The Deeper Prayer

The 2020 Olympic Games were hosted in Tokyo, Japan. That week, a typhoon threatened the area. Athletes worried about the impact this storm might have on their competition. After all their disciplined training, would it be for nothing? The COVID virus had already robbed the world of much of the usual excitement by restricting visitors. Now the Olympic Village was abuzz about a typhoon, a word seldom spoken in our country.

One of the athletes, Carissa Moore, was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on the day of the storm. A native of Hawaii, she grew up near the water! She was the Women’s World Tour Champion for the first time in 2011 when she was 19 years old. She was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. By the time she competed in the 2020 Olympics, she was at the top of her game.

Guthrie asked the surfer how she felt about the storm that brought much more challenging surfing conditions. Moore said with a smile, “Well, we were actually praying for a typhoon heading into the competition. I really wanted some waves to perform. But the conditions were actually quite challenging today. There was a lot of water moving and there wasn’t one defined peak. It was a lot of adapting and moving around and going with the flow. It was hard but happy to figure it out and find a couple[waves].” Carissa won the gold medal in surfing that day!

For this pro surfer, the weather condition that others hoped to avoid was what she prayed for. She anticipated the thrill of water, wave, wind, and wonder as she stayed upright, navigating one of the great forces of nature. She practically lived in the water so that she could thrive in increasingly challenging expressions of ocean life. To ride the crest of a wave or crouch underneath a curl of saltwater was the stuff of her dreams. She embraced the opportunity to navigate several peaks at once as an Olympic gold medal hung in the balance. After all the hours she spent in disciplined practice, she had no desire to simply paddle around in calm waters!

Jesus’ experience in Capernaum was wildly successful, according to His disciples. Peter was impressed and grateful that Jesus was able to bring healing to his ailing mother-in-law. Some of the sickly people in the village lined up, hoping for a piece of Jesus’ spiritual action. The whole town was astonished at the signs of power that Jesus demonstrated. For many of the disciples, newly accepting of the call to follow Jesus, Capernaum was familiar territory. If Jesus kept wowing crowds in their home territory, they would be regarded as local celebrities. They reasoned that it made no sense to move on. If this was the base of operations for Jesus, why not put down some roots and do a mighty ministry right there, in place?

But Jesus was not willing to settle for such a confined mission field. He knew that His time was short and that He had been sent to make disciples of all nations. He was the Son of God sent not just to Capernaum, where the disciples felt at ease. Jesus’ ministry was not just for those who lived along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He wasn’t even limited to offering salvation just to His people, the Jews. Jesus knew He was sent for a greater purpose and had prepared His whole life for this evangelistic crusade. He knew the thrill of what lay ahead: people would meet God through Him. His mission was to introduce God‘s Realm to weary folks whose noses were to the grindstone and whose hope had diminished to barely a flicker. Starting with twelve men and miraculous signs in several small villages, Jesus began to catch some waves as His life‘s ministry commenced.

In the Ancient Near East, healing encompassed two dimensions of daily life. It had to do with bodily relief. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it had to do with restoring individuals to their social setting. To be sick was to be isolated. To be diseased was to be an outcast. We certainly understand that from our COVID experiences. To be weakened was to be limited in daily activities. Loading the dishwasher is an impossible task when sick. Getting your kids dressed for school when sick with COVID is too much. Sitting in front of a computer for a Zoom meeting when we don’t feel well is exhausting! Jesus healed not just the body but the social being. He brought them back into their communities, fully restored in stature. He did this through the power of the Holy Spirit which gave them access to God’s love in mighty ways. These miracles converted the healed individuals and their support circles to belief in Jesus.

In our western world, as we try to keep upright on the treadmill of daily responsibilities, we place such an emphasis on doing. Am I doing enough? I don’t know what to do for this person. What will I do when I grow up or after I retire? Jesus’ ministry was about being. His invitation was to follow Him so as to understand God‘s calling on our life. We are human beings. He invited His followers to understand themselves in relation to a God who created and loved them. Just as He calmed a storm, Jesus was able to bring peace to those who labored for earthly success but who were increasingly emptied from the Spirit of God. He fed their souls.

Most of us find it very difficult to simply be. We had a taste of that during the quarantine. We were directed to clear our schedules and felt grateful that someone mandated us to stay home and diminish our workload. For a brief time, we had a chance to be with our loved ones, to be with ourselves, to pursue hobbies and interests that sat dormant for longer than we could remember. But we have quickly picked up the mantle of responsibility and are scurrying around with newfound skills to be able to connect even when we are apart from each other. There are gifts that have come from the last two years of separation. I am certain that those who zoom into my Bible Study on Wednesday nights would find it difficult to drive in for a class on a snowy evening. Folks on boards can join in on their meeting even as they sit in their Florida condo because of the technology we’ve mastered. But, the eagerness with which we have jumped back into full schedules shows how unsettling it is for us to be still with others for any length of time. For how long are we willing to be with ourselves, to sit in stillness with our God? Jesus’ ministry invited folks into His peace, which propelled them into the world as His missionaries.

Jesus’ pre-ordained mission was to travel the back roads and small towns of Galilee to launch a movement of spiritual awakening. 175 years ago that wave of faith rolled into Rockford, Michigan, birthing our congregation! Jesus gave people an intimate glimpse of God. His ministry would require self-sacrifice and more sacrifice than His disciples ever could have known when they agreed to follow Him. He would not stay put and adopt a domestic lifestyle in Capernaum. He would go to where people lived, rely on their hospitality, tolerate their cruelty, eat their food and hang out with the local rejects. He would ride the wave of evangelistic outreach as long as He could, knowing there would be a violent culmination to that storm that would ultimately overtake Him. To be obedient to this calling, Jesus first spent time alone in prayer before launching out into the deep with His disciples, leaving Capernaum in the rearview mirror.

Jesus wants us to take risks for His sake. I wonder how willing we are to step out into churning waters, trusting in God’s steadying hand. I wonder what societal or relationship healings are needed in our community? Do we invite Jesus to heal us in body, mind and spirit? Two congregations in our area were recently honored by the denomination for sponsoring Afghan families who have taken refuge in our country. How can we bridge gaps in our communities and world, going out on a limb to showcase God’s sacrificial love?

In rural Galilee, we witness Jesus doing battle with the forces of evil and triumphing over whatever stands in opposition to God’s will. Demons can be anything which becomes our idol, separating us from God and controlling our lives. Anything that prevents us from being the individuals or community that God desires is demonic. Jesus modeled how to tend to the needs of the “untouchables” in our midst, to actively preach our faith? St. Francis is attributed with having said, “Preach at all times. When necessary, use words.” Jesus compassionately healed those who came to Him for relief. In this story, we see that He also placed great importance on preaching. Through His preaching, He introduced the saving power of God.

We’ve been amazed to see how our grandson is learning to talk. In fact, he talks non-stop. We often have to turn to his parents for an interpretation, but he’s adding to his vocabulary and obviously understanding what we are saying. How does this happen? His parents are not professors of the English language. We are humbly reminded that what we say molds, influences, and teaches other. How we preach about Jesus, through words and actions, has the power to transform those around us.

Jesus refused to get to comfy and to sit still. He walked across water and stilled the storm. He marched into the Temple and overturned the tables of the merchants who took advantage of the pious. He stirred up a storm to defend those who came to worship God. Jesus experienced the glory of God and refused to settle for singing Kumbaya around a campfire with a handful of followers. He was on the move and invites us to a deeper conversation.

At one of my lectionary study group sessions we talked about prayer in worship. One of my colleagues joked that we violate the Hippa oath each week as we name people and ailments. I wonder what percentage of our prayers relate to our frail bodies? We see in this passage that people get sick. A mob of Capernaum townsfolks camped outside Peter’s family compound to seek healing from various forms of illness. Their physical healing may have given a temporary respite from their woes. But Jesus hoped, from the beginning of His evangelistic crusade, that His followers would develop a concern for much more than just their own physical well-being. Healing in the ancient world meant being restored to life amidst community.

Who is waiting to be invited, embraced, forgiven? When have we restored someone to a valued state of being after having been sidelined? Even Jesus did not escape suffering and death. He completed the healing work He began on the cross. While I certainly understand our preoccupation with illness when our bodies fail us, I wonder if there is a “bigger” prayer that will powerfully impact us after the COVID virus lifts or the surgical site heals? I wonder what it would sound like for us to pray for the big waves, like Corissa Moore, so that she could be pushed beyond her usual well-trained limits? When a virus is not just ending lives but causing discord between family members and friends, what is our deeper prayer? When our daily circumstances lead to a depression that enshrouds us, what kind of healing do we desire? Physical? Sure. Are we also hoping to be restored into circles of friends and into the arms of family members who have tired of our struggle? Yes! What is the deeper prayer that we dare not speak or completely miss because we stay close to the shore?

Are we willing to paddle out into the water, praying to be swept up in the biggest wave we’ve ever faced? Or will we play it safe and stick close to home? God invites us into this uncomfortably deep level of prayer!


Loving Well

Churches have a history. Churches have a lifespan. It’s no small feat that our congregation continues to gather for worship 175 years after initial articles of covenant were signed! Fifteen individuals signed a parchment on February 17, 1847, even before the Civil War, to commit to living together as a Body of Christ in the town originally named Laphamville. Our village was less than one decade old. This town has gone through great transformation while our congregation served from the corner of Fremont and Bridge Streets. Rockford and First Congregational Church have grown up together!

Churches have layers to their history. One congregation in Mt. Carmel, Indiana first met in a house that was also a blacksmith shop. Over the years it changed from being a Baptist Church to a Gospel Kingdom Church and then a Lutheran parish. Presently that site is the location for Thompson and Pettyjohn Mini-storage! What allows a church to serve a community for nearly two centuries?

In an article published in The Church in the Mirror, the author suggests, “The Worship service has become increasingly a time of entertainment. Make your services so exciting no one wants to leave…” Is that what has kept our congregation going for nearly two centuries? Have we entertained through our music and our children’s programs; through adding a screen and streaming our services? Is this considered entertaining? Or is there something deeper that has enabled us to stay the course since 1847?

The Wabash Presbyterian Church was established because of an inconvenient delay in travel. A minister was journeying through the area with a horse as his transportation. He stopped in Wabash for the night and his horse was injured at the stable. This held him up for awhile, not unlike our transmission going out in a remote area. While waiting for the horse to heal enough to continue their journey, the minister got to know some townsfolk who learned of his convictions. In a movement that would be described as providential, the Wabash Presbyterian Church was organized. We live with holy intentionality trusting that God will build a church through the most unlikely encounters!

What sustains a congregation over the course of decades and even centuries? A passage from Matthew 22 gives us an answer: love. The Greek word Jesus used in this passage is agape. This is a self-sacrificial love that is not based on feelings or sentimentality. It is a loyal, beneficent love that is witnessed through a commitment to action. The second part of Jesus’ command is of equal importance and cannot be separated from the first: we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Is love what carries us through the ups and downs of local history and generations of families?

The passage from Matthew is a controversy story. The Jewish leaders gathered to confront Jesus. A “lawyer” from the cadre of Pharisees stepped forward to interrogate Him. Jesus knew the leaders didn’t care about the answer but simply wanted to test Him. In spite of their mal-intent, Jesus’ answer to their question has shaped our Christian faith: love of God and of neighbor defines who we are as Church. Jesus turned the tables on them, as He was prone to do. He posed a question that could only make sense if they embraced Jesus as the Messiah, both human and divine. These Jewish lawmakers could not see Jesus for who He was. People have been clever for ages about rebuking Christ yet none have silenced Him or His followers—in 2000 years! Who looks foolish now? Does intellect prevail or is sacrificial love at the root of a relationship to God?

Our church began as a mission to our community. The preparation of the site began in the winter of 1873 when families would not be needed in the field. This was just eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War. As the nation searched for healing, our forebears built a sanctuary. Imagine clearing land and collecting stones in freezing temperatures and snow-covered fields to lay a foundation! For the first 26 years of our congregation’s existence, we met in the home of the local doctor. Sacrifice was required of him and sacrifice was required of the parishioners when they raised the money for their own building. The First Congregational Church was dedicated on December 29, 1874, free and clear of any debt.  In 1954 an addition was built that added a couple of classrooms, an office and the fellowship hall. In 1995 the congregation raised money to purchase an old home directly south of the sanctuary. For awhile this housed classes and offices before the city allowed us to tear it down to make a swing-through driveway. In 2012, 138 years after the initial structure was christened, we dedicated a half-million dollar Christian Education Wing without a mortgage. Each generation at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, embraced a sense of purpose that stems from gratitude for what God has done and is doing in our midst.

The imprint of this congregation on our town has been significant. In 1871 the pastor of our church, Rev. William Caldwell, founded the first public library in the village. Later, the Krause family, longtime church members, built a beautiful library that is still central to the life of our community.

I find it interesting to look back to how Christians gathered at the time our parish was newly established. In the 1800’s camp meetings were very popular in the summer when people could travel freely. These gatherings of believers lasted much of the Sabbath day. Folks traveled long distances so that they could be together in a place of worship. They packed their noon meals and looked forward to an extended time of Christian fellowship before beginning another demanding week.

We were blessed to have a living guardian of our history for more than 80 years. Stephen Paull began serving our congregation as the pastor in 1924. His son, Bill, was a teenager when the family moved here. He remained a member the rest of his life, living into his 90’s. He and his wife, Coyla, became the music team for many years. Bill used his gift for music in a number of ways. We have on display for this anniversary year his saw in a useful carrying bag. There is no sawdust clinging to it because he used it as an instrument! We had a fundraiser concert over twenty years ago and Bill contributed a musical piece, using this unlikely instrument. Often he sang at funerals and, many times, the deceased was a decade or two younger than Bill. In 1936, with a flourishing music program, First Park Church donated their choir robes to us as they updated their own. They came with hats which choir members wore proudly—I think! Bill told us that, when his father began his ministry here, there was a heating grate down the center aisle. When women started wearing dress shoes with pointy heels, they needed to replace that. One of the jobs for Bill and his older brother was to come over on Saturday and load some coal into the furnace so that the church would be warm the next morning.

Our bell was added a few years after the completion of the building. The date forged onto the bell is 1878. This would have been the means of summoning villagers to worship. Before churches had bells and folks had clocks, a cow horn was often used to let people know it was time to take off the work dungarees and head to church!

Churches became advocates for good education. Adults and children studied together in Sunday School classes, many times held in homes of church members. Our congregation had strong convictions about caring for the youngest residents in Rockford so the Heritage Tuttle Preschool was established. For the children whose parents were unable to get to the church, a volunteer offered door-to-door service! Giving a strong foundation of learning to children was highly valued. The cost was 50 cents per child per week. The preschool was open for more than 50 years, closing when families were looking for full-time childcare rather than a morning program. One community member sent us this message: “I can remember going to the Heritage-Tuttle preschool there. My brother and I both attended and our mother was the nurse. This would have been in the 1940’s. I have 3 children and all attended there. My mother eventually went on to be Dr. DeMaagd’s nurse for many years. Congratulations on your 175th anniversary!”

Raising funds for worthy causes has been central to the life of the Church since the Apostle Paul collected donations for the Jerusalem poor! First Congregational Church had Christmas bazaars with meals and crafts. The Women’s Fellowship held an annual rummage sale that took several weeks to collect, organize and price before opening the doors to the community. When I began my tenure as pastor we had lots of children’s chairs built of wooden seats on metal frames. Since we were getting new chairs for the Sunday School children, artistic members took the old chairs home and painted them. We sold them at the Rockford Famer’s Market and raised over $1000—and got good coverage from the local newspaper! Looking back to the challenges of the Second World War, our church was cited for being the most generous per capita congregation in the state for helping the war effort. They served soup suppers for neighbors so that they wouldn’t have to use their precious rations. When financial needs arose, the church responded generously and creatively.

So what enables a congregation to minister within a community for 175 years? The story behind the hymn, Abide with Me, helps to answer that. The lyricist, Henry Lyte, was the pastor in Brixham, England. His health declined due to tuberculosis. Shortly before his farewell Sunday, he was reading the story of the two disciples who met up with Jesus on the Emmaus road after his resurrection. Lyte was struck with the burning desire in the hearts of those two men to know Jesus more fully after walking with Him. Knowing his own life was nearing an end, the Spirit gave Pastor Lyte the words to this hymn that we still sing today: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens—Lord, with me abide; when other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me!” He died that same year—1847, the year our church was founded. He lived out the motto that is attributed to him: It is better to wear out than to rust out.” Amen, brother Henry!

I rejoice that generations of believers have gathered in our sanctuary on a busy corner of the small town of Rockford. We have sought to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have sacrificed for the good of the larger community and walked through the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives. We have studied the scriptures and found that they continue to speak to us 2000 years after the Emmaus Road experience. When facing our mortality we have found peace knowing that we are in the embrace of Christ’s people who have called this congregation “home.” To have comfort in the fullness of life and peace when facing the end, that is a life of blessing. How beautiful that our church has shared a love for God and neighbor over the course of 175 years!