Ravin Rev, 09/14/2018

“We are marching in the light of God” – South African Hymn

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down your life for another.” – John 15:13

This past week marked the 17th anniversary of 9-11. There are a number of images from that day I cannot forget. Watching the plane fly into one of the towers; the apocalyptic smoke billowing into the sky and streets; the collapse of the towers as they come tumbling down. All these images are burned into my memories of that horrible day.

But the one image that continues to take ahold of me was a news video taken as the first responders came upon the scene of the burning towers. As the firemen approach the burning towers walking together carrying hoses and axes and oxygen tanks, it is their faces I remember. The video shows them looking up at the smoking towers and their eyes reflect the fear one would expect to see at the immensity, at the danger, they would be confronting climbing up those stairs to save as many people as possible. But you cannot escape the sense of resolve in those eyes as well. The courageous determination as they marched together, step by step, into the blazing inferno that would take many of their lives.

In this day and time of discord and dysfunction, it is this image that sticks with me reminding me of the best of our humanity. Men and women of all ages and races and creeds marching together to save their fellow human beings trapped in those towers. In tragedy, that the best of our humanity comes forth despite the fear; despite the chaos; and despite the danger. We easily forget this at times when politicians seek to use fear to divide us from one another and the “Other.” That video image of those first responders will always be for me a resounding challenge to this cynical practice. That on the day when we saw the worst of hateful ideology, we saw men and women marching together with courage and determination to save others.

May we march together!

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 08/31/2018

“It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission that has a church in the world.” – Craig Van Gelder

Our call is to connect to God, to connect to each other, and to connect to the “Other.” – Heartland Mission Statement

“The Church has left the building” – Heartland T-Shirt

What does it mean to be the church? This is one of those questions we assume should have a simple and clear answer. In fact, we are likely to have a wide variety of answers to this question reflected in our own values, priorities, and past experiences of the church. One answer might emphasize worship; another may focus on fellowship; and still others center on local mission to the most vulnerable in our society. The reality is that all these answers are right and wrong. They are right in the sense of describing things the church does yet wrong in that they don’t really answer the central question. What do we mean by describing ourselves as the church?

The church is and has always been a community of people. At times we might say I am going to church, yet this assumes church is a place we go to, a building where we gather. The church is not a location; it is you in relationship with God, and with each other, and with the “Other.” It is one of the quirks of being a Pastor that people feel they have to apologize to me when they haven’t been coming to church because of kid’s sports events, or vacations, or just needing a day off from their busy schedules. I always remind people that Presbyterians are about grace and not guilt. More and more I want to remind folks that they have been the church as much out in the world as when they gather on a Sunday morning.

The church is a mission. There are ministries and missions that we can do together better than on our own. This is a good thing. But the truth is that every day you are engaging in ministry and mission where you are whether at work or at the dinner table or attending a community meeting. You are the mission in the world!

The church is not a building. Our beautiful building serves as a tool of our ministry and mission. It is the place we gather to worship together (even as we are called to worship everyday); it is a place we educate ourselves and our children in discipleship (even as we are called to discipleship everyday); and it is even a space for mission where Boy Scouts, support groups, community organizations, and various people find a space to do their work. The building is not the church, it is a tool of this community to be the church in the world. Our new T-Shirts are a fun symbol of our connection to the Heartland community. But even more than that, the words on the back of the shirts are a reminder to us all that we are the people of God out in the world every day of the week and in every place, God has called us to be whether at home, work, or neighborhood.

Grace & Peace,
Rev. P. Alex Thornburg

Ravin Rev, 07/31/2018

“The greatest thing that you can do is to help someone know that they are loved and capable of love.”    – Fred Rogers

I recently went to see the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the life and work of Fred Rogers. Growing up, I was a little too old (barely) to have watched his show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” which was nationally syndicated in 1968. I was more into Batman and Spiderman cartoons rather than this low production children’s program with hand puppets and simple songs. Yet somehow, I still knew the words to the famous song that opened every show.

What struck me in the documentary is the way Fred Rogers interacted with the children in the show and in real life. Rogers disliked how children’s television at the time was so kitschy, more about pies in the face and slapstick than anything else. Rogers treated all children with respect seeing them as fully formed people who had struggles and serious questions about the world and their place in that world.  His show was famous for addressing such questions as divorce, war, and racism.

Many people may not know that Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained as an evangelist. We may find that odd since he never mentioned church or religion in any of his shows as people often view evangelism as recruitment for heaven or at least the church. In fact, the Greek word for evangelism simply means sharing good news. Fred Rogers was a far cry from the televangelists and “Health and Wealth gospel” peddlers we find these days.

Fred Rogers shared the good news of Grace. You are loved and are capable of loving. His was not a complicated theological construct that required an allegiance to a particular statement of faith or specific group. He shared the good news that you are loved and are capable of loving others with the children he talked with and listened to each and every day.

We are evangelists also when through our daily living and interactions with others we simply share the good news with the people we meet that they are loved, and they are capable of loving others. We are called to share this good news with our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, and the strangers we meet along the way. In a way, every day we should be inviting everyone around us, “Won’t You Be my Neighbor?”

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 07/13/2018

One of the most impactful spiritual experiences of my life growing up in the church was a gathering every summer sponsored by the Synod of the Sun where youth and adults would gather on the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio for a week-long workshop of play, worship, and small groups. As the years have gone by (too many years!), I have come to realize that what made this a deeply meaningful event was the simple experience of community together.

All of us could likely identify those spiritual highs in our life as being connected to an experience of community in some form or another. It is in community that we are accepted and loved for who we are. It is in community we are accountable for extending this same acceptance to others. In other words, community is where Grace comes alive for us all.

I am more and more convinced that the root of our dysfunction and disillusionment in our politics and society today is a loss of community and a sense of the common good. In 1985 Robert Bellah in his book “Habits of the Heart” foreshadowed these struggles in our hyper- individualistic nation to find and build community. In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” shared the alarming decline of social participation in the various communities/groups/institutions that undergird a connected society (Kiwanis Clubs, Bridge Groups, churches, bowling leagues, etc.) This collapse of the common good has been coming for quite a long time.

To be clear, I am not trying to evoke a sense of community rooted in some mythology of the past where we imagine our society in the good old days. The truth is that one of the underlying dysfunctions of community in our past has been the intentional exclusion of women and people of color. True community does not simply tolerate diversity, it embraces it!

The challenge in these divided days is how to create and find community. Our trust in the “Other” is almost nonexistent and we find ourselves feeling unsafe in our conflicting disagreements about the common good. One strategy has been to adopt the age-old strategy of not talking about religion or politics. This might get us through the day without the discomfort of disagreement, but it doesn’t really lead to the common good we all yearn for in our society.

Peter Bloch describes community as a conversation. Maybe the way forward is to start by having a conversation together as risky and challenging as that may seem. Maybe the first tentative step towards the realization of the common good comes by simply staring to talk with each other. If we don’t start, then who will?

Grace and Peace,
P. Alex Thornburg

Ravin Rev, 06/28/2018

“Nothing human is alien to me.” These words were written by a Roman
slave named Terrance, a playwright, around 160 years before the birth of
Jesus. These ancient and wise words express something essential about
the human condition/community. Despite the many ways we may divide
ourselves into tribes of color and creed and country, we are all essentially
human. No matter how much we may deny anther person’s humanity by
labeling them alien or vermin, we cannot escape our shared connection
on this planet. No matter how much I may find myself struggling to
comprehend another’s worldview, nothing human is ever, really, alien to
me.

One of the assertions in our faith tradition is that Jesus was both fully
divine and fully human. We have tended to focus on Jesus divinity
while ignoring the meaning of his humanity. In Jesus, we have both the
expression of what it means to be fully human and the very sacredness of
that humanity. In other words, Jesus was a sacred humanist!
One cannot read the gospels without bumping into the reality of Jesus
essential humanism. He welcomed/embraced/loved the humanity in all
kinds of people from the unclean to the unrepentant; from the leper to the
leaders in the temple; from the Samaritan to those labeled sinners. Jesus
did not shy away from confronting the injustices of those in power, but he
did so by striving to remind them of their own shared humanity.
As we live into this day filled with words of division and alienation, we are
called to the way of Jesus, a sacred humanism, that stands for justice and
peace honoring the humanity in all of us. We must seek to live out those
words written thousands of years ago – nothing human is alien to me.

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 06/15/2018

By the time you have received this, I will already be in St. Louis for the General Assembly meeting. It starts for me with an early meeting on Friday, the 15th, of “The Way Forward” committee. Delegates are arbitrarily assigned to committees and this was the one I was lucky enough to get. At first, I was excited about the committee as it sounded right down my alley. You would think the “Way Forward” committee would be about visioning and outside the box thinking as we move into the future God is creating for us as a church. Much to my chagrin, it seems the discussion focuses on the establishment of a corporation to distribute and manage the resources for the various boards of the national church. Radical, right!

Actually, it is a little more complicated than that but essentially it is one more committee recommending the creation of another committee. How Presbyterian is that! (You know the old joke: When two Presbyterians gather together they form three committees.) Hopefully it will be more than simply rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, but we will have to see.

My weekend will involve a number of worship opportunities from the Opening Worship on Saturday morning to a special opportunity Sunday morning to go out and worship with local congregations in the St. Louis area. One of the things I am most looking forward to is singing and praying and dancing (maybe?) with Presbyterians from all over the United States and the world.

The other big thing this weekend is the election of our new moderator(s) who will serve a two-year term. There are a number of candidates and I will try and give you an update after the election. My hope in the coming week is to send you all some reflections on my experience. I cannot promise too much as I will be in meetings about 10 to 12 hours a day, but I will try. Pray for me!

Grace and Peace,

Alex

Ravin Rev, 06/01/2018

I have the joy of being elected as a delegate to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting this month (June 15-23) in St. Louis, Missouri. For those of you who don’t remember your Presbyterian polity (which I cannot imagine would be any of you!), the General Assembly (GA) is a national gathering of Presbyterians from all over the country coming together every two years to vote on overtures (motions or proposals) from Presbyteries (the local judicatory of the church). I have been elected as a Teaching Elder (Minister) along with a Ruling Elder (Lay person) to represent the Des Moines Presbytery (about 54 churches in our area) at this Assembly. There will be a Pop Quiz this Sunday!

Now many of you have heard me say that my definition of Hell is a Presbytery meeting that never ends. You may be wondering why I might actually be excited to go to GA particularly as a delegate who will be meeting every day (for about 10-12 hours a day) discussing the work of the church. I am not a Presbyterian Polity Geek (Yes, they do exist in the church, and I even claim some of them as friends) as I barely passed my Polity ordination exam. What excites me is the synergy of gathering hundreds of committed Presbyterians together to worship, discuss, debate, pray, study, and vote together. Somehow, I think the Holy Spirit shows up in the midst of it all.

Some of the overtures coming to the GA are mundane but important. There is an overture to examine our practice of per capita as a source of funding for the church (I swear I had this idea years ago); there are a number of overtures to include Family leave in Terms of Call for Pastors; overtures to redraw boundaries in Synods; and an overture to change some of our national leadership structures. Exciting stuff, right?

Yet there are other overtures wrestling with the many issues in our society. There are overtures concerning immigration and refugees; overtures addressing the conflicts in the Middle East; overtures around gender identity; overtures speaking to gun violence; and a large number of overtures wrestling with racism and becoming a “Transformative Church in this Intercultural Era.” This is fun stuff!

In many ways, Heartland Church is giving my time and energy as part of your stewardship to the larger church. I hope that I will be able to periodically post to our website (we will see how much time I have) my experiences at this GA so that you can glimpse the larger church at work. It actually may make you quite proud (but not sinfully so) of our church. And there will be a Pop Quiz when I get back.

Grace and Peace,

Alex

 

June 2017

I have just returned after a couple of days with some of our youth in Chicago on their mission trip. Our group (Robert Pike, Katy Pike, Maia Klein, Ari Cutler, Ethan Giles along with Steve Dressel) is working hard and beautifully representing our church community. They are being hosted by an organization called DOOR. DOOR is a faith–based network that provides opportunities for service, learning, and leadership opportunities within the urban context. They have offices in various cities such as Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. They are inviting young people to “see the face of God in the city.”

For the two days I was with them, we worked at a community garden and a food pantry for people with HIV/AIDS. While we interacted with various people, what struck me the most were the many volunteers we worked with at each of the sites. I was awed and amazed by their commitment each day to embody God’s love in their service.

At the community garden we met Robert and Pat who daily work in gardens in the middle of the city. Chicago has formed these gardens out of abandoned lots that more often than would be dumping grounds for refuse and illegal activities. They have made these beautiful gardens with flowers, and shrubs, and vines, and trees, and growing vegetables. A place of natural beauty and wonder in the midst of the city. Much of the joy was getting to know Robert and Pat who shared their passion for gardening and creating a better neighborhood. Robert had served in the army for over twenty years including a fifteen-month tour in Iraq. He suffers from PTSD and finds the gardening helps soothe his soul. Pat has been tending these neighborhood gardens in Chicago for over twenty years.

At the food pantry for HIV/AIDS victims, we met Kelli, RaChelle, and Maddie who work weekly if not daily at the pantry. Kelli is a college graduate about to start nursing school. RaChelle is a retired African American woman with a funny sense of humor. And Maddie was a 95-year-old volunteer who delighted us with her spunk and spirit. It was a joy to work with them throughout the day.

In the world today filled with its darkness, anger, and conflict, it is saints like these who give me hope. They make a difference through their commitment every day to touch another person’s life. It may be through the cultivation of a beautiful flower or handing out a can of soup, but these people make the world better through their service. One of the places I saw the face of God in the city was in their faces!

These People Are Crazy

12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:12-13

One of my favorite memories as a child was visiting with my grandparents and going to their church. My grandparents lived in public housing in downtown Dallas in a small apartment. With the innocence of a child, I was unaware they didn’t have much as they had been tenant farmers their whole life. But whenever we went to stay with them, my grandmother would hide candy all over the apartment, and my sister and I would race to find these treasures. On Sunday mornings, we would get up and have biscuits and gravy and then head to their church. Their worship was in a small store front with about thirty people or so. I didn’t know what it meant at that time, but they were Pentecostal.

What I did know was their worship was quite different from what I experienced at my church. At various points in the service someone would stand and shake and start speaking in tongues. They would hold their hands in the air and dance in the aisles. Some would even “faint in the spirit.” I just remember being fascinated by it all. But even at that young age I was Presbyterian enough to think to myself – “These people are crazy!”

Over the years I have come to appreciate that experience as a child. Whenever I read the story of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the image of my Grandparents church comes to my mind. I have loved worship in my Presbyterian church growing up with its beautiful liturgy, meaningful music, and thoughtful reflectiveness. Yet my grandparents church had something that challenged my stolid and serious sense of God. They were so free in their joy no matter their life circumstances.

To me the Holy Spirit is about being set free to dance and sing and celebrate life. Pentecost is letting go of what confines us; it is setting aside expectations; and it is being so free in the moment that one cannot help but shout one’s experience of God. I yearn for such moments in my self-conscious way of being in the world. This Pentecost season, I pray that we all may find those times when the Spirit comes and we forget ourselves and we are set free to dance.

Ekram’s Story

“Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Luke 16:26

This past week I was in a Bible study with a number of folks in the Presbytery including Ekram Kachu, who is pastoring the 1st Arabic Worshipping Community. Ekram preaches to this community of Sudanese refugees as well as ministers to the larger refugee community here in Des Moines. She does amazing work witnessing to Jesus through her compassionate ministry not only to Christians but to Muslims as well. I am always enlightened by her perspectives on Biblical texts each week.

We were studying the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), a challenging biblical text that raises particularly troubling questions for those of us more easily identified with the rich man than poor Lazarus.
In the course of our discussion, she spoke of how her community was feeling much fear these days. She shared how many of her people have been having painful and degrading encounters with different people in grocery stores and restaurants. The common denominator being an experience of alienation and dismissal expressed in rude words and actions.

She shared a personal story that had happened within the past week. She, her twelve-year-old daughter, and some Sudanese friends were going to the store and, after waiting for another car to leave, pulled into a parking space. As they entered the store, an older white man accosted them and physically took hold of her daughter. He yelled at them that they had taken his parking space. He told them they should “Leave the country and go back home.”

I found myself filled with various emotions. Shocked and flabbergasted that something like this happens in Des Moines. Anger at how someone can treat another human being in such a way. But most of all, grief that we now live in a place and time where an atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and antagonism towards the “Other” causes some of the most vulnerable in our communities to live in fear.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by Ekram’s story. Recently we have had racist chants at a local High School Basketball game; a tweet by a prominent politician stating “we cannot restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”; and a note left at a mosque in Des Moines that warns them that we “will do to them what Hitler did to the Jews.”

I would like to think these are isolated incidences reflective of fringe elements of our society. But that perspective reflects more my position of privilege where I can dismiss such stories without really changing anything. It maintains a great chasm between me and the “Other” whether they be an immigrant or a Muslim. That attitude does not honor Ekram’s story.

Maybe the best way to honor such a story and begin to cross the divide that exists in our communities is to embrace her story and let that story change us. Ekram honors her own story as she continues to compassionately care for her immigrant community despite living in a time of fear. There are people who honor such a story by not silently standing by when others shame immigrants. We need to honor such a story by seeking out the refugee and immigrant among us and truly listening to their story. In this way, we make Ekram’s story our story.