Notes from Our Pastors

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin

How Do I Know What God Wants Me to Do?

June 23rd, 2017 by rbentz in Questions of Faith sermon series · Spiritual living · No Comments

Note: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn is the candidate to become our Pastor for Congregational Care and Missions. She is leading worship this morning and was invited to share the Pastor’s Message.

I was told I could choose any text for Sunday’s service, but the question of faith already assigned for the day is irresistible. It’s the kind of question that tricks me into thinking I have a quick and easy answer. Surely I have a tried and true formula I’ve been relying on all these years to help me navigate life’s twists and turns?

This is a crossroads question, the kind that comes up when a decision needs to be made. Will I turn right, or left? Vote this way, or that? Tell my partner/my boss/my pastor what I really think or feel? Or will I keep quiet?

As people of faith, it would be helpful to know which direction, which action most align themselves with what God wants us to do because that would be the obvious path to follow.

I know some people who claim to have heard God’s voice directly guiding their actions. A classmate in seminary claimed God woke him from a deep sleep with the words, “You fool! Get yourself to seminary!” That was his call to ministry. I applied to seminary after deciding law school wasn’t the right fit. I knew I wanted to be with people wherever they were on life’s journey, but I wasn’t sure what that might look like as a vocation. I wasn’t sure about being called a fool, but I sure envied my friend’s clarity of purpose.

A few decades later, I can see how God has guided my life as I consider where I have been. Honestly, though, I’m still learning how to answer this question of faith as I look forward. How do I know what God wants me to do? Absent that clarion call that wakes us from our slumber, we are left with prayer, reflection, discernment in community, and ultimately, faith. And not just faith in God but faith that wherever we are led in life, God is with us and for us. Maybe that is the greater choice we make at the crossroads — letting go of the false notion that we make one choice with God, and the other without.

I am looking forward to meeting you this Sunday, and listening together for all that God wants us to do and to be.

God be with you,
Kathryn Kuhn

→ No Comments Tagged: , ,

A Spiritual Journey

June 16th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Spiritual living · Youth activities · No Comments

Many of you may already know that next Sunday, nine adventurous souls from our church will be heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness for a week of canoe camping. The BWCA is a million-acre wilderness an easy day’s drive from our church and comprises a vast network of rivers and lakes that have never been timbered or developed. It’s a land that has been set aside and “forgotten” by the increasingly far-reaching hands of humankind. It is, in my opinion, one of our nation’s gems when it comes to experiencing wilderness and God, and learning of oneself. But what we are about to experience is anything but a week of play.

Our seven-day experience has been carefully crafted as a spiritual learning experience organized around three key principles: to understand ourselves as a faith community, to grow in our leadership abilities, and to grow in our spiritual life by connecting with creation. I wrote a journal to guide us in this process. The journal contains daily divisions of labor and leadership; everyone takes turns in all aspects of camp life including leading and navigating our flotilla of canoes. We will spend time in the morning praying for one another and the day ahead, and in the evenings join together in a Bible study working through the seven days of creation in Genesis. One special treat is our Wednesday afternoon solitude experience, where each person is dropped off on varying rocky points on Long Island Lake for an afternoon alone with God and guided Taize meditations in our journal.

One might ask, Why put in all this effort? Because, in the words of John Calvin, “The whole world is a display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice and power — but the Church is the orchestra.” It is part of the church to educate and facilitate spiritual growth in the context of building an ecological theology for members of all ages. God’s presence in creation is undeniable. Growing and understanding our relationship to creation itself is a necessary, biblical and essential aspect of coming into discipleship of Christ.

Please say a prayer for us, for safe travels and for the Holy Spirit to move among our small traveling group. Even though we will be far away and isolated from the rest of our church, by the grace of God we will be growing our bonds and narrowing our separation as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Nick

→ No Comments Tagged: , , , , ,

What Is Baptism?

June 16th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

On this Sunday when we celebrate four baptisms, I thought it would be a good time to remind you how we think about and practice baptism in our church.

What is baptism? As it says in our UCC Book of Worship, “The sacrament of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God. Through baptism a person is joined with the universal church, the body of Christ. In baptism, God works in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the spirit, and the knowledge of the call to be God’s people always.”

While some Christian churches practice either infant or adult baptism, in our church we practice both. Whenever we meet with a family who is considering having their child baptized, we always offer them the opportunity to have either an Infant Baptism or a Service of Infant Dedication. Neither ceremony is complete in and of itself. In both instances, the child must be offered an opportunity to make their own adult affirmation of faith either through Confirmation or through Adult (or Believer’s) Baptism.

In infant baptism, we understand that a four-way covenant is being formed: between God, the parent/s (and sponsors/godparents), the congregation, and the child. This covenant is a holy pledge that the child be raised “in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.” Because this pledge is central to our understanding of infant baptism, great care is taken to make sure that all those involved are sincere in making this pledge. And because of the congregation’s central role in baptism, this sacrament is always celebrated within the worship life of the congregation. There are rare exceptions to this, in particular when the child or adult’s life is in danger. In those extreme cases, any Christian may perform the baptism.

One way in which our church practice of infant baptism differs from others is that we do not require church membership by the parent/s for the baby to be baptized in our church. This is based on two factors. First and most importantly, we understand that one is baptized into the Universal Christian Church not into a particular sect or denomination. One isn’t baptized Catholic or Lutheran or Congregationalist; one is baptized Christian, therefore specific church membership is not of primary importance at baptism. Commitment to raise the child and be active within the Christian Church is. Second, we understand that in our increasingly mobile society, many young families are on the move and, when they have children, are often not yet established in a church community. It would be inappropriate to require them to make a commitment of specific church membership before they are really ready and able to do so. We do, however, require parent/s, sponsors and/or godparents to be baptized Christians. Without this indication of their own commitment to Christ, it would be inappropriate for them to undertake the responsibility of supporting or raising someone else in the Christian faith.

If you listen carefully during baptisms in our church, you’ll notice that in the first section of the liturgy the same words aren’t always said. In fact, we use several different liturgies. This is done to remind us that the specific words are not as important as the essential commitment. And it helps keep us from the danger of rote recitation—saying the same thing so often that we no longer hear what is being said. The words that are repeated at each baptism, however, are the Prayer of Blessing over the water and the words that accompany the Act of Baptism.

You may also notice that, as we make the sign of the cross in water on the person’s head, we do not say, “I baptize you…” but rather “You are baptized…” This serves as a reminder that our celebration of baptism is a church practice that points toward a spiritual reality. When we celebrate baptism in our church, we supply the water and the promises but it is God through the Spirit who performs the baptism. As John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water… he will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16).

Your friend and fellow minister, Rev. Steve Savides

→ No Comments Tagged: ,

Flying on Mighty Wings

May 19th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

All of us on the Horizon Team are very excited this morning to share a Strategic Plan that is the fruit of the labor of so many of us — the Long Range Planning Team who preceded us, the church officers and team members who did so much brainstorming, and all the members of the congregation who added their thoughts, ideas, and inspirations.

This work has culminated in the three aspirations that we suggest guide the strategic work of our church:

  1. Deepening Relationships
  2. Sharing Our Gifts
  3. Engaging the Next Generation

Of course, this church will continue to do what it has always been called to do: to tend to the poor, the sick, the lonely and the grieving; to share the good news of the Gospel with all; and to engage in mission both locally and globally. The strengths of this church will continue to be nurtured: our excellence in worship and music; our quality programming for children, youth and families; our deep community involvement; our transformative small group and adult study opportunities; and our Stephen Ministry and Friends in Christ outreach.

We live in a time of great uncertainty and mindboggling change. And that time of change won’t let up anytime soon. One futurist writes that a true historic, cultural change takes a full 75 years to be traversed. By that measure, we are only halfway through the time of transition we are now experiencing—from the Industrial to the Information Age. The uncertainty of this transition time makes the ongoing ministries of our church all the more important. We need to be a place of dependable stability particularly for all those who feel buffeted by the winds of change.

Our strategic plan also asks us to deeply and faithfully consider how we as a church and congregation are called to change in response to the shifting shape and needs of the culture in which we minister. This openness to change and to the innovating inspiration of the Holy Spirit will require much conversation and commitment from us as a congregation in the months ahead.

We begin that conversation this morning with our Strategic Plan and the three aspirations that will serve as our guideposts along the way. We also should begin it with frank acknowledgment that we don’t know all the places this journey will take us. That, of course, is always the case with those who would follow faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus, in the wake of a Holy Spirit that inspires us to follow even without knowing the way. As Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born of a continuous ‘I don’t know.’… That is why I value that little phrase ‘I don’t know’ so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.”

I believe we too can fly on the mighty wings of the Spirit’s inspiration, rising up as if on Eagles’ wings to embrace the future God has in store for us. May God continue to bless this wonderful church!

Rev. Steve Savides

Comments Off Tagged: , , ,

Words of Wisdom on Mother’s Day

May 12th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Spiritual living · No Comments

In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to include this wonderful column from humorist Erma Bombeck.  That’s a name that is familiar to those of my Baby Boomer generation and should be more familiar to those of younger generations. In her own way, she was a groundbreaker, sharing her unique perspective while celebrating all of us who toil over the everyday tasks of life while trying to be a better caregiver to the precious ones in our care.

This column, “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” was written in 1979 after Erma found out that she was dying from cancer. Her words continue to challenge and bless us all.

If I Had My Life to Live Over

By Erma Bombeck

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren’t there for the day.

I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.

I would have talked less and listened more.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded.

I would have eaten the popcorn in the ‘good’ living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.

I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.

I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband.

I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.

I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life.

I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn’t show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime.

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I’d have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.

When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, “Later. Now go get washed up for dinner.”

There would have been more “I love you’s.” More “I’m sorry’s.”

But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute… look at it and really see it … live it … and never give it back.

Comments Off Tagged: , , ,

Best Friends

May 5th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Easter · Spiritual living · No Comments

The other day, my children, Elijah and Maddi, were playing in the basement together. Elijah, only 2, had waited patiently all afternoon for Maddi. This particular day they were playing on our unplugged treadmill and pretending to run, when Maddi got miffed at her little brother and said, “Brother, I’m done, I am going upstairs.” Elijah, shocked and clearly hopeful the play session would last longer, said “Sissy, no Sissy, stay here, stay in the bassie (basement) and play with me!” In a rather casual and I’m-too-cool-for-you attitude, Maddi replied, “I done, bye brother” and went upstairs. This of course made Elijah fall to his knees and start crying, soon walking over and asking for a hug, muttering the words “She is my friend and she left me.”

“She is your friend?” I asked. “Sissy is best friend and she left me,” said Elijah. How sad, I thought to myself.

So I invited Maddi to come back downstairs, where I asked her to listen to Elijah call her his best friend. Maddi was unmoved. Yet, in a rare and blissfully good parenting moment, I said to Maddi, “You know, you are your little brother’s only and best friend; you are the only little person he gets to spend time with regularly. You get to go to school and church and have friends at those places, but what if he was your only friend who you had waited to play with all day and he left you in the basement?” Maddi paused and really thought about this.

“That would be really sad,” she said out loud. Then her eyes twinkled, realizing she could make things better:  “Brother, let’s keep playing!”

James 1:19 says, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

It might be a simple story, and a simple scripture, but both show how profoundly and quickly we can misunderstand those around us, even those we are closest to. All too often we don’t take the time to understand the meaning our actions have on others, or consider the full repercussions of our quick choices. All too often, we can become miffed, angered or jealous, allow partisan thoughts or dehumanizing judgments to divorce ourselves from the very hurt we are partly responsible for creating. In so doing, we miss out on truths, miss out on relationships and miss out on joy that we could be privy to.

So I wonder, where might you have room to listen with new ears? Have you sought out a person who can help pull you aside and really weigh the consequences of your choices? What person or situation might you need to revisit take a seat, and ask again, “What exactly does this friendship mean to you?”

Grace and peace,
Pastor Nick

Comments Off Tagged: ,

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

Comments Off Tagged: , , ,

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

Comments Off Tagged: ,

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

Comments Off Tagged: , ,

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

Comments Off Tagged: