Sunday, May 17, 2015

Necessary Beginnings --- A Final Sermon at Ridge UMC

Deuteronomy 31:7-8    (NRSV)
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

I don't know how many of you read Malcolm Gladwell's powerful little book called The Tipping Point.

In the book, Gladwell seeks to explain how change happens once a product or idea reaches a "tipping point" --- that spot where it pushes the --- product or idea --- over.

As I have reflected on my journey --- I have come to realize that there was a tipping point that took place a little less than two years ago.

It was July of 2013 and I was really struggling with some things.

In a conversation with Larry Whitehead, our North District Superintendent he suggested I read a book by Henry Cloud called Necessary Endings.

He had suggested the book, because it was clear to him, that there were some "Necessary Endings," that needed to take place in my life.

Cloud writes:
the tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.

Getting to the next level always requires ending something, leaving it behind, and moving on.  Growth itself demands that we move on.  Without the ability to end things, people stay stuck, never becoming who they were meant to be, never accomplishing all that their talents and abilities should afford them.

I read the book with a set of expectations --- but as I worked my way through it I began to realize that the necessary ending that was needed was me.

I needed to make some changes in my life --- if I wanted to achieve what God desired of me.

It was by this time last year --- I had begun to come aware that I needed a necessary ending --- but I wasn't --- at that point --- willing to admit it to myself.

So what was the tipping point --- because by November of 2014 --- I would put on my Staff Parish form that all clergy and SPRC's fill out every fall that "I was willing to consider a new appointment?"
Which I knew meant that my tenure as pastor of Ridge UMC was up.

It is strange looking backward at the past couple of years and seeing my journey in the rear view mirror.

But I think I know what it was ---- I think I have somewhat figured it out

Pastor's are storytellers, so we are always looking for good stories to share --- and when we come across one --- we cut it out and hang on to it for the right moment.

I am on lots of weird email lists ---- and last fall, I had an email about a webinar that a woman was doing that was focused on the issue of change

As I shared last week --- I understand how hard change is --- but I also understand how important it is.

As John Maxwell loves to say      
          Change is inevitable
          Growth is optional

As I was listening to this webinar --- and remember --- I am very conflicted at this moment in my life
          I know things have to change
          I just haven't figured out what that means yet

She tells the story about the Barnum and Bailey Circus and a fire that took place in the 1960's.
Now I want to give a disclaimer --- I searched high and low trying to corroborate that this story actually happened --- and I could not do that --- but I have NO DOUBT, but that it is a TRUE story

It was a story about a family of seven elephants that were killed when the circus tent that they were in caught fire.

Circus elephants (at least during this period) --- when they are babies --- were trained by having a chain wrapped around their ankle which is then tied to a post.
The elephants learn over time that they cannot get away, and so they become somewhat docile

Eventually, all trainers need to do is tie a rope around the elephant's ankle and they will not try to run away

When the fire broke out in this circus tent the elephants did not try to run away because they had been trained that with that rope around their ankle they could not escape

When their bodies were found following the fire --- the firemen were baffled because the elephants had ropes tied around their ankles and the rope was simply looped over a sawhorse

The elephants did not have to die --- they could have simply walked out of the tent

But they died because they had become conditioned and did not think they could change those conditions

How many of you over the years have said to me --- you should have been a professor?
          I was even told it again this past week

I think over my 30 years in ministry, I had convinced myself that I was TIED securely and completely and that there was no place to go
Of course, I have a Master's Degree from Duke University, one of the finest institutions in our country that also has a great basketball program . . .

But it is a Master's of Divinity --- that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee at McDonalds.

It is not the most widely desired of degrees for employment outside the church . . .

I had CONVINCED myself --- that the only thing I could do was be a parish pastor

And I know a lot of you will tell me how silly that belief was --- but it was REAL

And I have done enough counseling over the years to know that one's perception of reality --- often becomes REALITY to that person

          And it was to me

But then something happened.

I got courageous

Sometime late last fall --- and I can't tell you exactly when it was --- I applied for a position.

I never got a response from my application,
          Not a phone call
          Not an acknowledgment

But I took a risk --- and stuck my neck out.

Because I had said I WOULD CONSIDER A MOVE on that form last November, I knew what that meant.

It meant that I WOULD MOVE --- but as I wrestled with God over my future, I realized I really didn't want to move on to another church.
I have told you all for years this would be my last Church
          And I still believe that is true

On December 30th, I met with the District Superintendent to talk about where I might be moved to.

Following that meeting, I called the CEO of TradeWinds to see where things were in their search for a new Director of Development and Marketing.  A few days later I sat down with him to discuss the possibility of my coming on board.

On January 13th, as I drove to an interview with a committee from TradeWinds, Nancy called to let me know that she had been let go from the School Town after 16 years.

As I walked into that interview, to say that I was in turmoil would be an understatement!

Obviously the interview went well, and 2 days later I accepted the position.

During this whole process something has surprised me
NOT ONCE did I say: "O my God, what have I done."

Every time I have left a church I said that

But not this time

And for me the answer is pretty simple
          God has been in this

And the necessary ending and new beginning was already become real to me.

This was my sixth appointment as a pastor
·         I served as a student at Richfield/New Mt Tabor in NC for a year while I was in school
·         My first full time appointment was at Pretty Lake Trinity on the west side of Plymouth
          Nancy and I got married while I served there
          Jessica was born there
·         Nancy and I started Celebration Church in Warsaw
          Lindsey and Haley were born there
·         Simpson UMC
·         Ridge UMC

Every church I have served has had its unique appeal

But it is here, that I finally figured out who I really was
          Those of you who sat in my classes got to see the real Steve
As we wrestled together trying to figure out what God desires of us

And what I have really come to understand about myself --- is that God wants me to be a community activist --- someone engaged in actively caring for the least, the lost and the last
The most difficult time in my life --- but without a doubt the most rewarding was the three year period when I was head of LARRI --- the flood recovery group

They almost killed me, but I found my real purpose in life

And since we closed up shop with LARRI, I have been trying to find my spot

One of the things that I am looking forward to ---- as my life settles down if being able to really get engaged with Children of Abraham
          I love what they are doing

And I hate that I have not had the time to commit to their mission

I will this fall!

I also want to get more involved in trying to bring the region together.

No community can be an Island --- as much as we want to try
And what happens in Gary and north of the Borman Expressway affects us all

I hope that I can be an agent for positive change and community building in the region

Ten years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book that had a huge impact on me.

It is the story of her journey from Parish Ministry to academia.  She was a parish priest for twenty years before accepting a position at a small Christian College.

What she came to realize is that leaving Parish Ministry freed her to a new relationship with God.

I think I am coming to the same realization.

But there is one more piece to this story --- and it is an important one.

Ridge Church needed a new beginning as well.

I know for some of you, you cannot see that right now.

But I saw that before I saw the change I needed.

Most of my life I have identified with Joshua, but recently I have realized that I have had the roles reversed.

I have led you as far as I could.

Sometimes it seems like we have wandered in the wilderness

But we have always had one goal in mind
To be bears of hope
To help people see that God has something special for them

I have gotten you as far as I could

Today we stand at the Jordan River and God has told me that my time is up --- that it is time to pass the mantle on to somebody new.

And I do that with a joyful and grateful heart.

You have loved the Congers in more ways than we will ever deserve

We have been through good times and bad times together.

But today --- God says --- this is as far as you get to go --- somebody else will lead Ridge Church forward.

I am excited in the leader that is coming.  Pastor Michelle will take you to new places.

I am happy that the cabinet and our Staff Parish Relations Committee have given you some time to grieve

So over the next few weeks --- grieve --- I know that Nancy and I will

But on July 1 when Pastor Michelle Knight and her family arrives, welcome her like you welcomed us --- with open arms and hearts

On July 12th, pack this place for her first Sunday.

Give her the benefit of the doubt --- and I think you will find that you are blessed.

I pass the mantle on to her.

Ridge Church will ALWAYS hold a special place in our hearts and lives

As a matter of face, Ridge is so important to us, that Nancy and I have decided to purchase a columbarium niche.

Thank you --- for letting me be your pastor
Thank you for loving my family and making us welcome

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words:
Great is the art of the beginning, but greater the art of ending.

We end --- so that we can begin anew!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Fear of Letting Go

Ecclesiastes 7:14   (The Message)
On a good day, enjoy yourself;
On a bad day, examine your conscience.
God arranges for both kinds of days
So that we won’t take anything for granted.

Back at the end of January, if you had asked me how hard this was going to be --- I would have told you (Actually, I did tell a few of you) that it would be --- NO PROBLEM

Boy was I wrong

I have found out that I have been lying to myself
Trying to juggle two jobs is tough!

But also trying to find time to grieve (especially when you are working seven days a week) and trying hard not to show that you are grieving has been unbelievably hard!

And while next Sunday may be my last Sunday in the pulpit with you --- I am still the lead pastor until June 30th.
If you have a pastoral need --- DO NOT HESITATE TO CALL ME
If you are in the hospital --- I will visit --- if you let me know you are there
Or, if you just want me to come and visit -- just, let me know, I will arrange to stop over

While I say that --- please be aware --- Nancy and I will be on vacation from May 31 - June 17.
As many of you know --- we are going to New Zealand
It started as a trip to visit Haley as she finishes her student teaching In Auckland
It has shifted to almost a kind of retirement celebration from local church ministry for me

So, if during that 2 1/2 weeks you have a pastoral need, either Pastor Sheri, Kathy (who is responsible for visitation) or one of the pastors from one of the local UM Churches will be there to respond to your need.

When we get back from our trip --- while I will not be in the pulpit --- I still have two weddings, a Golf Group Party and who knows what else.

But what happens after July 1?
          Michelle Knight will be your pastor
          Nancy and I will be your friend

Since we are not leaving the community --- I know this is going to be a little tricky for all of us.

Let me illustrate:

There is a whole group from Ridge Church that attends the Theater at the Centre the same night we do.
You sit right in front of us --- and you still will when we attend the next show

You will run into us in grocery stores and in restaurants

The only thing that will change is I will not be your pastor

The one place that we will not be --- is at Ridge Church functions.

Part of the covenant that we agree to as United Methodist Clergy is that when we leave a church --- regardless of whether it is because of a move to a new church or a retirement or an appointment to an extension ministry --- we leave the church. 

We covenant with each other to only come by invitation of the pastor, and not to interfere in that Pastor's ministry

Rev Michelle Knight will be your pastor effective July 1 --- and I intend to do all in my power to help her succeed --- and the most important thing I can do to help her is stay out of the way.

Nancy and I will spend the next several months visiting other churches --- and I have told Nancy that she gets to pick where we go --- since she hasn't had a choice in the matter the last 29 years.

But that is not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about the fear of change --- or as I titled this sermon --- The Fear of Letting Go

NOBODY likes change ---
          except maybe a baby with a dirty diaper

Most of us are paralyzed by the thought of change.

In his wonderful book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who worked on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

She recalled that when the first plane hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001, a wave of hot air came through her glass windows as intense as opening a pizza oven.

She did not hesitate.
She didn’t even pick up her purse, make a phone call or turn off her computer.
She walked quickly to the nearest emergency exit, pushed through the door and began the ninety-eight-stairway decent to the ground.

What she found curious is that far more people chose to stay right where they were. They made outside calls and even an entire group of colleagues went into their previously scheduled meeting.

Why would they choose to stay in such a vulnerable place in such an extreme circumstance?

Because they were human beings and human beings find change to be extremely difficult, practically impossible.

To leave without being instructed to leave was a risk.

Even among those people who chose to leave, there were some who went back to the floor to retrieve personal belongings they couldn’t bear to part with.

One woman was walking down alongside Marissa Panigrosso when she stopped herself and went back upstairs to get the baby pictures of her children left on her desk.
To lose them was too much for her to accept. The decision was fatal.

When human beings are faced with chaotic circumstances, our impulse is to stay safe by doing what we’ve always done before.
To change our course of action seems far riskier than to keep on keeping on.
To change anything about our lives, even our choice of toothpaste, causes great anxiety.

How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed.
Not some easy triumph, either.
But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist’s inner fortitude.
Because that’s what it takes in real life to leave a dysfunctional relationship, move to a new city, or quit your job. It just does.

I think it is because change requires loss.

And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain.

It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us.

But change is coming and I want to address my fears of change --- my fears of letting go and in the process hopefully address some of yours.

I think the biggest fear --- the elephant in the room for you and for me is pretty much the same fear --- we just come at it a little differently

·         Will we like the new way?
Will you like Pastor Michelle?
Will I like my new role at TradeWinds as Director of Marketing and Development?

·         With a new leader --- will you see all of my flaws that you overlooked
          As I struggle with my insecurities

·         At the end of the day --- did I make a difference?

The truth is we don't have to accept the reality that I will no longer be your pastor.
We can stick our head in the sand --- we can put out hands over our ears and sing --- falalalala

But it doesn't change anything

Hanging on keeps us from moving forward
17 years ago there were some families that were very close to Pastor Herr

The sad reality is --- a majority of them are no longer active in the church because they could not make the transition to the new guy (me)

Others of you loved Pastor Herr, but when the Conger's arrived you adapted to the new leadership --- and over time many of you came to love us and respect us, just as you had the previous pastors

Joseph Campbell put it this way:
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.

BUT, I understand the reality of the situation

For some of you I have been your pastor for the past 17 years
          I have performed 98 Weddings (and counting)
          Following a number of those weddings I have shared in a baptism
                   119 baptisms
          Celebrated 251 funerals

I was your pastor when Mariana joined us --- yesterday she graduated from Lincoln College
I was your pastor when Alex came from Russia
I was your pastor on Sept 11, 2001 --- when we all gathered in fear in the sanctuary to pray and try to comprehend how our world had changed and would never be the same

I have been at your plays, and your parties, and your celebrations and surgeries

And I will always cherish those memories
          And nothing can take them away

I hope you will cherish them as well

But I also want you to make new memories

The other day when the storm came through I was looking out the window and watching the trees --- and I had a revelation.

The trees in the storm don't try to stand up straight and tall and erect.

They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind.

They understand the power of letting go.

Those trees and those branches that try too hard to stand up strong and straight are the ones that break.

We have to be flexible and let the winds of change blow.

There are things that we never want to let go of, people we never want to leave behind. 

But keep in mind that letting go isn’t the end of the world; it’s the beginning of a new life.

Letting go doesn't mean that we don't care

Letting go doesn't mean we shut down

Letting go means we stop trying to force outcomes and make people do what we want.

It means we give up resistance to the way things are.

It means we stop trying to do the impossible --- controlling that which we cannot --- and instead, focus on what is possible. 

And we do this in gentleness, kindness, and love, as much as possible.

Change is not easy

Letting go will not be easy

But we let go --- so that we can become what God desires us to be.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Holy Places

Exodus 3:1-6a   (NRSV)
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Have you ever asked yourself --- what makes a place HOLY?

Three years ago Nancy and I went out to visit my parents in Arizona over Spring Break.

It is a trip that I will never forget --- because I had shaved off my moustache right before the trip --- as my offering to St. Baldrick's day. 
          I didn't raise nearly enough money for the sacrifice I made
It was the first time that Nancy had ever seen me sans moustache

But the real reason that I will always remember the trip --- is because I sunburned my lip the day we went to visit the Grand Canyon

But while we were there on our visit, I was encouraged to read a Tony Hillerman novel

What struck me was how Hillerman pointed out that the Navajo people consider their land to be sacred.

He repeatedly makes the point that unless you understand the Holy Ground of the Navajo people you cannot understand them.

In modern times, many people consider that Sedona, Arizona is filled with Holy Ground.

If you ever visit there, and it is a beautiful and magnificent place, you find that there are many locations that have been identified as VORTEX's --- places where the separation between heaven and earth is very thin.
In other words --- HOLY PLACES

We went to visit a number of the vortexes.

In 1984, Nancy and I traveled to Israel for the first time.

Over the next 20 years I made 12 trips to "The Holy Land"

My friend, Archaeologist Charles Page, often commented, much like Hillerman, that unless one understands the land of the Bible --- they could never fully understand the Bible

The late Father Bargil Pixner went so far as calling the land of Israel the 5th Gospel

Father Bargil Pixner, in a conversation with Charles Page, said:
“You must see Jesus here.  If you do not see Jesus in the ruins of Capernaum, you should have studied physics.  We are involved in Biblical archaeology.  Our job is to know him and to make him known.  Seeing him helps us to know him.  Knowing him leads us to love him.  Loving him will help us to serve him and to make a difference in the world.”

But what is it that makes a place holy?

As I traversed over Israel, I have visited many places that have been identified as Holy


Nazareth --- the town that Jesus grew up in

Capernaum --- if there was any place that we can identify with Jesus as an adult it is Capernaum --- the city boasts a synagogue that the foundation is from the time of Jesus, and a home that has been identified as the home of Peter's mother in law.

Cana --- Nancy and I renewed our wedding vows at Cana --- the location of the first miracle in Jesus ministry --- his coming out party when he turned water into wine at a wedding.

Sea of Galilee --- especially the locations of the Beatitudes and Jesus' resurrection stories

Bethlehem --- the traditional site of Jesus birth

JERUSALEM --- I love Jerusalem --- everywhere in the Old City to me is Holy Ground

Temple Mount --- site of the Holy Temple and the Holy of Holies (today the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock)

Teaching Steps --- steps that led up and into the Temple
          It is one of the few places where I can say with confidence --- "Jesus was HERE!"

Thomas Friedman in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem tells this story:
When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel after his trip to the moon, he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there.

“I told him, ‘Look, Jesus was a Jew,'” recalled Ben-Dov.
“These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.”

Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were.

“So Jesus stepped right here?” asked Armstrong.

“That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.

“I have to tell you,” Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

The Western Wall --- For Jewish people it is the closest that they can get to the site of the original Temple and so has become VERY holy space to them

Upper Room --- traditional site of the last supper

St Peter in Gallicantu --- home of the High Priest Caiaphas --- tradition says that Jesus was imprisoned there

Calvary --- site of the crucifixion

Holy Sepulcher --- site of the resurrection

So let me ask you:  Is it because of what happened in the past that makes a place HOLY?

Our Scripture this morning tells about the ONLY place identified in the Bible as HOLY.

It is the familiar story of Moses encountering God.

Exodus 3:1-6a   (NRSV)
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

What does the Bible say makes the place holy?

It really isn't a location --- it is that God is present in that place.

I have come to see HOLY GROUND --- not as some ancient place --- even though I love ancient places and I often --- but not always --- experience them as Holy.

For me the best example of that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
For the most part it is not Holy to me

The reason it is not holy is because I often feel distant from God there.
          I have seen priests push and shove and yell at each other there --- there seems to be NO peace

However, on the back side of the Tomb there is a little chapel that I find as a Holy Place --- it is a Coptic Chapel.

For most Protestant --- if you were to ask them about the Holy Place remembering the resurrection of Jesus --- they would not point you to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Instead they would steer you toward ---- what is called the Garden Tomb
          It is beautiful
          It is peaceful
          It is what one expects then they are looking for the Tomb of Jesus
There is only one problem --- IT IS NOT HISTORICALLY ACCURATE
          Jesus WAS NOT buried there
          He did not rise from there
Yet for many it is a HOLY PLACE

Historically --- the Holy Sepulcher is much more likely --- it just doesn't feel like a holy place to me.


For me the answer is simple --- PEOPLE and/or RELATIONSHIPS

Friday night was the TradeWinds Annual Gala

In many ways it was my first Big Test at TradeWinds, because I was responsible for the event --- even though I am not there completely yet.

The Gala is TradeWinds first big Fundraising Event of the year --- there are a few more events during the year, but I will be there full-time by the time of the Golf Outing.

I, of course, wanted last night to be a success --- and I have been a nervous wreck this past week trying to make sure we had everything ready.

Not only is it about raising money (although that is pretty important)

But in my mind there is an even bigger purpose --- and that is raising awareness

Friday night, it became a Holy Place for me (and I think many others)

Let me share quickly why:

·         We had a choir made up of TradeWinds participants, we named the choir our "Believe and Achieve Choir" and they sang two songs and danced to a third
·         We also honored a young boy with autism as our "Youth of the Year"
·         And we honored our adult "Participant of the Year"

As the Choir was singing ----
and to be honest they were "wonderfully terrible"
they were awesome
I realized that I was standing on Holy Ground

But, and this is the funny thing --- when I go back to the Avalon Manor for another event --- I doubt that Avalon Manor will be a holy place for me.

You see: Holy Places really aren't places --- they are relationships

Ridge Church --- not the buildings --- but you --- will always be a Holy Place for Nancy and me

And what I have come to understand is that Holy Places are not bound by time or space.

I realized this when I visit tombs --- what we call cemeteries.

The reason we are attracted and often go and visit cemeteries is because they are HOLY PLACES to us

Not for what took place there --- but for the relationship that they have come to symbolize

In other words --- all the world is a Holy Place --- when we open our eyes and celebrate the relationships that take place there
          The relationships with each other
          The relationships with the divine

Psalm 24:1 says:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it

If we truly believed that the earth belonged to God and is holy wouldn't that cause us to take better care of it? 

Wouldn't that cause us to do a better job of sharing its resources? 

Wouldn't it make a difference in the way we observe and relate to nature --- and each other?   

Does it take a burning bush to make us realize we stand on holy ground?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks to me when she wrote:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven; and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes.  The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

May God give us eyes to see all the Holy Places that surround us.