Thursday, March 12, 2015

Insights and Strategic Priorities

By Roger Wenk

Roger has been at FCCBC for three year and currently serves as the chairperson for the Vision and Strategy Team of the Church Council

I’ve recently finished a book called “Churchless” by Barna and Kinnaman.  It investigates the decline of attendance in churches as well as some very sobering realities behind the decline.  While the population in the United States has grown by 15% since 1991, the number of unchurched adults has nearly doubled. 
The findings, patterns and recommendations from this book are backdrops for our Vision and Strategy team to fortify our strategic priorities. In September after fruitful discussion and deliberation, the Church Council prayed and centered ourselves upon these four priorities: 

1. We seek to be an inviting church with an outward focus to connect with those around us with intention, authenticity and depth.
2. We value Sabbath rest as a fundamental priority in contrast to the busyness in the world around us. We want to intentionally make time and space for Sabbath.
3. We provide a “spiritual playground.” We honor the diversity of spiritual practices within our community and provide opportunities to experience God in unique ways.
4. We honor, uphold and embrace the differences between us and seek to build relationships across barriers with those not like ourselves. By doing so, we embody difference faithfully.

With these priorities in mind, there were some uncomfortable decisions made for our 2015 budget. These decisions help bridge us with the churchless and support us on our journey on a robust path for sustainable growth. The 2015 budget is an absolute fit to where we are today and to fuel the vision we carry ahead as a spiritual community. 

We have authentic leadership. We have focused strategic priorities. We are a bold church, willing to invest in our future.  In 37 months I’ve been at FCCBC, I’ve seen the Garden of Dreams transform from a dream to a bountiful garden of wondrous children.  I’ve seen the infusion of a gifted and passionate music director. Art will be a focal point here in the near future, just to name a few. A paper awaiting incineration is all that remains of a once massive mortgage. And I’ve met incredible people in this faith community that continue to lift the spirit and lift your love. I’ve seen amazing volunteer work from the most humble people I’ve ever met.

In reminds me of a poem called “Which are you?” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.: “There are two kinds of people on earth today, just two kinds, no more I say…the two kinds of people on earth I mean, are the people who lift, and the people who lean.”  We lift.  When deep calls to deep, we lift. Thank you for the lifting you do for First Congregational Church of Battle Creek. 

On the Journey: When We LEARN More…..We DO Better

by Sandy Wehling

"White privilege" seem to be the words white people dread hearing when there is a discussion about racial justice. Do we resent those words?  Do they make us feel guilty, ashamed?  Do they make us feel we are to blame for the injustices of the world?

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about those words:
  • I was born with white privilege;unearned and invisible to those who have it. 
  • I have been raised in a country whose history is built upon this privilege and where white is the dominant group. 
  • It doesn’t mean wealth or a big fancy home or being the head of a company.
  • White privilege means that I was born with advantages and benefits because my skin is white. 
  • When I benefit from a system simply because I am white, it dehumanizes those whose skin is not white and myself in the process.  
  • I can’t change my white skin; I can become aware of how this country has made “white” the norm and how people with white skin have the positions of power and are making decisions for people of color.

Acknowledging white privilege is about white people understanding that we have “access” to housing, jobs, education, health care and being willing to open up that access to everyone, no matter the color of their skin. The disparities in these areas are real.  Here are a couple of questions I have answered during my learning:
  • Have I ever been followed as I shopped in a store?  No
  • Have I ever worried that I wouldn’t be served at a restaurant or other business? No
  • Am I ever asked to speak for all white people? No

Through my reading and discussing with people of color, I have learned that a person of color may answer those questions very differently. I am taken aback by how people
of color struggle with teaching black male children how to react to police so that they won’t be jailed or harmed for no reason. I have listened to stories of black people in jobs where promotions were only given to white people. They also talk about being followed in stores or being ignored when they needed to be waited on. 

We can all grow in our understanding of white privilege by reading, attending seminars or talking with people of color. We can re-examine the history of this country in light of white privilege and begin to understand the sacrifices that people of color have made in the growth of our nation; Chinese immigrants built our railroads, African people toiled to raise the white man’s cotton and tobacco and Latino immigrants even today pick our fruit and vegetables. They all had a huge part in building this country but white people have reaped the benefits while they are still the victims of injustice in many forms.  Only when we realize what “white privilege” has done to people of color will we begin to understand the need to work toward racial justice. Only when each of God’s children lives in his/her full humanity will there be a truly just society. When we learn more, we do better!                  

Music as Spiritual Practice

by Rev. Tom Ryberg

“Sit in the most comfortable position you can find. Close your eyes and let your breathing settle into long, slow cycles. Start humming whenever you wish on the pitch most comfortable to you...”-- From Humming (1972) by Annea Lockwood

During my music composition studies at Oberlin, I had the opportunity to participate in a “free improvisation” group. We met a couple times weekly and basically practiced making weird noises together. About eight of us would spend hours interpreting experimental musical compositions for which the directions included things like, “play a vibration in the rhythm of your body,” or “play a vibration in the rhythm of your heart,” or “play a vibration in the rhythm of your breathing.” I’m not making this up.
Sometimes, we played real instruments like piano and violin. Sometimes, we made noise with inanimate objects like music stands and chairs. Every time, we listened carefully to one another so that our individual offerings could combine well into the greater whole.
Often, when people start improvising together for the first time, it’s pretty cacophonous. Everyone is preoccupied with trying out their own sounds. It’s a lot of people making simultaneous noise, but not necessarily together. Not necessarily sharing time and space. But over time, two essential things happen: first, the improvisers become increasingly confident in the sounds they have to offer. And second, they become more aware of the greater whole, the what the group is composing around them. Putting these things together, you have people who are making intentional, meaningful contributions, and also leaving space for others to make theirs.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but these very principles are absolutely essential when it comes to nurturing good, holistic church. Whether participating in a small group, a group prayer, or preparing to pledge, each of us are invited to offer a meaningful contribution out of our unique gifts - while also being mindful of and making room for the needs of the greater community beyond us. We offer the best we can muster, individually. And we are attuned to the church beyond, and we listen to God beyond as well.
Since the beginning of February, about a dozen brave souls have gathered in the Miller Chapel at 6:30 on Wednesday nights, to explore “music as spiritual practice.” Join us, and join in the practices of holistic community.

God on Trial: a Lenten Journey in the Book of Job

by Emily Joye Reynolds
Koinonia is focusing its Lenten journey on The Book of Job. We will spend 6 weeks in a sermon series on the text, and then culminate our study with an improvisational "trial" held the week before Easter. I've asked all those who worship in Koinonia to pick a particular character from Job, to follow and deepen their study of that character each week, and to then participate in the trial as that character. We've never done anything like this in Koinonia before. Here's why I am excited about it.

Too often we read the Bible as observers, with our heads, distanced from the Biblical content by history, geography, culture and bodily space. We rarely feel with the characters, or enter into those stories body, mind and soul. Some of the stories are so familiar to us after a lifetime of sitting in church, that we barely pay attention to the details. We hope for a new angle of interpretation if the preacher is really on her game. But how often do we get into the Bible, into the stories, with our whole selves?

I remember attending a workshop on transgressive Biblical interpretation at the U.S. Social Forum, hosted by World & Word, in 2010. It was my first year as your pastor. I drove all the way to Detroit to attend this workshop. I didn't get anything out of it, except the importance of using drama as a means of entering the Biblical world. I watched a group of adults do an improvisational enactment of the "Parable of the Shrewd Manager" that totally changed the way I understood that story. It was profound. We tend to think of skits, role-plays, and theatrical exercises as kid’s stuff. That day showed me what a huge spiritual misconception that is for adults. When we enter the biblical world, creatively, mind body and soul, those stories change us and we change them.

On Maundy 
Thursday we are going to put "God on Trial" as part of our Lenten series on Job. If you've read the book, you know the overarching themes are: human suffering, faithfulness, endurance, questioning and God's role in the world's affairs. The story doesn't end in neat and tidy little boxes for us. Some questions go unanswered. Others are answered insufficiently. The reader comes away in wonder, wandering still. One of the things I hope will happen as we put God on trial, is that members of Koinonia will experience a new way of relating to our tradition. I hope they will orient to scripture and tradition as participants, not just observers. There's so much meaning to be had in participating, in struggling, with what gets unearthed in Job.

But here's a kick: what gets unearthed in Job is what gets unearthed in us as we live this life. Entering that story is entering into our own story and God's story in an attempt to figure out what we know, what we don't know, and why it all matters. Blessings to you on the (bumpy, rocky, rough and rugged ) road to Easter.

Imagine What We Can Be

By Rev. Tom Ott

Remember five years ago, when Jerry and Allen Harmon challenged us to “Imagine What We Can Be?”  That was the theme that inspired our capital campaign to pay off the remaining 1.5 million dollar balance of our mortgage from the renovation we undertook fifteen years ago.

Last month we received the funds we needed to finish paying off the loan! It was a huge milestone for us and an inspiring tribute to the dedication and commitment of people in our faith community.  Some of our members have made pledges to three different capital campaigns to help transform our church space into beautiful, accessible, flexible and functional space for hosting our congregation and the wider community. 

On behalf of all of the people whose lives are transformed by all of the ministries, events and activities that take place in church building, I want to say thank you!  Thank you for your generosity.  Thank you for your perseverance.  Thank you for your vision.  Thank you for investing 6.5 million dollars of your own resources to create sacred space here in Battle Creek.  I am both humbled and inspired by your courageous act of faith.

Once the final payment has been turned in to the bank and the paperwork processed and we receive documentation that the loan has been satisfied, we will host a mortgage burning event to rejoice and celebrate this important milestone in the life of our faith community.  We’ll do it later in spring so that those who have been wintering in warm, faraway places can return in time to share in the joy.

Five years ago Jerry and Allen challenged us to imagine what we can be, and already I can say we have become more than I could ever have imagined.  Emily Joye and Tom have joined our community and have launch our Koinonia ministry, a new community that is helping us reach young families in Battle Creek.  The Garden of Dreams Preschool now hosts 60 children from racially and economically diverse families in our community ranging in ages from 6 months up to Kindergarten, providing excellent care and education to prepare them to be successful in school.  Sunday morning we now have a new children’s ministry called the Joyful Path that engages children of both services in activities that help them learn the values of our faith.  Every week we host multiple opportunities for adults to grow in their faith through a wide variety of adult faith formation small group experiences.  We host groups promoting racial justice, disability justice, fitness and body image, Bible study, creative arts and music. We are hosting God’s Kitchen on Monday evenings and distributing surplus food from the food bank once a month to help feed hungry people in the neighborhood.  We are hosting the summer Freedom School program to help improve the literacy skills of children of color.  We are hosting events supporting efforts such as Bridges to Cultural Understanding, the Historical Black University College Choir Concert, MLK Breakfast, etc.

The list goes on…beyond our wildest imaginations!  Thank you members and friends of First Congregational Church for investing so much of what you have to create sacred space, not only for the members of our own faith community, but for all the people of Battle Creek.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March 1, 2015--God on Trial: The Polyphonic Text

By Rev. Emily Joye Reynolds
Job 1:20-22
Sometimes when I listen to our cultural conversations about God, not just in the Church, but in the culture at large, I'm confused. Sometimes when I listen to the music of our tradition, particularly in the first service, but even in here, sometimes, I'm confused. Sometimes when I read the Bible and try to study who God is, how God is portrayed in and through the scriptures, I'm confused. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life experience, how God has shown up over my 33 years, I'm confused. I'm confused because most of the time, it doesn't make sense. Doesn't add up. Doesn't compute.

Theology is not like cooking, or putting together furniture from IKEA, or paint by number. The instruction manuals, the discourse, the resounding claims of truth, when it comes to God, don't lead to some neat and tidy conclusion. There doesn't seem to be an end product, no matter how many of our conservative brethren try to convince us that it's as simple as believing in Jesus Christ in your heart and professing that he is Lord aloud with your lips. In fact, I've found the more you seek, the more you realize you don't know. And not knowing, while a very human experience, can also lead to tremendous anxiety.

The season of Lent is a time of wandering in the Wilderness, intentionally as Christians. For 40 days and 40 nights, we, like Christ, take intentional time and space to honor the trials, the tests, the straight up hard knocks of human life. One of the most common wilderness experiences in human life is not knowing. Specifically not knowing about God, about what is of Ultimate Concern (to use Tillich's phrase). Not knowing who put us here and why and what it all means and how we're supposed to respond. Mind you, I'm not talking about innocent ignorance or the shadows of doubt. I'm talking about the tremendous anxiety that can come when our life experience and what we've known to be true or don't know to be true come crashing in on us. I'm talking about uncertainty that can drive us to the brink of madness. Cognitive dissonance of the highest, threatening order.  Times when not knowing isn't okay, when we demand, body and soul, answers. And what happens, both spiritually and materially, when those answers don't come no matter how hard we seek them.

Today we begin a series of accompanying Job through his wilderness experience. This series will end at Easter, but my hope is that the Book of Job will haunt you and hold you throughout your life. And that in your moments of crashing uncertainty, in your own periods of wilderness, you will return to this text, as a faithful companion. Because if nothing else, and there is so much more, this book of the Bible, offers affirmation to those who are thirsty and cannot ultimately be satisfied. There is no tidying up the paradoxes this text kicks up and acknowledges. There is no theological winner to be had here. And while like I said, that kind of not knowing can drive us to hopelessness and pain at times, there is also something beautiful about biblical confirmation that we aren't the first and won't be the last.

At the end of this series, we are going to try something new. I want to let all of you know about it now so you can start preparing yourselves for how you participate in it. We are going to do a communal, improvisational enactment of a courtroom scene with all the characters from the Book of Job. God will be on trial--hence the name of the series. So as we go along, these next 5 weeks, pay attention to what character grabs you the most. Which character gets under your skin and irritates you the most, or strikes you admirable and worthy of defending?Absolutely every character is up for grabs, yes even God. I want you to choose a character in the next few days and stick with that character throughout Lent. Listen to the sermons with an ear for that character. Do study on your own when you're not in Church.

This is a way of moving with scripture that takes it from the abstract head and places it into the spiral of the heart. If most of you are willing to participate, I guarantee our community will not be the same after this series, and you will never think about the Book of Job or not think about the Book of Job the same, either. In fact, my hunch is that this experience actually has the capacity to change how we read the Bible, think about our tradition, and interact with God--which is all kind of a big deal--so I want to invite yall to go in here. I'm also invested in taking this book back from the mainstream portrayal of it because it's white-washed and weak. So: put everything you think you know or have heard about the book of Job on hold and let's get busy diving in for ourselves. I'm inviting us to embark on a communal spiritual discipline for Lent together. You with me?

Calendar date for the trial.

Okay. Here's the ark of the story.

Job is a wealthy, privileged man living at a time of agricultural prosperity. Like most patriarchs of the Bible his wealth and privilege come in the form of property ownership. He is the master of his house and his house in on land that he owns, full of humans and animals that he owns. He's married and has seven sons and three daughters. The second sentence of the story tells us in no uncertain terms that Job is "blameless and upright." The opening chapter uses very specific language to let us know that Job is faithful not just on Earth but before God.

All is going swimmingly for ole Job until the Accuser of the Divine Council comes before God. The two of them engage in an ego-driven challenge. God actually starts the challenge by boasting about Job. The Accuser who, duh, is an accuser, challenges God by essentially claiming that Job is only faithful to God because God's been faithful to Job. "Does Job fear God for nothing?" the Accuser asks. Then the Accuser offers to spike Job's punch, so to speak, to see if his faithfulness is the real deal. God gives the Accuser all power to mess with Job--except for causing his death, the Accuser can do anything he wants to bring misery on Job. This is what he proceeds to do for the next chapter and a half. Job’s servants die. His animals are killed. And his children's lives are taken because of a "natural disaster."

We as readers know something that Job does not. Job doesn't know that God and the Accuser are caught up in some big cosmic dual; he just thinks that one day, out of nowhere, as if it's some natural thing in life, he loses everything except his health and his wife. But that comes next. The first round of loss comes and goes and Job refuses to blame or curse God. The Accuser returns to God and brings about round two, saying "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives." This time the Accuser causes boils to rise on Job's skin, "from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." At this point, Job's wife intervenes and suggests that Job ought to "curse God and die." But he will not. He rebukes his wife but holds his tongue from sinning against God in response to his suffering.

Next three friends come to visit Job, and can't even recognize him after all this loss and sickness. They perform traditional rituals of grief and loss, then "sat with him on the ground, seven days and seven night, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great." Friends that know how shut up at the right time. What a gift, right? Yeah, but not for long.

The next chunk of the book of Job--and it's a big chunk--is a bunch of speeches from various people. Job's cursing of the day he was born starts in Chapter 3, and then following are speeches by his friends, mostly trying to explain why what's happened to him has happened to him. Not helpful. Job responds with more aggravation, questioning and wrestling. He refuses to accept half-baked answers, refuses to be consoled by nonsense, even if its non-sense dripping with the God language. Later an anonymous dude named Elihu shows up, quoting Job and refuting his earlier speeches. God shows up after that and gives a speech from a whirlwind basically telling Job that his tiny-brain cannot comprehend the Divine Life so his questions are short-sided. God never takes ownership for the calamity that he intentionally brought upon Job. Job, after having heard from God, admits that he doesn't know what he doesn't know and gives a mysterious kind of repentance with his words. God proceeds to let Job's friends know that they were all full of crap, restores Job's "fortunes" twofold and Job goes on to live an even more "blessed" life than he had before. The End.

But not really.
Why is this one of the most popular stories in the Bible? Why does Job’s character hold such prominence in the timeless human mind?  Why does this story stay with us and play with us, confuse, confound and console us?

Biblical scholars have referred to the Book of Job as a "Polyphonic Text." What does polyphonic mean? Poly = many. Phonic = sound/sounds of speech. Right here in this one book of the Bible, we've got many voices. It's a polyphonic book. And let me be clear: it's not just the voices of the characters that are at play here. As we read this book, we are hearing the voices of the authors, their culture, their history, and the interpretations of Job we've inherited implicitly and explicitly throughout our own lives.

Now, if you think about it, "multiple voices" have a mixed wrap in our society. If people hear "mixed voices" in their heads, we often label them, medicate them, and some of them we put away because we consider them dangerous. But when it comes to an egalitarian way of doing things in community, many voices, at the table, or in the circle, or in the kitchen is considered an imperative. Right? We appear to have lots of desire for what's Polyphonic when it comes to community, but less when it comes to the individual. But what about when it comes to our notions of God?

I mentioned earlier in the sermon that part of what's so troubling about human life sometimes is the not knowing. I'm going to push that further. Sometimes when it comes to God, the competing voices in our heads, in our communities and in our traditions, can be deeply disturbing. Those of you who have recently exited Evangelical Christianity are particularly caught up in these questions. Those of us who have been harmed by Christianity's historic intolerance and persecution of the queer are particularly caught up in these questions. Those of us who are learning new concepts, ideas, and realities outside of our former world-views and spiritual frameworks are particularly caught up in these questions. Questions like: Who is right? Who is wrong? Who speaks in truth? Who speaks in the tongues of mortals? Who is trustworthy and who is worth chucking? How do we know? Why does it matter? Does it actually matter? Or is it all relative?
Yes. Yes. Yes.

That's the point of polyphonic texts, but more precisely, this polyphonic life. It's about those questions. It's about the process of hearing the many voices and wrestling. That's the invitation from and in my opinion the point of The Book of Job. I'm not here to tell you that all voices are worth obeying, not in the Book of Job, and not in real life, but they are all worth listening to and trying to understand. That's what the religious journey is all about. So, pilgrims and doubters and sinners and seekers divine, here's a challenge for you to hold and practice during this Lenten season inside and outside of Church, inside and outside of the Book of Job: listen to all the voices, seek to understand them, and when it's impossible to get it "right" or to arrive at a final conclusion, bless yourself because you stand in 2000+ years of wisdom wrestling with itself and you'll blend in among precious, beautiful, flawed and foolish company.


March 8, 2015--God on Trial: 3s Company

by Rev. Emily Joye Reynolds
Job 2:11-13
Job 8:2-6

I've been preaching at FCC long enough now that I'm not sure which stories I've already told in my sermons. If some of you have already heard this one, my apologies, however it's such an important one, both for me, personally, and in terms of instructing spiritual companionship that I'm going to offer it again.

When my father got sick in 1994, I was 13 years old. I don't know how many of you remember being 13, but what I remember is the tectonic change. The bridge between later childhood and adolescence is a journey fraught with all kinds of physical and emotional swings. Puberty makes your body get all sensationally different. Social arrangements built on the hierarchies of athleticism and beauty and heteronormativity began to emerge. I couldn't recognize myself in the mirror. I didn't like the friends I'd grown up with. School felt like an exercise in torture. My parents were exhaustingly embarrassing. And then my dad got sick. And he got sick fast. When I look back it feels like his early symptoms, diagnosis, descent into a coma and final death took place in the blink of an eye. But in reality it took about a year and a half for all that to happen. Like I said, my world was already on tilt. So throw a parent dying into the equation and you've got massive destabilization.

My parents had this friend from church named Maureen. She was a white, middle aged lesbian. Quiet. Nose down, work hard type. Medium stature with salt and pepper hair. Tender in her speech and tragic in her loneliness. I'd gotten used to her over years of dinner parties at the house, coffee in courtyard after church rendezvous. She was part of my parent's inner circle. And so in the final weeks of my father's life, she was around quite a bit. Three days before my dad died a nurse had let us know that his time was winding down. We knew the end was near. Everyone had feelings about that except for me. I felt entirely numb. I walked out of the bedroom into the back porch and just sat there. Maureen followed me. With a deck of cards. "Wanna play?" she asked holding up the deck. I nodded. I was good at speed. It'd take my mind off things. It was 8 oclock in the morning when we started our first round. When I came to, we'd probably played more than fifty games of speed. It was mid-afternoon. We hadn't said a word other than the occasional "wanna shuffle?" or "hold on; I gotta go to the bathroom."

When she got up to leave, I had this immense sadness at the thought of her departure. In fact, I felt terrified of her leaving. It was the only thing I could concretely feel. Here my dad was, down the hall dying, which I couldn't feel anything about. And this "friend of the family" gets up to leave the house and I'm a mess? That all makes sense to me in retrospect. She was the one person who knew how to take care of me back then. She offered nothing but presence. No words. No justification. No silly platitudes. Just presence. Everything in my life was changing. Some of that change was "normal" but a lot of it was change that I wouldn't choose. Her steady, staying body represented exactly what I needed. Something to remain. Something that would draw near and stay close without shifting.

One morning and afternoon. Round after round of cards. Maureen taught me more about spiritual care than any book I've read, class I've taken or experience I've had since. I have no idea what happened to Maureen. Our family's lost touch after some years. I don't even remember her last name, but I can tell you that day is probably the single, biggest influence on the way I do pastoral care. She taught me the lesson that I believe the authors of Job are trying to teach us.

After the attack on Job's health in Chapter 2, Job's wife tells him to "Curse God and die" which we will get to in the next couple of weeks. Immediately after this, Job's friends come to town. It tells us that "they met together to console and comfort him." They enact rituals of grief and mourning. And then "they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."

Job had the audacity to open his mouth. The friends do so very very well until Job starts expressing his pain, his anguish, his rage and bewilderment. If they'd just stayed with him on the ashes, lingering in silence and presence, it would have been fine. But no. The next, like 20 chapters of this book, are a big ole back and forth between Job and his friends. Reading it is like being face palmed over and over. It's painful. I mean, Job's situation is painful enough, but then the friends make it worse.

But what's so queerly interesting to me about this section of the book is what the authors of the book are up to. Let me be specific. Those of us reading the story know that the friends are wrong. What they're wrong about I'll get to in a minute. But they are so very very convinced that they are right. And we know that they are wrong. So the authors have tipped us off to a dynamic the friends are unaware of, which is Job's innocence. Job knows he's innocent. God knows Job is innocent. We the readers know that Job is innocent. But the friends don't. They are so sure, so certain, so unwaveringly committed to the notion that Job deserves what he got, that they simply cannot let him go on about his lot without challenging him at every opportunity. They are more convinced with preserving the "seeming" integrity of God than hearing their friend's experience. And because of this they represent orthodoxy.

Every character in the book of Job represents a certain strand of the biblical or theological tradition of the Israelites. The friends represent orthodoxy. What does orthodoxy mean? Ortho = right Doxy = doctrine.  We talked last week about Job being a "poly phonic" text meaning a book of many voices. Orthodoxy would seek to silence those voices in favor of one voice, one truth, one notion, one way of thinking, one way of believing, one way of understanding. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar represent the orthodoxy in the tradition of the Israelites. And orthodoxy is positioned in this story in response to suffering.

I want to tell you a bit about the content of biblical orthodoxy in order for this to make sense. Throughout a lot of the Hebrew Bible there's this doctrine known as "temporal retribution." It's in the book of Deuteronomy. It's in the canon of history portrayed in books such as 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. Its completely apparent in the "Wisdom" literature such as Proverbs and Psalms. Temporal retribution is a fancy term for divine influenced cause and effect. You do good, God rewards. You do bad, God punishes. It's very very simple, actually. The notion is that all things are set up, by God and for God, so that every thing, large and small, is a matter of cause and effect. If bad things are happening, it's because something caused punishment. If good things are happening, it's because something caused reward. If the crops are abundant, it's because God has caused it to rain as reward for good behavior. If the land is dry, it's because God has caused a drought to punish bad behavior. It all happens under a cosmic law that God has set up and perpetually enforces. Temporal retribution. Divine cause and effect.

We see modern day versions of this all the time. When natural disasters happen, there are a bunch of theologians who are willing to step forward and claim that a particular kind of social wickedness caused that Tsunami or Earthquake. When someone we love gets a good job or gets pregnant after trying for a long time, we quickly turn to the language of blessing. We claim that their faithfulness in this life has set them up to deserve such a blessing. If they're a really really "good" person, we emphasize how much they 'deserve' to have good things happen to them.

To put myself on blast here, for a second, whenever I hear that someone has gotten a cancer diagnosis one of my very first thoughts is: what kind of unconscious toxin has gotten lodged in that person's body? Is it unresolved trauma from childhood? Is it an environmental thing, like a bad marriage or an abusive boss? I still to this day will often claim that certain repressive tendencies in my father are what caused tumors to spread throughout his gut. You see, I try to seek to identify and name the cause of the material effect.

The problem here though is what we are implying with this kind of thinking. It usually puts all the responsibility and all the blame on whoever is in question without taking larger realities, including God, into question. Which is what Job refuses to do.

We are in "temporal retribution" kinds of thinking when we assume that someone has done something to bring about their current situation. We are in "temporal retribution" kind of thinking when we secretly or explicitly say things like "well, if she'd been a better wife, maybe he wouldn't have had an affair" or "everybody knows she's hard to work with; that's why she got fired" or "if young black men stopped breaking the law, the police wouldn't be shooting them at higher rates."

Job's friends represent this kind of thinking. They essentially tell Job that none of that calamity would have fallen on him unless he did something to deserve it because God has set the world up that way. Eliphaz, in chapter 8 says to Job "Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert the right?" These are rhetorical questions, of course. He goes on to say "If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression." So let's stop right there. Eliphaz is literally claiming that all of Job's kids have died because they sinned against God. But we the reader know this isn't true. Job's kids are dead because God gave Satan the power to take their lives. In fact, we know that Job took extra precaution, according to the biblical law, to protect his children. Chapter 1 verse 5 tells us that Job would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings in accordance with the number of children he had, just IN CASE one of them had sinned. We know Eliphaz is wrong. We know Job's children are innocent and dead, that Job is innocent and barely alive. But Eliphaz is positive he's right.

What are we to make of this?

Here's my hunch. It's too easy to make the friends of this story the villains. I mean, they are. But. We know they're wrong and that they don't know they're wrong. At the end of the story, in chapter 42, God appears and speaks to Eliphaz saying "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." I mean it's too obvious. It's too blatant. I'm not trying to let them off the hook. They clearly victimize Job. But what if they are victims too? Stay with me...

Remember how I said that Maureen's way of being with me was lifesaving and is probably the single, biggest influence on the way I do pastoral care? Remember how she was able, by quiet presence alone, to make me feel in the midst of oblivion and grief? Maureen touched the soul of a 13 year old girl in such a way that that 13 year old girl turned adult woman pastor would then go on to touch many other souls in a similar way. I can only pray that I've been half the loving presence to all others that she was to me that day.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar don't get to be, don't get to do, don't get to give in the way that Maureen did. Because while their so busy preserving orthodoxy, the possibility for incarnating God's love is lost. While they're busy trying to preserve the reputation of God, busy trying to persuade Job about the traditional understanding of God, the felt presence of God goes undetected, which makes them impossible to actually listen to and believe. You can say words about God and do words about God and be words about God all day long, but if the presence of your personhood doesn't match those words it means nothing.

It says in 1 Cor 13: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." Never a truer word. People preserving orthodoxy lose because they're more concerned with doctrine than they are with love. Job's friends cared more about tradition than experience. Because people like that are so devastatingly annoying, because they wreck sacred moments with their need to be right, I think we forget that their own humanity is lost in those moments. They are victims in the midst of their victimizing.

And I wanna push us further. I think we are them. Often. More than we'd like to admit. We get into cause and effect thinking with people we love and we do it to ourselves too. Think about when something hard, bad, painful or grief-worthy has happened to you. Have you not sought out the reasons why, and wondered if something you'd done had caused it? Or maybe you're one of those who wonders if you're just inherently bad and so anything hard that happens to you is deserved.

My point beloved is that we are Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. And this text is lovingly inviting us to consider what that means. Remember, they knew what to do at first. They knew to share in Job's pain, to make supplication through ritual, to sit quietly with him on the ash heap. But they also messed up and got all argumentative when they should have shut up and remained present. This text puts both of those tendencies in front of us and reminds us that one is better than the other in response to suffering. This text is inviting us to be the wise version of those three that showed up to be with Job in rituals of grief and in solidarity filled silence. The version of them that knew how to be present in body and spirit without having to defend or respond.

Sometimes it's sitting together, quietly, in the ashes. Sometimes it’s bringing over a deck of cards. Sometimes it's eating ice cream and watching funny movies. Sometimes it’s holding someone while they shed tears for hours. Sometimes it’s showing up at the front door with a filled crock-pot. Sometimes it’s sitting in the discomfort of not having the answers but offering the most loving eye contact you can possibly muster.

It's loving presence. Offered freely. For as long as it takes.

March 15, 2015--Blessed are the Persecuted

Matthew 5: 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
All of us have been treated unfairly at one time in or another, but few of us have actually been persecuted. There have been occasions when all of us have felt mistreated by individuals, businesses, institutions, and even government agencies. But persecution involves systematic mistreatment.
If we look back far enough, most of our ancestors came to this country to escape persecution. My mother’s ancestors, the Savages, were Huguenots, French Protestants who were persecuted for their harsh criticisms of doctrine and worship in the Catholic Church, but I’ve been preaching for 34 years and I’ve never been persecuted for my religious convictions. I’ve had people disagree with and even take offense at things I’ve said from the pulpit, but I’ve never been “systematically mistreated” for espousing my religious convictions. My father’s ancestors, the Ott’s, were part of the large wave of German immigrants that came to America because of the persecutions they endured during the 30 Years War and the devastating impact it had on Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century. But today we’ve got reserve military units that routinely travel here to Battle Creek for training at Fort Custer and I’ve never felt threatened when I see their convoys rolling into town.
Most of our ancestors came to America to escape the systematic mistreatment they endured in their homelands where they had property confiscated by marauding bands of soldiers, endured regime changes that resulted in hostile rulers coming into power and implementing policies that deprived them of their civil rights, saw their livelihoods threatened by economies devastated by war, and had their health jeopardized by the plague of diseases that spread through the impoverished populations.
America provided the hope of a better life for our persecuted ancestors and we are the beneficiaries of that hope. We who trace our roots to the devastations of our European ancestors have inherited a life free of persecution. We all get mistreated from time to time. People say and do things to us that aren’t fair but most of us have never been subjected to systematic mistreatment here in America.
Yet, ironically, we who trace our European histories back to ancestors who came to America seeking freedom from persecution have become the persecutors. All throughout our nation’s history we have persecuted and continue to persecute African Americans. For two hundred years, we brutalized them with chattel slavery, generating wealth by compelling them to work without pay, tearing their families apart, depriving them of marriage rights, trading and selling them as property. After slavery we persecuted them with the Jim Crow laws, Klan beatings and mob lynching’s that kept them segregated, excluded, impoverish and terrified. After World War 2, we red lined them and prevented them from moving into our white neighborhoods by denying their applications for the FHA back loans that our parents and grandparents used to buy their homes with low down payments and mortgages amortized over 30 years that made housing affordable to middle class white Americans. Since the 70’s we’ve been persecuting them by declaring War on Drugs which, for all intents and purposes, has become a war on young African American men. Even though study after study indicates that people of every race use and sell illegal drugs at the same rates, three fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are black or Latino.
Fifty years ago on this weekend, hundreds peaceful demonstrators were brutally attacked with Billy clubs, cattle prods, horse whips and clouds of tear gas by Alabama State police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on that day that became known as Bloody Sunday.
Many of us are probably familiar with the story of Rev. James Reeb, a 38 year old a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was among hundreds of clergymen from across the country who heeded Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to come to Selma for a second march in the wake of Bloody Sunday. On March 9, 1965, Reeb, a Father of four, and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers were walking back to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma after eating dinner at Walker’s CafĂ© when a group of four white men approached them from behind and beat them. Reeb was struck in the head with a club and died on March 11 in a Birmingham hospital. President Lyndon Johnson sent yellow roses to his hospital room, made a sympathy call to his family after he died, and referenced him as “a man of God,” in a nationally televised speech before a joint session of congress on March 15th when he introduced the Voting Rights Act.
But there were no calls from the White House to the family of the first martyr of Bloody Sunday. No national attention was given to the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson. He was a 27 year old African American who was shot and killed by an Alabama State trooper while participating in a peaceful protest march in Marion Alabama, 20 miles west of Selma. Jimmie Lee Jackson was an army veteran, father of a young daughter, deacon at St James Baptist Church who had been denied the right to vote on multiple occasions and had become active in voter registration initiatives in Perry County. On Feb 18th a group of 200 protesters were participating in a peaceful evening march when they were attacked by Marion police officers, Perry County sheriff's deputies and Alabama state troopers. Jackson and other marchers sought refuge in Mack's Cafe, along with Jackson's mother, Viola Jackson, and his 82 year old grandfather. Witnesses say troopers entered the restaurant and began beating those inside. Jackson was shot in the stomach with a shotgun at close range by an Alabama State Trooper as he tried to protect his relatives.
It was Jackson's death that led civil rights leaders to call for a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Forty five years later, in 2010, former trooper James Fowler, then 77, pleaded guilty to a single charge of manslaughter in Jackson's death and served five months in prison.
This weekend, forums and workshops, appearances by celebrities and speeches by political leaders, including President Barack Obama will take place in Selma to celebrate the impact of that momentous day and to re-focus the public’s attention on the racial injustices that persist today.
50 years after the famous march, 40 percent of the population in Selma lives in poverty and the unemployment rate is twice the state average. The country club in a county that is 80 percent black still does not have any black members. Selma public schools have been effectively segregated since the early 1990’s with black students making up 99% of the students body and almost all white students attending private schools.
In 2000 a new monument was unveiled in a public park in Selma honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who later became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
As plans were being finalized for this weekend’s celebration, the Justice Department released the findings of their investigation into racial injustices Ferguson Missouri. No charges will be brought against the white officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, but the Justice Department released a 102-page report detailing systemic race discrimination and abuses of power. According to their findings, African Americans who make up 67 of Ferguson’s population, were involved in 93 percent of arrests, 85 percent of traffic stops, and received 90 percent of tickets issued by officers, from 2012 to 2014.
But in spite of the public demonstrations and in spite of the Justice Department’s report, the city’s mayor James Knowles III gave a speech on Friday indicating that he remains unconvinced that widespread problems exist.
Last week the Battle Creek Enquirer ran a front page story showing that African American students in all four of our local school districts are disciplined at a higher rate than white students. It isn’t a southern problem, or a poverty problem, it is a race problem. It isn’t something we like being reminded of, but it is true. We’ve systematically mistreated African American people ever since the days of our nation’s founding. We descendants of the persecuted have become the persecutors.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Persecution is systematic mistreatment. Jesus was persecuted by the religious elite of his day, the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes who felt threatened by his growing popularity and by his stinging critique of their hypocrisy. They harassed him, challenged his authority, spread false rumors about him, bribed one of his followers to betray him, arrested him for heresy, beat him and turned him over him over to the Roman governor to have him crucified. The cross and the lynching tree are both symbols of persecution.
Last week we talked about the two great spiritual awakenings that underlie all religious traditions of the world. The first is the personal awakening, the claiming of our true identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. The second is a social awakening, the realization that not just I but all people everywhere are also beloved children of God, that we have all been formed from the same sacred dust of the earth, that we are all spiritual siblings.
We said peacemakers are people who have experienced these two great spiritual awakenings in their lives. They know that they are precious in the eyes of God and they recognize every other human being as siblings. Even when people behave badly, peacemakers treat them with dignity and respect because they still recognize them God’s beloved sons and daughters.
Persecution is the opposite of peacemaking. Peacemaking requires our ability to recognize that our lives are connected, that our welfares are linked, that we share a common ancestry. Persecution requires our willingness to strip people of their humanity, to define them as other, to reject our common birthright as beloved sons and daughters of God. Sometimes it seems as though the only way we can feel good about ourselves is by having someone beneath us, someone we can look down on, someone we can feel justified in mistreating.
But remember what we said a few weeks ago when we talked about the beatitude that blessed those who, “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Righteousness isn’t conforming to an external set or rules or laws or commandments. Biblical righteousness is always relational. It is about seeking “right-us-ness.” That is our highest spiritual calling in life. Blessed are those who endure persecution seeking “right-us-ness” for everyone, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

March 1, 2015--Awakening to Peacemaking

by Rev. Tom Ott
Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
There are two great spiritual awakenings that underlie every religious tradition in the world: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.
The first spiritual awakening is a personal awakening. It is an awakening to our own true identity. It is the awakening that we were reminded of at the beginning of this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday when we marked our foreheads with the ashes of burned palms and repeated the ancient words from our creation story: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
For those who are outside of our religious tradition, that probably sounds like a very self-deprecating awakening. For non-believers, hearing someone say, “remember that you are dust…” is like being told, “you are worthless, you are inconsequential, you are good for nothing.” Dust is something we get rid of, we sweep it out the door and dispose of it in vacuum cleaner filter bags.
But as Emily Joye reminded us on Ash Wednesday, our creation story tells us that dust is sacred. It is the stuff of God’s creation. Our creation story tells us that God formed us by breathing into the dust of the earth the breath of life. We are not just dust, we are the dust of God’s creation. We are holy dust, formed into the very image of God and animated with the spirit of God. “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Gen 2:4,7).”
Our first spiritual awakening begins with the realization that we are part of God’s good creation. And that awakening gets further defined in our baptismal anointing when we claim our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. We aren’t just made by God, we are claimed by God. We share the same baptism of Jesus, who, as he came up out of the water heard the voice of God proclaim, “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Our baptismal identity isn’t something we have earned, or deserve. It isn’t an identity that can ever be forfeited or revoked. It is our birthright. In the same way that parents cherish their children simply because they are their children, flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone, so we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.
Our first spiritual awakening begins with the realization that we are more than our parent’s sons and daughters, more than our job titles, more than our social standing, more than our financial net worth, more than our marital status, more than our clinical diagnosis, more than our dress size, more than the sum total of all our life’s failures and achievements. Our spiritual awakening begins with the realization that above and before all else, we are children of God. We were created by God for God. We have come from God and are returning to God. The spirit of God is upon us, the Kingdom of God is within us and the love of God can never be separated from us. That is our spiritual genesis.
That is why we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by everyone, regardless of the circumstance of our lives. That is what entitles us to our place here in God’s creation. That is what endows us with certain inalienable rights, among them being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As God’s own creation, we are entitled to all of those things and more.
But if our spiritual awakening stops there, if we never grow beyond our awareness that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, then our religion will turn us into oppressors. If all we know is our own self-worth, then we fall into narcissism. If all we know is our own self-worth, then we will be blinded by our privilege. If all we know is our own self-worth, then we will be condemned to live self-absorbed lives. Our orientation to the world will teach us that we are entitled to have what we want when we want it, regardless of the impact on others. We are entitled to “everyday lowest prices” even if it means that manufacturers don’t pay livable wages to their employees. We are entitled to own whatever we can afford, regardless of the disparity between the rich and the poor. We are entitled to consume whatever natural resources are available to us without regard to the environmental impact. If we stop our spiritual development after our first great awakening, then we will live narcissistic lives.
But the second great spiritual awakening underlying every religion of the world is a social awakening. It comes with the realization that not just I but all people everywhere are also children of God. Everyone is made of the same sacred dust. No exceptions. No exclusions. No exemptions. Every human being has the same genesis. Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female. We are all one. All beloved sons and daughters of God. All siblings. All connected. No matter what color of skin. No matter what nationality. No matter what religion. No matter what sexual orientation. No matter what political affiliation. No matter what age. No matter what intelligence. No matter what level of physical ability. No matter what marital status. No matter what arrest history.
The second great spiritual awakening is the realization that there is no “other.” No one was ever made out of unholy ground because there is no such thing in all of God’s creation.
We may not all know or appreciate our divine genealogy, but that doesn’t negate it. What it does negate is our capacity to treat our spiritual siblings as “other:” as outsiders, enemies, felons, foreigners, infidels. We are all first and foremost, beloved children of God.
That is the perspective that is hard for us to hold when we get into arguments, when we have differing points of view, when we want different things, when we hold different expectations. In our culture it is perfectly acceptable for us to divide people into allies and adversaries. And it is perfectly acceptable for us to show favorable treatment to those who are allied with us and show disrespect, contempt and hostility towards those who are against us. They become “other.” They are not like us, they don’t deserve what we have, they are expendable. In the face of any conflict, the greatest challenge we face is to hold on to our second spiritual awakening, to remember that even when we are at odds with each other, we are and will always remain God’s beloved daughters and sons.
That is the root of all peacemaking. It grows from the two great spiritual awakenings that make us mindful of our connection to God and to each other. When we see God in ourselves and when we see God in every human being then we are inspired to honor what is of God. We live with reverence for those who are God’s own daughters and sons. When we are caught up in conflict with others, we don’t just avoid harming them. We treat them with dignity and respect, even when they suffer amnesia. Even when they forget who they are and behave as if they are other, we know their true identity. We know that they are our spiritual siblings. We know that the bond that joins us cannot be severed.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I always thought that was the best blessing anyone could ever attain. What could possibly top being children of God? But now I realize that being “children of God,” isn’t the reward bestowed on those who successfully devote themselves to being peacemakers. It is the identity that makes it possible for all of us to live as peacemakers.
Peacemaking isn’t an activity or a strategy or a tactic. Peacemaking is an identity. It is a way of life embraced by those who have experienced the two great spiritual awakenings that underlie every religious tradition. Blessed are the peacemakers who know that we are all children of God. Amen.