Author Archives: Bob von Trebra

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Dressed for Success

Category : Archived

Wearing the Armor of God: the Belt of Truth, the Breastplate of Righteousness, and the Helmet of Salvation


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on July 30, 2017 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 

19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. 

  • Ephesians 6:10-20


It is traditional for leaders who are leaving their position of leadership to offer words of encouragement and inspiration to the people they are leaving behind.  How could I do any different?  General Douglas MacArthur, after being forced to escape from the Philippines during World War II, famously said, “I came through and I shall return.”  Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator said, “ll be back!”  My word to you is, “Don’t make me come back here!

Although this is my last Sunday as your Sustaining Pastor, and I am leaving to go serve another congregation Rev. Erin Gilmore has left behind, I still care about you, and I want this church to continue to be a community of welcome and service here in the Salt Lake City area.  And so I leave you with these words from another religious leader to one or more congregations almost 20 centuries ago.

The author of Ephesians encouraged his community to “get dressed.”  What we wear affects how people view us.  Apparently, both William Shakespeare and Mark Twain are given some credit for making the observation that “Clothes make the man (or woman).”  Successful business men and women wear “power ties” and “power suits.”  You can be sure that any top political candidate has advisors helping to pick out apparel that will help that person be seen in a positive light.  I have a highly-paid consultant who helps me pick out my bow ties for Sunday mornings.  Today I am wearing my Holy Spirit tie and socks.

What did you wear today to express your faith?

Actually, the author of Ephesians was not just giving advice for how to dress.  He believed the community he served was engaged in an epic battle against spiritual forces in the world — working through political, economic and religious authorities and institutions.  The Jewish religious leaders were antagonistic to the upstart offshoot of Judaism that became the Christian church.  The Roman Empire was suspicious of this new religious movement, and sometimes violently persecuted its followers.  The writer was encouraging those in his community to put on their armor for battle — but armor of a different kind.

I believe people of faith these days are also engaged in a battle against dangerous forces.  It isn’t just change — change happens all the time at an ever-increasing pace, and sometimes change is good.  Many people are concerned these days about blurring gender definitions and roles; about challenges to institutions like our government, law enforcement, the economy, and religious communities.  Many of our core assumptions about how the world works are being questioned, and that has people anxious.  They are willing to go into battle to hold onto the past.

That is not the conflict we should be concerned about.  I see no need to battle to get prayer back in our public schools, or to insist that people say “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season.  Those are struggles of blood and flesh — human institutions.  They are not really important.

Our struggle, just like the Ephesian community, is against spiritual enemies — enemies that try to convince us that wrong is right, and evil is good, and a bold lie is better than truth.

Our struggle is also against rulers who would use their power for their own personal gain rather than the good of the people they govern.  It is against the authorities — like the religious authorities who claim that God is out to punish particular sinners, or bless one nation over others, or bring material prosperity to believers.  Our struggle is against the spiritual forces of evil that hype up our fears and suspicions, causing us to watch out for ourselves first before thinking about our neighbors — to build walls instead of bridges.

It will be tough to battle those ideas in these days. It may even be dangerous — just like 19 centuries ago.  And so we need to put on our armor — we need to dress for success.”

Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  Truth seems to be a quaint antique these days.  There is some wisdom in the post-modern worldview that truth is often in the eye of the beholder — that we all see a different truth based on our perspective of life.  Women view the world differently than men; racial minorities in our country have a vastly different perspective than the white majority.  But the total disregard for facts — whether scientific or historical or personal — is a dangerous trend.  So put on the belt of truth, and keep seeking and speaking truth as people of faith.  Seek to hear the truth spoken by those who are voiceless and powerless, but also by those with whom we may disagree.  And keep listening for God’s truth for us — especially when it is uncomfortable.”

“Put on the breastplate of righteousness.”  At all times, try your best to do what is right, to do what God asks us to do — even when it is dangerous or costly.  As one of our UCC slogans says — Be the church: Protect the environment, care for the poor, reject racism, fight for the powerless, love God.”

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  Yes, there are noble truths in all of the world’s religions, and it is good to learn about them.  But this church was begun as a church of Jesus Christ, and I still have this crazy belief that the gospel of Jesus uniquely offers this world a hope for peace.  The message of the cross and the empty tomb have been distorted and co-opted over the centuries to the detriment of many.  But the power for liberation and transformation and hope are still there — like a diamond in the rough.  Find it.  Believe it.  Trust it.  Proclaim it.”

“Take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”  When I first came here I talked about my belief that Christian faith helps us to overcome our fear.  Evil takes root in our world by making us irrationally afraid — of strangers, of rejection, of suffering and death.  You name it — someone will make us afraid of it and try to profit from our fear.Â=  Faith helps to calm our fears, by assuring us that we are mortal, but we are loved, and nothing in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ.  One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 John 4:18, which says that “perfect love casts out fear.”  That is a sturdy shield.”

“Take the helmet of salvation.”  Salvation has often been defined for Christian believers as being saved from condemnation to eternal punishment after we die.  But the original meaning of the Greek word includes being restored to a state of safety, soundness, health and well-being.  It is being protected from harm, and from finitude.  Because we are saved through faith in Christ, we don’t have to earn God’s love.  We are already loved more deeply than any human affection.  We are saved from having to depend on powers that promise to offer us a better life, but would suck the life out of us and then fail us when we are most in need.

“Take… the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  The word of God is found in these ancient texts that have sustained faith in believers for centuries.  But the word of God can also be heard in people throughout history and even today who speak words that encourage and challenge us.  There is an old saying that it is the job of a prophet or a pastor to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  Those who do so are speaking the word of God today.

But we believe that the most perfect word of God is not in a book, but a person — Jesus — whom we can get to know through the stories and letters written by those who knew him.  And we can develop a relationship with Jesus through prayer.

“Pray in the Spirit at all times.”  Pray for this church — that it will carry on after I am gone — which it most certainly will.  Pray for a good relationship with a new pastor.  Pray to be faithful to what got this church started 64 years ago, and what will sustain and empower it — hopefully for many great years to come.  Pray to be a welcoming, Open and Affirming, Whole Earth, teaching church of Jesus Christ.

And pray for me — that my interim ministry will be a blessing to other congregations.

I have loved being here at Holladay United Church of Christ.  Jill and I have enjoyed getting to know you — and becoming friends.  We have enjoyed exploring Utah.  We will keep our church membership here for now.  We may be getting “sent out“ like Jesus sent out the disciples in our gospel lesson from last week, but our hearts will be here.  Maybe we shall return in the future.  And you will be in my prayers.  May God bless you — Holladay United Church of Christ.  And may you be a blessing to many.


Robert J. von Trebra

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Proclaim the Good News

Category : Archived


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on July 23, 2017 (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

  • Matthew 10:5-15


We have come a long way together these past almost two years.  I have one more Sunday with you as your Sustaining Pastor.  As our time together comes to an end, I wanted to leave with you with some thoughts and encouragement for the future.  Next Sunday I will talk about being “dressed for success” as members of the church (be sure to wear some fun items of clothing that express your faith!).

Today, I want to talk about the church doing mission.

That is what we are here for — to do mission.  Just as Jesus’ first disciples were not just hanging out with him to learn some profound wisdom and understand the meaning of life.  If they thought they were with him to cash in on his fame and popularity, they were greatly disappointed.  Jesus called them and traveled around with them so they could learn from him, but the whole point was that they were with him to be sent out.  Sent out to proclaim the good news.  Sent out to heal, to offer people new life, and to make them whole again.

That is what is happening in this story from the gospel of Matthew.  There are more than a few interesting things about this story.  For one, this “sending out” takes place not at the end of Jesus’ ministry, but right in the middle of it.  He has done some teaching and performed a few miracles and healings, but he hasn’t taught the disciples everything yet.  They didn’t have all the answers; they didn’t understand all mysteries; they didn’t have the meaning of life all figured out.  This was before his death and resurrection.  They didn’t have their diplomas.  But Jesus sent them out anyway — to get some “on the job training.”

And Jesus instructed these confused and uncertain students to do some simple things: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

Simple.  Nothing to it.

Jesus sent them out with not much in the way of resources.  No money or fancy suits.  No slick sales pitch or magical incantations.  Just a simple message, peace and a vision of the Realm of God.  Just the power of God working through the Holy Spirit.

We are the disciples of the disciples of the disciples of Jesus.  We are followers of those who followed him.  And our task is the same as theirs — to be sent out in mission.  To proclaim the good news.

Emil Brunner once wrote, “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning.  Where there is no mission, there is no Church, and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.”

It’s hard to proclaim good news when you are spiritually exhausted and grieving and in pain.  That is where this congregation was two years ago.  I thank God that you have recovered.  Maybe not completely; some wounds and memories will stay with you for a lifetime.  But we are not debilitated.  And if my ministry had something to do with your healing, then I am gratified we have been good for one another.

And it is hard to proclaim good news when we aren’t really sure what is good news.  The way the Christian message has been preached for centuries doesn’t sound like good news to a lot of people these days.  I hope I have been able to remind you that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus promise much more than saving us from hell when we die.  They save us from feeling lost, and despair.  They offer liberation, and healing, and community, and forgiveness, and freedom from fear.  The world needs those things!  The gospel of Jesus is still a unique and powerful message.

It is time to be doing mission again — offering those good things to people in our community and world.

Actually, we rejoice that you have been doing mission — even through the difficult times.  Great mission work: feeding the hungry, housing and supporting homeless families, hosting support groups, caring for the earth, being a place of welcome for people seeking community.  You are doing great things!

I encourage you to be open to doing even more great things.  I hope your new pastor will bring some great ideas and enthusiasm when that person comes.  But the best ideas come from your own history and hearts.

When I was in seminary, I took a class about learning to understand congregations.  The teacher had a theory that each congregation has its own “story.”  Significant events in a church’s early history often continue to repeat themselves in later years — sometimes good, and sometimes bad.

I learned from that idea that the key to a congregation discovering its sense of purpose or mission or calling is to look at its history: Why was a congregation started in the first place, and what do people still get passionate about in new ways?

Let me suggest a few things I have learned about this church’s history and passions.

Holladay Community Church was started in 1953 as a community of worship and education for Protestant Christians in the growing Salt Lake City area — many of whom had come from other places and were not part of the majority religious culture in this state.  They came from many different Christian denominations.  They were, in a sense, spiritual refugees — seeking community.

I urge you to continue to be a welcoming place for refugees.  There are many refugees trying to come to this country to escape violence and oppressive regimes.  They could use some support.  But there are many other kinds of refugees: from toxic religious backgrounds, youth who feel bullied or excluded, LGBTQ persons, people who have doubts and questions.  Continue to be a place of welcome and affirmation for them.

This church has always been known for its education.  One of the first things Holladay Community Church did was start a Sunday School for loads of kids.  I understand they used to meet in an old department store downtown for a while.  Soon afterwards, we started the Holladay Preschool – the only preschool of its kind in the area.  The Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education program is a huge gift to this community.  People who know nothing about the Christian faith will want to know what we believe and do.  Keep teaching and nurturing children and youth — and adults!

Holladay UCC has had a fascinating history of innovative, community-minded mission projects.  The Holladay Preschool is one example.  Another is the “listening posts” of the 1960s — one of the first crisis hotlines in the country.  Your Stephen Ministry program is amazing!  These may not have been focused on building up the church, but they enhanced the life of this community.  Continue to be creative in saving lives and making our community a better place!

You have also been open to new ways to worship and to be the church.  That will be crucial as we move into the future.  Know what is absolutely necessary for the church: the good news of Jesus and the Realm of God at hand.  The ways that message is embodied and proclaimed may change.  The love and grace of God does not change.

Finally, the youth group here has always had a huge impact on the life of this church.  Some of its graduates are now leaders of this church.  But its purpose and impact are much more than raising up new church members.  A youth mission trip to California in the 1990s started some conversations in this church about welcoming LGBT persons — leading to the church becoming Open and Affirming (ONA).  When the sanctuary was in its original configuration, the youth one time unscrewed and moved the pews to create a more communal worship environment.  The youth have been a source of new ideas and renewal for this church.  Keep being a place of welcome for them!

You have recently been through a time when perhaps some of you wondered whether this church would survive.  Every church goes through struggles.  Sometimes it is the struggle that makes us healthy and strong!  But I truly believe this church is basically healthy and strong — and so gifted!  You are in much better condition to proclaim the message in these changing times than many congregations are.

I have been telling this story a lot recently, but the first time I was with you for a Sunday morning worship service, I felt a powerful spirit here in this place.  It brought me to tears, and it still does.  There is life and energy here.  Sadly, many churches do not have that.

Jesus’ basic message was that the Realm of God was at hand — among us.  That is a powerful reality that transcends any one congregation, any one religion, and any one political agenda.  Believe it.  Proclaim it.  Live it.  And may God prosper your efforts.


Robert J. von Trebra

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Why We Worship

Category : Archived

“Isaiah’s Call” by Marc Chagall


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on July 2, 2017 (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost/Communion Sunday)

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:

    “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

  • Isaiah 6:1-8


One of the most important things we do as a community of faith is to worship together.  We do it just about every week.  And many people who observe the church and the society in which we live believe that worship will be changing in the years to come.  So I thought it would be important — before I conclude my time as your Sustaining Pastor — to talk about worship: How we do it, and why we do it.

To be honest, some of the reasons that we worship include “because we’ve always done it.  It’s an occasion to meet together with friends, and participate in familiar rituals of prayer and music.  On a good Sunday, you might hear something interesting or thought-provoking — often more likely in the children’s time than in the “reflection” for grown-ups.  There is a certain amount of habit and tradition at work.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But I hope there is something more that attracts people to worship — not only life-long church members, but sometimes even seekers who know almost nothing about our church traditions, but are looking for something that seems to be missing in their lives.

I think the key to “why we worship” can be found in considering “how we worship.”  Who came up with this crazy format we follow most Sundays — this “mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning” — as Annie Dillard puts it?

It turns out that Christian worship traditions are based on the patterns of Jewish worship in the synagogue — which makes sense, since Christianity grew out of a Jewish background.  Jesus and his first followers, and many of the first Christians, were raised as Jews.

And I once learned that a biblical pattern or template for worship is found in this sixth chapter of the prophet Isaiah — in the story of Isaiah’s encounter with the Holy One in the temple in Jerusalem.

Let me take you through this passage in detail.  This is a story of worship.  Isaiah is in the temple in Jerusalem, where the Holy One was believed to dwell – in the innermost part of the temple known as the “Holy of Holies.”  The year was “the year that King Uzziah (of Judah) died…” (742 BCE).  Isaiah had a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne. Maybe it seemed to him that curtains or fabric hangings in the temple were the hem of God’s robe.  There were carvings of seraphs in the temple – fiery, angelic creatures with six wings who served as attendants or body guards for the Eternal Spirit, and they seemed to sing a song of praise:


            Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

            the whole earth is full of his glory.


Maybe there was a choir singing in the temple at the time.


Here is where we begin our worship – coming into God’s presence, being aware of God’s presence, and singing our praise.


The place seemed to shake (from music?) and the temple filled with smoke (from the altar where offerings were burned).  And Isaiah says,


            “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,

            and I live among a people of unclean lips;

            yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”


Here is a prayer of confession.  We don’t do a prayer of confession every Sunday here at Holladay UCC.  Some people don’t like doing confession at all – it reminds them of church communities that seem to shame everyone as hopeless sinners – for their doubts or questions, or sexuality.  We are not hopeless sinners.  But we are not always faithful to our relationship with God.  We also sometimes speak with unclean lips – hurting or demeaning others.  We often wander off to follow other gods that do not bring life.


Praise and confession are some of the ways that we regularly remind ourselves that we are not God.  This is important.  It is so easy to start to think that way – that everything depends on us and what we do; that we alone know and understand how the world works.  Praise and confession are “attitude readjustment” tools.  And this is one of the reasons worship is important – to restore a healthy view of ourselves: We are beautiful and gifted and beloved, but we also mess up and think either too little of too highly of ourselves.


After the confession comes the assurance of forgiveness – the live coal from the altar that takes away sin and guilt.  We are declared accepted in God’s presence.  We are ready for the big moment.


            Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,

            “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”


This is it.  This is what we come for.  This is what the beginning of worship has prepared us for: to hear a word from God.


Isaiah thought he heard God address him in the temple.  But God doesn’t always seem to show up when we gather for worship in temples or sanctuaries.  In the early church, when the community gathered for worship some of the people would “prophesy” – which is not future-telling, but rather speaking what they believed God wanted to say to the community.  Apparently, some members of the early church had the gift of prophecy.  Some still do, today – although they are usually not the preachers on TV who claim that God speaks to them.


This is a problem the church (and other religious like Judaism and Islam and Mormonism) have wrestled with.  How can we be sure to hear an authentic word from God when we gather for worship?  How can we discern between authentic prophets and false prophets?  The historic answer has been to put together a set of sacred texts – stories and letters and visions that have come to be recognized as authentic records of ways that God has spoken in the past.  We read from the Bible.  And in our tradition, we have sought faithful and educated people who could read the Bible, understand its original context, and translate the ancient message into our time and situation in effective ways.  Preachers.


Many years ago, when I was still new in this ministry business, I had a phone interview with a search committee for a church I was interested in.  One of the questions they asked me was, “What makes a good sermon?”  At the time, I didn’t know quite what to answer.  Some of the descriptions that churches often give are a sermon that “speaks to the head and the heart.”  Entertaining; insightful; helps people to live their daily lives; brief.


But I think the right answer to that question is that a good sermon or reflection helps us hear God’s word for us.  A word that challenges us, and provokes a response.  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?  And I said, “Here I am; send me!”


That is why we worship.  That is what we gather for.


One of the big changes we are facing as people of faith is that many younger post-moderns do not trust “experts” to tell them the truth.  That includes seminary-trained preachers.  They want to discover it themselves by sharing their own ideas and experiences, and listening to others do the same.  So 21st century worship services may not have reflections or sermons that have been a big part of church worship services for the past five centuries or more.


The next two Sundays, we will try some alternative kinds of worship that don’t have me doing a reflection.  Instead, you will be given a chance to listen for God’s word through art, discussion, and silence.  You may not like it.  I don’t know how effective they will be.  We are in a period of trying new ideas, not knowing what will work well.  But try to be open, and to ask not whether you liked it, but whether it allowed you to hear a word from God.


The rest of worship is response – our “Here I am; send me.”  We respond by giving our gifts to support the work of the church.  We respond by praying.  We respond by breaking bread together.  We respond by singing.  And most importantly, we respond by going out into the world to live out our response to God’s challenging and empowering word.


Which isn’t always easy.  If you continue to read in the 6th chapter of Isaiah, you will see that he was called to a ministry of futility, urging a community to turn to God for healing — but a community who refused to listen or see.


Living out our faith calling in the world is hard.  It meets with resistance.  False gods and the people who worship them will confuse you and frustrate you and suck the life out of you.  That is why we must regularly return to worship – to reorient ourselves, to confess how we have failed, and to hear the word of challenge and hope and new life again.


How we worship has been patterned after Isaiah’s encounter.  There are probably other ways, faithful to our traditions and to the ways that God works, to worship.  But I keep coming back to the why we worship.  It is to be fed by the most insubstantial, satisfying sustenance to be found.  Maybe even more satisfying than a small piece of bread and a sip of wine: the living, foolish, divine word of God that became flesh and lived among us in Jesus.  The Bread of Life.




Robert J. von Trebra

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That They May All Be One

Category : Archived


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on June 25, 2017 (Third Sunday after Pentecost/60th Anniversary of UCC)

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.      – John 17:14-23



Today is the 60th anniversary of the United Church of Christ – the denomination to which Holladay Church belongs.  Many of you may not know a lot about the UCC, so I thought this would be a good occasion to give you some background about its history and its beliefs.

Let me begin with some church history leading up to the United Church of Christ.  The early Christian church in the four centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection could probably be better described as the early Christian churches.  There were many different communities with different beliefs who didn’t always see eye-to-eye.  Some were mostly Jewish; some were mostly Gentiles; some were mixed.  Some believed that Jesus was human, but not divine; others believed he was divine, but only appeared to be human.  Some believed Jesus had passed along secret, divine knowledge that only faithful church insiders could know and understand.  There are sects mentioned in the Bible about which we know very little because we do not have any records about them.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that Christianity should be the official religion of the Roman Empire, and he took steps to clarify what the Christian church believed and taught.  He convened councils of some of the most learned and faithful men (sorry ladies) in the Empire to decide important matters of belief.  Some of the early Christian creeds were a product of that effort.  The Nicene Creed is a product of the Council at Nicaea in 325.  They helped to define the “official” Christian church.  For example, Jesus Christ was declared to be both fully human and fully divine.  Dissenting beliefs about Jesus were declared heretical.

For more than a thousand years, this “official” Christian church held great power and authority.  It had two headquarters or centers: Rome and Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).  In the 11th century, the Roman church and the Eastern church split in two: The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Roman Church had authority over Western Europe as the only true church until the 16th century — the time of the Protestant Reformation that began 500 years ago.  Since then, the Christian faith in Europe and America has split into hundreds of different denominations, each with different beliefs, governance, and leaders — and almost all of them claiming to be the true church of Jesus Christ.  The followers of Martin Luther started a church named for Luther.  John Calvin had his own ideas about how a church should be organized — the Presbyterian and Reformed churches began.  King Henry VIII of England started a church with himself as the Head.

Now there are so many different brands of churches, I can’t keep them straight.  There are at least 3 different kinds of Lutherans.  I couldn’t tell you the difference between the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.  I think there are more different kinds of Baptist churches than there are Baptists.

In the mid-20th century, there was a movement among some Protestant Christian churches that saw this fragmentation as contrary to the prayer of Jesus himself — “That they may all be one.”  And so, there was an effort to heal those divisions by uniting denominations.  The United Church of Christ was officially formed in 1957 by the union of what once had been four different denominations: Congregational, Christian, German Evangelical and Reformed.

The UCC tapestry also includes some other threads — like historically Black churches and educational institutions that were started with the help of Congregational missionaries after slavery ended in the United States.  And Pacific Island congregations in Hawaii, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, that had been started by Congregational missionaries to the islands.

This church — Holladay UCC — was originally started as a Community Church with church members from several different Christian denominations.  In 1953, it was one of the only Protestant Christian churches in this part of Utah.  But the young church received guidance and assistance from the Congregational Christian churches — two of the denominations that became part of the UCC — and when the United Church of Christ was founded in 1957, this congregation soon decided to affiliate with the UCC.

One of the things that makes the United Church of Christ different from many other branches of the Christian faith is its congregational polity.  That means that each local congregation is autonomous; we have no higher authority than the local congregation.  We have no bishops.  We are not bound by the dictates of the national offices of the UCC.  We are free to decide how to worship, who to call as pastor(s), how to raise money, how to spend it, and how to carry out our mission.

This means that it is hard to pin down exactly what a UCC congregation is like and what they believe.  They can be very different.  But it also means that we have not been torn apart as a denomination by taking stands on controversial social issues, as many other churches have been.

As one example, in 1985 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (the national gathering that takes place every two years) passed a resolution encouraging UCC congregations and other settings of the church to declare themselves “Open and Affirming” (ONA). This is a designation stating that they are welcoming of all persons, specifically including lesbian, gay and bisexual persons, assuring them that they are affirmed and welcome to take part in the full life of the church — including serving as leaders and even ordained ministers.  But this resolution is not binding on UCC congregations; each is free to decide whether to take this step or not.  Holladay UCC became ONA 18 years ago in 1999.  But at this time, only about ¼ – 1/5 of UCC congregations have declared themselves Open and Affirming.  There are some congregations who left the denomination when the UCC became ONA.  But it has not split the denomination.

We are also unique in that we are a non-creedal church.  We have no set of beliefs one must affirm in order to be a member of the church.  So you will find UCC churches all over the political and theological spectrum — from progressive churches like Holladay UCC to much more conservative and traditional churches.

I don’t know anyone who makes the claim that the United Church of Christ is the one true church.  I think it’s just the best approach that I have found.

We don’t always agree.  We don’t always get along.  The four different strands that make up the UCC have different traditions and beliefs, and that means there are unresolved tensions.  But we have been hanging together for 60 years.  We are not held together by common belief, but by covenant.  We believe and publicly affirm that we need to be together and work together, and we dedicate time and financial resources to maintaining that relationship.  It is an ongoing challenge to maintain.

But our sense of mission has changed.  The effort to unite together with other denominations has waned.  We have partner and cooperative relationships with other Christian denominations –“ mostly closely with the Disciples of Christ and now the United Church of Canada.  But efforts to officially unite have stalled.

What is perhaps more radical, and more important in these times, is that our national church is partnering with other religious groups in some of their justice efforts — joining with Reformed Jews, some Muslim groups, and Unitarian-Universalists.  We are not all followers of Jesus, but we are working together to help bring shalom to the world: peace, justice, wholeness, mutual respect.

In fact, one UCC congregation — Countryside Community Church UCC in Omaha, Nebraska, has sold its old church building and is now building a new worship facility that will also be the home of Jewish and Muslim communities.  Imagine that — three different religious communities worshiping and working together in one building.

At 60 years, the vision and mission of the United Church of Christ have changed to meet the needs of a changing world.  Our new vision is to help bring about “a just world for all.”  Exactly what that means and how we make it happen will require some discernment.

But let me do something that usually isn’t done when we talk about the United Church of Christ.  Let me probe a little more deeply into Jesus’ prayer in the gospel of John, and not just lift out one verse, insisting that it summarizes all that Jesus was about — even if it is our UCC motto.”

That they may all be one” is not just about joining together with our sisters and brothers in faith, even if they understand it a little differently.  It is to be united with Jesus Christ and with God, and with all our ancestors in the faith, and with those who will come after us.

We are one in no longer being a part of this world.  We still live on this beautiful, fragile earth.  But we no longer accept uncritically mortal definitions of what it means to be human, or to be successful.  We do not accept all the ways our culture tries to divide people.  We no longer use the violent methods of getting our way.  We are the heirs of a strange wisdom that is seen as foolishness by many people, but is also the source of a strange power.

Instead, we are a part of the Realm of God.  We are the bearers of God’s truth — truth that is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That truth is that we are loved by God.  We are sent into the world — which is John’s word for the population of non-believers — to witness to that love that makes us one.  It gives us dignity, and glory, and protection from all shamers.  To be a part of the United Church of Christ is to insist on that for ourselves, and for all people in this world.

Happy Birthday, UCC!

Robert J. von Trebra

(If you would like to learn more about the United Church of Christ, visit our website at


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The Balance Sheet of Holladay Preschool

Category : Archived


A reflection given by Max Chang at Holladay United Church of Christ on May 21, 2017 (Sixth Sunday of Easter/Preschool Sunday)

1 John 4:7-12


Holladay United Church of Christ was founded in 1953 as Holladay Community Church – to minister to the needs of Protestant Christians living in the south Salt Lake area.  In 1954, one of the church’s members, Agi Plenk – a specialist in early childhood education – saw the need for a preschool in this area, and so she started Holladay Preschool in 1954 with the help of many other dedicated volunteers, and classes were soon held in the new church building.  That makes Holladay Preschool one of the earliest mission outreach projects of Holladay Church.

To tell us about some of the exciting things happening at Holladay Preschool these days, and why he loves the school, is Max Chang, who is a preschool parent, and just completed a four-year term as Treasurer of the Preschool.  Max says he’s not much of a church-goer, but he wanted to share his love of the school.  Please welcome Max Chang.

(Robert J. von Trebra)


Good morning, my name is Max Chang. For those who know me, I do not get up early on a Sunday morning unless it’s for golf, fishing or skiing. Yet, here I am for two reasons. My love for Holladay Preschool and my grand respect for the Holladay United Church of Christ and Pastor Bob since this is going to be his last Preschool Sunday.

With me today, is my family. My wife, Edee, daughters, Genevieve, who is a Holladay Preschool graduate and now finishing up 1st grade and Gisele who currently is in the three year old program here at Holladay. I also see many friendly faces here in the crowd and thank you for joining us.

As some of you know, I have served as Treasurer for the preschool for the past four years and rolled off last month and handed the reigns to Holladay Preschool alum and parent, Mindy Whiting. So normally, when I’m talking about the Preschool, I’m discussing its financials and a bunch of numbers. Today, I’m going to stray a little bit and while I’ll be talking about the Preschool’s balance sheet, I’ll be more figurative than financial.

But first, I would like to share with you my and my family’s journey to Holladay Preschool. To understand this journey is to understand my Utah roots. My parents immigrated to Salt Lake City in the sixties from Taiwan to attend graduate school at the University of Utah. It was part of the brain drain movement from East Asia and they were one of the first, as my father likes to call himself, Taiwanese Pioneers, to settle in Utah. In fact, I am probably one of the first, if not first, Taiwanese Americans born in Salt Lake City.

Growing up close by in East Millcreek was an interesting experience for me. I did not attend Holladay Preschool, but a combination of the University of Utah, the Montessori and Challenger. Even though, I consider English to be my native tongue, I actually spoke Taiwanese, a dialect of Mandarin, until I started attending school. It was then, I first realized, I was a little different. I spoke Taiwanese to the other kids and nobody responded. I looked around. I was the only one with black hair. I was the only one with fried rice for lunch instead of peanut butter sandwiches. I felt like an outsider, a stranger in my home community. As a double minority, there were countless times since that I am made to feel like an outsider. For example, I commonly get asked this question:

“Where are you from?”

“Salt Lake City.”

“No really, where are you from?”

“No really, I was born at Holy Cross hospital on South Temple.”


“You speak English really good.” ”

Good?” I would reply.

Nonetheless, I love Salt Lake City and Utah. People are kind and generous, the mountains and landscapes are beautiful and it’s the home of the Utah Jazz, my first love. I still keep in touch with friends as far back as Kindergarten. Going to both college and graduate school out of state, living and working out of state and country, I have always promoted and sometimes defended Utah as its self-appointed Ambassador. And no matter how many times I may have moved away, I have always come back home.

And so let’s fast forward to when Edee, who like my parents is from Taiwan, and I became parents, exactly seven years ago yesterday. Little Genevieve at 4 lbs. 4 oz. enters our lives 6.5 weeks earlier than her expected Independence Day Birthday. As I held her in the NICU, I was facing the thought that she will probably face not only the same obstacles I had growing up in Utah but perhaps more so because she’s female.

A few months afterwards, we were having dinner with our dear friends, including Jani Iwamoto, she asked where we were going to put Genevieve in preschool. Surprised by the question, I replied to her, since she was barely 3 months old and we really hadn’t thought about it. She looked at me straight in the yes and said, “Holladay Preschool. You know, you’re supposed to call the day when the baby is born.”

Both of Jani’s children, now young adults, attended Holladay Preschool. She said how much they loved it and that they would sometimes ask to go back to the playground when they were in elementary school. Her close friend and neighbor, Laura Nilson, taught at the school. She would make sure Laura talks to us about Holladay Preschool. We MUST put Genevieve in Holladay Preschool!

The very next day, I rushed down to the preschool office only to be told that there was already a waiting list. Genevieve would be #15 on the girls list and probably get in. “Wait to hear from us in 18 months and you’ll have 24 hrs. to accept.” For 18 months, we did not consider any other preschool. We were set on Holladay. However, 18 months later, I called to find out our status only to find out that the office had made a mistake. Genevieve wasn’t #15 but number #31 and with only 15 girls getting in for the 2 year old program, there was a good chance we would need to look elsewhere. Long story short, she did get in but not until after a lot of anxious moments which led to doubts whether we were making the right decision.

Edee and I looked at the school’s website saying how diverse it was. Yet the picture of the kids did not show one child of color. More doubts. I secretly pondered, “Is this really the right school for us?” But we knew Jani and trusted her word and experience. One reassuring thing did catch our eye and that was that Agi Plenk had founded Holladay Preschool.

As many of you know, Agi is a legend locally and nationally for her remarkable work with children. Holladay Preschool was the first preschool in Salt Lake County, if not all of Utah, as it was established when Agi help establish Holladay Church now the Holladay United Church of Christ. Some of the children attending the preschool struggled with severe behavior problems. At times, Agi, had to explain to parents that their child was too disruptive and could not return.

The response of one mother changed Agi’s approach to these children forever. “You are the one person in the community who can help,” the mother said, “and you’re turning us away.”

As a result became the birth of The Children’s Center, which is committed to providing comprehensive mental health care to enhance the emotional well-being of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Edee and I have been long time supporters of the Children Center. Edee has served on its board for six years before rolling off last year and we have witnessed many remarkable stories of families that have been helped, some out of impossible situations.

So if Agi had her hand in establishing this preschool, we were going to attend Holladay Preschool.

I love that the school does not have a litmus test for attending. No questions about our faith, income or our parenting style. There were no interviews or tests. Its play based centricity was a refreshing change from the concept that a child’s education is an arms race. Oftentimes, parents don’t understand the diminishing returns that oftentimes come with too strong of an academic focus at such a young age. We see this as a marathon and that play is as important if not more important at this stage of their young lives.

I probably shouldn’t say this since I saw Laurie McBride earlier here today, but when I first contemplated to sign up for Treasurer, it wasn’t really for altruistic reasons. As I mentioned at the beginning, I do not like getting up early. So I figured, by serving on the board, I could bypass the frigid process of waiting in line at 5:00am on a February morning to ensure that my children would get into the class we wanted.

Ironically, becoming Treasurer was the real wake-up call that I needed for me both professionally and personally.  I really began to really understand the Preschool beyond our classroom and the financials. I started to see a holistic view of the preschool that most parents aren’t privy to. Again, I’m here today to talk about the Preschool’s true balance sheet, a balance sheet that does not appear in QuickBooks, bank statements, excel spreadsheets, graphs and charts or any other financial document.

Let’s start with our assets. I debated for quite some time of which assets to list first for fear that one might think I was listing in order of importance. The reality is every asset is equally and interlockingly important and without these assets unified, the balance sheet falls apart.

The Children.

Since we just heard from these wonderful who sang so beautifully for us today, let’s start with the children. By the way, my girls love the songs they learn at Holladay. They sing them on the way to skiing and even when we were on vacation in Cancun over Spring Break. Genevieve and Gisele did an impromptu concert in the hotel room and even made me text videos of their singing to Linda and Laura because they love their teachers so much.

Speaking of music, I’m tempted to just quote Whitney Houston’s lyrics from “The Greatest Love of All” to describe this asset because, without a doubt, the children are our future and if we teach them well, they will lead the way. Fortunately, my better judgment and lack of a signing voice has derailed that idea. Plus, Edee hid my karaoke microphone that I bought myself for Christmas.

Edee and I are here because we want the best for Genevieve and Gisele and for them to start to learn how to navigate this ever complicated world. I am sure every parent here wants the best for their child. When I come to school and I hear the laughter and sometimes tears on the playground, see the art projects that are not identical, the smiles on their faces, friends holding hands, my heart melts. Not only have my daughters made friends here, I believe they have made lifelong friends.

One thing I love about the Preschool is that we don’t have a McDonald’s drive in-like drop off/pick up system. By bringing the kids to the classroom, we’ve fortunately come to get to know many wonderful families as well as the teachers at Holladay Preschool. Many of these parents attended Holladay Preschool when they were kids. If you were one of those, please raise your hand.

In order to avoid an Oscar like moment with the orchestra cueing me offstage, it would be impossible for me to name them all but I would be remiss if I did not mention one in particular who I feel epitomizes the spirit of a Holladay Preschool family. Gina Larson and her incredible family including her husband Scott, children Ririe, Ansel and Bell and her wonderful parents Ed and Myra Hansen. Myra, as you may know, was a past director of Holladay Preschool before Nancy Piggott and Diane Stallings. I first met Gina in Carolyn Tebbs and Jessie Newman’s 2 year old class where Ansel and Genevieve were classmates. We happened to be paired up as Co-Op parents on more than one occasion as Edee was on bed rest with Gisele. We also served on the board for two years together.

Gina was so welcoming to our and every family from the very beginning. She always greeted the children with a smile especially if one of them was having a tantrum in the hallway. She’d always give me encouragement as I risked cardiac arrest giving kids a ride in the Big Room. Myra and Ed, would also pull me aside when they saw me and ask me how Edee was doing and I was doing and how Genevieve was doing. Myra would share experiences being the Director, knowing it would help me better manage the Preschool’s finances.

Gina arranged the class to have its own soccer team, the Blueberries, and “volunteered” Scott to be the coach. Let’s just say that Genevieve was having a hard time adjusting to Edee being on bed rest and really would rather do the Frankenstein walk than playing soccer. She’d dress up in her soccer uniform with a tutu and tiara and rarely would participate except standing there with her hand in her mouth. Finally, one day, after many games of exhibiting enormous patience, Coach Scott had Genevieve start the game by kicking the ball. Believe it or not, she kicked the ball, not once but a few times! She even gave Scott a high five! The most memorable moment for me was not the soccer, per se, but the spontaneous support from the wonderful Holladay parents led by Gina who cheered for the Tutu Tiara girl. The Blueberries was not just a team but a village.

Fortunately, families like the Larson’s are not the exception but the rule which what makes Holladay Preschool great. I’ve seen countless parent volunteer hours for the Benefit Bash, Carnival, class projects, and building our new playground. This includes, planning, fundraising, engineering and even physically lifting each (very heavy) block for the retaining wall. Their contribution is priceless.


We have an unparalleled core of teachers here at Holladay Preschool. Some who have been here for more than 25 years and a couple for less than a year. At first, I was confused if it was required for a teacher to be named Lori, Laura, Loralee, or Linda. Besides an array of alliterative names, our teachers have in common kindness, love, compassion and very importantly, empathy. We are proud to call many of them, our friends.

Some may think, “Hey, it’s a play based preschool. All they do is play and make crafts. How hard can it be?” It is so much more than that. The teachers here prepare so much for our children. They spend countless hours at home creating imaginative and engaging projects and programs. It’s play with a purpose that is developmentally and emotionally appropriate. Too much of our society is focused on IQ and we forget about EQ. We need a balance and that is what our teachers excel at.

When Edee was on bed rest, I became Genevieve’s primary caretaker and understandably, it took a toll on a 2 year old. She started to behave differently. We were worried, obviously, but Carolyn and Jessie were so good in reassuring us that is the way Genevieve is telling us she is in charge and that she will be okay. They were so incredibly patient and loving with her and slowly but surely they got her back. Our other teachers we’ve had, like Linda Layton, Laura Nilson, Loralee Christensen and Linda Wilde all exhibited the same love and compassion. Gisele is looking forward to having Julie Iorg next year and has declared she is not ever leaving Holladay Preschool. Megan Woodward, Lori Gee, Diane Magnum, Cathy Thurman, Janice Peterson, Lori Bergstrom have all took turns being great influences on our children through substituting, Enrichment and Summer/Winter Fun classes. While, our girls have not had Candice Greene or Amy Moon for teachers, I know how wonderful these two are. They along with Megan are wonderful parents we were fortunate to have children in the same classes together. The teachers take so much time to write reports, assessments, meet with parents and put together memorable scrapbooks that are lifetime keepsakes.

Carolyn even taught Genevieve how to make balloon animals so well that Genevieve, at the time just five years old, went to a 5 year old class at the Children’s Center to make balloon animals for them. Their Executive Director, Doug Goldsmith, wanted to show the 5 year olds at the Children Center what a 5 year old is capable of doing.


Julie and Sharon are simply terrific. They’re the face of our preschool and keep things running smoothly and effectively.  As you could tell by Sharon’s presentation to the children today, she also substitutes from time to time and is so good with the children.

When I became Treasurer, the school was in search of a new director. I had recommended that we find someone with good QuickBooks skills but the search committee said they wanted to find someone who would be a great director first and if she came with QuickBook skills, that would be an added bonus.

So they end up hiring someone (forgive me, Kristi) with basic QuickBooks skills, at best. It was the best decision they ever made. When I first met the new director, I recognized my old high school teammate from the Debate team, Kristi Stout, now Kristi Thompson. We had not seen each other since I graduated a year before she did. Not only was it great to reconnect but an absolute honor to work with her these past four years. I cannot even begin to list the accolades she’s achieved in four years. I even call her the QuickBooks Queen now.

My task was to bring in a system that was accurate and transparent. Kristi ensured we achieved that while maintaining and celebrating the human element of the preschool.

Whenever I said we should assess late fees, she would tell me the backstory and I would immediately agree with her.  She wanted the preschool to be a greater part of the church and the community. When our dilapidated playground and retaining walls needed replacing, she spearheaded the project. I believe the children from the preschool and church all enjoy the playground. Once I was at the playground while the girls were playing and a woman came with her grandchild and started pulling weeds. I thanked her and she turned and thanked me. “We lived next to the preschool and we just wanted to thank you for bringing something so wonderful to our neighborhood by helping keeping it clean.”

In other words, Kristi made sure we never strayed from the mission of the preschool as Agi envisioned it and to be a part of this community.

Holladay United Church of Christ

The final asset I wanted to address today is the Holladay United Church of Christ. You are an invaluable, indispensable and integral foundation for Holladay Preschool and the Church equally shares the success stories I have shared today.

The Preschool has been the mission of the Church for over 60 years and the Church’s contribution is so significant in both capital and volunteer equity.  The Church provides our preschool facilities rent free. That’s right, rent free. The Preschool helps cover operational expenses and whenever, we can, provide additional funds for various projects. This allows us to keep our tuition at a moderate and affordable level and provide for our wonderful teachers.

HUCC is a very giving group. Forgive me for not listing all of the amazing things you do but they provide meals for those less fortunate. They provide a safe place to stay for those in Family Promise during several weeks in the summer. They provide a meeting space for those battling personal demons. We are not Holladay Preschool without Holladay United Church of Christ and I truly believe in my heart and my experience that the converse is true.

Church members have always stepped up to the plate in providing their expertise and labor to improve the Preschool. Let’s take the new heating system as an example. We were very fortunate to have someone like Lyn Felton who had the professional expertise and acumen for the project. When the heating went in the Preschool out for nearly two weeks in the winter two years ago, we were fortunate that the weather was relatively mild and we could continue to hold classes. I had estimated the negative economic impact if we had to close the school for that period of over $50,000. So when it came to start the replacement of the heating system, it was without hesitation the Church said they would do the Preschool wing first. The children came first and members of the church attended bundled up the last two winters.

I’ve had the pleasure of serving with several members of the church serving on our board including Laurie, Sandy, Kayla, and Kate and am sad I did not have the chance to serve with Don and Ginny who have joined the board for next year. I’ve seen Craig, Mark, John, Carl and other members doing a variety of improvement projects including installing security cameras, cleaning up garbage, landscaping and generously donating during our fundraisers and so much more. Kerry used his expertise to prepare civil engineering drawings for the sewer system. I’ve worked closely with Rori and Steve to ensure that they knew exactly what the financial shape of the Preschool is and they have given me very helpful advice and guidance. Peter has been so helpful in coordinating projects that we’ve worked on and Roger has been a great leader of the Church.

Church members like Edith, Shirl and Yvonne come in voluntarily to sign checks for the Preschool. I am particular grateful as this was an important procedure to ensure our financial transparency. For example, one of the rules we instituted was that neither the Director nor Treasurer could be check signors on the Preschool account.

Finally, let’s talk about Pastor Bob on his last Preschool Sunday here at Holladay United Church of Christ. Pastor Bob is the third pastor I worked with while at the Preschool. He is engaged, humorous and caring. He attends every board meeting and provides thoughtful, constructive and candid feedback. I’ve even seen him sporting pink hair from the hairspray booth at our annual Carnival. On behalf of the Preschool, thank you, Bob and best wishes on your next adventure.

Again, I apologize in advance for not naming everyone individually but please know that at least from my perspective, you are all exceptional and wonderful examples for our children at the Preschool.


Every balance sheet has it assets and it has its liabilities.

In this case, the liabilities I see are more of what concerns me about the future. Will detractors make us forget our roots? Will we forget our mission? Will we forget to provide for those who are less fortunate and maintain a robust balance in the Thayne Stark Memorial Fund?

That’s why I’m here. I want to share my personal story about Holladay Preschool and why I love this place. I always have a sense of urgency to avoid complacency, something that could disrupt this special place. So please:

Let’s not ever forget what Agi Plenk has envisioned.

Let’s not forget to preserve the mission to have a play based preschool so children can enjoy their childhood

Let’s not forget the children past, present and future of the Preschool, especially those who may be less fortunate.

Let’s not forget the teachers, staff, families and church members who make this a very special place for the community.

Finally, let us always remember to provide a place for someone like me and my family to feel welcomed and not feel like outsiders.

Thank you very much for allowing me to speak today. It has been a tremendous honor to be a part of this special place as both a parent and a volunteer.

Max Chang

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Enduring Witness

Category : Archived

“Lydia” by Maria Elkins


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on May 14, 2017 (Fifth Sunday of Easter/Mother’s Day)

Psalm 84

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

–          Acts 16:6-15


(Given as a monologue in character)

My name is Silas – the Romans call me Silvanus.  I was with our brother Paul on that journey, when we first came to Macedonia, and to Philippi.  We were getting frustrated, wondering why so many people had been eager to hear the good news of the gospel the first time Paul had journeyed through Asia, but that second time no one would let us stay and talk to people.  It had seemed so easy at first, and we were so eager to share what God had done for us in Christ.  We felt God’s powerful presence, and the Holy Spirit was opening doors for us.  But this time around, it was so hard.  We wondered whether God had forsaken us.  We wondered whether we had been mistaken.  Maybe we had missed some important direction.  Maybe it had all been just a fad.

And then Paul had the vision – a man of Macedonia urging us to come to help them.  We thought certainly this was the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we sailed across the Aegean to Neapolis, and then traveled inland to Philippi.  Philippi was one of the most important cities in the region – founded by the Romans along an important trade route as a place for veterans of the Roman army to live.  We stayed there for a few days, looking for an opportunity to proclaim the gospel.

In the past when we had visited cities it was our custom to go to a local Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath, and to share the good news there.  But there was no synagogue in Philippi, and so on the Sabbath we went outside the city gates by the river, where there seemed to be a place of prayer – although most of the people there were pagan worshipers of the Roman gods.  And that was where we met Lydia. She was not what we expected.

For one thing, she was a woman – a wealthy, independent woman as it turns out – she owned her own business trading in expensive purple cloth.  Paul had seen a vision of a “man” of Macedonia who wanted our help.  We didn’t think to share the good news of Jesus with the women there – we were just there to pray ourselves and to try to find out where we might be able to meet with some men who would be open to hearing us.  But Lydia was curious about who we were and what we had to say, and she listened carefully to our message.  She had heard about the God of Israel and worshiped God, but had not heard about what God had done through Jesus, and she hadn’t yet found a community of other believers with whom she could worship.  She was so moved by what we had to say that she wanted to be baptized right away, and the others in her household with her.

And so Lydia became – in a sense – the “mother” of the church in Philippi, and all of Europe.  And I was once again amazed at the people who responded to the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and whom God welcomed into our faith community: women and men, rich and poor, Jew and gentile, slave and free.  That was very unusual in the culture of the Roman empire, where you were supposed to know your place and stay with your own kind.  It was scandalous!

Lydia responded to her new life with generous hospitality – one of the signs that God is truly at work in a person.  She welcomed us into her home.  What a joy that was, after being chased out of towns and constantly on the move.

I learned two important lessons from Lydia.  One is that sometimes you have to be open to change.  What worked once may not always work the same.  You have to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and to the unexpected.  The seven deadliest words in the faith community?  “We never did it that way before.”

I also learned from her that one of the best ways to show hospitality to others is to listen to them – truly listen.  There is nothing more affirming and healing than to be able to speak truthfully and to be heard.  That was a rare gift in those days.  And I know – I have observed the world in which you live, and it is rare today as well.  You have all of these fancy communication gadgets – cell phones and internet.  Everybody wants to express an opinion or a point of view – everyone wants to be heard.  But no one wants to listen.  I have observed the “talk shows” on radio and TV – everyone tries to talk over the others.

Lydia was “eager to listen” to what Paul had to say.

I think that is an important lesson for our spiritual lives as God’s people.  When we pray, we want God to listen to us – and God does.  But are we also hospitable to God?  Do we stop to listen to what God is saying to us – in prayer, or through others?  The book of Hebrews in the Bible says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (Heb 13:2)  I know I sometimes get so busy talking and thinking and doing – I have to make myself slow down, find some silence, and listen.  Paul listened to the vision he had – of a man of Macedonia – that brought us to Philippi, and to Lydia.  Lydia listened to us, and she started a church.  Amazing things can happen when we are hospitable – when we are eager to listen.

Grace to you, and peace, from God and from our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ.

Silas (Robert J. von Trebra)

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Reconnecting with Nonviolence

Category : Archived

“The Entry into Jerusalem”

Audio recording:


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on April 9, 2017 (Sixth Sunday in Lent/Palm Sunday)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

–          Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 26:47-56


When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that Sunday that began the last week of his life, he may have looked a little comical – riding on a small donkey.  But this was a powerful, symbolic act.  The biblical prophet Zechariah — who lived about five centuries before the time of Jesus, during the time that Jerusalem and its temple were being rebuilt – had a beautiful vision of a time when a new king would come to Jerusalem.  That new king would ride a young donkey, and would bring peace to God’s people.

The author of the gospel of Matthew quotes that vision in his story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  He clearly believed that vision was being fulfilled in Jesus.

But Jesus may have been making another statement as well.  Last year, I told about the biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who, in their book “The Last Week,” propose that this little parade of Jesus’ was actually a political protest against another parade that was happening elsewhere in the city at the very same time.  They claim the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was arriving from his headquarters at the head of a contingent of soldiers sent to keep order in the city during the Jewish Passover festival.  So, while Pilate possibly rode into town on a beautiful white horse, leading well-armed soldiers, and representing the power of the Roman Empire and Emperor Tiberius (who claimed to be the son of the gods on earth), Jesus came into town on a small donkey with a rag-tag group of followers.  He came proclaiming that the Realm of God was at hand – a kingdom built on humility and service and love rather than power.  His was a parody of the Roman parade  He was mocking the apparent power of Rome.  Maybe that was one of the reasons he was crucified a few days later.

From all accounts in the gospels and other early Christian texts, Jesus was a man of peace.  He never used violence to achieve his purposes.  He never even used violence to protect himself.

And church history records that the early Christians were nonviolent.  They refused to serve in the Roman army.  During periods of persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire as members of an illegal religious group, many Christians were arrested and sentenced to death.  Many of them refused to fight.  In fact, they often greeted death as an honor.

It caused a bit of a crisis in the early Church when Roman soldiers wanted to become a part of the movement.  They were eventually accepted, but a question remained as to whether they could continue serving in the military.

But then, in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine – himself a military commander – believed that the Spirit of Christ helped him to win an important battle, and soon Christianity became the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  After that, kings – now Christian – began asking how they could possibly defend their kingdoms against invaders seeking glory and riches if they couldn’t wage war.  And they began wondering how they, as Christians could invade other kingdoms seeking glory and riches if killing was prohibited.  Soon, nonviolence began to be seen as an unrealistic ideal rather than a Christian way of life.

In the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine developed the idea of a “just war” – circumstances in which Christians might wage war and remain true to their faith.  Christians have justified the use of violence and warfare ever since, although almost all the wars fought by Christian nations since then (and maybe all of them) have not really met the criteria for a “just war.”

Folks in this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives.  So during this season of Lent, we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.”  Many of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship.  The Christian faith has lost much of the original vision and passion that gave it birth.  But Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives.  And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, the journey, the light, and compassion.  Today, we consider “reconnecting with nonviolence.”

How appropriate for today, since our nation just recently launched a missile strike against an air base in Syria.  Perhaps one of the reasons the Christian faith has lost some of its appeal and influence is because it doesn’t really follow the teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church.  In a world that continues to be torn apart by violence, it doesn’t really insist on an alternative.

These days, the worldwide Christian community is divided on whether Christians should be nonviolent.  I’m sure that the vast majority believe not only that Christians should be able to defend themselves from harm, and serve in the military to defend their country from enemies and protect innocent people, but that Jesus would condone these actions.  There are some notable exceptions, including historic “peace churches” like the Amish, Quakers (Society of Friends), and the Church of the Brethren.

John Newell is influenced by two people that he considers to be great 20th century prophets of nonviolence: one of them is George MacLeod, the founder of the modern-day religious community on the island of Iona in Scotland.  Newell is the former warden of the abbey in Iona.  But the other great prophet of nonviolence is Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent movement for India’s independence from Great Britain.

Gandhi, of course, was not Christian, but Hindu.  Yet he was greatly influenced by Jesus’ life and teachings.  Gandhi once said, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians.”

What is the case for nonviolence today?  Why do it?  What are the risks?

New Testament scholar and theologian Walter Wink once wrote, “The church has a vocation for nonviolence.  That vocation is grounded in the teaching of Jesus, the nature of God, the ethos of the kingdom, and the power of the resurrection.”  Let me elaborate on these points.

As I said, Jesus taught nonviolence.  Jesus lived nonviolence.  He even taught that we should love our enemies.  Gandhi got that.  He refused to make anyone his enemy – even those who oppressed his fellow Indians, and who on several occasions beat him and imprisoned him.  He sought not to destroy his enemies, but turn them into friends.  Jesus supposedly prayed for God to forgive his executioners because they did not know what they were doing.  Jesus taught nonviolence.

We are to be nonviolent because of the nature of God.  This may be surprising, because many people believe that God is violent and punishing.  There are many times when believers have assumed that disasters or destruction have been God’s will or punishment for someone’s sins, but I think that is more assumption than fact.  The Bible tells how God once tried violent disaster to rid the world of evil.  It was the flood of Noah’s time.  But it didn’t work – sin and evil were soon present in the new creation.  And so God vowed never to do that again.  It is impossible to rid the world of evil by killing all the evil people – in spite of our political promises to do so.

Instead, the overarching story of the Bible is God’s unbelievable patience – refraining from destructive violence in order to give evildoers (like me) another chance.

The ethos of the kingdom or the Realm of God is such that there should be no enemies.  And the Realm of God should be our ultimate allegiance – surpassing even our nation or our religion.  As Christians, protecting our nation should not be justification for violence.  Neither is self-defense, or even justice.  Just war theory said the only reason Christians could wage war was to prevent innocent people from suffering.

And the power of the resurrection assures us that even if we, personally, might lose our life to violence; or those who love; or an entire nation be conquered; doing what is right will ultimately prevail.

Christian theologians and ethicists have debated for centuries whether nonviolence is practical or realistic, and the circumstances in which Christians might rightfully use force or violence.  Perhaps we can discuss those questions later – I certainly will not answer them here and now.  But let me just state my conviction that Jesus never intended to be practical (realistic), or successful.  He never sought to defend an earthly empire.  He only sought to be faithful to his vision of God’s love and God’s realm.

We live in a complex and dangerous world.  I don’t hold out any immediate hope of getting our nation or any other in our world to disavow violence and warfare.  But I do believe that lasting peace will never be achieved through violence.  We don’t have to support the common belief that killing is the way to defeat our enemies.  And we can proclaim and live out our beliefs that violence is never justified in our relationships and our families and in our communities.

Reconnecting with nonviolence is risky.  It is dangerous.  It may require a willingness for me to lay down my life, and even endanger the lives of loved ones.  That terrifies me.  But I try to remember an unarmed prophet of peace riding into the heart of violence on a donkey colt, a cross, and an empty tomb.


Robert J. von Trebra

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Reconnecting with Compassion

Category : Archived


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

John 11:1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus from death)


Many people in this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives.  So during this season of Lent that leads up to Easter, we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.”  Some of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship.  It notes some of the big changes that are happening in the Christian faith right now – the institution of the Christian Church has been declining in Western Europe and America, and the authority of the church has been challenged.  Actually, God isn’t dead; but Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives.  And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, the journey, and the light.  Today, we consider “reconnecting with compassion.”

Compassion is a word that means “to feel with.”  It is to feel what others feel, and to respond appropriately and supportively.

Newell writes that one of the great modern prophets of compassion is Aung San Suu Kyi — Leader of the nonviolent movement for democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma).  Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her resistance to the oppressive dictatorship in Burma – resistance that got her confined to house arrest for 15 years.

Suu Kyi is Buddhist, and her resistance is rooted in compassion for her people, but also for those who confined her and who oppress the people of her nation – compassion that she learned and developed from her Buddhist practice.  But compassion is taught by other great world religions as well.  In fact, compassion might be one of the values that all great religions teach.

The sacred writings of our Jewish ancestors teach compassion, as in this passage from the biblical book of Leviticus (we might actually learn to like Leviticus!):

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

The text commands compassion for aliens – foreigners in the land of Israel – because the people of Israel were once aliens themselves in Egypt.  The immigration laws of this country are not necessarily based on religious teachings, but all citizens of this country who claim to be Jewish or Christian should consider how they treat immigrants and aliens.  If our legal system does not treat them with love and compassion, then we should be doing something personally to show them love and compassion.

The New Testament book of Hebrews counsels:

Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)

We are to remember those who suffer as if we were suffering with them.  That is compassion.

Our gospel lesson this morning – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus – is curious.  At the beginning of the story, Jesus does not seem to be very concerned for his friend Lazarus and his sisters.  But when he finally goes to see them, he is moved to tears by their grief.  He models compassion.

John Philip Newell writes that Aung San Suu Kyi follows a three-fold path of compassion related to her Buddhist practice – a path that can help us as well.  The three parts of the path all involve courage: the courage to see; the courage to feel; and the courage to act.

The courage to see.  Seeing suffering is hard.  It takes courage.  One of the most difficult things I have experienced in ministry is to be with those who are suffering – especially when I feel like there is nothing I can do to ease their suffering.  Visiting those who are dealing with serious health issues, facing the end of their life, or experiencing terrible grief – I feel like I have to work up my courage to visit people in those situations.

I know I am not alone.  Many people who get diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses find that some of their friends are unable to visit them.  It isn’t that they don’t care – it is just hard to see suffering and to feel helpless.

I don’t know how people who work in refugee camps do it.  But the courage to see is the first step towards compassion.

The second step on the compassion path is the courage to feel.  In those times when we are reluctant to see suffering because we feel powerless, perhaps the best, most helpful thing we can do is to just feel what those who suffer feel – with them.  When Jesus came to see Mary and Martha in their grief, and the many mourners with them, the story says that he wept.  He shared their grief – even though he knew he would soon raise Lazarus from death.

One of the powerful films I remember seeing many years ago is a film titled “Resurrection.” (1980)  Ellen Burstyn plays Edna Mae Macaulay — a woman who survives a terrible car crash that kills her husband.  She has a near-death experience herself, but she returns to life and eventually heals.  But she discovers that afterwards she has a gift for healing – which causes a lot of suspicion and disbelief and even hostility towards her from others.  In one scene, she attempts to heal a woman whose body has been rigid in a fetal position for a long time, with doctors unable to help.  And she tries to do this while being observed by many doctors and scientists.  In her attempt to heal the suffering woman, Edna Mae climbs into bed with the woman and just holds her – and in the process begins to take on the same muscle paralysis that afflicts the woman.  But then, she is slowly able to relax both her body and the body of the suffering woman, and healing results.

The courage to feel is the courage to share in suffering, and it is very powerful – very healing.

I might add to this part of the compassion path – although Aung San Suu Kyi does not specifically mention it – is the courage to understand.  In this time of political division, it takes courage to turn from just hurling anger and insults at those with whom we disagree, and instead try to understand the fears and anxiety and grief that drive their beliefs.  And then it takes courage to share our feeling and beliefs.  We may not change their minds, but we may build relationships based on compassion.

And then, there is the courage to act.  John Philip Newell points to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan as a story of someone who had the courage to see, and to feel, and to act – by going out of his way to take an injured man to a place where he could heal and recover, and even to pay for it.

I wonder if it took courage for Jesus to heal Lazarus.  I would never try that stunt, because I would be thinking, “What happens if I try this and fail?  How foolish would I look?”

We may feel very small – very insignificant compared to the great conflicts and tragedies that afflict our world.  It is easy to say, “Why bother?”  Aung San Suu Kyi says instead, “Don’t just stand there despairing… Do something.”  “Just continue to do what you believe is right… Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own.”

Newell concludes this chapter with these words: “We may not all be called onto the world stage of political action.  But each one of us has a critical role to play in our families, our personal relationships, our religious communities.  No one else can play that role of compassion for us.  Do we know this, that each one of us is essential?”

Do you want to deepen your spiritual life?  Do you long for the rebirth of God in our world?  Reconnect with compassion: the courage to see, the courage to feel, the courage to act.


Robert J. von Trebra

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Reconnecting with the Light

Category : Archived


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

John 9:1-41 (Jesus heals a man born blind)


If you haven’t been with us these past few Sunday of Lent, this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives.  So we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.”  Some of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship.  It notes some of the big changes that are happening in the Christian faith right now.  Actually, God isn’t dead; but Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives.  And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, and the journey.  Today, we consider “reconnecting with the light.”

Newell shares some beautiful stories of light in this chapter.  But I found myself trying to understand exactly what this light was that he wanted us to see and reconnect with.  Maybe it is something he has caught a glimpse of, but struggles to describe to those who can’t yet see it.  It is difficult to describe light or color to someone who has been blind from birth.  Maybe I, like the blind man that Jesus healed, need to gain my sight.

What Newell describes seems to be a life force – a force of beauty and possibility in living things.  Maybe it is similar to the spirit or breath from God that gives life.  One of the creation stories in Genesis says that God created the first human being by taking dust from the ground and blowing breath – spirit – into it, giving it life.

Celtic spirituality, in which Newell’s faith has been shaped, sees this essence of life in all living things.  It was most evident in Jesus.

But Newell also sees this light in non-living matter.  It seems to be the energy of creation – of the original Big Bang that brought the world into being.  It is the light of heaven penetrating into this material world.

There is a version of Christian theology that is based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead – an early 20th century English mathematician and philosopher.  It is known as Process Theology, and although I have never studied it in depth, some parts that I have read about have been very thought-provoking and helpful for me in trying to understand our world and where God fits into it.

Whitehead believed that everything is in process – always changing.  Even those things that seem pretty inert – like rocks (any good geologist will tell you that rocks do change!).  He proposed that at every single moment, the world that is, and everything in it, is passing away – going out of existence – but is then replaced by a new world that is being born.  Similar, but different from what preceded it.  The new world that is coming into being is affected by what came before, and perhaps even restricted by the ways that matter can change; but the future is full of possibilities.

This idea suggests our universe is something like a motion picture.  Each frame is slightly different from those that precede and follow it, but they are projected so quickly that the motion and change seem continuous to our eyes.

Our biblical creation stories say that God brought the world into being “in the beginning.”  Scientists say the universe began with a Big Bang more than 14 billion years ago.  But Process Theology suggests that creation was not just a one time, long-ago event.  Instead, creation happens every single moment, bringing a new world into being out of the dying remnants of the old.

Perhaps this ongoing creative process is what Newell senses as the light – and marvels at.  It is a recurring miracle in even the most mundane matter – the dust on your feet, the rust on your car.

One of the consequences of Whitehead’s process thought is that death and resurrection are not infrequent events that go against the laws of nature; they are built into the very nature of our existence, and happening all the time.  You have died and been raised to new life countless times since you woke up this morning and had your first cup of coffee!

What we often fail to see in boring matter is that the elements that make it up are quarks and bosons clinging together in atomic nuclei that are always vibrating and boogeying – surrounded by electrons in an unending dance of particles that don’t always act like particles.  Some of these elements were formed in the early aftermath of the Big Bang; others were forged in the cores of ancient stars that have long since died and exploded – scattering their remnants throughout the galaxy.  We are all made of stardust and the remnants of living creatures that have died and returned to dust.  But so are the mountains and the seas.  I think the light that Newell wants us to reconnect with has something to do with the miracle that is ordinary matter – so pervasive that we don’t even notice.  It is an energy that at every moment keeps the universe from collapsing into non-existence.

It is important for us to find time and places where we can reconnect to that light so we can continue to see it when we return to the places we live our lives.  For Newell, that is the island of Iona, or the woods near his house.  Where is it for you?

John Philip Newell seems to be a fan of the poetry of Mary Oliver (he quotes several of her poems in this book).  He writes, “What she (Mary Oliver) is describing is a movement from awareness into open-eyed wonder, and from awe to prayer, and from prayer to adoration.”

But Newell warns us that once we have our eyes opened and our sight restored – once we can see the light that is the divine miracle of ordinary matter, of the earth, of all living things, and of other people – we can become a threat to those who would exploit the earth, its creatures and its people for their own benefit.  That is what got Jesus crucified, and people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mahatma Gandhi assassinated.

John Philip Newell also suggests another dimension of the light he sees and tries to help us to see.  This light is an ability to bless the world with our lives – to offer something creative and constructive for the betterment of others.  I think this is similar to what Christians have called “spiritual gifts” – gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism which are given for the common good.

I think what Newell is finally trying to get to, although he uses different language, is the ancient Christian dichotomy between spirit and matter/flesh.  The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote:

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6)

Many of us have been taught that anything “spiritual” (praying, reading the Bible, worship, etc.) is good; but anything “fleshly” (involving the senses and pleasure, like dancing or having fun or sex) is a source of temptation and therefore sin.

I think that is a misunderstanding of what Paul was trying to communicate.  And I think Newell is trying to correct that idea by noticing that the light – God’s spirit – is everywhere, even penetrating matter and flesh.  It’s all good — when used responsibly – when we recognize the light in all things and all people.

Can our faith in Christ open our eyes to see that – to see the light in all people and all places?  Can we reconnect with that light and change the ways we relate to ourselves and to others?  This is a good day to begin.


Robert J. von Trebra

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Reconnecting with the Journey

Category : Archived


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 19, 2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)

John 4:5-42 (The story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman meeting at a well)


The title of the book we have been discussing during Lent is “The Rebirthing of God,” but author John Philip Newell is really writing about a need for the rebirthing of the Christian faith.  God is still alive; we’ve just lost touch with him/her.  And so Newell calls for “reconnecting” with God/Spirit/The Ground of our Being/Source of Love, etc.  Today, we “reconnect with the journey.”

Journey.  I think many people over the centuries have thought about the Christian life as a destination.  The point is to get baptized/saved/get your ticket to heaven, and then to just stay there.  Don’t slip away.  But it turns out that our spiritual life is a journey.

Maybe that is why so many Christians go on pilgrimages – sacred journeys.  John Philip Newell served as the Warden of Iona Abbey on the Scottish island of Iona – a place where many pilgrims visit.  He writes in the book about the founder of Iona – an Irish monk names Columba who journeyed to the strange land of Scotland in the 6th century and founded the religious community on Iona.

There are also folks who think of life as a destination.  Get a job and family and a safe place to live, and then keep everything there.  But nothing ever stays put forever.

I love journeys.  My idea of heaven is a road trip – preferably with skis or golf clubs.  My time here has been a pretty good journey.

It turns out the Bible is filled with all kinds of journey stories: Abram’s journey to a new land; the escape from bondage in Egypt; wandering in the wilderness for forty years on the way to the Promised Land; the exile to Babylon and the return to Jerusalem; Jesus’ journey to the cross; Paul’s voyage to Rome to take the gospel to the heart of the Empire.  The people of faith may rest for a little while (like at a well in Samaritan country), but they are usually on the move.

I think that is a very helpful image or metaphor for our spiritual lives.  It is not about achieving perfection, or total peace, or having all mysteries figured out; it is about moving and growing and traveling together with God and with others.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, we welcome and want you here.

I think God likes to journey as well.  In the beginning of the Bible, God walks through the Garden of Eden, talking with  Adam.  When the Hebrew people were wandering in the wilderness, camping along the way, God would travel with them and camp with them in a tent.  But eventually the people tried to tie God down, locking her up in the inner chamber of the temple in Jerusalem.  I guess we like our God to stay put.

So where are you on your spiritual journey?  Just starting out?  Heading for a land flowing with milk and honey?  Lost and wandering?  Stuck far from home?  Just following the road ahead, putting one foot in front of the other?  No matter where you are, God is with you; God is at work.  There are things to be learned; there are other travelers there as well.

John Philip Newell invites us to reconnect with the journey.  And he sees two important dimensions to our spiritual journeys.  The first is “through a journey into the forgotten and unknown depths of our own souls and traditions.”  And then he continues, “It will also include an outward journey into the neglected lands and undiscovered territories of other ways of seeing and other religious inheritances.” (p. 43)

In the forgotten and unknown depths of our own souls, Newell invites us to rediscover that we are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), or to quote the English mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived six centuries ago, we are made “of God.”  There is great beauty in us.  Although, I would temper or qualify that by saying that there are a lot of people in our world who do not live in loving, creative, godly ways – including me, sometimes.  I would be more likely to say that as we journey into our own souls, we may discover that we are like a beautiful, antique silver tea set – that needs some polishing.  Or maybe like a rough diamond that needs to be cut and polished.

Newell tells the story of the Scottish Jesuit priest Gerald W. Hughes, who introduces himself at conferences by saying, “Hello, I’m Gerry, a unique manifestation of the Divine.”

Turn to your neighbor and introduce yourself: “Hello, I’m [name], a unique manifestation of the Divine.”

Many of Newell’s spiritual heroes and heroines seem to be those Christians who journeyed to strange lands – not as missionaries, but as pilgrims.  A missionary is one who brings the gospel to a new land, trying to convince the residents there of the superiority of the Christian faith (or forcing them to accept it).  But Newell sees pilgrims as those who offer their own gifts as a blessing to others, but are also open to receiving the gifts that new land and culture have to offer.

Jesus went through Samaria as a pilgrim.  He offered his gifts: living water, the sustaining food of doing God’s will, himself.  But he did not force them on the Samaritan woman.  And he was received as a guest by the Samaritan community.

What a different history we might have if Christians had been pilgrims rather than conquerors!

But this is Newell’s challenge to a rebirthed Christianity: can we move into a new phase of our history; a new way of relationship with the world?  Can we be open to the gifts of other religions?  Jewish, Samaritan (there is still a small community of Samaritans in the middle-East), Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others?  Newell believe this is essential – a new leg of our journey.

It is a journey from where our ego – our need to be right – is at the center of our lives, to where we can serve the Center and truly encounter one another.

This congregation has been open to learning about, and even incorporating the gifts and the wisdom of other religious traditions.

But perhaps the most important group of people today that needs some Christian pilgrims to journey to them and with them are those who claim to have no religion at all – the “nones,” as they are sometimes called (almost 23% of Americans in 2014).  The folks who have not grown up with any religious tradition whatsoever, and who see no real need for one.

But meeting and learning about these people will require a very different way of being a Christian community or church in the years ahead of this.  These people will probably not come here – to our church building for a worship service.  It will be up to us to become pilgrims, finding ways to journey into an unknown territory – with a willingness to listen to and learn from the people we meet there.  That will be a good topic to discuss with your new pastor in the years to come.  This congregation is, I believe, better able to make that trip than many churches are.

John Philip Newell concludes this chapter with a ritual or spiritual practice from the Iona Abbey.  Visitors are invited to go to the bay where St. Columba landed more than 14 centuries ago – the Bay of New Beginnings it is called – and take two of the ancient stones worn by the sea.  The first stone represents something to be left behind, and it is thrown away.  The second stone represents something that is yearned for, and it is held close and taken back home.  We don’t have an ocean bay nearby, but there are plenty of rocks in the hills around us.  Maybe you might take a hike into the mountains to find a couple of rocks, and reconnect with the journey.


Robert J. von Trebra

The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France

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