United Church of Christ

Luther: Rebel, genius, liberator

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
Website:  lutherthemovie.com

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.


Remembering God's faithful people—in every time and place

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.


UCC celebrates an anniversary: 150 years of women clergy

 

Barbara Brown Zikmund

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.

Cornerstone Fund benefits churches, investors

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

More @

Phone toll free: 888-822-3863; or e-mail  seymourm@ucc.org, or visit the Cornerstone Fund website  ucc.org/finance/cornerstone.


Being called "pious" is not necessarily a bad thing

Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

Calling someone 'pious' in today"s society sends a mixed message. It might mean that you think the person is devout and reverent. But it also might mean that you think the person has a conspicuous, false or even hypocritical way of being religious. For this reason most of us avoid using the word 'pious.'

Yet, Christian Pietism has a great history, and being pious is a Christian virtue. Throughout the 18th and 19th century Pietism produced many popular Protestant devotional books that put stress on the emotional and personal aspects of religion. New England Congregationalists encouraged spiritual habits that cultivated inward piety. In central Europe, Pietism shaped a grassroots religious movement that revitalized the religious life of ordinary people.

One book that inspired Pietism was 'Pia Desidera,' by Philipp Jakob Spener (published in 1675). Spener suggested six ways to reform Christianity. He thought that Christians should read and study scripture more, especially in groups; they should cultivate spiritual leadership; they should strive to express active Christian love instead of seeking religious knowledge; they should avoid controversy; they should support good theological education for clergy; and they should demand better preaching. His discussion of Bible study emphasized the need to nurture an 'inner' understanding of Christianity. 'It is not enough that we hear the Word with our outward ear, but we must let it penetrate to our heart, so that we may hear the Holy Spirit speak there, that is, with vibrant emotion and comfort feel the sealing of the Spirit and the power of the Word.'

Pietist writers like Spener shaped the practices of German Reformed laity and clergy during late 18th and early 19th century revivals on the American frontier. Pietism was especially significant in the mid-18th century among Midwestern German Evangelical immigrants, because Swiss German missionaries that came to the United States to serve German Evangelical churches had been trained at institutes in Basel and Barmen where German Pietism flourished. They emphasized the experience of salvation, rather than beliefs. They understood when people said they were impatient with church politics, doctrinal squabbles and ecclesiastical authoritarianism.

Pietism focuses upon inward religious experience and action. Pietism nurtures the idea that 'creeds are testimonies, rather than tests of faith.' Furthermore, Pietism motivated the German Evangelical Synod to found dozens of hospitals, institutions, and enterprises to meet the special needs of the sick, the disabled, the orphaned and the disadvantaged. The United Church of Christ can be proud of its roots in Christian Pietism.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board, teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.


Commissioned Ministry recognizes specific calls of lay members to ministry

She is the administrator of an HIV health care clinic. He directs choral choirs, handbell choirs, and a jazz quartet at his church. She conducts a Christian Theater Arts Camp each summer. What do all of these people have in common? They are Commissioned Ministers in the United Church of Christ.

Commissioned Ministry is an authorized form of ministry in the UCC that emerged in 1984 from the category of Commissioned Worker. The UCC "Manual on Ministry" lists several areas in which a person may be commissioned: Christian education, church administration, church music, UCCrelated missionary work, Conference and denominational staff work, and certain ministries of advocacy or community change. There are currently 124 Commissioned Ministers in the UCC.

Everyone who has sought to become a Commissioned Minister has had to discern and recognize a call from God to a specific ministry.

"It was only when I found out about Commissioned Ministry that I was able to answer a call I had felt for many years," says Ellie Sanders, Commissioned Minister of the Arts at Bethlehem UCC in Evansville, Ind. "Without the Commissioned Ministry process, I might still be fumbling around trying to find ways to respond to it within the constraints of my own life. I am convinced that this is part of God's plan for my life, and that all the years I worked in theater and teaching were preparing me for this work."

Christy Trudo, Lay Leadership and Ministry Coordinator in the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry, reminds us that the ministries of word and sacrament require ordination. "But," she says, "if one's sense of call does not clearly lead in that direction at the outset of the discernment process, it is important to consider commissioning as a possibility for authorization."

When asked why she decided to become a Commissioned Minister, Deborah Diehl, President of the Board for Children's Ministries of America, answers, "I sought commissioning because I felt a call to ministry in Christian Education, a call to teaching, and a call to ministry with children.

"I felt no sense of calling around marriages, baptisms, funerals, pastoral visits, or any of the other ministry areas that are fulfilled by those who are called to be ordained. I also chose commissioning because I wanted to feel I was still part of the people. In essence, I did not want to be Ôset apart.'"

For Tim Brown of the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns, "Commissioning was a natural response to my call to work for the Coalition. I needed to respond to God's tapping on my shoulder with ministerial acknowledgment from my denomination."

As the administrator of Matthew 25 AIDS Services in Henderson, Ky., Cyndee Burton says that her commissioned minister status has provided the education and discernment needed to do her work. "It has allowed me to provide a more solid and holistic ministry," she says. "I feel comfortable including spirituality and prayer in the care I provide."

The Association of United Church Educators is sponsoring "A Resolution Affirming the Essential Role of Commissioned Ministry as an Authorized Ministry of the United Church of Christ" at General Synod 24 this summer in Minneapolis. According to Ruth Hainsworth, Commissioned Minister of Christian Education and Chair of the Association of United Church Educators, the resolution "already has and should continue to raise the level of discussion on Commissioned Ministry throughout the denomination."

When the Commissioned Ministers in the New Hampshire Conference gathered recently to talk about their ministries, they were asked what difference being a Commissioned Minister has made. One answer surfaced from each of their responses: The Commissioning process provides an opportunity for us to pull together everything we've always known about our faith, our passions, and God's role in it all. Our ministries are then affirmed by our denomination as well as our Conference, association, and congregations. This validates what we know to be God's work through us.

Deborah Gline Allen is a Commissioned Minister of Christian Education and Consultant for Christian Education for the UCC's New Hampshire Conference.

More @

More information about Commissioned Ministry can be found in the Commissioned Ministry section of the UCC Manual on Ministry, available from United Church Resources at 800-537-3394.


The USA Patriot Act threatens our civil liberties

 


On Oct. 24, 2001, six weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a law "to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes." The House voted 356 to 66, and the Senate, 90 to 1, to support the USA Patriot Act.

Quickly pulled together in an environment of fear about terrorism, the law consolidates tremendous new powers in the executive branch of government, and greatly enlarges the government's ability to conduct surveillance, detain immigrants, conduct searches and seizures, and prosecute political dissidents. Today, more than 18 months after the attacks, U.S. citizens are growing more concerned about our government's ability to suspend civil liberties and silence political dissent. Now, bureaucratic power is further consolidated with the creation of the new U.S. Department for Homeland Security. Meanwhile, our government has been busily preparing for war with Iraq while simultaneously fighting a war on terrorism with nebulous boundaries and no end in sight.

Why is this important? Take a walk with me on any day, anywhere in the United States. Let's go to the grocery store for beans and rice. No cash? Use the debit card. Your information is captured. We visit the doctor and pay for the lab tests. Information captured. Call a friend from a cell phone. Captured. Make a monthly payment through customer service and provide your social security number. Surf the web. Captured.

Was there anything there that might be construed by an observer to be unpatriotic? New laws make it possible for the government to monitor calls, email, and conversations in homes, offices, and cars. Our smallest movements can be known and we will never know.

The FBI has created an online database called the Terrorist Information System that contains data on more than 200,000 individuals and 3,000 organizations. It contains information not only on subjects of investigations, but on contacts and potential witnesses as well. In itself, this may seem like a necessary thing. But when we operate out of fear, without proper safeguards, such an information system can endanger the privacy of a whole people.

This is not the first time in this country that we have responded to fear by clamping down on individual liberties. Just as Arab Americans are being suspected of terrorist plots based on nothing other than their heritage, we also imprisoned dissidents during World War I for speaking out against the war, and we incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. In the 1960s and '70s, the FBI's counterintelligence program COINTELPRO was a massive operation to infiltrate, disrupt, and otherwise interfere with the lawful activities of civil rights advocates, religious bodies, and others.

As history teaches us: Once the government has successfully curtailed our civil liberties, it is very difficult to roll back on these infringements.

All people in the United States have rights. Regardless of our citizenship status, we do not have to answer any questions by any law enforcement agent. We do not have to sign any paper without a lawyer present. We do not have to let the police, the FBI, the INS, or anyone else come into our homes or search our offices without a warrant. We do not have to answer questions about immigration status. We are protected under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable seizures. We have the right to advocate for changes in laws and government practices under the First Amendment.

I believe it is our duty as true patriots to act now to support our human rights to privacy and peace.

The Rev. Sala W.J. Nolan is Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.

More @

For information on defending our civil liberties, go to the Center for Constitutional Rights  www.ccr-ny.org or the Public Eye  www.publiceye.org. For the full text of the USA Patriot Act, go to  www.epic.org.


As I See It: Whatever happened to B.C. and A.D., and why?

Last fall someone in an adult education class asked me what the notations "B.C.E." and "C.E." meant. "Whatever happened to B.C. and A.D.?" she asked. Good question.

Chronology, which is the technical term for our words and thoughts about time, is strictly a matter of social convention, and cultures have counted years according to different systems.

Some ancient Greeks dated years according to Olympiads, which were four years long and began in 776 B.C.E. The Hebrew calendar dates from the year 3761 B.C.E. and progresses according to a solar schedule as divided by lunar cycles. The Islamic calendar dates from 622 C.E., which was the year that the prophet Mohammed moved to Medina. Because it follows a lunar cycle, a year has only 354 days.

Among numerous methods, some ancient Romans used the Greek Olympiad system. Others used a system that dated years "A.U.C.," an abbreviation signifying "from the foundation of the city [of Rome]," or "in the year of the city [of Rome]," traditionally dated to 753 B.C.E.

From the primitive church through the medieval period, Christians often dated years according to the Roman model in which years were reckoned forward from the founding of Rome. Thus, for example, what we have traditionally called 1 A.D. early Christians would have called 754 A.U.C.

Because the various calendar systems of the ancient Mediterranean basin produced widely divergent ways to reckon dates, it was hard to say exactly when a given event happened. We know from the North African bishop, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), that in 387 C.E., Easter was celebrated on March 21 (Gaul), April 18 (Italy), and April 25 (Alexandria). Fixing the exact date of Easter, and giving a precise schedule of future dates for Easter, was a longstanding and controversial problem in the early church. Various systems were used to calculate the cyclical pattern for Easter's date until 525. Then a monk named Dionysius Exiguus solved the problem by proposing the system that we still use today.

He also argued that Christians ought to reckon years forward from the birth of Jesus Christ, although he himself continued to use a different, ancient way of dating years, which was according to the "indiction" (originally a 15- year tax cycle, in the medieval period dated from 312, the reign of Constantine). It was the Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian Bede (672-735) who first popularized the use of A.D. (anno domini—"in the year of the Lord"). Its use spread slowly throughout Europe, gaining prominence by the 11th century, except for Spain, where it took another 300 years to become common. But where did C.E. come from? And why has it replaced A.D.?

The use of C.E.—signifying "Common Era"—can be found at least 100 years ago, but it has become popular in recent decades. As Christians and others have become increasing aware that Christianity is not the only Western tradition, it has made sense to many to switch the designation of dates from A.D. to C.E., and thus also from B.C. ("Before Christ") to B.C.E. ("Before the Common Era").

Does this mean that we are no longer Christian when we use the terms B.C.E. and C.E.? Not at all.

For Christians, it is still Jesus Christ through whom God comes to us with healing redemption. It merely means that we ought not force this confession on others, if even implicitly.

So, Happy New Year—in 2003 C.E.

The Rev. John W. Riggs is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.


Whose life really gets changed on mission trips?


Eighty-eight teens and 16 adults from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., built a home, among other tasks, during their spring mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. First Congregational UCC, Guilford, Conn., photo.
 

Mission is a funny thing. Some receive a call without reason, others see reason but are still unclear about what they are called to do.

That isn't the case in Mississippi. Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., hosted the Pilgrim Fellowship youth group from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., this past spring in a life-changing mission to raise a house from scratch.

During the year, Guilford's youth group does local mission work in its own community. It then picks an impoverished region for a large springtime mission. Merrilyn Garcia, director of the church's youth ministry, is very clear about the calling of her group. Pilgrim Fellowship is committed to doing God's work, she says. And in hooking up with Back Bay Mission, most would agree it's a good match.

Compassionate service and social justice

Since Back Bay Mission began in 1922, its mission has been to serve "the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the wider church community by faithful witness for social justice and compassionate service to the poor and marginalized." A tall order to be sure, but why Back Bay Mission does this work is very clear to those who work there.

"The 'why' of what we do at Back Bay Mission has long been anchored in the prophetic mandate of Micah," says the Rev. Shari Prestemon, Back Bay's executive director. "It tells us that the Lord requires that we 'do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.' The example of Jesus instructs us further that love for neighbor is a mandate of our faith, and that such love must be made real by our daily acts of compassion, mercy and peace-making."

"Back Bay Mission strives to be a sign of love incarnate," she says, "offering a faithful presence among the poor and suffering in our community, and providing a faithful witness to the Church."

The goal, says Prestemon, is to provide a transforming experience that makes a lasting imprint on participants' hearts and minds, by putting a face on the issue of poverty and by offering an example of the church working with joy to seek justice in the world.

88 teens, 16 adults

Garcia and Prestemon met in the fall of 2001, and Garcia inquired about bringing her group to Biloxi. When suitable projects arose, Garcia packed up 88 teens and 16 adults from her Pilgrim Fellowship group and set out for Mississippi. The projects? There were six, including rehabbing a recreation center and building a new home for a couple whose home had been lost.

Megan Yuhas was one of the teens that undertook this feat. She has been on a lot of mission trips throughout high school, but Back Bay is her favorite. "I was part of a group that was building the house," she says, "and it was a truly amazing experience. It was hard work and everyone, including myself, often got tired."

Yuhas' group worked from 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch. The sun beat down on them, and there was nary a breeze in the air. But that hardly mattered, says Megan, as everyone was part of the team and everyone played their part. "It didn't matter what the work was," she says. "If people knew it had to get done, they did it. It was so unbelievably satisfying to see teenagers, girls and boys, giving it their all to build a house for an elderly couple. It really made me proud."

Appreciation

Going to Mississippi really gave her a new appreciation for her life, says Yuhas. "I've seen a lot of poverty, and a lot of homelessness," she says. "However, Biloxi was the one place where I had interaction with some of the people, and really heard their stories. It's interesting how you go on a mission trip hoping to change someone's life and, although you do, they change your life so much more. They give you a new perspective on life, and give you a whole new reason to be happy. Seeing people who have so little makes you really value the life you have. It also makes you want to travel more places and spread more love."

Nicholas Catino concurs with Yuhas. Back Bay Mission had a profound effect on his spiritual growth.

"The Back Bay Mission allowed me and my peers to experience a whole new society and to fully understand different cultures," says Cantino. "The people of Biloxi were the kindest I have ever met in my life. Their help, support and this mission trip were unbelievable in that every person was touched by this amazing community in one way or another. Friendships were made and it really did change our whole outlook on life."

Within five days, the group had framed up a new house, put the majority of siding on it, and completed the roof on the new home. They tackled a number of other major projects throughout Biloxi, benefiting countless low-income families. "The group was focused and enthusiastic," says Prestemon, "filled with a deep understanding of the value of service and mission."


Across the UCC: Interim ministers are key to churches in transition

Carol L. Pavlik

There comes a time in every church's life when it needs a trained interim pastor. The transitional minister slows down the pace and facilitates healing and regrouping before a new phase of church life begins with a new pastor.

The first time the Rev. Susan De Simone served as an interim pastor for a church, in the early 1980s, she was fresh out of seminary, searching out an associate minister position. Instead, interim ministry beckoned by way of a small Connecticut congregation in transition after losing its pastor.

"I read everything there was to read on interim ministry—two tiny books," says De Simone with a laugh. The term lasted five months, but De Simone was hungry for more. She knew she had found her life's work.

Searching for more resources, De Simone attended courses on conflict resolution and other interim-related topics through the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Md. Now she serves on the faculty of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), an ecumenical association based in Baltimore. The network consists of more than 1,600 interim ministry specialists, consultants, and church leaders representing 25 denominations, including the United Church of Christ.

The Interim Ministry Network serves as a group of peers who support each other in the setting of interim ministry. IMN faculty teach all over the country, usually in retreat centers.

"We try to keep the costs down for people who come," says De Simone, noting that course participants range in age and experience and come from all walks of life. The courses prepare interims for the developmental tasks a transitional congregation experiences during a healthy interim period: letting go of the past, determining the new identity of the church, shifting lay leadership, strengthening the relationship between the church and its denomination, and dealing with any troubling issues—and hopefully resolving them—before the new pastor arrives. The process transcends any theological differences between denominations.

"I think this is something that's very much what God wants us to do: work together," says De Simone. "The kind of leadership you need, the need for building the strength and interconnection, the need for honesty, transparency and integrity—all the dynamics are the same. We have members [ranging] from Unitarian to Missouri Synod Lutheran. I don't know of any other ecumenical organization where the clergy maintain their own identity, but work together seamlessly."

More @

To learn more about the Interim Ministry Network, go to File www.interimministry.org.
 

Interims help churches heal

The Rev. Char Burch, Interim Association Minister of the Northwest Ohio Association, has spent the past 20 years working as an intentional interim in the local, Association and Conference settings of the UCC, and says a time of transition is crucial in any church setting or situation.

"In a business setting, someone leaves his job so you advertise and then hire someone immediately," Burch explains. "Transition in pastorship is different. There are emotional and spiritual connections going on."

When a church faces losing its pastoral leadership, it first turns to its Conference office.

The Conference works closely with the congregation to help them think through what kind of interim leadership would work well for them. It can help prevent the local church from being overwhelmed by the responsibility of searching for an interim. Conference staff will meet with the moderator or consistory and talk through the emotions that may come up during a transitional time. There is often sorrow, anger or shock, says Burch.

Whether the transition is in the local, Association or Conference setting, time is needed to work through these emotions before adjusting to a new style of leadership. The interim's job may be to start asking such questions as "Why do you do that this way?" and "Where do you see yourself going in the future?" Inevitably, those left behind will miss some of the strengths of the former pastor, Burch says.

An interim period "provides the time to realize the person is gone," says Burch, "and in that space, new relationships can be established."

"We want the best for the local churches," says Burch. "We want them to be stronger."

Pastor hears call to be an interim

The Rev. Roger Nicholson will tell you he was dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement to his current interim posting at First Church of Christ UCC in Simsbury, Conn., but the smile behind his voice gives him away.

More than 20 years ago, Nichol-son made the switch from "regular garden variety" pastor to intentional interim. Nicholson says that without doubt, interim ministry is harder because of the two-track commitment. "First," he says, "you have the regular minister duties: preach, teach, baptize, marry, bury. But you also have the transitional agenda, which is important."

Over the past two decades, Nicholson has seen a change in the world of interim ministry. Interim periods are getting longer, mostly due to the diminishing pool of pastoral candidates. But churches also are recognizing the value of interim periods, and are receptive to the idea of regrouping before a new minister is called.

Still, when an interim arrives, says Nicholson, the church is so happy to have someone there that, often, they'll try to convince the interim to stay on.

Nothing doing, says Nicholson.

"Interims have to get [the congregation] to ease off, commit themselves to a process, not try to rush things," he says. "It gives the congregation time to settle and adjust to the change, give the search committee plenty of time to do a good job of preparation."

Being a non-anxious presence is paramount to being an effective transitional minister. "In the midst of all these dynamics," he says, "the challenge is to be relaxed, help the congregation not feel panicked."

"We're not just doing maintenance, holding the fort, so to speak," Nicholson says. "We're trying to get the church toned up for the next person."

Roger Nicholson is editor of "Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry" (Alban Institute, 1998).

Fund assists intentional interims in transition

As a trained interim minister, one never knows where the next job will lead, or what type of problem solving will be required to get the job done. But what happens when transitional ministers themselves are in transition?

The Illinois Conference has established an Interim Ministry Support Fund to help interim ministers continue health and pension benefits even while they're between jobs. The fund is in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Wisconsin Region. For a maximum of three months, any qualifying interim minister may apply for funds to be used towards pension, health benefits, and sometimes salary.

To qualify for the fund, the recipient must have received training in either the UCC's Illinois Conference or the Disciples' Wisconsin Region. Churches are required to contribute 4 percent of the interim minister's salary (over and above the interim salary package), plus housing, to the fund.

The Rev. Connie Stewart, a trained interim ministry specialist currently serving Prospect Heights (Ill.) Community UCC, says the idea of the fund is to care for the core of interims who have chosen this ministry as their vocation. "It is difficult to work [as an interim] if there's no financial support in between," says Stewart, adding that sometimes the thought of discontinued health or retirement benefits deter some from accepting the call to this specialized ministry.

While the Support Fund is meant for pastors already committed to transitional ministry, another part of the fund helps those who are wanting to find out more. Each calendar year, five loans of up to $1,000 are awarded to Illinois Conference (UCC) or Wisconsin Region (DOC) pastors who wish to take interim ministry training. Once training is complete, the recipient repays the loan to replenish the fund. Even if the pastor chooses not to pursue transitional ministry any further, Stewart claims that the interim training enhances any type of ministry.

But more trained interims are always needed, says Stewart. "We can never get enough. Never!" she says with a laugh. The long-term hope is that the support funds will act as an incentive to nudge great pastors into a ministry that consistently promotes health and renewal in churches.

"We like to give this money away because we want to support the core of people who commit themselves to this ministry," says Stewart.

"At least interim ministers will know that in between times, they can get basic support," she adds. So far, the fund "has served to keep very qualified people in interim positions."

The national setting of the United Church of Christ is drafting guidelines for interim ministry, sparking dialogue and input across the UCC, and putting folks on the same page about the responsibilities and accountabilities of the interim minister.

The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator for the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry Team, says the guidelines will define three categories of interims, discuss the certification process of becoming an interim, and standardize the profile process. The guidelines are meant as a resource and enhancement for the work already done in the local church settings of the UCC.

"We depend on these skilled consultants, who do a specialized ministry during an important time in the life of the congregation," says Sparrow. "Their ministry is vital to the ministry of the UCC, to local congregations, and to the wider church. They're gifted, trained people, and we honor the important ministry they do in our midst."
 

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