Sunday was an exciting day for Oskaloosa! Not the kind of exciting most of us would like, rather, the kind of exciting that upsets our usual routines and asks more of us than we are used to offering in the slow moments of Sunday morning.
As many of you are aware, in the wee hours of this past Sunday morning, a large water main break left most of Oskaloosa without water--including the church building. As the morning went on and the severity of the situation became more clear, we made the decision to cancel worship and, instead, cobbled together what water we could and handed it out to our neighbors and friends. If someone needed water, we didn't want cost or not having a ride or the strength to go the store to get water to be prohibitive in having clean, safe water for drinking and basic human needs.
Calls were made to congregants with offers to deliver water to those who needed it. One of us delivered water to those at home. Another of us stayed at the church to hand out water to those who came by. Parishioners who live out of town brought water in from outside of Oskaloosa and stayed to help hand some of it out. The small handful of folx who came to the church building unaware that worship had been cancelled for a water main break were gracious in their discovery, and offered concern, support, and understanding.
Did we actually have to cancel worship services and all Sunday activities? No, we didn't. In fact, many churches chose this option with some modifications to their worship schedules and bathroom availability. But as I weighed the decision with other church leadership, I kept coming back to one thing I know to be true: Jesus never said "Worship me." He only over said, "Follow me."
And we tried. On Sunday morning we tried to follow the Way of Jesus. By offering water to anyone in need. Without hoops. Without strings. Without discrimination. Without stopping to inquire first if they were worthy. Without asking first how they voted in the last election or whom they love. Without having to worship with us first. We called upon some of the most vulnerable among us and tended to a most basic need of all living things: Water. Clean, safe, water.
By almost 11 AM - about the time we would have been getting done with our worship service, we ran out of water. We didn't try to scramble for more. By then we had heard Hy-Vee trucks were on the way to town. We simply offered what we could, how we could, when we could, trusting that just who we are and what we could offer was enough.
It was, most definitely, an exciting Sunday, and one that I will not soon forget. It was a day when, for me at least, the gospel came alive--jumped off the page, ran through our hearts, and opened our arms to our neighbors in the most basic of ways: Water. Clean, safe, water...for ALL who were thirsty.
Being church with you,
Eight. That's the magic number as of right now. Eight bills somewhere in the Iowa legislative process that either directly targets LGBTQ Iowans, will have a primary impact on LGBTQ Iowans, or were created as a response to misinformation about LGBTQ Iowans. The bills and their descriptions can be viewed here: oneiowaaction.org/anti-lgbtq-bills-2023/
Today, as many of you read this message, I will be on my way to Des Moines to participate in One Iowa's LGBTQ Day on the Hill. The hope is that those who represent us in the Statehouse will hear in our conversations with them, and will see through our presence and our witness, just how damaging these bills will be to flesh and blood Iowans like me and others. The hope is that we might persuade our representatives to consider the teachings of Jesus that insists that when all of us suffer, we ALL suffer. That's hope. The reality will likely be much darker.
So why go? Couldn't I just stay here in my Oskaloosa bubble and my progressive church bubble and say, "Well, at least we are Open and Affirming at St. Paul. At least the people I surround myself with aren't like that?" Yep, I definitely could. And slowly, but surely, my world would become as small as Oskaloosa and as small as our little church community and as small as me and my Jesus, sitting in a corner, only concerned with what's in the immediate landscape around me.
In this week's scripture reading from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, "You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can't be hidden." Which makes me think that maybe the whole point of LGBTQ Day on the Hill isn't that we change our representatives' minds (although that would be GREAT!). Maybe it's to remind ourselves and other LGBTQ Iowans that no matter how many times they try to erase us from from the law books. No matter how many bills they pass, we are a city on a hill. We cannot be hidden.
They can refuse to hear us. They can trample on the fullness of our humanity. They can blow out our lights with their fear mongering, with their limitations on what we can and cannot say. They can do it all, but WE ARE A CITY ON A HILL and we CANNOT--WILL NOT--be hidden.
If you cannot show up in Des Moines, maybe you can write your representative and express concern over these proposed pieces of legislation? If you cannot do that, maybe you can speak openly in your circles of influence--particularly those circles that cross political lines--about how damaging these bills are for LGBTQ folx AND all of us? If you cannot do that, maybe you could simply pray. Pray that hearts will be opened. Pray that minds might be opened. Pray that each and every person remembers that they ARE the light of the world--that is their TRUE identity--no matter what others would have us believe.
With you on the Hill,
On Sunday morning I was up around 5AM. After taking care of my dog and popping my contacts in, I went out to move snow. Most of the time I use my snowblower, but on Sunday morning, cloaked in the darkness of early morning, I hated to slice through the quiet with the roar of a machine. So I shoveled our long driveway and our walks.
At the end of July, such a physical feat wasn't at all possible. I was fresh off a meniscus tear in my left knee and just scratching the surface of a new osteoarthritis diagnosis. I couldn't even imagine the back injury that would be caused by the knee injury. I was at the beginning of what would become almost six months of physical therapy and at-home stretching and exercises.
In the quiet of this snowy Sunday morning, I reflected on the past six months. How my body moved before the knee injury, what I thought I was capable of before the back injury, and how everything is now. Scoop after scoop, my breath and my heartbeat formed a soft background rhythm for the mantra circling through my head: It is a privilege to be able to move my body.
My mantra became my meditation. For an hour-and-a-half, scoop after scoop and heartbeat after heartbeat were all focused on this one thing: It is a privilege to be able to move my body. As I neared the end of shoveling, my low back began to ache just a little, and my left knee throbbed beneath my brace. And still my mantra resounded: It is a privilege to be able to move my body.
Before I knew it, I was done with the driveway and the walks. And as I turned my attention toward getting ready for church, I found that my mantra had ceased, and had been turned into something new: Praise and gratitude. Counting my privilege, it seems, hadn't left me feeling low or down or ashamed. I wasn't comparing my truth to another's, or saying, "I should be thankful I can move my body when so many cannot." Counting my privilege was not the end of something, but a beginning.
So often we hear about privilege in a negative light. What we don't consider, however, is that privilege--whether White privilege, economic privilege, a privileged health status, or another kind of privilege entirely--is only negative when our awareness of that privilege is absent. When awareness of our privilege is absent, we hold others to standards that we are only comfortable holding ourselves to because of our privileged positions. A lack of awareness leads us to believe that we alone have earned our station in life or society, rather than viewing it as the result of conflating factors, one of which is living in a system that conspires for our benefit, even while it conspires against the benefit of others simultaneously.
When we acknowledge our privilege, however, that acknowledgement can turn into praise. It can turn into gratitude. And our gratitude can drive us to work toward transformative justice and the well-being for others. Acknowledging our privilege is the first step in opening our eyes to inequality and inequity, so that we might better use our privilege to help bring about healing and wholeness in ourselves and in our communities.
It is a privilege to be able to move my body...and for this privilege, I give thanks through my words and actions that support the liberation of other bodies too.
Counting privilege with you,
On Sunday our church held our Annual Meeting. Annual Meeting is a time to take a look at the church's overall work of the past year and make the turn toward the year ahead. It is a time of taking seriously the task of looking at where we've been and holding that in tension with where we believe God is calling us in this new year.
As part of this year's Annual Meeting, a Behavioral Covenant was introduced to the wider congregation. To use the language our conference uses, "A Behavioral Covenant is a written document created by a community of faith, agreed to and owned by the community, and practiced on a daily basis as a spiritual discipline. It is a way of developing common language, common commitments, and an awareness of healthy behaviors that build community." In other words, our behavioral covenant at St. Paul puts into words the ways in which we are committed to being in relationship together. It is our plumbline for life together.
At Sunday's Annual Meeting, our behavioral covenant at St. Paul was adopted unanimously by those in attendance. It was then signed by every person at the Annual Meeting. That signed document is framed and sits in our sanctuary as a reminder to us of our shared covenant. This signing of the behavioral covenant will become a yearly exercise at our Annual Meetings go forward. It will be for us a yearly renewal of our covenant to do life together in life-giving, life-affirming ways.
This covenant is not meant to be something on the shelf, it is something you will hear in worship. It will be used as reflection and prayer to begin church meetings. We will do our best to ensure that the spirit of this covenant is reflected in our events and our gatherings, and extended to all who grace us with their presence. For in their presence with us, and our presence with one another, we will most surely find God.
On the covenant journey with you,
I often play fetch with my two year-old dog, Hank, in the house. This is sometimes hazardous, as the toys we're playing fetch with don't always fly through the air in the exact line that I had intended, and often end up hitting lamps or candles or other things that it would be better not to hit. Add this to the fact that both our living room and our dining room floors are hardwood with large area rugs in the center, and fetch in the house, as I'm sure you can imagine, becomes something not for the faint of heart.
The other day when Hank and I were playing fetch with his new Nemo squeaky toy he got for Christmas, he got so excited that he dove off the couch next to me in order to run after Nemo. In his excitement, he misjudged where he would land and instead of hitting the area rug with all of its traction that would allow him to take off running, Hank landed on the slippery hardwood floor. In an instant a look of panic flashed on his face just before his legs slipped out from underneath him and he went sliding. Hank slid into the love seat on the opposite wall, then sat there stunned for a moment.
I don't know how many times life has brought me to a similar place. Maybe you've been there too? You know, when we're barrelling through our lives without a care in the world--hustling after our achievements, keeping a full social calendar, working out everyday, eating well at every meal, earning our money, staying informed, and then getting to bed at a decent enough time that we have no trouble getting up and diving into the same routine all over again.
Until that one morning when our feet go to hit the floor so that we can barrel through another day at breakneck speeds only to have our legs slip out from underneath us--we get let go from our job, we get the diagnosis that we weren't expecting, a loved one gets sick, our partner dies, our depression and anxiety meds suddenly stop being effective, our child begins to struggle in school. And just like that--without rhyme or reason--we're sliding. Unable to gain traction. Panicked as we try to steer ourselves away from objects in our path. Until we stop. And sit. Stunned by what has just transpired. Unsure if moving forward is even possible--or wise.
In these moments it is easy for us to look at our lost footing--our loss of comfort or wellness or companionship--as something that we have to "come back from," or "push through" in order to "get back to normal." But what if the slipping and the sliding are not the anomalies that we have been led to believe they are? What if they too are regular parts of our lives? What if "normal" isn't avoiding the slips and the slides, but rather is moving through them?
In her book, "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times," Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödrön, writes, "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again."
To live is to be willing to have our legs slip out from underneath us over and over again, trusting that the slips and the slides are not anomalies, but neither are they the way things will always be. They are merely moment truths, and they are not the final word--just the next word. So we don't have to panic when they happen...even when it's hard. Even when it hurts.
Learning to slip and slide with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.