A Senseless Tragedy

We join in with all people of faith to pray for the victims of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  The first natural reaction to senseless acts of violence is to determine why the tragedy occurred.  Because violence doesn’t make any sense, many times we tend to scapegoat or point fingers at the victims.  The issue here is not who was at the theater or why they were there or if they brought their children with them or not.  The real issue is that a young man, for reasons unknown at this time, decided to go on a shooting spree at a theater and because of that action, many lives have been lost. 

In the days to come, we will hear the pundits talk about gun control and with that, the focus on the tragedy will be lost.  What about adding to the conversation the lack of proper psychological assessment for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels?  What about a conversation about how violence is almost a form of “worship” in our North American culture?  After all, wasn’t the Batman movie being shown at the time of the shooting?   What about beginning a conversation about community values and our connection with one another?  Questions like these should be the ones being discussed in the days ahead. 

In the meantime we need to grieve.  As people of faith, our attitude should be one of prayer and reflection. 

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My New Year’s Resolution

     A few years ago, I ran into a list similar to this one. It spoke to me so deeply, that I quickly adopted it as mine and added my own thoughts. 

  1. Never stop starting over.  God is a God of second chances. I am going to firmly believe that. So, every time I make a mistake, or forget something important, or don’t do as I am suppose to, I am going to forgive myself and start all over. 
  2. Live intentionally, not aimlessly.  Sometimes my life becomes very hectic. At times my priorities become skewed.  Sometimes I spend way too much time doing nothing or worrying about things that are beyond my control.  This year, I will live my life with a purpose. If I lose track on where I am going, I will ask God to teach me how to embrace the journey.  If I don’t know where I am going, I will trust God knows and that will be enough for me.
  3. Never despair whatsoever.  Someone once said, “We promise according to our hopes and perform according to our fears.”  I am a control freak.  When things get out-of-whack I tend to loose focus.  Sometimes anxiety gets the best of me. Sometimes I panic when things don’t go as I have planned.  This year, I will strive to keep my cool, even during those times when it seems the weight of the world is on my shoulders. God has a track record with me. Even in the worst of times, God has been present in my life. It’s time to trust that God is not going to abandon me, ever.
  4. Pray simply, not stupidly.  I waste too much time attempting to tell God how to act.  I said before, I am a control freak and that sometimes includes attempting to exert control on what God is doing in my life.  Those of you who have watched me work know I am very organized and that I love to plan well in advance.  The problem is that sometimes I spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince God on what is the best plan of action.  This year, however, I will endeavor to simply present to God my needs, wants and dreams and then let God do whatever God wants to do with them. I will continue planning ahead. Trusting God does not mean I will not do my part. The difference is that I will listen more carefully as my plans develop or fail, as a way to discern which way I should go.
  5. Renounce all self-justification.  This is a tough one.  Sometimes, I waste too much time in my attempts to justify my actions.  Excuses abound, especially when I have done something wrong.  This year I will work on assuming more responsibility for my choices in life. When I do something right and am recognized for it, I will just say, “Thank you.” When I miss the mark and get called on the carpet, I will say “I am sorry” and then will make sure I don’t repeat the same mistake, again and again.
  6. Stop judging others.  Another hard one.  Judging others is so easy, for it makes me look much better than the person being judged.  It is easier to point the finger at someone else than to look at my own behavior.  See, when I highlight what is wrong with another person I am making sure the attention is being placed on the person being judged and not on me.  This year I intend to accept others as they are. I will treat others with grace as God treats me.  I will love others unconditionally, as God loves me.  I will allow others to have second chances, as God allows me to have second chances.  I will especially work hard at loving my enemies and forgiving those who have caused me great pain.  Above all, I will stop judging myself.
  7. Wait.  I am very impulsive, so working on this one is quite a challenge.  This year, I will breathe deeply before I speak, and will be patient with myself and with others.  I want to learn to live one day at a time. I want to enjoy each day. I want to learn the spiritual discipline of waiting.
  8. Acknowledge my brokenness.  This one is closely related to self-justification.  Since I don’t want others to see my brokenness I spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to cover it up. This year I will acknowledge that through God’s immeasurable grace, I am a broken vessel, a wounded healer, a discouraged encourager, a forgiven sinner.  In doing so, I will let others know that God’s grace is also for them, and like me, they can still turn their brokenness around and start walking the path God has laid out for them.
  9. Be ruthlessly realistic.  The older I get, the less romantic about my future I become. In his Life Cycle Theory, Erik Erickson states that at age 50, men realize that most of the dreams they dreamt about in their twenties and thirties will never come to fruition. This is the reason, he says, why many men in their fifties become depressed. The answer to the depression, according to Erickson, is to immerse oneself in the wisdom acquired during those years and share that wisdom with others.  I will be 55 this year. At my age I have accomplished much, so I believe the chances of me becoming seriously depressed are very small. The truth is that I have fulfilled most of my dreams and I will be content if the rest of my dreams are not fulfilled. As I have grown older, I have come to understand that my dreams do not need to come to fruition for me to find happiness. So, this year, I will begin by being realistic. However, I will never give up hope.
  10. Always think good of everyone. I want people to think good of me.  For that reason, I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  I will only change my relationship with others when they prove otherwise.  Once again, God is the God of second chances, so why not give others a second chance.  That doesn’t mean I will be naïve and let others take advantage of me. It means they will be worth my goodness until they prove me wrong.
  11. Read the obituaries.  They remind me that I am but a traveler on a short journey. One day, my journey on this earth will end.  In the meantime, I will do everything in my power and in God’s grace to make it count for something.

As we enter a brand new year, may our faith be renewed and invigorated.   May we come to the understanding that God’s presence is already at hand, however small and little, although we may not yet see the outcome.  And may our New Year’s resolutions reflect our desire to become the person God wants us to be.

Happy New Year!

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The 7 Blessed Rules of Social Networking Etiquette for Pastors

Many of us use Social Networking sites to stay in touch with our congregations, our family and our friends.  I recently found this on the website of another one of our Conferences and thought it worthwhile of passing on:

1.  The cardinal rule of social networking [the word that refers to the use of Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Linked In and other sites] is never post anything that you don’t want to follow you for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.  It’s very hard to call anything back on such networks, and even if you are using privacy settings, it’s not impossible that someone somewhere will find out that you called your consistory president a “pig-headed pain in the neck.”

2. Expect that in this day and age, when you send your profile to a potential new calling body, the first thing they are going to do is a “Google search” on you.  Therefore, you don’t want the first thing they learn about you to be the number of hours a day that you play “Farmville.”  Don’t say anything nasty about anyone.  And lay low on how much of your political opinion you post.

3. In a related fashion, if you have “friended” someone, they will be able to see whether you are online whenever they open Facebook [this is also true for Skype].  Thus, if you are spending two or three hours in the middle of the day on Facebook, someone somewhere is going to know this.  The use of social networking sites can be hugely addictive.  You should set a contract with yourself about how many minutes a day [please not hours!] you will devote to social networking.

4. Really, nobody wants to know EVERYTHING you are doing, or EVERY opinion you have.  Try to post only when you have something you really want to share, not when you are bored.

5. An alternative to friending members of your congregation [which is really not such a hot idea] is to create a “Fan Page” for your congregation.  In fact, in this electronic age, it’s a great idea for congregations to have a fan page, and to encourage members to check it regularly for notices of meetings, activities, happy events such as baptisms, weddings and mission trips.  Your members can go there and comment or add more information.  BUT, don’t post information on anyone’s surgery, medical problems, etc. [at least not without getting permission first.]  HIPPA notwithstanding, you’re just going to plain make someone mad.

6. Create a separate fan page for your youth group.  They’re not going to use the church page, and in fact they deserve a spot of their own.  Don’t “friend” members of your youth group unless they suggest it.  Instead, check the fan page regularly to see what they are saying.  Encourage them to have fun but be respectful.

7. Bear in mind that the term is “social” networking.  Don’t do business on any social networking site.  Don’t expect people to get messages and respond in a timely fashion.  Don’t send something important that should really be communicated by email, phone or letter.  Share photos, share birthday greetings, and have fun.

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What is the importance of Our Church’s Wider Mission Offering (OCWM)? What are Per Capita Dues?

What is the importance of Our Church’s Wider Mission Offering (OCWM)?  What are Per Capita Dues?

These two questions come up quite often when I visit churches around our Conference. Our Church’s Wider Mission Offering (OCWM) provides funding for the Conference and the national ministries of the United Church of Christ. In our Conference, 40% of the support received is given to our national ministries; 60% stays in the Conference. The following is a brief summary of ministries provided by OCWM:

At the Conference Level:

  • Assistance to local churches searching for new pastors.
  • Leadership training.
  • Celebrate diversity without division.
  • Take stands for justice and peace.
  • Teach best practices for pastors and congregations.
  • Nurture the formation of those discerning a call to ministry
  • Provide care for pastors.
  • Foster healthy and vital congregations.
  • Provide resources for pastoral search committees in local churches.
  • Assist congregations in the use of social media and the Internet.
  • Provide ministry of reconciliation in times of church conflict.
  • Provide resources of all kinds for local churches from church finances to global – ministry opportunities
  • Involvement in and support of ecumenical, interfaith, and advocacy – organization in your region.
  • And more!

At the Wider Church Level:

  • Missionaries, working in partnership with 85 countries around the world.
  • Justice and peace ministries, advocacy for human rights.
  • Refugee settlement.
  • Disaster preparedness and response.
  • Interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.
  • Creating Christian Education materials for children, youth and adults.
  • Starting new churches.
  • Provide resources for all aspects of congregational life.
  • Care for retired pastors.
  • Support educational ministries on campuses and seminaries.
  • International social and economic development.
  • Internet and social media communication.
  • Leadership training in stewardship, evangelism and more.

“Per capita” dues are based on congregational membership and are part of our covenantal relationship.  Currently, “per capita” dues are $12 per member. Some of that amount is given to support the work of our four associations while the rest helps provide the needed ‘infrastructure’ for the life of the Conference (office space, technology, programs, etc.)

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Religious Freedom for All, or Just a Few?

This seems to be the issue at stake in the religious bigotry movement that has arisen in this country in the past few years.  Are we a Christian nation?  Not according to our history; not according to our Constitution.  Our Nation was founded in freedoms which apply to all its citizens.  When it comes to religion we are welcome to disagree with each other; however, that doesn’t translate into “my freedom of religion is better than yours…”

In the Bible Jesus is confronted with the question:  Who is my neighbor?  He responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27).  What some people tend to ignore is that Jesus uses the example of the Samaritan because in his time there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan.  Samaritans were considered the worst people.  However, in the parable, he is the only good neighbor; those who claimed to be people of faith passed by the one in need without even considering the possibility of rendering assistance.   Are Muslims our neighbors?  According to the parable, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”  And what does the Bible say we should do with our neighbors?  Luke, Chapter 10 also answers the question: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (27).”

By deciding to bless the Qu’ran  Rev. Paul Tellstrom and his congregation in Irvine have taken a courageous stand (see article here).  I wonder what people would do if, instead of the Qu’ran, people would’ve decided to burn the Bible.  I served as a chaplain in the military for 21 years to guarantee the exercise of religion of ALL our citizens, not just a selected few.  I participated in combat operations and risked my life in order for Muslims and the rest of us to be able to practice whichever religion we choose, freely! That’s what makes this country a great country!

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The Sanctity of Marriage

I recently had a conversation with a family therapist friend of mine. He had been in practice for over thirty years. He commented that the vast majority of his clients come from the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian traditions (he is UCC).  He also stated that it has been his experience that liberal/progressive Christians seem to have a better understanding and are more commitment of marriage relationships.

This conversation sparked some thoughts. According to my friend, there seems to be a lack of commitment to marriage by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. It is interesting that the fiercest defenders of the “sanctity of marriage” come from those traditions. I find this to be quite a contradiction.  I wonder if part of this dichotomy has to do with sex as “taboo.”  I know many young people from these churches who rush into marriage because they need to satisfy their sexual desires and the only way the church allows them to do so is through marriage. A year of so, after their wedding they start to experience major marriage discord and many end up in divorce.  Some of them have come to me for pre-marriage or marriage counseling. They came because they heard I offered the “Prepare Enrich” model. They usually commented that their church only offered a Bible Study and the leaders had no formal preparation. This was their idea of pre-marriage counseling.

On a different but related subject, it has been my personal experience that there is also a dichotomy in their understanding of what is right and what is wrong when it comes to personal behavior. I have observed that, on one hand, pre-marital sex is a huge “sin.”  On the other, smoking pot is quite normal and accepted. It would be interesting to see if there are any studies out there that deal with these behaviors and their sources.

In any case, these are my thoughts. What are yours?

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Murrieta, CA Mosque

In faithful response to the United Church of Christ commitment to interfaith relations, our Conference has drafted a statement in support of the building of a Mosque in Murrieta, California. Here is the content of that statement:

August 2, 2010
United Church of Christ
Southern California Nevada Conference

The United Church of Christ, Southern California Nevada Conference, representing 136 affiliated churches, hereby offers its support to the Interfaith Council of Temecula and Murrieta Valley and our brothers and sisters members of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley in their efforts to build a Mosque in the city of Murrieta, California.

We thank all those voices that have spoken and supported the right of the Murrieta Muslim community to provide a house of worship for their members. The United Church of Christ General Synod has spoken twice on relations with people of other religions and the traditions they represent: with the Jewish community (1987) and with the Muslim community (1989). In 1999 the General Synod requested that the church study and respond to the document of the National Council of Churches of Christ “Interfaith Relations and the Churches.” In addition, The United Church of Christ has participated for decades in the Commission on Interfaith Relations.

In July 2005, the General Synod adopted “A Study Resource on Interreligious Relations for the United Church of Christ.”  This resource states that,

We are called as faithful members of the United Church of Christ to deeper engagement with people of other religious traditions. For some this will take the form of dialogue for understanding. Others will choose to engage in cooperative projects in local communities. Some will join in witness on issues of social or political significance. Still others will encounter interfaith relations primarily in pastoral commitment to families and friends whose lives encompass more than one religious tradition. We recognize that in order to build deeper relationships we must be willing to face both responsibility and risk.”

“First, if we are to honor our religious neighbors, it is essential that we demonstrate the trust of being honest about who we are and what we believe. Trust is built when individuals can learn, over time, to reveal even those aspects of themselves which they fear will engender anger or anxiety. Genuine relationship, built on mutual trust, then enables partners to give and receive critique when appropriate. By risking the trust which allows honest engagement in affirmation and admonition, we honor our partners and remain faithful to our deepest convictions”.  (For more information go to http://www.ucc.org/ecumenical/interfaith-relations.html).

We are painfully aware that, all too often, we allow fear and misunderstanding to guide many of our actions and reactions, using our faith as an excuse for discrimination and religious bigotry.  These actions have often resulted in disastrous consequences.  However, as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors and to welcome all of God’s children.  Our faith calls us to engage in new relationships and new ways of connecting with one another.

Therefore, in accordance with our mandate found in our Christian faith and actions of the United Church of Christ General Synods, we offer our heartfelt support to the Murrieta Muslim community in its effort to build a Mosque and to freely worship as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Above all, we pray for love, grace and peace among all of God’s children.

Rev. Felix C. Villanueva, Southern California Nevada Conference Minister
Mrs. Ann Feaver, Chair, Board of Directors, Southern California Nevada Conference
Rev. Dr. Paul Tellstrom, Moderator, Southern California Nevada Conference

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