Amazing Grace – William Wilberforce

This past Friday night, a group of us watched the film “Amazing Grace” which is the story of William Wilberforce, his faith, and the fight he led for the abolition of slavery in England.  Wilberforce was pulled between the call to the religous life and the call to use his gifts and passion in the political process to abolish slavery.  Ultimately his choice was grounded in his deep faith.  God’s call on his life resulted in years of persistent, painful work in the face of the horrors of slavery.  Bill after bill failed in parliament.  Yet Wilberforce,  mentally and emotionally tortured by the horrors of slavery could do no other than to continue to fight.

Indeed, the the context of the story is the abolition of slavery; but the focus is the life of mature faith.

In discussion following the movie, we explored what sustained Wilberforce and what sustains us when the work is hard and the journey is long and we see defeat again and again.  Several sustaining influences were named:

the community that called him out, worked with him, and encouraged him along the way

Pitt, who needed Wilberforce (as Wilberforce needed Pitt)

the woman who became his spouse — who called him to talk about his deepest passion even when he said he could not because the pain was too great

the willingness of Wilberforce to pick up the witness begun by John Newton, to hear his confession, and to make it his own

the deep knowledge that God had found him — which as he stated “was terribly inconvenient.”

This is a film of passion, humor, and maturing faith.

I recommend going to the Amazing Grace website where pastors may order a copy of the film (free) for group use and teaching.  The Faith study guide is very helpful whether you are viewing and discussing the film in one sitting, or using clips for discussion.

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Urban Way of the Cross Walk

The Maundy Thursday Tenebrae and Communion is over and now we sleep until Good Friday.  I always like our Good Friday Way of the Cross Walk.  We started the walk several years ago and it has grown, now including seven congregations of five denominations — Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Mennonite, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ.

The walk will begin in the sanctuary of our DOC congregation and conclude at one of the Presbyterian congregations.  The walk usually includes people of all ages, including babies in strollers, and elders. One year a 15 year-old boy skateboarded most of the way.  Tomorrow it will likely be raining; even then a hardy smaller group will walk.

The Way is casual and involves everyone in leadership.  Each person has a copy of the 14 Stations we have created, with readings, reflections,  prayers, and songs.  As we walk between stations, the leader simply asks different people to read or lead prayer at the next station.

Ours is an inner-city neighborhood.  We create a different route through the streets and identify different stations each year.  Over time the stations have included such places as:  local markets, a fire station, a clinic serving Vietnamese immigrants, an alley where a young girl was murdered, nursing homes, boarded-up abandoned buildings,  mental health facilities, a coffee house welcoming those in the LGBT community, schools,  etc.   At each place, we make the connection between Jesus ministry and the path toward his crucifixion and our own ministry and the cost of discipleship.

Tomorrow our stops will include the telephone company, an area of small businesses, a nursing home, the Missouri School for the Blind, a residence for adults living with mental illness, a struggling residential area, a school that is being closed,   a building, now for sale, that housed a program for troubled youth, but had to move because the neighborhood residents did not want the program near them, a Center for Early Learning that supports both children and families, and a new neighborhood bakery and art center, a park, and an Ecumenical Food Pantry and Urban Ministry center.

As we create the route each year, and then walk it in prayer and reflection with others in our community, it is an opportunity unlike any other  to really see our neighborhood.  We see what is going well and we see the challenges.

Pastor’s Lectionary Study Group

Like many pastors, I meet weekly with an ecumenical group of colleagues for lectionary study.  This is not the first wonderful group of this kind in my years of ministry; I’ve been fortunate to participate in three of these.  This group meets on Tuesday mornings at 8:30, rotating our gatherings between our different church buildings.  In recent summers, when our schedules are less dependable, we have held our gatherings in a neighborhood coffee shop.

The group at this time includes 2 Disciples of Christ, 2 United Church of Christ, 2 Presbyterian, and 1 Episcopal Church pastors/priest.  We are 3 women and 4 men.  We are gay and straight. We are in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.   We are high church and low church and somewhere in between. We are congregational pastors, hospice chaplain, and a director of an ecumenical urban ministry.  Our congregations/ministries are all located within about a 2 mile radius — in the inner city.

The added gift is that our congregations have grown to share in ministry together through outreach, worship, and special events. Just last week, one of the Presbyterian congregations hosted the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper that was a fundraiser for our outreach ministry.  Then all of the congregations shared in our “Ashes to Go” on the street on Ash Wednesday.  And that evening, we shared in Ash Wednesday worship hosted at the Episcopal church.   On Maundy Thursday, we will be at one of the UCC churches.  And on Good Friday, we will all share in our annual “Way of the Cross Walk” through our neighborhood.  Almost 40 years ago three of our congregations, along with another that is no longer in existence, developed the ecumenical urban ministry that we now all support (along with the support of many other congregations in the metropolitan area).

This morning, as we sat together in the library of our Disciples congregation studying our preaching text for this coming Sunday, I could not help but think of the amazing gift of this community of pastors and congregations.  As pastors we support each other personally.  We listen to and challenge each other.  We laugh and we cry together.  We are able to share and help each other work through difficult times in our congregations.  As congregations, we grow and change and deepen in our ministry through relationship with each other.

I have been in lectionary groups that used a research approach, bringing a variety of resources from theological and biblical scholars to the text each week.  That was a good approach.  This group, however, approaches the text through Lectio Divina.  I have grown to cherish the experience of group lectio and the prayerful, always fresh connection to the text that emerges from our time together.

This type of group cannot always be created.  Some groups work and some do not.  There are times and situations that are more or less conducive.  Every group is different.  But I am convinced that, through these relationships, the ministry of the Church is strengthened in ways we would never have imagined.

Thanks be to God for my dear, dear friends in ministry!

Best Actor for “Milk”

The Academy Awards always serve to remind me of the amazing positive contribution films make in our world.  I am also reminded of the array of people with a creative passion who are behind these films.  Tonight was no different … except that the presentation was spectacular!

In the weeks leading up to this year’s awards, many have remarked on the films nominated and their social commentary.  By all accounts we knew that Slum Dog Millionaire would make the sweep that it did.   Still, I was moved that this film focused in the poverty of the old Bombay (present Mumbai), India with no cast of well known stars was truly seen and appreciated.  When you think about that and look back over the years, you realize the movement — however slow — that we are making.

My greatest moments of celebration, however, were when “Milk” won Best Original Screenplay and when Sean Penn was awarded Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.  It was sad, but not surprising to hear that there were protesters outside the site of the Awards.  However,  the prevailing voice is the witness of the ages in films that retell the stories of those gay and lesbian people who have gone before us in courage.

This morning as I looked out at the congregation, I saw the wonderful community of people worshiping together — those who are single, gay and straight; couples gay and straight;  families with children, gay and straight, African American, Asian, European American.  People of all ages.  Slowing, imperfectly, we seek to live into God’s kingdom. We celebrate and give thanks that God reconciles us to God and each other, healing our brokenness through the incarnation in Jesus Christ.

It breaks my heart that the gospel of God’s Christ has been so often distorted and misused to sustain hatred and violence against God’s people.  Whether that fear and hatred has been against women, or people of color, or people of other religions, or people who are gay, it is a sign of our sin and brokenness.  But we are assured that God is reconciling the world to Godself; therefore we may trust and know that the sins of racism, homophobia, and sexism are being and will be transformed into the right relationship of God’s realm.

Indeed, our world is still full of fear and prejudice, of deep seeded homophobia and racism, but I am reminded day by day that the hatred never wins.  For Love is always stronger than hate.  And Life is always stronger than death.  Thanks be to God.

Autism and Church

Last night three other members of the congregation and I attended a workshop on Autism.  It was done by the Judevine Center on Autism and was a wonderfully helpful evening.  With two children in our congregation with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we are coming to realize the very special needs of children with autism and their parents.  One of our dreams is to develop ways to include and care for children with autism and to provide support and life-giving spiritual community and space for families with children with autism.  The challenge is huge, but I believe that if we take it step by step, we will be able to provide the hospitality of Christ’s community.  And most of all we will come to know God in deeper, more profound ways.

Last week, it took by breath away when a 5 year old little girl with autism who does not speak, slipped her hand into mine for the first time.  It was a holy moment — God’s relationship creating movement in a child’s life and in mine.

In these days as our lectionary readings are in Mark, we have been reading the texts in which Jesus casts out evil spirits, or demons.  I am so very aware that those “evil spirits” or “demons” were thought to be present in such conditions as epilepsy or autism.  In Mark, teaching and healing or casting out evil spirits was all bound up together — a teaching with authority.  Could it have been that as people truly understood the gospel, then healing took on a different meaning?   Those who were cast out, isolated because of their illness or difference could be seen as whole people and  welcomed into the  community.  Maybe then, maybe not  … but most certainly now!

Yes, the child who grows to be able to communicate and socialize more fully is being healed.  But surely it is also the case that we are being healed and made more whole day by day, relationship by relationship, as our community includes every child and every family.  God deepen our understanding and therefore our joy!