Messy But Real Diversity

Messy But Real Diversity

When the Renewing the Mainline Church group sat down to work on a vision statement, we first affirmed our willingness to embrace our diversity as a congregation.

The United Church of Huntsville is a place of love, hope and welcome. People can be safe here to share diverse ideas and feelings. Sharing our faith with each other feeds us and helps us to grow spiritually.

Divergent theological views are okay here, because we try to leave the judging to God. We are pluralistic, not just tolerant of our diversity, but fully engaging one another in all of our differences. (It is sometimes messy, but always real.) We believe that our understandings of science and our faith are compatible. We also believe that our engagement with our diversity leads to transformation, as we are called to love one another as Christ loves us.

The Thursday night group’s attempt to capture the essence of United Church parallel’s our scripture from Paul. The Church in Corinth was even more diverse and messier than our congregation. The Church in Corinth included Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, almost every ethnic group in the Roman Empire was represented in this bustling port City. In addition to ethnic variety a vast array of religious cults were practiced by the City’s residents. As a seaport and center of commerce Corinth was a wide open cosmopolitan Metropolis boasting all manner of entertainments and pleasures. Especially pagans who were recruited into the life of the Corinthian church tended to bring with them many beliefs and practices from their former spiritual affiliations.

The divisions within the congregation were made worse by itinerant missionaries and teachers who would visit Corinth with their own particular interpretations of the Jesus message. Some Jewish Christian missionaries claiming authority from Peter visited and taught the people that they had to keep the kosher dietary rules in order to be faithful Christians. Another teacher named Apollos who was apparently mixing into the Jesus message some Greek Platonic spirituality found a following among several members of the church. And finally there was a group of folks who maintained that everyone had to be loyal to the message of Paul, who after all had founded the church.

As people began to choose up sides and throw rocks at one another, the church very nearly collapsed into warring factions. The situation became really messy. Of course we wouldn’t know anything about that. At the height of the conflict Paul wrote one of his famous letters. He addressed his naughty Christians by reminding them that they were the body of Christ in the world. They had a sacred mission to transform the world through love. And so Paul used the metaphor of the body to talk about how they needed to be able to respect each other, honoring their differences and working together.

As Paul wrote, “the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ and the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’” We’re all in this together. We need one another in order to transform the world through love. Diversity in the work place has become a hot topic, and I am reminded of a story.

Recently, a large corporation hired several cannibals to increase their diversity, “You are all part of our team now,” said the Human Resources rep during the welcoming briefing. “You get all the usual benefits and you can go to the cafeteria for something to eat, but please don’t eat any employees.”

The cannibals promised they would not.

Four weeks later their boss remarked, “You’re all working very hard and I’m satisfied with your work. We have noticed a marked increase in the whole company’s performance. However, one of our secretaries has disappeared. Do any of you know what happened to him?”

The cannibals all shook their heads, “No.”

After the boss had left, the leader of the cannibals said to the others, “Which one of you idiots ate the secretary?” A hand rose hesitantly. “You fool!” the leader continued. “For four weeks we’ve been eating managers and no one noticed anything. But now, you had to go and eat someone who actually does something.”

Paul wants to tell us in the Body of Christ we are all important. I know sometimes it is hard to understand how all of us are important, but each one of us has a role to play in our life together as a community. I’ve had some people suggest at times that surely we could do without some so and so, because after all they are so difficult, but as far as God is concerned we are all part of the team, and as long as we are willing to participate, we’re all going to get there together, because part of transforming the world through love means that winning and losing isn’t the issue, but how we work together. How we treat one another, how we are community together is more important than any worldly measures of success or failure.

In the church in Corinth there was a raging fight about what spiritual gifts were the most important. Human beings are like that. Give us half a chance and we allow our egos to grow and take over the community, and then we will invent hierarchies of value to justify our egos. My gift of prophecy is superior to your gift of coffee making. Or my talent for prayer is more important than your ability to organize a fund raiser. As human beings we are like that. Some of us will even claim we have no gifts in order to try to outdo others in the virtue of humility. As human beings we are like that. Paul was guilty of it himself. If there was ever a zealot it was Paul. But here in chapters 12 and 13 of his letter to the Corinthians Paul points us beyond our own egos to love as the essence of the way of Jesus. Love will transform the world – not correct theology, or good engineering, or fantastic organization, or beautiful music, or elegant liturgy, good business sense, or venture capitalism, or smart politics, or good lawyering, or excellent health care, or balancing the budget, or even lavish philanthropy. Jesus showed us only love can transform the world.

And the reason Jesus gathered the church is because real love can only happen in community. We can’t all go become hermits and be an example of love to the world. We can’t go off and write books about love, we can’t preach about love, we can’t dream about love in isolation from other people. We have to do love in community, and doing love is messy, especially when we embrace diversity, especially when we welcome everyone, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. Love is so much easier, when we only allow people who look like us, talk like us and think like us into our circle of caring, when we restrict the circle of communion to people of a similar socio-economic, ethnic and gender identification. Love is easier when we simply exclude people who struggle with mental illness. Love is easier, when we arrange to be homogenous and live together in our spiritually gated communities. You are welcome here, if you are like us.

After we posted the Thursday evening group’s initial vision statement that in part read, “We also believe that our engagement with our diversity leads to transformation, as we are called to love one another as Christ loves us,” someone commented that diversity does not lead to spiritual transformation. But I disagree. When we engage with one another and learn to appreciate one another because of our differences, even when we don’t agree, we become the love of Jesus that transforms us and the world.

So why is any of this important? Because we live in an increasingly intolerant and polarized world. We talk at one another rather than listening. We can look for a news source that reaffirms all of our own biases, so we never have to consider any ideas with which we might disagree. With the demise of public schools we will soon be able to select learning environments for our children that reflect our prejudices and exclude “influences” we don’t like. As more and more institutions in our society are privatized, if we have the money, we will be able to limit our contact with others to people who are like ourselves.

Spiritual communities that embrace diversity like United Church are a small minority. Many religious expressions throughout the world are highly intolerant. We have been called to try to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as a diverse, messy but real spiritual community, that follows the way of Jesus welcoming all people, learning how to love one another, even when we are different from one another. And if we can become a safe place to be different, then we will be the body of Christ in the world.

Sharing Hope

Sharing Hope

Faith, hope and love, are all non-material, invisible, and yet these three intangibles are the most important elements of life.  Paul says the greatest of the three is love, and when he wrote of hope he captured its intangible nature:  Romans 5: 24  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  25  But if we hope for   what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

People who think of themselves as “realists” will often claim that non-material, invisible, intangible realities don’t really exist.  Only possessions they can get their hands on, concrete objects, clothes, real estate, cars, houses, jewelry or maybe money only these material things are real and have value.

In response to the realistic people who place their value in things tangible, I remember a minister friend of mine, who used to share his experience attending people on their death beds.  When people are dying, truth comes into much clearer focus, and our perspective sometimes changes.  As my friend said, on several occasions he listened to people on their death bed express their regrets.  And he never heard anyone regret that they hadn’t been able to afford a bigger house.  And he never heard a dying person regret that she hadn’t spent more time at the office.  And he never heard someone who was dying regret he hadn’t driven a nicer car.  No regrets at the end of our lives are most often about relationships.  Gee I wish I had had a better relationship with my spouse.  I wish I had spent more time with my kids.  I regret I didn’t reconcile with my brother.  Like faith, hope and love, relationships are intangible, and while we can work on relationships we can’t always see the results, at least not right away.

Last Sunday we explored faith and hope in relationship to dementia.  In Brian Berry’s statement about his faith struggle with Multiple Sclerosis he quoted from Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.”  Faith and hope are essential to life.  In some cultures when human beings lose hope, they simply roll over and die.  An extraordinary number of suicides are the result of hopelessness.  Leah’s High School graduating class adopted as their motto a song title from a 1985 record album by the Fools, “Life Sucks and Then You Die.”  I can’t read most of the lyrics from the pulpit but here’s a cleaned up sample:

My house burned down in a flash of thunder.
My wife ran off with a one-legged plumber.
My crops fell dead when the riverbed went dry.
My dog got squashed by a pickup truck.
My son ran away and got hooked on drugs.
My daughter’s pregnant by the class of ’85.

People say that life is good;
It don’t seem good to me.
I’m lost without a paddle,
And I’m headed up the creek.
People say that life is fun,
But I don’t know why.
As far as I can tell,
LIFE SUCKS then you die.

That song grew out of the 80’s Reagan Recession and reminds us that during hard economic times people often lose their grip on hope.  And now that we are in the midst of a recession that sometimes seems to have no end, when many people are looking at a future that appears grim with no light at the end of the tunnel, I believe that we who follow the way of Jesus have a calling to share our hope.

For our hope springs from our faith that life is good as it is given.  The meaning of life is not measured in dollars and cents but in relationships, friendships, and simple joys that accrue to living in the here and now living each day to the fullest of our ability.  We do not look to the past, for we cannot relive our yesterdays.  Looking behind rather than ahead only brings regret and depression.  And we do not look too far ahead because it brings anxiety and fear, we have no need to borrow tomorrow’s trouble that may never come.

Our hope also springs from our faith that something that is us survives even death.  Life can be difficult.  Life does have its disappointments.  And yes, all of us will die, but when all of the chaff of our lives is blown away, a kernel, an essence of us will remain.  We don’t know what that will be, Paul speaks of it as a spiritual body, but we are promised, that not even the dangers and difficulties of this mortal life or death itself will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We have marvelous good news to share.  We have hope to share in the midst of the uncertainties and difficulties of these hard economic times.

We have a ministry of the sharing of hope and yet so often we are tentative, afraid to share our hope.  The members of the Monday Bible Study called my attention to some remarks about grief and hope Vice-President Joe Biden shared with families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan on Memorial Day weekend.  Allow me to share an excerpt from those remarks.

Not all losses are equal.  Not all losses are equal.  I got a phone call like you all got.  I was only 29 years old, newly elected down in Washington hiring my staff and I got a

phone call, saying that my family had been in an accident.  And just like you guys knew by the tone of the phone call, you just knew. You knew when they walked up the path. You knew when the call came. You knew. You just felt it in your bones:  Something bad happened.  And I knew — I don’t know how I knew, but the caller said my wife was dead.  My daughter was dead.  And I wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it. They were Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them.

I have to tell you I used to resent.  I knew people meant well.  They’d come up and say, “Joe I know how you feel.”  You knew they meant well.  You knew they didn’t have any damn idea.  That black hole you feel in your chest like you are being sucked back into it.

It was the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide – not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.

I don’t know about you guys.  I was angry.  I was angry.  You probably handle it better than I did.  I was angry.  I’m a practicing Catholic, and I was a practicing Catholic at the time.  But I was mad at God, oh man.  And I remember looking up and saying, “God,” I was talking to God myself, “you can’t be good.  How can you be good?”  You probably handle it better than I did.  But I was angry.

Just when you think maybe you are going to make it you ride down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you, and you know maybe I’m not going to make it, because you feel in that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.

There really is hope.  The ache in the back never goes away, but it gets controllable.  It can and will get better.  There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.  It will happen.  It will happen.  My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later.  I’m telling you it will come.

I wanted to share Joe Biden’s remarks because they are an excellent example of faith sharing.  Simply and clearly he shared his experience.  He was even willing to share how angry he was with God.  He wasn’t saying, “once you have Jesus in your heart everything is all sweetness and light.”  No, he affirmed that life can be difficult, full of pain and grief.  He even confessed that he was so low suicide even looked like a viable option.  And even after all that, life can get better again.  He even assured them.  “My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later.  I’m telling you it will come.”

Part of faith sharing is being willing to acknowledge the times we have been angry with God, the times when our doubts have been overwhelming, and our faith has been weak.  We have to be real and human in our sharing for others to find hope.

Brian Berry last week shared with us his struggles with Multiple Sclerosis.  His sharing of his faith was real and powerful.  “Do not look back because it will bring depression.  Do not look too far ahead because it brings fear.  Live in the here and now.  Live each day to the fullest of your ability today.”  People in the midst of economic hard times need hope.

Followers of the way of Jesus have hope, but we have to be willing to share our hope.  We have to be willing to share our stories, our faith with others, so they can find within themselves the hope they need to carry on.  That is why I have asked Jim Norris and Eddie Colf, if they will lead an “Unbinding Your Heart” group in August.

You see, normally we are so uptight about how inadequate our faith seems.  Remember how Brian Berry confessed last week:  “Faith is not a strong attribute of mine,” and yet what he shared was awesome.  When we unbind our hearts enough to share our faith stories with others, not only do we help other people to find within themselves the hope they need to carry on, but we also paradoxically strengthen our own faith.  It’s like love, there is never enough until we start to give it away.

Faith and hope grow, when we share them with others.   It’s like the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the gospel.  The disciples tell Jesus to send the crowd away, and Jesus says, “you give them something to eat.”  And it isn’t until the disciples offer up their meager dinner dividing it and sharing it with the crowd that they have enough for everyone to be fed.

We may not think we have enough faith.  We look out at our culture and say, Jesus we don’t have enough faith or hope even for ourselves, and Jesus replies, “share what you have with them.”  When we unbind our hearts and share our faith with others, our faith will grow, and we will discover there is enough faith, hope and love, and plenty left over.

Still Me

Still Me

The Monday Bible Study group has been reading the sad but touching novel entitled Still Alice. Though fictional the book is drawn from experiences of people with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and contains important insights into cognitive disabilities that accompany dementia that most of us will have some experience with before our deaths.

All of us who are of an age have experienced walking into a room and forgetting why we came into the room? I will forget a word, and then several minutes or hours later the word will come to me, like my favorite joke about memory difficulties.

A couple had dinner at another couple’s house, and, after eating, the wives left the table and went into the kitchen. The two gentlemen were talking, and one said, “Last night we went out to a new restaurant and it was really great. I would recommend it very highly.” The other man said, “What’s the name of the restaurant?” The first man thought and thought and finally said, “What is the name of that flower you give to someone you love? You know… The one that’s red and has thorns.” “Do you mean a rose?” “Yes, that’s the one,” replied the man. He then turned toward the kitchen and yelled, “Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”

While we joke about having trouble remembering things cognitive disabilities raise disturbing questions about personhood and spirituality. In the novel Still Alice the heroine, Alice, is a professor of psychology at Harvard specializing in linguistics. She reminds me of the University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach, Pat Summit, who was recently diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In Still Alice, Alice, at the age of 50 develops early onset Alzheimer’s disease, in her case a genetic defect. The course of her disease is very rapid and especially tragic because she is a brilliant researcher in the very area that her disease disables – language and personality. I understand some people may not want to read the book, but if you will permit me to share a small portion with you this morning, I believe the author has captured in a couple of pages the important spiritual issues of cognitive impairment. The passage from which I will read an excerpt is a speech given by Alice to a group of Alzheimer’s doctors, care givers and researchers, before her impairment becomes too pronounced.

I’m honored to have this opportunity to talk with you today, to hopefully lend some insight into what it’s like to live with dementia. Soon, although I’ll still know what it is like, I’ll be unable to express it to you. And too soon after that, I’ll no longer even know I have dementia. So what I have to say today is timely.

We, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, are not yet utterly incompetent. We are not without language or opinions that matter or extended periods of lucidity. Yet we are not competent enough to be trusted with many of the demands and responsibilities of our former lives. We feel like we are neither here nor there, like some crazy Dr. Seuss character in a bizarre land. It’s a very lonely and frustrating place to be.

I no longer work at Harvard. I no longer read and write research articles or books. My reality is completely different from what it was not long ago. And it is distorted. The neural pathways I use to try to understand what you are saying, what I am thinking, and what is happening around me are gummed with amyloid. I struggle to find the words I want to say and often hear myself saying the wrong ones. I can’t confidently judge spatial distances, which means I drop things and fall down a lot and can get lost two blocks from my home. And my short term memory is hanging on by a couple of frayed threads.

I’m losing my yesterdays. If you ask me what I did yesterday, what happened, what I saw and felt and heard, I’d be hard pressed to give you details. I might guess a few things correctly. I’m an excellent guesser. But I don’t really know. I don’t remember yesterday or the yesterday before that.

And I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted. This disease will not be bargained with. I can’t offer the names of the United States presidents in exchange for the names of my children. I can’t give it the names of the state capitals and keep the memories of my husband.

I often fear tomorrow. What if I wake up and don’t know who my husband is? What if I don’t know where I am or recognize myself in the mirror? When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique “meness” vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins and defective molecules or DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is.

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is like being branded with a scarlet “A.” This is now who I am, someone with dementia. This is how I would, for a time, define myself and how others continue to define me. But I am not what I say or what I do or what I remember. I am fundamentally more than that.

I am a wife, mother, and friend, and soon to be grandmother. I still feel, understand, and am worthy of the love and joy in those relationships. I am still an active participant in society. My brain no longer works well, but I use my ears for unconditional listening, my shoulders for crying on, and my arms for hugging others with dementia. . . .

Please don’t look at our Scarlet “A’s” and write us off. Look us in the eye, talk directly to us. Don’t panic or take it personally if we make mistakes, because we will. We will repeat ourselves, we will misplace things, and we will get lost. We will forget your name and what you said two minutes ago. We will also try our hardest to compensate for and overcome our cognitive losses.

My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean today didn’t matter.

Is our essential meness vulnerable to the ravages of age and disease? Or even when we can’t remember or we become so ill we can no longer engage socially, is there some essential part of us that remains? And ultimately is there something that is us that survives even death? Those are profound spiritual questions.

Now I know some folks will say, “Alice is a fictitious character.” And so I would like to share something from a very real character you all know – Brian Berry. Brian has not been in church much lately because he has been struggling with a disease that is chronic and progressive – Multiple Sclerosis. I asked Brian to share with us his perspective on faith and his disease.

“Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.”

In 1987, there were many changes happening to my body. There were questions that could not be answered by medical professionals. I lived each day searching for God’s leadership for my life and my future. I was misdiagnosed on several occasions. I continued living and searching for God to put someone in my path who could determine what and how to treat my illness. My health took away a career that I enjoyed and life became extremely stressful.

Once I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, my health issues were finally being addressed for the first time. There was uncertainty living wondering what my future would hold. A mentor shared with me: “Do not look back because it will bring depression. Do not look too far ahead because it brings fear. Live in the here and now. Live each day to the fullest of your ability today.” Everyone can apply this to his or her life.

From 1987 when my health issues began to 2007 when I was diagnosed many things occurred. Medications slowed the progression of the disease until I became immune to some and others stopped working. New medications are being administered which could have serious side effects but also with great possibilities.

I live each day knowing God placed me on this earth for a purpose and until that purpose has been accomplished, He will allow me to remain. Yes, there have been disappointments. It has become more difficult to dream. Some abilities have disappeared but I live knowing I have a purpose. I have struggled finding something that I can do in society. I cannot sit down and wait to die. I have to feel active and productive.

Everyone on this earth is different. Everyone has mountains that each must climb, but there is a higher power that knows and understands where we are on this path from the cradle to the grave. He has said that He will not place on us more than we can withstand. Faith is not a strong attribute of mine and sometimes I question why I am here, but I live each day knowing a cure is now within reach and it will come in His perfect time.

“Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.”

Never lose your hope. Never lose your dreams. There is a higher power and He is in control.

I hear Brian speaking to many of the same issues in Still Alice. Do I remain me, even when ravaged by disease? Is there something essential to my being that survives even death itself?

Paul speaks of it as a spiritual body, a kernel of grain that still remains when all the chaff has been removed. Paul uses the term spiritual body, because he wants to be sure we don’t get into a denial of the body. Embodiment is good. God so loved the world that the divine became embodied. Good food is good. Love and affection and friendship are good. The wonders and beauty of nature are good. We are not trying to escape or deny the world. “Do not look back because it will bring depression. Do not look too far ahead because it brings fear. Live in the here and now. Live each day to the fullest of your ability today.”

I want to affirm that there something that is us that survives illness even death. And that is why even when a person is suffering cognitive impairment even when a person is in a coma, we should still treat them with profound respect and love. This is also our hope. For we do not hope for this life only. Because we know that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, or principalities, no nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Love of Christ Compels us

The Love of Christ Compels Us

Over 100 years ago, a group of United Church of Christ ministers (actually German Evangelical Pastors) in the Chicago area wanted to respond to the large number of children who were left orphaned by a diphtheria epidemic.  So they consulted with Jane Addams the pioneering social worker and founder of Hull House.  She encouraged them to try a radical new experiment, and the ministers, uncharacteristic for a group of German pastors, gave themselves permission to create a new concept for a home for orphans and impoverished elderly people, where the old people and the orphans helped looked after each other.

One of my predecessors at St. Paul’s Pastor Heinrich Staehlin and his wife Karoline became the first superintendants of the Old people’s Home and orphanage.  Florence Becker would reminisce how Mrs. Staehlin wrote back to the ladies at St. Paul’s to sew individual dresses for the orphan girls, because she didn’t want to dress them all alike, so that each little girl could have her own unique dress.  So each little orphan girl could feel special and loved.  (Why does that remind me of United Church?)  Heinrich and Karoline had their hands full working out the relationships between the old people and the children, but years later, orphans who had grown up at the home testified to the value of those relationships.   And that concept worked for over sixty years right up until there weren’t enough orphans in the late 1950’s to support an orphanage.  (Now let me offer a small footnote of interest to United Church.  Pastor Staehlin served as the first Superintendant of the Bensenville Home Society for 15 years, and then answering Christ’s call to a new mission field he and Karoline went to Honduras as missionaries.)  To this day the Bensenville Home Society still operates nursing homes and adoption services, one of our United Church of Christ Health and Welfare Institutions.



In their statement of purpose the German Evangelical ministers wrote, “the love of Christ compels us”. . . . (from II Corinthians 5:14)  In all that we do at United Church it is my hope that “the love of Christ compels us,” for when we allow ourselves to be compelled by the love of Christ we are transformed, we become new creations.

As we seek a common vision for United Church, I return to II Corinthians 5:14:  “the love of Christ compels us.”   We are a community of faith seeking to follow in the way of Jesus, and as we follow that way, we are transformed by faith.  What does following the way of Jesus look like?   Following the way of Jesus first means loving God and loving our neighbor.  So we invite and welcome everyone into our faith community.  We even try to let people know where we are in Huntsville, so they can find us.  We spread the good news that here is a church where everyone is welcome.

Following the way of Jesus also means not pretending, living authentically, embracing honest doubt, and respecting individual conscience.  The way of Jesus includes sharing our material blessings and sharing faith and hope with others.  Following in the way of Jesus is praying with and for each other, working out our relationships with one another in community.  And that is hard, because our pride gets in the way.  “Do nothing out of selfishness or pride, but in humility consider others to be as important as yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

The love of God compels us to love one another as Jesus loved us.  “Do you love me,” asks Jesus?  Then feed my lambs.  We are compelled to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give clean drinking water to the thirsty, visit and pray for the sick and imprisoned as if they were Jesus.   As Mother Teresa said, “Each one of the poor is Jesus in disguise.”

The love of Christ also compels us to be free.  As Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  We are free to be ourselves regardless of race, class, political affiliation, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  We are free to be who we are, and God accepts us as we are.  And so we welcome everyone as they are saints and sinners, free but lost on the way to follow their own conscience.  We are free to interpret scripture as God gives each of us insight.  We are free to define our own beliefs, as God leads us in spiritual formation.  As our Thursday night group said, “People can be safe here to share diverse ideas and feelings.  Sharing our faith with each other feeds us and helps us to grow spiritually.”  We don’t simply tolerate our differences we embrace and value our diversity.

We are free to embrace and participate in missions and ministries appropriate for our individual gifts and talents as we are equipped by the spirit – to become the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  We value every individual as a uniquely gifted child of God.  So we encourage people to discover and embrace their gifts and then use them in service for the ministry of Jesus Christ.  In order to accommodate the gifts and talents of our diverse membership we have to become a permission giving community of faith, where we trust and allow individuals and teams of people to try out new projects and programs, like those Pastors who started an old people’s home and an orphanage, in order to touch the lives of other people in the name of Christ.  We can give timely permission without allowing committees and gate keepers to sit on change and progress.  We can also learn to be free to fail without blame or reproach but through open accountability we can learn from mistakes.

Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he had almost 10,000 failed experiments.  He tried 10,000 different materials, before he found the right filament.  When he finally produced a long lasting practical light bulb he said, “I failed my way to success.”

And that reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon I dearly love.  Charlie:  “Another ball game lost, good grief.  I get tired of losing.  Everything I do, I lose.”

Lucy:  “Look at it this way Charlie Brown.  We learn more from losing than we do from winning.”

Charlie:  “That makes me the smartest person in the world!”

Have you ever felt like that?  I know I have, especially trying to help a congregation grow and thrive in this culture.  Who knows, maybe before we are done, we will fail our way to success.

Success and failure, though, are sometimes relative.  Like the two men who were walking in the jungle, when they noticed a man eating Tiger some distance down the trail running right at them.  The one man started to put on a pair of Nikes, and the other man said, “You don’t seriously think you can out run that Tiger do you?”

“No,” replied the first man.  “But all I have to do is to out run you.”  Success and failure can be relative.  Maybe the relative measure of success for United Church will be our ability to embrace and value our diversity.

A week ago Thursday Bill Viall offered up a prayer in the Renewing the Mainline Church Group.  His prayer was that a vision will emerge and find a home in the congregation.  I like that prayer, and I want to invite you this morning to become a part of that visioning process by completing the sentence:  “The love of Christ compels us. . . .”   You can do it by writing down your answer on the space provided in the bulletin, and tearing it off and putting in the offering plate, or you can e-mail it to the church, or post it on the United Church Facebook Page or the United Church Bible Study Facebook Page.  We will post all contributions however they come in, and I encourage all of us to identify ourselves, when we post a contribution.  Our purpose is to encourage a dialogue, a community discussion to allow a vision to emerge and find a home here in the congregation.

The love of Christ compels us to share our vision of a faith community where people are free to be authentically themselves and follow their conscience, free to define what they believe, and use their God given talents to touch the lives of others in the name of Christ.  For if we are in Christ we become new creations;the old has gone, the new has come!   Amen.