Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pastor's Column 11/18/12

“All this is from God...who gave us the ministry of reconciliation” 2 Corinthians 5:18
Another election has come and gone. Some of the candidates I voted for won. And some of my candidates lost. Soon I’ll be visiting family for Thanksgiving and we’ll discover that some of us in the family voted different then others. And we’ll still come together at the same table, enjoying the blessings of food and fellowship together on this holiday.

How is that possible? When I read the newspaper and watch television, I am told that there are two Americas. There is a blue and a red America. And neither the twain shall meet. We live in different neighborhoods and towns, consume different products, and watch different television shows, for news as well as entertainment. Do you like NASCAR? Do you listen to NPR? Do you like steak or are you a vegetarian?

Micro targeting voters has become key in winning elections. And our lifestyles, where we live, who we associate with, what we do for a living, have all been calculated by pollsters to tell us how we will vote and to which America we belong. This movement has intensified over the last generation so that this fragmentation has become reflected in lopsided vote totals and the leading of lives where we rarely run into folks who disagree with us. How does one live with difference in such a situation?

The nice thing about family is that more often then not you’re stuck with them. While much of our lives are chosen, this is an area that is largely not, even for those of us who were adopted. And so the question of living and relating to folks who think differently is built in or at least should be during the holiday season. I think we need more of those kind of situations, where the relations and connections we have with one another are stronger and deeper then politics or whether someone agrees with us or not.

Could the church be that kind of place? For the apostle Paul, the church’s mission is that of reconciliation, to be a movement for healing and wholeness in a fragmented world. And yet churches often fall into the same trap as the culture, with blue and red churches, where folks are expected to fit a certain set of beliefs before they can belong.

But the one advantage the church has, the one thing we can offer is the communion table. Like the family table around thanksgiving, the communion table is a place where folks can overcome difference with food and fellowship and a deeper set of bonds.

Those bonds are not determined by whether we are democrat or republican, black or white, gay or straight, tea party or occupy, hunter or vegetarian, cat owner or dog owner, single or married, city or rural, old or young. They are not determined by whatever demographic that a micro pollster has put us into.

Rather such reconciliation happens because of what God has done for us. The communion table can happen, like family tables not because of our chosen lives but because of the fact that we are chosen, by adoption or birth or circumstance, to be included as family. It is to that which we belong by virtue of God’s love for us.

Now not all churches or families function this way. And the holiday seasons can be a painful time as a result. But my prayer is that they would. And that whatever it is that estranges us from one another, God can help us find those connections and relations that can make us whole, as individuals, as a community, and as a country.

Rev. Dwight Welch
First Congregational (United Church of Christ)
Sheridan WY

Monday, June 18, 2012

Vision and Purpose Statement

First Congregational, United Church of Christ, Sheridan Wyoming strives to reach out to all persons in a loving, friendly, open manner in the name of Jesus Christ. A group open to varying opinions, our goal is to respect each person's uniqueness, share the good news of Jesus Christ, worship God, learn from the Bible, love others, serve in God's world, and nurture each other through fellowship as led by the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

First Congregational's Organ

Hutchings Organ Company, Boston, MA 1913 Opus 1688

The majority ofWyoming was settled in the late 1880s. Since that time, numerous Wyoming communities with many churches acquired pipe organs. Unfortunately many of the old organs are now gone, having been replaced by electronic substitutes, or abandoned altogether. A few fine pipe organs are still in existence in the state and many in their original condition.

Based on research by the Organ Historical Society there are approximately 50 pipe organs in existence in Wyoming today. Also, based on their research, the three remaining pipe organs in Sheridan are the oldest three still in existence inWyoming.

The Hutchings Organ Company of Boston,Mass.custom made the instrument for the First Congregational Church in Sheridan,WY. The installation of this organ was completed in the late fall of 1913 and the organ was dedicated on January 11, 1914. Opus 1688. Andrew Carnegie gave a substantial sum toward the organ with the balance of the funds raised entirely by the ladies of the Congregational Semicircle. The total cost was $7,000. The cost to replicate this instrument today would be in excess of $450,000.

Hutchings Organs were regarded as the Cadillac of organs during their time. Mr. Hutchings died in June of 1913, and his company subsequently closed up in 1917 which makes this one of the last Hutchings organs. There are very few Hutchings organs in the western part of theUnited States. Because of Hutchings quality, uniqueness, and scarcity, the pipe organs they built are regarded as having significant historical value.

Captain Conger of what was then known as FortMackenzie (the current site of ourV.A.MedicalCenter) lead in securing, selection, and planning of this organ. At that time Captain Conger was regarded as one of the leading musicians of the U.S. Army. He served as organist for the dedication service. One interesting bit of trivia was that it was noted in a newspaper article written about the dedication that Captain Conger had a pipe organ in his own home.

The instrument features three manuals, or keyboards, and a 30 note pedal board. It has a, bat wing, fold out draw knob console. This original 1913 console is still in use. This was the first instrument inSheridanthat was built already electrified. There are 15 ranks of pipes with 22 stops and 896 pipes. Another unique thing about this instrument is that the swell shades, which controll the volume, are located on top of the organ – unlike most pipe organs where the shades are in the front. This instrument retains it’s historical integrity – and is substantially today as it was when originally installed. The Mass Rowe chimes were added in 1975 as a memorial to Rev. Ebertz.

The pipe organ building firm of Morel & Associates of Denver has been servicing this organ since the 1930’s. A major renovation of the organ was completed by Morel & Associates in 1977. In 1985 the two main bellows were releathered. In 1994, in conjunction with a remodeling of the choir area, the console was moved onto a moveable platform – and located closer to it’s original location. The electrical supply to the organ was updated, and the electrical relay system was updated. In 1995 two ranks of pipes, the Cornopean and Oboe, were removed, taken to Denver by Morel & Associates, cleaned and regulated. Prior to these modifications the organ was plagued from time to time with problems stemming from it’s now almost 100 year old electrical system. Modifications were made in such a way as to not jeopardize the historical integrity of the organ.

There is a “sister” instrument in Montana. In Volume 31, Number 2, 1987 issue of The Tracker it cites a Hutchings Organ Company instrument installed in Helena, Montana at the Consistory Temple. It notes that the contract for this instrument was signed December 21, 1914 and the Opus number is 1705.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Importance of Working and Learning Together

This last week has been a celebration of Christian Unity, an
event churches around the country have observed including here in Sheridan. The
Sheridan Ministerial Association held a joint worship service last Tuesday at
First Presbyterian Church as a number of churches came together to affirm a
common bond and purpose in the midst of our differences.

That spirit of working together finds so many avenues. In
Lunch Together, this spirit connects many different churches and organizations
together in providing a common space and the sharing of bread. It found itself
in how the Sheridan Ministerial Association and Pastors United in Christ worked
together last fall in a Habitat for Humanity build. And there is the work of
the Wyoming Association of Churches which connects congregations across the
state in dialoging on important justice issues..

The common thread behind such work, beyond the prayer and
hope as expressed in John’s Gospel that we might be one, seems to be an
awareness that in working together we can do more then when we are apart. We
can do more to improve the life prospects of others when we work together. I
won’t hazard a guess of what would happen if this was taken to heart in our Congress
but I am convinced something of this principle is at work in our community.

And there is another principle I see at work. The belief
that God is not just found in my community but can be also found at work in
other church communities and that we may learn something of God in engaging
these other churches, in ways that can transform our sense of things. But I see
no reason why the principles of working together for a common good and learning
of God in the other should stop at the church’s doorstep.

That is, these two principles can easily be the basis by
which churches can expand the conversation, to not only include other churches
but also other religions. As religious diversity increases across the country
and in this state, the need to relate across religious boundaries increasingly
calls for interfaith work, something that is already happening from Casper to

And such a process need not be just about different
religions working together. It can also entail religious bodies relating to
different organizations who are not religious but are working on the questions
of human betterment. The dialogue between religious bodies and the sciences, community
groups, and higher education is increasingly a fruitful one.

This happens not because we ignore or downplay our
differences, those things which make us unique. Rather such dialogue works
because our differences are seen as gifts we have to share with one another. A
model for this is found in the second chapter of the book of Acts with the
beginnings of the church, where all the people who had gathered together
understood each other in their own respective languages. They could understand
each other without losing their own way of speaking.

Since I have moved to Sheridan, I have been privileged to be
part of efforts to work and learn together, by being included by a number churches,
individuals, and organizations across this community who help make this happen
on a regular basis. Thanks for what these groups and individuals do. We’re all
better for it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reconstructing the Trinity

John Shuck, a Presbyterian pastor, asks a potent question. When one reflects on doctrines in church history, like the Trinity, why should we feel compelled to take those doctrines on today? Is it simply because of the age of the doctrine? A good number of ideas throughout church history from views about women to anti-Semitism are best left behind despite their age. Other doctrines were developed in such a different period of time that the presuppositions behind them hardly relate to what we believe about the world today.

But I think it is still possible for religious progressives to re look at certain doctrines, like the trinity. If a doctrine has had a commanding influence over a period of time and a range of communities it suggests that it may touch on something about human life and experience. Doctrines which fail to do that largely can’t survive. Those that do, even if the language is not what we would use today, whether it is about redemption and sin, heaven and hell, and even the trinity, speaks on some level to human experience.

So it becomes our responsibility to wrestle with this, to find what is being attended to. One does this because whatever that is, could be important for us, even if we would need to reconstruct the language for today. For instance with ancestor worship, one could dismiss this as supernatural, as entailing beliefs about some “spirit realm” or we could imagine why a society would want to revere it’s ancestors, imagining how those that came before us provided for the context that is our world today.

So one is engaged in an imaginative project to imagine how those doctrines spoke to a group of people and if the language was reconstructed could still have power for us today. So while we may speak of God as creator differently post Darwin, there is still a connection with other periods of time who have known God as creator.

Sometimes this imaginative move happens to learn what we want to avoid, such as anti-Semitism and how communities are often built through an alienated other and the ways we need to be attentive to that in our own context. Sometimes it can be positive, in imagining how human meaning or justice or sense of self might be preserved in the language religious communities have spoken about the after life.

The idea is that whatever achievements in wisdom and knowledge has been had throughout a given tradition, ought to be retrieved if even reconceived so the language can speak to us and our time and place, given what we know of the world. For instance, we still need a world redeemed even if how we would speak to this need could have forms of connection and disconnection with how this has been related to in the past.

Bob Cornwall, a Disciples pastor, makes such a move by looking at how the idea of the trinity, provides a means to speak of both God as internally related and how that is played out in the world. We get a bit of this in John 17, imagining how we can be interrelated with each other. Trinitarian metaphors about God highlights this in a potent way.

If I was to extend this metaphor a bit, it might start by asking what is it that allows us to be interrelated to each other in ways that serve as a blessing for each other and our world?

There would need to be a form of individuality which allows people to be themselves and bring their unique histories, sense of things, gifts, and experiences to the table. Often communities exist to squelch difference, to make us one by leavening out what makes us us. But the Spirit of God in the Bible seems to highlight the role of difference. In Genesis the spirit separates the elements in the creation story. Abraham is separated out from the place of his birth. In Pentecost the church is given a unique identity. Naming often happens, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul, which highlights this new identity.

If we try to squelch differences in the name of unity, we may ignoring what God would have for us as expressed in the very things which make us as individuals. Of course if we were content to just be individuals, then we’d be isolated. And communities can do this as well, separating themselves from the wider world, and one could tell a story of American individualism and gated communities. Abraham is separated out, but this is done to be a blessing to the nations.

Christ may be a way of speaking of how one moves from self to the other, interrelating in ways which are transformative for both. So that individuals and communities can creatively engage each other. Christ is the name for what allows us to bring out unique gifts to a table. And any number of stories of Jesus crossing barriers could highlight this. The communion table is an apt symbol of this move. And the church could be a visible representation of bringing people together.

The result of such a move could be the expansion of the divine commonwealth. God might be made more real, evident, when people are able to develop themselves in ways that can in relation to each other build communities. This would, like the trinity, be impossible to cut up this process except for analysis. That is, we become individuals in communities, and yet communities can be transformed by the individuals so created, in ways that can make God more incarnate. Remove community and this falls apart, remove individuality and communities are dead in the water.

I won’t pretend this is what the crafters of the classic creeds were after. But it does connect with a vision of relationality that one finds in the tradition, one which bears on the question posed by Plato which has haunted the west of the One and the Many. I probably borrowed from Charles Sanders Pierce to make some of my moves but I think that is what reconstruction is about. It’s taking ideas, doctrines, notions from the past and reworking them, hopefully keeping faith with their genius, but refitting them in a more fitting manner today, so that they can do transformative work in the world.