Ash Wednesday in a Protestant Church, really?


I grew up in a largely Catholic area in Germany. Cologne Cathedral has served the area since the 4th century. So as the Reformation came around in the 16th century Protestants needed to be different. We have gone along with the carnival season from November 11th to Ash Wednesday because we like a good mardi gras celebration with parades and floats and a lot of partying. But then when Ash Wednesday comes around you can still tell Catholics from Protestants because overwhelmingly we will stay away from that fasting thing.

For me that changed somewhat when we moved to Utah. In a community where 93% of the population are Mormon the liturgical roots of our tradition helped me to retain and strengthen my identity. My UCC congregation worked regularly with the Episcopal Church across the street to keep ourselves rooted in the desert. And I got my Catholic fix out of our joint Ash Wednesday services. Now in Rosenberg, Texas, at St. John’s UCC we have our own Ash Wednesday service – no Episcopal priest to impose the Ashes but it will be my turn tomorrow. That to me is a double-edged sword since the most disturbing thing about Catholicism for me is the role of the priesthood. The guy imposing the ashes seems so removed from the sinners who receive it. That just feels so wrong since our tradition puts a big emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. So I am very excited that I get to juggle that tension tomorrow.

The good news is that the whole ash thing at its core uses a scriptural foundation that fits well into the Protestant spirit:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)
God is quoted saying that to Adam and Eve after the scene with the forbidden fruit. Basically they are reminded of their limitations. That applies to all of us who were born to a human mother: Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Priests, All Believers, oh yes, we are all sinners alike!

The thing with traditions – presidential or otherwise


Going back and remembering presidents past is a good thing: It keeps us rooted. We do that within our families all the time: Remember the hero that grandpa was, take grandma’s sacrifice as an example. But also: Don’t be a drunk like auntie Paige or a playboy like uncle Bob. We remember presidents for their greatest and their worst hours:

George Washington as the founder of the nation and first president will obviously get a lot of credit for all he did. And when we worship heroes like that we tend to overlook their human weaknesses: George Washington was known to complain that his pay was not sufficient to cover the expenses of his household and at times he even had to pay expenses out of pocket. His $25,000 in 1789 equal $650,000 in today’s dollars after inflation. Since 2001 presidents have only made $400,000. Looks like the father of the nation did not have his personal budget under control.

Many stories that we tell about ourselves tie us to heroes of the past: How we grow up to imitate all the great things our parents have done for us or how we start a family tradition totally opposite of our upbringing. We have to connect to the past one way or the other. The same thing is true for Jesus. The Gospels would not just have him show up and do his preaching-teaching-healing thing. They have to explain his authority, to give him a rightful place in the life and faith of God’s people. That’s what Transfiguration Sunday is all about:
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-8)

Jesus is nobody unless he has the authority of a prophet like Moses. No presidential candidate can make it to the White House without tipping their hat to one who has gone before them. None of us can live happy lives without an understanding of how our family tradition and history have affected us for better and worse. None of us are perfect, ancestors and presidents included.

Food Desert around the Church

Imagine you were to live in the neighborhood around our church. Quite some folks actually do. You have seen the neighbor change over the past decades. Now imagine you need to go grocery shopping. Most likely you will hop into your car and head towards Brazos Town Center because that is where most shopping in Rosenberg is done these days.

But now imagine you were a one car family. I met this courtesy-driver at a car dealer ship. Him, his wife and two kids just had that one car. He drove it to work in the morning and at 6 pm he would switch shirts. His black pants and boots are also okay with the fast food chain shirt he had to wear at his second job where the shift started at 6pm – with no turn-around time. Now, all the panaderias along 1st Street can certainly keep his wife and kids from starving but if you were in their shoes where are you going to get your fresh produce? The simple reality is that you would have to ask somebody for a ride or you would walk to Fiesta. That is two miles each way, hauling bags of fresh apples and heads of lettuce. According to Google Maps that would take you about 40 minutes times two and you could only buy as much you could carry with two little kids in tow. In this sense our neighborhood is a food desert and there is nobody there to change that.

diane-clark-001
One thing we have changed since 1985: As a covenant church of Rosenberg-Richmond Helping Hands we support their mission to feed and clothe people in West Fort Bend County on a short term basis. They served 6400 families in 2013. Food was distributed to 22,047 people. We were able to supply 832 babies with diapers and 131 were provided with formula. We give 9% of our church’s budget to Helping Hands and we do two month-long food-drives each year in February and August.

February is big because it coincides with the Souper Bowl of Caring. All month long we will gather food and monetary donations so we can support Helping Hands even more. Scout Sunday is coming up and they also help with collecting canned goods. Last Sunday we had great fun at our soup extravaganza after church with silent and live auctions. I love the energy that goes into that and all the good that can be done because of it. Only thing is: According to Google Maps Helping Hands is 4.3 miles away from the church. That is a 90 minute walk one way. Can you think of other ways to help the courtesy-driver’s family?

Houston WPCU Prayer Service

This was only the second time that Houston had revived its observation of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity holding an ecumenical prayer service. Last year’s was at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. This year we celebrated at Lakewood Church. The theme was prepared in Brazil and focused around John 4:7 where Jesus said to the woman at the well: “Give me to drink”.
lakewood  stage
As a symbol of unity pastors from various denominations and churches poured water into one fountain that unites us all. From the Baptist Preacher to the Cardinal of the Roman Catholic church we all brought a vessel to pour our own traditions into this event. I brought my Army canteen representing all the families that have suffered through wars over decades. One of the ushers at Lakewood Church saw that and shared his Vietnam story with me.

Since Lakewood was the host church this year music was mostly their style with many people in the audience waving there hands like they do in concerts. One great performance artist after another took the stage. Lakewood’s drama team did a fantastic job bringing the scene between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well to life.
lakewood drama

The sermon was given by Mike Rinehart, the Lutheran bishop in Houston. In his thoughtful reflections he laid out a seven-point plan for the unity of the church in Houston:
1. Galatians 3:28
2. Make love your aim.
3. Humility. Have this mind among you…
4. Pray for unity
5. Work for unity
6. Serve together
7. Stop bickering
You can read the entire sermon on his blog.

The United Church of Christ was officially represented by Houston Association Minister Joshua Lawrence and myself as a member of the planning committee. Our denominational motto “That they may all be one” was quoted over and over again throughout the service. We understand that this kind of work is worth all our effort. Please plan to join us next year as well.

I was charged with an intercessory prayer for freedom of expression which you can read on my blog.

Rev. Lawrence said this benediction for the service:
“May Jesus Christ, the living water, be behind you to protect you, before you to guide you, by your side to accompany you, within you to console you, above you to bless you.”

God and the Super Bowl

You know what the biggest group of Americans say they DON’T do on any given Sunday?
– Be in church or watch football!

According to the January PRRI/RNS Religious News Survey most people forgo both of these Sunday activities. Now, as a pastor I am a regular at church but I must admit that I do not make time to watch afternoon TV except for the Super Bowl. So here it goes: The big game is coming up and I will be joining the minority elite by going to church at 10 and streaming the game later in the day.

But there were a couple more stunning results in that survey when it comes to football and faith:

1. Americans are split in half over the question as to whether God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. Let me take sides here: No, God does not reward actions! Being a person of faith does not make your life any easier: Remember Job! If anything, faith makes your life more challenging. Because bad stuff happens to good people and as a person of faith you have to work that out with your image of God. Health and success as a reward? Job says: Hell no! All I got was pain and misery for nothing! Maybe signing multi-million dollar contracts can boost your success. Maybe exercising for a living can make you healthier. But please, don’t blame God for your good fortune.

2. One in four Americans say that God plays a role in determining which team wins the Super Bowl. Again, let me join the minority elite. Of course, God can do all things! Not a thing happens in the world that God couldn’t prevent. I am one of four! Every Sunday we sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands!” And yes, that includes the football and the scoreboard, he’s got the Patriots and the Seahawks, he’s got the whole world in his hands. “We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords”, states the Barmen Declaration. God Almighty rules over time and space so of course the result of a sporting event is within God’s reach.
BUT: Sometimes people have a tendency to forget that God is the Ultimate Free Agent. We can’t tell God what to do. We cannot predict a Super Bowl Winner by turning our praying ear toward God. Because the ruler of heaven and earth has been very clear as to who is in charge. Which ever team you will be rooting for on Sunday, America will most likely be split down the middle again and half of us will be utterly disappointed. The recommended prayer for that prospect is: “He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’”