For lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.
— Evelyn Underhill
As I write this column, we have just entered the season of Advent. After three months of livestreaming worship only, our first Sunday with many back in the sanctuary was a joyful coming home celebration. Yes, we were all wearing our masks and doing our best to maintain physical distancing. Even so, the sparkle in the eyes of those gathered in the sanctuary was an indication of many smiles behind the masks.
The reduced strain on the ICU in our hospital, the availability of booster shots, and the expansion of eligibility of vaccines to include children ages 5 and up allows us to return to in person worship carefully. We recognize that some individuals continue to need to exercise special caution because of their particular health situations, and we encourage you to make the best choices for yourself and your loved ones. We’ll continue to provide livestreams of our worship services on Facebook and YouTube. In addition we’ve learned the value of virtual gathering spaces, so we’ll keep finding ways to connect with one another on Zoom.
This year we have Advent at Home kits available for households. These kits include Advent calendars, daily devotions, candles for creating an Advent wreath, craft ideas, and more. The kits are available during church office hours this week. If you need one delivered to you, contact the office.
I encourage you to use the Advent kits to create your own spiritual practices for Advent. We’ve added one of my favorites practices this year, the Advent Photo-a-Day devotions. There is one word for each day of Advent. Hold the word in your thoughts throughout the day. When you see something that connects to that word, snap a photo. You can share those photos on your social media or you can keep them for yourself. Sharing them with others may spark more folks to take up the practice, and you may find inspiration in the posts others share.
I looked back in my photos, and the first time I participated in an Advent Photo-a-Day practice was in 2013. I'm including a few of those photos here.
The daily practice of reflecting on one word and taking a photo relating to it is a way to help us pay attention. We are learning to look with an openness for what is around us, to find meaning in the everyday. If you haven’t tried it before, I encourage you to take a look at the Advent words for this year. See what you may discover about yourself, the world, and the Sacred which surrounds us every day.
I’d love to see what captures your attention. If you do share your photos on social media, use the hashtags #fccmky, #fccmorehead, #advent2021, #closetohome.
May this Advent season be a time of waiting, expectant waiting, for the Holy One to be revealed.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.
Much of pastoral ministry involves not speaking, but listening. A new minister slowly learns the stories of their congregation, both individual stories and the collective history of that faith community. Listening takes time and intentionality. As relationships deepen, the opportunities for sharing significant and personal experiences grows.
A few months ago I shared some of what I’ve been learning about FCC Morehead, gleaned from conversations and practices. I listed the core values I’ve see in this faith community: communion, compassion, education, beauty, Creation, hospitality, community, history, and practicality.
It’s an incomplete list, I know. Still I hope we can continue the conversation on these core values. I’d love to see where our lists overlap and what you know of this congregation that I have yet to learn.
Let me say a bit more about one of those core values: history. I am mindful of the rich tradition of this congregation, under the direction of Frank C. Button its joint history with the founding of the Morehead Normal School, now Morehead State University. The very foundation of the church building rests upon the ground of its predecessor, the Union Church, which was built at the encouragement Col. John Hargis, founder of Morehead. Those two parts of our congregation’s history reveal the threads of ministry which continue to this day: our ongoing commitment to education and our dedication to ecumenism. It is, borrowing the words of Lord Acton, “an illumination of the soul” of this congregation.
An exploration of one’s history also calls us to reflection, and at times repentance. Our ancestors, both personal and corporate, were human beings like us, sometimes inspiring, at other points most fallible. Engaging in history requires much of us, to be willing to face uncomfortable facts and to learn what those parts of our history reveal about ourselves. Our congregation’s history is no exception. The first financial supporter of the founding of the Normal School and of the Christian Church in Morehead was William Temple Withers, a former Confederate general and slaveowner, and also a prominent Lexington philanthropist and supporter within Christian Church circles. His name is included in one of our stained glass windows.
History is complicated because human beings are complicated.
We are beginning our worship services with an acknowledgement of the land, a public recognition of the stories of this place before us, of the people who lived on this land, loved it, cared for it, and who were forcibly displaced from their lands. That story is part of the history of the American church, too, and of ours as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It’s a history which may make us uncomfortable, which challenges the narratives our ancestors told about themselves. Learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, the role that Christian churches played in the forced removal and the intentional erasure of indigenous culture and practices, enables us to tell our own stories with more honesty and humility. And it can change the ways in which we engage in ministry today, as we learn from the mistakes of the past and see how those historic decisions still affect the present day.
Our histories are a mix of cherished stories and of regrets. I’m grateful that this congregation is committed to being faithful storytellers who both inspire and who don’t flinch at the painful chapters of the past.
How do you understand the role of history in this congregation? In your own life? What lessons are you learning from the past? What stories do you want to know more about?
Let’s keep this conversation going.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
We’ve hit another rough patch in this ongoing global pandemic. Every time we think we’re nearing the end of the worst of it all, a new cruel curve ball is thrown at us. Many of us were jubilant as vaccines with incredible effectiveness were rolled out earlier this year. As soon as we were eligible, we made our appointments, rolled up our sleeves, and weathered the possible side effects of vaccines. We did so for ourselves, for our families, friends, coworkers, and for our neighbors.
But sadly, many of our neighbors did not. Our county’s vaccination rate slowed, not reaching 50% until September 2021. And that low vaccination rate kept the door open for the new Delta variant to spread. Our local hospital has been highlighted on the national news—because of the alarming numbers of COVID-19 patients in its care and the ongoing stress placed on its medical care staff.
I’ve heard from many of you that you’re tired. You’re exhausted from the goal posts continually being moved further away. You miss the community of our faith practices, the hugs and greetings, the laughter, the shared meals. The choir longs to sing again, and we would love to hear congregational singing ring through our sanctuary.
The picture of this sidewalk sign appeared in my Facebook feed this week. It made me smile. Not only because last night my barbacoa taco fell apart as I was trying to eat dinner, but because it was a word I needed to hear, too.
In the midst of all of this uncertainty, as we grieve experiences and people we miss, even as we struggle with resentment or anger, I encourage you to be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come to you. There is no one right way to live through a pandemic.
Each Thursday night vespers includes two readings: one from Mark’s gospel and also a psalm. The Psalms are a gift to us—in it we are given the heights and the depths of human emotions. Nothing is off limits. We hear the rawness of personal pain and tragedy. The psalmist gives voice to despair and loneliness.
I am twisted, I am all bent.
All day long I go about gloomy. (Ps. 38:7)
At times the honesty can take us aback. (Ps. 137:8-9 is a horrific example.) For me it bears witness to the wideness of God’s embrace. There is no emotion we can experience that would make God turn away. The psalmist offers words of soaring praise and joy alongside of the darkness of pain and suffering. It is an unflinching portrayal of human living with no judgement or rejection.
Through all its pages the psalms provide a glimpse of a faith forged in the messiness of life. Faith that doesn’t require a forced optimism or demand we live with false smile on our faces. So give yourself some space...and some grace, too. These days of pandemic may linger, but God’s steadfast love endures forever. (Ps. 136)
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
Semper Gumby, indeed (although my Latin teacher might argue for semper flexibile). Just a few weeks ago in July we were planning for a very different fall. Singing masks were purchased for our church choir, we were beginning to discuss ways to open our building up again for community events, and we thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us. And today, as I write this, there is an emergency field hospital unit set up in the parking lot at St. Claire Regional Medical Center to process patients as the medical facility is straining to care for patients.
The Returning to Worship committee made the difficult decision to resume virtual worship services beginning on August 15. At the time it seemed we were alone in this assessment. Although we know many congregations in our area are continuing to meet in person, the ecumenical guidelines on safely gathering indoors for worship services recommend a more cautious approach. Now other Disciples congregations in our region are also reverting to virtual worship services. We will continue to monitor the conditions in our county as we consider when we are meeting the benchmarks to offer in-person worship safely.
Whether we asked for it or not, the pandemic is offering opportunities for rethinking church, faith, and spiritual formation. We’ve always said the church was not limited to an hour on Sunday morning, now we are living out what that might look like in practice. This September we will again be celebrating the Season of Creation. Our worship services will provide inspiration for us to do more reflection on our own relationships with creation. I hope you will find ways to engage with the Season of Creation art exhibition, either on-line or in person. Together we can celebrate Creation not only in words, but also in deeds, putting into practice the spiritual wisdom of our faith tradition to care for the earth.
We tend to focus on the limitations of the moment—what’s not open, what’s not safe, what we have given up in this pandemic. In the spirit of flexibility, can we ask different questions?
What is opening up for you now?
What can you embrace in this time?
What doors are open now?
As you reflect on the possibilities of this time, stop to give thanks for the unexpected blessings you’ve discovered and for the previously overlooked gifts of the past 18 months. And remember—God is good. All the time.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
Living into our values means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them. We walk our talk — we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviors align with those beliefs.
Planning meetings are seldom glamorous. Calendars are a must. Events and projects will get listed. Names of potential volunteers are floated. To-do lists grow. If all goes as designed, everyone goes home with their share of tasks to complete. Planning meetings are a necessary part of the life of any organization—business, nonprofit, or church. We’ve all been part of planning sessions, some productive, some perfunctory, and others fruitless. I don’t know about you, but just writing those sentences make me tired!
My response may have something to do with those “planning for planning’s sake” meeting I’ve been a part of, when everyone there is already overtaxed, and the last thing they want to do is add to their workload. People leave such meetings with their shoulders sagging and their hearts heavy. It’s a recipe for burnout and disappointment.
Planning sessions don’t have to be that way. With focus, intentionality, a wee bit of flexibility, and a whole lot of grace, folks with a common purpose can come together to map out their next steps, breathe new life into ongoing projects, and imagine new endeavors. Productive planning starts with knowing the groups core values and using those values to design and evaluate the work of the group.
I’ve spent much of my time this past year listening, paying attention to stories of what you’ve done as a congregation, what you miss, what you hope for. It’s been a challenge in a pandemic, and I hope to have many more conversations to come. One of the things I’ve been listening for are what the core values of this congregation are. Sometimes those values are explicitly named, other times they show up as common threads in activities and projects in which people are invested. Every church community is different.
Here’s a start at what I’m learning about FCC Morehead, in no particular order.
What do you think of it? Any thing you would add?
Which ones do you think are core values of our congregation?
Any questions about how I see these values in our congregational life?
When a congregation is clear about its values, we can focus the planning process. Planning sessions can take on new life, as we evaluate, dream, and design our activities through the lens of our core values.
In a few weeks FCC ministry leaders and volunteers will come together for an annual planning workshop. We’ll focus on our values and how what we choose to focus on in the coming year reflects those priorities. I invite all of you, whether you’re a part of that planning meeting or not, to pray for our work. May the Spirit guide us as we seek to be faithful to God’s call for us here and now.
With Christ’s grace and peace,
We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.
—2008 Identity Statement, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
I must confess it is difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I am writing the first pastor’s column of my second year serving alongside you in ministry at First Christian Church of Morehead, KY. Time has passed strangely these last 12 months. Some of you I have met with weekly on Zoom over the past 12 months. We’ve shared in communion together in weekly vespers. Others have gathered virtually for film festival discussions during Advent and Lent. We’ve held Lenten tea time conversations on Monday afternoons and monthly book study discussions. I’ve joined with a wonderful group of women for Tuesday night Bible studies. These gatherings have been rich and meaningful. I’ve learned much about you, and you have gotten to know me (and my dog Stoney) through these conversations. And now we are carefully coming back together for in person gatherings, for Sunday worship and for planning meetings. In person gatherings means we have the chance to get to know one another in those wonderfully normal, everyday conversations that happen in those informal moments, before worship begins or after a meeting is concluded.
As with any new relationship we’ve been adjusting to one another. I’m learning some of your favorite traditions and practices, finding commonalities and differences with my experiences in other Disciples congregations. And in turn, you’re getting used to my leadership style, the priorities I bring to my calling as a pastor, and the gifts I have to offer. These past twelve months have been a time of learning and growth for all of us. I’m grateful for the hospitality you’ve shown me and for the graciousness of all of the leaders and volunteers of this congregation as we’ve navigated these challenging days.
This next year is overflowing with possibilities. Our church leadership will face many choices on how best to live faithfully together. Faithful decision making takes time and intention, and is always rooted in the spiritual practice of prayerful discernment. Thank goodness the work of the church is not a sprint; it’s not even a marathon (with a nod to the Apostle Paul), we are called to a lifelong pilgrimage of faith. As we plan together our next steps, we’ll reflect on where God has been with us in the past, and listen for where the Spirit is leading us now. And we’ll hold before us the vision and rich tradition and the present calling of this congregation, reflecting on how these familiar words can guide our path forward:
We are Disciples….
We reach out and within.
We prepare God’s table for all, as it was prepared for us.
We embrace the old, the heartsick, the outcast, the different.
We believe Love wins.
We have a clear sense we are on a journey in the right direction and we’re on the journey together….
We are Disciples.
With great hope and anticipation,
The life so short, ……..the craft so long to learn.
What’s our Big Why? That’s the question which echoes through our conversations over Tim Soeren’s book, Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Where You Are. We dance around the question a bit, throwing out an answer here or there, although nothing seems to truly fit. Why are we here, First Christian Church of Morehead, Kentucky? What is the dream that God wants us to be a part of in this amazing part of Appalachia?
Sometimes it helps to begin at the beginning, to retell the origin stories of this place and this community of faith. We know the Buttons, as recounted in the Rowan County News Centennial Celebration,
The year 1887 was a memorable one for Morehead and Rowan County, for it marks the end of the county’s most crucial period and the beginning of its regeneration. Reverberations of the devastating Rowan County War were still echoing in these hills when a young minister and his mother, Frank and Phoebe Button, came as strangers to Morehead and laid the foundations of the Morehead Normal School.
It was the arrival of the Buttons to Morehead which brought new purpose and much needed stability to the small church reeling from the violence. There are some intriguing themes I see in this origin story of ours and perhaps some points of connection with our own time:
My list is just a start. And you all know the story of this place and this congregation much better than I. I’d love to have conversations with folks reflecting on our beginnings. What values motivated the congregation in its early years? Is there a DNA to this congregation—a common thread connecting us to those beginnings? How have you experienced those core values lived out in the congregation? Are there other points of connection you see between the beginnings of this congregation back in the 1880’s and today? In what ways has the identity of the congregation evolved since its start?
Let me know your thoughts. We as a congregation have been gifted with a rich tradition, and I believe the Spirit is nudging us into an even more rich future.
With hope and anticipation,
Justice is what love looks like in public,
just as tenderness is what love feels like in private.
There is so much more to do. The jury in the Derek Chauvin murder trial returned a verdict last week, guilty on three charges. While in some ways it is a relief, the verdict is not an ending. Nor is it a beginning. Rather it is one more story which reveals the lingering legacy of our nation’s original sin of racism. It confronts us in an eight minute and 46 second video recorded by a 17 year old bystander, as a black man lays on the ground, struggling to breathe, calling out for his mother, all the while a white police officer presses his knee into his neck. But it is just one tragic story, in a long history of horrific stories.
We wonder what we can do? We don’t live in Minneapolis, or Boston, or Chicago, or Elizabeth City, NC, or Louisville—the list of cities grows longer. Yes, we must educate ourselves, on the full history of our nation and its complicated history of race. And yes, we as a denomination have committed ourselves to being an anti-racist/pro-reconciling church. In March I participated in the new anti-racism training required for Kentucky Disciples clergy. The Northern Lights region of which I was a part for 20 years has long required regular anti-racism training for clergy and expanded resources for congregations, too. Even so, book studies and training will not suffice. We know that.
In small groups recently several people have expressed their desire to become better listeners. It’s as if we know there are stories out there we haven’t heard, perspectives we don’t understand. The ability to listen openly, deeply to another is not easy for many of us. I confess in important conversations my mind often rushes forward to what I might say in response, rather than slowing down to receive what another person is saying. The practice of listening takes time and requires intention. As individuals and as a congregation there is work for us to do here.
In 2020 Disciples at the national level provided a series of conversations online called, “Love Is an Action Word.” The videos are available on the Disciples YouTube channel. The town halls featured voices from around our denomination focusing on anti-racism/pro-reconciliation issues and the church. The series begins with a conversation among white Disciples clergy on avoiding complicity in racism, and follows up with seven sessions with indigenous, North American Pacific Islander/Asian Disciples, Hispanic, African-American, and LGBTQ+ Disciples. If you missed the series, I invite you to watch them. The conversations are a good place for us to begin to listen to voices outside of our usual circles.
It is easy to despair, to think things will never change, but we are Easter people. In this Easter season we Christians are given another story, not of death and violence, but a story of resurrecting life. Easter gifts us with the ability to imagine another way of living together, of liberating ourselves from the systems of oppression which trap us all in cycles of violence and injustice. May we learn to listen with compassion, and may God open our hearts and minds to imagine a world shaped by God’s holy shalom.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.
As I write this column I am, like so many others, living in an in-between time. One vaccine shot—done. Now, I wait for my turn for the second shot. So close, but not quite there. It is becoming a common greeting: “Have you had your vaccine yet?” Photos of vaccination cards or even folks posing with big smiles while sporting a bandage on their arm are regular social media updates. When we gather on Zoom and folks share they’ve received a vaccination, the whole group cheers in celebration! In a recent update on March 29th our governor announced that 40% of Kentucky adults have been vaccinated, with approximately 70% of Kentuckians over the age of 70 vaccinated.
We are getting closer to the time when we can resume many of the activities we love to do. According to CDC guidelines once vaccinated, we can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask. And a vaccinated person can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household—which means for example, vaccinated grandparents can visit with grandchildren again. It has been a long wait.
The same day he announced 40% of Kentuckians had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the governor also shared there were 11 new deaths in Kentucky. And new virus variants are on the rise in the state as well, which means we’re not out of this. We’re all still in that fuzzy and frustrating in-between time.
I believe in this moment we as Christians have an opportunity to live out Christ’s call to care for our neighbors as ourselves in powerful and tangible ways. There are strident voices in our world, those shouting freedom and rejecting masks as theater, but their understanding of freedom is truncated. Whether they are religious leaders, elected officials, or folks who live in our neighborhoods, theirs is a shallow freedom for the individual alone without regard for the common good. In contrast, Christians understand that Christ has set us free to live out true freedom, freedom which is lived out in love and service to one another. That’s the way of Jesus, not protesting public health measures. We are to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit for which Paul advocates,
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Indeed, there is no law against such things.
Let’s take up Paul’s challenge. Let’s be people of great love. People who care for our neighbors. People who practice patience and kindness in our interactions. And yes, people who continue to wear face masks in public, not for ourselves, but for those we meet.
We’re so close. We can do this.
Let yourself be inert, wait until the incomprehensible power…
that has broken you restores you a little,
I say 'a little' because henceforth you will always keep something broken about you.
As I write this, the United States has just marked a staggering milestone—over 500,000 people have died because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Five hundred thousand individual lives ended, each one leaving behind many more loved ones who grieve their loss. If we had known the enormity of our nation’s loss when we entered into lockdown efforts a year ago, would things have unfolded differently? Could we have set aside differences and instead pledged ourselves to care for our neighbors as ourselves? What if we had been called to commit ourselves anew to the idea of E pluribus unum, could we have risen to the occasion?
It is too late, of course, to ask such questions. Half a million people have died; one hundred thousand lost since January. As I wrote that grim statistic, I found it unbelievable, so I stopped to check my facts. And yes, it’s real. On January 19th we marked 400,000 deaths from the pandemic, at a rate of one death from COVID-19 every 26 seconds. On February 22, the death toll reached 500,000, and although thankfully the rate has slowed, we continue to lose more lives each day.
I began this note to you with a line from a letter Marcel Proust wrote to his friend, Georges de Lauris, after the death of his friend’s mother in 1907. The letter is a gift, written from the heart of one who has carried the weight of grief himself. “You will always keep something broken about you,” Proust shares gently. We know this to be true from our own experiences of loss. Grief reveals the fragileness of our existence, of the relationships we cherish, and all those we take for granted.
Going forward our nation will carry with us something broken, too. The question before us now is what will we do with this brokenness? We may have missed the moment to change direction last year, but now that it is past, now that so many people must gather up the broken pieces of their lives, what might we do differently?
As we hold these questions in our hearts, the church has entered into the season of Lent. We marked the season with the sign of the cross in ashes. In the weeks ahead we will walk alongside Jesus as he journeys to the cross, and we will hear his haunting invitation to take up our own cross and follow. The shadow of the cross looms over these days; the grim realities of death and human betrayal are never far from the story. Lent moves us to acknowledge the brokenness in our own lives and in the world around us.
It’s only when we are honest with ourselves and one another that we may truly grasp the promise of Lent that those who want to save their lives, must lose them. It is in this paradox we discover the hope of the season. As Leonard Cohen so aptly put it, “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The brokenness of our lives, of our nation, of the world holds within it the possibility of renewal. The choice is before us: God offers us life, abundant life, overflowing with grace and wonder. Can we receive that gift and change direction?
Proust ends his touching letter this way, “Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more." Let this be our prayer going forward, may we “constantly remember more and more.” May those memories be a blessing, a blessing which leads us to create a future shaped by compassion and to commit ourselves to the flourishing of our world.
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.