Turns out ministry is so much more than I ever thought it would be. Everyday is a new adventure. Challenges are abundant. Helping people deal with hardship and loss seems to be required at the most unexpected times. Experiencing God who shows up so often and in so many surprising ways is why I love being the minister of a church.
Six and a half years ago I moved to Michigan to answer a call to be the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Saint Clair.
Saint Clair is a beautiful small city bordering the Saint Clair River, a river known for its freighter traffic, powerful current and deep blue color because of the way it reflects the the sky. This has been the fastest six and a half years of my life, and a most rewarding time.
Ministry has been challenging as all ministry is. And it has been very, very good. By the middle of year two the church voted on an Open and Affirming Covenant. During my time here the congregation has found many ways to move outside the church and into the community to provide support to those in need. My task was simply to say yes, to offer encouragement, blessings and guidance, though guidance was rarely needed.
On December thirty-first I will have completed seven years of ministry at this most extraordinary United Church of Christ. I’ve made the decision and I’ve let the congregation know that at seventy, it’s time for me to step aside, to give someone else a chance to serve here.
It’s time for me to pack up all my belongings which will be no small task, I’ve filled the Parsonage and an office with decent furnishings, little bits of Oberlin to keep me from missing my family, and way too many books. I hate moving. And while I’ll hate leaving Saint Clair, I have missed being able to travel freely, visit with family and call on Oberlin friends for coffee meetings at The Local.
We’ve been through another year of COVID; another year of wonder and worry. But now it’s time to return our focus to God. How will we draw closer this time? Will we give up chocolate (again), or write in our journals everyday, or perhaps we’ll give up trying to be someone we aren’t. That last may be the most difficult sacrifice of all.
How do we convince ourselves that we are fine just as we are? How do we convince ourselves that God loves us so very deeply? And how on earth do we recognize this as we begin again this day, yet another Ash Wednesday? How do we see in ourselves our own God-ness as we move into these 40 days and 40 nights?
We can make this time a little different than in years past. We can turn our love for God inward as we vow to love ourselves, just as we are. We can notice all that is holy about us and thank God for Christ, for time to reflect and for time of self-love. It doesn’t come easily for many of us, after-all. It will be a challenge. It will be sacrificial.
Praise to the living God. We are here and we belong to God who sees into us, yet only sees goodness.
So grateful are we for the grace we’ve been given. Hallowed be thy name.
2021 8 29 B Sermon given at First Church UCC, St Clair, MI.
August 29, 2021
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Mark 7:1-8, 20-21a
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.
Let us pray: Holy and loving God, your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our understanding. Be with us we pray, that the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts will be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The Gift of Generosity Rev Alana Kelley August 29, 2021
Generosity is a gift we ALL have access to. This September is our month to work in the Ecumenical Food Pantry. For any who may not know, our local food pantry is at St Mary’s behind a building that is, I think, the old convent. You enter the food pantry through a garage door and then go downstairs where most of the non-refrigerated food is shelved.
Nine St Clair Michigan churches participate in the program; each church serves for a month. Many thanks to Kathy and Barb for being our organizers in 2021.
This year, because of COVID, those who work will only be going on Tuesdays and the shifts are from 4-7:00 p.m. If you sign up to volunteer, you go there and pack boxes for the families who have contacted Ann Whittaker to let her know of their need. Each box is weighed because we want to keep track of how many pounds of food is being given to each family and how much in total is given away.
The Catholic Saint, Vincent de Paul has a charity named after him because he was renowned for his humility, compassion and generosity. The Ecumenical Food Pantry is part of St Vincent de Paul; the huge Catholic charity that does so much to help people in need. If you have financial difficulties, you can contact them thru St Mary’s here in town.
The amazing thing about generosity is that it gives again and again. When we are generous with the people around us, we help to satisfy their needs and may even bring justice to them. But, that’s not all there is to it, and I know many of you already know this.
When we are generous WE are greatly rewarded, not because we are then promised a place in heaven. Paul told us again and again that our faith is what saves us, not our works. According to Paul, as Christians who are believers, we are promised a place in heaven even if we do nothing for anyone ever except proclaim Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. This is the gift of grace that Paul talks about repeatedly in his letters. James, on the other hand, in his letter, emphasizes the importance of helping others. I like the way James thinks.
It doesn’t really matter if Paul is right or if James is right. It seems to be the case though, that when we think about ways of being generous, especially with those who have the greatest needs, we are rewarded, simply because it feels great to be a compassionate giver. We often talk about agape love. We call this Christian love; Christian generosity expects nothing in return. Being truly generous requires no quid pro quo. That’s a difficult concept for some of us to swallow; because sometimes we feel that everyone needs to earn what they have, even when they can’t. We have a tendency to judge needy people; to lump poor, needy people all together, even when they can’t possibly help themselves.
Generosity is a virtue that is lifted up by numerous world religions; and is often celebrated in cultural and religious ceremonies. In Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity generosity is a virtue. It is a tenant to practice regularly.
We are living through a very tenuous time right now. The Supreme Court just made a decision that the Non-eviction mandate that had been extended by the current administration because of COVID, cannot be imposed. Because of this, many more people will soon become homeless. Yet, landlords have to pay their mortgages; so landlords are sometimes losing their properties for not being able to meet the mortgage. It seems like a lose lose situation for everyone.
Part of the problem is that often tenants and landlords have not sought available help. They aren’t aware that there is government aid available due to the pandemic specifically for housing. Some states are very slow to release aid to tenants and to landlords. Too often there is help but the problem is either ineffectiveness about getting it out to those who need it; or deliberately ignoring that it is available.
I love the writings of James. I love his call to generosity; and his struggle to teach Christians to be more generous.
While today’s Mark Gospel is concerned with whether we need to follow the cleanliness code in the OT or not; James puts it simply when he says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
My son Zack was probably 15 the March when I decided that for my birthday I wanted the whole family to help me make and then deliver a meal for 80 people to Haven Center, a homeless shelter in Lorain, Ohio.
It was MY birthday, and I wanted everyone to have this fabulous experience of serving people who could use a good hot meal. My older son had to work so he didn’t show up for the meal preparation, delivery and service. My younger son, Zack, fussed and carried on about how he didn’t want to be there. David was just very quiet, trying not to seem annoyed by the whole endeavor, which was my thing; no one else’s.
After we’d finished cooking and it was time to deliver the meal, I asked David and Zack to lift the giant roaster filled with the beef stew that we had spent the afternoon making and to carry it out to the car.
Zack continued his complaining as the two of them walked out the door, and then I heard the crash of something very heavy hitting the ground. And, I heard the woosh of pounds and pounds of stew splashing onto the sidewalk, I heard Zack let out a curse. Did I mention that Zack’s heart was not in this project of mine? He had let go of his end of the roaster. We scrambled. Haven Center ate Dinty Moore beef stew that night.
I had tried to foist my love of feeding the people at Haven Center onto my family and it hadn’t worked.
So here’s my point. We are all different from one another. The gifts I give may not be the gifts you would be most comfortable giving.
Later in his life, Zack, a very gifted musician and writer of music actually offered to play in my church on a Sunday. He was very willing to share THAT gift.
Sometimes we are simply not ready to share or willing to share what we have to offer. And this is ok. But, for those who aren’t familiar with the gift of generosity that James encourages us to take part in, there is so much to be gained in our spirit, in our hearts, in our minds by being generous people.
There are people who give ALL the time; thinking constantly about what we might do for someone in need. Being generous just feels good. But there’s more to it:
In October of 2020, a Cleveland Clinic article, under the heading, “Mental Health” and titled “Why Giving is Good for Your Health”, shared recent research in the benefits of being generous were explained.
Did you know that the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from helping others is actually good for you?There are proven health benefits to volunteering, donating money, caring for others including, lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, less depression, lower stress levels, longer life, greater happiness and satisfaction.
Supportive interactions with others helps people recover from coronary-related events.
People who give their time to help others through community and organizational involvement have greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who don’t.
Giving can create that “warm glow,” because being generous activates regions in the brain associated with pleasure, connection and trust. This is the reason why you feel happy driving back from a volunteer experience.
The MRIs of subjects who gave to charities, show that giving stimulates the reward center in the brain — releasing endorphins, creating what is known as the “helper’s high.” There is evidence that, when being generous, humans secrete “feel good” chemicals in our brains, such as serotonin (a mood-mediating chemical), dopamine (a feel-good chemical) and oxytocin (a compassion and bonding chemical).
Like other highs, this one is addictive, too. So go ahead and reach out to someone in need, and identify opportunities to give back in your community. Your mental and physical health will thank you – and so will the people you help.
There is so much to be gained from being generous with what we have and love the most, like gifts of time, hard work, talents and treasures.
So sure, we can go along with Paul who states that we’re saved by grace alone; but it sure seems that giving can make a big difference in our quality of life while we’re on this earth, creating the Kingdom of God, here and now.
I wanted to share Friday’s Sojourner’s Devotional for you because it is right on for the theme of generosity. I posted it on the church Facebook page on Friday:
Verse of the day: Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
Voice of the day: There is no phenomenon in the universe that does not intimately concern us, from a pebble resting at the bottom of the ocean, to the movement of a galaxy millions of light years away. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun of My Heart (2020)
Prayer of the day: Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.- Pope Francis, “A prayer for our earth” AMEN.
Being a minister has its ups and downs, just the same way our lives do. This past week was an uber-example of this.
The week started out with a lovely little memorial service for an eighty-something church member who was well loved in this city of 5200. Her family was delighted that so many showed up for the visitation and service. The service went well. A few friends volunteered to read scripture. The black and white wedding album on a table up near the lectern delighted everyone who had a chance to look through it,
As I left the service I traveled to the city to the hospital to visit and baptize a baby who’d had a stressful delivery. His parents were worried about him and insisted he should be baptized. We baptized him in the presence of family members and hospital staff. It was a sad and happy moment for all of us, but reassuring. And I know it helped this family to feel a little better later in the week when he died.
Tuesday night was the Trustees meeting in the church lounge. We always enter the room to the aroma of fresh coffee and there are usually cookies on the table. Our meetings tend to be pretty casual and sometimes we reign in the conversations that grow out of the business we’re doing. Sometimes we just let them go. And somehow those conversations seem to blossom into something important for all of us to know. “Did you know that Rotary will be providing free flu shots in October?”
On Wednesday night I spent a few hours finishing up the service for the newborn’s funeral. It would be on Thursday afternoon. I made cookies for a bake sale and went to bed late worrying a little about how to get everything done on Thursday, thinking about the parents and sister of the boy who died.
Thursday after an early worship team meeting I drove to the funeral home. I stayed close to the family during visiting. Several family members read during the service. It was very sad yet the life of this little boy was so respected and acknowledged by his family and the crowd of friends and family there that it felt like a very blessed time. I rode with the funeral director in front of the hearse as we carried this baby boy’s small casket to a rural cemetery that was twelve miles away in a little town called Ruby. It was a beautiful secluded spot. Thirty-five cars drove to that cemetery. We blessed the baby one last time. Everyone remained for a long time after the casket was lowered into the grave. It was completely quiet.
On Thursday night at church we had a special meeting to talk about how to use money that had been given to the church, designated for mission. As the meeting started we all seemed sluggish, but as we wrote down words to describe the church the conversation warmed up. To most everyone’s surprise we’d written very positive words. We felt good about what we were doing already. It was nice, having this opportunity to remember all the church is loved for. And new ideas started coming one after another; we could help homeless teens in town, focus on helping low income/ no income people, provide a place for free medical dental care, give money to a few of the local food pantries, provide physical help to the local pantries.
Today is Saturday. I’d like to breath a sigh of relief but I should be working on the sermon for tomorrow. Somehow it seems as though no matter how I prepare, on Sunday the sermon is simply going to come. We’re talking about wilderness. This past week has taken me in and out of the wilderness a few times and mostly I feel energized and thankful. I am grateful that God is always with us on the journey.
Just found this in my WordPress file. It’s interesting to read at the end of my first year in St. Clair. It makes me smile to remember. I feel so happy to have been called to this place, and to have had the good sense to listen for God in making the decision.
Today is a big day for me: for us. At noon we’re leaving Oberlin with our two hybrid cars filled to overflowing, because I’m moving to St. Clair, Michigan. God asked me to do this so I said yes. It means I’ll be leaving behind my son Matthew and his wife Tammy and my two grandchildren, Solomon who is 13 and Elias who will be 4 in a few weeks. I’m also leaving Zack although he moved to Columbus, Ohio a few years ago, so I’ve gotten sort of used to seeing him only once in awhile. And I’m leaving David. This is the change that has caused people who know me some confusion, some concern and has a raised a lot of questions for them and for us too, quite honestly. It has caused us both to change but in a good way. We’ve been married for 42 years come May 11, 2016. We’ve known each other for 45 years, so yes, this is a big step and I understand the concern.
We’re excited, David and I. He just told me that the temperature tomorrow will be 19 degrees. Actually, he gave me a complete 24 hour weather report for St. Clair. This big change in our lives has inserted a new energy and a new found sense that there is still so much life to live and as I approach age 64 and he settles into age 67 it feels like we’re about to embark on an adventure. He has been every bit as excited about this move as I have been. First of all, St. Clair, Michigan has so much to offer. It’s a small town right on the St. Clair River which connects Lake Erie to Lake Huron. Lake Huron is about 20 minutes away. Sarnia (not Narnia) Ontario is just up the road and across the river and this, for some reason is something we both delight in. We’ve had some wonderful days in Toronto and in Niagara-On-The-Lake, so it makes sense really that we’d be drawn to this aspect of the move.
The people of the church in this small community that I’ll begin serving beginning tomorrow do seem an exceptional group. This is one of the reasons I’m going there. I’ve been told by those who know, that this particular church is a gem; extremely healthy, mature, happy and wanting to move into new areas of ministry. Heaven, right? I’m not naïve though. I know that after a year of getting to know one another we’ll begin to learn about the issues that we’ll want to work on during our time together. No congregation is perfect since they’re all made up of people. Right?
I’ll be living in a parsonage and this will be very new for us. We’ve spent this past month moving furniture, books and household items in one large moving truck and several car trips. But, it’s been great fun. David and I love car travel and moving in the past has always been exciting. It still is, we’ve learned. The house looks great. Most of the furniture is now in place. Our dog Betty who will live with me, has been to St. Clair once already. I have to note that this morning as she watches us scurry around moving suitcases and stacks of clothing that she seems a little bit edgy. But, she’ll adapt to our new routine. On our last visit, I made the mistake of opening the back door after our first night there, and let her out into the yard, I thought. She took off. David reported to me that a short time later there was a knock at the door and a bunch of kids, aged 6-12 or so, all stood in a circle around Betty who had followed them back down the street and to our new front door. “Is this your dog? She came up to our house where we were playing outside.” Betty has already made a nice group of friends. She may not remember today, as we fuss with last minute laundry and car stuff, that she had a great time on our last trip to St. Clair.
Thanks to Matt Fitzgerald, for his meditation on the very brief Scripture verse, “Do good, O Lord, for those who are good.”
The United Church of Christ Daily Devotional Matt wrote is posted at the end of these thoughts. It reminds me of the cruelty that often existed in the daily life of the Junior High School many of us attended years back. I’ve noticed in young people of that age today a certain kindness and sensitivity that we did not possess. I know this has been encouraged and taught. And, I also know that very many of the young teens I encounter today are very kind, very loving, very accepting.
I dropped my grandson Solomon off at school a few days ago. He complained a little about the car in front of us being slow in dropping off the student on board. When he saw who was being dropped off he said, “Oh. Never mind.” His classmate in front of us was a person with a mobility disability. The child’s dad removed a tuba from the back of the car and set it onto the sidewalk. The young man began to struggle as he pushed and pulled his tuba toward the back door of the school. Almost immediately another student came along, picked up the tuba and carried it to the door as they walked together, both looking very happy, into school. Yeah. That’s what I saw.
Thank God for parents and teachers who have learned that the most important lessons to be learned in school don’t necessarily revolve around subjects taught like math, English, history and Science. Thank God for students who open their hearts to others in a much more accepting way than we ever did when we were in Junior High School.
Imperfect Love by Matt Fitzgerald
“Do good, O Lord, to those who are good.” – Psalm 125
“Pray for your enemies.” Only God knows what such prayer might do for those people, but if you’ve tried it, you know that Jesus’ prayer kills the enmity that lives inside your own heart. It may be the closest we ever get to being Christ-like. As Kierkegaard says, “Perfect love means to love the one through whom one became unhappy.”
But such prayer is agony. It kills us. So Psalm 125 brings relief. It issues no challenge, just asks God to be good to those who are good. I love this. Christianity doesn’t need constant effort. Sometimes it is easy. Pray for those who are good.
I live across the street from a middle school. At recess the tweens separate themselves into castes and cliques. They are too old to play. They act cool. Except for one girl who wears unfashionable long skirts and runs across the playground, bursting into one group after another. She suffers from some disability. It’s obvious. Yet each time she runs into the middle of a group—the Goth kids, the gossips, the athletes, the introverts—they all make room for her. They give her a pound or a shoulder hug. They smile. She smiles. Then she turns to run toward some other group.
I think back to the cruelty of my adolescence and I am simply amazed at the goodness on display.
Oh God, give goodness to that good child who refuses the boundaries of adolescence. And pour goodness over all those good children who see her with eyes of love. And give more goodness to the parents who have shaped them. And rain goodness down on our world as it changes for the better. Amen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Fitzgerald is the Senior Pastor of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is the host of “Preachers on Preaching,” a weekly podcast sponsored by The Christian Century.
Listening to the breeze; the wind in the trees,
Leaves spin and dance and fall.
Flutter, Rustle and blow away,
So many colors, earthy and bright; large or small, maple and oak and beech and….
Fall is almost here.
Chilly air. Warm air. Shadows and sun.
Indian summer will come for a day or two and then
Darker nights. Shorter days, it’s almost time
to settle in for the winter we know will arrive.
And we’ll continue our ticking off of time.
And we’ll continue our ticking off of days
Until at the last all our years have come and gone.
Until at the last all our years have come and gone.
I have been doing a lot of reading since leaving the church I served for eight and a half years and searching for a new call. (You didn’t ask but that process is going very well. Truthfully, I’m fascinated by it but I’ll save all that for another post.) It’s such a gift to be able to sit on the couch for an hour or two and just read without any other care in the world. Right now I’m reading my second Thomas Perry, Jane Whitefield book. The Face Changer is a book I’ve read once before but I’m reading it again. The main character, Jane Whitefield is of native American decent, Seneca maybe because she spends a lot of time in New York state. She helps people who are good, yet in danger, to disappear. The stories are fascinating, well written and exciting.
I also love Connie Willis, a Science Fiction writer. She writes time travel books and I got hooked on her when The Doomsday Book was assigned in my Church History class. It takes place both today and in the Middle Ages when the plague was taking so many lives. I’ve read it twice and will most likely read it again as soon as my husband finishes with it.
I’ve been catching up on the church leadership books that have been piling up on my nightstand too. Real Good Church by Molly Phinney Baskette is one of the most liberating books I’ve read of that church revitalization genre. It’s full of great and effective ideas for making a church more welcoming and gives the reader permission to do all sorts of crazy, wonderful things in the church.
I just happened to finish The Emergent Church a few weeks before receiving the sad news that Phyllis Tickle died. It provided such great explanation for the course our churches are on, considering where they’ve come from. I’d heard her speak at conferences and, of course, I’ll be reading more of her books.
Pope Joan is another book I loved. Based on the myth that one of the early popes was actually a woman who managed to pass for a man most of her life, Joan is educated during a time when women simply aren’t and she proves herself to be of astounding intellect. This is one of the books I reported on at my book club a few years back.
One more, for good measure, and this is also a bookclub book. Places Left Unfinished at the time of Creation by John Phillip Santos is a book I’ve wanted to read again. Of the books I’ve mentioned it might have the most that could well be worked into a sermon. It is the amazing story of the Santos family history as they leave Mexico to settle in Texas. It is a book that opens our eyes in a very important way.
Last night, Labor Day, we had the nicest family get together. David started fussing on Sunday afternoon over what to prepare. We shopped and then he made a beautiful peach pie.
On Labor Day evening Matt, Tammy, Solomon and Elias came over. Zack drove up from Columbus and arrived before 7:00 p.m. David was already busy outside roasting buttery potatoes in foil, keeping an eye on a sizzling mixed grill of sauced chicken thighs, bratwurst and pork loin. I’d made a tomato, white onion, basil, mint salad and a ‘special treat’ (inside family joke…. sorry)~ deviled eggs. This rendition included black pepper mayo and horseradish.
Before and after dinner, Solomon shopped on the web for basketball shoes to match an outfit (I kid you not….. looking for the perfect giant sized men’s shoes in blue and green.) We all marveled at how Solomon was no longer scouring the web for the latest Lego set. Matt teased about how 8th grade boys are concerned about shoe colors and styles and the girls are all a foot taller than the boys. Elias puttered back and forth from toy basket to his fort located under an umbrella propped between the coffee table and TV cabinet. He’s become the regular excellent leader of our dinner prayer.
We commiserated with Zack whose ears have been blocked for weeks and even a visit to an urgent care doctor was no help. We talked about Syrian refugees needing help in Europe and we talked about the latest “This American Life” podcast that explained how to interact properly, improv style, with people who have Alzheimer’s disease.
As we chattered and laughed and bemoaned difficulties, Tammy, sitting under the lamp light at the end of the sofa, leafed through the latest Sundance catalogue sharing with me the items she liked best. David fretted over whether or not everyone had enough to eat and as usual, stepped in to finish the clean up I’d started after dinner.
I sat and watched all of this and marveled at the gift that a family can be as we drank decaf and ate peach pie with vanilla ice cream. Elias finished his and then asked for a popsicle too. We indulged him when he asked for four bowls so he could pretend to serve us ice cream.