey. On Sunday, you will hear from our members who traveled there in January (our 9th trip there?), and you will hear (via video) from some of those in Kenya whose lives have been touched by this partnership.

In a letter sent to congratulate Deb Burich on her retirement, Mildred Chepkonga (who will be visiting us in April 2018) says, “The vulnerable people who include women, youth, children, schools and churches have truly experienced the goodness of the Lord through the church of Wisconsin…”. You can read more about our partnership elsewhere in this Open Door…but I want to suggest, if you’re looking for something to do in response to the pain and sorrow of this world, you might consider the pro-active step of sharing in this journey of relationship-building and mutual support. There is so much good in the world. Is it naïve to think our sometimes small, random, interpersonal acts of kindness and compassion could make a difference? Maybe, but the testimonies of those who will speak on Sunday – both the voices of our Kenyan friends and our First Congo brothers and sisters – suggest the power of relationship is real and life-changing, and that ought to count for something.

Your friend and fellow minister, Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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A Prayer for Las Vegas

October 6th, 2017 by jnotzen in Social justice · Spiritual living · No Comments

Grace and peace to you in these days of early Autumn! I call you to prayerful remembrance of all those who are suffering right now: the people of Houston, Florida, Haiti, Puerto Rico and, especially, the family and friends of the victims of the recent murderous shooting in Las Vegas. I want to remind you that your gifts for disaster relief can be made through the church. I would also like to offer you a special invitation to walk the labyrinth on the East side of our church’s property. It serves as a reminder that the life of faith is a long and difficult journey, calling us to travel the path of Christ’s love and compassion, a journey made right alongside the suffering. And I’d also like to offer a few thoughts of reflection in the aftermath of what transpired in Las Vegas.

I wish there were an easier and simpler explanation for the horrors we have witnessed and the people of Las Vegas have experienced.  If only the gunman had been an Islamic extremist, brainwashed in the ideology of violence and hate. Alternatively, it would be simpler if he were a White Supremacist, blinded by bigotry and striking out from unreasoning fear. But there are no simple explanations; just the incredible capacity for human sin that has given way to such inhuman butchery.

This leads us into the very deep waters of one of the mysteries of faith: why does evil exist in this world and seem to resist all our attempts at eradicating it from human experience? That’s the question that haunted Voltaire in the aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, that haunted Elie Wiesel as he struggled with his own experience of the Holocaust, that haunts us in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre of the innocents, and haunted even Jesus as he died on the Cross and cried out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We cannot call ourselves Christian if we don’t join with Christ in honestly asking this question and treading these deep waters of faith.

As we struggle yet again with evil as a mystery of faith, let us not forget the very first mystery of faith: the mystery of goodness. Even with eyes dimmed by tears, we need to be keenly aware of the bravery and kindness we have been witnessing: Sonny Melton, the nurse/husband who interposed his body between the killer and his wife, laying down his life for hers; the first responders who ran towards the screams and shouts and sirens rather than away from them, displaying the courage of caring that inspires us all; the 1000 people who lined up the next day in Las Vegas to donate blood for treatment of the hundreds of hospitalized shooting victims; the red-eyed parents and students at Vista Elementary School in Simi Valley, California, who filled the school office with flowers in loving memory of their school office manager Susan Smith; and Taylor Winston, a 29 year-old Marine veteran who was present at the concert and, once he had fled from the gunfire, stole a truck to drive back into the kill zone again and again to drive nearly 30 people to safety.

Our faith demands that we not only face up to the reality of human sin and the suffering, but that we may be an example of human goodness and strength. This example calls us to live out our faith with courage and commitment every day, not just in the aftermath of tragedy. Sin and tragedy should may daunt us, but they will not defeat us. Instead, let us recommit ourselves anew to the struggle of Christ’s followers to live out the truth that love is stronger than hate, life more enduring than death. That is our faith, lived out in the midst of mysteries.

May we be true to this faith today and every day.

Your friend and fellow minister,

Rev. Steve Savides

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Foundations of Faith

October 2nd, 2017 by jnotzen in Epiphany · Spiritual living · No Comments

Years ago, during an Adult Study Class, a church member told us about his experience during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. As he was in the middle of the battle, he prayed to God for three things: that he would be warm again, that he’d have something to eat, and that he’d live to see the next day. The United States had 76,890 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge. When this member of our church walked out of the Ardennes Forest alive, according to him, he never again questioned whether or not God existed.

That’s what the Exodus experience is for the Jews: it is the foundational experience of God’s presence and power. When you read the Psalms, so many of them are shouts of anguish to God: How long must I suffer, O Lord? Where are you in my time of trial, God? Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? Again and again they ask: Where are you? Don’t you care? Are you even out there at all? And the answer that they receive most often begins like this: I am the Lord, Yahweh. You can count on me. Remember? I heard the cries of your ancestors when they were enslaved in Egypt and brought them out safely to the Promised Land. Whenever doubts arise in the hearts of the people of Israel, God reminds them of this foundational experience, of the Exodus.

As Christians, our foundational experience is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s what we come back to in our times of doubt, confusion, and fear. Christ was raised from the tomb! Love is stronger than hate! Life is stronger than death! That’s what we hold on to in our own times of trial.

Of course, God was not just active years ago. God is alive and active now, working miracles of hope and healing, reaching down into the mud and muck of human existence to deliver us. So here is the question for you: When have you seen it? When have you felt it? When has God delivered us, delivered you? And is today a good day for you to remember the power and presence of God?

Your friend and fellow minister,

Rev. Steve Savides

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In Their Word

September 25th, 2017 by jnotzen in Fellowship · Spiritual living · Youth activities · No Comments

Over the past twelve months, fifteen Confirmands and their mentors have gathered to have conversation about Christian faith. Their conversations come from an adapted curriculum called Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teenagers. The goal of these conversations is to become more aware of God’s presence and our response in everyday life. This is a significant commitment, and I want to express my gratitude to everyone involved.

First, our mentors come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are members of this church, some are not. While their faith backgrounds are diverse, they are unified in their commitment to be supportive of their confirmand coming into membership with our church, and our unique values. I am so thankful for the ways they have guided and shepherded our young people. Well done mentors!

Second, I should say thanks to all the parents! You have managed complex schedules, offered rides, and prioritized this experience among a lot of competing interests! Getting to know you confirmand has truly been a gift, and I hope it’s the beginning of a number of years of growing and serving together.

Third, I want to say thanks to our unbelievably dedicated Confirmation Volunteer Coordinator, Phil Hornseth. He has taught classes in my absence, helped prepare for events, and displayed a deep Christ-like care for our confirmation ministry. We owe Phil a huge thank-you for his steadfast service and commitment. Well done good and faithful servant!

Lastly, I want to share some of the confirmands beliefs, taken from the Confirmands faith statements posted in the Narthex. I encourage you to read and learn from these statements. Enjoy the variety of places our young disciples speak from. Have hope that God is working through both them and us as we refine the ways in which we live in this world together. I share portions of the faith statements below. After reading them, ask yourself:

What would your faith statement include beyond God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Church? What concepts would be important to define and include or leave out? Where can you stand firm in a specific belief, and where might you be unsure and have doubt?

Grace and Peace, Pastor Nick

Beliefs about God

I feel God’s gift of my ability to play football every time I put my helmet on and before I walk onto the field when our whole team says the Lord’s Prayer. I see the beauty of God’s work in the lakes and rivers that I go fishing at, as well as the animals that live in and near them.

To me, God´s name is synonymous with love. And if you have God control everything, then you can’t have love. If you think about a relationship, if one is trying to control another’s life, then it isn’t love, it’s dominance.

I believe that God is constantly with us, our God is always watching over us and wants what is best for us. God wants us to be happy, but at the same time wants us to know what pain is, God wants us to become stronger and to grow in our faith so that when times are bad we pray and grow stronger.

Beliefs about Jesus

I believe everyone should live like Jesus did, always willing to help. I see Jesus in my grandma. Though she is no longer with us, she was always willing to provide for people, she loved everyone and always included people.

I think the stories about Jesus curing a blind man and feeding people from only a little bit of food were exaggerated in order to show how kind, generous, and compassionate Jesus was in order for others to try to be the same. So, I believe Jesus was a man who tried to follow his heart and follow his beliefs about God to live a good life, and that we should try to do the same.

I believe that Jesus is God in human form. To me, Jesus is an example of how to live and how to act. When God sent Jesus down to Earth, God sent a piece of himself to show people how to live the good life. Jesus was not a human the way the rest of us are.

Beliefs about the Holy Spirit

I believe that the Holy Spirit helps us to make the right decisions and help us through life. I know that I am never alone, because the Holy Spirit never leaves me.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is inside of me, like me being part of God. I believe that the Holy Spirit is my soul, and someday my soul will go to heaven. I also believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s presence and that is why I have the Holy Spirit inside of me because I am a part of God.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is always with me through the best and worst of days.

I believe in God, and the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit is when you feel a connection between somebody also I believe that the Holy Spirit comes when you’re working in a group of people like Christian community. I feel the Holy Spirit when am around good people, like when am playing soccer.

Beliefs about the Church

I believe that our Church has the right message; no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. I believe that is what Jesus would have wanted. That is why I believe in our Church because we accept LGBTQ people, atheists, and people of all races.

I remember the first confirmation meeting and meeting my mentor for the first time. I’m bad at opening up and I didn’t know how I would be able to constantly talk about faith. Now I feel like I am connected to the church and the confirmation group because church is a place that I think you should be able to discuss it.

I believe our church is an excellent place. I love the music and the opportunity to learn more about God and Jesus. I believe our church helps a lot of people by doing the Alternative Gift Market. I also like that they help the people from Kenya.

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Good Fences

September 18th, 2017 by jnotzen in Epiphany · Fellowship · Social justice · No Comments

How many pastors does it take to build a fence? That was the question yesterday as a group of clergy (and, thank goodness, a few faithful lay people) helped out with Habitat for Humanity’s “Rock the Block” event.

We seemed like a stalwart enough crew. We were eager to work. We had all the tools and resources we needed. We represented Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, UCC and Islamic communities. As we walked together to the work site, we joked together about our desire to tear down walls, not build them. We looked at our watches and wondered how this project could take all morning to complete. We were confident our site leader would have to find other work for us to do. We’d get that 48-foot fence up in no time.

As you can probably guess, it didn’t go quite that smoothly. The lot line was unclear, and there was an old wash line contraption in the way. There were 10-12 of us there, and at least 8-9 of us had our own ideas about how the fence panels should be attached to the fence posts. A few folks retreated to the back of the property and cleaned up some weeds and brush, leaving the fence-work (and the tense conversation) to the rest of us.

At the one-hour mark, the weeds and brush were gone, but the only progress on the fence was the removal of the wash line. A colleague and I exchanged glances, and wondered if we’d even make it back for lunch.

And then it happened. We started honoring each other’s gifts. We stopped insisting on our own way. “You’re good with numbers. Can you work on…?” “You’re handy with the saw. Can you cut….?” “What’s your experience with…?” “Have you thought of trying…?” “Can you help me with…?”

We had until noon to finish the project. At 11:57 A.M., we had a 48-foot fence, without an old wash line in the way, plus some landscaping in the homeowner’s back yard. Not bad. Oh, and some of the pastors are going to meet for breakfast once a week for a while. And several us are planning to help out again. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

How many pastors does it take to build a fence? As it turns out, it took all of us. And in the end, it wasn’t about the fence anyway. Maybe we should have known this already – but what a great way to be reminded.

Your friend and fellow minister (and expert with the circular saw), Rev. Kathryn Kuhn


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In the Beginning

September 10th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

We start our Church program year with its theme of “Deep Waters” at the beginning, in the first chapter of Genesis, on the very first day of Creation, with God “brooding over the face of the waters.”   The Talmud, the series of Jewish writings from rabbis of the past, provides an interesting story that interprets how this Creation story ends:

When God had nearly finished with the act of creation, an announcement was made that the only thing left was to create a creature capable of understanding and marveling in the greatness of God.  This being, called human, was not only to be of the earth, like all other creatures, but also to be created in the image of God.  “Let these beings have reason, intellect, and understanding,” God declared.

Truth then approached the Almighty pleading, “Oh God, I ask you to refrain from calling into being a creature who is capable of lying.  The last thing we need is to have a world filled with deception and fraud.”

Peace came forth to support this petition.  “O Lord, I beg you not to create creatures who will disturb the harmony of your creation.  I fear that these humans will act with revenge and initiate war.”

While they were pleading against the creation of the human, the soft voice of Love asked to be heard.  “Dear God, I know that any being created in your likeness will have the capacity to perform great and kind deeds.  Filled with your Spirit these human beings will comfort the sick, visit the lonely, and provide shelter to the homeless.  Such a being cannot but bring glory to you, O Lord.”

Though God listened to the voice of Truth and Peace before the final act of creation, it was because of Love that human beings were created.  As we plunge into the deep waters of faith in the year ahead, let us remember to let love be our guide and our life-guard.  It is in love that we were made and it is to love for which we have been created.

Your friend and fellow minister,

Rev. Steve Savides

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The End of the World and the Second Coming

September 3rd, 2017 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

March 21, 1843 – that’s when the world was supposed to end according to William Miller, a Baptist minister. Miller based his prediction of the end of the world on the cryptic messages in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. He gathered thousands and thousands to his movement – so many, in fact, that they came to be known as Millerites, all those of an apocalyptic bent who look for a sudden and violent end to the world.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the world did NOT in fact end on March 21 of 1843.  But William Miller, undaunted, discovered an error in his crypto-math and moved the end date back one year to March 21, 1844.  Hundreds and hundreds of people continued to follow him and believe, looking for the end to come. That date then came and went as well without cataclysmic incident. Miller changed the date two more times as dozens and dozens of people continue to be faithful Millerites until finally his mass movement collapsed amidst a feeling of betrayal and widely circulated rumors of profiteering by Miller and his associates.

How many times have we seen variations of William Miller and his Millerites over the last few years? The Hale-Bopp Comet, the return of Haley’s Comet, the Millenium Bug, Heaven’s Gate, 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar… the list goes on and on of those who insist on seeing the events of the moment as signs of the apocalypse. They demand signs. They scream for significance. They shout out the importance of their own place and time in history.

And I think that’s what it really is – human arrogance and death denial. We want to believe that we hold the ultimate truth, even that we are the last generation – that Jesus will come back NOW and history will come to a close with US. The fact is the world will go on after you and I have stepped off the human stage. And the Good News is that the scriptures tell us that Jesus’ Second Coming is not so much a future promise as a present reality: “whenever two or three are gathered,” “insomuch as you did it for the least of these,” “the hour is coming and now is.” And those moments of Jesus’ presence are not so much an ending as the promise of a new beginning!

Your friend and fellow minister,

Rev. Steve Savides

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They’re still my kids

August 25th, 2017 by Kathryn Kuhn in Uncategorized · No Comments

Given the state of the world, there are several things I feel I should write about, but at this time of the year, I am mostly thinking about my kids. Maybe some of you can relate. It is “back to school” time. Time to make sure we gather the right supplies, fill out the right forms, and update our calendars. This is the first year I did all of the school supply shopping on my own, since I needed some things as well. My kids are not really “kids” anymore. They are 15 and 19, and much less concerned than they used to be about which superhero is on the cover of their new 3-ring binder. “Just pick up whatever you think is best,” they told me. They were very trusting. I resisted the urge to outfit my daughter in Wonder Woman notebooks.
The older they get, I find myself less concerned about whether they have the right stuff to start out the academic year, than whether we’ve prepared them in other ways. In his children’s sermon last week, Pastor Nick compared us to pencils. We each make our mark on the world, writing our life’s story as we go. Sometimes we write well. Other times we hope there is enough of an eraser available to remedy our mistakes and start over. As a parent, I’m grateful for that eraser, and certainly for the role of forgiveness in our lives.
I hope I’ve taught my kids (they’ll always be my “kids”) to forgive others and themselves. I hope I’ve raised them to be gracious toward others, and welcoming of all. I hope their hearts are open to all that the world has to offer them. I hope…but I am aware there are other factors at play, other realities they’ve encountered, and other words they’ve heard – yes, even sometimes from my own lips. Nelson Mandela wrote: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
This year, as my kids trust me to gather the right supplies, I’m especially aware of how much they depend on me, on us, for other kinds of resources as well: the ability to sort through melodrama and chaos, to discern truth from fiction, to navigate challenges with resolve, to say “no” when “yes” would be easier, to speak for themselves and to listen deeply to others before speaking for them, and the list goes on. They’re heading out to write their own stories. I’ll trust God’s grace goes with them, too.

With special prayers for all of our kids – Pastor Kathryn

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Moving Mountains

August 20th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Uncategorized · No Comments

It was Wednesday evening on our Boundary Waters Canoe trip. We had spent the last two days with moderate levels of activity and then had a layover day to rest, restore, and observe God’s incredible creation. Now the group had to decide how to get home. The conversation swirled with ideas concerning the few possible routes. We finally settled on one of the longer options, which would take us through a different set of lakes, offer us greater challenges, and capitalize on the skills we had learned the past three days. Then a small group of the students agreed that “Well, we will just try this loop and if the weather or our energy doesn’t keep up, we will just make a different choice.” I then pointed out that our options were limited, and said “While it’s good to be flexible, one thing I have learned is that when we make choices, we need to commit to them and this route we are choosing will be difficult and will require our commitment.” The group made the commitment.
The next day, to our surprise (because I forgot to look at the topographical map!) mountains appeared and soon we were carrying 50-pound packs and canoes through the boulder fields of an ancient mountain range. I will say, not lightly, those portages were some of the most difficult that I have ever completed, so I can only guess how daunting they must have been for our new wilderness recruits.
For many, these mountain portages would have not been doable, or at least, been such a major setback that if completed would have elicited complaining and resulted in a negative experience. But our group was committed. As a team we offered care and respect for each other in light of the work the Holy Spirit was doing through our spiritual growth. I saw our team grow and own their choices and moral remained high. Because of all this, we were able to “move” through these mountains.
Ever wonder about your own “mountains”? Ever want God to “move” a mountain from your life? It made me think of Matthew 17:20 where it says, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
On the one hand, the mountain itself never moved but we moved through it. Individually we could have not accomplished this and yet we were all better for the experience. On the other hand, I guess God did “move” that mountain from our lives- because it was no longer a looming impediment but rather just part of our faith community journey together. God moved mountains because of the kindness and compassion that our team experienced as the Holy Spirit taught us how to care for one another.
So, how might God work in your life to move mountains as your faith, your community, and your commitment carry you along uncertain journeys?
Grace and Peace,
Pastor Nick

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