Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My note to FCC-Valpo for this weekend

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 175th Anniversary
Valparaiso, Indiana

"Good to be done more abundantly"

To look at our history as a congregation, I'd like to start somewhere about in the middle, just to keep us thinking about history as something more than just a series of dates and an orderly sequence of events. Life rarely feels like an orderly sequence of events when you live it, and it's the life of this congregation I'd like to help celebrate this summer more than our history. 

In "The Life of A.B. Maston," published just two years after his death at 54 in the year 1907, there is the following note about 1878:

"Valparaiso has, besides the City College, a flourishing Normal School, said to be the largest in the United States. Has about 1,200 pupils. The school is under the superintendence of Prof. H. B. Brown, a member of the Christian Church. While in Valparaiso, we visited the Normal School during chapel service, where we met over 600 pupils, who observed the most marked order during the services . . . We met Bro. A. B. Maston, a young man of fine natural abilities and good attainments, who will finish his course in the Normal School this year. Bro. Maston expects to enter upon the work of the ministry in full. A congregation wishing the services of a young man would do well to call him."

In fact, he ended up called not so much to a congregation as to a continent, and became one of Australia and New Zealand's foremost evangelists. You can read more about him at: http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/people/amaston.html

"People's minds in this county are taken up with the truth, and are searching the Scriptures to see if the things of which we speak are so." So said the article in Alexander Campbell's "Millenial Harbinger" about what was going on in Porter County, Indiana, at the county seat of Valparaiso, on June 22, 1837.

The August 1837 issue went on to state "there is great prospect for good to be done more abundantly."

Campbell himself never came to Valparaiso, but he did dedicate the Christian Church in Wooster, Ohio, from which came Elias & Phoebe Axe. The Axe family name is still remembered with honor at First Christian Church in Wooster, and Elias & Phoebe of that clan came to northern Indiana not long after, with "the principles of Restoration" still fresh in their hearts. Those were central to the establishment of this new congregation, and the Axes carried into this body of believers the outlines of what they had learned from Campbell and the early Disciples' preachers.

What they began shifted about in a variety of locations close to downtown Valparaiso, and most recently has found a home on Glendale Boulevard, but is centered now as then on the communion table. A table to which all are invited, but away from which some carry a calling, a commission to go out and tell others about this open banquet of God's grace. Or as Sri Lankan theologian D.T. Niles said, "Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread."

Bread has been found, and good has been done abundantly, at First Christian Valpo. My own memories of this congregation don't go back 175 years, they go two thousand, and more. When I think of First Christian, I think of home baked bread, bing cherry jello salad and deviled eggs on the long pitch-in tables just inside the kitchen doors off of Fellowship Hall, and we kids playing (during programs for adults) up in the coat room, where the brick foundations of the high tower above sloped inwards, brick by brick, like an Egyptian temple. It felt ancient and mysterious and downright Biblical.

We ran haunted houses through that mysterious room, hid from junior choir directors in there, tied knots during Troop 7 meetings around the heavy pipe racks, and even occasionally hung coats from hangers in there.

Our history, at least by way of the Bible, goes back at least to Exodus and watching "The Ten Commandments" in a Sunday school classroom, and as a small child I thought of Rev. Percy Thomas as a patriarch from the prophetic books; Rev. Tom Alston talked about working in the pickle factory when he was young like the Hebrews spoke of making bricks without straw. The historic and the contemporary were casually entwined for me in growing up as part of a church family.

I think of Christmas baskets delivered, with bread and more, to home bound members, and others whose names had come to the attention of the elders, and then a pageant in the sanctuary when the brightly colored windows were dark; it was the crowns of the wise men, looking *exactly* like those worn at the stable in Bethlehem, that cast flashes of light and hue across the polished wooden pews with the glitter of their marvelous fake jewels and carefully wrapped foil. Their brocaded robes and gently cradled gifts were messages directly to me from across the ages and the pages of the gospels, promises of God having even more to say when I learned how to hear.

Nowhere did God's voice seem clearer than at communion, if only with the words across the front of the table: "This Do In Remembrance of Me." There is a promise of bread in the grain framing the grapes in the Benham Room windows under the balcony at the back of the church, those elements of communion being the only actual images shown in the geometry of the stained glass, other than the Holy Bible perched atop the south wall. Communion was real, and nothing made it more real than the Sundays when you knew, looking at the nested tower of communion ware, that the elements were there because you and your family had put them there, either that morning or the evening before. Bread, in the form of small rectangles of inedible off-white something, was always carefully poured out into the smaller plates as we filled the larger cup holders with small glasses of grape juice right out to the edges.

Sharon Watkins, our current Disciples' General Minister and President, and former neighbor minister down the road at Boone Grove, likes to tell a story about something she learned from a neuroscientist. "Where is the edge of your brain?" she asks. It turns out that it isn't a horizon in your skull, but your brain extends through your nervous system, and in fact the edges of it extend to your outstretched fingertips.

"Where is the edge of the church?" Dr. Watkins continues. For First Christian Valpo, it turns out that our fingertips, our extensions of contact and touch and feeling reach as far as Australia & New Zealand; to Bethany, West Virginia by way of Wooster, Ohio; and an odd assortment of other places we've gotten our fingers into. Our Timothys and Eunices are in congregations around the United States, and our influence extends even into other denominations . . . but if you grew up at First Christian, you still look to the Table for your focus, for your center, for a place where you can count on being welcome.

And we carry forth our welcome, our invitation to God's table, into homeless shelters and jail ministries, through regional & general assemblies to our fellow Disciples, as part of food pantries and Mother's Days Out; at World Jamborees of the Scouting Movement, with retirees to the Rio Grande Valley and the Smoky Mountains, among Civil War re-enactors and pilots and police officers and nurses and college professors and steelworkers.

As one of First Christian's Timothys, I have an ordination certificate on my office wall with signatures on it like Irene Roeder, C.D. Clover, William Eckert, and Ronald Gill. My service of ordination was almost but not quite at 7 Chicago Street, since by August of 1989 the building had been condemned, but not yet brought down . . . so our worship was in a large tent in the west yard across the alley. We had more Scout uniforms than robes, and folding chairs instead of pews, and canvas in place of stained glass, but it was still First Christian Valpo in worship: because the Good News was proclaimed, and the Table was shared. Everyone was invited, and we ate and drank and gave thanks. Then, we left.

To share the bread, we have to break the loaf, and distribute the pieces. You can't have your cake and eat it, too; you also can't just set a lovely loaf up on a shelf and expect it to just sit there. It's meant to be broken, and eaten. And then it finds new life in we who partake. When we worship, it continues in a new way after the benediction, as the body that has been gathered, and formed, is dispersed. Are we still a church then? Yes. Just as a loaf of bread has meaning even after – maybe especially after – every scrap of it has been eagerly eaten by hungry people.

Then, that loaf of bread is at work in and through those who ate it, who are thereby empowered to go out and do what needs to be done. Maybe even doing some good more abundantly. That's what our history at First Christian Valpo is about: we know where bread, the Bread of Life, can be found, and we want to share it, and we want to make use of what that Bread does in us, "for good to be done more abundantly."

In grace and peace,
Rev. Jeff Gill
Granville, OH

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