Unpacking

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

January 30, 2000

DT. 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Since last I stood before you on November 21st (a glorious day!) Susan, Luke, Daniel, Sarah and I have been saying our goodbyes to a community of faith we've lived in, loved, and served for almost 11 years. Just three weeks ago today, over 300 people worshiped at North Congregational UCC and we bid farewell in two services and luncheon that followed. The last nine weeks have been full of tears, shared memories, intense feelings, many hugs, much laughter, and lots of love exchanged in deep and heartfelt ways. Saying Goodbye is hard. I described it to the members of North Church as akin to running through a field of thistles (sometimes it seems - barefoot!). I have found that leaving a faith community where deep love and respect are shared both ways between pastor and congregation is particularly hard.

In addition to the goodbyes, my family has worked beside me to pack over 70 boxes and with the help of a few good men of First Church, my family, and a beloved teen from North, we moved the tonnage into second floor office in early January. Monday, when I arrived, I started unpacking - again with my family's support! I am happy to report that only 14 boxes remain unpacked in my office! Bruce Vaughn told me that he believed only Washington Gladden could have filled all the shelves in the Senior Minister's office. Well, Dear Dr. Gladden....I need more shelves!

Yes, I began unpacking this past week. And I must confess, this morning I am still unpacking. However, today's unpacking is of an entirely different nature. Today, as we have gathered in this holy place to celebrate the good news of Christ's love and God's abiding presence among us, each one of us is faced with an "unpacking" of our very lives before our God!

Unpacking is a part of daily living. We unpack emotions about loss and love; about work and family. We unpack dreams and visions with others we care about. We unpack thoughts and feelings about which may have lingered in our memories or longed for release as far back as our childhood or perhaps painful parts of our adult lives. We mentally and emotionally sort through the stuff of our lives- stuff which often boxes us in. We may move the stuff around. We may redistribute the material and spiritual items. We may give some things away - to God or to others who care enough to listen and be present with us. And as we come together here today, there are so many things you have need and desire to share with me as your pastor and things I long to hear as we begin to connect and build our relationship together.

Perhaps you are still clinging to memories of past Senior Ministers - both pleasant and painful memories. Perhaps you have packed something into your life's boxes which has stayed boxed so long, the time is right for unpacking it and doing something with it. However we deal with the boxed stuff of our lives, we all must agree that unpacking is part of daily living!

Since this is the case, allow me to unpack a few pieces of myself with all of you today. After all, I'll only be new in this pulpit once. I promise, I won't take all day to do it. (After all a great dinner prepared by our Youth Group and the Super Bowl await us).

First Box - Who Am I? I come among you as Tim Ahrens - a child of God with certain gifts and deficits for ministry. First, let me say who I am not. I am not another interim pastor. I am not Carlton, John or Donald. I am also not one of your former Senior Ministers of memory - McIlayr Lichliter, Boynton Merrill, Chalmers Coe, Dale Rosenberger, or Bob Tschannen-Moran. I don't have the exact same gifts each of these men brought to you. However, through the Search Process and the congregational discernment process, you made a choice to seek someone different. No clones.

I come to you just as I am. I come with God given gifts. Among the gifts God has given me are gifts of intuition and compassion; gifts of welcome and healing; gifts of teaching and leadership; gifts of vision for justice and peace ministries. But these and other gifts are different gifts, with different emphases in ministry, and a different world-view - having been born and raised in a different generation -- than at least six of these pastors mentioned. I have been influenced by different life circumstances - having grown up in the middle class suburbs outside Philadelphia and then having chosen to spend my last 24 years living and working in urban environs!

I come to you as a person who spent over 10 years serving God in the inner city and now the last 11 years serving God in the Northwest section of this city. Much of my being has in my earlier days was shaped and influenced by working and living in poor, inner-racial, bi-lingual neighborhoods in four different metropolitan areas. Before seminary I worked in a factory, waited tables, was a church custodian, worked on two election campaign staffs, directed a small ecumenical human rights organization, and did several jobs where I worked as a group worker with children, youth, and the elderly. In seminary at Yale Divinity School, I was Chapel minister where I helped lead and coordinate daily on campus worship bringing together over 39 different denominations and traditions under one tent of worship.

Through the years, I have particularly enjoyed my work with children and youth. I have been a Youth Group leader in two churches, spent two summers as a group leader in St. Louis' housing projects where I was the leader for over 70 African-American children between the ages of 5-6 , every day for 7 hours over 12 weeks. I can proudly say I never lost one on a field trip (although I came close a few times). Later I worked in Philadelphia with children and also found 19 summer jobs for youth and supervised them through the experience. In an Episcopalian mission congregation we rebuilt the ministry around children. In Cleveland, and Columbus our Church School programs grew with children at the heart of the growth. I also have spent 15 years of Fridays (my day off!) Volunteering in public elementary schools. I unpack these few stories and statistics to let you know, children - your children, mine and those of people none of us yet know - are close to my heart.

I also love ministering among children and their families. As we dream and plan together, perhaps there are ministries that could unfold especially directed to children and families. I believe we will grown into these unfolding possibilities!

In accepting the call to serve as your Senior Minister, it is my hope that my gifts for serving in the city and serving children and families can be channeled and extended in new ways. I hope and pray that together we set forth a clear vision to move into this new, unfolding millennium with faith in Christ -- in whom all things are possible - and an energized vision for those in need on the avenues, boulevards, and back streets of this city we all love and care about!

Second Box - My views on Ministry. I have spent my life in the church - nurtured in childhood by two parents who were both active lay people, both oldest children of Preacher's Kids (P.K.'s) I was always in and around the church. There are generations of pastors in my linage. As such, I have a deep admiration for and appreciation for the gifts of the whole people of God for ministry.

I see my role as creative spark, co-interpreter of the vision of God, guide on the way for the people of First Church for mission and ministry. I cannot do all the ministry for you. First, it's impossible. Second, it is unfaithful. All of us are ministers! I happen to hold an office of ordained ministry, but like you, God has claimed me through baptism and called me to ordination because God seeks to use me as an Instrument of Grace and Healing. Each of you is a pearl in God's eyes. You may need some polishing around the edges and you may need to be placed in the right setting to really shine, but I have seen already glimpses of the beautiful gift that each of you is and each of you bring to First Church.

I hope that as we begin in ministry together, you continue to heal and begin to trust me and open yourselves to grow in faith with me. Just as you know you are not perfect, I also know I am not perfect either. I will do some things exceptionally well and I will other things far from exceptionally. As God forgives me and each of us every day, I hope you forgive me when I make mistakes and just as importantly - or maybe more so - I hope and pray that each one of you forgives yourself and forgives one another for mistakes made, grievances still lingering, and troubles created from past sinfulness.

I am almost certain that today in this sanctuary there are folks who have "been on sabbatical" during the interim period and are here to check out the new pastor. If you are among them, welcome back! We need you very much in order to be whole and move forward into this new time of ministry together! If you are among those who have persevered in the interim and feel somewhat burned out from doing and carrying the load - thank you for your labors! Without you, so much would have been left unattended and un-cared for. Again, thank you! For those who are here for the first time or are our guests in visiting today, we hope and pray you keep coming back and in time, if it is right for you, we pray that you choose First Church as your new church home.

Today, we must begin to move forward in faith. We must breathe deeply and live into the amazing grace of God. I feel that healing and the touch of God's grace is still needed in this community. Beginning in March, I will offer you an entire sermon series called "The Amazing Grace of God!" If we have felt wounded, we need to seek God's healing touch. If we feel

resentful for having carried too much for too long, we need to unburden ourselves and turn resentments over to God! Otherwise, they will eat us up and eventfully kill us. We need to turn to each other and make peace. We need to return to God and seek God's peace as well.

To be in ministry together, each of us must prayerfully answer these three questions. 1) "What spiritual gifts has God given me to serve Christ? 2) How will I share my time, talent, and treasure with First Congregational UCC? 3) How soon can I begin? Christianity is not a spectator sport. Christ calls us to be disciples - to open ourselves to ways of loving, healing and serving that we didn't even imagine possible. So come and follow him in the ministry he has set before us.

Third Box - I'll call this the four rock box - Worship, Evangelism, Stewardship, and Mission. These four will become the foundation for building everything we do together. They stand together. None can stand apart.

Worship- Our worship must always glorify God! As we gather to worship each week, may our praise and joy for God be lifted! In prayers, in music, in preaching, may the Holy Spirit carry us to new places and help us experience renewed faith.

Evangelism - Evangelism simply means "God's Good News." To live and share God's good news is what we are called to do and be. Evangelism is invitation and welcome - God's invitation to us and our response by invited others to join us on the journey of faith! We will grow with integrity when we invite friends, family, and neighbors to come and be with us in worship and mission. And what a joy and honor it is when someone we don't yet know chooses to come and worship God with us! We need to be unafraid of the "E" word. Bring your friends, but also be aware that over 40% of our neighbors and co-workers have no church to call home. They need your invitation.

Evangelism is more than fishing for warm bodies! Evangelism calls for the transformation of persons and society to structures and ways of love and justice. It calls for conversion of persons to experiences of joy and hope found in Christ Jesus our Lord. It calls for the liberation of the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the forgotten and seemingly forsaken. It calls for restoration of the world to God's promise of wholeness and completeness.

In Stewardship we find the natural outgrowth of faith. Stewardship is thanksgiving to God and a return to God of our thanks through giving our time, our talent, our treasure to the Lord! When we believe in the purpose and mission of the church, we give. My experience has shown me that Great Givers inspire others to great giving. Fair givers inspire others to ho-hum giving. Poor givers inspire others to not give at all! Let each one of us make a covenant of faith to by counted among God's great givers! Let's make this the year of transformation in our stewardship. I will often refer to you as "Stewards for the Lord!" Let's own that and live into it.

Mission- Everything we do here is God's mission. Everything we do here must be embraced by the spirit of prayer and guided by the Holy Spirit. We have educational mission, administrative mission, worship mission, and the mission to persons from our front door to the far corners of this planet. This church has historically been a mission-driven community. It was your mission for the present and future which attracted me to you. I am a missionary at heart. Through dollars given and hands given to mission, we will surprise Columbus by emerging in these coming years full of direction and commitment for mission. I am convinced of that. I am so pleased that we are covenanting with the B.R.E.A.D. Organization today. Thanks be to God for this mission and for the future mission and ministries of First Church!

Conclusion... Let me wrap this up...(no pun intended!). My friends, I will pray with you and for you. I will shepherd you and serve you. I love God with my whole heart, mind, soul, and strength and seek to love my neighbor as myself. I encourage you to embrace these same principles on my behalf and on behalf of our entire staff.

I am father and a husband as well. Just as I have a calling to ordained ministry, I have a calling to parent and love my children and live out my love for Susan my life partner, my wife of almost 15 years. They come first in my life after God and Christ. I know that you will honor this and welcome them in our faith community as well.

Next Sunday I return to the biblical texts of the day and preaching from God's Word. So, I'm done unpacking for now. Except to say - thank you for calling me to come among you as pastor, friend, and teacher. Amen.

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