We are so blessed every Sunday to have music like this: Grace Like Rain / thanks to the ministry of Kathryn Foster, our student pastor, Bob Fahringer (Kathryn’s husband) as well as Lynn and Paul Rice from Zion, professional musicians in their own right. They start us off with 15 minutes of great contemporary praise music before our liturgical service begins. For many of our members, this has helped create a blend that includes the best of traditional music as well as contemporary Christian songs. (CCLI podcast license # CSPL034777).
February 20, 2013
November 3, 2011
During this time of economic turmoil in our nation, five Allentown clergy from Congregations United for Neighborhood Action (CUNA) traveled to New Orleans last week to join more than 500 clergy from 26 states, representing Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faith traditions.
The Reverends Dick Baumann, Maritza Dolich, John Grabish, David Charles Smith, CUNA executive director, Joshua Chisholm, and I attended the convocation in response to a “prophetic call to action.” That call reminds us about the responsibility of a people, especially those in power, to care for the poor and the vulnerable members of their society.
In fact-filled presentations, we saw statistical evidence that poverty and inequality are growing faster than any time since the 1920s. Indeed, the income gap between the top 1% and the rest of the people is almost as extreme as it was in 1929!
Clergy in New Orleans shared story after story about the devastating realities of unemployment, foreclosure and financial stress on our communities. How can anyone not be moved by the plight of a young father searching fruitlessly for work; parents and children evicted from the home they can no longer afford; or a retiree watching her life savings disappear – all due to an economic crisis they did not cause?
We clergy have witnessed the emotional and spiritual suffering that such stress often brings. The “occupied” sections of many of our nation’s cities demonstrate the despair and frustration that people feel. And now the “super-committee” has brought us the same old same old: political gridlock and gamesmanship. People who already are stressed and despairing lose hope as politicians position themselves for re-election instead of collaborating for the common good.
For generations America was a land of opportunity, a place where hard work led to a better life. Many working people now feel like the deck is stacked against them, yet attempts to discuss fairness in our society often are labeled “class warfare.” Just as the ancient prophets in our scriptures were called by God to condemn idolatry and injustice, so we feel called to speak out when we see unchecked greed and the corrupting influence of powerful special interests on our government.
The faith leaders who gathered in New Orleans believe that current public debate about economic recovery reflects competing moral and spiritual values that have profound consequences for us all. Who are we as a nation, and what binds us together? Americans always have believed in taking personal responsibility for our own well‑being; we also believe in helping our neighbors in need. Should we not expect a government as good as our people, a government that works for everyone, not just for the powerful and well‑connected?
We think that faith communities have a vital role to play in healing our nation, to shine the light that will remind our leaders to make decisions reflecting our deepest moral values. These values always have included a sense of fairness. These values always have included care for and protection of the most vulnerable among us. These values always have included courage to stand up for those who are being treated unjustly.
We have returned from New Orleans committed to preach, teach and organize in ways that unify people of faith to “do what is just, to love what is kind, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).” We challenge all of our elected leaders to put the needs of working families and the poor as well as the common good of our nation ahead of short‑term political strategies and special interests. And we invite all clergy to stand with us by reading and signing the call to action (www.cunapico.org) to reduce poverty and increase justice.
We ask for everyone’s prayers, that people of faith will be spiritually emboldened to work for the transformation of our nation, so that we may again give God every good reason to bless America.
NOTE – this was published as an “op ed” in the Morning Call, Nov. 23, 2011
September 27, 2011
I talked with Isaac Lapp about worship and music in his Amish community. Ike is the Amish carpenter who built the 1/2 scale Conestoga wagon for the Liberty Bell Museum, and I drove him, his family and two of his helpers to Allentown last Saturday so they could be with us for its dedication. The long drive gave us a lot of time for conversation.
Holding his thumb and forefinger to indicate the thickness of the big Gesangebuch his Amish community uses for worship, Ike explained this has been passed down for generations. They sing in German, without musical accompaniment of any kind. They sing the same songs sung by their German ancestors, who were persecuted and killed because of their religious ideas. “If it was good enough for them, why wouldn’t it be good enough for us?”
An interesting statement. On one hand, can you imagine a young adult in the suburbs saying that, about almost anything their parents have done? On the other hand, how could I explain to Ike the need for contemporary Christian music? How could I suggest that God is doing new thing in the 21st century church when I’m talking with someone who essentially lives somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries?
From the worst angle, I suppose the drive to sing contemporary music is due to competition in the marketplace of churches, where individual Christians are free to worship wherever they want. Contemporary music is a marketing strategy, both to retain members and to recruit new members. And clearly, by the numbers alone, contemporary music is drawing many people, for whom contemporary music is the best expression of their spirituality.
From the best angle, in the United Church of Christ we not only say “God is still speaking,” We also say it is “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make the faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” Ideally, contemporary music forms, from folk to hip-hip and everything in between, become vessels for the faith in a new age.
Over the past two years I have come to love the Lapp family and their uncomplicated approach to life and faith. I would never try to talk them out of it. But I am sad to think about children growing up in a community where music is ossified, where they never will take music appreciation or learn to play an instrument or write a new song unto the Lord (much less a love song to their betrothed!).
At Zion we are beginning to learn the new music, with some members cautious and some members cheering as we create “blended” worship, an elusive goal and a moving target. I suppose the goal really is a blended congregation, with members who affirm there are needs-differing as well as gifts-differing. Members who value one another and value community enough to talk about their spirituality and their musicality. Members who also would say they don’t want their church to be “amished,” stuck in the forms of an earlier generation.
September 18, 2011
The white board is strategically positioned at the Church Street entrance so that staff, group leaders and members may sign-in as they enter. This ensures that the building alarm is not inadvertently set while someone is still puttering about (or quietly praying) somewhere in this large facility.
I entered by the Maple Street door early Sunday morning to prepare for the service, so I didn’t see the whiteboard. Surprised was I when our custodian knocked on my office door and asked, “where is Jesus?” Where, indeed!
I am hopeful this theological tag signals new gang activity in Allentown. After all we Christians have our own signs and symbols we could use, lots of them. We want to claim our turf in the city; or rather, we want to state our gang leader’s claim. (Lordship, after all, covers a lot of territory.) But we’re not looking to disrespect anyone out there. To the contrary, our gang leader offers a better alternative than street respect: self-respect.
So what did I say to our custodian’s question, where’s Jesus? Before I could muster the profound thoughts welling up within me into one coherent sentence, she explained the source of her question and quickly moved on to her next task.
Now I’m left wondering whether that anonymous soul will dare to tag every building in town, a reminder to Christians of Christ’s presence throughout the city, and a challenge to everyone else to look for him: where is Jesus?
September 4, 2011
I was blessed to participate this past summer in a job-creation program for teens through Congregations United for Neighborhood Action. Although I had only a small role in the project, I also was blessed to be asked to write the op ed article that appears in the Morning Call today, “Allentown summer teen jobs program sows seeds of hope.” It is a good story to share.
After writing that op ed last week, and then preparing today’s message about work (which you can find under the Sunday Message tab), I find myself with new questions that I would like to ask the CUNA teens when we meet again: Where did you experience God in your work? Where did you feel God’s grace? What did you learn about your faith in your summer employment experience?
These are questions that we all could ask ourselves from time to time, even clergy. It may seem obvious that pastors would find God in their work. But I’m as prone as anyone to get lost in the details of the job, and to lose the “eternal perspective” that I prayed today we all would carry into our workaday world.
So to answer my own questions: this past week, I think I saw God’s hand at work in expanding our music ministry here. (I’m never sure that it is God’s hand till long after the fact.) Grace came in the midst of a visit with a dying woman, who offered forgiveness to some who had wronged her. And I’m learning again is how wonderful it is to rely on the faith, and receive the gifts, of others in the community of believers. We have a small congregation of members and friends who faithfully serve God in their occupation (job, school, home, community volunteer) and then work overtime to serve within the church as well. Bless them.
In the words of a traditional hymn:
All labor gained new dignity
since he who all creation made
toiled with his hands for daily bread
No work is commonplace, if all
be done as unto him alone;
life’s simplest toil to him is known
who knoweth all.
His service is life’s highest joy,
it yields fair fruit a hundredfold:
be this our prayer – “Not fame, nor gold,
but – thine employ!”
February 7, 2011
Of course, “challenge” is one purpose of the study. At the end of every chapter you’ll find this question: “Does the reading convict, challenge or comfort you?” Some challenge is built into the study. For example, the chapter on prayer was a goad to better discipline myself in prayer. The chapter on sin prompted me to look at some personal issues again. And I felt the prodding of the Spirit to set aside reflection time in the middle of my Sunday message about chapter 14. I then prodded the congregation to think about – and share with others – how the Spirit spoke to them, right there in worship. A challenge for them as well as for me.
But all of these focus on the personal realm of faith. This week’s chapter moves us, at least potentially, into a more public realm. When we consider issues of justice, we begin with what is personal: my experience with someone who is poor, or with those who are different from me. But as we “stand for justice” with people who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison, we inevitably need to consider the social, economic and political realities that generate or perpetuate such conditions. Christians sometimes have a difficult time with this.
On a personal level, many Christians are willing to help this individual or that family in need; or contribute to food banks and soup kitchens. But here’s the challenge: what are we called to do about the institutionalization of poverty in our country? For example, I’ve recently heard of one large corporation that hires people at poverty level wages, and if they complain about low pay tells them to apply for food stamps. And instead of providing health benefits, they tell their employees to apply for SCHIP and other state and federal aid. I don’t think this is fair either for the employee or for the taxpayer who has to foot the bill for the corporation. Is this just? WWJD?
You and I as individual Christians don’t begin to have the resources to help all the people who are in need, especially when multi-million/billion dollar corporations are evading their social responsibility to provide a living wage and benefits. I quickly find myself in agreement with the conclusions in the chapter reading, and I wonder why Ogden didn’t address the socio-political aspect more directly.
The personal issue for me on this topic: how much and how far to press justice issues in my preaching at Zion?
December 13, 2010
December 5, 2010
There are plenty of people who want to be good, certainly good enough to go to heaven. But it is all too human to think that by being good we’ll miss out on the fun or the “gusto” or something. So we bargain with ourselves and don’t stop doing things we know are wrong. Eventually we discover that following this “get-away-with-what-I-can” philosophy leads us into real problems and pain.
Other people don’t simply want to be good, they strive to be better: to change and grow and develop their character, striving for an ideal. The ideal may be a list of virtues (Ben Franklin tried it that way) or the goal to measure up to “the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). However this can lead to frustration and a sense of failure when we struggle with temptation and find we can’t achieve the ideal or the goal we’ve set.
To me, both of these reveal the meaning of sin. (I know this isn’t exactly people’s favorite subject, but it’s our reading this week.)
Sin is more than breaking moral or religious laws – the usual definition. Sin is the stuck-ness we find ourselves in. We get stuck in sin when we try to negotiate with our conscience about our behavior (how much can I get away with) or when we strive for such a high ideal we can’t reach it (how do I deal with failure).
Ogden takes us into Genesis 2-3, the story of Adam and Eve, to explore this subject. Maybe I’ll use Romans 7:18-20, where Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
So in my discipleship, I need to come to terms not only with forgiveness for my specific sins, but also with growing in faith while struggling with my stuck-ness, the human condition.