“We belong to God” – An Ash Wednesday message in preparing for a journey through Lent 2023. This blog is an update of what I originally delivered to the Presbytery of Lake Huron in 2011.
Reflecting on first words of the Brief Statement of Faith, guiding me in preparing this message—from the Heidelberg Catechism:
“I belong—body and soul, in life and death—not to myself
but to my faithful savior Jesus Christ”
I. THE PHOENIX—MY PERSONAL STORY
First, a glimpse into my personal story. Before moving to California, I went to the same family doctor for over 30 years. Dr. Caroline Scott is an active Episcopalian worshipping in a church just a few blocks from the church I served. When I went in for an office visit, we would typically spend time talking about our common interest in doing Christ’s work, personally and as a church, in downtown Saginaw Michigan. I am fortunate to have found this doctor who is as passionate about God’s work in the city as in taking care of her patients. I recall she used to provide free health screenings and counsel to members of her inner-city parish.
I mention Dr. Scott because her medical practice has been appropriately named the PHOENIX FAMILY PHYSICIANS. The Phoenix is a majestic mythical bird, a fire spirit that can live for 500 to a 1000 years. Near the end of life the Phoenix builds a nest of twigs that then ignites; both nest and bird burn and are reduced to ashes, from which a new young Phoenix emerges, reborn, to live again.
My family and friends and church have helped me rise like a Phoenix from the flames of a heart attack over 30 years ago. Take note, my young friends and family, you can have a heart attack at the age of 35! At the age of 50 I had double knee replacement that ended with a septic infection that almost took my life. My family and friends gathered thinking this might be the end. It took me more weeks to recover than I can remember. The Phoenix rose again just a few years later when another infection shut down my kidneys…..I escaped meeting St. Peter one more time! My wife Nancy was out of town. The Lake Huron Presbytery Executive got me to the Emergency Room. The church and Lake Huron Presbytery had my back! Through the years I’ve had to deal with arthritis, heart disease, lymphedema — now retired and disabled often using a walker or wheel chair. Like the Phoenix, I have been given several opportunities to emerge from the ashes.
I have been blessed. Good things have come from these experiences. Retirement and moving with my always supportive wife Nancy to California to live close to our daughter and her family has been good. I have a collection of excellent doctors and many-many good friends.
II. A LOCAL CHURCH STORY
On a church level, the congregation I served from 1985-2013 has become a major part of my story. I can’t avoid knitting my personal health experiences with the experiences of this congregation. We lived through these experiences together. Just as I walked with members of the congregation as a pastor through challenging times, this congregation walked with me through my health challenges. We struggled, together, to emerge from the flames of crisis and ashes to discover again and again and again, as Joel says, that the “Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Literally, the church established in 1867 burned on January 2, 1898. Ten months later the church emerged from the ashes, rebuilt and rededicated under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Tewell. This pastor then died a few years later from a heart-attack at a relatively young.
Throughout the years the church has had to adapt and change and re-tool how it did ministry. The church grew to 1400 members in the 1950’s and closed in 2018 with around 60 faithful members — always and consistently pouring resources into the community. As pastor and congregation, we spent many years re-inventing ourselves in how we did things—as a spiritual island in a city devastated with crime and blight and poverty—always focused on ways we could share God’s “abounding and steadfast love” with others—always striving to rise like a Phoenix.
Some of our re-tooling through the years of my pastorate involved discovering that we couldn’t do ministry alone. We ran our own in-house programs for children and youth. We ran a summer program for inner-city youth called “Summer Magic”. In recent years we had partnered with the East Side Soup Kitchen, that used the church gym and professional kitchen, to serve the homeless and hungry poor. The church also had a mobile health clinic, the Naussau Clinic and converted a garage into a huge walk-in freezer for food rescue program called Hidden Harvest. Creating a playground for neighborhood children was another major church development. The Soup Kitchen and Hidden Harvest eventually moved into a new building called the Hunger Solution Center.
Also, after several years of intense planning in partnership with Healthy Community Partners, St. Mary’s Hospital, Neighborhood Renewal Services and the First Ward Community Center….the church opened its doors, rent free, to the Mark Neumeyer Cathdral District Youth Center. The late Mark Neumeyer was the man who called up one day and said: ‘Let’s talk about ways we can partner together in serving children in the community, As many as 40-50 children would come to this after-school program every day. It didn’t hurt that the church had a gymnasium. Women of Colors working specifically with neighborhood women and children came into the church and evolved into a huge community program. I absolutely LOVE sharing stories filled with these programs evolving from a church helping people rise from ashes of poverty and despair.
There is one short sentence in the Presbyterian Church Constitution that has been central in helping the church rise from ashes of inner city despair in defining her mission: “The church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life….” A similar affirmation is found in the church constitutional, “Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body……..a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.”
When I have been ill, there is no denying my fear in not knowing about the future. The same is true in the church. In various different contexts, we fear what is going to happen to us if we continue to do things the ways we have always done them before. The church did her work until she had no more resources to maintain programs in a huge and expensive building. I invested as much as I could until health and disability took me into retirement. Yet we still search for ways to rise from the ashes in new contexts as the vibrant, living body of Christ.
So this question: Post COVID, in what new ways is God leading? What is going to emerge from the flames of all the “unknowns” before the church in discerning God’s calling?
In our personal lives, what are we going to change in discerning ways we can be more faithful to God in sharing our lives with others?
We must re-set this Lent in carrying with us this affirmation: Whatever happens in our respective contexts, personally or as families or communities and a church, there must always be knowledge that we are not alone. God binds is together and builds us up in love. God is always with us. God has our back.
As we enter into another season called Lent: rise from the ashes of change to experience, again: WE BELONG TO GOD. IN LIFE AND IN DEATH….I BELONG TO GOD….WE BELONG TO GOD!
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
2Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes;their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful,slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him,a grain-offering and a drink-offering for the Lord, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people.Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;gather the children, even infants at the breast.Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?” ’
Matthew 6: 1-4 NRVS
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.