First Baptist bids farewell to Naomi Schultz, whose time as a Minister in Training ended in January.
Many of you now know that I will be leaving your service as a “Minister-in- Training” at the end of January. It has been a genuine delight and privilege to serve with you, and I am sad to leave you. I have been deeply happy while participating in the life of your community, and it is primarily my health that leads me to step away from continuing at FBC this spring. In conversation with Rick, Tripp, and other mentors at seminary, I discerned that I wish to cut back on some commitments, do some necessary self-care in managing a chronic illness, and focus on studying and fulfilling my ordination requirements with the United Church of Christ. But I will miss you for you are, and have been, a deeply fun crew to work with. You have been patient with my growing edges, supportive of new things I wanted to try for the first time, and affirming of my presence with you. I learned much from you, and I am deeply grateful for your hospitality and care over the past 8 months.
Before I go, I would like to lift up that I experience your community as one that is rich in commitment, caring, engagement, and exploration. You are a community that shows up for each other every Sunday – one where lifelong friendships are nurtured and new relationships are forged. In Adult Education I have admired the depth of engagement you bring to discerning how to live out Christian values with integrity in a often cynical and fragmented world. I have also witnessed you take risks and try new things in your journey of discerning your future as a church together, and the yearning for an ever more flourishing and growing community that you carry. I admire your hopes and dreams for the future, but I also want to acknowledge the enormous amount of vibrancy and life that the First Baptist Church community already exudes. It shows in your commitment to working together through conflict, in contemplating and navigating the complex paths of renewal, and in creating space for something new to emerge despite setbacks and uncertainty. I hope and pray that all the great work you are already doing continues, and that it bears the fruit you imagine to be possible.
Speaking of possibility, Emily Dickinson once wrote :
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
It feels to me that FBC is, indeed, dwelling in possibility and gathering the elements of paradise in the process: a paradise of strong relationship, commitment, and vision that lives fully in the now while looking to the future. I look forward to hearing what unfolds in your lives and as a community. May the light of Christ guide your discerning, affirm your care and effort, and fulfill your aspirations.
Deep peace and many blessings,
FBC Seminary Intern
A sermon preached by Naomi Schulz
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Text: Luke 1:46-55: Mary’s Song of Praise – The Magnificat
Opening Prayer: Loving God, as a Hasidic Rabbi once said: “By reading sacred scripture we put your words on our hearts, but only you can put them inside our hearts. When our hearts break, oh Lord, may your holy words fall inside.” Amen.
In Judaism the written words and letters of scripture are called black fire. The written words of black fire are what get passed down unchanged from generation to generation. But the blank spaces between the letters and words is called white fire. White fire is all the stuff that could be in the story, but isn’t. The black fire of Mary’s magnificat sings praise to God who lifts up those who are vulnerable. With black fire she gives thanks for carrying a babe who will become God’s outpouring of love into the world. The black fire speaks to the fulfillment of God’s promises.
In Mary’s Magnificat, God is at work in a deeply personal way that also changes the world. It tells us that we see evidence of God at work in the world when the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are fed. But what about the white fire? I wonder about all that is left unsaid in the story. Mary sang this song of praise during a visit with her cousin Elizabeth. But, I wonder how uncertain Mary felt about her future when she left Nazareth to visit her cousin? I wonder if it was fear that prompted her visit. Perhaps she wanted someone with more experience to help her figure out what to do next. Recognizing God at work in our lives is neither easy, nor comfortable, nor always reassuring – but the black fire of today’s scripture doesn’t mention that part.
When God is working in our lives what does that look like? What does it feel like? Would we recognize it if happened to us? For Barrie Hathaway, the Executive Director of the Stride Center in Oakland, these are not idle questions. He founds his livelihood on answering them. The goal of the Stride Center is to lift people out of poverty through offering free training in cutting edge Information, Communication and Technology skills. A couple weeks ago Barrie told me that students who spend six months getting one technical certification at the Stride Center have a 61% chance of getting an entry level job. That job typically pays 16 to 20 dollars per hour – an income that doubles what many of their trainees are accustomed to earning. Study for three more months to get another credential and you have a 76% chance of finding a job. Add a little work experience and suddenly you have a 90% chance. These numbers make the Stride Center one of the most effective job training programs in the U.S., and It offers folks with histories of incarceration, generational poverty, addiction, or mental or physical disability a real and lasting opportunity for upward mobility.
Looking in from the outside, this looks like God working in a deeply personal way to change in the world. It describes the kind of reversal Mary points to as evidence of God’s presence – a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. For those who succeed, there is indeed enormous potential for blossoming here. But that’s not all there is to this story. The black fire of Barrie’s percentages doesn’t paint the whole story.
Barrie also shared that the Center loses 10% of their students off-the-top because they are too afraid to leave their underpaying jobs – no matter how much training they complete. These folks have been beaten down so repeatedly, Barrie said, that letting go of their poverty wages feels like too big a risk to take. God may make a highway out of the desert, like Isaiah says, but experience teaches us that sometimes folks are too tired, or too scared, to follow it. For Barrie, the ethical invitation here is find ways to breach the gap. He reaches out with all the resources his institution has to offer, he works to bolster and build highways between the support systems of the folks he trains.
Despite years of effort and trial and error, he hasn’t yet found a solution to overcoming the many inhibitions that get in the way of launching the lost 10%. For me, this loss suggests a much wider societal problem – that of an insufficient safety net for protecting the vulnerable among us, and harmful structural inequalities that leave people behind at an early age. Faced with the vulnerability of our individual lives, and structural inequalities that serve to exacerbate such vulnerability rather than overcome it, I cannot help but wonder – as Barrie does – what more could be done to ensure that all of us have the opportunity and the courage to flourish.
At this time of year, our own hurts, fears, sorrows and dysfunctions are often thrown into stark relief with the cheery expectations of the Christmas season. Some of us are too sick to celebrate, some are too sad, and some of us are just plain tired. Its hard to know what to even do with these difficult feelings. It’s hard to know where to put them. Do we slip into isolation where we can keep them to ourselves? Do we throw ourselves into a flurry of activity to keep them from surfacing? No matter how hard we try to hide them, they likely break out in some form or another, often in the least helpful way at the least helpful time. So where do we find the opportunity and courage to flourish even with these difficulties?
In today’s scripture, newly pregnant Mary walked 80 miles from Nazareth in Galilee to a small hill town in Judea to visit her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Mary renewed a connection that offered mutual understanding and support. In uneasy and unexpected circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth encouraged each other, and in doing so they created a Holy Highway for intimacy and rejoicing. They held open a space for each other to flourish in their wildernesses, and we can do the same with and for each other.
Someone asked me a question last week that I’ve never been asked before. It was during an interview for chaplaincy training. After asking me to share what I might do in a hypothetical scenario common in hospital settings, the director of the training program asked me: “What is the positive side of anxiety?” Being deeply familiar with anxiety, I had a ready answer. “It’s highly motivating”, I told him. “What else?”, he asked. I was totally stumped. After an extended pause he asked again: “What good is the I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know running through your head?” I looked at him blankly and told him I gave up. He replied that everyone else in that hospital room probably has exactly the same uncertainty running through their heads, so anything I could I do to put a little container around it would be helpful. “You can offer a glass of water,” he said. Relief poured through me. Ah heck, I thought, I can do that. I’ve done it before. We all have. But something even that simple can be hard to remember in times of stress.
What I like most about this story, and about the Magnificat that arises from Mary’s conversation with Elizabeth, is that they remind us that sometimes our souls most magnify the Lord when we offer each other the equivalent of a glass of water. We are all vulnerable beings and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable together, to let the sorrow and hurt show along with the joy, perhaps we can find a way forward through the wilderness of our lives, the wilderness of of the holiday season, and the wilderness of church renewal.
Barrie, the Director of the Stride Center, is facing the problem of how to help some of America’s most hurt people to relearn just enough vulnerability to accept a well-paying job. A job that they are fully capable of excelling in. Here at First Baptist Church we discern how we can and will be present to ourselves, and to each other, during this often stressful season. May we emerge from that process as a mess of blooming crocuses in the desert.
Many thanks to all who came to the Advent‐Epiphany Brainstorming Party on Sunday, October 27th, after worship. It was a deeply productive session resulting in many great ideas for planning worship this Advent and Christmas season. With twenty‐one such creative and thoughtful folks in the room, it couldn’t have been otherwise!
We began the workshop by exploring how planning worship together is also a way of reflecting on, and lovingly holding, the Christian community we already are and that we hope to become. Picking up the Advent scripture theme of ʺBuilding the House of Godʺ from Isaiah, we talked about how bringing our ideas and gifts to designing worship together is one of many ways we can build our House of God this year. Indeed, already your ideas, creativity, time, energy, and commitment are the bricks and mortar for a potentially very exciting Advent worship season.
We remembered the world in which we live through Douglas Ha sharing his experience and memorable conversion of their family in the refuge camp in Vietnam where missionaries learned their language and lived as they did… Many thanks to Naomi as she enthusiastically led us through brainstorming of how to enrich the worship service to be more meaningful through various media as we enter Advent and Christmas. — Jin and Jane Chin
An unexpected computer virus interrupted my hope of introducing Marcia McFeeʹs ʺWorship Design Studioʺ online platform as a possible tool for helping to organize a worship team. However, if anyone has questions about it, or would like to learn more, please feel free to let your pastoral team know. Some churches find it helpful because it allows worship teams to do creative work without having to attend yet another meeting, but each church finds what works best for them and their particular needs.
We broke into four small groups to brainstorm ideas for each of the Sundays in Advent, and then came together at the end to share our thoughts. Some of the ideas that got us most excited included finding ways of integrating the youth more fully into worship, and incorporating multi‐sensory activities to enrich our Advent and Christmas Eve services. Folks came up with many specific ideas on how to do this that we will incorporate. More details to follow! In the meantime, if any of you have poems, readings, music, visual art, or other ideas youʹd like to contribute to our worship planning for Advent/Christmas, please pass them along to Rick, Tripp, Doug or me and weʹll add them to the creative pot weʹre stirring. Thanks again for all your support and input! It sure was fun, and we look forward to doing it again.
In peace and passion,
Naomi Schultz, Intern
With Advent and Christmas fast approaching, Pastor Rick, Pastor Tripp, and interns Doug and I are working on an Advent planning retreat for Sunday, October 27, beginning with the Adult Spiritual Formation time after worship. Everyone will be invited to come party and plan for the holidays!! It’s gonna be fun!
And while we are thinking about Advent, I’d like to pick up the thread of work you’ve all been doing in exploring new ways of constructing and playing with worship. Last summer I had the wonderful opportunity of interning with Rev. Dr. Marcia McFee’s “Worship Design Studio.” Marcia is a Methodist pastor and consultant known internationally for her innovative interweaving of visual and verbal arts, drama, music, and digital media to create lush and deeply meaning worship. Whether a worship service is simple with just a few elements, or constructed with multiple complex elements, Marcia’s techniques add depth, grace and playfulness to the worship experience.
I’m easy to please when it comes to worship: give me some lovely ancient or modern prayers, the same with music, scripture and a good sermon, and I’m a happy clam. What I appreciate about the approaches of Brad Berglund and Marcia Mcfee, however, is that they give us more tools in our tool box to play with, like ways of integrating the visual arts, and of layering music with both prayer and action. Seasons like Advent and Lent especially lend themselves to trying on something different in worship for a few weeks, and just noticing where it leads us. Some things that we try we might keep, others we let go of because they didn’t move us.
I learned recently that the word “worship” comes from the old English words of “weorth,” which means ʺworth,ʺ and scipe or ship, which means something like shape or ʺquality.ʺ Inherent in both of these old words is a sense of something meaningful – something with worth and quality that shapes our lives and communities. Marcia McFee offers:
When you consider that worship is the portal into the life of your church for visitors and that most of the members of the congregation probably only connect to the church through that one hour of weekly worship, this means that worship has the most impact on the greatest percentage of people…. Meaningful and memorable worship can energize [our] work of discipleship and deepen [our] personal and corporate spiritual journeys. We are all ‘called to ministry’ through our initiation into the church and being even a small part of the work of worship in your community is an answer to that call!
A worship team can be one of the most vibrant and vital discipleship groups in the congregation. It includes bible‐study, theology, artistry, mission, commitment, spiritual direction along with a healthy dose of small group bonding! It can be multigenerational and include those who consider themselves ʺcreativeʺ as well as those who just want to help carry out the tasks needed to serve the church.
Part of my work with First Baptist Church this year will be to draw on all your creative talents when it comes to planning for the seasons of Advent and Lent, with the hope that it will be so fun and fulfilling that there will be energy and desire to continue, with the pastoral team, working on worship together and building a Worship Team.
Details for the Advent Worship Planning Party are in the works! Advent being my favorite time, I can’t wait…. And when it comes, may we all inspire each other to use ancient traditions in fresh ways to proclaim the Good News!
In peace and Passion,