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.
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,
Through the looking glass,
down the rabbit hole,
into the wardrobe and out
into the enchanted forest
where animals talk
and danger lurks and nothing
works quite the way it did before,
you have fallen into a new story.
--Lynn Unger, “On the Other Side”
As I write to you our governor has just announced new measures to help our state stop the rising number of COVID-19 cases. The trend lines in our state are disturbing. We may feel insulated here in Rowan County, but our numbers have been increasing in July, and we are only a short drive away from areas with rising rates.
Our recent survey of the congregation included questions about COVID-19 and how it affects our worship practices. From the responses to the survey nearly 50% indicated they had an underlying risk which would prevent them from worshiping in-person in our sanctuary. Last week the elders discussed the pandemic, the results of our survey, the recommendations of our region and national Disciples leaders, and our own concerns. We talked about the struggles local businesses, the school district, and Morehead State University are having as they attempt to create safe environments for opening back up this fall.
Through it all we remain committed to the ministries of our congregation and our call to be a voice for hope and inclusion in our community. The elders and I recommended to the board that we continue with on-line only worship through November 2020. As we enter the fall, we will have a better understanding of how the unique dynamics of our county are responding to the pandemic, and we will reassess our worship practices going forward into 2021.
We recognize how disappointing this decision is. We are keenly aware of the longings many of us have to come back together in person, to worship side by side with one another, and to share in communion in one place. We do not come to this conclusion lightly, but through much prayer and reflection. It is our intention to focus on our current worship offerings and to provide the best possible worship experiences we can. Our worship will continue to be streamed live on Facebook every Sunday, and we will gather on Thursday night for Vespers services on Zoom.
I continue to trust that this unsettled time can be a gift to the church. I know it’s frustrating; I know we are all exhausted. Nothing is easy as we are navigating these changes. Trust me, the learning curve for online technology can be daunting! Nonetheless, in many ways this crisis has forced the church to acknowledge we have been slow to recognize the massive cultural, technological, and generational changes that have already been shifting the world around us. A recent Barna survey on Christianity in the U.S. found only 25% of Americans are practicing Christians down from 45% in 2000 (State of the Church 2020, Barna Group, March 2020). That decline has occurred in every age demographic. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been effective, and simply starting back up things just like we were doing before the pandemic won’t change that.
Why do I see this time as a gift? Because we follow a God who is constantly at work to bring life into the world, who is always innovating, never satisfied with the status quo. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to God, writing,
Do not recall the first things, and what came before do not consider.
I am about to do a new thing,
now it will spring forth and you shall know it. (Isaiah 43:18-19)
We Christians tend only to hear these words during the season of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas. When we read it through the lens of Advent, we know what the “new thing” is—Jesus. But God continues doing new things throughout history, and today is no exception. The hard part sometimes is tearing our eyes away from the past so that we are able to catch a glimpse of the Spirit at work in our world right now.
The Scottish hymnwriter John Bell composes many of my favorite contemporary music for congregational worship. In one of his short songs for worship, rooted in words from 2 Corinthians and Revelation, he gives us these reassuring words of faith,
"Behold, behold I make all things new,
beginning with you and starting from today.
Behold, behold I make all things new,
my promise is true for I am Christ the way."
We are a new creation in Christ, even amid a pandemic, perhaps especially now. We have fallen into a new story, a new story which God is writing with us. Now is not the time to despair. For this is the day we have been given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
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.