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.
Take a plane to London.
From King's Cross take the direct train to York.
—Joseph Stroud, “Directions”
(Of This World, © 2009 Copper Canyon Press)
Almost a year ago this month I flew across the country, blissfully boarding a packed airplane before masks and hand sanitizers became necessary in every public space. My plane landed late at night at the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, where the ever smiling Genny Jenkins was waiting to greet me. During that stay I met many of you in person, listened to your stories and your dreams for this congregation and community. We worshiped together in the sanctuary, and after you voted to call me as your next pastor, we shared a wonderfully traditional potluck in the fellowship hall. That Sunday afternoon I drove back to Lexington, got back on another crowded plane, and headed back to the Northwest to prepare for my move to Kentucky.
For many of you that’s the last time we saw one another face to face. The story of 2020 unfolded unlike anything we might have imagined that February Sunday. So much has changed, and we have too. We’ve learned to be flexible and nimble in our common life together. We’ve extended more grace to others and to ourselves. We’ve learned to laugh when we forget to unmute ourselves on Zoom. We’ve learned prayer, study, and community aren’t limited by the space in which we gather, be it in a building or online. And we’ve discovered just how much our relationships to one another matters to us.
As we enter into another season of Lent which will still be shaped by COVID-19, this time we have the gift of intentionality in our living through the season. Even as some of us begin to receive vaccines, we know we must still practice physical distancing to keep one another safe. I invite you to receive the opportunities we’re creating for Lenten spiritual practices, finding what may speak to you in this time and make it your own.
Joseph Stroud’s poem Directions, in the first half sounds much like simple directions to get to a pub in the north of England and to set out on a walking trail in the Yorkshire region. And then the poem turns, and it suddenly dawns on the reader that this is a walk of memory and imagination, Stroud continues:
You'll walk the freshness
back into your life. This is true. You can do this.
Even now, sitting at your desk, worrying, troubled,
you can gaze across Middlesmoor to Ramsgill,
the copses, the abbeys of slanting light, the fells….
We can do this. Sitting at our desks, worrying or troubled, we can find refreshment and hope in these days. This weaving together of memory, tradition, and spiritual imagination is not some weak substitute for worship and community, it is another way of being in a faithful community together, as we make our way, “step by step, into grace.”
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey…
—T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi
When my son was growing up, his father was often away in January, leading study abroad classes through Europe. Ben and I were left in dreary Washington state, dreaming of traveling to far away places. To make our time more special, I planned outings and activities. We frequented Starbucks for tasty treats. We’d make a special day trip to Seattle, to visit museums, shop in our favorite bookstores, eat at beloved restaurants.
I found ways to extend the Christmas season, relying heavily on the idea there are twelve days of Christmas, not just one. We began to celebrate Epiphany in our house, leaving our tree up and lit until January 6 and the magi of our nativity set took a long and circuitous route to the manger. Often we would bake a King’s cake for a special meal, and we took up the old tradition of Chalking the Door. I had read of the tradition of preparing the home for a visit by the Magi, leaving a bowl of water for their camels and shoes next to the door for a surprise gift of candies and treats in return. So every January 5th we’d tell the story of the Magi, put out a big bowl of water by the front door, carefully place our shoes nearby—and miraculously, the next morning all the water would be gone and a few of our favorite treats would be stuffed into our shoes!
In those small ways we were finding ways to practice our faith at home, weaving the stories into our lives just a little bit more during the long winter. These past ten months while we have not been able to worship in one place together, we have been creating new ways to be a faith community together. We’ve found deep meaning and relationships in Thursday night vespers. We’ve discovered new insights and ways of thinking about our faith as we’ve watched films and had weekly discussions on Zoom. We’ve made Advent wreaths at home, practiced prayer while coloring, and we’ve even sung along with others while our mics were muted! And as a congregation we have adapted our traditions so that we could continue to give generously to our neighbors, sharing gifts with families needing help this year.
It’s not been easy. And as we have been worshipping in our homes, I pray that our spiritual lives have been enriched by the expanding nature of our gatherings and practices. In this new year may we continue to cultivate the practices which deepen our faith wherever we find ourselves: in our homes, at work and play, and in our sanctuary, again, as well.
The natural habitat of Advent is a community of hurt. It is the voice of those who know profound grief, who articulate it and do not cover it over. But this community of hurt knows where to speak its grief, toward whom to address its pain….And because the hurt is expressed to the One whose rule is not in doubt, the community of hurt is profoundly a community of hope.
Advent is a season of waiting and preparation. Each year we come to the season of Advent and remind ourselves the pace of the Christian year is markedly at odds with the frantic holiday culture around us. This year feels different. 2020 has been a year defined by waiting—waiting for a bending of the curve, for restrictions to end, for test results, for 14 days of quarantine, for life to get back to normal, for election results, for a vaccine. We’ve done so much waiting this year; it is difficult to find motivation to wait more.
This Advent, let’s approach the season from another angle. Yes, we wait in anticipation for the Christ Child. But let’s dig deep into our faith for the Spirit’s wellspring of hope.
Each Sunday in Advent our worship will begin with the song, I Believe in the Sun. The lyrics are based on a story told to the BBC by a captured German soldier in 1945, who recalled that the words were found scrawled in a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding during the Holocaust.
I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
I believe in God — even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love — even when it is not apparent.
We are living through a season in which it takes courage to hope. Let us be a people who resist the pull of despair. In times of hurt, we can be a “community of hope” and a light to the world.
With hope and faith,
Do you know what thinking is?
It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind.”
—The Twelfth Doctor
In 1938 economic collapse, unrest, and conflicted had altered the shape of global affairs and shaken the foundations of modern theology, the editors of The Christian Century reached out to prominent theologians and church leaders asking the question, “How has your mind changed in the last decade?” The request described a proposed essay series as “a kind of testimony meeting” for “the free exchange of experiences.” The 34 contributors were to respond both intellectually and personally, offering deeply reflective essays that were published by the magazine. Karl Barth, Georgia Harkness, and Reinhold Niebuhr were among those who submitted essays, with Niebuhr confessing he had experienced “’a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas” which had been part of his earlier work.
It is a question to which the magazine has returned, each decade asking religious thinkers to reflect on the ways in which their understandings have changed. Some essayists profess a constancy to their thought. Others such as Langdon Gilkey saw the changes in process rather than complete, writing, “I prefer, if I may, to say ‘How My Mind Is Changing.’ Instead of having the sensation of motion followed by present rest and clarity…, I am now overwhelmed by the sense of being theologically still in passage.”
It is a question worth pondering, how our thinking changes over time. Asking the question of ourselves requires honesty, a fair bit of humility, and vulnerability. Today as the divisions in society seem greater than ever before, admitting to a change in thought demands courage. Our politicians are criticized for changing their positions on issues, sometimes rightly so if those changes are for political expediency. Yet, I would argue the ability to state publicly, “I was wrong. I changed my mind,” reveals a strength of character which our culture sorely lacks.
Asking myself the question, opens up many ways in which I’ve shifted my thinking. A newsletter article is too small to describe how much my mind has changed through the years, however, looking back there seem to be two consistent threads when I’ve clearly changed positions. First is the lens of God’s abundant grace which I experience at communion. Moving away from my formative experiences of the Lord’s Supper growing up in a conservative Baptist congregation in which our unworthiness and sinfulness was a primary communion theme, I have been reshaped by an expansive view of God’s radical welcome in the sharing of the Eucharist. Secondly, in those most consequential issues where I have changed, more often than not it has been because I have listened to the stories of others, heard their experiences of pain and injustice. Those stories opened up new ways of understanding.
There is much talk of echo chambers and confirmation bias in our culture. It is tempting to stay in our own safe camps and point fingers at those who disagree with us. And yet our God is always doing an new thing, always creating, always at work for transformation. If we are fearful of our current circumstances, asking the question, “how has my mind changed” might be a good place for us to begin. Acknowledging where we’ve been and how we’ve evolved may open up constructive possibilities for our future.
As my opening quote reveals, I am a lifelong fan of the British television show, Doctor Who. I’ll close with a bit of wisdom from the thirteenth and current Doctor, who in the 2018 season opener introduced herself saying,
“We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next. Now’s your chance! How about it?”
Now’s our chance. How about it?
Your fellow pilgrim on the way,
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
Fall is my favorite time of the year. Crisp cool mornings, warming afternoons, the trees in all their magnificent multicolored splendor—it’s glorious. As we make the turn into autumn, my heart is full of gratitude. I am thankful for the gracious welcome you have extended to me since my arrival. You all have made my move to Kentucky one of joy and adventure.
And thank you to everyone who helped make our Season of Creation worship series in September such an amazing experience! It lifted my heart to catch glimpses of the your world, places cherished by many of you. What a thrill to have so many voices coming together to celebrate creation, to lead us in worship, and to imagine how together we can respond to God’s call to care for the earth. We are very blessed to be surrounded by wonderful musicians who readily share their gifts with us and our community. I want to give a big shout out to our musical staff: Genny Jenkins, Jiyeon McGillicuddy, Caleb Fouts, Anna Grayson, and Bailey Hobbs. And a special thank you to Andrew Preston and our very own Roy and Jean Reynolds for making the worship for River Sunday even more meaningful.
I’m also incredibly grateful to all of you who have given financially to the Amplify Our Reach campaign to modernize and upgrade our audio-visual technology. Because of your wonderful generosity in the last month we are able to begin with the implementation of upgrades to our video streaming capabilities. And a big thank you goes to David Perkins for putting in many hours helping us improve our internet connections and network. His work gives us improved upload speeds for livestreaming worship services from the sanctuary which will greatly enhance our broadcast capabilities.
These are investments not only for our short-term situation, but for the future vitality of our congregation. We are experiencing a shift in the way churches gather, worship, and minister to our communities. In many ways the inability of gathering in person for worship has pushed us to recognize the world had already changed even before COVID-19. The challenge for us going forward will be to integrate these multiple ways of communicating, gathering, and being church together when we are able to worship in-person again.
In our weekly vespers service on Zoom, we share in prayer together. We are invited to give voice to our prayers in two categories: gratitude and concern. We begin those prayers of the people with gratitude as a spiritual practice. Giving thanks requires that we pay attention—we look to our daily lives and find gifts, big and small, which bring joy to us. Focusing on gratitude allows us to look beyond ourselves; it nurtures humility and empathy for others.
There is much in our world which can lead us to despair. In the coming months we will find it hard to resist the temptations to focus on fear or to retreat into our corners. Let’s not take the bait. As people of faith we can choose gratitude and we can work to heal divisions. We can march for justice, and we can be peacemakers. In other words, we can be disciples of Christ.
May God grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.
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.