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A Reflection from Family Sunday

On Family Sunday we heard three perspectives of family from members of our congregation. Benjamin Akins shared his journey of finding La Verne Church of the Brethren during Family Sunday. He shares his perspective after coming from a more conservative, evangelical background:

I first heard of the La Verne Church of Brethren while I was attending Bonita High School. In fact, I was classmates with a couple of you here today, or perhaps your children. I once asked a classmate what this church was about and he explained that it was the kind of place that is inclusive and appreciative of all kinds of peoples and religions.

For some reason, I bristled at that.

You see, I grew up as a Pentecostal, charismatic evangelical. While it’s certainly not the case for everyone in that tradition, I grew up with a sense of disconnect from people of other traditions. I saw everyone who wasn’t a witnessing, bible thumping, evangelical as a sinner who would eventually go to hell, and I was awaiting my reward in paradise. I was told, ‘Live in the world but not of the world.’ ‘Do not let thyself be unevenly yoked,’ even though I never understood what eggs had to do with people I hung out with. These were the messages I was taught as a boy who wasn’t wise enough to understand them. And they are, of course, very wise messages. We shouldn’t let ourselves be tainted by the evils of the world. Pride, bigotry, greed, etc. Nor should we surround ourselves with people who may enable our relationship with these evils. But it took me a long time to realize that who someone loves and the god that person worships, or lack thereof, is not a measure of their character.

I started to have this realization at a very turbulent time in my life and it was around this time that I started attending this church. Church and family had been woven together for me and I had been attending church with my parents since I was born. But I had never really thought of church as family.

On the day I first attended La Verne Church of the Brethren, I was supposed to meet my mother and father at their church. To be honest, being charismatic evangelical is exhausting to me. I grew tired of having to perform my faith. Oh, I better lift my hands during worship because that’s what everyone else is doing! Oh! I better learn how to pray fervently so that God knows I really mean it. I was tired.

As I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to muster the energy to get ready and head to church, I just thought, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. So, I decided to find a church myself. The first place that popped up in my head was the La Verne Church of the Brethren. It was close, had a nice campus, and the service started late enough that I could be on time; I think that was the clincher. 

The sermon that day was one of Pastor Susan’s series, Is That Really In the Bible? And the story was about the woman who welcomed a fleeing king into her tent and drove a stake through his skull in the night. Susan told the story with such a soothing voice and I thought, “This is a cool place.” I had missed the singing from hymnals, something I was accustomed to as a boy in a 90’s, something that was replaced by an image of Rock & Roll Jesus. I missed the quiet reverence that could be found in a place of worship. Suddenly I found a place where I could find peace in my heart where it was so desperately needed. I felt welcomed like a parent welcoming home their child after being gone for so long.

I started coming here every week because I found peace and comfort from the words of our former pastor Janet. I found encouragement and a call to action from Susan. Later on, I found the joyous friendship of Dawna. I still remember Shawn and Tom inviting me to their table at a church luncheon and feeling so instantly welcomed. At a time when I finally understood how important empathy and compassion are, two things I never really saw growing up. I had this place to show me what those words mean. I was forever grateful that I could bare my soul to Janet and she would accept me like a mother who knows the true meaning of grace.

We live peacefully, simply, together. I fell in love with those words. Susan taught me that peace is never passive. To turn one’s cheek and to say, “You struck me as a lesser, now strike me as an equal,” is deeply empowering and it showed me pacifism comes from a place of strength. I started looking for simplicity in my own life. The words of the apostle James then stood out so clearly to me. Pure and simple religion is this: to take care of the orphan and widow and to not let oneself be tainted by the evils of world. Here, I was inspired to live out my faith by taking care of others. After all, my god is not only my god. The Bible isn’t just speaking to me. My religion is not just about my relationship with my creator; it’s about my relationship with all creation. Because we are a family together. Not just those here in the church. We are all on this earth as one family. And no more, do I look at others with the disconnected feeling that they are a sinner and I am awaiting paradise. They are my family. All of you.

The Flawed Bible

Such a Confounding Book

Sometimes I look back to the days before I got a theological education with false nostalgia. Back then I strove to read my Bible in search of the one spiritual truth I knew would be unleashed if I just read it “right”.  But the problem was I never felt like I read it “right” or read it enough.  The youth worker at my church when I was in high school was absolutely sure of the truths that were in plain sight on its pages.  He would ask questions of us that I knew had only one right answer.  When I would ask questions about what he wanted us to learn from his Bible studies, he would get frustrated with me.  I learned that he didn’t want my questions, just my open heart to the word he wanted to place there.  I knew I wasn’t getting it right and the last thing I ever expected was that I would become a minister some day.  I didn’t have his certainty and so why would I want to do what he was doing?

the Bible, progressive church, la Verne, inclusion

Through the twists and turns of life I ended up a seminarian, just as surprised about it as my former youth leader.  In seminary I read the New Testament in its original language.  I was taught how these books came to be written and the male power that decided which books made it into the Bible and which ones would be rejected. The discrepancies between Biblical stories were pointed out to me and I heard that news with increasing dread.  There were times I thought my professors were a bit sadistic…taking pleasure in stealing the Bible from me.

But the deeper truth is that theological education gave me the Bible in a much more profound way. I was overwhelmed with the realization that my relationship with God wasn’t contingent on my reading the Bible the “right way.”  When I stopped worshiping the Bible, I was able to truly worship the Living God, which opened me up to a deeper and more authentic relationship with what I found in the pages of my Bible.  By having an adult conversation with the Bible I discovered that there was more than just one truth for me in its pages. When I stopped trying to be good enough to climb the spiritual ladder in order to have an encounter with God I met the God who is as close to me as my own breathing.  I now live in the joy of knowing that God makes the journey to me every day and in every circumstance.

Because I sat in classrooms discussing this confounding book with my fellow students who had different life experiences and different perspectives, I got a larger understanding of the life of the early Christian community.  After class we would get coffee together and talk about what we had been taught that day.  We argued.  We contemplated the future of the church.  We told our stories and shared our life lessons.  We got angry at each other.  Then we got up and went to chapel, where we worshiped, sang and prayed together.  Life is messy.  The church is filled with frustrating theological diversity.  And the Bible has room for all of it.

I no longer approach the Bible as an idol but as a friend.  I ask it questions and it usually responds with more questions …questions like “Why do you think the writer said it like that?  What was he trying to convey to the readers of his time?”  Then the questions become more personal “What do you need to hear from this story today, Susan?”  I am no longer content with understanding the Bible as a rulebook for a life in Christ.  I am driven to find a more costly discipleship than just Jesus died for my sins.  The Bible is a sacred book that is flawed, worn, tested and profoundly beautiful.  It calls me to live a life of love and sacrifice and that journey so far has been filled with pain and joy. My nostalgia for an earlier time only comes when I wish I too could have all the answers with none of the personal questions…when I could say, “It’s simple.  It is all there in black and white.”….when I could rest in my certainty and condemn all others.  But the vast majority of the time I am grateful that I now get to drink from the Bible’s living water and let it lead me to a deeper relationship with the holy.

~Susan Boyer

Progressive Youth Ministry Conference

Progressive Youth Ministry Conference

Progressive Youth Ministry Conference – It actually exists.  Every winter, like-minded folks gather for 4 days of inspiration, collaboration, and celebration, all designed to strengthen our ministry with students, both children and youth.  These youth workers are both clergy and lay, professional and volunteer, young and well-seasoned.  They are from all over the map and, mostly, mainline churches.

Although we have attended this conference before, this year it felt especially well-timed.  As our congregation walks through the Strategic Planning Process, it was affirming and encouraging to realize we are on the “right track” with the changing nature of student ministry.

The theme of the conference this year was “Faith in the Age of Reason.”   Acknowledging that we live in a culture that expects every mystery to be solvable, given enough time and CSI skills, the church is having difficulty finding its place.  But as speaker after speaker reminded us, every answer to every question raises more questions.  Every answer drives the mystery deeper.  And life continues to present us with quandaries like:  Who am I?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why don’t the people I pray for always get better?  Why am I getting bullied at school?  Why are school children in Nigeria being kidnapped from their classrooms?  How can I make a difference in the world?

It is in these spaces, these mysteries, the church needs to stand, the church’s people need to stand.  We need to stand with poetry and prayer, scripture and silence, music and art, ritual and, above all, relationship.  We stand in the spaces with each other, most especially with our children and youth.

Students don’t need more programs.  They are programmed to the hilt – sports (school and club), arts (dance, music, drama), school projects, and service organizations, even the internet and social media provide programs for short attention spans.  What our students need is space for their questions and caring adults to stand with them in the mysteries.

Of course, how that happens is continually evolving.  But what has been reaffirmed for us is this:  Student Ministry needs to be organic, meeting students where they are and addressing their interests and needs.  It needs to be relational, with a wide array of church folks to walk, work, and wonder alongside them.  It needs to be safe space, where diversity is not just welcome, but celebrated.  And it needs to be willing to stand in the margins of life and society, moving beyond the “bubble” and walls of the church.  Students are far less likely to come to the church than they are to welcome the church that comes to them.

Won’t you please join us as we explore what this all means for our community?

With joyful anticipation,

Dawna Welch and Janet Ober Lambert

 

Thank You!

Thank You!

Following my ordination to ministry service in December, 2015, I want to say, “Thank you, La Verne Church of the Brethren; thank you for being my community of faith and so much more.” It is difficult for me to conceive of ever having ventured into ministry without your insight and encouragement. Truly, it was you who suggested that I consider a vocation in ministry.  I never saw that coming! It was you who encouraged me to teach Sunday school, to direct Peace Camp, to sing, to lead worship, and even to preach. You called out gifts in me that I had not recognized in myself.

I am deeply grateful for the years I have been steeped in Brethren theology. Brethren take seriously the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples the night before he died. By sharing a last, loving meal, washing his disciples’ feet, and offering them the symbolic bread and cup, he demonstrated an out-flowing love that sought not to receive but to give.  As followers of Jesus, we love God and seek to take that love into the world. And can’t our world use a little practice in humility, service, reconciliation, peace, and justice right now?

Each of us is known to God by our own unique name; and we are called to live fully into the truth that we are perfectly and wonderfully made. What I have learned in this journey towards accepting my gifts and being ordained is that I needed my church community to love me and guide me through the process. You, like me, have been called to boldly offer your gifts to a world that desperately needs your authenticity, compassion, joy, intellect, strength, playfulness, perseverance, curiosity, encouragement, and wisdom.

How is God calling you?

 

Sunday School Stories Revisited

Sunday School Stories Revisited

This Lent, Pastor Janet and I are planning a sermon series called “Sunday School Stories Revisited.”  We live in a Bible-saturated culture in which most people know the story of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Joseph and the multi-colored coat, and the Prodigal Son, just to name a few….but most people have never read them.  It just proves the saying about the Bible that it is “the book millions live their lives by and hundreds have actually read.”

I do a sermon series in the summer called “Is That Really in the Bible?” about stories in the Bible most people have never heard.  This series is different.  These are the stories we have all heard numerous times and had interpreted for us.  For example, we are told that the story of Adam and Eve is about original sin and that marriage is between one man and one woman.  Is that true or could it be that is an interpretation placed on the story?

Pastor Janet and I have chosen five biblical stories to look at again and actually read together.  We want to take them out of the children’s Sunday School classroom, where many of them have been interpreted into moralistic stories, and find the complexities and truths that each story has to tell.  We want to see these stories with adult eyes and mine their theological depths.

We hope you join us for Lent this year, as we dust off some well-loved stories and allow the Bible to speak to us anew in our current age.  Use the season of Lent as a time to crack open your Bible and join us on this journey.

 

Blessed With a Church Family!

Blessed With a Church Family!

On November 1, 2015, Gary Colby did us the favor of taking a picture of our church family on the courtyard after worship.  November 1, 1890 was the day the original 27 members of the La Verne Church of the Brethren organized to become a church.  125 years later, we stood on the courtyard to commemorate this anniversary.

When the church staff looks at this picture, we are filled with gratitude.  It is a joy every day to do ministry alongside such incredible, salt-of-the-earth people.  Thank you for continuing the legacy begun on November 1, 1890.  Thank you for being such an excellent church family.

With love,
~Your Church Staff

 

The Heavenly Host

The Heavenly Host

Letha Ressler posted this photo on Facebook after going over to the church sanctuary one night to prepare the worship table for Sunday.  She found that the lights in a dark sanctuary created peace crane shadows on the wall of the choir loft.  When I first saw the photo I was taken by its beauty.  However, as I began to plan for Advent worships around the theme of darkness, Letha’s photo kept returning to my mind.  I thought of the night the shepherds looked up into the night sky and saw a heavenly host.

Throughout Advent and Christmas this year, we will be looking at darkness, its gifts and challenges. On Christmas Eve, cranes will be flying above the choir and casting their shadows.  It will appear as if the heavenly host has flown right into our church sanctuary.  That is what we are hoping for as we wait for Christ to be born again.  We want to hear good news of great joy! Join us on Christmas Eve at 9:00 p.m. as we wait in the darkness for the One who is the Light of the World.

The Gift of Darkness

The Gift of Darkness

Not long ago my son sent me an article about Stephen Colbert, new host of the Late Show and an active Catholic.  In the article I learned that Colbert’s father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash when Colbert was 10 years old.  He was traumatized but he did not become resentful.  The interviewer asked him why.  “My mother,” he said.  “She was broken but not bitter.” He talked about how this horrible shock taught him not to live his life in fear.  Then he said the most astounding thing.  He said, “That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage.  It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I have been living in the midst of that statement ever since I first read it. Henri Nouwen says it this way:

We have to find the courage to embrace our brokenness, to make our most feared enemy our friend, and to claim it as an intimate companion.

What a statement to be able to say you are grateful for the most traumatizing event of life….that we can make friends with the dark.

  • To be grateful for the dark that gestates the seed and the dark that brings trauma.
  • To be grateful for the dark that holds our dreams and the dark that brings the dark night of the soul.
  • To be grateful for the dark in which the light of the world is born and to be grateful for the dark where Herod’s plot is discovered.

As we approach the season of Advent, the nights lengthen and the days shorten. Many of us will leave for work in the dark and return home in darkness.   We must make friends with the darkness.  Join us this Advent season as we look at the dark that gives definition to the light and the darkness where the outrageous becomes possible.  For it was in the darkness that Joseph found direction; where the light of the world was born; where the magi saw a sign; and shepherds heard the good news.

 

Giving Up on Conventional Wisdom

Giving Up on Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom says that if you do not have enough time in your day you should speed up and multi-task.  I have bought into conventional wisdom.  While I drive home, I talk to my children through a Bluetooth in my car.  While I answer emails, I eat lunch at my desk.  While I write the pastor’s page, I do the laundry and bake a cake.  While I pay bills, I watch the news.  I have found myself feeling more and more frenetic and less and less centered.  Things I used to savor doing have become just one more thing on a long list.

Recently someone invited me to “breathe and observe.”  I have heard people use the phrase “non-anxious presence” for some years now, but I thought I could be a “non-anxious presence” as I feverishly moved from one task to another.  I’m sure I wasn’t fooling anyone, but what I realized is that I need to be a non-anxious presence for myself.  I need to be present inside my own skin.  I need to savor and expand the moments of my life; otherwise I can’t really be present to other people’s moments.

So I finally listened to the advice I received:  “Breathe and observe.”  When I am feeling like I need to do more, I hear, “Breathe and observe.”  When I wish someone would get to the point, I say to myself, “Breathe and observe.”  When I walk the dog in the morning I say, “Breathe and observe.”  When I am working on writing a sermon, I chant, “Breathe and observe.”

It has helped me see God’s hand at work all around me.  When I breathe and observe in a hospital room, or driving down the freeway, or riding my bike to Hillcrest, or sitting with someone in my office, I see God everywhere.  I hear the words of the Psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God.”  “Be a non-anxious presence and know that I am God.”  “Breathe and observe and know that I am God.”

Water Wisdom

Water Wisdom

There is nothing like a drought to make us think about water.  This summer the state of California initiated water restrictions, requiring municipalities to bring consumption under control or face penalties.  Those restrictions affected everyone, from local governments to private citizens. Throughout the summer, we watched as green spaces went brown, grassy lawns were converted to more drought-tolerant landscapes, commuters drove their cars dirty, and outdoor water use was curbed to the hours between dusk and dawn.   In our homes, some of us learned to take shorter showers, make use of our “gray water,” and employ other conservation methods. It has been a big adjustment, making some of our children ask if these changes are temporary or are their new way of life.

Even with all this, however, I have come to believe that we Californians still take water for granted.  We cut back, but still have plenty of what we need.  A dirty car doesn’t kill us.  A short shower gets the job done.  And some, willing to pay the financial penalties, seem to be ignoring the environmental and governmental warnings.  It makes me wonder what it will really take to make us all appreciate the precious and non-renewable resource of water.

For me, it took a recent trip to Puerto Rico, a formerly lush, tropical island that has been suffering from drought for the last four years.  While the rainforest still appears green, on the south coast, the hills are as brown as the Central Valley of California.  When I was in Puerto Rico in 2011, it rained every day.  This time, the rain was rare.  Many Puerto Ricans depend on the food they can grow for themselves.  Without water, little grows.

Due to this severe shortage, the government of Puerto Rico has skipped right over self-imposed restrictions. In many places, they just shut the water off.  In some regions, there is no running water for two days out of three.  In others, it’s every other day – no faucets, no flush toilets, nothing.  Only in public buildings or tourist sites, like hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers, can you count on running water. In private homes, you learn to save or go without.

While our youth group was in Puerto Rico, we learned to take showers every other day, wash dishes by boiling stored water, and flush toilets manually with buckets we had in reserve.  It made life pretty basic for a few days.  But then, we came home.  Home, where cutting back looks like a luxury compared to doing without.  I think of our PR friends often.

So water . . . it really is a big deal.  Although we may sometimes grow weary of the warnings and wrestle with how to live within limitations, let us never grow complacent about the role water plays in our world.  Water is essential for life.  As such, water is a gift from God.  Let us receive every drop with gratitude and use it wisely and well.