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Blind Men Look at an Elephant

Following the Chief Elder After a Hard Election

This was preached at Trinity Moravian Church on November 13, 2016.

It’s been a difficult week. We’ve seen demonstrations, some of which have turned violent. We have seen swastikas painted on walls, racist slurs chanted at Wake Forest. A couple in Kernersville had a terrifying message left on their car. A lot has happened – not in LA or New York or Chicago. In our back yard. In our community.

If you read the message on the cover of this month’s newsletter, a message written weeks before the election, I said that our work as followers of Christ began anew on November 9th. Here’s what I wrote:

The fact is that after the election, things will not return to “normal.” In many ways, no matter who wins one office or another, nearly half our friends and relatives will be angry and disappointed and hostile. That’s the moment when our work as followers of Christ kicks in to high gear – to reach out in a spirit of reconciliation, to show that our spirits were not “sharpened against those that voted on the other side,” and focus with relentless energy on sharing the love of Christ.

If anything, I underestimated the “angry and hostile.” It is not my job to be a political pundit, to analyze or scrutinize. It is my job to challenge the faithful followers of Christ to their highest and best calling. And one calling we are NOT called to is calling one another names. Saying that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist and a bigot; calling everyone who voted for Clinton a “Libtard” – or anything similar; these should be out of bounds for any follower of Christ. Period. If you don’t understand why, you and I need to have coffee this week.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

A number of months ago, while preaching about John Hus’ valiant search for God’s truth, I told an old story about several blind men “seeing” an elephant. Now, I need to make clear that the elephant in this story has no political ties at all. I tried to change the story to a rhino or some other neutral animal, or come up with an illustration of blind men and a donkey, but I came up short. The story has been around for hundreds of years, it originated in India, and it’s always been an elephant. It goes like this:

Six blind men are asked to describe an elephant. They each walk up to the elephant and feel it very carefully. The first one, feeling a sharp ivory tusk, says “It’s like a spear!” The second, feeling the elephant’s trunk, said “No, it’s like a large snake.” The third, which had climbed up on top of the elephant, and was feeling its ear, pronounced that it was like a fan. The fourth, feeling with both hands the huge side of the elephant, said “It’s a wall.” The fifth had reached his hands all around one of the elephant’s legs, and said, “No, you’re all wrong, it’s like a tree!” The sixth man, holding the elephant’s tail, laughed at all the rest. “You’re all fools. It’s just a rope!”

Each man was convinced that he was right and the others were wrong.

There’s an alternate ending to the story: that the next day, six blind women were asked to describe the same animal. They came and each one felt one part of the animal’s body. Then one of them said “I have to go to the powder room.” Strangely enough, all of them needed to go to the powder room, and so they went off together. A few minutes later, they came back and one of the ladies announced, “It’s an elephant.” They had talked in the powder room.

Now, that alternate ending is probably unfair to the guys and maybe too generous to the ladies. But the point is that not only did they talk to one another, they listened to one another.

In the midst of all the media noise and busy-ness of our culture, we have a terrible deficit of listening. Lots of shouting, very little listening. I read a sociological study that was done a while ago that analyzed and tracked hundreds of recorded conversations between real people. They categorized the different tracks of the conversation and whether they were responsive to the other person. In the vast majority of cases, they found that most of the time the people paid little attention to what the other person said; they were just waiting until it was their turn to talk. The majority of the responses had very little to with actually listening to what the other person said.

This happens in marriages all the time. An outsider listening to a marital spat is often baffled because the two are talking about completely different things; or a simple observation is given huge emotional weight by the other spouse that seems completely out of proportion. And sometimes it’s just talking past one another.

A computer programmer is going to the grocery store and his wife tells him, “Buy a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, buy a dozen.” So the programmer goes, buys everything, and drives back to his house. Upon arrival, his wife angrily asks him, “Why did you get 13 gallons of milk?” The programmer says, “There were eggs!”

In hard and emotional discussions, such as a marital difference or a bad job review, it is most common for people to listen only with an eye toward responding. In other words, they don’t genuinely listen to the criticism or problem, they listen only for things they can use as weapons in response. That’s a guaranteed way to have a disastrous and unproductive non-discussion.

Active Listening

In seminary, when we get to classes on pastoral counseling, one thing that is drilled into us is “active listening.” This is the practice of setting aside all distractions, like the important letter we forgot to send out, and focusing completely and exclusively on what the other person is really saying. In many cases we have to listen for what they are really saying behind the smokescreen of what they have literally said. When someone tells you that “everything is all right” at home when you can feel the tension and the tears under the surface, sometimes we have to tease that out and see what’s really going on. In many cases, we have to listen carefully to angry, hurt spouses and hear every bit of their pain – but be wise enough to know that their side of the story, their version of what the other spouse is like, may not be the whole truth at all.

When we get on to the end of our graduate studies, during our internship (known as Clinical Pastoral Education, usually in a hospital setting) we will be drilled and challenged on our ability to faithfully hear and understand what others have said to us, particularly when it is critical or emotion-filled.

A rule of thumb is to not believe the caricature that one person draws of another, especially when they have some vested interest in slanting the picture. If you believe the false caricature of atheists and agnostics that is drawn by fundamentalist filmmakers, you will have a very false impression of what real atheists and agnostics believe. I know some atheists who are profoundly moral people. In many cases, they have rejected a cruel and flawed version of Christianity, but have not yet found a deeper and more profound spiritual life. I’ve found it helpful to ask them “What kind of God don’t you believe in?” because often I can tell them that’s not the God I believe in, as well. But by the same token, you shouldn’t believe the false caricature that militant atheists like Richard Dawkins draw of Christians! Because the false picture that he draws is unbelievably distorted and hateful. In the world of philosophy and logic, this sort of thing is called a “straw man” argument. You can’t really pick holes in the case the other person has made, so you make up a false representation of their argument, one which is full of holes, and then attack that. It’s one of the most common strategies in the political arena.

So the first thing that we must do as followers of Christ is to stop believing the false pictures that have been carefully crafted for us to convince us to vote one way or another. And the second thing we need to do is listen with genuine compassion and open hearts to the stories of the real people that have been hurt by the system on both sides…on all sides.

And that’s going to be hard. Because most of us today are firmly entrenched in a bubble of comfortable reassurance that everything we think is true and right. We tune in to news channels that only give us news we agree with, listen to pundits who only say things we already think; we dismiss out of hand dissonant information from any other source. We have friends who believe the same things we do. And in many cases, people go to churches filled only with people who also agree with them.

At our recent minister’s conference at Laurel Ridge, it was good to hear Bishop Wayne Burkette say that he was glad that many Moravian Churches are “purple” – i.e. filled with a mix of political points of view. Unlike churches that are homogenous, he said, we are challenged by the real stories and real faith of people who view the world very differently from ourselves. Proverbs 27:17 says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

We need to LISTEN to one another’s stories. And this is hard work. This is challenging work. This is world-view cracking, unsettling work. We need to set aside the caricatures and easy platitudes and political litmus tests and straw men and listen to one another.

If you’re a city liberal, you need to get outside of your comfort zone and go have coffee at a small town diner with a farmer who’s about to lose his farm, which has been in the family for generations, because you get cheap prices at the grocery store.

If you’re a conservative, you need to go spend some time working at Sunnyside Ministry and listen to the story of the young mother who is working two jobs to support her children, and is paid so little that she cannot feed them and keep the heat on at the same time. The young black man who missed three days from work because of the flu, and now can’t pay his rent and is about to be evicted.

Rod Dreher, columnist for The American Conservative Magazine, recently wrote:

As a conservative, I grow weary of fellow middle-class conservatives acting as if it were possible simply to bootstrap your way out of poverty. My dad was able to raise my sister and me in the 1970s on a civil servant’s salary, supplemented by my mom’s small salary as a school bus driver. I doubt this would be possible today. 1

Responding to this comment, J. D. Vance, the author of the book Hillybilly Elegy, said:

We need to judge less and understand more. It’s so easy for conservatives to use “culture” as an ending point in a discussion–an excuse to rationalize their worldview and then move on–rather than a starting point [for discussion]. 1

If you’re a faithful party Republican or a faithful party Democrat, you need to go and sit down in the worn and tattered parlor of a poor white mill worker in Leaksville or Mebane – or for that matter, Reading PA or Youngstown, Ohio – a proud man who did his job well, and who does not want to be dole, finds his very being destroyed by being on welfare. But he is trained to do nothing else – and hear how both parties have sold him out with empty promises that turned out to be more care packages for the already-wealthy.

If you’re one who is against gay people, you need to sit down and listen to the story of the teenager who has always felt “different;” who has been bullied and pushed around and victimized at school, and who has now been kicked out by his “Christian” parents. He thinks regularly of suicide.

Will these conversations be hard? Of course they will! In a video about our discussions regarding homosexuality and the church, one which I hope you will all see and discuss, Sister Nola Knouse says:

There should be no topic at all that we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have to avoid talking about. There are Moravians who love Jesus, and who love their sisters and brothers, on all sides of this question, and we owe it to ourselves to deal openly, honestly, and lovingly with one another.

In the Gospel lesson for today, especially selected for the Festival of November 13th, Jesus says:

“Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:7-10

The equally challenging Gospel that is normally read on this Sunday in the Church Year, is from Luke 21:

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. -Luke 21:16-19

Christ the Chief Elder

One of the things the Scriptures tell us again and again is that we must not put our faith in weak human beings – in kings or politicians or Popes. Other denominations are often lead by a single human authority like the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. And while I think highly of Pope Francis and of Archbishop Justin Welby, I am under no illusion that they are infallible or perfect. Even less do I put faith in politicians, even those who claim to be outsiders, to solve our problems. In the past, Moravians also had an elected head. In the early 18th century, Leonard Dober served as the Chief Elder. He was a remarkable, faithful, and profoundly dedicated person – but he realized the task was beyond him. In the early Unity, we had Presidents, wonderful leaders like Bishop John Amos Comenius or Luke of Prague, who did their best to lead the denomination – but often felt ill-equipped to meet the terrible challenges they often faced.

When Leonard Dober resigned, saying that no one person was able to supervise the spiritual needs of the wide-flung missions – in the Caribbean, in South Africa, in India, in Greenland, in America – the Elders that met in London in 1741 had a difficult task. The Synod meeting included:

Count and Countess von Zinzendorf, Benigna, their daughter (who was only 16), Leonard Dober, Anna Maria Lawatsch, Friedrich von Watteville, Rosina Nitschmann, David Nitschmann (not the bishop), and August and Mary Spangenberg. Nearly all were under the age of 42, and half of them were women!

In those days, it was very important that every decision was submitted to the lot, as a way of actively listening to Christ. Every name that was floated was rejected by the lot; and in fact, many were submitted tenuously since Dober had fully convinced the Elders of how difficult the job had become. They entered a period of prayer and Bible study; the Scriptures that they read spoke over and over of Christ as the great Shepherd. One of them was the Gospel lesson we read this morning. Finally, a few put forth the idea: maybe Christ Himself should be the Chief Elder, and lead His people directly. Christ was formally nominated and elected by acclamation – I mean, who was going to vote against Jesus? – but then the election was put to the lot. And the lot confirmed the election. In their view, Jesus Himself had agreed to serve in that high office. In good Moravian fashion, they sang a hymn, “We kiss thee with great tenderness, you elder of the congregation.”

This was on September 16, 1741. This decision was not immediately announced. There was no Twitter, no Skype, no telephones, not even telegraph. Communication was by hand-written letter carried by courier on ships and horseback. The Elders decided that the news should be announced simultaneously in all churches; and to allow enough time for communication, they selected November 13, which was a Monday in the old-style calendar.

And that is why today, Moravians the world over gather at the Table of the Lord together, no matter what political party, nation, or station in life, humble Christians together sharing a meal given by the hand of our Savior, our Chief Elder. The actual date of the election, September 16th, is observed each year by pastors, who gather for a Cup of Covenant service in which we rededicate ourselves to the ministry of Christ.

A final point that must be made: this unique election came about not because of the political mechanisations of archbishops and cardinals, sending up white smoke; or of political brokers in smoke-filled rooms where sausage was made; or in anger-filled campaigns of horrible rhetoric and nasty accusations. It came about because these very dedicated people paused to listen to the Savior.

You remember when I talked about “active listening?” One of the things that we must do as followers of Christ is listen actively to HIM. We may not use the lot any more. But Bible study and sincere prayer will do much to transform our hearts from stony brokenness and anger and change them into hearts of love, hearts of faith.

To prepare for this simple meal, we have the privilege of singing together a new hymn, which has never before been sung in public worship, a hymn written by our own Ed Lyons. I hope as you prepare to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood, you will be able to do so with a humble and repentant heart, standing next to brothers and sisters who are bound together as one in Jesus Christ.

Now comes the hour when we meet
To gather in the banquet sweet
For those we serve, who can’t repay,
Whose voices cry to you each day.

The world has tendered heavy cares
On those to whom Thy mercy shares.
We have abundance to delight
The hungry people day and night.

Then let us bow our heads in prayer
And so the sacred meal prepare
To link each one in heart and mind.
Now we shall love, we shall be kind.

As when we set our table good
To take Thy body and Thy blood,
We offer food and drink to those
Who Thou above the privileged chose.

Where Zion’s holy waters flow
The lovely trees of healing grow.
Thy Spirit dwell with us that we
May come those blessed shores to see!

Text: Edward Lyons, III (2016)
 Tune: Puer Nobis (Adapted by Michael Praetorius, 1571-1621) Moravian Book of Worship, page 267

 

1. Rob Dreher: “Trump: Tribune Of Poor White People,” The American Conservative Magazine, July 22, 2016 (more…)

A Hero Comes Home

This month, we have the unique honor of welcoming home a member who has been absent for 64 years.  George LeTell Rights, the son of Rev. & Mrs. Douglas Rights, was an active member of Trinity when he went off to serve in the Army during the Korean War.  In September 1950, he was assigned to the 15th Field Artillery Battalion of the Second Division. In mid-February 1951, near Hoengsong, South Korea, his unit was involved in a battle later called “Massacre Valley.” He was among those taken prisoner and marched into North Korea to a prisoner of war camp, referred to as the Suan Bean Camp. He died there in May 1951, the cause of death being listed as malnutrition.

George’s death was a blow to the Rights family; his brother, the Rt. Rev Graham Rights, says that Trinity members ministered to their pastor during this time, comforting and supporting parents Douglas and Cecil.  The family had come to believe that George’s remains would never be retrieved.  However, on July 8, his family was notified that remains of George had been positively identified via DNA among those turned over to the United States Government by the Government of North Korea in 1992.

A Moravian service will be held in God’s Acre on Sunday, August 9, at 3:00 p.m. in the Cremains Section. The graveside service will feature a memoir written by sister Eleanor Rights Roller.

Winston-Salem Journal article about the funeral

George Rights grew up in the parsonage of Trinity Moravian Church, where his father served as pastor for 37 years; he remained a member there until his death. He loved classical music, listening daily to WQXR in New York. He was the first of the four Rights children to be taught by their father to play a band instrument, learning to play the cornet and participating in the Trinity Church Band and the Easter Band. He was the first of the four to take piano lessons from Helen Savage (later Mrs. Aaron Cornwall, Jr.), beginning as her “practice pupil” during her study at Salem College. He had particular fondness for the music of Frederic Chopin. He enjoyed caring for pet ducks and, during his teen years, was the family wood chopper, producing kindling for the wood stove and fireplaces. He spent several summers working with those who cared for God’s Acre in Salem. George’s favorite pastime was taking long walks really long walks. It wasn’t unusual for him to leave Winston-Salem and walk to High Point, Mocksville, Pilot Mountain, Elkin, or North Wilkesboro.

We celebrate with the Rights family in the recovery of George’s remains and the closure of holding this meaningful service.

– Pastor John

Today Is the Day!

This sermon was preached on June 21, 2016 at a hastily arranged joint service between St Philips Moravian Church and Trinity Moravian Church on the Sunday following the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

This has been one of those weeks where every pastor says to themselves, “What shall I say?”  And as I looked over the service, I realized that the service we had planned, based on the prescribed lectionary readings, was uniquely appropriate for a time when we may be beset by fear.

You may have seen Rembrandt’s painting of this story, the story of the calming of the sea.  It is an amazing painting, showing the wave-tossed boat, the waves, the storm clouds.  It was the only seascape he ever did.  What is interesting is that if you carefully count the people in the boat, you will find fourteen — the twelve disciples, Jesus, and Rembrandt himself.  Because he was making a statement, a statement that said, “I am in the boat fearful with the disciples.”  Well, we are in the boat fearful today.  It is so hard to wrap our minds around the terrible events in Charleston this week.

Some of us pastors have been talking both in person and online about what to say today.  My dear brother Sam Gray, whom I always pay attention to, pointed out that in the first century they did not understand how the weather worked the way we do today.  Of course, they did not have Accuweather, they could not go on Weather.com and pull up the radar, they did not have our local weather caster Laney Pope to pop up and say “Big storm coming!”  They would have little notice, and had to pay prompt attention to the signs — the freshening wind, the change in temperature.  They thought that the storm essentially was the symptoms that they could see — the waves and the wind and the billowing clouds.   They did not understand scientifically that the thunder was the rapid expansion of superheated air around the lightning bolt, that the lightning bolt itself was caused by differential in electrical potential between the ground and the clouds.  But above all, they did not understand that all these symptoms were caused by a huge low pressure system.  A system much larger and more powerful than the symptoms they observed on the surface.

So too we look at the symptoms, we see the waves coming over the bow, we hear the thunder, we feel the wind, and we are scared of the symptoms.  We humans tend to do that.  We often confuse symptoms with causes and causes with symptoms.  A hundred years ago, doctors thought that the blood clots they would find in arteries during autopsy after a heart attack were caused by the heart attack — not the other way around.  Today we know that it is those blockages that cause the heart attack. Often the things we think of as incidental, as not mattering much, are actually the causes of the things we fear.

When we’ve had a week like this, when there is a terrible tragedy, it’s sort of a litmus test.  There has been a lot of chatter this week, displaying the dividedness of our nation — what we say seems to depend more on our beliefs before the event than on the event itself.  And I’ve heard many comments this week about symptoms.

I’ve heard it said that the problem is there are too many guns in this country, too easy access to firearms.  Well, sure!  There are way too many guns in the hands of foolish and misguided people in this country.  It is too easy for an angry person to kill a bunch of people in seconds.  But in 1981, Michael MacDonald was lynched with a rope — a rope that could have been used to save a drowning person or pull a car out of a ditch, but instead was used to murder.  In 1965 at Selma, James Reeb was beaten and kicked to death, kicked to death with boots that could have been better used to march for good.

I’ve heard other people say that it’s our mental health system that is a mess. Well, yes, our mental health system is terrible.  It’s had cost-cutting go on year after year until it is eviscerated and crippled, it’s had too many good ideas go awry. We don’t have enough beds and counselors to deal with even a tiny fraction of the problem.  I can’t even describe how broken that system is.  But we also know for a fact that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.

We have people who say “Our country has gone away from God, we need more God, we need more Jesus.”  Well, duh.  Sure, things would be better if everyone were to seriously try to live out the love of God.  But sometimes when I pick at that and pull at it a little bit, I find that what they are talking about is a white Jesus who apparently belongs to an exclusive country club.  And we don’t need any more of THAT Jesus, we need the Jesus of the Gospels who loved the outcast and reached out to all who were hurting and needed His love. That’s the Jesus we need.

And so we focus on one symptom or another, depending on what we already thought a week ago.   And we say well, that’s the “cause” of all of this — but no, I think the cause is like the storm – it’s a huge system behind the symptoms that we can’t see and we don’t like to talk about and we don’t like to acknowledge.  A big powerful system of hatred and racism and malice.  And we like to pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore — but it does.

My friends, I will state it as plain as day:  this young man said clearly that he committed these horrific murders of entirely innocent people BECAUSE THEY WERE BLACK.  No other reason.  Racist hatred had taken him to a place of darkness that I hope we don’t understand.

And God save us all, he sat there in that meeting and thought “maybe I won’t go through with it because these people are so nice.”  Can there be any more specific definition of evil than someone who would have those doubts and yet still pull out the gun and shoot people who had been kind to him?

It’s easy for us to look at the symptoms and say “that’s the cause” and then say, “It has nothing to do with me.”  But it does have something to do with us.  It has something to do with every one of us on both sides.

Those who were killed included four pastors, one retired, a track coach, a choir member, an elderly aunt, a college student who was her nephew and who stood between her and the bullet.  We are those pastors, we are that choir member, that coach, that aunt, that nephew.  But we are also the perpetrator.  For every one of us has participated in that system of oppression, that judgment and condemnation.  Even when we try hard, we fail, we move forward and we slip back.  When we look the other way, when we laugh even uncomfortably at terrible jokes, when we passively accept the wrongs that are perpetrated, we are part of that big system that produced Dylann Roof.

I am so glad that we can come together today and enjoy one another, and celebrate our oneness in Christ, our love for one another.  But the question is what are we going to do now? We need to move forwards with this.  We need to move forward in embracing on another in love.  We need to go ahead and stand against racism and hatred whenever we encounter it in our lives.  And I mean right down to when someone tells a hurtful joke in our presence, a joke that tears at the humanity of people of color or of a different religion.  We need to leave the room, we need to call out the joke-teller and challenge the casual racism that pervades our society.  It’s time for us to have the courage to do what we know in our hearts to be right.  We need to love like Jesus loved, fiercely and fearlessly.

Originally, I was planning to preach on the passage from 2 Corinthians this morning.  But that also is so appropriate for today!  Paul mentions the endurance of the disciples through afflictions and hardships, through calamities, beatings, imprisonment, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, that they had gone through to bring the love of God to other people.  They suffered for the Gospel.  And they participated in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to bring love to others.  And he says “TODAY is the day, now is the acceptable time; behold, today is the day of salvation.”  And today IS the day to start, the day to take action.  Not tomorrow, not next week, not when we get around to it.   And he goes on, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way.”  What obstacles do WE put in the way of others in living out their faith, in discovering God’s love?  How do we put that off and interfere with the progress that God desires for others?  We have been through many years of the remarkable phrase that our Supreme Court invented, “all deliberate speed,” which basically means to make haste slowly.  And we have turned that into deliberate foot-dragging.  But God tells us TODAY is the day.  Not tomorrow, not in a week, not in a few years, not in ten or twenty years.  TODAY.  Now is the acceptable time.  Here we stand fifty years after Selma and while some people would say there’s been a lot of progress,  I’ll stand up here and tell you that we have not made nearly enough progress.  Still today, it is far too easy to be arrested or harassed when your only crime is breathing while brown or black, being in the wrong neighborhood when you are a person of color.  Still today our society is divided, still today the effects of racism and slavery ring on in our culture.

Now I should mention something that is rarely referenced — blacks aren’t the only ones who have been enslaved in our history.  There was a period in the 1600s when boatloads of Irish were shipped over as slaves in conditions not too different from those experienced by Africans.  Even later on the system of indentured servitude came awfully close to slavery when it was abused, when tricks were used to keep servants in debt so that they could never buy their way out of what amounted to slavery.  Much of our early prosperity arose on the backs of exploited and abused people, a system of owning human beings.  When the Moravian Church in Salem during the eighteenth century made that terrible choice to purchase a human being, we took a giant step back from our ideals and our calling.  It doesn’t matter that the church treated slaves better than anyone else, it was a betrayal of our very beliefs.  In 2006 our Synod voted to apologize for our participation in slavery.  But it took us over two hundred years to do the right thing, and in the meantime there were many other ways in which we fell short of the very beliefs that we espoused and preached.

There are many ways in which our culture has sought to keep different people down, economically and in other ways.  The people who can end racism are those of us with light skin, those who have inherited the prosperity of the past that was created on the backs of slaves.  We’re the only ones who can really put an end to it.   People of color have been demanding it for years.  It is the rest of us who have to get on board.

Sociologists tell us that as we do make progress, those who feel their power and privilege slipping away from them will become anxious and will lash out.  That’s what was going on this last week.  And so it seems that every time we take two steps forward, we take one back.  This last week one hatred-filled young man tried to make us take a step back.  But we must not let hatred win, we must instead take two steps forward, and if God is willing, THREE!  We will persevere, we will move forward.  Let “deliberate speed” now mean that we move forward with a deliberation and determination that cannot be sidelined, that cannot be diverted, not letting anything  – ANYTHING — distract us or dissuade us.  The course of history shall still bend towards justice — and together we will march in that direction.

-          Pastor John

Reich Hall Renovations

I’m excited that we are moving forward with the much-needed renovation of the Reich Fellowship Hall!  Aside from our sanctuary, this is the most-used space in our building.  It is used for congregational dinners, meetings, fundraisers, movie screenings, neighborhood programs, and provincial programs.  Equipped with a stage, a 12’ wide projection screen, a 4,000 Lumen High-Definition projector, and Dolby® Surround Sound system, handicap access, and a convenient parking lot, Reich Hall has become the “go-to” location for training programs for the Board of Cooperative Ministries, provincial meetings, Sunday School classes, regular Red Cross blood drives, and meetings of the Moravian Ministry Association, which meets there every month.  The facility is often home for neighborhood programs offered by Anthony’s Plot, the Moravian Intentional Community that is on our campus and working in our neighborhood.  We are planning to start a new after-school program next fall which will also use this hall.

The most urgent need, of course, is the leaking roof – but also urgently needed is new carpet to replace the raveling and stained carpet and replacement of the ageing fluorescent lights (which are beyond their expected lifespan)with new, energy-saving LED lights.

We have applied for a grant which, if awarded, will pay half the anticipated $56,910.00 cost – but we must raise the other half, or $28,455.00 in the next few months.  Will you help?  Will you help renovate this wonderful facility, which will benefit our congregation, the neighborhood, and the entire Southern Province?

-          Pastor John

Church Council Changes

On Sunday, November 2 we will hold our annual Church Council meeting.  At this meeting, we have a report from the Board and we usually elect new Board members.  This year, however, we will be considering a change to our Rules & Regulations to change to a single, smaller Church Board.

There are a number of reasons for this proposed change, which comes from the Board members themselves.  We have had increasing difficulty finding good candidates who are able to serve for the four year term, especially when we must also have candidates for Central Board (a six year term) and RCC representation (a two year term).  In emphasizing communication between the boards, we generally hold a Joint Board meeting every month, and about half the meeting usually involves reporting what each board is doing.  It is felt that the smaller, single board will be able to be more nimble and effective.

Of course, the Southern Province has reorganized and trimmed bureaucracy also to be more efficient.  Other congregations have either reduced the size of their boards, or converted to the single-board structure.  In most cases, they have had a good experience with the change.  All the current responsibilities of the Trustees, Elders, and Joint Board will be covered by the new, smaller board through the designation of committees and short-term task forces.

As Pastor (and thus chair of the Board of Elders and Joint Board) I feel that the church can operate effectively with either structure.  The smaller board will need to depend upon the help of non-elected members to help with committees and task forces.  You can read the proposal inside this newsletter (see page X); feel free to speak to any current board member or me if you have questions about the proposal.  Changes to the Rules & Regulations require a 2/3 majority of those voting at Church Council.  Should the proposal be approved and adopted, an enabling resolution will also be required to provide a transition to the smaller membership.  In that case, there will be no elections this year for Board.

It is important that we have as full a representation of our active membership at Council as is possible.  That means we need YOU to be there!  A full copy of the Rules & Regulations as they would be revised is available to any church member from the Church Office.

- Pastor John

August 2014 Happenings

What a wonderful summer! August was a month of bubbling activity on our block and among the churches of the Salem Creek RCC! We started the month with our group of churches holding a joint Vacation Bible School, which was hosted by Trinity and Home Churches. Volunteers from Home, Messiah, St Philips, and Trinity helped make activities for all ages come to life as we studied the Bible as a library of books — and we were proud to have the Trinity youth volunteer to sing the 66 books without missing one! The strangest feature of the VBS was a mysterious “Bible Clown” who showed up briefly at the start of each program. Little Ann Workman found him quite terrifying. Several children noticed that they never saw Bible Clown and Pastor John in the same room at the same time – hmmmm!

Many of our members contributed school supplies to assemble the backpacks that were given away at the Anthony’s Plot block party, which had the theme “All Things Good in Our Neighborhood!” That block party was a smashing success, with almost 450 attending. Many Trinity members were present as volunteers, making the day happen smoothly.

The next day, August 17, the Salem Creek RCC sponsored a Children’s Festival at Bethabara Church, a celebration of the “children’s renewal” of 1727. Families from many outlying churches drove in to spend the afternoon at Bethabara park, enjoying games and crafts, and finally a wonderful children’s lovefeast in the sanctuary of Bethabara Church. Many Trinity youth were involved in serving the lovefeast, and the Trinity Puppeteers helped to present the story of the day, under the leadership of Jeannie & Tripp May! One of the puppets looked suspiciously like it might have had Carter Gentle’s hand guiding it. Pastor John, Doug Rights, Bishop Sam Gray, and Thomas Baucom led the singing during the lovefeast with guitars and Bishop Sam’s unique “wheelie keyboard!”

On August 18, the wonderful Trinity Zimmer-Lewtak pipe organ was featured in the “Sounds of Summer” organ series. We had over 160 people attend on a rainy Monday night to hear the concert — a great turnout!

The month closed with a special Vacation Bible School at St. Philips Church, specially designed to coincide with the week that the school lunch program is on hiatus. Volunteers from of group of churches came together to have a wonderful program for school-age children in the Bon Air and surrounding neighborhoods. Many folks contributed food, and in addition to joyous activities, the children had a hot lunch every day – which many of them would not have had without our work!

My heartfelt thanks to all the people who put in many hours of volunteer work to make these events happen! You’ve touched many heart with grace, children with fun and Bible stories, and fed some very hungry tummies! This was the busiest August I remember for many years, and it was fantastic!

- Pastor John

Standing Up For Justice

On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther posted a list of 95 complaints about the Roman church on the Wittenburg Church door.  Over a hundred years after the martyrdom of John Hus, Luther had rediscovered the same issues and arrived at virtually the same conclusions.  The Church, hand-in-glove with the State, was filled with corruption and abuse.  Indulgences (slips of paper that acted sort of like “Get Out Of Hell Free” cards) were sold at exorbitant prices to pay for an unpopular and never-ending war, and to finance the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful.  Anyone who opposed or even questioned the church was condemned as an heretic.

Now, I don’t believe that things today are as bad as they were in the time of Hus or Luther.  Not by a long shot!  The cataclysmic struggles of the Hussite Wars and the subsequent Protestant-Catholic Wars decimated Europe and were times of terrible slaughter.  Today we face less violence and have a much higher standard of living.  In our capitalistic society, divisions end up being more about money and power – the “haves” versus the “have nots.”

Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the tanking of our economy, income inequality in America has accelerated dramatically.  We’ve now hit an all-time high for income inequality in America, matching the era of the robber barons – and closing rapidly on the kind of inequality that exists in Third-World nations.  Being super-wealthy automatically brings with it power, access to power, and the ability to influence government policy to your advantage.  Both political parties are corrupted by this, and there seems to be no end to the change in policies that can be called “trickle-up economics.”  This is an economy where policies and business practices are rigged to redistribute fair living wages away from workers and upward to those who already have more than they could spend in many lifetimes.

Article Link: Income Inequality Hits Gilded Age Levels, CBO Reports

Income disparity is at an all-time high in the US, equaling the period right before the crash of 1929.

Where is the church in all this? As we see more and more people lining up for shrinking resources at food banks, as we see children going hungry as programs are slashed, as we see the working poor being crushed by the weight of a society that clearly doesn’t care about them, where is the church?  Where are the prophets speaking God’s truth to power, the Isaiah who cries: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed!”  Where is the Amos who calls out, “But let justice roll on like many waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing river?”

Yes, we are called to minister to the less fortunate.  But is our responsibility limited to bringing in cans of food for Sunnyside Ministry?  Does our responsibility as Christians end with a bit of help here and there to get folks through emergencies?  Or does God also call us to wade into the difficult waters of advocacy, to call out those who abuse power to steal from the poor?  The Bible is clear on this!  Both the Old and New Testaments are radical in their defense of the poor and the weak against the wealthy and powerful.

It is time for a season of prayer – to be followed by a season of action.  Christians must shake off the shackles of politics, so easily exploited by pundits and inflammatory rhetoric, and stand up for the kind of justice that allows a space for everyone in society to simply live and thrive.  James writes:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. -          James 2:15-16

There are many variations of the following story, sometimes called the Story of the River Babies.

One summer in the village, the people in the town gathered for a picnic. As they leisurely shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

Christians, we are called to go upstream and find those who are throwing the babies in the river!

 

- Pastor John

Prayers for Public Education

School time!  The buses are running, lunch ladies have snapped on their hairnets, the homeroom bell has rung.  In preparation for the start of school, we observed a special prayer day for Public Education with other Moravian churches, and lifted up prayers of blessing for teachers and administrators, for coaches, shop teachers, janitors and secretaries – all the people who work together to educate children.

In my sermon that day, however, I had to note the sad fact that as a state, North Carolina’s education system has sunk rapidly in recent years.  It was announced in August in a national study that less than 1/5th of NC high school students were adequately prepared for either employment or a first year of college.  In fact, we came in dead last – 51 – after all the other states and the District of Columbia.  Teacher salaries have plummeted until we rank 46 – nearly at the bottom – for teacher salaries.  All this in an atmosphere where politicians continue to say that education is important.  But just as our personal budget shows our spiritual priorities, our State budget shows where the values really are, and they are shifted to corporate welfare and raises for political hacks.

Moravians have always been at the forefront of education; in the 15th century, while translating the Bible into the common language and teaching blacksmiths and farmers how to read; in the 17th century when Comenius transformed the fundamental ideas of education in Europe and called for universal education, including (gasp!) the education of women; in the 18th century when we started schools around the world, taught slaves how to read, and started Salem College, one of the only places in the colonies where a young woman could learn Latin and mathematics as well as sewing and cooking.  Many Moravians are active and excellent teachers in our school system, our community colleges, and universities.

We cannot stand by and wring our hands in silent helplessness while we see the education system we have some much invested in dismantled by bean-counters and misguided fundamentalists.  We need to advocate for change, for more support of great teachers, of programs that enhance life – music and drama and art – as well as science and technology.  We need to seek out and vote for leaders who will put children and the long-term future of everyone in our state first.  Party matters less than intergrity and vision!  We need to seek out opportunities to support our educators and our schools.

We will also be doing our part here on the corner of Sunnyside and Sprague – working with Anthony’s Plot on a tutoring program for at-risk children, opening the doors for children to come to LOGOS and get a good meal, the warmth of God’s love, and learn more about the Bible.  We’ll continue to sponsor Scouting and other programs that enhance education beyond the school walls.  We’ll be exploring starting ESL (English as a Second Language) and SSL (Spanish as a Second Language) classes for adults, and other learning opportunities as well.

For the teachers in our congregation, we give a cheer and lift up prayers of support.  Do your best for God and for His children!  Count on us for support  – whether box tops or bake sales.  But I pray for the day when our schools are fully funded — and they must have bake sales to support the prisons!

-          Pastor John

Festival of August 13th

This month, we celebrate a uniquely Moravian event as we gather for Holy Communion in Celebration of August 13th, the time in 1727 when a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit swept through the congregation at Berthelsdorf, Germany.  The experience was so profound that it was likened to the experience of the disciples at Pentecost, and it marked a new era of God’s work among the Moravians.

A lesser-known part of this experience was the Children’s Revival that followed.  A few days after the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation among the adults, a number of children at the village school felt called to prayer, and began to organize their own prayer groups.  The adults were so inspired by the spirit of the children that it reinforced their own experience and helped to drive the famed Prayer Watch that went on continuously for the next hundred years; and there is no doubt that it was out of the prayer and study that followed that the seeds of the mission movement came.

This month, we have the remarkable opportunity to have the Rev. Dr. Riddick Weber visit to lead two Sunday School workshops about the Moravian movement.  Brother Weber is professor of Pastoral Ministry at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, and is one of our leading experts on the revolutionary social systems that Moravian communities engineered.  He can speak with great authority about the intriguing ideas that they employed that made those communities work and witness!  I hope that you will take the time to come out for these Sunday School workshops this month.  Brother Weber will also officiate over Communion on August 11th while I am away directing the next segment of the movie “But Now I See,” and will bring a meditation about the August 13th experience and its meaning for us today that is well-informed and inspiring.

Sunnyside Clinic Closes

“In the bulb there is a flower…in the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be.”  These words from the wonderful hymn by Natalie Sleeth capture well my feelings as we ushered out the last patitent at the last Sunnyside Medical Clinic on Thursday, June 20 – and then closed the doors.

The choir came down and together with the nurses and doctors and staff from Sunnyside Ministry we sang the Moravian blessing hymn, “With Thy Presence Lord, our head and Savior” as a way of recognizing the end of an era, and the close of a neighborhood institution.

The Sunnyside Medical Clinic has been providing free medical care twice a month for people in this area for thirty-three years.  The clinic began in 1980, using volunteer doctors and funding from the State Health Department to provide medical care for those who had no insurance and could not afford medical care through traditional institutions.  Over the years, the Clinic has served thousands of people, including many of our members.  But in recent years, attendance at our Clinic has dwindled – the opening of a new free clinic sponsored by Novant Health in Waughtown and another that is open twice a week at Southside Baptist siphoned off our “customers.”  We rejoice that their needs are being met, and pray that those clinics will be able to continue to provide care for this in need!  However, the dwindling numbers at Sunnyside Clinic and severe state budget cuts meant that the Health Department had to terminate funding for the program.

But as the song says, “In cocoons there is a promise, butterflies will soon be free!”  Time marches on, circumstances change, and this important ministry of our congregation became less important.  Rather than spending time mourning the changed circumstances, we should instead realize the blessing that someone else has picked up this particular torch.  We must ask the question, what is the NEXT good thing that we will do together?  What is the Savior leading us to do now with the freed resources and people of our congregation?  The needs in the world are daunting, there is never a shortage of things that ought to be done.  But as Moravians, we follow the Lamb who has conquered.  Where is He leading us?

Our Joint Board has already been discussing possibilities for dynamic new ministries that meet the needs of our changing neighborhood today.  As we respond to God’s call, we do so with the confidence that what we do in the name of the Savior will be blessed – and will bear fruit!

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