CCC Blog

Three Hopes

This newsletter article will mark my last before beginning my sabbatical.  As you know, I will be in worship this Sunday (Mothers Day, May 14) but then will be stepping away from all day-to-day activities in the church until early August.  I plan to be back in worship on August 6, but not preaching.  I will look forward to being a worshiper alongside you and have the chance to see you all again before resuming my day-to-day work on Monday, August 7. 


I am exceedingly grateful for the tremendous staff and lay leaders we have at Central and I have no doubt that things will proceed in smooth and wonderful ways in my absence.  I also appreciate the fact that Scott Woolridge will be present both throughout the week and on Sunday mornings to provide stability and support to everyone.  Scott will be sending out regular announcements and other pastoral-type correspondence in this column as well as the every-other-week “This Week’s News” email.  The sabbatical committee, under the leadership of Gerri Munos, has done a fantastic job of coming up with an appropriate theme for the summer – “Connection: One God – One Church” and I hope you will pick up one of the booklets we put together outlining some of the theme-based activities that will take place during the next 12 weeks (if you haven’t already). 


One of the ways we can experience connection throughout the sabbatical is by staying connected to worship.  The sabbatical committee has contracted with an amazing group of preachers who are familiar with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and committed to bringing a thought-provoking, challenging and inspiring message each week.  On over half of the Sundays, the pulpit will be filled by two people we already know well – Rev. Scott Woolridge (member of Central and long-time Associate Regional Minister of our region) and our own Pastor Vicky Woolridge.  Of the remaining five, some you may know, some you may not.  Yet each was selected by the committee and Pastor Michael and are coming to Central with great willingness and anticipation. 


We know that the summer always means individuals and families will be out of town on vacations and for other reasons.  But I am asking three (3) things of you as you make your household plans this summer.  Consider these my three (3) hopes for you this summer as it relates to worship at Central:


  1. That you attend worship as often you as you are able.  This is a great opportunity to hear excellent preaching from a variety and diversity of people;
  2. That when you are here, you listen well and strive to leave worship with one (1) take-away you can apply to your faith journey;
  3. That you make sure to go out of your way to greet the guest preachers and thank them for coming.  Central is full of people with welcoming, generous and hospitable spirits.  And we want our guests to feel the full weight of our love when they are here.

Blessings for a summer of wonderful connections— Pastor Michael


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Questions and Answers

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Thomas Merton has been read widely by spiritual seekers across the world for over 60 years.  He was born in France, raised in the United States, and became a Catholic priest before entering a Cistercian monastery in Kentucky in 1941.   Before he died an untimely death in 1968, he was a prolific writer on the spiritual life.


Merton believed the spiritual life is, essentially, seeking the answers to four basic questions.  We all ask them – whether or not we are aware that we are doing so: 1) Who am I?; 2) Who is God?; 3) Why am I here?; and 4) What am I to do with my life?  The last two are more directly related, though the answer to any one of the four will directly affect – and be affected by – how we answer the other three. 


But it is these last ones - #s 3 and 4 – that can occupy so much of our attention.  We want to do the right thing.  We want to make choices that are pleasing to God.  We want to live our lives in a way that fulfills our calling as a person of God.  But how do we know we are doing that?  In late Spring of this year, we spent five weeks on a sermon series about being “stuck.”  Sometimes it feels that way with the big questions in life.  We ask “What am I to do in this situation,” but we feel stuck because the answer isn’t forthcoming.  To this, Merton gave this wisdom:


Don’t search for answers which could be given to you now.  Rather, live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, even without noticing it, live your way into the answer.


When I read this recently in some of his writings on contemplation, it struck me how this was another way – albeit it very poetic – of saying “God’s time isn’t our time.”  We might hear – in these words – the value of being patient.  Yet his words are about even more than that.  It is okay not having all the answers we wish we had right now.  What is important is that we never stop asking the question in the first place.  For example, if, every day, I ask the question, “God, what will you have me do with my life,” I may never get, on any single day, the answer to that question as clear as a clap of thunder ringing from the sky.  Over time, however, clarity will emerge, but only if I continue to ask the question day after day.  The worst thing to do is to stop asking the question at all.  For then I will not have a chance of receiving whatever it is God is revealing to me that might lead me toward the very answer I seek.


The skeptic among us might say, “Sure, it’s easy for Merton to say things like ‘Just slow down and let God act on God’s time,’ or ‘Just be patient and answers will emerge.’  He was a monk after all.  He didn’t live in the ‘real world’ where there are real-time pressures, demands and deadlines.”  While such thoughts could be merited, I’m reminded of something a Jesuit priest told me on a retreat I took several years ago.  Monks, he said, have taken it upon themselves to pray for us and to pray for the world.  This is their gift to us.  Free from the very pressures and demands and deadlines among which we live, they can devote themselves to this prayerful life.  In thinking of Merton’s words today, we might take that a step further.  The gift that monks like Merton give to the world is to call us above the constraints within which we live our lives and to remind us what matters most as God’s people.  So that... when we return to the hectic nature of that life we momentarily transcended, we bring more of what matters most with us.  And that which we have brought, influences more of how we live within it.  Something to ponder this week.  


Blessings – Michael

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Preaching and Worship in 2023

In early October, I will be taking a few days of private study to plan worship themes for the entire 2023 year!  Currently, we plan worship themes about 2-3 months in advance, but I’ve always wanted to be more advanced and organized in planning the overall shape of worship.  So I’m very much looking forward to this opportunity to get away and think of little else but this.  The context is a workshop that is being led by two pastors in our region.  I will be one of a dozen participants.  From what I gather, each of us will plan for the upcoming year in a way that is unique to our own ministry situation and thus different from everyone else’s. 


As I prepare for this event – and this planning – I want to invite you to be part of it along with me.  Below, you will see several questions.  When I attend the workshop a month from now, I will be prepared to incorporate answers to these questions in my preaching and worship planning for 2023.  So, I would truly love to have as many of you as possible answer these questions and send me your responses ( ).  Write as much or as little as you would like.  I cannot promise I will preach exactly what you wish to hear in 2023, but I can promise I will read everything you share with me and consider it a worthy gift.  Should you share anything personal, I will protect your confidentiality or will consult you first before mentioning anything specific. 


What is it about our congregation that you appreciate most?


What do you think our congregation (and Decatur community) is most anxious about?


What big life events will you be observing in 2023 (e.g. milestones, significant changes, anniversaries)? 


If I, Michael, were to preach on a topic in 2023 that would inspire you to invite a friend to worship, what would it be? 


What is one (1) question you wish you could ask God right now?


What is one (1) book of the bible you would like to know more about ?


What is one part of your life you are struggling with?


Blessings – Michael

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Making Meaningful Connections

I recently joined a clergy devotional group.  We meet 90 minutes every other week virtually.  Three of us are in Illinois, and two are located in Kentucky.  The focus of the conversations is a handbook based on the writings of Thomas  Merton entitled, Bridges to Contemplative Living.  This past week’s theme was “Purity of Heart,” and Merton believed this was rooted in humility.  To be pure in heart, he said, is to “renounce all deluded images of ourselves,” as well as “all exaggerated estimates of our own capacities” so that we me might obey God’s will for us.  He then said that meditation is necessary for this to happen:


Meditation is then ordered to this new insight, this direct knowledge of the self in its higher aspect.  What am I?  I am myself a word spoken by God.  Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning?


As part of our discussion, each of us was asked to identify the word or phrase that stood out to us in the much longer reading from which I’ve quoted just a part.  For me, it was that last sentence from the quote above: Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning?  Clearly, this is a rhetorical question, and the answer is “no.”  Isaiah 55:11 says, “...My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  And Psalm 139:14 says “I praise you (O God), for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  If each of us is a word spoken by God, of course we have meaning.  It says so right there in scripture. 


But what is more intriguing for me is how words really only have meaning when placed in context with other words.  Alone, a single word merely signifies or represents something or possible a variety of “somethings.”  But only when connected with other words does it have the potential to convey many meanings.  It is not enough, then, that we exist as a creature “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.  For us to accomplish any kind of purpose at all is to build connections with others.  It is in our connections with others that we realize the full potential of  what would otherwise lay dormant inside us if we remain isolated or disconnected. 

Perhaps this is the “deluded images” and “exaggerated estimates of ourselves” Merton seeks for us to renounce; the feeling that we are somehow great and worthy on our own – simply existing as we are and for ourselves alone.  And perhaps that is further why Jesus instructed us to “love our neighbor” as the greatest of all commandments.  For love is that divine force that always draws us outside ourselves and seeks to make connections – with others, with our true selves and with God.  And perhaps – having a less self-aggrandizing view of ourselves and seeking rather, in humility, to make connections with others – would be a good “cross” for us to “take up” as we seek to follow Christ today. 

Blessings – Michael


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