Tradition

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Today is August 13

Today is August 13, a date that has no special meaning for most people, but has unique importance for Moravians.  This is the anniversary of the renewal of the Moravian Church in Herrnhut, Germany in 1727.  The church, founded in 1457, had been nearly destroyed by the Thirty Years’ War, and the church was outlawed in Bohemia and Moravia.  A small remnant – what Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius earlier called a “hidden seed” – migrated to the land of a Lutheran noble, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.  Zinzendorf, a unique spiritual genius, permitted the “Herrnhuters” remarkable religious liberty for the day, but with the unfortunate (and perhaps predictable) result that religious excess and controversy exploded in the village.

The Count resigned his court position in Dresden to become a noble pastor to the troubled group, visiting and calling the people together for prayerful study of the Scriptures.  During this period, the residents became convicted that their behavior toward one another had been inexcusable – that the Savior called His followers to exhibit love toward one another, to be “one” in His name.  Out of this grew the remarkable document known in German as the “Bruderlisch Vertrag,” the Brotherly Agreement, now known as the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living.  Rather than a doctrinal statement, the Moravians signed a code of Christian behavior.  This was signed on May 12, 1727 by all the residents of Herrnhut.  A few months later, at a special service of Holy Communion held on Wednesday, August 13, they experienced a powerful sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – and those who had been divided felt truly one in Christ.  This reestablished the ancient call of the Unity – to live out the Great Commandment and the Beatitudes in community in a way that bore witness to the world of the love of God.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35, NIV.  This is a call that the Unity has sought to live out for over 557 years, since our founding in 1457.

In a recent online discussion about this, I made the (almost correct) statement that the Moravian Church is the only mainline denomination to have never experienced a schism or split.  I was properly corrected by someone who recalled that in the very early days, a group did split off over the issue of whether or not Brethren should swear oaths.  That group reunited with the Utraquists, a group that eventually died out.  But since that time, for over five centuries, we have worked to preserve Christian unity as a primary virtue and testimony to a religious world that is most often divided and bickering.  That testimony is respected out of all proportion to our tiny size by larger denominations, who often seek to learn from us how to achieve what we do.  Moravians have been pioneers in the ecumenical movement, calling denominations together in the name of Christ – and as a result, we have twice had Morvian clergy elected to head the World Council of Churches, and twice to head the National Council of Churches in Christ – despite the fact that we are one of the smallest member denominations.

So today we are faced with a decision: once again, as has happened in each generation, or probably each decade, we face a divisive issue that threatens to tear our unity apart.  We have people who believe that their issue is one that is so important, they must leave the Unity if a vote does not go their way.  Some of them want to form an “independent” Moravian Church, something which is really an oxymoron, since it overlooks the central tenet of being a part of the Unity – that is, to be part of the Unity!

So once again, our unity is challenged – as it has been so many times before.  The Unity is a relationship – much like a marriage – which must be nurtured and maintained.  Just as in a Christian marriage two people commit to relationship with one another – each also in relationship with the Savior – so too we commit to a relationship with one another, each also in relationship with the Savior.  As in a marriage, we must overlook each other’s shortcoming and bear one another’s burdens, so it is in the Unity.  We live together as sisters and brothers in Christ, not always agreeing in detail, but always agreeing in love – and seeking to follow the Savior together.

We have a choice today – as the Herrnhutters had a choice 287 years ago, and as the founders of the Unity had a choice 270 years before that.  As indeed we have had again, again, and again: do we continue to bear witness that we are disciples, known by our love for one another?  Or shall our differences consume us so that we break this astounding witness?  We have a choice today, just as we will have a choice tomorrow: a choice to continue this witness of unity, or to destroy it and prove to the world that even the Moravians cannot live together in love.  Which shall it be?

Slow – Advent Happening!

The day after Halloween, the Christmas decorations went up in many stores and the Christmas carols started.  Many eye rolls and groans about Thanksgiving being forgotten.  But our commercialized society has lost more than that – the juggernaut that is Christmas marketing has steamrollered over Advent, as well.  Liturgical churches like ours still observe Advent, and we’re going to keep lighting those Advent candles no matter what the marketers outside do!

Advent is not Christmas – it is a four-Sunday time of preparation for Christmas, just as Lent is a time of preparation for Easter.  But our culture is not one of preparation, it is one of sales and marketing.  Let’s move those flat-screen TVs and Chinese toys!  We live in a world of instant everything, we want to be able to move right to the punch line, cut to the chase!  But there is great spiritual value in slowing down, in preparing, in getting ready.

In days of yore, a young craftsperson had to be apprenticed to a master for a number of years to learn a trade.  During that time of preparation, the apprentice could make beginner’s mistakes, learn from the experience of the master, and gradually gain expertise – until he or she became a “journeyman” and eventually a new master!  Our fables and stories seem to value this kind of learning, but when we look at the actions of our culture it is denigrated.  We want fast-track success, short-cut learning, speed dating, and instant everything.  We live in a schizophrenic culture that honors Dicken’s Christmas Carol while at the same time iconizing our own cultural Scrooges!

I urge you to set aside the time this year to slow down, to prepare, to observe Advent even if everyone else has fast-forwarded to Christmas.  Seasons are good, honor and grow by celebrating this one!

 

-              Pastor John

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!

On Faith, Relationship, and the Conversion of Saul

This past week the liturgical calendar recognized the Conversion of Paul on Friday, January 25th. Of course, like most stuff on the liturgical calendar, we don’t actually know the date on which Paul was converted, it’s just the date that traditionally has been used to remember the event – and an important event it was in Christian history, especially for those of us that are Gentiles!

Saul, as he was originally known, was a tradesman, a tentmaker from the town of Tarsus, a city in southern Turkey.  Because of his residency, he was a citizen of the Roman Empire, something that would be important later in his life. Saul was a very religious man, a member of the Pharisees, a Jew of impeccable religious practice and credentials.

In fact, Paul was absolutely sure of his Phariseeical Jewish faith – of every bit of it, so sure that he was willing to participate in the stoning of Stephen without a moment’s hesitation – just as the torturers of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the 15th century – usually referred to as “The Spanish Inquisition” – were absolutely sure they were doing right as they twisted you on the rack. It was for your own good, for your ultimate salvation that they burned you with hot pokers. They tortured with absolute calmness of spirit, certain of the rightness of their religion. The only problem is that they were WRONG.

I know Christians today so perfectly assured that they are right, right about every doctrine, understanding, and detail, so right that they would not hesitate a moment to stand with Saul holding the coats, throwing the stones, or turning the wheel on the rack. They have confused their certainty about their personal beliefs with TRUTH, and confused their certainty about their own sense of being right with GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS. They are not the same thing.  In fact, there are ways in which they are diametrically opposed!

This confusion between “I am right” and truth, between “my understanding” and God’s understanding, is one of the fundamental problems of religion through the centuries. The fact is that human religion is really based on “I am right,” rather than on “God is right” – even when they confuse the issue by whacking you on the forehead with a King James Bible. True faith derives from an encounter with the living God, not from a list of precepts.

It was an encounter with the risen Christ that changed Saul’s life and transformed him from a murderer of Christians to a believer himself. Like 007, he set off to Damascus with a “License to Kill” in his pocket, breathing “threats and murder” against those who followed “The Way.” But along the road to Damascus, he stumbled onto “The Way” himself when he met the risen Savior.

I don’t know exactly what happened or how it happened, but Paul’s experience was that of a bright, blinding light and a voice: “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul was knocked off his feet, he had the rug pulled out from under him. He went from an absolutely self-assured raging crusader to a blinded, helpless man whose world had been turned upside-down. But that’s what an encounter with the living God does to people! It turns their world upside-down, turns their certainties into doubts, and makes them sure of only one thing – that there is indeed a God, and they are not Him!

From this experience, Saul had to completely rebuild his life, had to turn 180 degrees and reverse the entire direction of his being. But the amazing thing is that God lets us take such U-turns, in fact He often makes them happen! Conversions do happen, they are real, and when they happen like this they are very fundamental in nature.

Paul, as he came to be known rebuilt his life on a new foundation – not the foundation of a list of religious beliefs, but the foundation of actual experience, an actual relationship with the very Savior he had once doubted with complete certainty. His new life was built on faith, not dogma.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” — Galileo Galilei

And this brings up an important point about faith – one that I often discuss with members and friends that experience times of doubt or pain of challenge. “Faith” is an abused and misused word!
Most often I hear the term “FAITH” used in a way that means “thoughtless belief without doubt in the impossible or contradictory or simply silly.” Many Christians behave as if willfully believing a certain list of propositions, no matter how silly or contradicted by reason or science, is what God wants us to do.  No, I love the comment by Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

And the comment by our Moravian Bishop Edwin Sawyer: “The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”

“The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”

– The Right Rev. Edwin Sawyer

But when we use FAITH in a normal sentence – such as “I have faith that Joe will do the right thing,” or “I have faith in you.” Do we mean that we are stubbornly and blindly believing against all evidence that Joe, who is a crack addict in and out of jail who abandoned his family, embezzled from his employer, and has destroyed pretty much every relationship in his life will, because of our belief, suddenly turn around and behave completely out of character? NO! We mean that even in a new situation that we’ve never experienced, we expect that the reliable, good, solid person that we have watched in other situations over the years, will do the right thing – because that’s what Joe does. Our faith is based on our experience with Joe, in our relationship with Joe.

FAITH is based on experience – on relationship, not on willfully believing a list of particular silly things.

It is when we know another person that we are confident of what that person will do in any situation. One of my favorite bits from Count Zinzendorf is actually a footnote to a sermon on one of Paul’s letters, about a comment that is a little ambiguous and hard to translate. In the footnote, the good Count wrote: “I am sometimes confused about what Paul means here, but I am saved from error because I know the One about Whom he is speaking.” I know the One about Whom he is speaking!

Again, on the road to Damascus, Paul went from being absolutely confident of his own rightness, of being 100% unshakably certain that everything on his list of litmus tests for Jewish orthodoxy were RIGHT to a blind, shaky confused man who had actually experienced the presence of the Savior. He had to rebuild his life on that RELATIONSHIP and ACTUAL EXPERIENCE of the Savior now rather than on a list of proposition.

There are Christians, in fact many Christians, who will tell you that you are not a “good” Christian if you believe in evolution or the big Bang or that the Earth was not created on 23 Oct, 4004 BC (as Bishop James Ussher confidently decreed) or some other date picked out of a hat by another fundamentalist based on some other Rube Goldberg contraption of contrived logic. BALONEY. The True Christian life is based on a real relationship with the Savior, EXPERIENCE of God of Creation. As a result, the growing faithful Christian will often have periods of doubt and questions as he or she grows, as his self-assured beliefs are challenged by a Damasucs Road experience, as her childish beliefs have to fall by the wayside in the experience of grown-up situations that call for grown up courage and grown up faith in a grown-up God!

“Faith” is not pulling up your socks and turning off your brain and willfully believing in something silly or magical or contradictory. It’s not believing the impossible, as in my favorite bit from Alice in Wonderland:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Now, the fact of the matter is that as we grow in faith – that being again a living relationship with a living Savior, not some superficial belief in a set of propositions – we will wrestle with new and deeper spiritual issues and questions. We will never be at the same spot on the journey of faith as someone else; and so inevitably some will see further down the road than others, one standing at the top of a hill will see beyond the valley that another is in. Both are on the same journey, following the same Savior, but at different points. And such differences in perspective inevitably cause differences in opinion and perception. How could it be otherwise? But the true test of those who are part of the Kingdom is that they are called to be One even when experiencing such differences in perspective.

This is nothing new! Paul ran into this sort of thing right away with Peter, who after all felt that he was the proper head of the Church – and who at this point believed that the message was only for Jews, not for Gentiles. They had quite a wrestling match over this, in fact Paul’s calling to preach to the Gentiles nearly cost him his relationship with the Church in Jerusalem – and this tension was only resolved through Peter’s visionary experience, another intervention of the divine not unlike Paul’s Damascus Road experience.

Our Moravian Church has experienced such differences and struggles over the centuries, and will continue to struggle with these issues as surely as God made little green apples. If we stop having these struggles, that will be the time to feel for the pulse, shake the head sadly, and pull the sheet up – for we will be dead. Turmoil, differences, and struggle are not signs of weakness, they are signs of life.

So in all of this the question that I would leave you with is this: HOW DO YOU EXPERIENCE THE SAVIOR?

Ordinary Time

We are now in Ordinary Time! Sounds like H. G. Wells or Doctor Who or Star Trek – you know, after the USS Enterprise has emerged from a singularity that has created a tear in the space-time continuum, Mr. Spock calmly announces, “Captain, we have successfully returned to Ordinary Time.” But it has nothing to do with science fiction – it’s actually the portion of the liturgical year that is not Advent or Easter or Pentecost. There are actually two periods of the Church Year that are referred to as “Ordinary Time:” the period following the Baptism of Jesus until Ash Wednesday, and the period following Pentecost until the beginning of Advent.
I’ve always been a bit intrigued with the concept of “Ordinary Time.” Since most of our lives are lived in “Ordinary Time,” regular days at the office or at school or commuting to work, I think it can be a terrific symbolic reminder that God is just as present in those average days as He is in the mountaintop days; that He is with us in the trenches of daily life as He is in the moments of celebration.

Read more about Ordinary Time on Wikipedia.

This is particularly important to us here at Trinity this year, because we’ve just finished a year of celebration, a year of parties and luncheons and special events to celebrate our Centennial. And now it’s over, now we return to “Ordinary Time.” There are no big parties and special events for the second month of our hundred and first year – or for the second Sunday of the third month of our hundred and first year. It’s back to the regular work of being the Church. But that is a special as it gets, because it’s there in midst of the day-to-day ministry that the work of God really happens, that the Kingdom is made manifest. That’s the place where the sick are supported, where the bereaved are comforted, the needy find help, and the despairing find hope. Mighty important work, the work that is done in “Ordinary Time!”

So it’s back to Ordinary Time, back to the week-in, week-out work of the Church of Christ. Ordinary Time can be pretty special!

- Pastor John

The Waiting Place

Advent is something of a waiting place – a place where we are waiting for Christmas, waiting for the birth. We anticipate the holy Event; we get prepared for it. And just as a child longs for Christmas morning to come or a pregnant woman longs for delivery in the last few weeks of pregnancy (Sister Dena Moore comes to mind for some reason!), so we long for Christmas.

You may have seen Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, the Places You’ll Go. In his wacky wise way, Ted Geisel acknowledges that in every life there are places we go that don’t feel positive – or which don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. One of these is The Waiting Place:

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come,
or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No….

 

 

We have many waiting places in life. The doctor’s waiting room, with the same old magazines we saw last time, surrounded by sniffling people and crying children, is a place that we wait. Flying somewhere on an airplane is less fun now than ever before, especially when the flight is late and we have to wait far longer than expected. When the waiting is finally over, we are really ready to see the doctor or to get on the plane and reach our destination!

Our instant culture is not one that likes to wait. The microwave is no longer fast enough for us. Instant gratification is the hallmark of our internet economy. But sometimes we need to slow down and wait.
“The greatest revelation is stillness,” said Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse. But how often do we slow down to have a few moments of silence, of time to prepare for God? These moments don’t just happen for most of us – they have to be intentionally set aside. The world and even the Church has filled Advent with busy-ness and noise and things to do. Yet it should be a time when we have some stillness to prepare for the spiritual event of Christmas.

“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). Waiting in silence is not a waste of time if it prepares our hearts for what is to come. This Advent season, set aside some time to wait upon the Lord, set aside some time to have silence, to have prayer, to read a meditation. Make this time a waiting place – a place of preparation for joy.

- Pastor John

The Birth of the Unity

March 1, 1457 is the day recognized as the official date of the organization of the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren – so this month actually marks the 555th anniversary of the Moravian Church. This was sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral; and as I have recently had the opportunity to remind the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, it was over seventy-five years before the Church of England separated from Rome. Many historians now refer to the Hussite movement as the “First Reformation,” and recognize that there was in fact a strong and organized reform movementin place before Luther and Henry VIII were even born. The movement had an enormous impact on the life and worship of central Europe, much of which was wiped out in subsequent wars and swept under the carpet when the area later became Roman Catholic

Ours was a church born out of struggle and war that then sought a way to peace. Following the martyrdom of John Hus in 1415, his followers in Moravian and Bohemia rose up against the Roman Catholic armies, and a period known as the Hussite Wars began that ravaged the area. There were initially a number of different Hussite groups with varying and sometimes competing ideas; but as war raged on and these groups competed, eventually a variety of Hussites came together to found the Unitas Fratrum or Unity of Brethren. .

Through five hundred and fifty-five years, the Church has seen a lot of changes. The Unitas Fratrum almost died out (some historians feel it actually did die out) in the 17th century during the time of Comenius and the Thirty Years’ War. It was reorganized by that legendary band of settlers on Zinzendorf’s lands in 1727, and that movement defines many of the traditions and practices that we so love today.

But through all those years and changes there have been some important constants: the centrality of Christ, the compassion and love of God, the incredible grace that is extended to us, and an emphasis on looking back to Apostolic Christianity rather than the institutional pronouncements of Rome. The idea that there are really only a few “essentials” and that other differences should not divide Christians has been an important constant; so too is the idea that it is essential that we live lives that express Christ’s love. Indeed, the early members of the Unity referred to themselves as “Brethren of the Law,” the law of love. It has to be said that we have not always lived up to this great tradition, sometimes getting more caught up in the external non-essentials.

As we look back on the founding of our congregation only a hundred years ago, as we celebrate and recall the faithful Christian lives in living memory that have impacted our faith, we also need to recall that we are part of a much longer history, a rich heritage of faith that proclaims:

In essentials, UNITY
In non-essentials, LIBERTY
In all things, LOVE.

- Pastor John

Centennial Year

This month marks the start of Trinity’s 100th year of ministry, and we have many exciting events to look forward to as we approach the official anniversary date of July 14. We’ve already begun to enjoy seeing the old photographs, hearing names of forebears, and sharing stories of bygone days. But as we look back on our history and enjoy stories of our heritage, it is very important that we be looking forward as well.

The visionary Moravians who started Trinity saw great opportunity for ministry in the Sunnyside and surrounding neighborhoods. Then, this area was a relatively new suburban area, serviced by the relatively new trolley car system. Many people could afford the new Ford Model T, and these transportation options opened the way for neighborhoods further out from the center of town. Jobs at local mills were expanding. But it was not long before World War I would hit, and not too many years later the Great Depression. Yet in the midst of the Depression, the members of Trinity rallied to build the four-story Christian Education building that serves us so well today.

That building is now full of activity every Wednesday night with our LOGOS program, and recently has been bubbling with nearly 80 grade school children from the neighborhood each Saturday morning who come for structured tutoring and academic assistance. In a time of financial challenge when many traditional churches are stepping back and shrinking, Trinity continues to find new avenues for ministry.

God has placed us here for a purpose; we have a unique message to share and a unique ministry to accomplish today, in 2012 – and forward in future years – among the people of Sunnyside, Waughtown and surrounding communities. Today our society is fabulously mobile, we have members who commute in regularly from every corner of the county, and we are able to stay in touch with young members away at college and friends who live in distant communities through technology. But ultimately, it is the personal contact and relationships that are the building blocks of ministry at Trinity.

Today, tomorrow, next year, God has a mission for us. This year as we look back upon our past, we must at the same time be rooted in the moment, sensitive to the things which are going on around us, the people who we encounter who are in need of the words of grace. We need to be looking forward to the future, planning wisely and seeking God’s guidance for our future ministry here on the corner of Sunnyside and Sprague.

- Pastor John

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