Why pride month matters

Two United Church of Christ “God is Still Speaking” rainbow banners were found burning in an alley behind an LGBTQ-welcoming bar in St. Louis just before midnight June 3. Both almost certainly came from a theft at Kirkwood UCC, an Open and Affirming (“ONA”) congregation about 12 miles away, where a security camera recorded a young man cutting down and stealing two such banners at 10:55 p.m. that Monday.

While police investigate, the congregation is responding with courage and love.

A special message went up on the church’s sign board Thursday, June 6, next to the frame that held the banners: “God loves you if you are queer and even if you stole a banner from here.” Two members of the LGBTQ community who belong to Kirkwood UCC, Heather Arcovich and Barb Black, suggested the message, said Pastor Betsy Happel.

The congregation prayed for the thief in Sunday worship June 9. Happel will wear a stole she made from shredded remnants of the banner found on the church lawn after the theft. “This is a young person who is very troubled,” Happel said. “It’s a violent act to carry a banner to a specific place and burn it. There’s something troubled about this person’s soul. I have a lot of compassion for that. I wonder if it’s someone who’s wrestling with their own sexuality and doesn’t know what to do with it, especially in today’s environment. There’s a lot of brokenness in this world and a great deal of misunderstanding about the LGBTQ community, sexuality and gender identity. So we will pray for this person, and give it to God.”

The banners hung outside Kirkwood UCC for seven years without being defaced. The only opposition they attracted until now were occasional visitors who stopped to argue with Happel about LGBTQ openness.
– Written by Hans Holznagel

Praying against your enemies

On Thursday will be the 75th anniversary of D-Day. A day on which President Roosevelt prayed for the success of Operation Overlord. The stated goal was to crush the Nazi regime. So praying to God in this situation must be a prayer against the enemies, right?

Absolutely not. Great people pray for all God’s children, never against any of them. The last paragraph of Roosevelt’s prayer sums it up nicely:

“With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil. Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”

The operation was intended to overcome racism, to ensure peace, freedom and justice. But not even those were really requests, Roosevelt makes of God, but “Thy will be done”. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the Allied Forces were offering blood, sweat, and tears. Nobody parachuted behind enemy lines or landed on the shore in order to get injured or killed. But they all accepted it the way Jesus accepted the fact that God’s will may just mean death on the cross. Jesus did not want to go to Golgotha: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” The more than 160,000 Allied troops did not set out to kill their German counterparts. The goal was to make this world a better place. In times of epic injustice, that may require great sacrifice.

What courageous actions are you taking to overcome racism, to ensure peace, freedom and justice in our day and age?

Reflection: Strengthen the Church Offering

BELOVED OF GOD, GREETINGS! Each Pentecost, we celebrate the church as we have known it, the church we are, and the church that we can be, together. We lean on the story of connecting across difference and listen to the languages of hope spoken in the name of God. We are so grateful to be connected with your church in covenant, each of us seeking to build a just world for all, leaning closer to the world that God imagines for our communities. One of the ways our covenant is lived out tangibly is through the Strengthen the Church offering! Your past support of the Strengthen the Church offering is greatly appreciated. Through this offering, your congregation contributed to the continued expansion and revitalization of the United Church of Christ. As called for by the General Synod, 50 percent of your offering stays in your local conference, and 50 percent is sent to the national work of strengthening the church universal: through grants towards new church starts, inspiring youth and young adults into leadership, and equipping pastors for ministry in the 21st century. Please join us in common mission, vision, and purpose by taking up the Strengthen the Church offering on June 9th, 2019! Your promotional materials are enclosed. Additional resources can be ordered through UCC Resources and found at www.ucc.org/stc.

WE HAVE CHOSEN TO ACT ON THE BELIEF the Church is most like the Church when it is rooted in the gospel, remembering the worship in the sanctuary and present in the streets, the City Council chambers, the State House and the places of power witnessing to the message of Love and Justice. Your support of our ministry emboldens, empowers and allows us to step out in faith. We are grateful beyond words—both for the money and for the faith and prayers the money represents, without which we would not be able to do our work. Thanks be to God! — Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel, Center for Sustainable Justice at Lyndale

Reflection: Military Chaplaincy: Numbers and Testimony

This week, a new post by the Rev. Stephen Boyd, Minister for Chaplains and Ministers in Specialized Settings, and Ecclesiastical Endorser, a member of the Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team in the national setting of the UCC.

In these challenging times, the Endorsement Office of the United Church of Christ finds itself stretched as we work to serve the many men and women who are looking into ministry in specialized settings, those ministerial settings beyond the Local Church. Ecclesiastical Endorsement may come through a Committee on Ministry for certification by a professional organization or as a recommendation by the COM to the endorser for ministry with a government agency. The Ecclesiastical Endorser for the UCC works with ministers who are interested in becoming chaplains for our nation’s military, in addition to VA chaplains and chaplains serving in the Federal Prison system. An endorsement for chaplaincy in government service or for professional agencies can only be granted to an ordained minister, not to a Member in Discernment or an individual with Lay Ministerial Standing.

Currently, the Ecclesiastical Endorser works to accession ministers into the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The needs are great as the demography and the composite of our nation’s Armed Services is changing radically. The United Church of Christ endorses 50-55 military chaplains – men and women who have decided to serve in the military as chaplains, ministering to the needs of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coasties as well as their families. These ministers offer an incredibly difficult pastoral role day in and day out. They represent the United Church of Christ and are dedicated to serve with integrity and faithfulness to the UCC Core Values. Our nation’s service members find themselves in some of the most challenging, difficult and vulnerable times of their lives and chaplains are called upon to step in, to guide, to counsel and console.

Source: http://www.pixabay.com

UCC military chaplains find themselves in some of the most thought-provoking and difficult times as they are called to provide and perform ministry to all service members and their families in what is now a very demanding ministry landscape. Today chaplains are called to minister in a highly diverse and pluralistic environment. This diversity not only includes service members with a variety of religious, and no religious beliefs, but also providing ministry to our LGBT neighbors who are serving their country’s military. As one of the few denominations to ordain women and can openly serve the LGBT community, the need for qualified UCC military chaplains is especially great. Women service members and our LGBT service members find it difficult to find and secure pastoral counsel that respects their lives and holds their confidences. As a former Army chaplain, I find this shameful as the diversity within the ranks of the Army, Air Force and Navy is growing and the need for a good, gifted and professional ministerial presence increases daily.

More and more, chaplains are faced with issues of Post-Traumatic Stress, Moral Injury, family separation and spiritual care at the end of life. It is a challenging, rich and rewarding ministerial setting and not everyone is cut out for it.  But, hopefully, more and more of our ministers and ministerial candidates will entertain the possibility of military service. In the years that I served, I met some of the most incredible, faithful and devoted men and women I had met in my over 34 years of ministry.  There is something to be said about going one on one with someone when they are half a world away from their family and loved ones. Something can be said about the trust, the vulnerability and the honesty of facing some of life’s most difficult moments with a person who is willing to trust you and willing to walk with you.

If you or someone you know may be considering a call to military chaplaincy, please be in touch with Rev. Stephen B. Boyd, Ecclesiastical Endorser for the United Church of Christ at boyds@ucc.org.

No Car No Gun

Over the past five years, the congregation that I serve has experienced one suicide per year. They only have 180 members. In my church, the suicide rate is 1 out of 180 every year. Why is that?

Research indicates two main contributing factors:

I remember one church member who had a lifelong career in law enforcement. As his dementia grew worse, he got angrier and angrier at his wife who was his main caregiver. One day he shot her as well as himself to death.

Another church member is – at least to my knowledge – not diagnosed with a mental health problem. But his wife as the primary caregiver is concerned about his passion for his rifle, shotgun, and pistols. At one point, church volunteers were able to help the wife secure the weapons. But by now, he has gained access again and her anxiety is on the rise again.

What these two men have in common is that both had given up driving a long time ago. In their 80ies, they simply were not fit enough to operate machinery that can endanger lives at a significant scale. I wish their families had used that time to also have the gun talk. I propose the following policy for families, caregivers, religious institutions, healthcare providers and anybody who helps manage the lives of senior citizens:

NO CAR NO GUN
Or: when it’s time for grandpa to give up the truck, he also needs to give up the rifle.

This is not an infringement upon second amendment rights. Obviously, there is no age limit on constitutional rights but this is a voluntary action. Gun owners usually are concerned about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Those difficult conversations occur around driving when it does not appear safe anymore. Firearms like motor vehicles have the potential to cause significant harm to the user and the people around them. When you have the “car talk” with a loved one, it is good practice to also ask them to surrender their guns.

New beginnings

On Easter Sunday 2014 by unanimous vote of the congregation I got elected to be the new pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Rosenberg. For the following five years we have done some great things together. We started a new Children Church’s program, we took on the sole responsibility for Vacation Bible School which we used to share with our Presbyterian and Brethren friends. We invited the German language community to a variety of annual events. Family ministry expanded its outreach activity by not only bringing communion to members in long-term care facilities but actually hosting all-facility worship services there. I was blessed to baptize and confirm your children, to get couples started into their married lives, and to lead funerals for those whose time had come. There has been some amazing forward movement and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve alongside all of y’all here for five years.

Honestly, we have not sustained our progress over the last couple of years. That’s why I decided to step aside. St. John’s responds well to new pastoral leadership coming in. You are good at building excitement about a fresh start. I hope you will do that again and make it to the next level in your congregational development. There was a reason church council decided to publish my letter of resignation. We wanted to get ahead of the rumor mill. That worked for the most part. The top two most awkward rumors that have come to my attention since were:
– St. John’s is closing its doors
– Rev. Haas is going back to Germany

I don’t have that kind of power. My resignation can hardly shut down a congregation that has existed since 1941. Quite the opposite: Your church leadership is hard at work coordinating with the Houston Association as well as the South Central Conference to plot a path into a prosperous future for this congregation. I am not going anywhere but I am delighted that I have the opportunity to continue ministry locally as a full-time chaplain for Compassus Hospice. Mirjam continues her thriving pastorate at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Needville, and our kids get to keep their familiar environment of home, neighborhood, school, and sports.

I have consistently received a lot of praise for my weekly reflections. I will miss writing them. This is my last one for St. John’s. The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.