The whole texture of Jesus' ministry was one of inclusive welcome. One biblical and theological construct contained in the fact that the thief on the cross is the only person ever promised instant immortality by Jesus. If such unconditional inclusion was extended to this person (without any sacred or sacramental participation), then how can we do less in our ministry with others?
The Rev. Ronald A. Sparks
Community UCC of California City, Calif.
I am a baptized, communing member of a UCC church. Our church invites everyone, anyone to partake on the monthly Lord's Supper. It truly bothers me with this practice. I feel the church is lowering its standard by doing this. I definitely feel one should be baptized and also confirmed before partaking. A person should take the confirmation classes and truly understand what the feast means. Also, a practice which bothers me is the young unconfirmed youth serving the bread and wine. These sacraments should be served by the confirmed. Let's not lower the church's standards.
We should all break bread together, inviting outsiders and anyone who hesitates at God's door to come in and partake of blessings we all have to share. That is why we are here—to share God's blessings to everyone. Churches spend too much [time] today ignoring the real issues and the real people God sent here for us to comfort, act kindly toward, and invite into God's Houses. Start today. Reach out and serve with a humble spirit to all!
The commission Jesus places upon the apostolic church in Matt. 21:18-20 says nothing directly about the church consisting of the baptized, but rather specifies that the church be the baptizing. Thus one might ask, "Should non-baptizing Christians receive Holy Communion?" No way!
The goal of baptism is to become a baptizer, to be cleansed and filled with the Holy Spirit so that together we might spread the world of Jesus Christ. Hence, let anyone closed to being baptized or not willing to be confirmed in their baptism be shut off from the table! At baptism, we do not ask the non-baptized to leave the congregation, rather we invite all to join in prayer. Welcome anyone who will bless the waters to share in the loaf and cup as well!
St. Paul's Community UCC
If the communion table is truly the table of Christ, who is any minister to tell anyone he/she is not welcome? If Christ offers himself and issues the invitation, who is any minister to contradict Christ? Where in the scriptural rendering of the last supper does Jesus require proof of baptism before offering bread and wine to the disciples? Remember there is a difference between man-made church policy and the reality of God's gifts through Christ.
The Rev. David H. Lester
I was really surprised when I read that 69 percent of UCC churches were allowing anyone in attendance to take communion regardless of whether they were baptized or confirmed—also children of all ages. I seem to remember every minister of the different UCC churches I've attended inviting anyone in good standing in any Christian church to partake of the sacrament. I understand when I was confirmed that I had accepted the Lord into my life of my own free will, that he died for me and I wanted to be one of his followers. It would be a privilege to accept communion as a reminder of his love for me and an incentive to be a better follower.
There is no doubt about it—yes. It's maybe the help that someone may need. One piece of bread and a small communion cup of wine or grape juice might be the answer to a person giving their life to Jesus Christ. Christ would not refuse to inspire a person to come to God. We cannot be in judgment toward another person. That belongs to God.
St. Luke's UCC
It gave me a warm feeling last Sunday as our minister welcomed all to join in the celebration of communion. We have always practiced open communion at the Vero Beach Community UCC. I feel it is wrong for mortals to decide who is welcome at the Lord's table. Jesus certainly welcomed everyone who joined him.
Helen B. Potter
Vero Beach, Fla.
If we invite non-baptized, non-Christians, to communion we degrade it from a celebration of our redemption by Christ's death and resurrection to a fellowship snack. We also undercut the significance of the sacrament of baptism and break from historical Christianity and our ties to the rest of the body of Christ. At the very least the invitation should be limited "to all who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."
Even then, the UCC should ask is the freedom to do our own thing greater than our belief in "one, holy, Christian, catholic church." Is it more important than our covenant with other UCC congregations or our ecumenical responsibility to other denominations. The UCC is in danger of becoming a sect as we cut our ties with the rest of Christianity in the name of the freedom to do whatever we want to do.
The Rev. Gerald Schrankler
Our Saviour's UCC, Ripon, Wis.
Sad I am that most UCC pastors have minimized and separated the theological meaning of both the table and the font for its laity. Historically, Christ's inclusivity trumped traditional Pagan, Greek and Hebrew teaching. He transcended exclusive religious teaching. The table is a present-day transforming encounter with the Risen Christ; the font is where we die and rise into the Paschal Mystery. Cannon we trust the table to flow into the font? Seemed to do that for folks 2,000 years ago when all were fed, no exceptions. Happy to see some substantial discussion about the table and font.
Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary We are the people of God—each congregation is a family. You are welcome into my home, but that doesn't necessarily make you a member of our family, nor does it entitle you to certain things that are "family only." I am in favor of keeping the Eucharist for baptized persons. Gabe Fackre is right again! But didn't [John] Calvin say the condemnation is on those who commune "unworthily"?
Mt. Zion UCC
I was brought up in a Baptist home. The first Sunday of every month, all of us kids had to go out in the "entry way" while "something special" (we thought) went on in the church. We thought we were being left out of part of the church service, which of course we were. There was no door that we could look in to see what was going on. It was a big mystery and kind of scary. The imaginations of young kids run pretty wild, even 60 or so years ago. Of course, the "something special" was communion. Once we were baptized, we could stay. I have always remembered that and wondered, "why?" Why not!
Raymond Village (Maine) Community UCC
Holy Communion proclaims the Lord's death until he comes again. The bread and wine represent a body broken and blood shed for my sin, initiating an intimate relationship with God. As the food becomes part of me, so does the gospel and mission of Christ. In baptism, I pray to die to my sin and rise so to be open to the Holy Spirit that God may be clearly be seen in me. The two sacraments are one, even as God and Christ are one. I can welcome a non-baptized person wanting holy communion, but I cannot imagine that person staying dry long.
The Rev. Sheryl Stewart
Member, Riverside-Salem UCC
Grand Island, N.Y.
On August 24, 1920—more than 40 years after Susan B. Anthony first penned 39 straightforward words as a proposed U.S. Constitutional Amendment to grant women the legal right to vote—the weight of that historic decision all came down to one man, Harry T. Burn, Sr., who, at age 24, was the youngest-elected member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
A year earlier, on June 4, the proposed 19th Amendment had won the hard-fought two-thirds "super majority" required of both chambers of Congress and, within nine months, 35 of the 48 states had ratified it. But the proposal had stalled.
Its fate, ultimately, came down to a decision by Tennessee, the necessary number 36. It was one of only four undecided states, but the only one willing to call its legislature into special session to consider the measure before the ratification process expired. Burn arrived at the state capitol that morning intending to vote against the constitutional change, as the red carnation on his lapel so indicated. Burn and 48 other legislators wore the crimson boutonnieres as a public sign of their opposition to women's equality. On the other side, 48 representatives wore yellow carnations to indicate their support. The measure seemed destined to fall short by one, critical vote.
But when the roll call was held, Burn—wearing a "nay" red carnation—switched sides and cast the decisive "yea" vote to ratify the 19th Amendment.
More than 144 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nearly 58 years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and 72 years after the Suffrage movement was founded in Seneca Falls, N.Y., women had finally received the vote.
By this time, the Amendment's principle architects—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—had been dead for 14 and 18 years, respectively.
After Burn's fateful decision, legend has it that he eluded physical assault by hiding in the attic of the capitol until the coast was clear.
Explaining his flip-flop vote, Burn said that he had discovered, in his pocket, a personal note penned by his mother, Febb E. Burn.
"Vote for suffrage!" she wrote to her son. "Don't keep them in doubt. I have been watching to see how you stood."
Said the legislator Burn to his colleagues, "A good boy always does what his mother asks him to do."
This powerful, but little-known story of one man's influence on history is, at one level, a poignant illustration of how one vote matters. But, at a deeper level, it's a reminder that our influence, our leverage matters as well. Others, to be sure, are impacted by how we feel and what we think.
Public policy decisions affect the lives of real human beings, and it is through our personal stories that we best make this reality understood. Yes, it takes conviction to make the phone call, to offer the word or to pen the note. But it may be just the thing another person needs to muster the courage necessary to resist the rising tide, to reject the scapegoating and to do the right thing.
So, during this important election year, here's to fearless Harry Burn. But, even more so, here's to his gutsy mother.
And here's a shout out to all who realize that standing on principle is easier when the encouragement of others emboldens us to take a stand for justice, just as God requires.
Harry Burn died at age 81 in 1977—when Jimmy Carter was president—an acute reminder that we still live in pivotal times. Your vote and your influence do matter.
Samaritan elders lead Passover festivities on the West Bank's Mount Gerizim in early May. Closely related to the Jews, the 670 remaining Samaritans trace their lineage to ancient Israel. Religion News Service | Osher Sassoni photo.
Samaritans in the New Testament
"When the Samaritan saw the beaten man, he had compassion on him, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ÔTake care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'"
ÑJesus, to a young man, teaching about loving one's neighbor (Luke 10:33-35)
"How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."
Ña Samaritan woman at a well, speaking to Jesus (John 4:9)
"Then one of the 10, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. And he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan."
Ñfrom Luke's story of the 10 lepers cleansed by Jesus (17:15-17)
"Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans."
ÑActs of the Apostles (8:25)
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans."
Ñ Elezar HaCohen, Samaritan elder
By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service
MOUNT GERIZIM, WEST BANK—Dressed in flowing robes of the type their ancestors wore thousands of years ago, the 670 people in the world who call themselves "Samaritans" gathered on this lonely mountain one evening in early May and celebrated the holiday of Passover.
At sunset in the small mountaintop village they call Kiryat Luza, the male heads of the various clans prayed and then cut the throats of 30 lambs as part of the Pascal sacrifice in accordance with the Book of Exodus.
For the remainder of the week, while the world below their mountain carried on its own routine, Samaritan children stayed home from school and their parents from their jobs. They ate special foods, including home-made "matzah," or unleavened bread.
Despite the Samaritans' marking of Passover, the Sabbath and other rituals and observances similar to Judaism, Samaritans are not Jews but a distinct people. They are best known from the New Testament parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan who came to the aid of a mugged and wounded traveler.
In contrast to Jews, who follow both the written law of the Torah as well as the oral law, the Samaritans adhere only to the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch. Like Orthodox Jews, the Samaritans strictly observe the laws of circumcision, family purity and kosher dietary laws. They write in ancient Hebrew script, the language of their Torah, and pray in the ancient Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews through the first millennium AD.
"Jews and Samaritans are both sons of the Israelites," says Israel Tzedaka, one of the Samaritans' much-honored elders, during the Samaritan Passover feast, which occurred a month after Jews celebrated the holiday.
Tzedaka lives in the Israeli town of Holon, as do roughly half the world's Samaritans. During holidays and family occasions, the Israel-based Samaritans travel to Kiryat Luza, where the community's other half resides on Mount Gerizim, in Palestinian territory just southwest of Nablus, the biblical Shechem.
"We trace our roots to the 12 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel," Tzedaka says. While there have been centuries of animosity between Samaritans and Jews, it was Christians and Muslims who almost succeeded in wiping out the Samaritans.
"Once we lived throughout the land of Israel and there are 1.2 million of us," Tzedaka says of the Samaritan's Golden Age, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. "When the Christians and Muslims came they persecuted us. They killed many of us and the rest were converted by force."
By the early 1900s, the community consisted of just 146 people, according to a local census. It grew a bit during the 1930s, under British colonialism and has continued to grow, very slowly, ever since.
Today's Samaritans are an eclectic mix of ancient and modern. While the older members dress as if they had just stepped out of the Bible, the younger generation sports jeans and T-shirts. They attend college and surf the Internet, while practicing their faith to the letter.
Arguably the most challenging precept the community maintains is the one related to marriage: Under Samaritan law, single women Ñ who are outnumbered by single men by a 3-to- 1 ratio Ñ must marry another Samaritan. Usually, that's a first or second cousin. Samaritan men are permitted to find a wife outside the group, but only on the condition the bride adhere strictly to the community's laws and traditions.
The Mount Gerizim Samaritans identify with their Palestinian neighbors. They speak Arabic among themselves and attend local Palestinian schools. Yet unlike other Palestinians, the Samaritans have Israeli identity papers that enable them to travel freely to and from Israel even when other Palestinians cannot.
Israel-based Samaritan men serve in the Israeli military, "though we're posted close to home so that we can maintain our traditions," says Osher Sassoni, a 25-year-old Holon resident who served in the armed forces before becoming a computer expert. "We can't eat the meat served in the army, so we eat like vegetarians."
Zahara Yehoshua, the mother of three grown children, credits the close-knit community's education system and its day-to-day practices with instilling a love of tradition in the younger generation.
"From the time they're born we raise our children in a Torah atmosphere. By the time they're 2 or 3, they start learning our language and religion, and how to pray," Yehoshua says.
Despite living in two such different cultures, the Israeli and Palestinian community members get along well, according to Sassoni. "Of course, we're not the same. We act differently and even our jokes are different. We dress more like Israelis, who dress like Americans. The others dress like Europeans."
Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, "the Holon people have traveled more to Mount Gerizim than vice-versa. We speak better Arabic than they speak Hebrew, but we communicate and get along," Sassoni says of his Palestinian Samaritan brethren.
Following such an unusual path, which skirts both Palestinian and Israeli society, is fraught with minefields, says Elezar HaCohen, a Samaritan elder.
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans. We keep the Torah like they did in the beginning," he says. "What is permitted is permitted. What is not permitted is not permitted."
HaCohen says the community's leaders go to great lengths to remain apolitical, but adds the group's biculturalism makes the transition between the two warring societies less harrowing than one would expect.
"Personally, I was born in Shechem but have lived in Holon for 35 years. When I go to Shechem and I meet people there we hug each other."
Yaffet Ben Asher Cohen, the self-appointed guardian of the community's priceless ancient texts and family trees that span 3,700 years, says, "Our hope is that we will be able to preserve our language, religion, traditions and unity of the people until Judgment Day. We also hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will learn from us.
"We Samaritans have survived countless wars," he says. "In every generation they have conquered us, killed us, imprisoned us. War brings only destruction."
Randy Varcho | United Church News graphic.
When the Rev. Kathi Martin reflects on her call to ministry, she's blunt.
"I could remember a day, sitting on my stairs, sipping out of a bottle of scotch, and it was just a turning point. Everything seemed to be wrong in my life," says Martin, who is the founding pastor of God-Self-Neighbor Ministries, a UCC church start in Atlanta. "I crumbled up my cigarettes and put down my bottle of scotch, and I said, 'OK God, I'm not running anymore.'"
"That really confused me—that feeling of being called—because I so much did not like the church, but then I had to make a separation between 'the church' and 'God.' Ministry is about loving God and spreading the gospel, and when I came back to that, I could stop running," she says.
Martin is one of eight persons who discuss their journeys into vocational ministry through video testimonies offered on a new UCC website designed especially to help those discerning God's nudge in their lives.
Askthequestion.org, an interactive, flash site sponsored by the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership (PLL) Ministry and designed by the UCC's web team, contains personal stories, study materials, prayer and meditation resources, and answers to just about any question one could ask when considering authorized ministry—ordained, commissioned or licensed—in the UCC.
"The purpose is to identify gifted men and women and help them explore vocations in ministry," says the Rev. Lynn Bujnak of PLL. "We are asking individuals to ask the question, 'Am I being called to ministry?' and to ask congregations to be bold in asking their members, 'Are you being called to ministry?'"
The Rev. Andrew Warner, associate pastor at Plymouth UCC in Milwaukee, Wis., says, when exploring one's call, the answers come best through active engagement.
"It's a question [that can't be] answered in a weekend, or in a day or in an hour, but is a question to live with, to struggle with and to pray about," Warner says. "One of the best ways to get some answers, besides just sitting in silence with our questions, is to find some ways to get some practical experience in doing ministry."
Askthequestion.org provides opportunities to explore the nuances of different ministry paths, such as chaplaincy, counseling, Christian education, youth ministry, social activism, missionary work and, of course, pastoral ministry.
Hopefully, Bujnak says, Askthequestion.org will spark new interest in ministry as a vocation worthy of consideration, especially in light of new data that reveals a steadily-decreasing and ever-aging pool of pastors. According to the 2003 Statistical Handbook, only 6.3 percent of all UCC clergy are under the age of 40.
The Pension Boards of the UCC estimates that, in the next five years, 1,800 UCC pastors will reach retirement age; however, only 600 persons will enter pastoral ministry.
Already, the numbers are impacting congregations that are searching for pastors. At present, the UCC has 435 churches looking for ministerial leadership, but only 300 pastors are actively seeking placement.
The Rev. Darryl Kistler, pastor of United Christian UCC in Miles City, Mont., recognizes that choosing ministry as a vocation is not easy. "That first step into ministry as a career, but even more so as a lifestyle and a lifechanging event, was so difficult but so rewarding, and each step since then has just been easier," he says.
Borrowing advice once offered by theologian Frederick Buechner, the Rev. Tisha Brown, associate pastor at Brookfield Congregational UCC in Wisconsin, says that the goal in life is to discover what you do the best and enjoy the most, and then apply those gifts to the world's greatest needs. "That's how you'll know that God is calling you," she says.
The Rev. Wanda Harris-Watkins, pastor of Pakachoag UCC in Auburn, Mass., says, "Ministry is when you close the books and you get your fingernails dirty and you go places that no one else wants to go. You only know ministry when you do ministry."
Nellie Rosado, a member of Las Piedras UCC in Puerto Rico who works as a local church missionary to the Dominican Republic, says ministry is an exercise in trust.
"In our life, we have the opportunity to do something, but we are scared to do it, to go forward," Rosado says. "But with the Holy Spirit, I just say, 'Here I am. Lead my way.'"
Seuss Enterprises graphic.
"Oh the things you can think up if only you try."
"Virent Ova! Viret Perna!"—that's the Latin title of Dr. Seuss' newest foreign language translation of "Green Eggs and Ham," the best-selling children's classic that has sold 7 million hardcover copies since fi rst published in 1960.
The story of Sam-I-Am's odd culinary journey now ranks as one of the best selling English-language books in history, coming in third behind the Bible's King James Version and the dictionary.
If you need proof of its astounding global popularity, just consider that the Latin rendition has sold 60,000 copies since its debut in October—a fact that can stupefy when one considers that Latin is basically a dead language. In all, Dr. Seuss' 44 titles have sold 200 million copies, making him one of the most widely read authors of all time.
Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)—the man behind the pseudonym—would have turned 100 on March 2, making 2004 a "Seussentennial" of sorts for those who admire Geisel's imaginative spirit and poetic style.
Geisel, a doodler who said he never really learned how to draw, first began using illustrations to augment his liberal-leaning political satire, a pursuit that helped him, as a college student, become editor-in-chief of Dartmouth College's humor magazine, "Jack-OLantern."
But when Geisel and some other students got in trouble for throwing a campus party that broke school rules, he lost the job. Undaunted, Geisel continued to write for the publication under an assumed name: "Seuss."
"Ted grew to respect the academic discipline he discovered at Dartmouth—not enough to pursue it, but to appreciate those who did," Judith and Neil Morgan wrote in their 1996 biography, "Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel."
In time, Geisel parlayed his rhythmic wordsmithing and quirky illustrations into unparalleled success in the literary world.
An unwittingly religious voice
Although some attribute theological significance to his works, Geisel did not intend as much. In fact, he did not consider himself to be an overtly religious person.
"Like most works of merit, the works of Dr. Seuss have been overanalyzed; many scholars have found devices where there are truly none to be found," reads Geisel's biography at Dr. Seuss Enterprises' official website seussville.com.
Still, Geisel's parabolic creativity has inspired religious imagination and theological interpretation—perhaps for good reason.
After all, Seuss' "Sneetches" were born in1961 as commentary on the absurdity of discrimination, and Geisel's concern about the environment—individual and industrial pollution—led him to write "The Lorax," published in 1971. Geisel's "Butter Battle Book" (1984) about conflict between the "Yooks" and the "Zooks"—perhaps his most controversial work—was written in response to the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Reagan administration. For six months, his Cold War commentary was included in The New York Times' best-seller list—for adults.
Understandably, Seuss has become staple in many church-based curricula—for believers of all ages, all persuasions. "I don't know if Seuss would say he had a theological point of view, but he definitely had an editorial view on the way of life," says the Rev. Marcia Cham, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in East Bridgewater, Mass., who developed a religious education series on Seuss for use in her parish.
"I think [Geisel's] books are a teaching device similar to Jesus, because they are lessons that sneak up on you—the wiz-bangs that you go through," Cham says. "[Geisel] is saying, 'This is the reality, folks,' and I think that's what Jesus is trying to say."
"The whole world of imagination is what captivates me and that's the way Jesus' parables should captivate us. Instead of a one-time moral, we should be intrigued," she says.
"You've got to keep looking for the wisdom, not just the closed canon," Cham says, quoting her theological mentor, the late professor Harold Beck of Boston University's School of Theology.
Imagination opens the future
Heidi Hadsell, a professor of social ethics and president of UCC-related Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, says, "Religious imagination is an important way that we can open up the future and its alternatives in ways that people who are stuck in this worldly, daily life can never see."
The religious life is not only about seeing things the way they are, but focusing on how things should be, Hadsell says, "and that kind of religious endeavor requires imagination.
If we are to envision the kingdom of God or create new social relationships, that's a very hard thing to do without the religious imagination to help us make those leaps."
She notes how the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) credited religion for its "imaginative powers, for giving to humanity what could be better, to re-do things and strive for the new."
In this way, Hadsell says, Jesus "introduced to the here and now a taste of what might be and modeled different ways to act on the Sabbath, different ways to think about Sabbath law, different ways to think about outcasts."
Similarly, she says, Seuss employs words and illustrations to inspire readers to look at things differently. She's especially fond of Seuss' exuberance for life in "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
Likewise, Cham says she enjoys looking for theological themes in Seuss' stories. For example, she says, in "Horton Hatches an Egg," she delights in the "faithful fidelity of our God." Moreover, the repetitive, sing-songy nature of Seuss' writing style—"The Whos down in Who-ville will all cry boo-hoo"—is reminiscent of the repetitious laments we find in Psalms, Cham points out.
The Rev. Doug Adams, a UCC minister and professor of Christianity and arts at UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, says Seuss' stories, just as some of Jesus' parables, employ humor to "lay low our idolatries, whatever we take too seriously."
"The humor of the parables and the humor of Dr. Seuss imagine what we find unthinkable," Adams says. Adams offers this illustration: "Horton the elephant sits on the bird's eggs until they hatch and out come little flying elephants which defy the determination of heredity just as Jesus' genealogy in Matthew has Jesus coming out of a family tree loaded with immoral people who do right."
Cham believes that by opening up our religious imaginations, we can better pursue the meaning in life.
"I don't know if he would call it religious or not, but Seuss was sensitive to the conscious and unconscious aspects of life, the rhythm of life," she says, "and I've had a wonderful time with it."
What Seuss can teach you
"Bartholomew and the Oobleck" (1949)
"Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?" (1973)
"Green Eggs and Ham" (1960)
"Horton Hears a Who" (1954)
"Horton Hatches an Egg" (1940)
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1957)
"I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today" (1969)
"Oh, the Places You'll Go" (1990)
"The Lorax" (1971)
"The Sneetches" (1961)
The joy and the challenge lie in our response to religious pluralism within our own Christian communities. Joy is experienced when other faith expressions call forth deeper and broader understandings of who Christ is for us in our time, in our world. We're challenged as we ponder what to do with our theological and historical attachments in light of new revelations.
The Rev. Kim Mammedaty
Executive Director, UCC Council for American Indian Ministry
The answer is best seen at a church council meeting, congregational meeting and Letters to the Editor. We are not uniform in our opinions but are united by one faith. It is Christ's message in the Sermon on the Mount, and it is God's loving sacrifice of his only beloved son that unites our faith; it is our interpretation of the Holy Word that is not uniform.
John C. Love
Congregational UCC (Delavan, Wis.)
West Bend, Wis.
It's time to climb on your soapbox again. United Church News wants to hear from you.
The UCC's national setting provides an array of important ministries and services, including global missionaries, stewardship and financial development resources, worship and educational materials, book publishing, a newspaper, a website, video production, statistical research, disaster relief, ministerial authorization and search-and-call coordination, seminarian support, new church development, church building loans, justice advocacy, ecumenical relations, General Synod, National Youth Event, the "God is still speaking," identity campaign, and much more.
What are the UCC's national programs and services that have been most meaningful and significant to you and your congregation? How would your local church's ministry suffer if they no longer existed?
Send your short responses of no more than 75-100 words by Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 to:
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We'll print your responses in the January/February 2004 issue. As with all letters, your comments may be edited for brevity and clarity. Be sure to include your name, the name of your local church, and your city and state.
Canadian filmmaker hopes to introduce contemporary audiences to Martin Luther
British actor Joseph Fiennes plays Martin Luther, the German monk who touched off the Protestant Reformation, in the new biographical film, "Luther."
RNS | Rolf van der Heyd photo
The name Martin Luther puzzles many Americans. After all, few ever have reason to think about the German monk who challenged the medieval church and laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.
Canadian filmmaker Eric Till discovered that little truth when he was preparing his biographical movie on Luther. "Everybody asked me why I was going to Europe to make a movie about Martin Luther King," the director said by phone from his home in Toronto. "There were so many people who didn't know anything about [Luther] at all."
But if contemporary audiences have lost touch with the Protestant theologian, Till has been equally determined to tell a story about the man whose convictions changed the course of Western Christianity.
"Luther" opened in 300 theaters nationwide on Sept. 26. The movie was shot on more than 20 locations throughout Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic and features British actor Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love," "Elizabeth," "Enemy at the Gates") as Martin Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick the Wise. "Luther" cost $30 million to produce—a rather large budget for a small independent film.
"Any film director will tell you they're immediately attracted to a good story and Martin Luther is one of the top 10 in the world," says Till, who's a member of the Anglican Church.
If "Luther" sounds like David vs. Goliath, that's exactly what the filmmakers intended. Individuals who hold fast to their beliefs against overwhelming odds have been the subject of many prominent and award-winning films such as "Gandhi," "Braveheart" and "Schindler's List."
Till chose a similar topic for his previous film, "Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace." The 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spoke out against Hitler and helped a group of Jews escape to Switzerland. He was hanged in a concentration camp for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
"Luther" follows the same tradition of a defiant hero battling a powerful and oppressive force—the medieval Catholic Church.
"It was a story of immense courage," Till said of Luther's life. "And to have great faith is to have great power. I think that's something that most people are uneasy about."
The Rev. Ted Peters, president of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., said Luther's life story offers other compelling messages as well. "The first one is inescapably theological, that is, a profound integration of God's presence in the soul," Peters said. "It's that liberation of grace that he felt. The other is just the sheer drama of history that overtook Luther. It just sort of caught Germany at the moment when he was lighting a fuse in a firecracker and didn't know it."
Luther's faith has always been a popular subject for Western filmmakers. Germany created several contemporary television dramas on the reformer's life and even produced "Luther," a black-and-white silent movie in 1927.
Another black-and-white film, "Martin Luther," was released by Hollywood in 1953 with Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as the Protestant reformer. In 1973, Stacey Keach played the title role in the American Film Theater's "Luther." But the most recent "Luther" might very well be the most passionate.
Till's movie opens with Luther as a young law student whose life abruptly changes when he's spared during a violent thunderstorm. He subsequently joins the Augustinian order of monks, but despite frequent visits to the church confessional (during which he really has nothing to confess), he admits, "I live in terror of judgment." He even feels unworthy in the presence of the eucharistic bread and wine and shrinks from the sacraments.
"He had thought and was taught that his soul had to be free of sin. Then he was told he had to list all of his sins," said Peters, noting that although Luther would spend hours in the confessional, he never really felt God's grace until he realized God's profound love for human beings.
"That was the big turnaround for him. Instead of guilt and terror of God's presence, [Luther realized] God provides grace and forgiveness," Peters adds.
Luther ruffled many feathers during his lifetime. He publicly criticized the church in Rome for its sale of indulgences and referred to the pope as the anti-Christ. When he refused to recant his "heretical" writings, Pope Leo X excommunicated him. Luther later married a nun and translated the Bible into German.
One of Luther's more vulnerable—or problematic—traits was his attitude toward Judaism. Although he initially preached tolerance toward the Jewish people, he later condemned Jews when they refused to convert to Christianity. Several Lutheran denominations have since apologized for and renounced Luther's anti-Semitism.
"This hostility toward Jews was not there all through Luther's career," Peters said. "It was sort of a vituperous thing toward the end of his life."
Although Till was well aware of these flaws, he does not dwell on them in the movie and the film ends earlier in Luther's career.
"Yes, [Luther] had his warts," Till said. "In his later years, he wrote three or four tracts attacking Jews. It was just decided that the film should end where it does. It was no deliberate attempt to disguise his warts."
Luther—a film review
Now playing (121 min.)
Rated PG-13 (for disturbing images of violence)
Directed by Eric Till
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina,
Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox, Peter Ustinov,
Bruno Ganz, Uwe Ochsenknecht
By Rick Walters
Special to United Church News
"Luther"—a passionate, thoughtful, if not overly melodramatic film—spans the decisive years of Martin Luther's life and the small rebellion he led against the Roman papacy in the early 1500s that resulted in the Protestant Reformation.
In an opening sequence, Luther presents his principal query during a dialogue with his spiritual father in the Augustinian monastery where he lives. "How can I find a [just] and merciful God?" Luther asks, offering not only the question that drove the theological debate of the time, but one that uncovers Luther's personal struggle. Chafing against a traditional interpretation of a terrifying and judgmental God that traps persons in a life of fear and shame, Luther desperately seeks an answer to quell his own torment and that of his parishioners, those whom the Church exploits.
What sets this film apart is its drive to explore Luther's question without sacrificing either dramatic visual narrative or authentic theological exploration. Many films on persons of faith tend either to appeal to an audience's lower theological denominator or become a preachy, teaching tool. This film navigates the twin thread of historical drama and thoughtful theological inquiry quite successfully.
Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love," "Enemy at the Gates") portrays Luther in a serious, passionate and driving style, sometimes too serious. Were it not for the performances around him, such as that of the brilliant Peter Ustinov who lends humor and compassion, Fiennes might have been lost in a too-stodgy and confining role. But he is surrounded throughout the film by a trinity of father figures and a host of minor ones who echo Luther's struggle to find a merciful God.
The film also explores how new thought can quickly descend into orthodoxy. While Luther is in exile to protect him from the far reaches of the Pope, his new Protestant followers begin a reign of terror against Catholics, which horrifies Luther and prompts his burning question to be restated. Why would God bring about suffering when Luther's mission is to restore the church's fidelity to truth?
Luther's dramatic appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521 is the high point of the film. When asked to recant his "95 Theses" and other writings, Luther—in a contrastingly quiet and peaceful tone to that of his earlier ranting—says that unless he can be convinced by scripture that he has been unfaithful, he will not recant. From that dramatic point, however, the film's second half descends into a less effective sequence that includes Luther's exile, return and introduction of a German translation of the Bible.
While this film is flawed by its broad brush of emotion and history, it is nevertheless important because it stirs the debate and discussion around the burning question of Luther's life and work. How can one find and worship a merciful God in the face of overwhelming personal and public challenges? No matter how that question is answered, we now know, because of the debate begun by Luther on the Wittenberg door, that mere ascent to doctrine cannot be an answer. Rather, a healthy, vigorous and thorough inquiry of faith is the only authentic response.
Rick Walters, an attorney and film enthusiast, is a former filmmaker and pastor. He is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.
The nice guy at the sandwich shop, where I've been eating lunch almost daily for three years now, died last Thursday. He was only 34.
I can hardly stop thinking about him.
In 2000, shortly after I had moved to Cleveland, I fell in love with Quizno's "Sierra Smoked Turkey" sandwich. It's tasty, it's low-fat, and best of all, I could run across the street and be back at my desk in a matter of minutes.
Charles, who owned the Euclid Avenue franchise, appreciated my loyalty. So much so that he and his employees memorized my predictable order. Quite often, he rewarded my patronage with a free soft drink or complimentary bag of chips. A few times, mostly on Fridays, my lunch would be free.
About six weeks ago, on a Monday, the store was unexpectedly closed at lunchtime. I tugged at the locked doors. Odd, I thought, but more so—irritating. Now where would I eat?
The next day, I asked Charles what had happened. "I haven't been feeling well," he said, as he put a bit of lettuce on my sandwich. "The doc tells me that I have an enlarged liver. I'm having an MRI this afternoon."
I knew enough to be worried about him, but what could I say with a line of hungry people forming behind me? "I'll be thinking about you, Charles," I said casually. "I'd appreciate that, Ben," he said.
It's the last time we spoke. And his restaurant has been closed ever since.
This afternoon, feeling pangs of hunger for a "regular Sierra, no onions," I walked several blocks down the street to another Quizno's location. A kind, familiar face greeted me from behind the counter. I remembered the young woman; she had previously worked at Charles' store. And she, too, remembered me.
"Did you hear that Chuck had passed?" she said. "He had liver cancer."
Her words confirmed my eerie suspicions. "That's really, really sad news," I said. We talked briefly and awkwardly, and then I took my sandwich and ate alone on a city park bench.
It's strange about relationships. In the midst of all the predictably special ones, there are hundreds whose significance we rarely honor. They are the faces we memorize, but the lives we do not know. At best, in time, we care enough to catch a first name.
Still, friendships can be constant, even if not deep. Just consider your favorite server at the diner, or the bartender at the corner pub, or the bank teller in the second window from the left, or the woman at the dry cleaners. Sometimes it's the friend of a friend, a relationship where circumstance keeps everything at surface-level. Too often, unfortunately, it's a good percentage of the folks we know—and really like—in our communities of worship.
In our UCC liturgy, there is a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have died by which we ask God to "keep us all in communion with your faithful people in every time and place." That's my prayer this day, as awkward as it sounds. I pray with gratitude for a friendly soul, if not an outright friend, on whose daily bread I came to rely.
God bless Charles, and God bless all the special people whose last names we will never know.
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
In many Protestant churches today women clergy are more and more common. Although people may think that the ordination of women just happened in our lifetime, the UCC knows better. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first woman ordained in our tradition, and, for that matter, in any major Protestant denomination.The date was Sept. 15, 1853. On that day a woman named Antoinette Brown, at the age of 28, was ordained in a small Congregational Church in South Butler, N.Y. Brown received her theological education at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college to affirm coeducation. She was a well-known lecturer on temperance and the abolition of slavery. Brown's ordination caused little national controversy, because the polity of Congregationalism empowers local churches, supported by nearby congregations, to call and ordain their pastors. At her ordination a progressive Wesleyan Methodist preacher named Luther Lee entitled his sermon "A Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel." He used Joel 2:28, as quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts. "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy." He insisted that the church does not "make a minister," rather God calls ministers, and the churches under the "Lordship of Jesus Christ" gather to celebrate that fact. Unfortunately, Brown's ministry in South Butler was short. After a few years she resigned due to ill health and doctrinal doubts. In 1856 she married Samuel C. Blackwell, the brother of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, early women physicians. She raised a large family, but remained intellectually and theologically active, writing many books on philosophy and science. After her family was grown she returned to active ministry as a Unitarian. In 1889, over 30 years after her ordination, there were only four ordained Congregational women listed in the annual Congregational Yearbook. By 1899, that number had risen to 49. In 1920, a commission on the status of clergywomen in Congregationalism reported that there were 67 ordained women out of 5,695 clergy. It took until the 1970s before these small percentages made dramatic increases. Today there are 2,832 ordained women (27 percent) out of the 10,321 active, nonretired clergy in the UCC. To celebrate this legacy and honor these women, at every UCC General Synod since 1975 the Antoinette Brown Award is given to two outstanding clergywomen, "whose ministries have exemplified advocacy for women and significant leadership in the parish, community, or other church-related institutions." In July, at General Synod 24, the award was presented to the Rev. Ruth Duck and the Rev. LaVerne McCain Gill. Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.
When Poway (Calif.) Community UCC decided to refinance its $700,000 loan, it turned to the UCC's Cornerstone Fund.
That move saved it almost a point and a half in interest rates or $200 per month—funds freed up for Our Church's Wider Mission, outreach programs and Association and Conference dues. It also helped other UCC churches.
ÒWhen you make those payments,Ó says the Rev. Chris Buckingham- Taylor, Òyou are not just paying off your loan. You're also making loan money available for other churches. It's nice to participate in that cycle.Ó
The Cornerstone Fund makes low-cost, no-fee added, real estatesecured loans available to established churches for capital improvements, accessibility, repairs, elevators, steeples, educational wings and other real estate-related projects.
As of the first of this year, it had made loans to 129 churches in 31 Conferences of $31.7 million. On the other side of the ledger, 1,805 investment accounts held more than $29.3 million in deposits.
According to Cornerstone Fund Chief Operating Officer Gordon Gilles, this is good news for two reasons.
First, he says, Òinvestors understand that there is a stewardship component to investing in the Cornerstone Fund.Ó And, he says, Òthese 129 churches couldn't have had their money without higher loan costs and higher interest rates.Ó
A few years ago, First Congregational UCC in Salem, Ore., decided to remodel.
ÒWe had a Ôhigh church' building with a very inclusive, welcoming kind of theology,Ó says the Rev. Gail McDougle. ÒSo the church decided it needed to do a major remodel of the sanctuary to deal with accessibility, acoustics, aesthetics, and a visual explanation of its theology.Ó
After the congregation adopted a master plan and raised $270,000 in five-year pledges, the church turned to the Cornerstone Fund for a loan until the pledges came in.
ÒThis is good stewardship,Ó McDougle says. ÒIt keeps the resources of the church available for the church. And we deal with userfriendly, very professional people who return phone calls and answer questions, that kind of stuff.Ó