Some days I can hardly bear to turn on the computer. It has long since replaced the TV as my main source of news, though I still stick to NPR in the car. But the computer has become a minefield. A third of the email are appeals for action, mostly from causes or candidates I believe in, asking for money, time, or a signature on a petition. But I hate those that say, “I wanted to be sure you saw this email from Mr. Big we sent two hours ago, it is SO important!” Until tomorrow’s even MORE important deadline or crisis. My Facebook feed is a maze of news stories with headlines designed to punch my buttons, and get me to click through. Yet I do, and then I have to heed my own advice, “Do not read the comments, Do NOT read the comments!” If I don’t follow that common sense, my blood starts to boil at the totally lame, stupid, or grossly false stuff posted there. I’m hooked. I’m sunk. I’m a bit more mental carrion being picked clean by bots and trolls.
So maybe I should do something! How about I write a clear, factual, totally-logical-Mr.-Spock, refutation! Something fit for the New York Times letter section, now to be posted on thread 17 of 2.8K of Tuesday’s responses to Joe’s re-posting of that Vice article! A citation from Snopes, a good Bible verse, a nod to interfaith sensibilities, a hook each for Left and Right, and end with a quote from GK Chesterton ought to do it. Four hours later, and Hit Post! Eight hours after that: four Likes, one Smiley Face, a link to a cat video, and no comments. That was a good use of time, mental energy, righteous anger and stomach acid!
In a society that the Powers that Be want chopped up into ever smaller, ever angrier, ever less powerful clans, tribes and interests, small enough to be targeted with ads, memes and base fear, working together in coalitions becomes harder and harder -- in a society where every debate is totalized into Good and Evil, nuance is eliminated, and the ability to grant that there may be facts and views we do not understand, daring to even talk to our neighbors feels like betrayal of our side -- in a society where the Winner Takes All, a two percent margin is taken as a mandate to dictate to the other 48 percent, and compromise is viewed as flip-flopping or even betrayal... working for a vision of the greater good becomes nigh well impossible. Which is just fine with the Powers, having divided and conquered.
There has to be a better way. And, at its best, the church is one structure for creating it. A core ministry of the church is reconciliation,
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)
This is reconciliation with God, but implicit is reconciliation on all other levels as well. Divine reconciliation leads to reconciliation with self, neighbor, environment, and even the enemy. When sin – estrangement, fear, division, broken relationship, self-serving – is resolved, that enables people to reconnect at the levels of care and concern that matter. Church creates a space for wildly diverse people to come together amid their differences of perspectives, opinions, experiences and values, for the unity comes not at the human level of civic agreement but at the divine level that all are baptized into the one Christ and reconciled with the one God. Community is a gracious given, not a politically generated polis. It is “from God.”
Not that it is simple to live out together. The New Testament is filled with community norms like, “Speak the truth in love,” “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry,” “Do not let your good be spoken of as evil,” “Do not set a stumbling stone for your weaker sibling,” “The greatest of you must be the servant of all,” and of course, “Love your neighbor… and your enemy… as your self.” Life together gives us plenty of opportunity to practice these virtues!
This is one of the reasons Plymouth is hosting a pair of “Better Angels” programs this week. When I convened a team last summer to consider our Visiting Scholar program for this year, they very quickly identified the key issue to address as the polarization of our country and our decreasing ability to communicate civilly across significant social and political divides. They considered a variety of speakers and programs, and settled on this because of its practical, hands-on, participatory approach. They didn’t feel like we really needed someone right now to give us a brilliant lecture on faith and civic virtues, but that we needed the chance to practice talking to our families and neighbors who had very different views than we. We will have future Visiting Scholar programs that are traditional lectures and workshops, but for this year we are using the Better Angels program.
Better Angels is a citizens’ organization uniting red (ie. conservative/libertarian) and blue (ie liberal/progressive) Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. Their vision says:
Engaging the church’s ministry of reconciliation is a far better use of time and spirit than falling down the rabbit hole of a social media comment thread or drafting the perfect rebuttal that vanishes into the ether. I hope you will look to the church as a field to practice your skills at listening, at speaking your truth care-full-ly, and at being able to live with the discomfort of having people you love disagree with you. We won’t always succeed, we may well fail spectacularly, but we’ll still be better than a comment thread on Politico!
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Director of Christian Formation (Adults)
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Read more about Mark.
Way up at the north of the land we now call Scotland,
there are islands that lie in the North Sea.
At one time they belonged to the King of Norway, a Viking King.
He split the rule of these islands, called the Orkneys,
between two cousins,
Earl Hakon, a mighty warrior,
and Earl Magnus, also mighty in battle but gifted in peacemaking.
Together they ruled peacefully for seven years
until evil men gained the ear of Hakon and turned him against Magnus.
There were great arguments until other men, good men,
persuaded the two earls to work out their difference diplomatically.
It was agreed that they would meet on a small island
during Holy Week to make their peace.
They were each to be accompanied
by just enough men to fill two small boats.
Magnus and his companions arrived first.
He went into the small church on the island to pray.
When he returned he to the beach to wait for Hakon
he saw that there were not two boats approaching but an entire fleet.
He had been tricked.
He knew his men were out-numbered.
Again he knelt in prayer.
He sent his men back to the small church and waited alone for Hakon
in the sparse and rocky field in front of the church.
When Hakon arrived he saw Magnus waiting for him
with his arms outstretched in peaceful welcome.
“Come, cousin,” said Magnus.
“Let us sit together and talk out our differences.
Do not break our oath of peace.
I will give you three choices
to protect you from doing wrong and breaking your oath.
First, if you will keep the peace
I will go to Jerusalem and pray for us both there.
I will never return to the Orkney Islands.”
Hakon did not agree.
“What if you change your mind?” he grumbled.
Magnus said, “Then I will turn myself over to the King of Scotland
who is your friend and he can keep me imprisoned for life.”
Hakon replied, “He might change his mind and set you free!”
Magnus sighed and said, “Then I give you a final choice.
You can blind me and keep me imprisoned in your own dungeon.”
“And make you a hero in the eyes of the people?” roared Hakon.
And with that he beheaded his cousin Magnus on that very spot.
Magnus’ men sorrowfully buried their leader in that sparse, rocky field
which was full of moss and not good for any kind of farming.
It was the kind of field that fostered very little life.
However, that spring the field grew lush and green with grass.
People came there to pray and sheep came there to graze.
It was said that the field turned green with grassy new life
because not only was it the spot where Magnus,
remembered now as St. Magnus the Peacemaker,
died and was buried,
it was also the place where his soul was lifted up
to be with the Holy One in Paradise.
And so God returned the favor
and granted the Orkney Islands a bit of Paradise.
Magnus died with God and rose with God.
And the field is the witness.
[Orkney Travel Tales, Robert Bela Wilhelm, Ibooks.]
We entered Holy Week this past Sunday with all its pageantry and music and story. Church tradition is ripe with ritual to celebrate the passion story of Jesus through this central week of our faith. I hope you will join us for our Plymouth traditions. (See the box below for a reminder of all our events for this week!)
We have many events for participation. Yet I think that each year we have a choice at Holy Week. We can through the liturgical motions vaguely remembering the stories. Or we have the choice to participate letting the tangible and intangible power of resurrection sink deeper into our bones as we go through the week.
As in the story above, Hakon came to participate in reconciliation and peacemaking, yet he had not chosen those things in his heart as Magnus had. So he was not willingly to let the power of making peace take root deep down. Will you choose God’s power of resurrection this year despite the evidence in our world that conspires against it? External political and social circumstances in our world may rarely give us direct and factual cause to hope for resurrection. Will we choose fear or will we choose compassion and life? The usual stresses of daily life, family concerns and friends who are in need are never ending. Will we choose peace or further engagement in the surface turmoil?
The traditional lectionary scripture texts for Easter Sunday urge us toward hope in the midst of tragedy and despair. In the face of our “realities” we can choose to trust and affirm that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). Choose to trust and affirm that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can choose with Paul to affirm the testimony of good news handed to him by the first disciples, testimony that he has handed on to us in I Corinthians 15. Christ died, was buried and was raised on the third day, appearing first to his closest disciples, then five hundred other followers and lastly to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Ironically the Gospel of Luke tells us that the first twelve disciples did not believe when the women who experienced the empty tomb returned and proclaimed the good news. The men thought it was “idle tales,” make-believe. Crazy emotional women! But then Peter, who just thirty-six hours before Easter morning, denied that he even knew Jesus, decided in his inimitable style to choose ACTION in response to the news. In spite of his disbelief and despair he chooses to run to the tomb to see for himself. Will we respond like those first disciples and not take the news of resurrection to heart? Or will we allow the power of God to cultivate our lives and like the sparse, rocky, lifeless soil of the Orkneys become rich, fertile soil full of prayers and promise for Paradise?
This year I challenge us all to take Peter’s choice to heart, to act on the news of resurrection. To go and see for ourselves. To let the deep roots of God’s salvation sink deep within our souls. May we choose to trust the biggest story of our faith. It is not a choice to take lightly. And it is not the safest choice. But it is the resurrection choice. And just as that ancient man, Magnus, following the example of Jesus, chose life in the face of betrayal, God will also work through us and our choice.
May your Holy Week be blessed as you walk the road into Jerusalem, find the upper room and then the garden, follow to the cross and finally to the joy of the empty tomb. We walk together with God’s presence step by step!
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
by the Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Being part of a congregation makes each of us aware of the transitions of life: births, baptisms, confirmations, graduations, marriages, retirements, and deaths. Being an intentional part of a community of faith exposes us to the exigencies of what it means to be alive. Just by being engaged during Prayers of the People in worship, we tend to hear about and pray for more people experiencing illness or loss than many of our neighbors do.
We are in a time of passage for three of our members: John Geter, Ruth Minter, and George Bryan, for whose lives we offer God thanks with the rites of the church, helping provide a ritual marker at the close of this life. Jake led John Geter’s memorial service on March 30, and I hope that you will join us for memorial services for Ruth Minter this Saturday at 11:00 a.m. and for George Bryan on Holy Saturday at 11:00 a.m.
When Jane Anne and I arrived in Tokyo at the end of March, a few cherry blossoms were just beginning to emerge from the buds on early-blossoming trees. Viewing the cherry blossoms is a major celebration in Japan called hanami, which dates back centuries when the aristocracy would have viewing parties that included food and drink under the white-and-pink canopy of blossoms. While today thousands crowd into parks and picnic under the trees on blue plastic tarps, the spirit of hanami remains.
A woman we met in Tokyo explained the Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms. “The blossoms are with us for only a short time each spring,” she explained. “They burst into bloom and very quickly, they fade, and their petals fly like snow. The cherry blossoms for us are like looking at life: we are born, we live, and we die. It is all part of the process.”
We had wonderful travels around Japan with my son, Cameron, and got to spend a few days with him and his wonderful girlfriend, Aki Regan, in Akita Prefecture, where they both teach English. We returned to Tokyo as we concluded our two weeks in Japan, and by then many of the trees were a profusion of pinkish blossoms, though some trees had begun to lose their floral array. As the wind came up, the blossoms swirled through the air like so many large snowflakes, and I felt a sense of melancholy rising up as the season was drawing to a close. I was standing in Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo when I filmed the video clip below, so the end of life was already present in this place of beauty and remembrance.
Our own tradition, though without hanami, acknowledges the transitory nature of life. The first hymn in the New Century Hymnal, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” contains these lines: “We blossom and flourish as leaves and as flowers, then wither and perish – but naught dims your powers.” The nature of life is indeed transitory. And our tradition also tells us that in the midst of every transition, the power of God and companionship of the Spirit are within and among us. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone,” says the New Creed from the United Church of Canada.
As we move into spring in Colorado, and as we walk through the pattern of Holy Week, going from the triumph of Palm Sunday to tragedy of Good Friday to the triumph of Easter, may we each remember that death is never God’s final word. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
“Home is where the heart is.” That saying has been around for so long that historians of language and idioms do not even know how long it has been in use, although there are written records dating back to Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE). When I hear this phase, I am brought back to childhood memories of Christmas mornings, Easter Egg hunts (mom hid the eggs so well we would keep finding them throughout the summer months), puppies, and lessons learned in time out. I spent a lot of time in time out. I am sure that many of you have your own stories of home that make this phrase resonate, but we all agree that home is the source of stability, nurture, and health in most of our lives. Public Health professionals universally agree on this point.
For an increasing number of people, especially those in natural disaster zones, home is where the stress is. Home is where the uncertainty is. Home is where the instability is. Home was there, but then a hurricane, flood, or fire took it away. This is a place where we can help make a difference, as a church, and return heart to home.
From April 28th through May 4th, for a week, Plymouth’s Outreach and Mission Board and our Habitat for Humanity Ministry Team have commissioned our first Adult Mission Trip since the end of our Navaho Mission Trips a half-decade ago. With Outreach and Mission Board member Lynn Wartgow leading, Plymouth volunteers Anne Wuerslin, Jeff Wartgow, Nancy and Bob Sturtevant, Vanessa Reed, Bruce Lieurance, and myself, along with friend of Plymouth Belinda Strickland, will be going to Sebring, Florida to help build houses for hurricane survivors—the same hurricane Plymouth responded to so generously with a special offering two years ago in the immediate aftermath.
The fact that we first sent dollars and now are sending a real group of people to make a physical difference is a sign of healthy systems-changing mission rather than just charity.
The Board of Outreach and Mission believes that bringing back organized Adult Mission Trip opportunities through Habitat for Humanity helps us fulfill the sending part of our mission as a church and to make lasting change while building relationships. After sending Lynn Wartgow to Minneapolis be trained as an official Habitat Mission Trip leader, we chose Sebring as our first mission opportunity because of our existing connection to that place and the need. If it goes well, there will be more similar trips every year, and we invite you all to consider going.
Moreover, the board feels that having Adult Mission Trip opportunities brings us closer, as a board, to fully living out our mission in Fort Collins and the world to “send” people out of our comfort zone for hope and transformation.
Plymouth’s Mission Statement: It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by: Inviting, Transforming, and Sending.
I asked some of those going on the trip to share why they felt called to be sent on this particular mission trip. Here are some of their responses in their own words:
Jeff Wartgow: James, the very brother of none other than Jesus, must have possessed the genetic propensity for a desire to do good works. He certainly talked about its importance and is a good role model for us. I believe Habitat for Humanity is a reflection of how we can participate in expanding on that model, the realm of God's presence. I'm going to Sebring with our Outreach and Missions Habitat group to in some small way help rebuild shelter for a few of God's children so badly affected by hurricane Irma.
Lynn Wartgow: There have been times in my early life where I experienced housing insecurity. I hope to help others avoid that painful experience. I love to build and I love to travel, so working with Habitat International (which includes domestic trips like this one) is a perfect fit for me. When you have the opportunity to work as a team doing any kind of mission work, you create "family." I'm looking forward to growing my family at Plymouth through this Habitat trip.
Nancy Sturtevant: We feel that Habitat is an important program, and this is a good way to take Plymouth into the community. It allows us to volunteer as a couple for an important cause while getting the opportunity to become closer to other Plymouth members.
Bob Sturtevant: Habitat is a great way to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We can show people that we care through giving our time and energy to help them get back into a home after the devastating hurricane. We can use whatever house-building skills we may have to make a difference in the life of a family.
Belinda Strickland: One of my favorite quotes comes from St. Francis, "Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words." I believe the best way to show the love of Christ is through our actions of outreach. I have just retired, and this Habitat for Humanity trip is the first of my post-retirement efforts to increase my outreach efforts.
Vanessa Reed, long-time Habitat worker: Not only do l enjoys getting my hands-on building tools but using my hands to give back to my community or to anyone who needs a helping hand. This is my passion.
A special thank you to Lynn Wartgow for sensing God’s calling to this work of leadership and investing the time in the trainings and certifications that will make this possible, to Habitat for Humanity of Fort Collins Faith Relations Manager Erika Nossokoff for inspiring our potential to see what God will do next with our team, and to the whole Plymouth congregation for your prayerful support of this mission opportunity for adults.
Throughout our days in Sebring, I will be sending a daily photo dispatch and written prayer on Social Media and in our email news about what is happening and where we are finding God and transformation in this work. I will also provide an “after” Reflection summery the first Tuesday in May about the mission trip.
As we say in Habitat, “Let’s see what God will do!”
In Hope and Habitat,
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.