Monday, November 6, 2017

A Pastor’s Thoughts About A Church Shooting…

            First Charleston, South Carolina – then Antioch, Tennessee – and now First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  The commonality among these three incidents is hate manifested in gun violence and the church as the target.  The shooting on Sunday, November 5, 2017 rests heavily on all our minds right now.  We have more questions than we have answers.  The dead-end street called “gun regulation” will no doubt continue to be a dead end discussion. 

            It is the locale of Sunday’s shooting that impels me to comment this Monday morning.  That is because I am hearing all kinds of preventative measure solutions (beyond gun regulation).  Those solutions give me pause.

            First of all I think we need to acknowledge that these families, this church, and this community have a hole in their heart that will never completely heal.  They need our prayers.  They need our words of comfort.  It would be appropriate to sit down and write such words and send them to First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tx.  You might also send a note off to the Police Department of Sutherland Springs, Tx because this will be a day that will forever be in their memory.  Sometimes the one thing we can do is be “Present” with one another in grief and sorrow.

            One of the first “reactions” I read on Facebook was the reintroduction of the idea that in these dangerous times clergy might consider wearing bullet-proof vests under their robes.  Another posting reminded me that some clergy have been asked what kind of gun do they want to keep in the pulpit in order to defend the parishioners should an attack in the sanctuary. I also have heard legislators comment this morning that churches probably should evaluate their security procedures (and I don’t mean just locking a door).  There are programs being offered to help churches learn how to arm their ushers and greeters. Unfortunately there are also those who feel we need to screen who comes into our sanctuary. 

            I believe we need to hear these ideas through the lens of the Gospel we say we proclaim. 

            First of all regarding those bullet proof vests . . . I will not be getting fitted for one.  I could not in good conscience wear one while everyone in my congregation was unprotected.  I could not in good conscience go to this extreme knowing that a visitor might come to worship and would not be protected.  That’s not to say, I wouldn’t “duck”, but the cost of my call to ministry is to show up and be a part of the worshipping community as together we open ourselves up to the hearing and experiencing the Word of God.

            I am sure church security will be a major point of discussion among churches in our nation.  I have served one church that locked even its front door once worship began – and had someone sitting outside the sanctuary prepared to call the police.  It worked for its purpose, which was to prevent strangers from coming into the building and wandering around the halls and posing a risk to children.  At the same time, the person who was sitting outside could open the door to anyone running a bit late for worship.  Yet even in that scenario, it felt unwelcoming to me.  The question always is present how do we issue an extravagant welcome behind locked doors or armed sentinels or open carry parishioners?

            That question causes us to arrive at the core of who we are and why we are when we talk about “church”.    Let me offer my own faith statements that do and will inform me when I serve a church or when I seek a church home.

            I believe in the emphasis of the United Church of Christ that God is a God of extravagant welcome and we are to extend that welcome within the Body of Christ known as the Church on earth.  That means whoever you are, and wherever you are on your faith journey (including so far from knowing the Love of God in your life you feel completely without hope), you are welcome in church.  That welcome means you are taken for who you are and what you are, not for who or what we church folks would feel comfortable you be.  There is a cost to this as witnessed in Charleston, Antioch, and Sutherland Springs.  It is still our call to be a people of welcome and invitation.

            I believe in the value and importance of community as where we live and grow as disciples of Christ.  Although I know I can (and do) experience the holy at times when I am by myself, it is in coming together with other Christians where I am tested in my faith, where I am encouraged in my faith, and where I know the Holy Spirit is at work knitting all of us together into God’s Holy People.  So for me, I need to gather in worship and service with others.

            I believe love is stronger than hate even when fear and distrust seem to have so much power.  I believe fear can destroy us and indeed that is the intent of sowing fear.  I also believe love is hard work.  We don’t even want to like a lot of folks, let alone love them.  Yet I believe the only way to turn this narrative of hate around is to truly begin to look at one another in our communities with the eyes of faith informed by love.

            I believe that grief is real – and these communities (not just the incidents of church shooting) have huge holes in them because of humankind’s inhumanity to one another.  Yes, individuals committed the acts – but all of us have contributed to the temperament that fuels violence and discord.  Those who grieve will be comforted.  Those who turn their eyes away, or who fuel the flames of fear and distrust or ignore the difficult political ramifications are being called to “repent” – to turn around from such behavior and live the faith we proclaim.

            I believe in the community of faith
·      that offers extravagant hospitality,
·      that enters the doors to worship and be changed by the power of God’s Love for them as individuals and for them as a collected body,
·      that has a message about peace, justice, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, transformation, and hope that our world needs to hear and see embodied,
·      that peace making and living are central to our message, and that we become those  who dare to share in Christ’s passion in the spirit of the disciples hearing Jesus speak: Put your sword back into its sheath.  Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?
·      that departs to serve in our communities to the least and the lost, the newcomer and the old timer, the youngest and the oldest, the poor and the wealthy, the native born and the immigrant, all people – because God so loved the world.

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Friday, October 20, 2017

Practice Being in the Presence

            Frequently the news feed on my social media offers articles related to why people are choosing to leave the church along with related articles suggesting options for the institutional church.  It is quite true that the increasing response to the question: “With which religious organization do you identify?” elicits the response “none”.  This response is becoming true even for those more conservative denominations.  It has long been true for those denominations that were once considered “mainline”.  Whether we want to admit it or not we are becoming an increasing secular society.

            That trend poses some problems moving forward.  Where are we finding support for our values?  How do we pass on these humanitarian values that are so often referenced?  Where is the “why” behind the “what”?  Religious institutions (church, synagogue, mosque) have long provided some of that background guidance through belief systems about God and how God envisions our lives in this world.  When you take out God, what fills the void?

            I’m suggesting that we not be so hasty to take God out of the equation of life.  In fact I definitely believe we need the Holy One in our discourse and in our lives.  I also realize that we have placed so much “baggage” on our understandings of God that we have in essence created an image of the divine as being a giant size version of ourselves.  Or we have taken all the images of others throughout history and created an image that feels pretty irrelevant.  We see the increase of private meditation exercises aimed at finding stress relief as the substitute for encountering the Holy One.  Feeling good is becoming the highest value.

            Before you choose the designation “none”, before you give up “searching”, before you become so intransient in your traditional beliefs you have no room to grow in your faith or hear other people’s doubts, I invite you in an ancient practice:  Practice Being in the Presence of God.

            This doesn’t require a theologian’s expertise in all the literature about the nature of God understood intellectually and doctrinally.  All those efforts have value, but at the same time, they try to explain the unfathomable and tame the mysterious.  Rather I am suggesting that as you move through any experience of the day, open yourself to the wondrous.  Consider the wider picture.  See the remarkable interrelatedness of life.

             Example:  washing dishes.  The remnants of the food itself allows the mind to wander to food that was eaten and the sources of production. You might think about to the experience of fellowship and community or  the gratefulness that someone invented a TV dinner that could be ready in a microwave in a short amount of time.  You might consider the cooks or waiters that provided a restaurant experience or a food truck reprieve.  If you are washing the dishes allow yourself to feel the water and realize that water is a precious commodity.  You might even give a thought to situations such as that unfolding in Puerto Rico where clean water is scarce and some are even resorting to contaminated water.  Prayers are always welcome along with thoughts about how you might help.  That train of thought might even open possibilities about clean water everywhere and how the simple things we use as detergents and fertilizers can affect the quality of our water.  This simple example illustrates how practicing the presence of God can work.  Underlying the practice is an assumption (actually a faith declaration but it might not be admitted) that we are not single agents in the universe.  Allowing ourselves to be open to practicing the presence means we begin to see the mystery of our world and the ways we are part of caring for one another.  We begin to see we are custodians of our world.  We begin to see how we fit into the bigger picture.  And here we thought we were just washing dishes after dinner!

            We live in a nation that is becoming more and more isolated in our connections with one another.  We live in a nation that is trying to be spiritual without any Spirit or commitment to God.  We live in a nation that talks more about one another than to one another.  We live in a nation that is turning its back on “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself”.  Sometimes we say we just don’t have time to go to church or to pray.  Instead of giving it up entirely – go wash some dishes or rake some leaves or drive your commute in the presence of God.  You might be surprised to encounter God in some very unexpected places!

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


The following is my sermon from Sunday, October 8, in which I spoke of the power of the lament.  The text was Psalm 80, a Lament in Time of National Crisis.  Included in the sermon is encouragement for people to give voice to their own laments, not as a form of grievance for the sake of grievance.  Rather the encouragement is to voice our own laments as a way to reach out to God in our despair.

Also included in the sermon is a poem I wrote - A Lament for Our Times.

The sermon title I chose at the beginning of the week is a little like that song “I never promised you a rose garden”!  O, the portion of the psalm we heard does speak of God planting the vineyard that was to be Israel – with all the lushness and promise of newly sown fields.  Surely the plants would grow full and bear much fruit.  At least that appeared to be the promise.  Yet Israel’s experience as a nation seemed a little different – more raisins than grapes – more withered than flourishing.

The Old Testament suggested reading is from Isaiah and it too speaks of God planting a vineyard – tending it carefully, lovingly meeting its every needs, expecting the fruit of the vine to nourish the world in the form of Israel.  Yet when the fruit matured God got wild grapes.

The Gospel reading for today is also about a vineyard – the parable of the Wicked Tenants.  You remember.  The landowner plants a vineyard and leases it to tenants to manage the field.  When the time comes to collect his fees he sends out slaves to do the job.  They are killed.  Another set goes out and they also are killed.  Then the landowner sends out his only son and he too is killed.  It is a parable that reminds its hearers that the prophets of justice in the Hebrew testament were rejected, one after another.  People had opportunities to face their destructive behaviors and ideas and people chose to keep on doing as they had always done – until at last Jesus was sent into the world – and then even he was killed because we humans valued our own ideas more than God’s ways.

Psalm 80 in its entirety is a communal psalm of lament for the nation Israel.  Things hadn’t worked out as they thought they should, given that they were God’s chosen people.  The first part of the Psalm has the people blaming God for being a poor shepherd.  They were not feeling well cared for!  Our part of the Psalm today has the people blaming God for failed vineyard practices.  They were not flourishing.  In fact they had become a barren field.  Psalm 80 is a lament in times of a national calamity.

As I was thinking about the passage for today, I wondered what kind of words we might utter this fall if we were to write a lament for a time of great calamity and uncertainty.  I have long encouraged people to pray the Psalms, particularly during periods of personal trials and tribulations – because the Psalms offer us a way to speak the unspeakable.  The Psalms remind us that we can raise our voices and our fists to God in anger and despair and God will listen.  There are some rather heated Psalms in that collection!

The Psalms remind us that we can read them and pray them in times of great joy and gratitude.  They provide words when words seem inadequate.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork”; “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name”;  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  The Psalms are a rich resource in joy and in sorrow.

So in preparation for putting fingers to keyboard, I gave some thought to the times we live in – and what might be our lament at a time of our national pain.

                                                      A Lament For Our Times

Give ear, O God of Pentecost
Whose Spirit descended on a bewildered crowd,
making  all nations one in hearing and       understanding…
Towers rise out of the desert with a language that scatters your people
The language of the streets – the dialect of destruction
Staccato punctuated by silence voicing fear
Where were You in the silence?
Where were  You in the thundering clamor?

We, Your people, cry out to you.
Restore to us Your Pentecostal Spirit.

Give aid, O Creator God
Who birthed the mighty oceans and swirling winds
Structures have no power over the fury of the storm.
Connections broken
Meaning blown away
Why?  Why?   cry out the broken spirits
When?  When? ask the anguished.

We, Your people, speak of our despair
Mend the broken pottery of our lives.

Give wisdom, O God of all peoples
Whose love for us is so great You gave Your all, Your   Son
Implements of war brought out of careful concealment threaten  present and future generations
Us against Them  - the common mantra
“My Life Matters”  pride of place
Who do You say we are?
Who do You say we can be?

We, Your People,  whisper our remorse
Forgive us as we forgive

For the Lord our God speaks to us still in the dissonance of our times.
For the Lord our God heals our brokenness and restores us
For the Lord our God blesses the peacemakers and grants us courage

God of Pentecost
God of all creation
God of all peoples

Hear us as we cry out to You and restore us to righteousness with You and with each other.

Clara Young
October 5, 2017

The lament serves to place us in a situation and at the same time allows for the possibility of solutions.  When we narrow down that which is holding us hostage to fear and destructive behavior AND keep alive the hope of our faith, we can begin to see the potential for new life and rebirth.

Yes we cry out in grief at the language of gunfire punctuating a concert and bringing death and woundedness.  We cry out in grief with all the friends and families that wail in sorrow as their sons and daughters, husbands and wives are killed in acts of violence.  We cry out in grief as neighbor shouts obscenities against neighbor – back and forth.  But when we cry out in grief looking for God in all this carnage, we find God – right there beside us, weeping with us, and showing us how to witness to love in such times as these.
God speaks to us still, even amidst the sounds of destruction.

Yes we speak of our despair when we see the destruction of homes and families, power grids, roads, bridges, all the things that connect us with one another and give life meaning.  We question the power of the hurricane, the wind, the water, the fire, the earthquake, the volcano.
We question our ability to overcome such power.  But when we cry out in despair we begin to see the small steps we can take – the Church World Service cleaning bucket or the hygiene kits, the consciousness of our personal impact on the environment and global warming, the need we share to help one another and be helped.  We find God rescuing the wounded, sharing the ice for medicines, picking up debris, comforting the children, and we know that our brokenness is being mended and we are being restored to wholeness.

Yes as tensions between nations increase, as tensions between races increase, as tensions between how we were formed as human beings increase – we whisper our remorse that we have failed to see one another as God’s beloved children.  We have failed to our children as they become fully adult, a gift of God.  We have failed to live up to baptismal promises we made that welcomed infants and children and youth into the body of Christ fully and completely, loved and beloved.  We have failed to see the fullness of creation in the diversity of humankind.  We whisper our remorse.

And as we do – we recognize God of All Peoples among us welcoming the children, inviting us to the Great Feast, forgiving us and welcoming us home.  We see God of All Peoples blessing those who would risk being peacemakers and reconcilers.  We see God present among us calling us to love one another.

In the words of the Psalmist:  Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Amen and Amen.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Letter. . .

            I have been thinking about how I would like to respond to the events of August 11-12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.                 

            First of all I want to express my appreciation for my clergy colleagues who gave up a significant piece of their busy schedules in order to be a physical witness to the Gospel.  They participated in the emergency response training.  They were as prepared as anyone ever could be for the possibility of violence or arrest.  They wore their robes and clergy stoles as clear identifiers that this was the cost of discipleship and vocation.  They stood in silent witness between the two competing worldviews.  Their witness was powerful.

            Secondly I want to say that so many have spoken eloquent words about how you navigate through such events as we saw this past weekend.  One person reminded us to recall Fred Rodgers words “Look for the helpers.”  Others have initiated candlelight vigils throughout our country as public witness.  Many have expressed condolences for the loss of life:  Heather Heyer, Lieutenant Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Bates.

            As I have reflected over the events and the responses of this weekend, I think we also need some suggestions to ourselves about how we move forward – especially how we can speak to our children and youth.  There are a variety of opportunities being offered and to be offered to continue the dialogue of race in America.  Those are all good ways to engage in thoughtful reflection and I encourage anyone to do so.  The following ideas  are some additional things we can do.


            Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, a theologian, a writer, and a member of the resistance movement and he died in a German Concentration Camp.  Google his name and you can find a variety of sources to tell you about his life.  His writings are also in print.   This is only one of many books to introduce this courageous pastor to you. 
            Wonder of Wonders:  Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

            Anne Frank was a young German Jew who was sheltered in the attic of a Christian home.  She kept a journal of her life which has had a profound affect on countless people as they learned through her the horrors of Nazi rule.  She and her family were eventually found and removed to the Bergen-Belson concentration camp where she died in 1945. 

            Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank has been translated into English and is widely available.

         Although I do not know this book, it does appear to be a resource that is helpful to discuss racism and that horrific practice once used by such organizations as the KKK.  I  included in the “cut and paste” the information of the various awards this book received.

            The Lynching of Louie Sam by Elizabeth Stewart. 

Notable Books for a Global Society White Ravens Collection,
International Youth Library,
Munich Skipping Stones Honor Book Best Books for Kids & Teens,
Canadian Children’s Book Centre 
Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction 
John Spray Mystery Award Libbylit Prize (Belgium),
French edition Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award finalist Snow Willow Young Reader’s Choice Award nomination Arthur Ellis Award finalist,
Crime Writers of Canada 

            Another book that I can not personally vouch for but which seems to be written so that it is accessible to a wide variety of readers is the book.  Again, I am doing a “cut and paste” from her website to show the recognition this book has received.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
Released August 2010:
Houghton Mifflin

Junior Library Guild Selection
Richie’s Pick “It is, of course, through reading a book like this — and understanding the “Why?” — that we gain the insight necessary to help stop the flames of hatred and fear from spreading in whatever direction they next travel.”
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010
School Library Journal Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010
Kirkus Best Books for Teens 2010
Horn Book Magazine 2010 Fanfare List
Booklist Top of the List Winner for 2010 and Editor’s Choice for 2010
Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2010
a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best
an ALA Notable title
CCBC Choices 2011 title


         The pictures that appear on our televisions and social media are disturbing.  Nevertheless it is important to talk with our children in an age appropriate manner.  “We are going to change the channel (or turn the TV off) because the news right now is showing people doing hateful things.  It’s not OK to treat one another like that.”  By the time children are elementary and pre-teen those conversations will get longer and more specific.  The books just mentioned may be  helpful to you. 
            Failing to talk about this subject though tells our children a message we don’t want to communicate.  This evil is to be named not ignored.  And why this is evil is to be named so that our children are equipped when they are confronted by the language of hate.

         For people of faith, we have a lot of stories to tell our children.  Let them hear by our words and see by our actions that we have heard Jesus say:  I command you to love one another.

            For people of our nation, let our children and youth hear from us as adults those words and ideas from the “Pledge of Allegiance”.  We pledge allegiance to the flag of The United States of America, not a Nazi flag, or a Confederate flag, or a Don’t Tread on Me flag.  Those all represent other times and other meanings – but our allegiance is to the flag that represents this great nation.  That clarification to the Pledge was made in 1923 and it seems to me to continue to be appropriate.  The concluding words of the Pledge have stood since its introduction in 1892 – one nation, with liberty and justice for all.         
These are the values that bind us together as a nation.  These are the values we are to teach our children.  These are the values that endure in the midst of events such as occurred in Charlottesville.


Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara