Personal perspectives on faith, by members and friends of Zwingli United Church of Christ.

Our God is a promise-making God

posted May 8, 2019, 11:10 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated May 8, 2019, 11:11 AM ]


 Promises are a big deal in Christian faith. Our God is a promise-making God. The very first book of the Bible – Genesis – is full of God’s promises. These promises range from God’s assurance to Noah that never again would the world be destroyed by flood, to the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to the entire world. Throughout Scripture, God promises to be with us on our days of greatest need and God promises that even the gravity of our sin won’t keep us from experiencing the blessings of God’s love. 

Not only does God make promises to humankind, but God invites people to make promises back to God and also to make promises with those with whom we share life and living. 

In the language of our faith, we call most of these promises “covenants.” But make no mistake, a covenant is at its heart a formal agreement, or a contract, or a promise. 

Some people imagine that faith is mostly a matter between one person and God. By this kind of thinking faith isn’t mostly about life today – it’s about life after death. Well…. we assuredly have God’s promises about life in the age to come, but it is a dreadful mistake to imagine that God doesn’t have passionate interest in and concern about life here and now. How we treat each other – whether with respect or with disdain – whether we are truthful or fast and loose with reality – whether we are kind or whether we are disrespectful of others – whether we attend to welfare of all people, or mostly only to ourselves – these are all issues that matter to God because they are matters of promise – of covenant. 

It seems that God cares just as deeply for communities as God cares for individuals. 

This is why we make a big deal of baptism and why we make a big deal of confirmation. Confirmation, you see, is the process by which we invite (usually, but not inevitably) young people who were baptized prior to their own memory to personally own the promises relating to faith and life that were made on their behalf when they were very little. We sometimes speak of young people as “being confirmed” – as if confirmation is something done TO them. But that’s not right. Young people are not “confirmed by the pastor” or “confirmed by the church” – young people work through a process of faith examination so that they are empowered to confirm their OWN baptism by virtue of owning the promises that were made on their behalf a decade or more earlier. 

And just as the entire congregation has a part in the baptism of an infant by promising their “love, support and care” for the infant and her/his family, so on confirmation day the congregation is encouraged to recall that promise already made and to renew it. You see, no one ever outgrows their need for the “love, support and care” of a community of faith. If you 2, or 14, or 54, or 93, you still need fellow members of the body of Christ to help you live a life that is faithful and meaningful and responsible. 

So…. on Sunday, May 12, we’ll do Confirmation Sunday at Zwingli Church. And there will be promise-making – on the part of the confirmands, yes! But also by each one of us. Because our collective need for “love, support and care” never ends. 

Blessings to each of you! 

Pastor Rich Pleva 

GOOD FRIDAY – EASTER SUNDAY

posted Mar 31, 2019, 4:06 PM by Cameron Hubanks


Easter gets all the press, of course. We all understand that. Easter is lilies and egg hunts. Easter is a ham dinner with all the trimmings (an oddly “unkosher” way to celebrate the resurrection of a Jew!!). Easter is church with joyous hymns and all seats filled. Easter is celebration and victory. What’s not to love about that? 

We’re never quite sure what to make of Good Friday. Good Friday is betrayal and treason and abandonment. Good Friday is failure and scandal. Good Friday is about death. Can there be anything to love about that? 

Actually, I think there is! Well, not the execution per se, but the honesty and the reality of Good Friday is what gives the celebration and joy of Easter its power. 

Jesus – for the sake of love – endured the betrayal and injustice of Good Friday. He didn’t blunder into it nor was it something unexpected. It was entirely unwelcome and unjust, yet Jesus did not evade its horror. Jesus was not somehow immune to the excruciating physicality of that which was inflicted on him – it is somehow obscene to imagine that because he was the Son of God, he was somehow exempt from the torturous realities of a mock trial and a barbarous execution. 

Easter, you see, has meaning only because it follows “Good” Friday. Were there no Good Friday, Easter would be frivolous and pompous. 

Good Friday matters because at some point or another, we all walk through our own Good Fridays – days of pain and loss and alienation and betrayal and ultimately, death. Knowing Jesus has faced exactly what we face – not some sham facsimile, but the real, honest-to-goodness reality of loss, betrayal and death – tells me, at least, that on my days of loss and sickness, betrayal and death – that there is a God who isn’t just academically interested in my ordeals, but who has been there and who aches along with me. This kind of faith teaches me that this God holds my hand through the darkest night of human loss and never lets go. 

On Sunday, April 21 – Easter Sunday – we’ll celebrate resurrection and victory as well as we can figure out how to do! But perhaps you might take a little time on Thursday, April 18, to come to church at 6:30 pm for a brief service in which we will pay attention to loss and death in preparation for Sunday’s celebration. Our Maundy Thursday service will include communion and scripture and quiet. I hope you will come. 

Blessings to each of you. There is hope! There is hope because we follow a savior who has walked the same road we must sometimes walk. Thanks be to God! 

Pastor Rich Pleva 

Big Stories of the Bible

posted Mar 6, 2019, 4:09 PM by Cameron Hubanks

From the Pastor 

Our Sunday morning journey through the “Big Stories” of the Bible has taken us through a variety of histories and happenings. More than a few of these have been stories with as much distressing failure as exhilarating success. At points it’s been depressing! 

Now, however, we find ourselves focusing on Jesus. These coming stories are different than the Old Testament stories in significant ways. They are not at all contradictory to the older stories, but instead of a continuing focus on the (often broken) state of humankind and how the arc of Jewish history unfolds to set the stage for Jesus, we now will be immersed in the life and teaching of the founder of Christian faith. 

Most of the stories we’ve considered in the fall and into the winter do not teach so much as they describe. They draw a picture of human reality – of possibilities, for sure, but also of failure and loss and trouble. The stories of Jesus are in many ways more instructional than are the older stories. 

But even so, it is important to keep in mind that while Jesus is assuredly a teacher, the essence of his teaching is not “be good and you’ll be okay” – the essence of his teaching is something more akin to “in trusting me you will find life.” 

From its founding Christianity has struggled with the place of good works. Christian faith firmly believes that being good matters, but Christian faith also disavows the notion that any human can ever be good enough to merit god’s favor. Our religion is not a religion of doing good – our religion is a religion of following Christ. 

The stories of Jesus can easily be misunderstood as the moralistic basis for pleasing God. But Christian faith is better understood as a system of counter-cultural assertions about God and about humankind. High on the list of counter-cultural notions is this one – God knows that you and I are each possessed of a baffling mix of good and evil and God nevertheless loves each of us enough to ache for our devotion. Not for our perfection, mind you, but for our devotion. 

I hope to see you in worship as we work our way through a series of stories in which we will get to know Jesus and learn more of his hopes for you and for me. 

With Great Hope! 

Pastor Rich Pleva 

Saint Valentine

posted Feb 10, 2019, 7:38 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Will you observe Valentine’s Day? If yes, why? If not, why not?

Almost nothing is known with certainty about this Saint Valentine – it’s not even certain there really was such a person. There is a tradition suggesting that in the 3rd century a man named Valentine married Christian couples contrary to the rules and requirements of the empire and for this he was initially beaten. The beating was intended to kill him, but itdidn’t, so he was then beheaded. As you would guess, the beheading was fatally effective.

Much more recently this Valentine has come to be associated with romantic love – almost certainly because of his supposed commitment to Christian matrimony. February 14 – Valentine’s Day – has consequently come to be associated with the giving of flowers and chocolates and romantic dinners.

Does it matter if we’ve got it right about St. Valentine? Probably not very much. Any occasion which prompts kindness and gift-giving is surely a good thing. I rather like the story associating St. Valentine with marriage – and am not much bothered by the fact that it might not be accurate.

There are some who scoff at this celebration of romance. In the minds of some it is nothing more than an excuse for florists and candy-makers and restaurateurs to make a profit. Again, that may be true, but I’m not much put off by it. Afterall, sellers of coffee and automobiles and myriads of other non-essential products also entice us to buy stuff we scarcely need and most of us willingly succumb to their marketing entreaties. Why be so offended by this one?

For some, I suppose, it’s the implication that I don’t really love my beloved unless I shell out for her (or him). I imagine that some feel manipulated by the insinuation that the failure to buy (probably overpriced) flowers means the quality of my love is defective. The pressure to spend may induce guilt, I suppose. Is there merit in buying flowers out of guilt?Hmmm......

All of this matters, I think, but maybe not so much as some imagine. As you can likely tell, I am neither a fan nor anenemy of Valentine’s Day. If you are one or other, that’s fine with me.

So why bother writing (and reading – that’s your part in this) about it? Just these two things: First, love is of God and is ofinfinite value and should be celebrated. If February 14 can enhance our appreciation for and celebration of Godly love, then we should be pleased. And if you are put off by Valentine’s Day and rather celebrate Godly love in other ways, that’s good too. What’s not acceptable is to be unmoved by love. Love is part of the essence of God. We dare not be blaséabout love. Love matters!

The second thing? I started by asking whether you’d observe Valentine’s Day. I hope I’ve prompted some thought.Sometimes what we choose to do and choose NOT to do matter mostly for the motivation behind them. If I can move you to think about what you do and what you don’t do, I’ve maybe prompted you to be just a tiny bit further down the roadtoward Godliness. You see, following Jesus is surely a matter of the heart – but you already knew that. What I’msuggesting is that following Jesus is also a matter of the mind.

Thinking and feeling – head and heart. They both matter. Let’s do both....to the glory of God!With Great Hope!
Pastor Rich Pleva

“God loved the world so much......”-John 3:16

posted Dec 1, 2018, 5:13 PM by Cameron Hubanks

From the Pastor

“God loved the world so much......”-John 3:16

Are you ever tempted to wonder, “Okay God, which is it?” Do you love the world, or are you exasperated withthe world? As we’ve been working our way through the “Big Stories of the Bible” we’ve gulped a little at thestory of Noah and the big boat and the rainbow. On that day, at least, it seems God was done with humankind and the evil people often inflict on others. On that day, God nearly started over.

Wouldn’t it nice if the story of humankind after Noah was one of peace and kindness and grace? We all know, of course, that humankind wasn’t much better after Noah than we (because it IS we, after all) were before.The powerful still use and abuse the vulnerable and sickness and disease still ravage, and poverty still haunts millions upon millions.

It is precisely in the face of so unrelenting a story of failure that Christmas ought to take our breath away. Unlike the story of the flood, at Christmas God tries something utterly new. Instead of destruction, God joins the vulnerable and becomes human. And not just any human. When God chose to become one of us, shedidn’t show up in a palace, but in a barn. God didn’t reveal Godself as a ruler, but as an infant – one who shortly became a refugee who needed to flee with his parents to a foreign country – where, like refugees almost always are – he was likely barely tolerated.

It’s nice at Christmas to revel in beautiful decorations and in cookies and in family and gifts – but if we fail to take note of the sacrifice God embraced to show humankind – you and me! – the path to life and meaning, then we miss the point.

May your celebrations of Advent and Christmas be filled with wonder and joy! Celebrate and give (andreceive!) with abandon and with gratefulness. And be mindful of the depths of God’s love for you – for trulythat is the “reason for the season.”

God bless you and Merry Christmas! Pastor Rich Pleva

How Much?

posted Nov 7, 2018, 5:45 AM by Cameron Hubanks

How much of your everyday life does God care about? Does it sound like a bit of a trick question? Well, notreally. I’m sure all of us, if we stop and think about it, know that God is interested in every single part of our lives. God is interested in how we treat our family, how we relate with co-workers (and with bosses and employees, if we have either of those). God is interested in whether we are kind and whether we are respectful and whether we love our neighbors and of course God is interested in whether we love God!

But is God interested in how we spend our money? Is God interested in how we use our vote? I think it’spretty obvious that God is interested in all those things. And if the church – this church or any church – isn’tpushing its people to think about these questions from a faith-filled perspective, then perhaps God wonders whether we are really part of the church of Jesus, or whether we are just a social club.

November will be a busy month in the life of Zwingli Church, and in various ways we’ll be thinking of some ofthose issues that sometimes we avoid in church.

On the 11th we’ll have our annual Polka Service. I think God will smile as we tap our toes.... might we even dance?

On the 18th we’ll be learning about the important work that two of our members do with Native peoples in SouthDakota. Even though Jeannette and Judy do this work at their own initiative, they are part of Zwingli UCC, so their work is Zwingli’s work. Partly their report should challenge every one of us to wonder – what work am I doing for God?

On November 4 and 25, I will talk about faith and money. We’ll be taking a little break from our considerationof the “Big Stories of the Bible” to think about faith and money. I suppose this note might cause some to beforewarned and stay away on those two weeks, but I hope it might actually be the opposite for most of you. I hope you are curious to think more about what God thinks about faith and spending and giving. I promise not to reach into your wallet!! But I can make no promise about whether or not God’s Spirit might!

November, as always, wraps up with Thanksgiving. It’s not technically a church holiday, but in reality, giving thanks is profoundly Christian. Here are just a few of the things for which I’m thankful:

  •   That this church has trusted me enough to invite me to be your pastor. I’m grateful!

  •   That many of our members love God enough so much that they engage in mission on all our behalf!

    Some of that mission is with the Lakota in South Dakota and some of it is right here in Dane County. I

    hope even more of us get engaged in the months and years to come!

  •   That God loves music and a party! Polka Sunday ought to bring a smile to all of our faces!

    Thanksgiving blessings to each of you!
    With Great Hope! 
    Rich Pleva, Pastor

I have no crystal ball

posted Oct 2, 2018, 12:27 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 2, 2018, 12:28 PM ]

I have no crystal ball which tells me the future. Even the Bible, which is often thought to be a blueprint of the future, doesn’t serve very well as a harbinger of what’s coming next. Will the Bible tell who will win the November elections? Can the Bible be used to predict the circumstances of the next mass shooting? Is there a way to read the Old Testament prophets, or the Revelation of John so as to be able to predict how long the current stock market rally will last? The answers are, no, no, and no.

The Bible does, however, predict another future certainty about which almost none of us care to think – you and I are on the road to death. It is the nature of all created things to be born and to gradually grow to maturity and then later on to decline and to die. This reality may be unpleasant to contemplate, but it is true and certain. Humans are challenged to think clearly about death. We are not to romanticize it (we are taught it isan “enemy”) but neither are we to fear it. It isn’t that we can somehow stare death down by steely determination and thereby escape its clutches. The teachings of the Bible (to say nothing of millennia of human experience) are clear – we will all die.

And not only do individual humans die, but the institutions we build also die. Companies and countries and yes – churches, are born and flourish for a time and then decline. Not all utterly pass away, but they fade and turn into something resembling a shadow of their former existence. The examples are manifold – ancient empires such as the Babylonian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire are all shadows of what they once were. Famous and enormous companies – Studebaker and Amoco and The Pennsylvania Railroad are no more. The letters of the New Testament were mostly written to churches churches which long ago faded from the scene.

So what? As I’ve been getting to know you, I’ve heard a few confess some anxiety for the future of ZwingliUCC. At the risk of seeming glib and perhaps being misunderstood, I need to remind you that Zwingli Church will close someday.

BUT – that day is not yet – it probably isn’t even soon. There are many ways to think of death – some helpful and many not so helpful. One of the helpful ways to think of death is to use the reality of future extinction as a motivation to be purposefully lively TODAY! Zwingli Church has a role to play in the economy of God. Wedon’t play the same sort of role as do larger churches. It is the (inevitable) reality of smaller churches that they are less programmatic than are larger churches. But small churches can be just as lively – sometimes more so– than larger churches. Where a large church will execute a formal program to feed the homeless, or care for latch-key kids between the time school gets out and Mom and/or Dad get home, or lobby legislators for the implementation of law that truly advances the common good, a small church will rarely do any of these admirable things – at least not by any official program. That isn’t how small churches work. Whereas the large church does these things with its own stand-alone program, the small church empowers its members to do these things on their own, or in tandem with others or by engaging with groups – secular or sacred – which are created to advance the common good.

It may seem that the small church does little except worship – but appearances may be deceiving. In fact, it may be that in worship the members are fed and motivated to carry Christ into their work and into their communities and into social action – and when they do that – THAT IS ZWINGLI UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST DOING THE WORK TO WHICH GOD CALLS IT.

So.... rest assured... you and I and Zwingli Church will someday die. But we’re not yet to the day of death anduntil we get there we have the joy and privilege of doing the work of Jesus. And whether we do it alone, or withtwo or three others, or with another organization that doesn’t even look like a church – in fact, it is part of the God-given mission of Zwingli Church.

So, my friends, be the church. You don’t need my permission or that of the Church Council to do the work of Zwingli Church. Have at it!!

And let us know how it’s going, too! With Great Hope!

Rich Pleva, Pastor

Are stories just for kids?

posted Aug 30, 2018, 4:47 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Are stories just for kids?

I suppose it depends on the “story” because stories run the gamut from trivial to life-changing.

There are personal stories – the story about Grandpa and how he died young and how that shaped life for Dad and his siblings. There are community stories – the story about what happened when the bypass was built around the town and how it seemed that businesses shriveled and slowly died afterwards. There are stories that come from books – everything from Dr. Seuss’s story of the Lorax to Dostoyevsky’s story of the Brothers Karamazov. Stories are sometimes generic – “You need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” – and sometimes very specific – “Everything started to fall apartin this family when Grandma got sick and started drinking.”

Some stories hardly ever get told – either because it’s assumed everyone already knows them, orperhaps because they are embarrassing, and we hope they’ll be forgotten. National stories can be like this – there are the stories of valor from the Revolutionary War or the Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe and there are stories of shame like how the native people were usually treated by European settlers and the history of Jim Crow laws and their devastating impact on black people in the early decades of the 20th Century.

Stories can inspire, stories can shame, stories can motivate, stories can deflate.

Christian faith is itself a story. And depending on how thoroughly we know and embrace the story it either changes us from the inside out, or else it becomes a curiosity that we set on the fireplace mantel while letting our deepest values and priorities be derived from elsewhere.

I’m guessing that most of us really do intend to be shaped by the values of Jesus. But unfortunately, in thousands of churches like ours, our connection with the Christian story – the stories of the Bible, if you will – has grown weak and thin. Our most fundamental values have been more shaped by Wall Street (money matters most), or by Washington, DC (power matters most) or by Hollywood (pleasure matters most) than they have been shaped by Jesus (love of God and love of neighbor matters most).

Can this state of affairs be turned around? I think it can be, but it takes determination and discipline. It takes the willingness to relearn our own story and to be open to the possibility that some of theways we think and live aren’t pleasing to God and need to be changed.

This process starts, I think, with getting back in touch with the basics of the Christian story.

Therefore, starting in September we’ll have a three-prong emphasis on Bible story. For 36 weeks(with some breaks for Christmas and Holy Week), we’ll focus on 36 central stories – Bible stories – in worship, in Sunday School, and in Confirmation.

I hope this sounds interesting and important. I hope you’ll do your best to participate in as much ofthis survey of the Bible as you possibly can. We’ll start September 16. The first story is predictable: Creation! See you in worship!

Blessings to each of you!

Rich Pleva, Pastor

What makes a good pastor.

posted Aug 6, 2018, 7:04 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Aug 6, 2018, 7:05 PM ]

Every one of you reading these words has an idea of what makes a good pastor. Your picture of the “good pastor” is a composite of pastors you had when you were a child and when you were older – of when you went through hard times and no one from the churchreached out to you and other times when your pastor turned out to be (literally!) a “Godsend” – someone who helped save your life!

Each of us instinctively knows what makes a “good pastor.” We can rarely put it into words – usually we don’t even think about it –but that image lingers powerfully, and without conscious thought we assess every new pastor that comes into our life by that powerful standard – whether good or bad – from the past.

That said, your own image of the “good pastor” is different from that of your friend who sits across from you at church – or who rarely attends worship, but still considers church to matter in some important way. In fact, your conception of this ideal pastor is probably different from that of your best friends, or your spouse, or your children or your parents.

We don’t usually talk about these images (though your search committee did and invited you to do some of that thinking with them!). Consequently, a not very surprising thing is certain to happen in the coming weeks and months: Some of you will gradually conclude that your new pastor is pretty good and others will harbor some disappointment. And we’ll only talk about it out loud a little bit - but these feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction will be real and will color how we think about church in the coming days, months and years.

I think it’s important to name this inevitable reality out loudHere’s why: I want to be a good and faithful pastor for you, but I already know that it will be impossible for me to fully satisfy every member of the church. Rather than make myself crazy trying to be your perfect pastor I will instead work hard to understand your desires and make reasonable efforts to faithfully be there for you. Ultimately, I can only be me. My gifts (God-given gifts, I believe) are significant, but they are not enough to meet all your needs and expectations. I know that and can live with that fact.

So.... instead of trying to be your perfect pastor, I will try to be a good and faithful pastor. I will do my best to teach the faith as bestas I am able. I won’t be shy from letting you know what I think and how I am convicted about spiritual and social matters of all sorts.But it’s not my job to make you think like m– it’s my job to invite and push and prod you to wonder what Jesus wants of you. Therewill be days I try to comfort you, and there will be days I want to make you uncomfortable. I hope you will understand that especially on the days I irritate you – I’m not doing so because I relish trouble – I’m doing so because the Gospel inevitably turns things upsidedown. If I bug you, you are free to let me know, but please understand that sometimes it might actually be my job to bug you!

If pastors are to be “shepherds” (and I think they are), then they are to gently nourish on some days, and to prod and provoke on others. I hope to do both, and I hope to do so precisely because I come to care deeply about you.

Thank you for calling me to be your pastor. It is an honor to serve here at Zwingli United Church of Christ! I intend to work hard to earn your trust and to help us all make Jesus a more central part of our living.

Blessings to each of you!

Rich Pleva, Pastor

June / July

posted Jun 2, 2018, 7:19 AM by Cameron Hubanks

Love in in-between times seeks to bear the burden of a congregation’s unique history, its joys and its pain. It believes all things shared in truth, and pins its hopes on a newidentity of God’s making. Love that begins here has a way of honoring and redeemingthe past, illuminating opportunities, exposing grace, and enduring for all time to come.”1 Corinthians 13:7 (adapted by Linda Kuhn)


Almost no one likes interruptions, distractions, or change, yet times of transition have always been afixture of this life. In 500 BCE, Heraclitus of Ephesus said “change is the only constant.”

As someone who actually ENJOYS the chaos of change, I appreciate that the uncertainty of “in-between” times can introduce anxiety – and I am reminded by the Apostle Paul that no matter what we say or do or believe – in times of change or in times of stability – we are bankrupt without love.

As I write, I am getting ready to go on vacation, and when I return it will almost be June, with the whole summer like a blank slate in front of me. This is a dangerous thing for me as your interim pastor, because my every instinct pushes me into planning mode when my role here is to be in listening and nurturing mode.

Summer is a time ripe for experimenting and doing things a little out of the ordinary – like worship outside, strawberry picking, canoe trips, or bible study at the brewery. I understand you have done a blessing service for tractors! And summer is a time to do the work necessary to prepare for the fall, to plant the seeds that will be harvested later – for confirmation and Sunday school, for mission programs and worship.

We are in “in-between” times – we are having a blast and envisioning the future. I certainly hope you are enjoying this chapter as much as I am! At the same time, your transition phase is still only half- finished; there is an important handoff yet to be completed. While I can guide your planning of what that future might look like, that vision needs to be yours, not mine. You will remain and will need to lovingly train your new pastor just as you have done for me. I will be called to the next stop along myjourney to walk the “in-between” time with a new congregation.

So let us enter these summer months with creative abandon – to dream, to plant, to play, to pray working in partnership with one another and with God to discern where the Spirit is leading.

Grace abounds! Pastor Laura

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