Charles L. Wildman,
Interim Conference Minister
Pastoral Letter Index
From: Rev. Charles L. Wildman, Interim Conference Minister, Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star rising at its rising, and have come to pay him homage… They set out; and there, ahead of them went the star… until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then… they offered him gifts…
--Matthew 2, excerpts
Christmas/Epiphany Greetings to The Connecticut Conference Family! May this season bring life-giving blessings to each of us, to our loved ones and to all congregations!
By the grace of our surprising God, this festive season finds us on a journey together. Our paths have joined for a while and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to minister with you. May this time of transition in the life of the Conference be a blessing to the whole Church.
Of course, all is not well this season. Congregations and the Connecticut Conference struggle with new realities. Wars still tear at family bonds. Ethnic and racial hatred reveal evil’s dominion. Terrorism threats instill fear in us, especially when we stand in airport TSA lines. Greed in high places still robs hard working families.
But this is a familiar story to students of scripture and tradition. It was into a similar world that the Christ Child was born. Mary’s peasant people suffered under Roman domination and religious fundamentalism. Mary and Joseph had virtually no opportunity for economic advancement. Heavily taxed by Temple and Rome, their best hope was to simply survive year to year. Yet, God’s Beloved was born to them! There is so much hope in that!
The Magi felt this hope as they viewed a new star. Matthew says they were so deeply moved that weeks ahead of the Birth, they struck out to find the light’s source. I imagine these seekers would have been warmed by this verse from Brian Wren, theologian/composer and personal friend:
Hope is a star that shines in the night,
Leading us on till the morning is bright.
When God is a child there’s joy in our song.
The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong,
And none shall be afraid.
--Hope is a Star,
Brian Wren, Joan Collier Fogg
To some, these are fearful times in the life of the Church. Major changes are afoot and we do not know where we are going. If respected church historian, Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) is right, the global Christian Church is undergoing a once every 500-year reformation. As with all great historical moments, we cannot be completely clear about what we are experiencing. We do know that our United Church of Christ and its Connecticut setting are experiencing disturbing realities. Our Church’s Wider Mission, the unified fund that supports all of our conference, national and global mission and ministry, continues to decline. That’s why Annual Meeting regretfully approved increasing the Per Capita rate from $6 to $8. UCC Congregations seem less committed than in previous eras to our historical covenant of mutual support.
These days, the idea of local autonomy holds more appeal than the Covenant theology of our ancestors. Some congregations are forgetting their need for one another and are less inclined to strongly support OCWM. This makes it harder to ensure that other congregations receive the life sustaining conference ministries they need. Some conferences keep reducing the amount of OCWM they pass on to the National Setting in favor of balancing their own books. So, the Cleveland office keeps reducing staff and fewer services are available to conferences and local churches. Meanwhile, reduced OCWM also forces reductions in overseas mission personnel and vital Third World ministries.
At the same time, the missions and ministries of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are thriving. Touring barrios in Colombia some years ago, I witnessed Pentecostal ministries drawing large followings. Third World Africa settings depend upon evangelical groups for spiritual and material sustenance. The UCC’s historical/biblical approach to the Bible, combined with primary commitments to social justice, Open and Affirming and “extravagant welcome” ministries, are considered unfaithful by some and irrelevant or threatening by others.
The troubled times in which we live -- the reformation we may be experiencing -- requires the faithful witness of the United Church of Christ. What other historical faith tradition has more powerfully championed social, ethnic and racial equality? Who else offers extravagant welcome? What other church values covenant over creed? A lesbian couple, the wonderful parents of two young children, joined my last church and said, “We called ten churches to inquire if we would be welcome. Yours was the only one that answered unequivocally Yes!” Who else but the Connecticut Conference of the UCC would be more likely to encourage the beginnings of Hartford’s community renewal ministry we now know as Christian Activities Council? How many families now live in their own homes because of CAC? The UCC was the first to ordain a woman to ministry. Where would society be today without the leadership of deeply dedicated and able female clergy? The list goes on…
As will we! We live by hope’s star because we know where it leads. And where it leads we must be also -- beside God’s Beloved One as a baby born of humble parents; traveling with the young rabbi courageously ministering in the Galilee and Jerusalem; in vigil at the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; and as eager receivers of the Spirit, God’s presence incarnated now in Christ’s Church, all testimony to God’s stubborn, eternal love for every man, woman and child.
The transition that we are undergoing, in our churches and in our Connecticut Conference, is moving the Conference to evaluate everything we are and do. We celebrate our strengths -- talented staff, hundreds of dedicated lay and clergy leaders, prophetic vision. We adjust, adapt, dream dreams and risk new ideas, all with the prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit and building on the strong leadership of those who have gone before. We are examining everything we are doing while searching for understanding of what we need to be doing to support Connecticut UCC churches in the years to come. We are clear that something new is emerging. We study, pray, question… and wait in faith.
We do not despair. For we are a people who still thrill at the thought of a star that shines in the night. And, each Christmas we are overwhelmed by joy at the Birth of Hope 2,000 years ago. We know, Emmanuel, “God with us!” now and in all ages to come, no matter how difficult the times. If this is a time of reformation, we are ready!