Martha’s Minute ( August 31, 2018)

John O’Donahue is an Irish poet and priest, known for helping to popularize Celtic spirituality.  As the summer winds down, we face the return to ‘work.’   I like the way O’Donahue blesses our work, whatever that work might be:

May the light of your soul bless your work with love and warmth of heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and received your work.
May your work never exhaust you.
May it release wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement.
May you never become lost in bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find hope in your heart, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.
May your soul calm, console and renew you.

I am, as you know, a retired person, and one who counts herself very blessed to have had and still enjoy work that is to me refreshing, inspiring and exciting.  I give thanks to God for that when I take the day off on Labor Day, the calendar’s sure sign of summer’s end and work routine’s return.

Yet when I think on it, Labor Day reverences work in a way quite different from the poet.  Labor Day, according to the US Department of Labor, is a “…creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers … a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  Labor Day acknowledges the necessity of checking Capital’s greed and seeks to afford all workers what they deserve:  the time and the wherewithal to reflect on whatever it is they do as ‘wellspring of refreshment, inspiration, and excitement.’

May you all find such nurture as all of us MLBs (folks who identify as ‘mid-life and beyond’) and all of us at WHUMC launch ourselves into work and fall.  See you in church!


Martha’s Minute (August 23, 2018)

What is it … exactly … about baseball? What is it that is so endlessly interesting and generative? Is it the way it coalesces happy memories across time and distance? The way it puts us in mind of simpler times and a simpler USA?

No matter. Whatever it is, I like it very much. The Cards’ poor start this season had the odd effect of piquing my interest in baseball in general; I am, I think, a better and more informed fan now, following the whole game, as well as my surging home team.

I’ve been thinking about So Taguchi. Number 99. Taguchi was a star in Japan, after which he joined the Cardinals in 2002. Handsome and charming, Taguchi is forever remembered for a ninth-inning home run in the 2006 National League Championship Series. He got, of course, a World Championship ring that year, and he is cheered and standing-ovationed whenever he sets foot in Busch III. Like Freese is. Or Piscotty. Like Pham will be.

We Cards fans are giddy and smitten with the run we’re making now, in love with a whole new and renewed crew and sure they’re the best of the best: Hicks, Hudson, Poncedeleon. Bader (Bader!), O’Neill, Wisdom. And how our vets have risen to the occasion: Molina, Gyorko, DeJong, J Martinez. Sorry if I’ve left out YOUR fave. My point is this: a team, even a very good team – even the best team – is a fleeting thing. The bad start, the firings, the upended bullpen, the Cinderella manager: it’s all here NOW, and after season’s end, no matter HOW the season ends for this team, it will never come again. Guys will retire, be traded for the next bright hope, disappear at the wrong end of the DL. There’s only the 2018 Cards right NOW.

Sports analogies can cloy, can be overly simplistic. Still, for those of us who love baseball, it is a metaphor for life, for life’s unrepeatability and brevity. It’s a reminder to enjoy every game, every inning, every play … for this particular one – the one you’re living right now — will never come round again. You always see something you’ve never seen before, and you don’t want to miss that: Taguchi going yard or Wong defying gravity again to flip the ball to Carpenter.

Thirty-eight games to go. School starts; summer starts to fade; neighborhood children seem inexplicably taller. Troubles must be lived and talked through; smiles don’t stop; some chairs are empty. We’ll none of us get out of this alive. Play ball.


Martha’s Minute (August 17th, 2018)

I follow the French lay theologian Jacques Ellul in my thinking about prayer. And in my practice.

We do not pray, Ellul says, because it is efficacious … because it gets results.

No. Instead we pray because we understand that God commands us to pray. We pray because we want to be obedient.

Jesus in the Gospels sets for us a fine example of obedience, often taking opportunities to pray, sometimes when it seems to us a lot of more interesting things are going on. Others of the folks whose stories of faith and relationship with God make up our Bible seem also in constant contact with the Divine through prayer. For example, the writer of 2nd Thessalonians ends with a list of loving commands that was both custom and style when that letter was written: “… Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (5:16-18)

Webster Hills UMC is blessed with a team of obedient pray-ers; we call them – quite informally – the Prayer Group. Weekly our office staff and volunteers compile a list of folks we call – again quite informally – the Prayer List. We share the Prayer List with the Prayer Group early each week, and the prayers commence.

You might ask who benefits from this community practice. Well, by Ellul’s lights – and mine – the members of the Prayer Group benefit by the reminder of the proper position of the human being in the created Universe. The ones who pray are not responsible for the righting of the situations and circumstances their sisters and brothers ask them to pray for; that is the proper work of God. Members of the Prayer Group are responsible for praying, not for answering prayers. This practice is traditionally called intercessory prayer, and it seems to me to amount to a sort of daily, or hourly, realignment of right relationship with God.

Meanwhile, WHUMC members and friends regularly ask me to ‘put them on the Prayer List.’ They also sometimes report to me the comfort, patience and strength they derive from knowing they are so prayed for.

There are a couple of ways for you to be involved in WHUMC’s ministry of prayer. First, a hugely important part of the weekly compiling of the Prayer List is Prayer Request Card, found in the racks on the backs of pews in the Sanctuary, right alongside the red hymnals and the black songbooks. Pull our one of these, write down who it is that you want the group to pray for and drop the card in the plate during the time of offering. A little information about the situation is helpful, too, but we are typically cautious about sharing anything that verges on private information; we most often stick to phrases like “health concerns” or “grief in the loss of father/mother/etc.”

You may also ‘put someone on the Prayer List’ by contacting me via e-mail or phone or simply by leaving a message in the church office.

Second, consider that God may be calling you to be a member of the Prayer Group, to receive a weekly e-mail about prayer concerns among our congregation’s members and friends and to add those

concerns to your own practice of prayer. It’s a group that holds no meeting, takes no attendance … yet plays an important role in our congregation’s life. Questions? mrobertson@websterhillsumc.org, 314-629-7738

See you in church.


Martha’s Minute  (August 2nd, 2018)

I have a friend who is a breast cancer survivor.

About five years ago, she experienced a recurrence of cancer. Thanks in part to surgery, chemotherapy, several drug trials located and administered for her by an energetic and involved oncologist, a strong constitution, a wide network of friends, work she loves, and faith in a loving and good God, she has – from that time to this – lived a rich and full life. She is both lucky and privileged.

Recently, my friend seems to have turned a page to a new chapter in her story. I don’t think it’s the last chapter, but it is a chapter wherein the drugs no longer work as they once did. There are more setbacks, and she bounces back from them more slowly and with greater weariness. In the last few days, she has agreed to take part in another grant funded program – this one about ‘next steps.’ Short of hospice care, or even palliative care, this experimental program is designed to help patients and their families and caregivers to greater access to the information they need to make good decisions about their care.

I also have aging dogs. My boys are rescues, so their ages can only be estimated; I think they are about 9 and about 10, although they both have the spirits and the energy of puppies. But I am an experienced dog parent, and I know the day comes inexorably … the day when I will, in all likelihood, need to ease them out of this life they have so joyfully shared with me. I will not want them to suffer.

What is suffering? I’m fond of a Buddhist definition: Suffering is the desire to be someplace other than where you are. Simple, huh? Suffering is the opposite of mindfulness.

We think about suffering differently, don’t we? … for people and for dogs. We want to save our animals from it; by contrast, we honor the free will, intelligence and independence of our fellow human beings by seeking to relieve their pain and to provide them with adequate information to make their own decisions about end-of-life issues.

In the Christian Church, we also know a tradition that suffering is somehow good for us, that it has something to teach us … that suffering bears important lessons that we cannot learn any other way.

Like you, I have enjoyed our recent WHUMC worship and sermon series “WORD,” and Pastor Linda’s masterful encounters with the deep faith questions of some worshipers brave enough to submit them to her. I did not submit anything myself. If I had, my questions would flock around the issue that has captured my attention today: is suffering redemptive? If so, HOW? If so, what is the connection between redemptive suffering and a God whose name is Love?

As I write today, I also commend to you all those among our members and friends who are ill or grieving, depressed, threatened or in pain. I invite you, if you’re willing, to join our congregation’s Prayer Circle, that small and unheralded group of folks who pray every week for those whom we love who are suffering. And I invite your thoughtful conversation about these and other weighty issues of faith. Please be in touch if you wish 314-629-7738, mrobertson@websterhillsumc.org

May you know God’s peace this week; see you in church.


Martha’s Minute (July 19th, 2018)

Eden Theological Seminary at Lockwood and Bompart here in Webster Groves — across from Webster University — is responsible for the theological education of many United Methodist students preparing themselves for church leadership. The seminary’s own roots lie in the Evangelical Synod of North America, a predecessor of my denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Some of you have heard me talk about my years on the faculty at Eden (1999 to 2014). I wore several different titles during my time there, a common enough occurrence, I think, at a small school with a small faculty. I managed the school’s chapel program for several years – regular worship for students, faculty and friends of the seminary – and I especially enjoyed team-teaching preaching with Eden’s president, Dr. David Greenhaw.

In those days – fifteen or so years ago now – one of our preaching students’ favorite books was Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Mass, Cowley, 1993). An Episcopal priest, Taylor is also now a teacher herself at Piedmont College and Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. She has a spot on nearly every list of best or most effective American preachers since 1996.

The Preaching Life is about call, and call is a very timely and absorbing subject for folks preparing for church leadership. Call means answering a couple of tough questions: what does God want me to do? How does God want me to respond to God’s claim on my life in baptism?

In the local church, we don’t focus on call nearly so much. But we do talk regularly about discipleship and faithful following, and it seems to me that when we do so, we’re pretty much talking about the thing the seminarians mean when they say ‘call.’

Barbara Brown Taylor had a multifaceted religious upbringing, which she details in The Preaching Life. United Methodist and Roman Catholic parents, then connections with the Baptists, the Episcopalians, and campus ministry. She was clearly a gifted and imaginative student and, after receiving her undergraduate degree, she reunited with the Episcopal church and went to Yale Divinity School. She continued her education this way because she loved both the Church and the STUDY of the Church. But she struggled mightily with the idea of herself as called to ordained ministry. Back and forth, advancing and retreating, tossing and turning, making appointments and failing to keep them.

Finally, one midnight, she asked God a direct question: what am I supposed to do? “Anything that pleases you.” Taylor says that was God’s answer, coming to her clearly in her “sleepy head.”

‘What?’ I said, waking up. ‘What kind of an answer is that?’

‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice in my head said again, ‘and belong to me.’

Taylor goes on to say that this midnight communication simplified things considerably. “I could pump gas in Idaho or dig latrines in Pago Pago, as far as God was concerned, as long as I remembered whose I was.” She did become a priest in the Episcopal and served a local church for a while. But, as I’ve already said, her vocational journey, which is to say her life of faithfully following Jesus, led her in some

unexpected directions. ‘What pleases’ her changed with life and life’s experiences. Her belonging to God remained.

As a young person, my own notions of change and growth in older adulthood – past, say, age thirty (!) – were nonexistent.

* How could I not have seen how much would change in the world, … how much in me?

* How could I not have been awake to the steadfastness of the God to whom I belong through my baptism?

* How could I not have seen that that very faithfulness of God would change not just me, but also ‘what pleases me?’

Today I find Barbara Brown Taylor’s story of call LESS about “the preaching life,” and more about the life we are all trying to live in strange and uncertain times — the life of following Jesus, the discipleship life. Ordination, powerful as it is, really changes little about one’s discipleship; one is still obligated to try to let one’s work and walk in the world be influenced by ‘what pleases’ one AND by the God of Jesus Christ to whom we belong in this world and the next, that One who will never let us go.

Blessings on your own journey out of the water of baptism. Remember whose you are. And I’ll see you in church.


Martha’s Minute (July 13, 2018)

Praying in Summer

I enjoyed a lively and engaged session on PRAYER with the Contemporary Class (Sunday School, 9 am Sundays) on July 8.  It was a happy way to come back to WHUMC after a few days off.  And it seemed pertinent to goings on in folks’ lives and in the world.  Prayer knows no season, huh?!

In keeping with our recent theme of books and resources for summer reading, here are some of the works cited in Sunday’s class (in random order):

  • John Wesley’s Message Today, Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Abingdon, Nashville, 1991.
  • There Is Nothing Wrong with You, Cheri Huber, Keep It Simple Books, USA, 2006.
  • Prayer and Modern Man, Jacques Ellul, Seabury, New York, 1970.
  • www.jesuits.org/spirituality
  • www.sacredspace.ie
  • Ordinary People, Judith Guest, Penguin, New York, 1976.  See also the Academy Award-winning 1980 film starring Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton.
  • Night, Elie Wiesel, Hill and Wang, New York, 1972, 1985, 2006.

Blessings – see you in church.


Martha’s Minute (June 28, 2018)

So. Much. Laughter.
That’s my observation of the first meeting of the Munch Lunch Bunch (MLBs) on June 21 last week.
And I think it’s something to celebrate.
As you may know, MLB is our Webster Hills UMC shorthand for Mid-Life and Beyond, an affectionate way we designate folks who identify with that ‘mid-life’ stage in life, and we acknowledge and accept that MLB is a fluid category.  If you THINK you’re an MLB, you ARE an MLB!

The new Munch Lunch Bunch plays on the same initials.  Its formula is simple … and emphasizes sharing.  First, a shared conversation or informal presentation, followed by an easy and informal lunch:  potluck, finger food.  Then games and more talk.

Munch Lunch Bunch is unabashedly social, but with a loving twist:  MLBs at Webster Hills UMC are at the heart of everything.  Steady and reliable, they lead AND follow and their corporate and personal lives are aimed at our congregation’s mission:  connect, grow, serve.  The more they (we) know and love one another, the more they (we) can continue to deepen their (our) lives of discipleship.

The laughter started when Barbara Matt led an acquaintance-expanding activity around the traditional St. Louis question, “Where did you go to high school?”  The thing is, of course, that this question can’t just be answered.  Every response requires a story.  Lunch was ample and yummy and punctuated by more conversation and more laughter.  And, as advertised, games and more talk followed that.  Is there any better way to really get to know a person – even a person you may have known for multiples of years – than by sitting down to play a board game with her or him?!  Everything is funny when you’re trying to sort out the rules to a game you’ve never played before.

Munch Lunch Bunch meets on the third Thursday of the month thru November (July 19, August 16, September 20, October 18, November 15).  11 am to 1 pm in the Great Hall, Christian Life Center.  Make room on your calendar and join the laughter next month.

FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE

A couple of your WHUMC friends replied to our request in last week’s Messenger:  “What are you reading this summer?”

.  THE GREAT SPIRITUAL MIGRATION by Brian McLaren
.  THE GOSPEL OF INCLUSION by Bishop Carlton Pearson

Thanks to those of you who shared your summer reading list! Happy reading!


Martha’s Minute (June 21st, 2018)

What are you reading this summer?
I just finished The Inextinguishable Symphony:  A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany, Martin Goldsmith’s memoir about how his parents were in effect saved by the music they made together in the Jewish Kulturbund.  In 1941, they were among the very last German Jews to gain the visas necessary to immigrate to the US.  The author is one of the Symphony Hall hosts on Sirius XM Radio, and he and his parents have a St. Louis connection, his mother having played viola in the St. Louis Symphony under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.

Now I’m on to Elizabeth Strout.  Holy cow, what a writer.  I’ve started with Strout’s latest, Anything Is Possible, but you may know her from earlier works (which I plan to read as soon as possible) The Burgess Boys, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and Olive Kitteridge, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Amazon’s blurb on Anything Is Possible starts out:  “An unforgettable cast of small-town characters copes with love and loss in this new work…”  Love and loss.  What else IS there to “cope” with, I wonder — what besides love and loss?  In the book various things happens to members of that small-town cast, things ranging from surprising to truly horrible, usually while they’re driving or negotiating some sticky social situation while simultaneously trying to remember why some tree or road sign or turn of phrase strikes a chord and seems important.  That’s the loss.

Then there’ll be some flash of love or lightning or insight that’s just so blinding it has to be the love.  There’s more loss than love I guess – I haven’t finished the book yet – but the love is the more compelling.  This depiction of life seems authentic to me: no matter how fervently we believe it, we cannot see, despite our piety or learning, exactly HOW God is working God’s purpose out in the history of creation.  We muddle along.  But once in a while, we get a flash of energy that feeds our faith and keeps us going, and we dare to think it’s a flash of Divine love.

I’m not a book group kind of person but I dearly love to talk books one on one, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer afternoon than doing so with you.  Call or e-mail and let’s make a date for a cool drink and a cooler conversation.  See you in church.

CLICK HERE and let me know what you are reading! If you respond I’ll share the list in an upcoming Messenger.

Rev. Dr. Martha Robertson


Martha’s Minute (May 31st, 2018)

I see that last week Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was replaced by the Board of Directors of that institution.  Patterson has recently been at the center of a controversy surrounding allegations about advice he gave to women concerning marital abuse and rape.  (See https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/23/613604818/head-of-southern-baptist-seminary-removed-over-remarks-on-rape-abuse-of-women) Patterson’s removal from the position he had held since 2003 came “after an open letter signed by more than 2,000 Southern Baptist women expressed shock over Patterson’s statements and warned Southern Baptist Convention leaders not to allow ‘the biblical view of leadership to be misused in such a way that a leader with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood, and sexuality be allowed to continue in leadership.’”

Also last week, my own denomination, the United Church of Christ – somewhat more progressive than the Southern Baptists – announced the attainment of a milestone of sorts with regard to women.  “It’s official!  There are now more ordained clergywomen than men (51%) in the United Church of Christ.” (http://www.ucc.org/news/recent_headlines) The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization Team (MESA) of the UCC and United Church Funds (UCF), acknowledging that women clergy still face a significant gender pay gap, marked the occasion by inviting them to take part in a webinar titled “Women Investing Today – Seeking Justice in Our Financial Lives.”

Let me hasten to make clear that both these denominations – the Southern Baptists and the United Church of Christ – are on record as opposing the abuse of women in all its forms and support ministries working to improve women’s lot. I believe this to be true of the United Methodist Church as well and, further, I have found UMW resources on women’s issues to be many and helpful.

Still, I found in these two news stories a reflection of the mixture of respect and obstacle which characterizes the lives of women in our country.  It is a mixture that can be deadly. So I’ll continue to follow and pray for the work of Dawn Wilcox, a former RN who began in 2017 to document the deaths of US women and girls at the hands of men.  Wilcox accounted for the deaths of one thousand seven hundred twenty women and girls in 2017; her FaceBook page is Women Count USA.

The issues touched upon by these reflections are sobering and several — misogyny, gender inequality, domestic violence, gun violence, for starters.  As a pastoral caregiver, I am open to conversation about any of them.  And I’d also like to speak clearly to you if you are a woman involved in an abusive relationship:  get help; start here.

May God keep us all.

Update:  Paige Patterson, referenced in this article, was fired after it was written, the Board of Directors of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary having received ‘additional information’ about his handling of an allegation of abuse while he was president.

Rev. Dr. Martha Robertson


Martha’s Minute

Sunday, April 22, was a day with a powerful 1-2-3 punch for members and friends at Webster Hills UMC, including those regular readers of this column who understand themselves to be experience ‘Mid-Life and Beyond.’

No. 2 on that list of three was the Sunday afternoon ‘meal packing event’ that crammed the CLC gym with hairnet-wearing persons of all ages doing hands on mission.  Our Easter offering purchased food and packaging materials for hundreds and folks came in droves to measure, package, seal and wrap meals to be picked up by local feeding programs the following week.  Imagine assembly lines of kids, parents and grandparents; music to sing along to; and ice cream to share when the work was done.

And No. 3 was an amazingly beautiful evening concert that filled our beautiful sanctuary space with the music of the Webster University orchestra and the 442s.  Breathtaking.

Surely it was No. 1 that laid the foundation for the day:  worship services at 9 am and 10:30 am that helped attendees with the important inner work of spiritual assessment.  Important work – yes, but burdensome?  Far from it.  After spending a few minutes completing and scoring a brief survey, worshipers were invited to move in the worship space for conversation and sharing with others who identified in themselves the same spiritual gifts, gifts including but not limited to giving, administration, teaching, exhortation, mercy, prophecy, serving, hospitality, and leadership.  I love that lovely buzz in the congregation when folks engage one another like this!

During Sanctuary worship at 10:30, Pastor Linda asked me to be alert to seeking out conversation with folks who chose to remain in the pews instead of moving to an appointed spot relative to ‘their’ spiritual gift.  So I moved around the Sanctuary a little, doing that, and the conversations I had were instructive and moving.  One congregant spoke to me of pain, and how its presence in one’s life opens one to empathy for others who are also in pain.  This conversation suggested to me that a person who has known pain may be uniquely gifted to be present to others who are in pain.

I went on to wonder whether pain might be, in some circumstances, considered itself a spiritual gift; while never a blessing to the one who suffers it, pain may be turned – transformed – even resurrected — in faith and by faith, to bless those who can talk about it and pray about it together.
It’s a life rich in spirit and faith we’re making together here in community at WHUMC, whatever our age or stage in life.

Thanks be to God.  See you in church.
Martha