Babies in the River

From Tapestry of Faith by the Unitarian Universalist Association:

Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of a river. Life in the village was busy. There were people growing food and people teaching the children to make blankets and people making meals.

One day a villager took a break from harvesting food and noticed a baby floating down the river toward the village. She couldn’t believe her eyes! She heard crying in the distance and looked downstream to see that two babies had already floated by the village. She looked around at the other villagers working nearby. “Does anyone else see that baby?” she asked.

One villager heard the woman, but continued working. “Yes!” yelled a man who had been making soup.

“Oh, this is terrible!” A woman who had been building a campfire shouted, “Look, there are even more upstream!” Indeed, there were three more babies coming around the bend.

“How long have these babies been floating by?” asked another villager. No one knew for sure, but some people thought they might have seen something in the river earlier. They were busy at the time and did not have time to investigate.

They quickly organized themselves to rescue the babies. Watchtowers were built on both sides of the shore and swimmers were coordinated to maintain shifts of rescue teams that maintained 24-hour surveillance of the river. Ziplines with baskets attached were stretched across the river to get even more babies to safety quickly.

The number of babies floating down the river only seemed to increase. The villagers built orphanages and they taught even more children to make blankets and they increased the amount of food they grew to keep the babies housed, warm and fed. Life in the village carried on.

Then one day at a meeting of the Village Council, a villager asked, “But where are all these babies coming from?”

“No one knows,” said another villager. “But I say we organize a team to go upstream and find how who’s throwing these babies in the river.”

Not everyone was in agreement. “But we need people to help us pull the babies out of the river,” said one villager. “That’s right!” said another villager. “And who will be here to cook for them and look after them if a bunch of people go upstream?”

The Council chose to let the village decide. If you were a villager, what would your vote be? Do you send a team upstream?

I went to church on Sunday

As a pastor I usually only get to attend church when I am on vacation. But last Sunday I was lucky because Pinecrest Presbyterian Church in Houston hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Service. There is no better way to commemorate this anniversary than worshiping in a black church. But I must admit that I became uncomfortable on two occasions:

First, when the service starts the sanctuary is about half full. About thirty minutes into this two hour service, it is packed. Part of the crowd that comes late is a huge white man: tall and strong, a true Viking type. In most situations I would not notice him much but he stands out because he comes late, he comes all by himself, and he just does not fit in. I find myself conducting racial profiling. I keep watching him for a few minutes. Is he going to be like the crazy person who killed the worshipers at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston? Am I the only one thinking and feeling this way? And what would it feel like to worship with this fear every Sunday?

Second, as the service continues and I eventually overcome my wrong suspicions that are based on outward appearance. The music is really energetic. Everybody jumps up and claps their hands for a song of joy. I just go with the flow of the moment and pick up my son and put him on my shoulders, bouncing up and down to the rhythm. And again it strikes me. Now I am that white man. Or actually the little white boy above them all, tall and higher than everyone else. My poor little son has no idea but in my mind, in that moment he was white privilege incorporated. I dance him down without making a scene and make sure to blend in better.

A band comes up to lead us in “Let it shine! Let it shine!”. We are asked to use the flashlights of our cell phones. So once I have permission to play with my phone during church I cannot resist to check my emails. I come about the invitation to be on stage at the 4th Annual Ecumenical Prayer Service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Of course I say yes, since I have been on their planning committee for years. This year I was even able to secure the participation of our UCC Conference Minister. And here it strikes me. This is where God calls me to action in the spirit of Martin Luther King Junior: We are two white men. That does totally not represent what this evening or the United Church of Christ are all about. So I decide to step back and invite our Association Minister to be on stage, a black woman. This is what the people of God look and act like in truth and in spirit.

The service continues and I finally put my phone away. A high school student reads the “I have a dream” speech. I have loved this piece since I went to high school in Germany. As a matter of fact it may be one of the main reasons I fell in love with the USA. MLK’s speech truly represents America at its best. The way this young man recites it, sends shivers down my spine.

I hope you had a similarly meaningful experience this MLK weekend. And if you want to expand on it please make sure to join Houston denominational leaders from across the city for an evening of music, worship and prayer as ecumenical groups gather to pray for Christian Unity in Houston and around the world. It happens Wednesday, January 18, 2017 6:30 PM, hosted by Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Ave, Houston TX 77002.

Register Today ~ 2017 SFC Confirmation Camp

Confirmation Camp
at Slumber Falls
February 3-5, 2017

This year’s theme for Confirmation Camp is understanding the ways Americans view God and how this affects their faith and outlook on the world.

Check-in begins at 7:00 pm and the program starts at 10:00 pm on Friday the 3rd and runs through 10:00 am on Sunday.
The Rev. Daniel Haas from St. John’s UCC – Rosenberg will direct this event with help from Rev. David Pantermuehl from Grace UCC Houston and Rev. Jeremy Albers, Designated Director of Slumber Falls Camp.

Remember that churches should send at least one adult per six confirmands. The cost is $100 for confirmands and $50 for attending sponsors. You may register online by clicking on the link below.

We look forward to seeing great participation from our UCC Churches.


What is worship all about anyway?

When we gather for worship at St. John’s United Church of Christ the form changes all the time. Sometimes the choir will put on a cantata or we have will guest musicians come in. Sometimes we keep the kids in the sanctuary and have some extra fun. Sometimes we mix different languages. Finally the order of worship is radically transformed on the first Sunday of every month for Holy Communion.

There is no right or wrong way to worship. Styles and orders evolve, and ours comes from a unique set of historic connections. Over the next few weeks we will explore the elements of our worship service. The adult Sunday School class will touch on lessons that speak to the focus that we are going to practice any given Sunday during worship. This is an experience in blowing things out of proportion.

On January 15 our theme will be “Praise the Lord!” The Sunday School will work on lessons around Doxology and Praise. Then follows a so-called “contemporary service”. No bulletin. Songs projected on the wall and no liturgy. It’s gonna start with a long period of upbeat worship and praise. There will be prayers and a biblical message but the main focus is on praise.

On January 22 we will be back to bulletin and an almost normal service. The theme “I believe” sends the Sunday School into the ancient creeds of the church. In traditional worship the creeds were the response to the sermon, the congregation’s assent to God’s spoken Word. Since this Sunday is also our election of church officers, we will especially focus on the priesthood of all believers that is so central to our Protestant faith.

On January 29 we will unearth a thing that we tend to shove to the side: Looking at our sinful nature. The Message is: “You are forgiven” But forgiveness can only be received after the confession of sin. We limit this practice to communion Sunday. In traditional worship this is how every service starts: Humbling yourself and allowing God to pick you back up. Sunday School will focus on the sacraments that are signs of forgiveness and restoration.

On February 5 I will be leading Confirmation Camp at Slumber Falls. The Rev. Jennifer Veres-Schrecengost has agreed to come back and lead this service focused on Holy Communion.

On February 12 I will be visiting family in Germany. The Rev. Marilyn Fiddmont will focus on stewardship and giving. The worship element to highlight is obviously the offering.

On February 19 our theme is “Be blessed”. This is about receiving and being a blessing. For Sunday school it’s about the Benediction.
When we step into worship, we don’t walk into a place that we own. Most of it may feel familiar, but when we dig deeper into different parts of the service we are drawn into a much richer reality. Let us grow over the next few weeks as we stretch our hearts and minds in worship.

2016 Completion Letter

Now that the New Year is in, it is important to let go of 2016. Holding on to old pains is not a healthy thing as Lot’s wife powerfully demonstrated when she turned around to take a last glance at Soddom and turned into a pillar of salt. Forward! One good way for moving on is to explore your present feelings. I just finished reading the Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. They hold the copyright to what they call “The Grief Recovery Completion Letter”. Basically they suggest to pick an important person – dead or alive – with whom you have unresolved issues. You write that letter for yourself and do not send it to the person it is directed to. Instead James and Friedman suggest you read it to somebody you trust and who can keep it confidential. They suggest to get three categories off your chest: words of apology, words of forgiveness, and other significant emotional statements. Maybe it would not hurt to treat the year 2016 as a recipient of such a completion letter. So the rest of this article will provide space for you to fill in the blanks:

Dear 2016,

2016, I apologize for …

2016, I apologize for …

2016, I apologize for …

2016, I forgive you for …

2016, I forgive you for …

2016, I forgive you for …

2016, I want you to know … (significant emotional statement)

2016, I want you to know … (significant emotional statement)

2016, I want you to know … (significant emotional statement)

I have to go now, 2016, and I have to let go of what you brought. Good-bye, 2016.