New Beginnings Update

For the past few months the congregation has been involved in a discernment process called “New Beginnings.” At the heart of this process is a question: “What is God calling our congregation to do and to be in this time and this place?” We began last Fall with an assessment of our church’s mission, finances, facilities, and programs which were compiled in a 71-page report.

On the first Sunday of February, we gathered for a special worship in the Church House auditorium when some of the elders led worship to kick-off the small group meeting phase of the New Beginnings. Since then, four small groups met to have conversations about the assessment of the congregation and to explore possible future options. A total of 35 people (participants and facilitators) took part in the lively conversations.

The next step is to gather the information and ideas generated by the small groups and to begin discerning how the Spirit is moving among and to move toward a decision for our future. The facilitators are currently meeting and working on these questions:

  • Based on these conversations, what would you say were the points of agreement?
  • What seemed to be the greatest opportunity for ministry in our context?
  • After listening to all the groups, which decision do YOU think is best for us?
  • Next steps and writing the report to the congregation.

A report to the congregation will be completed soon and there will be another special worship service to give thanks for the New Beginnings process and to hear the report. In the meantime, if you have any comments or questions about the process, please feel free to contact me.

Please also note the events coming up this month. Our annual Cooper’s Pond Clean Up, we join with the community in a “spring cleaning” of Cooper’s Pond is scheduled for Saturday, April 8 at 9:00 am! The next day, Sunday April 9, is Palm Sunday and marks the beginning of Holy Week (see the schedule on the front page), with Easter Sunday on April 16.

I will close with the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who invites us in a prayer of patient trust to: Above all, trust in the slow work of God:
Only God could say what this new spirit
            gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
            that his hand is leading you
 and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
            in suspense and incomplete.       

Grace and peace, Mark

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

As the last of the Thanksgiving turkey and leftovers are finally cleared out of the refrigerator and we recover from another “Black Friday” of shopping, we can now turn our attention to the season of Advent.

Believe it or not, Advent is not about endless Christmas parties and frantic shopping! The word “Advent” comes the Latin word adventus (which mean ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’) and is a time for the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the feast of Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, and also to prepare for the second coming of Christ.

In the early Church, the season of Advent lasted from November 11, the feast of St. Martin, until Christmas Day. Advent was considered a pre-Christmas season of Lent when Christians devoted themselves to prayer and fasting. Fast days were held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—so much for parties!

The current form of Advent crystallized in the 11th century under Pope Gregory VII, who set the current four-week length, and wrote liturgical materials for use in Advent. The primary sanctuary color of Advent is purple, the color of royalty, to welcome the Advent of the King. This points to the important connection between Jesus’ birth and death. The nativity and the Incarnation cannot be separated from the crucifixion and the resurrection.

The 20th century brought a rediscovery of the joy in Advent preparations by many Protestant denominations. This was signaled among Protestant Churches by using the color blue, which many have adopted for the season as an alternative to purple.

Please note that Christmas is on a Sunday this year! We will be worshipping that morning at 10:00 am but it will be a casual service (in dress and style) filled with scripture readings and songs.

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a favorite Advent hymn. Written by Charles Wesley in 1744, it focuses on the “long-expected Jesus” who was born to set us free. Below is the original third stanza of the hymn and the familiar final one:

 

Come to earth to taste our sadness, he whose glories knew no end;
By his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
Leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall;
This the everlasting wonder, Christ was born the Lord of all.

 

Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.

 

Advent blessings, Mark

Focus on the Future

As I write this article, we are also preparing for our Pledge Dedication on Sunday, October 30. Our Stewardship theme is “Fearless Generosity” and is an invitation to put our faith and trust in God into action. If you haven’t already pledged, please prayerfully consider your 2017 gift to South Church and know that your generosity is very much appreciated!

 I’m excited about our “New Beginnings” gathering on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 when you are be invited to share your views on the future of South Presbyterian Church. We will be using a process called Appreciative Inquiry, which is based on the idea of discovering what works best and gives life to an organization (i.e. congregation), and then building the congregation on these life-giving properties.

Thinking about our focus on the future, I want to share a story I once heard: A thoughtful, curious young man went to the desert to visit an elderly monk, who had lived in the desert for many years. Arriving at the holy man’s cave, the young man encountered the monk sitting outside enjoying the sun, his dog lying lazily at his side.

This spiritual seeker asked, “Why is it, teacher, that some who seek God come to the desert and are passionate in prayer, but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Let me tell you a story. One day I was sitting here quietly in the sun with my dog. Suddenly a large, white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. He chased the rabbit over the hills with great enthusiasm. Soon other dogs joined in—they ran barking across the creeks, up stony embankments, and through thickets and thorns! Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit.

In that story, young man, is the answer to your question. The young man sat in confused silence. Finally, he said, “Teacher, I don’t understand. What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for God?”

“You fail to understand,” answered the old hermit, “because you failed to ask the obvious question. The question is, ‘Why didn’t the other dogs continue the chase?’ And the answer to that question is that the other dogs had not seen the rabbit. The barking of my dog attracted them. But once you see the rabbit, you will never give up the chase. Seeing the rabbit, and not following the commotion, is what keeps me in the desert.”

So, I wonder, what keeps us faithful in our journey? How do we continue to focus on the rabbit and not on the commotion and uproar surrounding us? May the God of peace be with South Church and its members in our quest!

 

Grace and peace, Mark

New Beginnings

“What is God calling our congregation to do and be in this time and this place?” That’s a question to be asked and pondered over and over again by any church. But how do we realistically and practically go about answering it? I mentioned last month that your Session was considering the “New Beginnings” process, which helps assess a congregation’s strengths and challenges as it seeks to discern God’s call into future. The goal of the process is to put the congregation on the road to sustainable Christian witness and action within its community.

I’m pleased to report that the elders recently voted unanimously to participate in the New Beginnings Congregational Assessment Service, which is an important first step in answering the question at the beginning of this article. The assessment service, along with a follow-up strategic interpretation with the Session and other church leaders, will enable us to envision a new path for our future. With the guidance of God’s Spirit, we hope to develop a unified vision of the future together and to open ourselves up to new possibilities.

Please mark the date of Wednesday, November 2, 2016 on your calendar as the day when the congregation will be invited to share your views on the future of South Presbyterian Church. I’m excited about this intentional discernment process and trust that the Spirit will guide us toward a faithful and fruitful path.

This month of October brings us to our annual Stewardship season. Our theme for this year is Fearless Generosity. It’s based on Ephesians 3:20-21 and explores how God has blessed us more abundantly than we can imagine. Sunday, October 9 is the kickoff of our Stewardship emphasis and more details are provided in this newsletter.

This month also marks a big transition in the church office. As most of you know, Laurie Eaton retired on September 30 after more than 29 years as South Church’s secretary, office manager, and administrator. It’s difficult to put into words how Laurie’s gifts have greatly blessed both members of the church and the ministry of this congregation. I’m personally very grateful for how she’s been a wonderful staff partner for the past 16 months. She will be greatly missed and we pray for an exciting and fulfilling next chapter in her life.

We are also blessed to be welcoming a new staff member this month—Lisa Hayes, who will be joining us beginning on October 10 as our church administrator. Lisa is a native and resident of Dumont and comes to us with experience both in a church office and as a bookkeeper. We are delighted to have her join the South Church family!

Finally, I want to thank so many of you who reached out in the past few weeks following the recent and unexpected death of my mother. Your kind words and supportive notes and cards have been a welcomed boost during a difficult time. I especially want to thank Fred Toeppe for filling the pulpit for two Sundays! The past few months has been a time of loss for me personally but it has also been a time of gratitude for the remind of how God’s grace and mercy never fail.

Easter—A Fresh Start

            I’ll begin by expressing my gratitude for the vote of support and confidence from you, the congregation, on March 20 when you elected me to be your called and installed pastor. Both Pat and I are feeling very much “at home” in Bergenfield and are thankful for the warm embrace we’ve received. In my 10+ months as your pastor, I’ve sensed a growing level of both commitment and hope in among the members and I’m eager to journey together into the future God has prepared for us.

            On Easter Sunday we read the story of Jesus’ resurrection from Mark’s gospel. The women came to the tomb with spices expecting to find a dead body—a corpse. Instead, their expectations are shattered. The tomb is empty and the story is not over—Jesus has been raised! The resurrected Jesus is on the loose, going ahead of us into our ordinary and everyday lives.

            Just as Easter is a fresh start for Jesus’ disciples, it’s also a fresh start for you and me in our journey of faith. We don’t leave Jesus on the cross. We don’t hang around the empty tomb, wondering where he’s gone. He isn’t there. He’s in Galilee where he will meet us. Jesus is out where you live, at home. So, in the upcoming weeks, we in the church are challenged to take notice of how the Risen Christ is present among us.

            One place that we can be aware of God’s presence is in the beauty and wonder of Creation. All around us is a world that we often take for granted—fresh, easily available water, clean air to breathe, abundant sunshine and gentle rains, and plants and trees and animals. All of these are a gift from God’s gracious hand that makes human life possible.

            One way to honor this gift is for the church to actively care for the environment in which we all live. Recently the Mission Committee has created a Creation Care subcommittee, which will be responsible for coordinating activities that support the good stewardship of our resources. They will oversee programs like increased paper and plastic recycling, the PAR garden on the manse property, energy efficiency in our building, promoting and protecting wildlife habitat on church property (the Manse yard is already a Certified Wildlife Habitat), encouraging creation themes in worship, and more.

            A concrete action you can take is to participate in the clean of Cooper’s Pond on Saturday morning, April 9. Together with the Bergenfield Environmental Committee, Boy Scout Troop 180, the Bergenfield Garden Club, and the Borough DPW, we will help to clean up the park that originally belonged to South Church. There is a sign up sheet in the church house if you’re interested.

            As we move into Spring and the world blossoms around us, I’m reminded of a quote form the great Reformer John Calvin, who once wrote: “The creation is quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite and at the same time the most abundant furnishings. Everything in it tells us of God.”

 

The Holy Process - Lent & Easter

The month of March is upon us, which means longer days as we turn the clocks ahead, warmer temperatures (I hope!), and the coming of Holy Week and Easter Sunday. As we move toward the holiest and most significant of our Christian feasts and ponder again Jesus’ resurrection, I want to share a story that I told last year in a sermon.

It goes like this: Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled under the shade of a grand, old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully-Westernized acorns, they went about their business on the ground with purposeful energy; they even engaged in many self-help courses.

There were seminars called “Getting All You Can Out of Your Shell.” There were recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing their shells, and various therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

But then, one day, in the midst of this kingdom a stranger suddenly appeared—he was a knotty little acorn, dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird. He had lost his cap (unlike the other acorns) and was covered with dirt, which made an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns.

Crouched beneath the oak tree, the stranger stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the huge oak tree above, he proclaimed, “We…are…that!” Delusional thinking, the other acorns concluded. His drop from the sky must have addled his brain. How could a tiny acorn possibly be an oak tree?! That’s absurd!

But one of the acorns continued to engage the stranger in conversation. “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” he asked. “Well,” the newcomer said, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground and cracking open the shell.” “Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore!” And the leaders of the kingdom quickly got rid of the stranger and his wild ideas of acorns becoming great oak trees.

 The point of the fable is clear: Something had been lost in the imaginary kingdom of acorns—their true purpose in life. We know, of course, that an acorn is only a seed; its nature and destiny is to become an oak tree. But an acorn can’t sprout on the tree; it must fall into the ground, and its shell must be cracked open.

As we conclude our Lenten journey this month and walk again with Jesus to the cross, I believe that we too are in a holy process of being broken open to new life and new opportunity. Our Easter faith calls us to a dying and a rebirth, like the acorn that must be buried before it can live out its true destiny.

 All around us—right here in our neighborhood and across the country—are people and communities in dire need of good news. Our true purpose as the church is not to remain inside, polishing our shells, but to break open our lives and share the good news with the world. Just as God came in human form to live among us and we willing to die, so too are we sent out as seeds to be planted.

 

The acorn story is from "Acornology" by Cynthia Bourgeault