I give thanks for the life of Alice Urbanowicz. Alice was my clergy mentor when I was an intern at New Hope MCC in Santa Rosa.
Alice was an extraordinary person. Her years as a parole officer gave her a commanding presence – she had a clear and unmistakable air of authority. But at the same time, she was also good-natured, funny, and playful. As my colleague Matt Broadbent might say, “She was spiritual, but not sanctimonious.”
I chose to do my internship with Alice because New Hope MCC was the model of what I hoped my ministry would look like: a small church that provided its members with the opportunity to experiment with new forms of liturgy and whose membership was passionately involved in every type of ministry.
New Hope’s culture was not an accident. Alice never forgot the people who had influenced her path as a pastor. I remember her speaking glowingly about Ken Martin, Wendy Foxworth, and Freda Smith. Alice did no less for her congregation. She was continually looking for ways to support people in developing their gifts and talents. In additional to our more traditional morning service, she set up a special evening service to give congregants a chance to try new types of worship. She helped us experiment and explore, and she gave us many opportunities to put our ideas into practice.
It was wonderful to work with Alice, but from the very beginning it was clear that she missed her family in Texas. When Alice decided to return home to them, I knew that she was following the call of her heart. I am particularly grateful for Alice’s relationship with Molly, her spouse and partner. Molly has been amazing these last several years as Alice has experienced significant health challenges. I cannot imagine anyone having a better partner.
The extent of Alice’s influence on my ministry might surprise people. At a first look, it might not seem that we had much in common. My office is remarkably lacking in stuffed frogs, and I have yet to invite any seminarians to my home in order to serve them the world’s best tater tots. But at a deeper level, I hope my ministry reflects what I learned from Alice: to see people’s hidden talents, to give them opportunities to explore their gifts, and to help them to express their spirituality with courage, compassion, and joy.
This sermon was given at Foothills Congregational Church (UCC) on September 28, 2014.
It’s the final week of the creation series at our church. We started the month with a sermon from Rev. Matt about the forest. The next Sunday Rev. Evelyn talked with us about the land, and last week John and Wil Aney talked about the wilderness. This week our topic is rivers.
Rivers are wondrous. They’re powerful and deep. They may appear still and silent on the surface, but underneath they have enormous strength. Rivers are also a source of life – they feed and nourish the land. Here in California during our drought, we know how important it is for us to have water in our rivers.
Rivers appear throughout the holy stories that make up our tradition. We start out with Abraham, who comes from Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia means “between two rivers,” referring to its location between the Tigris and Euphrates. Later, we have the story of Moses and the Nile in Egypt, then the story of Jesus and John the Baptist in the Jordan. Finally, at the very end of the Christian scriptures, John the Evangelist tells us about a new river, a river that doesn’t exist yet.
Continue reading The River
John 9:1-41 is a fascinating text with many subtleties. One of its characteristics that it blurs the distinctions between insiders and outsiders, disciples and Pharisees, and Jesus and his followers.
The text starts with a three part opening section (verses 1-7). This is followed by four short dialogs (verses 8-34). The passage ends with a three-part closing section (verses 35-41) which echoes the introduction. This structure can be seen in the color-coded translation below. You can also click the following link for a larger, resizable pdf of the color-coded analysis.
The introduction has three parts:
- Question: The disciples (students) ask a question. “Who was it that sinned?”
- Theological statement: “Neither this one or his parents sinned…” Instead this is an opportunity to do the works of God. As per verse four, these aren’t just works for Jesus to do – the whole group listening is supposed to be engaged in these works.
- Pastoral action: the healing of the person’s blindness.
Continue reading The Narrative Structure of John 9:1-41
I don’t think Jim Mitulski ever encouraged me to go into ministry. When I told Jim that I was interested in becoming a pastor, he told me to talk with Penny Nixon. Penny’s guidance was quite clear. “If there is anything else you can do and be happy, do that instead. Don’t go into ministry unless there is nothing else in life that can satisfy you.”
That was good advice.
There was nothing else in life that could satisfy me, so I quit my job, sold my house, and became a pastor.
Continue reading In Praise of Jim Mitulski
I was in the Old City of Jerusalem, not far from the Lions’ Gate, when the reporter from CBS Radio found me. He got right to the point, “Are you a pilgrim?”
This was not first time I’d been asked this question. It was Good Friday, and I had come to walk the Via Dolorosa, spending fifteen minutes in meditation at each of the Stations of the Cross. Periodically along my journey, people would ask me, “Are you a pilgrim?”
I hadn’t planned this trip to Jerusalem in advance, but an unexpected business trip had brought me to Israel. So the first few times I was asked, I was able to answer quickly and easily. “I’m not a pilgrim. I’m just here by accident.”
But when you’re talking to a news reporter, you have to be a little more careful. If your remarks make it onto the air, all your friends will be calling you up to tell you what they heard, so it’s good to think things through before responding.
“No,” I wanted to reply, “I’m not a pilgrim. I’m just someone who got up at four o’clock this morning in order to drive an hour and arrive here before dawn, and then walk the ancient city streets of Jerusalem barefoot, spending fifteen minutes in meditation at each of the stations of the cross. Why would you think that I’m a pilgrim?”
Continue reading I’m a Pilgrim
I first met Mark Bidwell at a church conference about ten years ago. We were both youngsters in our denomination, and I remember him as a fun and friendly guy. He had a couple of teen-aged kids and being a dad was a huge focus of his life. He had recently become the pastor of MCC Detroit, and he was what I wanted to be: a successful pastor with a good family life.
We continued to run into one another at various church conferences over the years. It was always great to see him. It’s a long way from Michigan to California, but I’m sure that if we’d lived closer we would have become good friends.
Late last September, things changed for Mark. He made an extremely bad mistake. Mark brought a stranger home for a one-night stand. They used illegal drugs. The stranger died. Mark called 911. The media picked it up and the story was everywhere. Mark resigned his position with the church. He resigned his duties as a volunteer police chaplain. Our denomination suspended his ministry license.
Continue reading Mark Bidwell
I arrived at the Old City of Jerusalem near dawn on Good Friday. It was early – too early for any of the local parking lots to be open. I had come to meet a group of Lutherans and Episcopalians who were going to walk the Via Dolorosa at sunrise, but by the time I was able to find parking, they were long gone.
During the day, the Old City is packed. There are countless street vendors, crowded into tiny shops that open onto the narrow streets. There is no car traffic in most of the city. The streets are too narrow for even one-way traffic, and during the daytime they are jammed with a mix of tourists, pilgrims, and people who live and work in the Old City.
If you arrive around sunrise, the streets are quiet. The sidewalk shops are closed, and the tourists, pilgrims, and residents are still asleep. The morning sun glimmers on the dusky straw-colored cobblestones, and there is a sense of imminent expectation. Soon Jerusalem will be vibrant and bustling, but now the Old City is filled with a peaceful quiet, gently illuminated by the early morning sunlight.
Continue reading On the Via Dolorosa
I served as the Senior Pastor of MCC San Jose from December 1, 2003 until April 4, 2010. I was followed by Rev. William Knight, who served the church in 2010 & 2011, and Rev. Rebecca Anderson, who was pastor in 2011 & 2012. Following a congregational vote in early 2012, the church decided to close. Its final service was on February 26, 2012.
Here are my answers to some questions that people have asked me about the church and its decision to close.
Continue reading On the closing of MCC San Jose
This essay will help you write, lead, or choose a guided meditation. It starts with some simple steps for leading an effective meditation, gives some guidelines for choosing or composing a meditation, then concludes with two sample guided meditations.
Simple Steps for Leading an Effective Meditation
- Speak calmly, slowly, and with warmth during your meditation.
- If you are using a meditation that someone else has written, you should attribute the meditation to that person as you begin. For example, “Please join me for ‘Seeing the Rainbow,’ a guided meditation by Karen Lebacqz.” Continue reading How to Lead a Guided Meditation
One of my favorite forms of prayer is contemplative meditation, a time of silent reflection on a specific subject. On any given day, the focus of my contemplation might be a Bible passage or a theological concept such as healing, wholeness or joy. While many forms of prayer involve speaking, contemplative prayer involves listening. What do I listen for? I listen to hear what will come to me after all of the other thoughts have tumbled out of my head.
Contemplative prayer can be the source of powerful insights, but it is not always easy, particularly if you have cats. Continue reading Meditation with Cats