Notes from Our Pastors

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin

Making Magic Happen

January 14th, 2018 by Kathryn Kuhn in Epiphany · No Comments

This week’s gospel lesson tells the story of a miracle. Jesus, his mother, and the disciples were at a wedding, and the wine ran out. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how Jesus draws on resources close at hand to breathe life back into the party. He instructs the servants to fill some jars with water. They do as he says, and somehow when the chief steward takes a sip of it, it’s the best wine he’s ever tasted.

As I scan the online preacher blogs this week, I see lots of pastors scrambling to figure out how Jesus did it. I’m more interested in why he did it, and what happened as a result. It’s a strange miracle, really. No one is raised from death or healed of a seemingly incurable disease. Jesus takes water, a couple of jugs, some willing servants, and in the end – people have a good time. This miracle results in JOY.

Last night, the Mission and Service Team met. We talked about the number of mission partnerships we have in this congregation. Are you aware of how many ways our congregation makes a difference in this community and beyond? We provide meals, build houses, plant seeds, support mental health awareness, present prayer shawls, advocate for justice, make bunk beds, sponsor students, and more. The resources we use might be financial at times, but they also include simple things like work gloves, 2×4’s, foil casserole pans, and donated yarn. The most precious commodity might be the hours we give – but that time usually brings as much joy to us, as it does to those who benefit from our gift. We haven’t solved homelessness (yet), or hunger (yet), or cured any diseases – but I like to think we’re following Jesus’ lead in the gospel. We use what we have on hand, to make joy possible for others. Many, many others.

Did you ever think of yourself as a miracle worker? You are!

If you have an interest in making a difference in this community, or even beyond, there’s a chance our congregation is already at work making miracles happen, and we’d love to include you in that work. If you have ideas for partnerships we might explore in the future – let us know. The world could use a few more miracles – or at least a little more joy. Thank you, for all the ways you make a difference for others.

Your friend and fellow servant,
Pastor Kathryn Kuhn

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Keep it all in perspective

January 7th, 2018 by Nick Hatch in Epiphany · Family · No Comments

Each year, after what I lovingly call the “Christmas Carnival” (meaning its just a crazy amount of work to get through all our worship services and a lot of things can go wrong), I take some vacation. This year we celebrated Christmas with my parents here in Appleton then headed to Park Falls to stay in our cabin. So, for vacation, we went where it was even colder and even darker than here! We actually spent a lot of time outside for the three days while we were there. We cleared off a small hill and it turned into a sledding run, we walked on the frozen lake, I gave long rides in the pull behind sled. And we drank hot chocolate; lots of very hot, hot chocolate.

One afternoon, when it was -5 degrees, we walked a couple hundred yards back into the forest to find a new sledding hill. We got a little turned around and the hill ended up being a little too steep and a little too covered in trees. We gave it a go anyway, Elijah sitting in the front of the sled and me in back and down we went, right into a snow bank of deep super-dry and powdery snow that filled his face. It was too cold for such things and the fun was over, his plaintive cry being, “Take me home, I want to go home to Appleton!” Within a few minutes, we were inside our cabin drinking, you guessed it, more hot chocolate, and things started to get better. But, I am sure you can relate to the feelings of “being done” or “being fed up” with the cold or some other abrasive and painful situation that life presents.

We had a dinner this week in confirmation and as we started, we went around in a circle sharing one thing we were thankful for, for the New Year.  Students lifted up family, starting sports, upcoming trips; then one student said, “the warm weather” and wasn’t joking. We all kind of laughed and asked if he was sick or having trouble thinking clearly, but then he said, “I mean for the warm weather that will come, because it’s cold now.” But what struck me is the certainty he had when saying “THE warm weather.”

We do have an assurance that in the months to come, the warmth of summer will enfold us. It’s a certainty that can be hard to remember in the coldness of winter. Sometimes we lose sight of it all, like when we get a face full of cold snow and just want to go home- where it’s warm and we feel safe; another certainty for some of us.

I wonder when life is cold and dark, and we want to retreat, how might our faith provide us a measure of certainty we know in God’s love for us? Then, how might God’s life-giving promises help us through even our bleakest days?

Stay warm in the coming days, and take heart that God has already provided for our futures in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Nick

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A Faith That Transforms

December 31st, 2017 by Steve Savides in Fellowship · No Comments

A man walks into a bar, orders three mugs of beer and sits in the back of the room, drinking a sip out of each one in turn. The bartender sees all this and, out of curiosity, approaches the man. He explains, “You see, I have two brothers. One is in Australia, the other is in Dublin, and I’m here in the U.S.  When we all left home, we promised that we’d drink this way to remember the days we drank together. So, I drink one for each of my brothers and one for myself.”

The man becomes a regular in the bar and always drinks the same way. He orders three mugs and drinks them in turn. One day, however, he comes in and orders two mugs. All the regulars take notice and fall silent. The bartender approaches the man and says, “I don’t want to intrude on your grief, but I wanted to offer my condolences on your loss.”

The man looks quite puzzled for a moment, then a light dawns and he laughs. “Oh, no, everybody’s just fine,” he explains. “It’s just that my wife had us join that Baptist Church and I had to quit drinking. Hasn’t affected my brothers though.”

That can kind of be the attitude we have towards our Christmas faith, can’t it?  It’s a quaint, even heart-warming custom, but it doesn’t really change anything. It doesn’t really change our behavior. Or does it?

The movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, very loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, is set in Depression-era Mississippi. Three escapees from a prison chain-gang encounter a group of white-clad baptismal candidates. Pete Hogwallop and Delmar O’Donnell, two of the escaped prisoners, decide to join them. The leader of the fugitives, Ulysses Everett McGill, scoffs at their belief that they’ve been washed clean. But Delmar insists that his sins, including that of stealing a pig, have been washed away. When reminded that he always claimed to be innocent of pig theft, Delmar quickly says that he’d lied about that but now is cleansed of that sin, too. It seems too easy and we’re all dubious of Delmar’s conversion.

Later, when the escapees steal an apple pie from a window sill, Delmar thoughtfully leaves a dollar bill behind. It may not be much, but it’s a definite sign that, since his baptism, Delmar has not merely been forgiven, but is being transformed.

The miracle of Christmas has visited us once again, inviting us into deeper faith and more genuine commitment. Will your Christmas faith transform you?

Your friend and fellow minister,

Rev. Steve Savides

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Are You Ready?

December 24th, 2017 by Kathryn Kuhn in Christmas · No Comments

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that question over the last few weeks, I would have a lot of nickels. The fact that usually it’s a sales clerk asking the question as I hurriedly cross something off from my ever-growing list makes the question that much more troubling. Of course I’m not ready. Obviously I’m not ready. Are you?

Maybe you are ready. Maybe you are that person who has all their gifts purchased and wrapped, your meals prepped and planned, and the guest beds neatly made. Or maybe you are that pastor who knows exactly what they will say on Christmas Eve. As for me, I tend to live a little bit closer to the deadline. There is always one more thing I can do, one more gift to wrap, or one more edit to make on the sermon. What would it even feel like, to be “ready”?

I imagine being truly ready for Christmas is a bit like being ready to be a parent. Despite the fact we had attended the classes, painted his room, set up his crib, and filled his closet with clothes, the moment Karl and I drove away from the hospital with our firstborn was more than a little unsettling. Was I ready? 19 years later, I’m not sure I was then and I’m not sure I am now. There is always something more to know, and always room for improvement, at least on my part. But I was ready then, as I’m ready now, to keep working at it.

God hands over God’s Son and expects us to be ready. Not perfect or completely adept at caring for the infant Jesus, but ready to work at caring about Him, day in and day out. Is that what it means to be ready for Christmas? Ready to forgive something or someone of an old hurt, ready to let go of the illusion you’re in control of your life, ready to have the tough conversation you’ve been putting off with your kid or your boss or your partner, ready to do your own spiritual work, etc.? What if we took all the resources and time we spend on the other kind of Christmas, and invested them in preparing our lives that way instead?

I suppose if someone asks me again if I’m ready, my answer will be the same. Because if I’m honest, there are a few things I’m not ready to do yet to be really “ready”. The good news is, though, that God’s grace for me and for you doesn’t depend on our readiness – because God is that kind of God, ready to love us no matter what.

I’m glad to be working at it with all of you.

Peace to you,
Pastor Kathryn Kuhn

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And a Child Shall Lead Them

December 17th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Christmas · Youth activities · No Comments

One fall, I had the privilege of presiding over the funeral of a gifted young mother. Later, under a beautiful autumn sky with the blazing leaves of our old oak and walnut trees, a small group gathered to place her ashes in our Memorial Garden. Fond memories were shared, scripture was read, prayers lifted, and tears shed.

Her ashes were handed out to family members and everyone began to wander through the sun-speckled garden. It was a somber, teary moment for us adults. But I watched as the woman’s little daughter, wearing a pretty sundress and giggling with another little friend, explored through all the nooks and crannies of our garden. I saw them smiling and laughing and chasing a squirrel, prancing through the crisp leaves. When they joined us again, they were still smiling. I said, “It looks like you found some wonderful places to put your mother’s ashes.” “Yes,” said the little girl enthusiastically. “Mother loved laying out and sunbathing, so I placed some of her over there in sun, she also loved trees, so I placed some of her underneath that big tree over there, and I just liked that little bush, so some went there.” Her eyes twinkled as she talked.

I immediately felt sadness for this little girl. She must not understand all she has lost, I thought to myself. But this thought stopped me up short, how could I so quickly dismiss this little girl because of her age and her scripturally appropriate joy? It’s true that she was not processing this event like an adult, but does that make her experience any less valid or truthful than those of us who mourned so sadly? No, it did not. In fact, this little girl in her sundress, lead me to be reminded of the joy that we know in God’s love for us; a joy that extends beyond the grave itself. A joy that is so deep and full, that we could dance among the graves of our loved ones. Because the promise that we know, shown in Jesus’ resurrection, is that death is only the beginning of yet another chapter of joy, peace, and oneness with God.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6

I wonder how the children in our Christmas Pageant “Deep Waters” might lead you to hear the story of God’s love in the life of Jesus Christ in fresh ways? What “truths” do you see in their young faces? How could their joy and innocence help you to emulate a child-like joy in faith in God? How might you rest in this moment, without the somber concerns that weigh upon us in our adulthood?

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Nick

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Music Director’s Message

December 10th, 2017 by jalbrecht in Advent · Music · No Comments


Welcome to this morning’s presentations of Bass’ Praeludium Noël and Rutter’s Gloria!

A few words about each work:

Praeludium Noël was commissioned by the Music Ministry of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas, TX, and offers a festive medley of traditional carols scored for brass, organ, percussion and choir. The variety of its carols, including several more contemplative settings, seemed a fitting contrast to the rhythmic exuberance of this morning’s other extended work, Rutter’s Gloria. The work also allows for you, the congregation, to “join the choir” in singing at several points in the medley. Please follow your bulletin and watch for your cues!

Gloria was written as a concert work. It was commissioned by the Voices of Mel Olson, Omaha, Nebraska, and the composer directed the first performance on the occasion of his first visit to the United States in May 1974. The Latin text, drawn from the Ordinary of the Mass, is a centuries-old challenge to the composer: exalted, devotional and jubilant by turns. Rutter’s setting, which is based mainly on one of the Gregorian chants associated with the text, divides into three movements roughly corresponding to traditional symphonic structure. The accompaniment is for brass ensemble with timpani, percussion and organ – a combination which in the outer movements makes quite a joyful noise unto the Lord, but which is used more softly and introspectively in the middle movement. The composer later made a version with full orchestra. (Louise Luegner © Collegium Records, used with permission.)

We hope these musical offerings bring additional joy and meaning to your Advent and Christmas seasons. . . Christ is born, Alleluia!

In music ministry with you,
John Albrecht, Director for Music Ministries

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Changing Rules and Timeless Values

December 3rd, 2017 by Steve Savides in Recent events · Social justice · No Comments

“The rules have changed!” That seems to be the cry from many both dismayed and delighted by the recent news of prominent men forced to face the consequences of their sexual harassment and abuse. From a larger historical perspective, the rules certainly have changed. We forget, at our own peril, the long and persistent history of sexism in our country:
– It was only in 1839 that the first state granted women the right to hold property and then only with permission from their husbands. It took until 1900 for every state to pass legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own names.
– In 1920, the 19th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified, ensuring the right of women to vote, this coming nearly 145 years after the founding of our nation.
– In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed by Congress, promising equitable wages for the same work, regardless of the race color, religion, national origin or sex of the worker. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included a prohibition against sex discrimination in employment.
– And in 1986 the Supreme Court held that a work environment could be declared hostile or abusive because of discrimination based on sex, an important tool in sexual harassment cases.
From this historical perspective, the rules have indeed changed – praise God! – to become fairer, more equitable and more just. The struggle to change the rules isn’t over. Systemic sexism in our society must continue to be attacked for the demonic force that it is.
From another perspective, however, it’s important for us to note that the rules haven’t changed at all. Kindness, civility, respect, dignity, integrity, honesty, compassion, safety, and self-determination – these virtues and values have been upheld by generation after generation. It is these bedrock virtues and values of human society that are repeatedly and grievously violated by sexual abuse and harassment. These “rules” have NOT changed. What HAS changed is the level of accountability to which we are holding those who have violated them.
Male privilege, the baseless belief that masculine gender should remove or reduce accountability, is being directly challenged right now – again, praise God! As people of faith we should join in that effort because we believe strongly in accountability. One of our bedrock values is the idea that love without accountability is no love at all. How is that the writer of 1 John puts it? “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21).
Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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“Who is Jesus Christ?”

November 24th, 2017 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

In the church calendar, the year both begins and ends this week – it ends with the Reign of Christ Sunday on November 26 and begins with the First Sunday of Advent on December 3. These Sundays focus our attention on the central question of our faith, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

Perhaps the most beautiful words written in answer to that question were provided by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … (Colossians 1:15-26).”  Paul’s words are beautiful, glorious. More glorious still are those moments in our lives when those words come alive.

On July 19, 1989, Rev. Gregory Clapper was going to see the movie “Peter Pan” with his wife and two daughters in Sioux City, Iowa. As they pulled into the mall, he noticed a plane flying low heading for a nearby airport. Just as he pulled into a space in the parking lot, he saw a thick line of black smoke rise from the direction of the airport. United Airlines Flight 232 had crashed. Rev. Clapper, an Air National Guard chaplain, left his family at the movie and headed for the airport.

In his book, When the World Breaks Your Heart, Rev. Clapper tells the inspirational story of how so many of the victims of this crash and their bereaved families found hope, new life, and the vital presence of a loving and caring God in the midst of a terrible tragedy. When the world came apart, Rev. Clapper tells us, God through Jesus Christ was hard at work putting it back again.

There’s one person in particular whose faith was changed, reshaped, and strengthened by the tragedy – Rev. Clapper himself. When he arrived at the airport only minutes after the tragedy occurred, we can only imagine the sights that greeted him on that airport tarmac – the bodies of victims, bleeding survivors, crying caretakers; a chaos of hurt and pain and grief. But there was one sight in particular…   There were two bodies, burned beyond recognition. One, a smaller body, the other, larger, with its arms around the smaller. It was a father, holding his small son, even in death offering reassurance and comfort.

Rev. Clapper had arrived at the mysterious heart of the Christian faith. This father was Jesus Christ, who, on the cross, threw his arms around each and every one of us to share our fear, our hurt, our disappointment, even our death.

“Who is Jesus Christ?”  On a bloody tarmac in Iowa, Rev. Clapper found the answer to this question. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

All praise and thanksgiving be to God.

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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The Family Worship Area

November 17th, 2017 by Nick Hatch in Family · No Comments

Last year, the Children’s Ministry Team addressed the need for families with young children (ages 3-10) to have an area where the children could be creative and engaged in play while still participating in worship services. Thus, an area known as the “Pray-Ground” was established. The expectation has been that this would be an area where families gather, and that parents and guardians would still be present to maintain the primary caretaker role as their children engaged with educational materials or in other forms of quiet play. Parents and guardians have been expected to supervise and help their children to learn to participate in the service when appropriate, such as during the Lord’s Prayer. The Pray-Ground has been well received and is utilized each and every Sunday. Numbers of children attending over the summer months has increased and the children seem happy and stimulated. We truly blessed to have this inclusive form of worship!
However, there’s still a few key concerns that we need to focus upon. Some children are left unattended in the area due to lack of space for parents to sit in close proximity to their children. This can contribute to excessive movement and sound because there is no one to redirect our young worshippers. Additionally, parents/guardians need to practice teaching their children when and how to participate in the worship service. Thus, with the help of a committee of congregation members that included Ernestine Whitman, Amanda Hatch, Andrea Tatlock, Wayne Lannoye and Colleen Berry, who met to discuss these concerns, some recommendations for changes were made.
The changes agreed upon will be minor but will help to address our main concerns. First, and perhaps the biggest change, is that the name of the space will now be the Family Worship Area. The new name will remind everyone that this area is for families with young children to worship together. Secondly, a slightly different layout of the space was created with “reserved signs” placed in the seats/pews adjacent to the area. These changes are meant to accommodate appropriate supervision and ensure there is a spot for parents/guardians to sit in direct eyesight of their children. Lastly, some minor adjustments to the furniture are planned as well. The expectations for the Family Worship Area continue to be:
Children will be expected to:
• Use quiet voices at all times.
• Enjoy the quiet activities provided.
• Participate in the Worship service when appropriate. (Children’s Message, Lord’s Prayer, etc.)
• Stop activity when praying.
Parents/Guardians will be expected to:
• Enjoy the service from a spot in close proximity to your child or actually join them at the tables.
• Redirect, calm, or remove your child/children if they become disruptive to other children or to the service itself.
• Pick up children at the close of the Benediction.
Praise God that we have this need and praise God that we have the space and resources to continue to find ways to be a truly inclusive church no matter that age. Thanks for your understanding and support in developing this worship space and encouraging our youngest members in their faith journeys.
In Ministry together,
Colleen Berry, Director Christian Education and Nick Hatch, Pastor of Youth and Family Ministry

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What’s an installation?

November 10th, 2017 by Kathryn Kuhn in Uncategorized · No Comments

According to the United Church of Christ Book of Worship, a pastor’s installation is the time when “the association…confirms and celebrates the covenant between a local church and a newly called pastor and teacher and reaffirms the covenantal relationship of all the churches in the association.”
Installation is a celebration of our relationship as pastor and people. It’s also a time to recognize and remember: we aren’t alone in this. I certainly feel called and led by the Holy Spirit to be here, and most often She has worked through mentors, friends and family to guide and encourage me. A few of them will celebrate with us on Sunday:
• My parents, Rev. Jerry and Barbara O’Connor will be here. My dad is the one who asked me some hard questions after I expressed disinterest in returning to law school in 1992. He picked up the phone after our conversation on an August night, calling the president of Eden Theological Seminary (a family friend) to say, “I think I have a new student for you…”.
• My husband, Rev. Dr. Karl Kuhn, will read scripture. We met at Eden (lucky me!). Not only is he a wonderful partner in life, he’s a wise scholar, author and teacher. His knowledge of scripture and love for the church inspire me.
• Rev. Bob Ullman will be a part of the installation liturgy; his wife, Julie, will also be with us. Bob recently retired as pastor of Redeemer UCC in Sussex, WI. I was ordained there in 1997 as a part of a 4-way covenant. Bob has been a mentor in ministry, companion on the journey, and joyful presence in my life for over 20 years.
• Rev. Franz Rigert and Randy Miller will represent the Northeast Association and Wisconsin Conference UCC. Franz has been a colleague and friend for many years, and encouraged my journey to First Congo.
• Rev. Beth Long-Higgins is our guest preacher. Beth and I became friends through the UCC’s Council on Health and Human Service Ministries. Beth serves as the Executive Director of the Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging, a part of United Church Homes based in Marion, Ohio. Her vision for the church, and for age-friendly congregations, resonates with my own ministry and hope for the future. Coincidentally, she and Pastor Steve were classmates at United Theological Seminary.

Your names, faces, life-stories and encouragement are quickly becoming additional blessings in my life. I’m grateful for this moment to celebrate God’s work among us, and look forward to what the future holds, knowing we make this journey in faith together, guided always by God’s grace. See you in church!

Your friend and fellow minister,
Pastor Kathryn Kuhn

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