From The Pastor

REVerberatiions – November 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

Greetings! 

What is your epistemic framework? Put another way: How to do you decide what counts as knowledge and by what means do you learn what you learn? In a world in which we are bombarded every moment by countless sources of so-called “facts” and “truths,” we do well to think about how to navigate the flood of information and misinformation that, if left unchecked, threatens to utterly baffle and bewilder us. 

As I write this, the internet is turning 50 years old. It was on October 29, 1969, that one computer first sent a message to another computer in a different location. That momentous event opened a whole new world of communication and information-sharing. It ushered in an era of unprecedented possibilities for networking and connectivity. And, at the same time, it created a previously unimagined array of potential problems and ethical dilemmas, many of which we confront as daily realities in the world in which we now live. 

There is – and there has been and there will continue to be – concern about the role the internet and social media plat-forms play in spreading what passes as knowledge these days. This past week, in fact, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill, in part to account for the role his company plays in perpetuating news that is not news at all. 

The problem is not unique to Facebook, though Facebook, with its staggering number of users around the world, has a uniquely prominent role in shaping the flow of information and the development of what we might think is knowledge. We can get a better sense of the problem when we acknowledge that Facebook exists to make money – and not necessarily to inform anyone about anything, and that they make more money by getting more people to use their services, and that they get more people to use their services by using algorithms that trend toward what is sensational in whatever ways will get more people to click and view more content so they can sell more advertising. And the content may or may not have any basis in reality. Indeed the nature of the content is entirely beside the point. Let’s be clear: all social media platforms ultimately exist to make money, not to share either accurate or full accounts of what is happening in the world. 

But then money has always driven media that presume to convey news to the general public. How far can you get into a newscast before you see a commercial for this or for that? Given that ad sales sustain media outlets, why should we be surprised that the evening news runs coverage of car crashes and house fires? They do it partly because those stories affect viewers on a variety of levels including physiological; when human beings view such stimulating material, our brains release neurotransmitters associated with attention and arousal and keep us coming back for more. But other stories that may have more relevance and import get left out and what we think we know about the world is skewed by decisions made in the interest of generating financial gain for people who have enough wealth to reap the benefits. 

At the end of the day, media corporations are out to make money above all else, and they seem quite incapable of reasonable self-regulation. And our government has not found, nor does it look like our government will find a way to regulate how and what information is shared as news. So, unless we as individuals are intention-al about screening and balancing the news we receive, we are at the mercy of forces and sources that may well not have any interest in anything like a common purpose, or a collective good, or the reign of God that serves all people. 

At some level, engaging the news thoughtfully is an act of faith or at least an act with faith implications. 

As religious and/or spiritual people, do we have a special responsibility to think through what counts as knowledge and news? 

How should the Bible play into our ways of knowing things? What about tradition? Should what the church has done through the years inform our decision-making today? Does our own personal life experience matter, the lessons we have learned through trial and error along the way? What role should reason serve in our discernment of what is true and what is not? Must we rely on statistics and “hard data,” or are “gut feelings” more meaningful in our determination of truth? How much stock should we put in what Aunt Mabel has to say about things? Thinking about how we know things can validate what we think we know – or not. 

Sadly, we know that the Church has historically played an active role in the spread of misinformation and made lethal mistakes in interpreting such matters as, for example, the initiation and preservation of slavery and systemic racism, marginalization of women, perpetuation of poverty, discrimination against people in the LGBTQ+ community, and so on… And good church people have been willing for millennia to compromise their values and integrity for the sake of selfish and short-term gratification and self-glorification. 

Especially as we head into the heat of this political season, I urge us to be thoughtful about what we allow to pass for news, how we come to know what we think we know, what sources feed us the information upon which we make decisions and shape how we see the world. We will do well to balance our exposure to what is called news, intentionally seeking out varied sources and making determinations based on our own thoughtful judgment. 

For the good of our country and the sake of all of humanity, we cannot afford to just make stuff up or to accept lies as truths. There is far too much hanging in the balance. 

Marty

REVerberations – October 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

Greetings! 

How we look at the world affects our understanding of it, and how we understand the world shapes how we might act to change it. As we intentionally engage as a congregation in the work of anti-racism, we will do well to look more broadly and deeply at what is happening in the world around us. 

At this moment, for example, I am quite interested to see what happens in the trial of the Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, who shot a black man, Botham Jean, who was in his own apartment eating popcorn on his sofa. As I write, the case is just beginning. So far, it looks like the defense is going to emphasize that Guyger said 22 times that she thought she was in her own apartment and was defending herself from an intruder, while the prosecutors are trying to make the case that she would have had to overlook many obvious identifiers that the apartment she was entering was in fact not hers. I have also heard speculation that the officer and the man she killed had an ongoing feud as neighbors, and that the shooting may have been an outgrowth of that. 

What I am most sure of is that I wasn’t there and there is so much I don’t know and never will know about what happened on that fateful night. May the judge and jury be blessed with the gift of discernment and a clear sense of equal justice for all. And in issuing their ultimate judgment, may they account for the pervasive cultural bias and persistent racism that are intricately interwoven into this case. 

There are bigger issues surrounding the events now under review in that Dallas courtroom. Even if Guyger did think she was entering her own apartment, and even if she was too tired or distract-ed or whatever to notice the clues that might have deterred her from entering the apartment belonging to someone else, my question has to do with why it seems to be so easy to shoot unarmed black men. Jean, according to all that I have heard, presented no real threat whatsoever to Guyger. He didn’t have a weapon. He didn’t lunge at her or make any kind of threatening move toward her. He didn’t raise his voice at her. And he was across the room. So why did she feel free to unleash the deadly force that ended the life of an innocent man who was simply making his way through another day? And would the result have been the same if the person Guyger encountered in whoever’s apartment it was was white? 

If we step back, we realize that the shooting took place within a larger context of race and privilege. Indeed it happened in a nation that has dealt disastrously with race for 400 years since the arrival of the first ship bear-ing captive slaves from Africa. It happened within a society in which white dominance is the unchallenged status quo. And it happened within institutional structures that systemically withhold equity and equality from people of color who are continually held back and beaten down. 

Systemic racism limits where people can live, for example, which in turn determines where they can go to school, which in turn influences the quality of education they can receive, which in turn has impact on their ability to earn money and obtain wealth, which in turn contributes to the general quality of life. All of that takes place against the backdrop of law enforcement and criminal justice systems that disproportionately dis-advantage people of color compared to people who are white, and that routinely disrupt families and whole communities. And there are historic and ongoing efforts to limit the electoral power of people of color, denying fundamental rights to make decisions that matter. Indeed just this week a group of citizens filed a lawsuit against the State of Mississippi for resurrecting a portion of the state’s 1890 Constitution that established electoral laws with the stated purpose of preserving “white supremacy.” 

At some level, fighting racism is about monitoring and managing interpersonal and group interactions, ensuring that all people treat all other people with dignity and respect. But, much more significantly, fighting racism is about addressing the larger systemic is-sues that continue to make it so that living in the United States is a vastly different experience for people based on skin color. And the latter focus on systemic racism requires much harder work. 

So we have much work ahead of us as we study racism and deliberately engage in the struggle to end racism and bring about racial justice. Toward that end, the Anti-racist Congregation Leadership Team has met – 22 people strong! – and begun mapping out a plan for us to delve deeply and broadly into matters of race and racism. At this point it looks as though our period of study and reflection will include regular, maybe even weekly conversations about race and racism for those who are interested, investment of time and energy in our education programs for all ages including a month-long focus in Seekers in January, thematic presentations and pro-grams, continued networking with individuals and organizations committed to racial justice in our community and in the wider church, various events around the anti-racism theme, book studies and the collection of useful resources, and movie screenings, along with sermons and worship services on a routine basis, seeking in all things to address questions about what it is we are called to do about racial justice as people who identify as followers of Jesus. 

No doubt there is much to learn and much to do together. I am excited about the possibilities of immersing ourselves in this vital work. And I am grateful to be doing this work with you! 

Marty 

REVerberations – September 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

Greetings! 

And we’re off! Or at least we soon will be, on the adventure of another church-year! I always find this time of the year to be very exciting. In some ways it feels to me like we are starting a big jet engine that winds up slowly at first then gets moving with great speed and force. 

Last month, I mentioned two possible major initiatives for the year we are now beginning. The first is the celebration of St. Paul’s 150th Anniversary. Doug has pulled together an awe-some crew to lead the way with that, including several lifetime members of the church. I have even heard that Thom Ballantine will be adding his considerable knowledge of St. Paul’s history. At this point, we will plan to do a 150th Anniversary Moment during services at least once a month, to host other special events and learning opportunities, and to have a big blow-out anniversary celebration in the Spring. Along the way, we will trace St. Paul’s evolution from a Reformed church, to an Evangelical and Reformed church, to the United Church of Christ, and we will hope to sort out what all of that means for us now. We will remember great moments in church history and honor the people who have helped St. Paul’s be what it’s been, even as we look to a bright and bold future informed by that past. 

I will say that one of the things that still strikes me about the history of this congregation is how a relatively small number of families had the utter audacity to build a 220-seat Sanctuary from the very start. They built it and people came indeed! What does it mean to have that audacious spirit as our collective heritage? 

And as we consider what kind of future we will make, we will engage in a pro-gram to become an Anti-Racism Congregation within the United Church of Christ. I proposed that idea in last month’s Highlights and, as Church Council met this past Tuesday to talk about it, we were aware of only support for doing this important work. A number of folks from across the Congregation even remarked that the topic is timely, and they affirmatively expressed enthusiasm for the idea and said they want to be active participants. 

Of course we will take great care as we move into this project, and we will keep talking and listening all together along the way. We will be mindful that racism is a tender topic, and we will proceed accordingly. That said, dealing with racism is a challenging process that requires courage and a certain amount of leaning into discomfort. Judy Jones, the Equity Supervisor for Carroll County Public Schools, calls people into “courageous conversations.” We will set the stage for those here also. Among many other things, we will compare and contrast equality and equity and realize that the latter creates clearer pathways for people to live their dreams. 

As we begin the year, I invite anyone to come forward who would like to be on the Anti-Racism Leadership Team. Much like with WISE, the Anti-Racism Leadership Team will help us deliberately think through what we can do to deepen and broaden our understanding of racism, facilitate programming (e.g., themed services, possible monthly Congregational Conversations, maybe book studies and film screenings, sponsored speakers, etc.), and help draft an Anti-Racism Covenant to be voted on in the Spring. 

One of the starting assumptions for this initiative is that racism is systemic; it goes beyond one person making racist comments and requires a clear-eyed look at the way the world works to advantage some and disadvantage others. We will acknowledge that saying such things is not intended, and ought not to, induce guilt or negative feelings in anyone, but to illuminate reality in ways that can bring meaningful insight and spark meaningful action. We are all products of a system that went demonstrably off course on August 20, 1619, 400 years ago this week, when the first slave ship arrived on American shores. 

A second starting assumption is that it is not enough to not be racist. Indeed in a new book, Ibram X. Kendi writes that there are either racists or anti-racists. His premise is that there is no middle ground. We will talk about that, walk around it, dig into it, and see how and where we come out on the other side. His book would be a great book group focus, and he is local enough that we might be able to get him to come to town to talk about his ideas. And of course, I expect that we will draw heavily on our extensive network of relationships with local organizations and people who are also committed to anti-racism. And we will do what we can to draw from National, Conference- and Association-wide racial justice efforts in which Erin and I are already involved. 

The time is right to engage in this process. No doubt making a difference to end racism is long past overdue. Sure we have seen incremental progress over the years, and decades and even centuries. But the time is right for a paradigm shift that moves us closer as a community, a nation, and a planet to ensuring that every person genuinely has every opportunity, and that all people know the universal love of God experienced in real and tangible ways in their daily lives. 

In the end, we can ask what difference doing this work in one small place can actually make. We will not know until we try… 

This is, of course, necessarily something we can only do together, and the value of the work will be influenced by all of our willingness to engage in it. So let’s do that, and make the most of this wonderful opportunity. 

Marty 

REVerberations – August 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

Greetings! 

Throughout the upcoming church-year that officially begins with a 9:30am service in the Sanctuary on September 8, we will be celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the founding of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Westminster! That is very exciting, a momentous occasion and a marvelous milestone! The Anniversary will give us a chance to reflect more deeply on the long and distinguished history of this congregation and remember the saints who have gone before, and possibly to explore our Reformed and Evangelical and Reformed roots, even as we seriously ponder who we are right now, and orient toward what we will be and do into the future. We will likely mark the Anniversary with a grand, dedicated service in the Spring of 2020. More Anniversary plans will be forthcoming, so stay tuned. 

In terms of recent major movements in our congregational life, we are coming up on our 11th anniversary of being Open and Affirming for the LGBTQ+ community, and we continue to find dynamic and engaging ways to make that ONA commitment real and meaningful. And we recently, of course, just became a WISE Congregation which continues to shape our life together, for example, in this “Summer of Wellness,” in the building of our relationship with NAMI and the strengthening of our relationships within the larger mental health, sub-stance abuse, and brain disorder net-work, in our engagement in a community-wide anti-stigma campaign, and in other ways that continue to emerge as we move forward. 

And I wonder if we might do one more big thing before we celebrate and may-be take a rest for a brief moment… (At 150 years old, we might need a little breather, right?) That one thing would be to consolidate all of the work we have already been doing around racial justice for the past many years by engaging in an intentional process to become an Anti-Racism Congregation within the United Church of Christ. Anti-Racism is a topical matter in contemporary culture and it is a major focus within the United Church of Christ at this time. It is also an ur-gent issue in our very own community where, for example, students of color in the public school system are routinely harassed, called the N-word, spit upon, denied opportunities for advanced classes, and disproportionately disciplined. 

Some of us are indeed directly involved in Anti-Racism work in the Catoctin Association and the Central 

Atlantic Conference. St. Paul’s has been identified as a racial justice leader in the Association and is one of a handful of congregations that have been asked to do a brief presentation on our racial justice work at the Conference annual meeting on October 4th and 5th in Bethesda. At that annual meeting, we will talk about such things as our sustained, intensive involvement with community racial justice groups (e.g., Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, NAACP, CCPS Multicultural Education Council, Human Rights Commission, etc.), our annual Racial Justice Event – coming up on its fifth year, hosting various other events that address racial justice, sponsoring our own African American Read-in and inviting students of color from Carroll County Public Schools to present their original works, as well as periodic but consistent focus on racial justice in Seekers and in services, and more. 

In all likelihood, engaging in the process of becoming an Anti-Racism Congregation would be similar to what we have done for ONA and WISE. Specifically, we might consider naming a Leadership Team, having ongoing conversations about racism – perhaps continuing the monthly congregational conversations during Sunday School, orienting occasional worship services to include a more deliberate focus on Race and Racism, strengthening our racial justice-oriented work in the community, bringing in speakers from time to time, and providing other related trainings, book groups, movie screenings, etc., as appropriate. We might also think about having more people participate in the Civil Rights tour led by the Zepp Center, or in the Culture Expo put on each year by CCPS. What else? In the end, we would, as with ONA and WISE, draft a covenant that sets forth what we believe and what we commit to. 

No doubt we are, by our very nature, an Anti-Racism Congregation, and we are already doing much work that demonstrates that, though there is always more and more to learn from many and varied perspectives. The question for us all at this moment is: Shall we take the next step to go through this process and officially become an Anti-Racism Congregation? 

Church Council will be talking about this in their gathering on Tuesday, August 20, at 7:00pm in the Parish House Conference Room. Absolutely everyone is invited and encouraged to be part of the conversation! If you would prefer, you can send an email to churchcouncil@stpauls-ucc.org with your thoughts on the matter. (If the email address comes up with Linda’s name, that is the right one too, so feel free to click send.) 

Clearly, like with everything else, this is something we can only do together. Let’s see if we are up for it… 

Marty 

REVerberations June/July 2019

Summer is upon us!  And the WISE Leadership Team is leading an effort to promote a “Summer of Wellness” which is intended to remind us all that there are basic things we can do to improve our mental and physical health, enhance our sense of spiritual wholeness, reinforce our social connectedness, and generally add to the quality and quantity of life.

I am surely no expert on this, but I have been thinking about it quite a bit in response to some recent health challenges.  The following is some basic information that has the potential to make a difference.

Eating right matters, especially being aware of carbohydrates – which are everywhere, and which are an especially noteworthy contributor to weight gain, diabetes, and a cascade of other related complications.  Part of eating better is unlearning that old food pyramid that emphasized carbs and limited fats and proteins.  (Did you know that that model of nutrition was derived from a model designed to fatten cattle?  It seems we would do well to come at eating in a different way, right?)  There are a variety of very good eating plans and “diets” available that do not involve adding to the coffers of the multi-billion dollar diet industry.  Common sense and moderation are fundamental guiding principles.  Reading nutrition labels helps.

Hydration matters.  A common recommendation is to drink eight 8 oz. glasses of water per day.  That might be a good starting place, but necessary fluid consumption depends on a host of factors including activity level, climate, and overall health.  Recognizing that every single cell and system of our bodies depends on water to survive and thrive, it might be good to aim toward the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations of 15.5 cups of water per day for men, and 11.5 cups per day for women.

Exercise matters.  The bottom line is that any kind of physical movement and activity is better than none.  Beyond that, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for “substantial health benefits.”  Older adults should do multicomponent physical activity that includes balance training as well as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.  A comprehensive resource on physical activities is available at: health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf

Sleep matters.  The Centers for Disease Control recommends at least 7 or more hours of good quality sleep per night for adults.  (See their sleep recommendations for all ages at www.cdc.gov/features/sleep/index.html)  Frequently waking in the night and being sleepy during the day may be indications of poor quality sleep and might be good reasons to consult a medical practitioner.  Sleep allows time for the body to heal and revitalize.  On the other hand, the CDC warns that “if not getting enough sleep is a regular part of your routine, you may be at an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke, poor mental health, and even early death.”

All of these things work together, of course, and addressing them can lead to new levels of holistic health.  And there are surely other factors for which to account, including attending to our psycho-spiritual selves by way of practices that engage and connect us with ourselves and others and God (prayer, meditation, connections with nature, good time with friends, etc.).  Finding ways to manage and release stress can also bring about meaningful improvements in overall health and well-being.

As I talked about in a recent sermon, having a Life Purpose has also been shown to improve the quality and quantity of life, attending to what it is that gets us up and going each day.  Indeed, having a clear purpose in life has shown significant life-extending results across factors like gender, race, socioeconomic status, and education level, and it may matter more than stopping smoking and drinking or starting an exercise program.  Soon we will explore the healing effects of gratitude and look into mindfulness as ways to live better and longer.

And for those looking to do something healthy with others right now, know that we have been able to arrange for weekly yoga sessions to happen in Fellowship Hall from 11:30am to 12:30pm on Saturdays.  If you have been wanting to try yoga or seeking to come back to it, this program might be what you are looking for.  Sessions are open to all and will be adapted as needed.  The cost is $5 per person per session.  Contact Tom Templeton if you have questions or are interested (410-236-4851).

Stay tuned for more information about various health screening opportunities, nature picnics and hikes, a possible family swim, and more.  And do feel free to share your ideas about wellness by sending an email to wiseteam@stpauls-ucc.org

Let’s be healthy and well together!  There is so much for us to do…

Marty 

REVerberations – May 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

Greetings! 

With the publication of this edition of Highlights, we are within the month in which we will vote on officially becoming a WISE Congregation – Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged with mental illness, substance abuse, and brain disorders. It has been quite a process. 

It began at the General Synod in Baltimore in the Summer of 2017. Information about WISE was shared there and I brought that to what was still called Consistory then. Consistory was supportive of beginning the work and endorsed a plan to move forward with the formation of a WISE Leadership Team. We were able to pull together a Team made up of various mental health professionals, mental health consumers, and advocates. It has been a very strong Team indeed – a uniquely expert group, that has overseen our course of preparation. To further inform our efforts, Michael and I attended a national WISE Conference in Andover, Massachusetts in the Fall and were able to bring back resources and ideas as well as to begin networking with others interested and involved in the WISE movement. 

Our congregational preparation process has included worship services dedicated to WISE-related topics, monthly whole-church conversations about WISE that have covered a broad swath of territory and featured powerful personal testimonies to help us think through what WISE might mean for us, periodic presentations in worship services, intensive Men-tal Health First Aid training led by the Carroll County Health Department (sixteen people were certified!), and vari-ous other activities, both formal and in-formal. Those certified in MHFA join the large group that was trained last year in the administration of Narcan/Naloxone to counteract opioid overdose. And St. Paul’s long tradition of generous support for Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon groups is utterly in line with WISE. 

Along the way, we have had a few people train with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and we have both begun hosting a NAMI family support group and are preparing this month to start a peer support group to be led by Michael and Jamie. They and I will now be joining the NAMI Carroll County Board which will have St. Paul’s as its ongoing meet-ing place. Relatedly, I have started serving on the board of the national United Church of Christ Mental Health Network. In all, I think the entire preparation and study process has been a thorough and solid start. And it has been a source of great joy that so many people have so actively and meaningfully participated in some or many or all aspects. 

In our April WISE Congregation Conversation we talked together about a draft covenant the final version of which will serve as the centerpiece of our upcoming vote. We will come back together to review a revised version of that draft in the Congregational Conversation we will have from 9:30am until 10:30am in Fellowship Hall on Sunday, May 12. All are invited and encouraged to participate. (That revised draft is published on page 3 of this edition of Highlights, and I hope you will read it and think about it.) We will make final edits as needed. 

And on Sunday, May 19, in a Special Congregational Meeting, we will vote on whether to officially declare ourselves to be a WISE Congregation. Pending the vote, we will be, I think, the twelfth UCC congregation in the country to become WISE. And the UCC leads all other denominations in this work, with many just starting to think about what they might do and looking to the UCC WISE model for guidance. WISE is a growing movement, and if we affirm our WISE Covenant, we will be an early leader in the wider church and specifically in our broadly defined region. (For perspective, the nearest current WISE Congregations are in Rochester, New York and Hendersonville, North Carolina.) 

As I have talked about this work in our community, and as the word has gotten around – and it surely has, it has been truly humbling to hear how many people and local agencies support us in all of this, and how many people are longing for a church to take the lead around issues related to mental illness, substance abuse, and brain disorders. On May 23, I have been asked to be the key-note speaker at a NAMI Baltimore conference for inter-faith leaders at Sheppard Pratt to talk about how religious organizations can prepare to intentionally address related issues. 

Becoming WISE continues and extends St. Paul’s extravagant welcome and it is a way for us to continue faithfully following Jesus’ example as best we can, tending to and loving people who are too easily and often marginalized in society, knowing full well that in many ways we are them and they are us. WISE will make us a stronger congregation, better able to be supportive of each other, and better equipped to help others in our community. 

Thank you to all who have been part of this very important work! And thank you to all who will stay involved or will become involved as we live into the awesome possibilities of this ministry. Indeed the vote is but the next step on what promises to be a long and wonderful and meaningful journey together. 

Be well… 

Marty 

REVerberations – April 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

Greetings! 

As always seems to be the case, there is much going on in the life of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ these days, and we continue to make whatever difference we can in the world. If I may share some thoughts on a few things in particular… 

I join with Michael in celebrating all of the awesome activity that is happening related to our WISE Congregation process. Please do see his article in this edition of Highlights. Having as many people as we did come out for the intensive Mental Health First Aid training was simply thrilling as we now turn toward drafting our WISE Covenant. Thank you to all who have been and will be part of this important process! Things are also bubbling up in exciting ways with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and our connections there. We will now be adding a couple of much-needed community education and support groups for mental health to the many AA and Al-Anon groups and Reiki experiences that take place in the building each week. Meal and More continues to add to the cumulative healing and helping factor as well, in addition to our worship and educational opportunities, our social gather-ings, and all the great work that is going on. Of course PFLAG and First Fridays continue to provide an essential anchor and support for the local LGBTQ community across generations. They are now beginning to plan for this year’s Drag Show. And we continue to provide space and energy for several other efforts to bring about justice and eradicate homelessness for all. So what’s next? 

Relatedly, we celebrate Erin Snell receiving this year’s Award from the Carroll County Human Relations Commission! My comments at the awards banquet drew a connection between Erin’s life and the passage at Micah 6:8 – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Erin makes that passage real through her ongoing involve-ment in the community, her leadership of Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, her longstanding commitment to the PFLAG Steering Committee and First Fridays, her participation on the executive committee of the local NAACP chapter, her active involve-ment in the Poor People’s Campaign, and so many other endeavors. Congratulations, Erin! I am proud to affirm your great work as St. Paul’s Minister of Social Justice! With profound humility and heart-felt kindness, Erin has become a true force for justice in the world. 

St. Paul’s will have another opportunity to be a presence in the community as the destination of this year’s Good Friday Walk with the Cross. The walk begins at 11:00am at Ascension Episcopal Church on North Court Street and will make its way down Main Street to St. Paul’s. As the closing service at noon, we will offer Taize-style worship in the Sanctuary. 

Remember also that we are still looking for a couple of volunteers to staff the St. Paul’s booth at the Seniors on the Go Expo at the Ag Center on Wednesday, April 3, from 9:00am until 2:00pm. Thanks to the team that is pulling together a nice display that will represent us nicely at this well-attended event, and at other events in the future. 

So there is a lot to do. And there is also the Lenten summons to just be, and to reflect, to pray, and to prepare for the new life Easter promises. May we be blessed in it all, and find balance in each moment, and make our way forward with meaning and energy and hope. 

Marty 

REVerberations – March 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

One of the earliest conversations I ever had with anyone from St. Paul’s was with Janet Kelly who, as Head Elder at the time, was thinking about Communion during my candidating weekend. We worked out the details and when I got here, I found the Communion table set with the finest silver pieces. It was beautiful! And Communion worked very smoothly that Sunday morning, as I remember. 

Over the years, we have had other important conversations about Communion. For example, we expanded intinction to include small cups of juice for people who are immuno-compromised or simply prefer the cups. We have added a variety of breads for World Communion Sunday. We have made it official that all people, including young children, can receive Communion as long as parents approve – and we have had some who did not until Confirmation. We have worked, quite meticulously at times, on the delivery of Communion in the pews, even to the point of diagramming delivery routes for Consistory members who are now Church Council Members. I am sure that professional football teams would have envied the thoroughness of the planning – “OK, you go long, and you post up right here…” We have experimented with whether servers should start in the front and back of the Sanctuary as op-posed to the front and the middle. And we have dedicated portions of Council meetings to actually practicing this stuff. 

The changes have been more than logistical. Several years ago, we looked care-fully at the standard Communion liturgy – the one printed on the Communion inserts when we use those, and adapted it to be more gender neutral and theologically correct; for example, there are times it is appropriate to use the name Jesus and times it is appropriate to refer to Christ. 

More recently, we added wine along with grape juice during Communion so people could have a choice that suits their past experiences and current preferences. That was a big step and was undertaken quite thoughtfully given that the tradition at St. Paul’s had been to avoid serving wine, at least partly in deference to the presence of AA in the building. In extensive conversations with AA leaders and members, it was clear that the people with whom we spoke fully supported serving wine as long as juice was also offered. A couple of things became very clear: members of AA must deal with the availability of alcohol all around them in the world and in their lives, and AA seeks to pre-pare the person to live in the world and not change the world to suit the person. Indeed one leader with whom I spoke said it would be sad if we didn’t serve wine if there were other reasons to do so. And there are. Especially for people who grew up in the Catholic tradition, Communion is bread and wine. The same is true for individual Protestant congregations as well. So we offer both. (I won’t go into the history of how the Welch’s company got woven into the “tradition” across Protestantism as they lobbied for juice to bolster sales of their product.) 

Recently, and quite by accident, some of the kids took wine. I watched as it happened, and I can assure you that they did not like it. Nonetheless, there are a variety of beliefs about whether wine should be available to young people, with some believing it is quite con-sistent with tradition based on parental consent, and at least one other believing that we are “giving kids booze.” We need to think that through together. 

We have also experimented with new ways of doing Communion liturgy. That, too, arouses the interest of people with a wide variety of preferences. Some would like to have the full Communion liturgy every Communion Sunday, while others want even more extensive liturgy than that, and still others strongly and strenuously object to components of that liturgy and find that any words at all can get in the way of them fully appreciating the sacrament. So we can dialogue about that also. 

I have heard through the grape vine that there are conversations happening now about all of this. And I have asked that the Elders join me in a Congregational Conversation about Communion in general, open to all who are interested in being there and sharing views in a productive forum. The Elders will then share the results of that meeting with the whole Church Council and we will find the best way forward that we can given a wondrous diversity of opinions, needs, and preferences.

So come to Fellowship Hall after the 10:45am service on Sunday, March 10, and be part of the process. We will also have a similar conversation during the 8:30am service and members of Church Council and I will do our best to faithfully make sure what is said is accounted for in any decision-making. I hope to see you there! 

Be well…
Marty 

REVerberations – February 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 

If I might take a moment to collect some thoughts about the WISE Congregation process… Having begun in earnest in October and hoping to conclude in May, we are now roughly midway through what we initially set out to be our study and preparation time. We have had a couple of WISE Moments during services. We have gathered during Sunday School time on two Sundays. For the first of those, we heard powerfully compelling and eloquent testimonies from people in this congregation dealing with mental illness and substance abuse directly and indirectly. During the second session, we had an open conversation during which we talked about a variety of questions and issues, and we decided that it was important to follow up on questions about comfort, perhaps guided by Niebuhr’s quote about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. In short, we named the tension between deciding to become WISE and living with the possibility that doing so would set the stage for behaviors and issues that might well test our sense of comfort during our times together. What if someone comes from the com-munity and is disruptive or even danger-ous? 

Our planned conversation about that was thrown off by a weather-related cancellation, so we followed up during both services the next Sunday. A number of people spoke out, giving voice to the distinct possibility that the presence of people with more serious behavioral issues could quite likely disrupt what is a necessary and valued time of spiritual sanctuary for each of us, a place to revitalize and renew for life’s challenges, a place to connect with old friends and new friends alike. We did our best to hold all of that in light of the gospel passage from Matthew that says that what we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus; that passage calls us to put ourselves in places beyond our routine. And, on a pragmatic level, we talked also about a desire to get more people into church, and recognized that be-coming WISE may help that to happen. 

I know from my community contacts that there is a fair amount of excitement among the mental health community that our becoming WISE would provide a unique resource in town for people with whom they work, people who may be longing for a place of spiritual connection but who are, for whatever reasons, leery of attending church – for example, due to stigma, or because they are afraid that people will not welcome them or that they will not be able to tolerate sitting through a service, or because they have generally given up on finding a way to integrate God into their lives. 

Three points of clarification come to mind about all of that. First, we have a special community to share with people in need of connection, a truly loving, accepting and affirming community that offers meaningful relationship with others and with God. Second, as is true for everybody, it may not only be Sunday services that meet peoples’ needs; it may be involvement in the many other aspects of our ministries, whether community service or education or church organization or fellowship. All of those can do a person good. 

Third and maybe most important, “they” are already “us.” Of course we need to think about and be ready to welcome those who are still unknown others to us. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that many of us already experience mental illness, substance abuse and brain disorders. Some of us experience mental illness directly – for example, I have talked about my own challenges with depression and anxiety/panic attacks, as others have shared their struggles, and still others of us have family members who have dealt with and are dealing with a wide range of related issues. So as much as we are and ought to be becoming a WISE Congregation for people we don’t yet know, those of us who are already here will benefit from the process as well. Ultimately, if we are all One, by loving and caring for each other and for those who would be drawn to a WISE congregation, we grow as individuals, as a church, and in the image of God.

In many ways, becoming WISE is a very natural extension of who we are as a congregation. We have, and we continue to live into the statement that “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That is who we are. Becoming WISE will only help us be better at creating a safe and holy space for people dealing with identified issues. 

With the hope of drafting a WISE Statement between now and the planned vote on May 19, now is the time to ask questions, express concerns, demonstrate sup-port, and get or stay involved in the process. We will talk together again on the second Sundays of February, March, April, and May. How can we most effectively use that time? If you have things to say or ideas for topics to cover, talk with Michael, or Marty, or send an email to the entire WISE Leadership Team at wise-team@stpauls-ucc.org. 

By all means, please sign up for the Mental Health First Aid training that we have arranged to have offered here on March 4 and 5. The sign-up roster is located in the kitchen/chapel corner of the Lounge. That training alone is likely to address many concerns, and it will give us more to talk about. 

Thank you for thinking about this, and for being part of the process! 

Marty 

(In a related tidbit, I was recently elected to the Board of the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network that, among other things, sponsors the WISE move-ment. I am humbled and grateful for this new oppor-tunity to serve the UCC on a national level.) 

REVerberations – December 2018/January 2019

Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor 
 
I just had the great joy of being part of this year’s Advent Workshop. It never ceases to truly amaze me how productive we can be as a congregation, and how much fun we can have while doing productive things. Without sounding too Wesleyan, might I say that I found the day to be heart-warming. I suspect others did too. 
 
Using items generously donated and meticulously collected and counted over several weeks, baskets were made that are being delivered to members who can’t get to church regularly anymore, baskets were filled with basic necessities and some treats to be given out to our Meal and More guests closer to Christmas Day, various kinds of or-naments and decorations were made to brighten up the church and the world. All of that happened around great food and joyful Christmas music to which many people sang along. 
 
It never fails that when we need to get something done – across an incredibly broad spectrum of need – passionate, competent, and committed people step up to make things happen. Sometimes I look at groups that come together for various purposes and actively wonder what else the groups might be capable of. It seems like the sky is the limit. And I feel deeply blessed to be among such a gifted and activated and just good and decent group of people.
 
Thank you especially to Cathy Alles, who pulled it all together yet again with much help from a host of others without whom the event could not and would not have happened like it did! 
 
No doubt we need to be strong together these days, as events in the world threaten to keep us off-balance, and as health and other significant challenges make life especially difficult to specific members of our congregation and for all of us together. 
 
I think of the Beatles song that says we “get by with a little help from my friends,” by coming together to take on whatever life presents. We have done that before, and we shall do just that again. Together, we do make the world a better place, for each other and for those we encounter in the world individually and collectively. 
 
As a practical matter, let me say that one of the best ways we can be aware of specific needs as they emerge is to utilize a mechanism Jo Morrison set up many, many years ago: the email prayer list. That prayer list provides a way for me and really for anyone to share news about particular needs, whether for prayer or other support. I try to share what I can by way of that prayer list, so if you want to know more of what is happening in any given moment in the St. Paul’s universe, I highly recommend that you sign up for the prayer list. To receive updates, if you have not already done so, send an email with “join” in the subject header to prayerlist@stpauls-ucc.org. Once Jo adds you, you will then receive all updates that are sent out. To send prayer requests to the group, send an email to prayers@stpauls-ucc.org and describe what you would like prayers for or help with. Those requests will go out to everyone on the list.
Through this Holiday Season, let us celebrate and revel in all that we have together. And let us activate every mechanism for making a difference in the world. The world needs love, and we’re blessed to have that to share. 
 
Many Blessings! 
 
Marty