An Ancient Hope for Modern Hearts

“O Lord…you have made human beings a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) These words can be found in the heart of the Bible—the Book of Psalms—and were written by a poet over 2,500 years ago. We do not know much about that author, except that he possessed an enormously high opinion of humanity. Yet following the recent acts of violence in Las Vegas, and other horrific attacks in recent months around the world, I wonder whether we might be developing an alternative, and less generous, view of the human capacity for goodness.

As a person of faith, I am not naïve about the harm that human beings can inflict on one another and the creation. But as a pastor, I believe it is the work of my life to develop and encourage our God-given ability to heal, to devote our resources and energy for the common good, and to change those things that contradict the movement of God toward a world of greater compassion. So I pray my prayers for healing on behalf of all those who suffered violence in Las Vegas, knowing that such recovery is only barely underway and will require years of prayer and effort to unfold. And alongside my prayers for those who need consolation, I will work to sustain my faith in humanity, to see in people across the world a God-given orientation towards peace and good will.

I invite you to set aside the news from time to time, and sit down with the author of Psalm 8, the one who brings us another kind of news, that we have been made a little lower than God, and are crowned with glory and honor. And if you seek a more modern witness to this legacy of faith, I commend to you these words by Howard Zinn, an American historian with a heart for hope:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something, if we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

Yours in Christ,

Ed Horstmann

 

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Time Machine

A small envelope arrived through the mail the other day with a return address from Colorado. Inside the letter there was a note from my cousin who lives there, and a thick piece of yellow card stock that had been folded over once. When I opened it there were two Kodachrome slides inside: relics from a bygone way of remembering special and not so special events. Before I read the note I immediately held the slides to the light of our kitchen window, and was greeted in one of them by the sight of three familiar faces looking back at me. One of those faces was mine, and the others belonged to my mother and father. The photo was taken not long after the death of my grandfather (when I was nine years old), as family members gathered together from distant places to attend his memorial service. One of my cousins had captured my little family in one photograph, and the other slide included an image of my father standing next to his sister.

It was such a gift to receive my cousin’s letter and its contents. The slides had emerged when she was cleaning out some closets and she wanted me to have them. Each time I held one of the slides to the light, a few more memories would come alongside me, tugging at my sleeve for attention. As if to say: do you remember Dad’s coat, the one that he is wearing in that photograph, the way it smelled after he had worn it in the rain? Do you see Mom’s face? How unhappy she is to be cornered by someone with a camera? And look at you, says the voice of memory. You don’t look too pleased either…clearly less than thrilled to be dressed up in scratchy, new clothes, probably purchased just for the occasion.

The two sturdy Kodachrome slides that I hold up against the light are tiny time machines. They carry me back to a day that I hadn’t thought about for many years. They invite me to wonder at the inner life of my parents; the feelings, or fears, or hopes that moved them but cannot be captured on film.  And when I’ve taken in what I can from the past, I set the slides aside, and return to the land of the present where I can see my life from a fresh perspective.  As I ponder my place in the world, I wonder anew how my life can build on the past, and how I can best use the power in me to bring peace and hope to the world for such a time as this.

These are the kinds of questions that my parents faced, and now they are mine to answer. So I pray, in the words of the Round Hill Community Church Prayer, to be part of a church family that longs to be an instrument in God’s hands for good: here, near here, and far from here. And one day, when another generation comes across images of us, may they see a community of faith that devoted every ounce of its energy, resources and skill to the creation of a world at peace with itself, full of good will for all.

 

 

 

Helping Hands for the Long Haul

Following the devastation that was created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I spoke with a friend who traveled to the New Orleans area to assist with re-building efforts. While there, he met volunteers from Florida. In conversations with them he learned that residents from that state were still restoring neighborhoods—and lives—from Hurricane Andrew. And that was in 1992.

This has been an especially traumatic year for residents of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean as one major storm after another has brought damaging winds and flooding. In addition, we have heard reports of monsoons in Indonesia and earthquakes in Mexico and the loss of life and homes that have resulted from them. As I look up into the mostly blue skies over Connecticut, I am ever mindful of those who have been turning their gaze to the horizon in other parts of the world with  nervous anticipation.

While re-building efforts from recent storms will necessarily involve broad support from the federal government and large institutions, there is a decisive role that communities of faith can play in this ongoing work of healing. From the earliest days of the Christian movement, congregations have reached out to one another with helping hands for the long haul. Even before the church was called the church, when Christian congregations consisted of small gatherings of people who met in homes or the places where they worked, these people of faith were conscious of belonging to a global community. So even as St. Paul worked with brand new communities in Greece not more than twenty years after the death of Jesus, he wasted no time in making them aware of the material needs of their brothers and sisters living in Jerusalem, and so began to collect an offering on their behalf.  As if to say, you are the body of Christ:  let me introduce you to an offering plate.

On October 1, World Communion Sunday, the congregation of Round Hill Community Church will dedicate its morning offering to the work of Church World Service (CWS), an ecumenical agency based in Elkhart, Indiana. For many decades, Church World Service has dedicated its expertise and resources to support people whose lives have been overturned by natural disaster, and to continue to offer that care long after the impact on them has slipped from media attention. You will find these words of their commitment on the CWS website: Whether along the shores of New Jersey or in the capital of Haiti, a disaster does not go away once attention turns elsewhere. In fact, for many the struggle to recover from a disaster can take months, even years. That is why CWS ardently promotes the local long-term recovery effort in communities affected by disaster. CWS disaster response partners, such as denominational and secular relief agencies, bring together faith-based and secular groups to work together following a disaster.

When we send our offering to Church World Service, I hope we will also send our commitment to offer helping hands for the long haul: perhaps through other offerings, or participation on work teams to assist with re-building, or by partnering with a congregation in an affected area, and always with prayers and heart felt concern. To paraphrase a comment by Mother Teresa: “We may not always be able to do great things, but we can always do small things with great love.”

On the Way

When I was in college I used to take one week of each summer to hike a section of the Long Trail in Vermont. This path is 273 miles long and runs in a north-south direction from the state’s border with Massachusetts to its border with Canada, and overlaps in part with the Appalachian Trail. It is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States, and was constructed between 1910 and 1930 by the Green Mountain Club.

In the southern section of the state the Long Trail meanders through mile after mile of woodlands. While there is a unique beauty to this terrain, I always looked forward to the occasional sign that points the way off the beaten path where hikers can find their way to rare scenic overlooks. Many times I debated whether these detours were worth the added effort. But I was always refreshed by every opportunity to encounter a wide-open vista of the Green Mountains before resuming my journey along the main trail.

I was reminded of my Long Trail experiences while reading through the New Testament this summer. Those who gathered in homes or workplaces to shape a Christian life two thousand years ago did not describe themselves with words like church or congregation. They were known as “people of the Way.” In one sense they were on a trail of faith that was well prepared, for their scriptures and faith practices were formed almost exclusively by the traditions of Judaism. But they were also willing to go off the beaten path, to seek new ways of love and service that brought them face to face with breathtaking views of possibility.

Our sermon series for the autumn will begin on September 3, and its purpose is to help us explore how a “people on the Way” for such a time as this can bring healing and hope to the world. Through messages that will draw mainly from the Letters of St. Paul for their inspiration, we hope to find fresh faith on well-traveled trails as well as on off-road adventures. And while this series will last for a season, we hope that the faith that it inspires will continue to evolve. For as the Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alves once said: “There is no there; there is only a way.”

Recommended reading:

Marcus Borg  Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written

Marcus Borg wrote this volume to present the books of the New Testament in chronological order, and added helpful introductions to each text. This book provides insight into the way that letters from early Christian missionaries (like St. Paul) provided the guidance that Christian gatherings needed in order to grow in their faith. Those “love letters” inspired faith long before the Gospels were written and made available.

Always Room for Joy

When plans were underway to create a yearlong sermon series at Round Hill Community Church entitled, “A Life Worth Living,” it seemed perfect to conclude our adventure by celebrating joy as a key ingredient of a good life. After all, Jesus said to his followers: “I have come that you might have joy, and have it in abundance.”

But at home and overseas joy is having difficulty finding some breathing room. There has been international concern about whether the United States and North Korea might move from verbal sparring to military action.  And the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend are cause for lament. Those who belong to white nationalist groups continue to foster a spirit of hatred and discrimination in our country, persistent in their disparagement of people whose skin color, faith tradition, sexual orientation or ethnicity does not line up with their vision of what it means to be fully alive. When a violent confrontation took place in Charlottesville between “Unite the Right” marchers and counter protesters, the result was deadly. By the end of the weekend one woman and two men were dead, and nineteen people were wounded.

So how can we throw a party for joy at such a time as this? Aren’t anger and sorrow more fitting responses when damage is inflicted upon human life? Doesn’t talk about joy feel frivolous at best and unfaithful at worst?

I would argue that joy is just the companion we need when we dust ourselves off in disappointing days and begin the work of healing the common good.  Joy wants to be needed, wants to fill us with an unexpected surge of life in our down moments, wants to restore in us a sense of wonder when our spirit is diminished by discouragement.  Joy says to us, no wonder you’re filled with hate and frustration: your God is too small!

God’s love embraces with infinite tenderness all people, and welcomes all people to a vision of equality, reverence and inclusion. This does not prevent people from choosing to be hateful or violent. But God remains God: mercy within mercy within mercy. The same holds true for us: be compassionate as God is compassionate, said Jesus. It’s the only job description we’ll ever need in our quest for a life that’s truly good.

So once again, the journey to healing begins. To inspire you on your way, I invite you to click the following link and read a story about the human capacity for love and forgiveness. It just might fill you with joy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/nyregion/05rabbi.html

 

Go Out in Joy, Ed Horstmann

Go Out in Joy, posted August 9, 2017

When I leave my home to walk over to the church building, or get in the car to drive to an appointment, I try to pause for a few moments in order to get my bearings. At times like these I’m not thinking so much of physical destination as spiritual orientation. Am I heading out alone, or do I believe that I will be accompanied by God? Am I anxious and, if so, am I willing to discard that fearfulness for an openness to the Spirit and wherever it may lead? Am I looking forward to greeting all people (strangers and friends alike) with grace and care? Do I see myself as part of a great global drama in which God seeks to create a world of peace and well being for all?

The prophet Isaiah, who lived six centuries before Jesus, was a voice of hope for the people of Israel, and gave them a visionary way to greet the day. “You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” I suspect these words may have seemed hopelessly idealistic at best, and utterly unrealistic at worst, to those who first heard them. Perhaps they strike us in the same way. But hidden in this promise is the message that joy is not only something that comes to us by way of surprise: it is an orientation of the heart. It is a way of seeing and opening ourselves up to the wild complexity of life, and of choosing hope and trust and decency over their opposites.

There is an old prayer that states Isaiah’s vision in slightly different language: “amid the passing changes of the world, let us set our hearts and minds where true joy is to be found.” By making room in our lives for the activities and passions that make us feel truly alive, we can orient ourselves to joy. By dreaming about how to bring hope and peace into the lives of people close to home and far away, we can orient ourselves to joy. And the good news is that when we receive each day in that spirit, we shall be led back in peace: a peace that is so deep and rare and satisfying that it passes all understanding.

 

Ambassador of the Heart Set Free, posted August 2, 2017

Over the summer I have joined with the other members of the staff at Round Hill Community Church to plan our worship services for the autumn. These discussions bring me a lot of joy, and spark directions I never would have conceived if I undertook this journey alone.

Our autumn series will focus on one of the most complicated and misunderstood figures in the history of Christianity: St. Paul. Although the growth of the Christian movement in its first century was largely a result of his leadership and influence, he has sometimes been referred to as the apostle we love to hate. As Garry Wills observes in his book, What Paul Meant: “Many people think that Judas was the supreme betrayer of Jesus. But others say Paul has a better right to that title. Judas gave Jesus’ body over to death. Paul, it is claimed, buried his spirit.”

Full disclosure: for most of my ministry I have given St. Paul much less attention than he deserves, and when opening myself to themes for preaching, have routinely searched the imaginative parables of Jesus rather than the carefully argued letters of St. Paul. But now I plan to rectify that imbalance.  I look forward to reading the love letters that he wrote to growing congregations nearly 2000 years ago. I hope to open myself to the wisdom, passion, and pastoral insights of this man who is still referred to as the apostle we love to hate, but has also been called the apostle of the heart set free. It was Paul who said, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” That vision has endured over the centuries, drawing people of Christian faith to live non-anxious lives, to struggle against injustice, and to enjoy a rich and evolving relationship with God. The freedom of faith makes possible a life of hope, love, and imagination.

From time to time I’ll offer reflections on St. Paul in this blog, but I hope that you’ll dip into his letters and discover in them rich resources for growth in a Spirit-led way of life. Of the thirteen letters in the New Testament that are attributed to St. Paul, at least seven seem likely to have flowed directly from him (the others were written by Christian leaders in the early church and attributed to him as a way of enhancing their authority). These seven letters are:

The First Letter to the Thessalonians
Letter to the Galatians
Letter to the Philippians
Letter to Philemon
First Letter to the Corinthians
Second Letter to the Corinthians
Letter to the Romans

Welcome aboard, and let the journey begin!