"My Thoughts" is a reflection written by Conference Minister Rev. David R Gaewski and Associate Conference Ministers Rev. Freeman L. Palmer, Rev. Ryan W. Henderson, Rev. Dr. Marjorie Purnine, and Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams. It is featured in the weekly conference newsletter "Happenings Around Our Conference."
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My question is this: will I see tiny apples in a couple of weeks? Yes, Applezilla was completely covered with blossoms a week ago. Typical of my atypical apple tree, the number of flowers was stunning. But... there were no bees. Or none that I could see. So, I googled:
"Do apple trees need a pollinator?
Other fruit trees, like most apple, plum, sweet cherry and pears are cross-pollinating or self-unfruitful. They need another tree for pollination, and not just one of the same variety, but a different variety of the same fruit. For example, most sweet cherries must be pollinated with compatible sweet cherry trees."
I saw no bees, no workers. Apparently it is not enough for the wind to blow the pollen around from flower to flower on the same tree.
Here's a fun little exercise. In the google paragraph above, replace each of these words as follows: apple=UCC; trees=churches; fruit=witness/discipleship; plum=DOC; sweet cherry=RCA; pears=Presbyterian.
Will my apple tree produce fruit? Time will tell. The good news is many churches are buzzing.
Recently I received the sad news of the passing of Debby Butterworth. Yes, I am certain you have not heard the name. Debby was a French teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington DC, where I attended from seventh through twelfth grade. The daughter-in-law of Eric Butterworth, a longtime and well-known minister of Unity Church in New York City, Debby (we were one of the those schools who called teachers by their first names) was beloved by every student she taught. As you may recall from your middle and high school experiences, that was no small achievement.
I had taken French every year beginning in third grade. Although I did well academically, several students, including yours truly, were more than disenchanted with our seventh grade French teacher. She was a visual artist by profession who had spent a few years in France. Although she spoke French fluently, she should have stuck to her 'day job' as the saying goes. Yet in eighth grade we received Debby, and Debby's clear calling was that of a teacher. With grace, patience, and kindness, she inspired and challenged us to be better students of the French language. By the time she was through that year, I loved endless conjugations of verbs, was prepared to read French novels the next year, and went on to minor in French Literature as an undergraduate at Swarthmore.
This week is National Teacher Appreciation week. Often we describe our ministers, based on the example of Jesus, as 'preachers and teachers.' Sometimes we emphasize the value the first part of that description and not the second. While there was no 'Rev' or 'Rev Dr.' attached to her name, make no mistake, Debby Butterworth was a minister. Reflecting on her legacy contains the reminder that teaching, whether in a pulpit or in a classroom, can transform a life. Teachers certainly transformed mine. As the school year comes to a close, in gratitude to God for Debby and all teachers, I pray that we honor them by learning and following their lessons well.
Yesterday we received in the mail our invitation to our daughter's wedding. They designed it themselves. It is a boat with the name "Emily and Chris" on it's bow. They will be married outside next to the ocean in Boothbay, Maine. I know Chris drew the boat himself. Seeing this very simple post card made with care and love I was immediately transported nearly exactly thirty years ago when I was a seminary student in Argentina. I bought pink "velvety" paper and drew a design of a teddy bear holding three balloons. Inside it said, "Sueli and I are pleased to welcome our daughter Emily Alves Gaewsky into the world."
I've had a pretty decent career and can point to a variety of accomplishments. Nothing, however, comes anywhere close to the deepest pride I take in being a father. Nothing I have ever done has approached the satisfaction and meaning of nurturing those three lives: Emily, Lyvia, and Chase. If you know me, you know I do not hesitate to talk about my "kids". Do I live vicariously through them....well, maybe a little. But more than being so proud of the globally responsible, socially committed, and darn decent people they are, my amazement never ceases with how deeply God has revealed divine love to me through them.
So the seasons and circles of life continue, round and round, just as God miraculously created them. While I am not one to anthropomorphize God, I cannot help but wonder what picture God would draw on the card that reads: "Here is the world that I have loved into being."?
An Open Note to Lenten Stress
I had hoped that having you visit during Christmas was going to be one of the things I could leave behind in 2016, but here you are following me in to the Lenten Season of 2017. Why do you forsake me Stress?
It is not like we are strangers. Stress, I saw you on the highway during rush hour traffic and sitting across from me on the bus. I spotted you out of corner of my eye at the gym when I was seeking to find the open elliptical machine out of the many rows of moving bodies. You were there during the last church council meeting and you even stayed late to talk in the parking lot. Your pew never seems to be open during worship, and your chair is always full during coffee hour as you sip fruit punch out of the small styrofoam cup.
Stress, most days my prayer for you is that you find Jesus in your life. I don’t believe God wanted humanity to have such an intense relationship with you. The writer John reminds us of the words of Jesus when he spoke about the harmony of our human condition saying “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27) God’s peace is given as an answer to you; a response, a substitution, a transformation, and a liberation for living a faith-filled life in balance.
Here’s my suggestion Stress, as we move toward Holy Week-Why don’t we take some time apart to gain perspective and see how much time we really spend together? I’m going to filter my emails from you, turn off my Facebook to your posts, and stop responding to your txt messages. Call it a last-chance Lenten cleansing fast that may last until we gain some clearness to how we react together.
May God continue to bless the space between me and Thee, while we are absent one from another.
Grace and Peace~ Ryan
Today I am thinking of Kelly James and his sugarhouse in Weybridge, Vermont. Kelly was the perfect renaissance man; he could do anything. To be honest, I don't recall what his career was, but my guess is that he was dairy farmer. He long held the title of "Head Deacon" at one of the yoked churches I served. As a newly ordained, 28-year-old minister, I at first resented what I perceived as his "know it all" perspectives. Seven years later when I left that church, I deeply appreciated the depth of his simplicity, his joy of life, his love of family, his willingness to teach, and his ability to empower others. Thinking of him today, looking out at the melting March snow, I am realizing he was my mentor-perhaps my spiritual director.
After inviting me for the first time to his sugarhouse and after carefully explaining everything and more there is to know about the various grades of maple syrup, he suggested that the church hold a "sugar on snow" day. "As a fundraiser?" I asked. "No," said Kelly, "just for the fun of it." I didn't know exactly what sugar on snow was, but I guessed it had something to do with maple-flavored ice cream. Not exactly, it was simpler than that. Simply, freshly boiled syrup is drizzled over hard packed snow where it cools quickly forming a chewy candy delight. "Of course," said Kelly, "we will need pickles and doughnuts too." "Why?" "Because you just do."
So in March community members (and some church members too) gathered on the front lawn of the church and gleefully watched the children drizzling the hot syrup on the snow and picking it up to eat. Such a simple way to make adults smile, make children laugh, and to be community. I never understood the part about the pickles, but I've come to believe Kelly was right: you just do.
What do you value most about the United Church of Christ? Do you appreciate the "Big Tent" historical commitment to radical hospitality, i.e. "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here"? Do you treasure the United Church of Christ's historic commitment to a wide spectrum of social justice issues such as care for the environment, anti-racism, equal rights for all sexual identities, fair wages for all, just immigration laws, etc? And what do we do when the synergy between these two historical identities of this denomination is not "easy".
How shall we speak of justice when under our tent we are not in complete accord of how that justice is defined or when members of the body have alternative perspectives on what is truth? Or when the radical commitment to hospitality includes individuals who do not accept the identity of all the rest of the family under the tent? Is the limit to inclusion violence? And how shall we move forward when there are a variety of beliefs and experiences on what constitutes violence?
For all who have ever lived as marginalized or have been at the receiving end of prejudice, this is hardly a new question. What is new, however, is when the tension among the "majority" under the tent is elevated to a level of wide spread societal discomfort. Now what? Is now the time when we begin to question the Big Tent? For some who have heard the welcome: "No matter who you are...." there has long been a smile and visceral reaction of doubt. But lately some who have long been the voices that announce radical hospitality, question the limits to the welcome. This is an uncomfortable place to find ourselves. Nonetheless, it is very good to transparently grapple with our doubt and discomfort.
I suggest that we in the United Church of Christ are uniquely positioned for the difficult conversations since we have long lived with the ability to disagree with one another and remain together as beloved community. Let us not shy away from the uneasiness. Let us long to grow in the depth and breadth of our spiritual identities.
The sun comes out; the snow turns to mud; and families appear at my neighborhood playground, kids running and chasing balls, free from the confines of home and school, as their parents look on. I loved the playground years. They stretched longer than I would have expected, from my daughter's unsteady toddler days, until almost middle school. During that time, the nature of my looking on changed from that intense state of constant vigilance to a casual accompaniment, as I chatted with other moms and dads, and Lucy explored and shared secrets with her friends. Yet, throughout those years, there was a quality of my attention that was open to wonder and delight -- in the simple joys of community under the high clouds, in the violets and fleabane, those miniature daisies, thick on the fields and ready to be gathered into tiny bouquets, and in the changing games of children who were growing before our eyes.
I worry, as I pass the playground with a purposeful stride, that the circle of my attention has narrowed. I don't take time to sit and watch, as I did for so many years, when playground time was deemed an indisputable good. My thoughts are easily caught by the latest bad news from Washington or constrained by those tasks yet undone. I need to practice what Lucy Lind Hogan calls "theological mindfulness": to open my eyes, to stop and reflect upon small things, to ask how God is speaking in each moment. All around me, life changes and remains the same. As spring arrives this year, I'm ready to stretch my circle of attention and nurture my capacity for wonder. Maybe, I'll even pick a tiny bouquet.
There have been numerous letters and documents that I've needed to write over the past several days. Lot's of typing on this keyboard. The moment comes when I feel a sense of being "worded out". No more word crafting. No more communicating. I am empty.
And empty is good. How often we hear "I am empty" as something bad. Why? There are seasons when we need not be "full". We need not be a source to fill others. When we are empty, there is a place to be filled by what we may really need.
So it is Ash Wednesday. I have my forehead marked by the ashes of something that is no longer. And I take moments of empty silence to listen for what the divinity of the universe will have me be.
Create in me a new and right spirit, O God, my beginning and my unfolding future.
I think it was one those bikes with the long handlebars and a banana seat. It was around 1970. I would pack a peanut butter sandwich and tell my mother "I'm going for a bike ride." I'd be gone for hours. Still today when I think of how far I road that bike, I am amazed. Riding that purple (yes, but hey, it was the 70s) bike I believed in the basic goodness of everything: nature, people, and the world. The Kennedy's and Martin Luther King Jr. were my heroes. We had walked on the moon. Ella Grasso was elected the first woman governor in my home state of Connecticut. Star Trek promised our future potential. I grew up with hope and confidence. With no disrespect intended toward my parents, I found all this hope without their help. My long bike rides instilled in me a self-confidence; instilled "I can".
I am thankful today for adults who work very hard to inspire hope in children. Teachers and youth group leaders: what you do is so fundamentally important. Thank you. Much more than in 1970, we need to be intentional in providing the places where children can dream, find confidence, and hope. This is why I think Camp Fowler is so important. This is why I was so deeply moved when I heard about Camp Pride for LGTBQ+ youth. And this is why my vision for next week's "New and Right Spirit" campaign will include reaching out to children in our schools to instill a deep understanding of human equality and uprightness. As Black History month comes to a close I am again moved beyond words with MLK's insistence that "The time is always right to do what is right." Youth workers please know that you are doing the right thing.
Someone needs to say it, so I will. And I know someone won't like this. But if one only says things that everyone likes, one probably never says anything significant. So here it is.
While there truly is great diversity among our UCC authorized ministers, it is fair to say that there is a predominance of ministers with a theologically liberal and a socially progressive world view. It is also fair to say that UCC congregations are neither politically red nor blue. They are purple. And this fact has now caused a new level of stress for authorized ministers as well as for congregations. I have spoken with UCC colleagues all over the country who have told me the same thing: the stress level of clergy has very significantly risen since last November's election.
Why? Because Scripture texts that were never associated with a political agenda in the past, are now being labeled "political". "Welcome the stranger in your midst," for example.
I write these things for one reason. It is important for authorized ministers to be self-aware of their stress and to seek help for alleviating it. Whether or not you think of your conference staff as your pastors, we are here to help you strategize stress relief plans. Call us. Congregations, be self-aware that there exists today on a new level, an ideological stress within your church. If you discern that you need an outside ear, not only is your conference staff available to assist, but we also have a trained mediation team that we are able to call upon. Call us. Our purpose is to assist you and to equip you with the tools for healthy vital ministry.
Finally, despite the intensity of a time such as this, despite the real fear and pain that some are experiencing today, keep perspective that God is the alpha and the omega. It's ultimately going to be alright.
Today we are one week into February: African-American History Month. As part of my personal commemoration, I looked to my library to re-read one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. It is Faces at the Bottom of the Well, written in 1992 by Derrick Bell. Bell, who died in 2011, has an honored place in our history as the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School. In Faces, Bell presents a collection of allegorical essays built around his thesis that racism is a 'permanent' and 'indestructible' component of American society. I most recently finished reading a debate between Bell and an imaginary colleague regarding the "Racial Licensing Preference Act," which allowed employers, public facilities, businesses, and realtors among others to openly exclude persons based on race and requiring payment of a quarterly tax to a fund ostensibly to improve the well being of African-Americans. While a part of me would like to deny Dr. Bell's thesis of the permanence of racism, the empirical evidence of American history and my life experience in this country unequivocally supports it.
However, I continue to marvel at the persistence of a people who would not be conquered by the systemic evil born of greed and fear. This persistence has been in no small part faith-based, dating from the days when Jesus was imparted to slaves by plantation owners as Oppressor, yet revealed as Liberator. Persistence, whether manifest in coded messages embedded in spirituals, shouts amid the boycotts and marches of the fifties and sixties, or more recent declarations that Black Lives Matter, characterizes the miracle of an indefatigable people against improbable odds of survival.
Almost every year since February was designated Black History Month as part of the nation's bicentennial in 1976, I hear from someone, somewhere why anyone needs an African-American History month. In these turbulent and downright dangerous times, I for one need it, because it reminds me of the power that is possible through persistence as evidenced in my own history. It was, according to Jesus, the persistence of the widow that miraculously received justice from the unjust judge. Such a reminder, in spite of today, may result in the miraculous tomorrow.
Let us march on till victory is won,
I think every person who I asked "How are you?" this week, has answered: "Not very good." In each case the dis-ease was a result of stress over our unfolding national politics. Two persons had seen a doctor, one was told to see a counselor. I know that the circles in which I walk are mostly socially progressive and theologically liberal people, and so it is not surprising that the current political agenda is causing distress.
For me the question is: what are we going to do about it? Or perhaps more fundamentally: what will we do? As a socially progressive and theologically liberal Christian, I am thinking: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So I am listening for what is new and who is thinking aloud radically new thoughts.
I resonate with my friend and colleague Dwayne Royster who was struggling mightily with MLK's witness of non-violent resistance on FB a couple of weeks ago. King has been a beacon of light for several generations. But I am certain that whatever approach made sense to oppose injustice in 1964 does not easily translate into a post-modern, post-truth era.
I don't have a clue as to what God is calling the church to do.... Well, no, that's not true either. I know this: "The spirit of the Lord is upon us because God has anointed us; God has sent us to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) And I know this: "You have my Father's blessing... For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger, you took me into your home; when naked, you clothed me; when I was ill, you came to my help; when in prison, you visited me." (Matthew 25:34-36)
So beloved, how shall we sing the Lord's song in this new foreign land?
Preachers pick up the Scriptures every week and engage in “exegesis”, which is to take from the text, a spiritual truth to nurture and strengthen disciples of Jesus. Now, to be honest, to be truthful, sometimes the temptation for “eisegesis” is overwhelming; this is the exercise of starting with a presumed truth and working to fit it into the scriptural text. And this is not as clear-cut as it may appear. Truth is also gleaned from human reason, from tradition, and from experience. So “eisegesis” is not as bad as it may suggest, at least not when we confess to our listeners the process that has engaged us. If we say we have done exegesis, when in fact our process as been eisegesis, we approach the line of lying.
I am struggling with juxtaposing this ecclesial reality with the legitimation of “alternative facts” and the acknowledgement of living into a “post truth era”. The explosion of responses to Conway’s interview last week, may indeed, to use Conway’s own words “been a little too dramatic.”
Who is up in arms when we turn on a television station that reports to be “reality television”? We know it is not, but we conspire with the illusionists to make it real for ourselves. Who then, if anyone, is really lying?
In his January 15th article in the New York Times, Adam Kirsch writes: “The problem is that, more and more, people seem to want to be lied to….That is why the lie is so seductive: It allows the liar and his audience to cooperate in changing the nature of reality itself, in a way that can appear almost magical…People who can turn a lie into a truth have the power to shape reality; they are poets of the real. And the audience that gives them its willing suspension of disbelief is a co-conspirator in this uncanny transformation, just as novel readers conspire in their enchantment.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/15/books/lie-to-me-fiction-in-the-post-truth-era.html?_r=0)
So, while I am deeply troubled with a normalizing of presenting “alternative facts”, I am also conscious that this is not something new under the sun. And while my knee jerks when this is highlighted in the political sphere, I also am cognizant that the temptation arises in the pulpit as well as the podium. This is not to say “it’s all good, don’t worry.” Rather it is a confession of the daily need for every human being to look in the mirror and discern what is fact and what is a lie.
A Prayer for Our Nation
Eternal Holy One,
We pray that with your divine help, we will make American great.
Again, as when our founding fathers set our direction with the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all... are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights... that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Again, as when embattled President Lincoln cast the best of our convictions writing: "That...all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State...shall be... thenceforward, and forever free..."
Again, as when our hearts and minds were made right with the conviction of Harriet Tubman: "I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other."
Again, as young men and women of our country risked their lives to stop tyranny in Europe.
Again, make this nation great as Rosa Parks stood tallest declaring: "I will not get up."
Again, as when brother Martin etched the essence of our humanity into our souls saying: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Holy God, make America great again as when President Kennedy reminded us what it truly means to be an American, declaring: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Make this nation great as it was when New York first responders on that infamous September morning, ran toward the smoke and rubble and not away from it.
Again, as when President Barak Hussein Obama spoke to our collective conscience saying: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
Eternal Divine Spirit and Author of All that is Just, awaken us to what truly is greatness. Let us not wander aimlessly in self absorption and mindless distraction but rather set us on the hill, plant our feet in the shining city, light our path forward toward that destiny that we share with all nations, all peoples, all of your perfect creation. Amen.
Rev. David R Gaewski
Moral Re-construction. I reflected upon this several times in 2016 and continue to find this of paramount importance in our country for 2017. I asked for feedback on what the readers of My Thoughts considered moral reconstruction to mean. Here are a few of the comments I received:
"We need to seek a better balance between the concepts of "the protection of individual rights" and "working together for the good of the whole community."
"The simple kindness we show to other people like in a civil greeting. The respect each person is due and should have in every situation. Realizing that robbery, fraud, avarice, repression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse are not the way God wants us to behave."
"Moral reconstruction for our society has to include a major shift in our relationship with children."
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther chose to challenge the status quo of church and society with his 95 theses. My studies of Luther's thought resulted in understanding that just as Luther believed Christ is the center of the Church, so is the role of the Church to be central in society-the moral/ethical compass that continues to reform all of society into a more perfect reflection of who and what God has created humanity to be. It is the role of the church to be the verbal conscience of society.
This is why I am so deeply troubled-and outraged-that our Congress has moved to eliminate the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The O.C.E has historically been unbiased by party affiliation and has raised the ethical standard for our leaders. How can we morally reconstruct our society when our leaders have lowered the standards of monitoring their own ethical behavior?
To Boldly Go
I have always had a soft place in my heart for Science Fiction. Somewhere in the midst of this Advent season I was flipping channels on the TV and caught the opening narrative of the original Star Trek series, in which James T Kirk says "Space: the final frontier.These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise. Its mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before." This resonates with me, as profoundly theological at this moment in time. To Boldly Go!
"To Boldly Go"...but the question becomes: Go where?
Is our going to a location or destination?
In our going to some new hope or future yet to be?
Is boldly going about a journey or a process of travel?
Perhaps going is better than staying where we are? I'm not sure.
A few weeks ago I heard a UCC pastor ponder "that perhaps NOW is the moment in history for which the United Church of Christ was born into being for?" In the face of fear, violence, senseless shooting, natural disaster, homophobia, sexism, racism and general unrest- We, the UCC, are more needed now than ever in the world. If this is true, we must not hide our light under a basket, but let our bold light shine. The Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to be BOLD and then Go into the world to share the message of radical compassion and love.
I would like to tweak the words of James T Kirk as we embrace the coming of this new year: "2017; a New Year, These are the journeys of the Conference, New York UCC. Its mission: to be united in Spirit, inspired by God's Grace, to Boldly go into the world to welcome all, love all and seek justice for all.
Live long and prosper in the greatest of hope,
In these late Advent days, I take in the sounds of the season: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" one moment and NPR the next. I read the poetry of W.H. Auden and Luke's gospel. I fear that the stark divisions among Americans, made so clear by the results of our presidential election, are once again fading into silence. Auden's line, "we must love one another or die," has stayed with me long after I closed the book, yet I feel the temptation to narrow my focus to those dear to me, as I buy gifts for the young ones and reach out to far-away faithful friends, with a pressing awareness of the passing of time.
Still, the ancient tableau shows me magi and shepherds, drawn together across culture, class, and distance by the Reconciling One. The Advent candles remind me to hope for more than a merry little Christmas, to walk in the way of peace, to cherish moments of joy even as I open my heart to the suffering in Aleppo and Berlin, and to welcome love that is stronger and more spacious than I have yet been willing to embody.
As I wait for the lighting of the Christ candle, I pray, in the poet's words, that I might "show an affirming flame," not only within that circle of light on Christmas eve, but in each word and action throughout the challenging days to come.
Oh, the holidays. Everywhere you look, there's the hustle and bustle of crowds shopping in the mall. There is the twinkling of lights and the smell of homemade goodies baking in the oven. Our psyches are inundated with wrapping paper, bright bows and animated television specials. Oh, yes, the holidays.
Personally, I'm not really into all of the holiday hype and festivities. It seems that as my daughter outgrew Santa, I began to prefer the quiet stillness of "chestnuts roasting" as opposed to the deafening din of "bells jingling." Maybe it's age, or the fact that I've spent this entire year battling cancer, but this year there is a gentle comfort in Emmanuel, God with Us. This year I think I'll embrace a perspective that embodies the heart of the One whose birth we celebrate. Hmmm...? A new, quiet approach to the holidays could be a novel idea.
Not to sound like Scrooge, but perhaps this could be the holiday season where instead of trimming huge trees, why not light a single candle in honor of a fallen soldier whose name you may not even know. What if those homemade sprinkle cookies anonymously found their way to a nearby group home? Or try a new hairstyle and then donate a few strands to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for chemotherapy patients. That's right, a quiet, gentle holiday season, where you smile at the stressed out sales clerk or share a warm cup of coffee with a the homeless guy you pass on the street. This year, instead of endless holiday parties, try curling up with someone you love, hot cocoa, and a sappy movie.
A new, quiet approach to the holidays, now there's a novel idea.
Blessings of the season,
I wasn’t feeling up to my usual Christmas lights extravaganza this year. So at first I just put one string on the Charlie Brown twig wreath that hangs on the front of the house year round. My children would tell you that their Dad is something of a Christmas lights advocate. Not extremist, not gaudy, just a good amount of white lights. But for a long list of reasons, I just wasn’t feeling it. Until Sunday, second Sunday of Advent (Vision of Peace) when Sueli said to me: you should put up more lights.
More lights. Yes, that is needed. I’ve always thought that when the days grow shorter and darkness lingers longer, the soul needs more light. So despite my “embrace your inner-Grinch” attitude, I put up more lights. Can’t say it’s as much as other years, but it’s enough. Just a little more light.
My prayer this advent is that we as the United Church of Christ, and particularly we in New York, focus on being more light so that a Vision of Peace may be seen, a Heart of Justice can be heard beating within us and that the Emmanuel within each of us is the Gift we share with every single person our lives touch. And.... each life is interwoven with all lives.
And it’s not that we haven’t been light nor have we been inadequate in our light. We have been and are. But now is not a time for any weariness to compel us to be less.
Today is November 30. It is the last day of a month that has been, to say the least, eventful. I hearken back, three weeks earlier, to the day following the Presidential Election. I was certain that at some unconscious level I sighed relief in that perhaps the most divisive, contentious, and antagonistic campaign in the history of this country had finally reached its end. Yet I was also certain that regardless of the outcome, division, contention, and antagonism would remain. Driving to a meeting that morning in the Suffolk Association, the high anxiety I generally experience with New York City rush hour traffic gave way to a deeper anxiety about the future for this country and many in it, myself included, given the events of a few hours before.
Not up to listening to news that morning, I chose to listen to WBGO, the jazz station that serves the New York City area. The morning host, perhaps intentionally or Providentially, played precisely at 8:42 that morning precisely the song my spirit needed to hear. The song was The Creator Has a Master Plan. The song, performed by Babatunde Lea, contained these words composed by fellow jazz artist Pharaoh Sanders:
The creator has a master plan
Peace and happiness for every man
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man
You can listen to the song in its entirety (10 minutes it is jazz!) by clicking here.
This song powerfully reminded me of The Master plan above all human events, all human powers, and all human planning. Perhaps, as we begin this season of Advent, we all need this reminder as we prepare for the coming of the plan's chief architect: Jesus Christ. Particularly in these times I believe Jesus can't come soon enough. Further, I pray that our spiritual preparation for Jesus' coming will deepen our commitment, in faith and courage, to 'working the plan', the Creator's master plan, for nothing less than peace and happiness for everyone - the Shalom of the World.
In Advent Hope,
As I come to this Thanksgiving and I ponder my own sense of thankfulness, the words from a T.S. Elliot poem come to mind:
"Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered."
These days I am indeed finding "stranger" and more complicated patterns to living and I sense a longing for "home". Over the next few days I will be with family (except my son who must work). We will do the usual things: Turkey dinner, pies, and pinochle. There will be movies and naps. We will get the Christmas tree and take out the decorations. We will string lights. I am thankful that my family holds a relatively analogous world view, so I doubt there will be any political arguments...just lamenting.
But after the holidays there will certainly be, for me, stranger and more complicated patterns. Landscapes have changed before, and with time we make sense of seismic activity. We change, we adapt, we move forward. I will focus on the lifetimes burning in every moment, which is to say, I will fix my sight on the sacredness of all life rather than on the "old stones" I am unable to understand.
"We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion..."
Pursuing the deeper communion in turbulent times is both comfort and challenge. It is not a question of whether we or I are "up for it". It is a matter of still moving and being moved by faith in the home where we first began-in the womb of God.
Each of us are given defining moments in life. Defining moments are different because they have a Before and an After. The profound component of a defining moment is that things will never be the same. When a child is welcome
d into a family, when someone affirms their faith by baptism or confirmation, when someone is joined in holy union, or someone dies and we say well done good and faithful servant. These are all defining moments we experience as people of faith.
The presidential election of 2016 will go down in my life as a defining moment.
Unlike any defining moment in life, no matter what side of the political aisle, this election season has been one that has been full of heavy emotions, hurt-fill
ed words, and divisive actions that are beyond imagination and have sought to divide. This leads us up to now, the day after, and we wonder "What should we do now?" "How do we build Unity?"
I don't have any profound answers, Yet. However, my heart tells me that this defining moment in life is a call to prayer. To pray for unity and to an end of hurtful words. To pray for justice and God's will being done on earth. To pray for vision and spirit-filled signs about where we are being led. To pray that we can be united in compassion and connected in holy love. But it all starts with the end of silence and those small words to God "not my will, but thy will be done"
In the days after today, may we take time to Love God with our whole being, Love ourselves, and Love our neighbors. May we be boldly united in the Holy Spirit and challenged to be tireless prophets for justice, for a world that continues to need to hear the Good News.
In the Greatest of Hope~ Ryan
By the time the next Happenings arrives in your inbox, the US elections (hopefully) will be over. There will be some who will be disappointed, some relieved, some angry, and still other left confused. How will we reconcile our different world views? Can we?
I am left truly wondering "What Would Jesus Do?" I can't answer that, but my hunch is that he would talk about Caesar and God, and giving to each what is due to them. Regardless of how divided we may be as a nation, as communities, and even as families, I hope it is possible to separate loyalty to civil ideologies from spiritual integrity. I believe that this past political season has strained every aspect of our humanity. Speaking for myself in a confessional sense, I have been torn and have wrestled with my own intolerance and veiled anger. You have heard it said "hate the sin, not the sinner." Genuine integrity will bring us to places of severe disagreement. But Christian virtue will return us to love our neighbor (no matter who they voted for or how much we disagree with their ideology, their world views, and their prejudices).
Confession of our own sins, I think, is the only place to begin the road toward moral reconstruction. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in My Thoughts this idea of moral reconstruction and it has been truly good to hear others reflect with me on what this means to them. Perhaps on November 9th we might begin our day with the verse: "all have fallen short of the glory of God" and "we live only by God's grace". (Romans 3:23-24). How might we confess our own failures? And how might we live in God's grace each morning?
My father was neither gregarious nor grumpy. He was neither mean nor loving. He was steadfast and a very hard worker. I think of him this time of year remembering him raking leaves and oh, that wonderful smell of burning leaves (which is NOT good for our environment, so compost, don't burn). We had a small hill in our backyard. He would rake the leaves (we had many trees) into a large pile at the bottom of the hill. My brother and I absolutely loved to run down the hill and jump into the pile of leaves. This was sheer joy-elated, uncontrolled, abandoned joy. Even writing these words I can smell and feel the leaves. My father never minded us doing this, although he told us we had to help re-rake them into a pile (which we were happy to do). Even though I don't remember my father to be one who smiled much, I do think he enjoyed watching his sons truly play. I can only imagine how I would have experienced by father jumping in the pile with us.
I am musing about play and wondering how we play when we are "grown up". Sometimes when I am flying one of my kites, I become self-conscious of taking the time that appears un-productive. But.... it gives me joy and in so doing feeds my soul. At the end of that string my spirit is soaring close to the face of God.
I am also wondering how the church plays. And a "fun" activity that is offered for the purpose of fund-raising is not play. When do we find ourselves elated with uncontrolled, abandoned joy as the children of God together?
Prayer: Loving God, teach us to play. Amazing, divine Spirit, come frolic with us. Amen.
The best Ecclesiastical Council I ever attended was for a candidate seeking ordination for a hospital chaplaincy ministry. The reason is was outstanding, is because the candidate was able to articulate the goals of hospital chaplaincy within a theological framework. At the end of the Council I thought: we have all be enlightened.
In our Congregational History, Ecclesiastical Council were meant to be learning events during which both laity and clergy would engage in a deep understanding of our faith. While personal experience of the faith is important to articulate, a Council is not meant to ever be "person focused" or to be more blunt: "me focused". The ministry is not about any one person. I am encouraged by candidates who engage our minds and hearts to wrestle with difficult faith issues as well as celebrate the meaning of Christian living. When you leave a good Ecclesiastical Council, you know it.
This evening will be the third Presidential Debate. Like many, I long for this election cycle to be over. My anticipation is that tonight's debate will be more of the same. I hope so much to be wrong. Like an Ecclesiastical Council, a Presidential Debate should educate citizens on complex issues that defy simplistic responses: I promise more jobs, less taxes, a cleaner environment, and a more egalitarian society. Like the Ecclesiastical Council that is just about "me", a Presidential Debate that is solely focused on personality and personality-flaws demeans us as a country. Rather than elevating our national consciousness, it degrades our intelligence and erodes our collective moral integrity.
Regardless of what outcome we have on November 8th, I believe we as Christians and as citizens, must engage in a moral reconstruction of our nation. I encourage you to send me your thoughts on this. I am not interested in hearing your partisan views. I am interested in hearing what moral reconstruction means for you.
I have a stack of books on a table at home that I really need to read, that I really want to read, but right now ... right now, I'm in the middle of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and nothing else is likely to be touched before I've reached the end. It's a post-apocalyptic novel, a genre that I usually avoid (if I'm going to read a few pages before bed, I want the fictional world to be an inviting one), which was recommended by a woman in my congregation whose literary judgment I greatly respect. The story centers on a troupe of actors and musicians -- about fifteen years after a flu-like pandemic has left the world with a small fraction of its population, infrastructure in ruins, no electricity or countries or law -- who travel from town to town to perform Shakespeare's plays, because, as they've painted on their caravan, "survival is insufficient."
As the story's focus jumps back and forth over that great dividing line marking the end of what was, the contrast deepens, and I find myself fundamentally challenged to discern what is important from what is trivial in my own life. I'm wondering which treasures of our past and present I'd most miss if they were lost. I'm not reading a few pages before waves of fatigue lull me to sleep; I'm alert and engaged, and only with effort can I put the book down.
In the morning, as I pull the milk from the fridge or drive to the dentist, I'm startled into an awareness of how much I take for granted. I appreciate the reminder that civilization, flawed as it is, grounds and shapes my days. Though tired, after reading so late, I give thanks for the power and beauty of art in all its forms. I bet I can finish it tonight.
"No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." These were the words used by my cousin's Roman Catholic priest to begin a Mass in New Jersey. Given that it's quite clear where these words came from, was I at all irked? NOT AT ALL. Imagine if that proclamation could be made in all places of worship! Might that not be heaven breaking through the seam work of all creation?
We say it often. But most of us know it's only meant sometimes. Rather than dismaying over the failures to live up to those radical words of hospitality, might they not be embraced as the daily challenge to live a more Christ-like life? Whenever the neat order of how we make sense of life is shaken by: No matter WHO, No matter WHERE, And welcome HERE; might that moment be an opportunity to practice the spiritual discipline of hospitality. Failures are inevitable, that is part of what it means to be human. And new breakthroughs of changed attitudes, beliefs, and actions are certain, because that is also what it means to be human.
When the uncomfortable moment is recognized, might that not be the knocking of the Divine on the heart? Despite past failures, might this be a new moment to open the door and allow the Holy to enter in?
I believe that in the United Church of Christ, where these words are so often used to open our times of worship, we feel good about the proclamation. My hope is that in addition to "feeling good" we allow ourselves to be disturbed by "Do we really mean it, right now, right here?" When the soul is disturbed, no doubt God is knocking on your door. Now that really is the beginning of worship, isn't it!
Being myself. And being my self. These are not the same. The former is about affect, the latter is about ownership. When do I know I am my self? Do I have a claim on my own life or am I living as if I were someone else's? I can genuinely be myself, and that is generally a good thing. But am I living a life that is my own or am I allowing the circumstances in my life to define me, control me, direct me.
This is more difficult than it seems. I am comfortable thinking about myself. But the question of being my self is unsettling. Am I driving or being driven? Am I choosing my steps or adjusting to the terrain before me? Am I living my life or am I following expectations and directions? And if I am not my own, then who or what have I given my self to?
My spiritual tradition values giving my self to the divine. But I am finding this problematic because that separates the holy and me. Is the sacred out there somewhere or is it inside of me. If I value and honor the inward sacredness, I believe how I live is of eternal importance. If I see, or look for, the sacredness that resides within each person, then how I interact with every person is an act of prayer. And if disassociate the holy from the me and the you, then my actions are of minimal importance while being myself and not being mindful of my self.
I suppose it is a sign of sanity when we recognize that there are often internal struggles over our own adequacy. If those questions never arose, then there probably is no real sense or understanding of self. But when one can truly look at oneself and ask: "is this all there is?" then an awareness of the self becomes more real. It may not always be comforting, but it is real. And real is good. So feeling, from time to time, not up to the task or inadequate can be a "humility check". And that too is not a bad thing.
Sensing inadequacy, however, has nothing to do with our human potential. I am convinced that our potential is closer to what I think of as infinity or eternity. As long as I try to wrap my brain around those two words, the more confounded I become. But when I think of human potential, ah, yes, then I begin to perceive what infinity might be. I have seen it over and over and over again in people who call themselves "ordinary".
Perceiving oneself, from time to time, as inadequate for the task before you is just the normal human condition. What may become the sacred surprise is the infinite potential that someone else sees in you. What courage it takes to ask a friend: what do you see in me?
"It's cancer." The two scariest words that no individual ever wants to hear. When I heard them this past February, I swear I literally felt the earth shift beneath my feet. It's one of those moments where, even without all the details, your head begins spinning and your mind starts envisioning every awful and evil sick image imaginable. Here I was, nine months into a new job, in a new city where I hardly know anyone, and my daughter just entering her first year of graduate school and still somewhat dependent on me. God knows I didn't have time to be sick and incapacitated, especially with something as complicated as cancer. No, this definitely did not fit into my New Year's agenda.
My rugged individualist upbringing has always led me to hold my cards close and not do a lot of personal sharing. However, when I did finally make my diagnosis public, I was utterly amazed at the outpouring of love and support I have received from all across the state. For this I am extremely grateful. I discovered that the NY Conference is filled with countless women who are in treatment like me, or are courageous cancer survivors. I certainly was not alone. Aside from prayers that are felt daily, many offered encouragement, shared their experiences and given me suggestions on dealing with treatment side effects. I instantly became part of a unique sorority that I never knew existed. Proverbs 27:17 states: "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." During this difficult and lonely time, I have been "sharpened" by the outpouring of prayers and support I have received from the women of the NY Conference.
I've decided that this blessing is too good to keep to myself. Like me, some of you are still in treatment and I want to provide all my "sisters" an opportunity to connect and be a source of support for one another. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I will be hosting an online gathering for cancer survivors and any of my "sisters" who are still in the fight, every Thursday during the month of October. We will gather for one hour to share experiences, advice and sisterhood. I'm calling these gatherings "Sisters 4 Sisters." The meetings will take place using the online platform ZOOM at different times each Thursday, in an effort to include as many of us as possible. By God's grace, we are all survivors; let's take this opportunity to gather in support and solidarity. The ZOOM login link and meeting times are below. (I'll include the link each Wednesday in Happenings as a reminder).
Hope to see you then.
I have never met anyone, anyone in my life who is more giving of herself than my mother-in-law. The stories of her sacrifices for others, how she would go way out of her way to help others, are legendary. She is loved far and wide. In many ways my wife and I have said, she's in better health than we are.
But last Friday she fell, cut her hand and broke her wrist. This is very hard for any 87 year old. But we know the many inadequacies of the Brazilian medical system. And when it was quickly determined she would need surgery on Saturday morning, I took to the prayer-waves. I don't understand prayer, but I believe in it. Maybe that is it's own definition of faith.
When I posted on Facebook my request for prayers, I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of responses. Thank you. One person responded "May she be attended to by angels."
I need to emphasize that so much in the Brazilian medical system is less than ideal. I've known more than a few who have left the hospital sicker than when they entered it. But on Saturday evening my sister-in-law called my wife saying: "The surgery went perfectly. But what was most amazing was the care given by the doctors and the nurses. They were like angels!" They were like angels. That is not something you commonly hear about care received in Brazil. They were like angels.
I don't understand prayer. But sweet Jesus, I believe.
There is a small body of water in my neighborhood, about a block from my house, which my family affectionately calls "the swamp." Technically a detention basin, it's a beautiful long pond, which, I admit, summons up a more appealing image, but "swamp" has stuck, and so it's at the swamp that you'll find Dan and me almost every evening - walking the path that circles the edge of the water as we discuss the events of the day.
Our evenings have been quieter lately, since we brought our daughter to college. No music or dance lessons interrupt our routine. We can stop to greet our neighbors or watch the soccer game on the field nearby, because we suddenly have the time. Both of us are living slowly into the transition, into this empty nest, waiting and watching to see what the new creative space will birth. In the meantime, we keep to our routine and walk together.
A few evenings ago, we saw an older couple ahead of us on the path. They were staring at the ground, and when two SU students ran past us, the runners stopped there as well. We approached and saw baby snapping turtles climbing out from a small hole in the path, one after another, scuttling across the grass. We waited and watched the fifth turtle emerge, the color of mud, pushed, it seemed, from behind, by a sibling eager to see the world.
I don't know how long they'd been down there, in the earth under the busy path, or how long it took them to dig that hole up through the tamped down dirt. I only know that their sudden appearance surprised and delighted me. If I continue to keep my eyes peeled, who knows what I may see emerge next!
I finished teaching another UCC Polity Class this past Saturday. This was the first time I taught a completely online course. (I've taught "blended" classes for years.) It is harder work to teach when body language is not obvious. And while I believe I did establish community with the seven students, it is a new type of community for me.
During each Polity class I strive to provide a full picture of our UCC history, not just the wonderful "firsts", but also some of the chapters for which we should not be proud. And when I review the actual polity I attempt to outline what works like clockwork, and what wheels are still squeaky. As is typical of Polity classes today, all of the students chose the UCC as a new spiritual home. And while they expressed their gratitude for a denomination like the UCC, we also discussed how it is good to continue to value what is the best aspects of the religious traditions from which they came. It is clear to me that we need to create a liturgy in the UCC for those who are finding this denomination to be a new home, while still honoring the former places that have been a spiritual home.
At the end of each class it is my practice to close all the notes and to look my students in the eye and say: "And this is why I love the United Church of Christ: I love a church that welcomed this Roman Catholic boy with the impossible last name to pronounce. I love the women's fellowship that nurtured me and loved me as a young adult. I love the church who's commitment to doing what is right (even when it irritates some) is not a 21st century development, but rather a five hundred year journey. I am so appreciative that we found our brand with "God Is Still Speaking" even though has been our practice of faith for centuries. I love a church that knows it is not perfect, but is committed to improving itself all the time. I love this flavor of Christian faith and continues to stand upon the rock that "Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church" even when those words do not sound modern (or post modern). I LOVE the church that honors other Christian traditions and other faith practices and is quick to say "we have no market on the whole truth". I love this church and despite the times it drives me crazy, I deeply appreciate it's faithfulness.
I have this apple tree in my front yard that I named "Applezilla". This is because for two of the three years that I have lived at this house, Applezilla produced an un-natural abundance of apples. I'm not talking about just a lot; I'm talking day after day of picking up wheelbarrows of rotting apples for the compost pile. I'm talking about a freezer FULL of applesauce and apple butter. One year the weight of all the apples nearly killed the tree from all of the breaking branches. I had it professionally pruned.
This year my apple tree looks beautiful. It is perfectly shaped. On the entire tree I believe there are less than a half dozen apples. It is almost completely void of fruit. Yes, I still have a few containers of apple butter still in my freezer, but I will soon run out. No apples for 2016. Blasted tree is not producing anything! What good is it?
Dear Applezilla that has taught me so much year after year, this year continues to open my eyes. Rest is good. Sabbatical allows for future productivity. Let it suffice that this year I will sit in the shade of a beautiful tree. Breathe deep.
A little over a week ago, I was part of the 4000 United Church of Christ Youth, Young Adults and Chaperones in Lake Buena Vista Florida at the National Youth Event, whose theme was "Believe." During one of the large group worship times- someone shared a quote attributed to Walt Disney "When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable."
Whenever the United Church of Christ gathers nationally in one place, I am always in awe of our diverse expressions. We are a beautiful mixture of regional quirkiness, different understandings of our theology, a variety of languages spoken, a broad palate of skin tone, orientation and gender expression and ways of being United in Christ. Yet, the cross triumphant, the comma and the words "That They May All Be One" connect all of us to something larger than our local congregation or conference. This is one of my favorite and unique features of being the United Church of Christ.
The unique, extravagant diversity is one of the many reasons why I have attended National Youth Event since 2004. It is this experience, or as Walt Disney says the "Thing", that solidifies my love for the United Church of Christ - "all the way, implicitly and unquestionable"...so that no matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, we are welcome to #Believe
God is Still Speaking,
I love thunderstorms. My family finds that odd knowing that when I was almost five years old, my home was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. For decades it was known as the worst fire in the history of Monroe, Connecticut. No one was hurt, but my parents literally lost everything.
Still, I really do like storms. I like it when the windows shake. I love the sound of cascading rain. I also like the clearness of the air after a really good storm.
It seems to me that for quite some time there have been less thunderstorms than when I was younger. I looked online to see if this was the case. Is there a correlation with climate change? What I've found online is inconclusive. It seems to be the case that in El Nino years, there is less lightning, but with each increase of the average global temperature, there appears to be more lightning. I can attest to many storms growing up in New England, but global maps show the NE as a lower frequency area.
But when the humidity and mugginess linger day after day, week after week, I long for a good storm to clear the air. Clear air is good. You can breathe deeper and see farther.
A few months ago my four-year daughter, Julia, starting taking Swim lessons, She loves the water!
It doesn't matter if; we are at a pool, or a lake, or a small plastic tub with a sprinkler in the back yard of our home. Julia loves to be in her bathing suit splashing amongst the peaks and valleys of the waves. Splashing water, Water balloons, Ice Cubes in drinks, and watching the sunrise over a water horizon brings back so many memories, for me, of time gone past and precious anticipation of days yet to be.
Sometimes it feels like summer should be the season of water, or lack of water. I crave the times where I can watch the ocean's scared rhythm, I have moments of thirst and think about those who do not have access to the clean cooling water, which I take for granted as I turn on my sink.
At some deep level of my soul I feel a connection to the "Water" places of life, or spaces that give life in the midst of the parched places of daily routines. I feel connected to looking out from the shore watching the sun rise. I feel connected to thinking about my baptism and the sacred waters of welcome shared in many of churches around New York, as we called those being baptized- Beloved. I feel connected to those ways we march or boldly stand-up for those without voice and sanctuaries that have lost their holiness due to senseless violence.
My prayer is that in the midst of this summer you make time to find the "Water" place of your life. The place that calms you, connects you, that reminds you that you are Beloved- Called, Named and Charged- to spread the Good News through our words, our actions and our BOLD faith for today.
In the Greatest of Hope,
In early 1997 John sat me down, opened a thick notebook and said, "This is how you do conference ministry."
He preached at my installation as conference minister in Maine and I knew he was proud that the Central Atlantic Conference had given Maine their co-conference ministers. For many years he teased me for entering conference ministry so early. Since my first gathering with conference ministers, John was there: nineteen years. I have usually agreed with him and always admired him.
John unquestionably taught me more about conference ministry than anyone else. Perhaps he taught me more about ministry than any other person. I did not learn these things from his notebook, but rather from the example of his life. These are the lessons he taught:
Love your congregation. Care deeply for your people even when they are disagreeable. Be their pastor even when you are told that church bureaucrats cannot be pastors to pastors. Be a pastor anyway.
Love this United Church of Christ. It has many faults, but in the history of Christianity, the creation of the UCC was a unique triumph for the causes of unity, inclusivity, ecumenism, and justice. Remember where we came from because the path forged guides our future. Honor those who paved this road.
Be passionate and tireless advocating for those who are oppressed. While at the end of the day you can return from your workplace to a safe home, a good meal and a warm bed, most people on this planet cannot do the same. Never rest from advocating for the rights of all. Every life on this planet is of equal worth in God's sight.
Be serious about the tasks that God has given us, but never be too serious about yourself. You have as many faults as the next person. You are no better. But God has bestowed upon you great responsibility. Take this seriously.
I am shocked and shaken by the death of John Deckenback. It is surreal to me. I am thankful for what he taught me and humbled to have considered him a close friend.
Job well done, good and faithful servant.
Last weekend, I returned home after some time away with my family in the Adirondack High Peaks. My "news fast" ended suddenly, and the wave of suffering and grief born of the latest events in this ongoing national tragedy washed over me. In the days since, I've been listening to NPR constantly, to poets and politicians and preachers, to Diamond Reynolds mourning the loss of the future she and Philando Castile had planned, to President Obama holding tight to hope against the threat of despair. Even as I listen hard for new words that will provide a way forward, I hear the echo of a voice, in memory, offering advice from a different context, another society in which fear of the other too easily tends to slip into dehumanization.
In Jerusalem, nearly two years ago, a priest spoke to our EKHN-UCC delegation with passion and urgency. He told us to pay attention to the way we talk, to notice and name models of community founded upon exclusion and discrimination, to create new ways of being in relationship. I've shared his words with many since I've returned, but they will not let me go: "We are people of the Word," he said, "and words create the world. The words we speak help those who hear to build, for words are bricks."
What I learned on that trip was that healing and justice-making and the mending of creation are local activities and that the size and complexity of any problem absolves no one from doing their part. And now, when I'm all too likely to allow the weight of seemingly endless violence to tamp me down into silence, I need that reminder that I do have the tools with which to build beloved community. I pray that I may do my part to create the world, today and each tomorrow, with courage and with faith.
New York City subways carry millions around the city on a daily basis, and it is not surprising when from time to time a celebrity rides the train with the crowds. It is part of being in the city. Recently there was publicity about a presidential candidate who eventually rode the subway after several unsuccessful attempts to use their Metro Card to enter through the subway turn style. For the two-stop journey that received national attention, 'straphangers,' as New York Subway riders are affectionately called, experienced the presence of this celebrity.
Paraphrasing the jazz masterpiece by Duke Ellington, I recently encountered a surprise appearance by a celebrity while "taking the A train" to Harlem. There was a Latina mother and her daughter, about two years old, riding in my car. Joining us later, sitting across the entrance doors, were a Caucasian mother and her daughter, also of toddler age. This daughter played with a green balloon tied to her carriage. The Latina girl became enamored with the balloon and started to point at it, wanting to play. Her mother, with no small effort, tried to restrain her. Seeing this, the Caucasian mother invited the girl to come over and play with her daughter and the balloon. As the children played and the mothers smiled and spoke with one another, I looked around the car at the other passengers. In an extremely rare moment on a New York City subway train, every face around me was framed in a smile.
I immediately recognized in these moments that a 'Celebrity Straphanger' had boarded that A train. In that Presence, a variety of differences, boundaries and barriers had given way to the sight of two children and their parents experiencing what they had in common: love - joy- wonder- play. There are moments when God unexpectedly shows up. And in those moments ordinary times become eternal, ordinary spaces become sacred, and ordinary people become holy. This time, it was on the subway. The company of that Celebrity Straphanger graced all of us in that subway car that day. And it made our journey together a memorable one.
My pastor/mentor once told me "life is what happens, when you're expecting something else." I chuckled at the time, but the older I get, the more true this rings. I consider myself to be a methodical kind of person and I'm not really big on surprises. Still, I am always intrigued by the unexpectedness of God.
I recently bought a juicer. Now, I am one who is finicky about fruit and I don't particularly like vegetables. So my purchase was not based upon the supposed nutritional value of juicing. But I bought this machine mainly because it looked shiny, and I am a professed gadget junkie. Finally, after two days of creating a total mess "puree'-ing" nearly everything in the fridge, and making my wife crazy in the process, I decided to get a recipe book and do some real juicing.
Well...who would've thought that pears and carrots would even go together? Nobody puts beets and pineapple in the same glass. No way! And once you get past the awful green color (I don't like green food), apples, spinach and kale all squished and mixed actually tastes pretty good. I am proud to say that I'm quickly becoming the galloping gourmet of juicing, and all it took was putting the right ingredients together and letting the machine do its magic.
Juicing is the epitome of church leadership. If mission is the "machine" that makes the church function, than our task as leaders is to make sure that the right ingredients get "puree'ed" into the machine. The goal of every congregational leader should be to seek out the gifts, graces and talents of those sitting in our pews each week. We should be helping them find their place within the mission and ministry of the church. Merely holding a board or committee position is not a means unto itself. That's not leadership. No, real leaders are constantly looking to equip and empower others to be all that God created them to be. And don't be surprised if it's folks you least expect, doing what you least expected. Unfortunately, we tend to think that some things just don't go together. But, I guarantee, in your church, there is some teenager who is dying to work with the senior ministry. While that tattooed biker-dude would actually make a great Sunday School teacher. Trust me, you've got some beets and pineapples sitting in your pews. If you're a leader, all you need is to do is invite them off the shelf, and drop into the mix together. Then...sit back and let the machine do its magic.
In New York we know about tragedy and it grieves us deeply that the mentally ill man who committed this horrendous crime in Orlando was born in New York. This was not an act of someone from outside of our boarders, it was one of our own. This was a hate crime against the LGBTQ community.
First it is time to grieve the lives lost and to pray for their loved ones. There are no words.
Prayers are eternal. What we do on this earth with these lives, while having eternal consequences, is bound by time. How can it be that the FBI interviewed this man in 2013 and 2014 where he expressed sympathy for terrorist bombers, and our own gun laws allowed him to buy those arms? Yes, he was ill. So is a country that allows for this.
When it is already perfectly said, no point in adding or taking away. This email came to Marjorie Purnine this past weekend.
My name is Doug Satterlee and I was enrolled in the NYSOM program for several years. I know that you meet so many people that I doubt you remember me. I'm sending you this note to say thank you to you and to NYSOM. On May 15 I was ordained as a UCC minister in the Penn West Conference. Three years ago this coming August I moved here and accepted a three church charge. The charge is called Woodcock Valley and consists of St. Paul's in Russellville, St. Matthew's in Entriken and Zion in Marklesburg. I'm sure that you have never heard of any of these places, I never had till I came here. I don't know how I got here. I just received a call from the conference minister here asking if I would be interested in these churches. I asked her how she got my name and she said she didn't know where it came from but she found it on her desk. I have no idea how it got there. God sure does work in mysterious ways. When I came here they told me that my training through NYSOM was way ahead of the training that they have here. So all I was asked to do was to write my ordination paper and go through their review process. I believe that I am the first alternate route ordination they have here. So, as I said, I want to thank NYSOM for making this possible for me.
Reverend Doug Satterlee
This is and many similar stories is why we in the New York Conference do what we do. It is what you help make possible through your church's gift to OCWM and your personal gifts to Covenant Share and Friends of the Conference.
See some of you on Friday in Rochester!
I think autonomy is a very good thing. In fact, I believe autonomy is what will keep the United Church of Christ vital as we continue to experience how the "new way of being church" unfolds.
I believe my mentor, Ed Friedman, would have said that local church autonomy is good self-differentiation. However, if autonomy is used to justify a broken relationship (or in Family Systems terms: a cut off) then it not only is unhealthy, but it is not true self-differentiation. The reason being that a "cut off" happens when the one doing the "cutting off" allows the actions of the one "cut off" to determine their own behavior. (An exception to this is when there is violent or damaging behavior that must be removed from one's field of influence in order to maintain safety).
The congregational polity of local church autonomy was defined in 1648 by the Cambridge Platform. Essentially what this founding document communicated is that the local church has all the resources it needs to be a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And if a faithful witness to the Gospel is NOT being manifested, then that particular gathering of people, aren't really a church. Autonomy does not imply disconnection or independence. A well self-differentiated individual is healthy enough to know when they need help and where to go to get the needed help. An individual who is poorly self-differentiated lives a life that is dependent upon the ways they are influenced by others. These principles also apply to congregational church life.
Today, the budding relationship between the New York Conference and the Regional Synod of New York (RCA) is happening precisely because of the strength that our polity of autonomy offers us. A dually affiliating RCA congregation can take the best of their practices, history, and culture, and join that with the best of what the United Church of Christ has too offer.
The strength of the UCC culture of covenant in an polity of autonomy, I believe, is the path that will bring 21st century mainline progressive Christianity into a new "out of the box" faithful witness to the Good News of unconditional love, radical hospitality, and life-transforming grace. A BOLD new faith for today.
Mitzvahs in Motion
As some will, this Memorial Day weekend I make it a point to commemorate those who gave all for the freedoms we enjoy. As others will, I also acknowledge this weekend as the unofficial start of the summer season. And, although it technically begins in April with the changing of gasoline blends, I also consider this weekend to be the beginning of my summer driving season. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a love of driving and highways that extends back to childhood. Since joining the New York Conference I have logged well over 200K miles. Yet fewer miles have posed a greater test of my love of driving than making my way through New York City traffic. Anyone who has a 7 p.m. meeting at one of our Metropolitan Association churches will know exactly what I mean. Recently I attended an Ecclesiastical Council where it took two hours to travel exactly twelve miles. Then I had to find parking!
So in order not to succumb to what I prefer to call (self) righteous indignation rather than road rage, I seek to extend mitzvahs when I drive. I learned mitzvahs as good deeds in accordance with Judaic law well before Seminary, as I attended a predominantly Jewish school from grades 7-12 in Washington DC. Mitzvahs were what we learned then to extend as students, and they are what I extend now behind the wheel: stopping for a pedestrian not in a crosswalk; allowing a truck to pass in front of me on a highway; letting someone make a left turn in front of me in spite of the car horns I hear behind me. The recipients' responses to these mitzvahs range from a wave or smile to outright shock, especially in the city.
Yet the blessing from this kind of mitzvah is not solely for the recipient. There is also a blessing for me. That blessing is generally not in the receiving of any acknowledgement. I find it in the pause it gives, a moment of peace, solace, often a sense of sacredness in the maelstrom of motion that is New York City. The Lord comes, ever so briefly, in those mitzvahs. And then, I am on my way.
Rev. Freeman Palmer
Over the past six months in particular, I have had a crash course in understanding the Reformed Church in America. I'm not quite ready to teach RCA polity, but I think I've completed my own RCA 101 course. Whenever we learn something that is different from our own point of reference the tendency is to make it understandable by comparing it to what we know well.
For example, I am fluent in English and Portuguese. I have been learning German for about a year. The tendency is to hear "Frau" and then to immediately think "Frau means woman, or wife". The secret to fluency, however, is to hear "Frau" and in one's mind's eye to know what that means and not need to internally translate it. Telling time in German is particularly challenging for me. I am working on not translating "Es ist halb elf" into "It is half way to 11" and to simply see in the mind's eye 10:30am. Further, when two points of reference live together in one place for a long time, it results in hybrids such as Spanglish. The beauty of Spanglish is that it disregards the rule of grammar and jumps to the essential meaning.
Jumping to the essential meaning has allowed the conversations with the RCA to advance relatively quickly (over two and half years). And the essential meaning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so needed in this moment in time, that denominational structures cannot impede it. Instead, denominational structures will bend, albeit slowly, in order for radical inclusivity, non-violence, just wages for workers, unconditional love, and grace to be among the most important messages from Christian voices, and not "but we've always done it this way...."
I suppose that spring is my least favorite season. It is almost always disappointing for me. My childhood memories are the yardstick by which every other spring is measured. Brilliant Forsythia, robust Sweet William, and oh, the Connecticut Dogwood...breath-taking. No spring seams to live up to those of years ago. Today I was looking at some early crabapple blossoms and found myself saying: "you can do better than that." But, in truth, the spring flowers have not changed. I have.
At the age of ten I probably only had noticed Dogwood for three or four seasons. And that early admiration became my template. As a child I observed the daffodil closely. I looked inside it. I noticed the gentle folds in its trumpet. I was puzzled that its smell was not as sweet as its appearance. I noticed the detail. Today, I don't look for the Dogwood's cross. Rather, I make a mental note: "not as pink as..."
Yesterday on my walk, I came across a male sandpiper spreading his back feathers and clearly singing his mating call, hoping to attract a nearby Ms. Sandpiper. I thought to myself, in fifty-five years, I have never seen this before. I stopped and watched for all of 60 seconds (a long time for me nowadays). Probably if I had witnessed this dance years ago, I would have sat down in the grass and watched until he flew away.
There is a lot for us to learn about how to live when we observe children, or reflect upon our own early years. I am glad that I am at least aware that sixty seconds is a ridiculously short time to observe a beauty I have never seen before. Nothing I do is more important than appreciating fully the wonder of God's creation. I have one daffodil left in my yard. Today, after work, I am going to see it... really see it. Imagine if we observed other people with that same lens.
Some of us, over a certain age, were spiritually moved in the 1970's by these words:
"Where are you going? /Can you take me with you? /For my hand is cold /And needs warmth /Where are you going? /Far beyond where the horizon lies..." I think these were the words that began my spiritual birth. We had these sung at our wedding. I'm also certain that they inspired me to learn more about Jesus Christ, and eventually were the soundtrack playing in background when I sensed the call to Christian ministry. But those were words for my generation, and today, while the meaning remains, the rhythm is very different.
Where are we going? I am so hopeful in this moment of the Christian movement: the Church. This past Sunday in Watertown I watched a young woman lead congregational signing and clapping with unbounded joy, sheer spiritual abandon. The church was quite full. I was excited. Two Sundays ago at Bronx Spanish Evangelical I was caught up in the Pentecostal spirit of glorifying God. The sanctuary was packed, the decibels high. Several weeks ago I met with members of Rivers of Living Water (Fellowship of Affirming Ministries) and experienced an extravagant welcome that will teach much to the UCC, I was awestruck with encouragement.
Far beyond where the horizon lies. If there is one thing I am certain of, it is that the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully in congregations that leave the window open enough for it to blow in. Where the head and the heart embrace the Gospel together, that is where a whirlwind of holiness is stirring up lives and communities. Where the window is sealed shut, because it hasn't been opened since anyone can remember, that is where stale air will stay put until the building is sold. I believe that right now is when we are moving beyond where the horizon lies. Where I have changed in my thinking over recent years is that I no longer believe "it" is about excellent preaching, fine music, or tight liturgy (all good things). "It" is about the personal encounter with God-heart and mind. That is where the emerged church is found. If you go to church and your heart is beating fast because you know God is in that place, then you have found "it".
I can still hear Freeman Palmer's voice in my mind. I cannot tell you how moved I was when his words at John Dorhauer's installation were met with a strong round of applause. For me it was a holy moment to see and hear the Holy Spirit moving powerfully through Freeman.
The theme of the Installation was "This is our time." And the thread that wove through several of the speakers was the Kairos moment for doing a new thing.
Freeman, however, reached back to his Ghanaian heritage and brought us the insight of "Sankofa." This expression means we need to "go back and get it". To build a successful future, Freeman said, we must build upon and learn from where we have been. So he asked: "What do we need to go back and get?" He answered: the Gospel. A Gospel "that declares that the fruit of extravagant love is peace and justice, that proclaims there is good news for the poor, release for the captive, sight for the blind, liberty for the oppressed, and for anyone who is suffering, for any reason, even because of the church..." Amen?
There is a synergy between Freeman's sermon and Emily Heath's new book: Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. What Heath espouses is the deep yearning and need for progressive Christian discipleship. Her point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ (as referenced by Freeman above) is deeply hungered for in the world today and in the emerging church.
Progressive Christianity must reclaim, re-own, remind, rework, respond, and find re-invigoration in the power of the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is indeed our time to respond with Sankofa.
I am so encouraged by Freeman and Emily. To God be the glory.
I've always moved fast. I trot upstairs. I jog to the car in the driveway. There's much to do, so it seems to make sense to try to get ahead, to carve out a little more time in the future by speeding up in the present moment. That way (I tell myself), I'll have more time - for the unexpected set-back, the leisurely conversation - and will still be able to feel the satisfaction of a productive day, as I sink into bed with a long sigh, hoping to read a couple of pages of my novel before I fall asleep.
As I've gotten older, I've tried to balance that privileging of the future (which I'm racing to make time for) with practices that emphasize awareness of the present. Yet, even in pilates or yoga class, I'm moving just a beat faster than I should, ready to get on to that next pose. When I'm supposed to clear my mind and simply breathe, I find myself planning, instead.
I just finished Sarah Kaufman's book, The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life, as I drove home from Malone on Sunday (for an ACM with a penchant for productivity, there's nothing better than audiobooks). Kaufman, dance critic for the Washington Post, grounds her exploration of grace in physical movement, but she doesn't stop with the fluid motion of the athlete or dancer. She writes about "ease," a term that extends beyond the physical to include a generosity of spirit: "making things easy for others" and allowing ourselves to be "easily pleased." Her words challenge me to look again at the pace at which I move.
Though, for me, the habit of speed seems to possess the force of gravity, I yearn to embody ease. I sense that there are deeper satisfactions than productivity and that I must slow down to be able to take delight in the moment and open more fully to God's presence. So, I turn my attention once again to the beauty and the blessing of the present moment, learning -- always learning -- to sing: "this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad."
"Put your finger into my side."
Not me. Gross. I don't doubt that much. That much...........? So let's get real, doubt is pretty normal and in post-modernity, it is THE norm. And Jesus said to us.... I mean to Thomas.... put your finger right here in the place I was pierced, where in addition to the pain and humiliation of the marks in his hands and feet, there is this unique place of a wound in the midst of crucifixion. Put your finger into the ultimate wound and humiliation, and then perhaps you will not doubt.
I am thinking about when I have put my finger into that most painful and humiliating of places. I have turned my glance away from the urine smelling homeless man laying on the subway seat on the A-Train. I did not lift a finger there. But I looked into the eyes of the woman wearing a burqa who worked at the check out register and very intentionally thanked her and wished her a good day right after the Brussels attack and the hate rhetoric against Muslims re-ignited on the campaign trail: a tender place for certain.
I need to think more about when I have, when I do, when I will and when I should put my finger into the wound. What I know is that when I do, I will be assured again of the healing power of the resurrected Christ, and my post-modern doubting might just subside for a while. But when I do not place my finger into that spot, when my own discomfort, timidity, or indifference causes me to glance the other way, that is when this Thomas will wallow in continuing doubt.
The aim of terrorism is to disrupt the normalcy of life and in so doing to achieve a new normalcy at odds with that which has preceded it. And yes, our sense of global security has indeed changed. We know this well in New York. This morning my wife called me in NYC saying, "please be careful today" and "I'm worried for our son" because he works in the city. But much more than this was her, and my, deep sorrow for the people of Brussels. Listening to campaign rhetoric today, I am also deeply sorrowful for the Syrian refugees in Europe who were herded from their home by terrorism and now are shamefully associated with the terrorism in Brussels. This is not a time to point fingers, but rather to shed tears.
As a child I think the only time I cried in church was when I watched the Good Friday pageant in the Catholic Church of my birth. And perhaps those tears were an important part of my Christian formation. When the goodness of God is crucified, tears are the most human and holy thing for us to share. There is a time to cry.
But, I am grateful that the author of faith did not put a period after Good Friday, rather God placed a comma. The story does not end with tears, and neither will this chapter in our global history. The author of faith, who chose to fully understand our humanity, ended the faith story with an exclamation: Hallelujah! The tears shall be wiped away and replaced with wonder and joy. Death and injustice, hatred and violence never can and never will be the final word of the universe. The final word will be the same as the first word: love. And this is not the love of Hallmark cards. It is the love of the firefighter, paramedic, and doctor in Brussels who binds the wound of a victim. It is the love of a people who know that fear and hatred is truly the dead end. Hope and faithful confidence in God's word is the only road for any future. Hallelujah, God is Risen!
This isn't going to sound very "springy" or "crocus/daffolilly", but hey, it is Lent and technically it is still winter (Spring starts next Sunday), and the ice is still on the lakes in Black River/St. Lawrence Association (I saw it yesterday). So one more cold winter thought before Spring arrives!
An activity that I loved to do years ago in Maine is called "Lake Walking". Usually between January and March the ice on most large lakes is thick enough to go for long walks over vast stretches of whiteness. (A public safety warning: do not try this at home and always check ice thickness before walking out there!) But I love lake walking. Usually there is a covering of snow on the ice, so it is not at all slippery. And the silence in the middle of a large ice covered lake is unlike anything else. The only sounds are the wind and an occasional deep boom, like a cannon being shot far in the distance. This is my favorite place to pray by listening. These were not times I would recite a laundry list to God, but rather to clear my thoughts enough to listen for the sacred wordlessness to be uttered.
At the CREDO event I attended a couple weeks ago in Florida, while I certainly did not go lake walking, I was able to listen for the loud silence of God's utterance to my soul. I was sent off to reflect upon and then listen for a response to two questions: Who am I? And, who am I becoming? It is the latter question that I encourage each fellow pilgrim to ask during these last weeks of Lent. Who are you becoming? You, child of God; divine image-bearer; follower; disciple; advocate; seeker; lost; Christian. As Holy Week begins with the first day of Spring, I encourage you to metaphorically do some lake-walking with God and listen for whatever silent word God offers.
This year, I've been doing some re-thinking about Lent. For many, Lent is a 40-day period designated for prayer and drawing closer to God. However, it is often tough for me to get psyched about a "holiday" season that begins with ashes and ends with a tomb. It just has a dark and gloomy kinda feel to it. So I'm often curious about the ways and reasons people choose to observe the Lenten season.
Some Christians view Lent as a time to reflect on our human frailties, weaknesses, and shortcomings. Others may choose to give up something they enjoy, like chocolate or social media, as a sacrificial action to identify with Jesus' suffering and sacrifice. If we are choosing to make a sacrifice of time spent on social media or some other activity to commune with God and devote more time to prayer that's great. But what happens when Lent is over? Do we simply go back to our regular routine until next year? I'm curious, if Lent is about drawing closer to God, how does focusing on my weaknesses and skipping my weekly Snickers bar accomplish that?
There just doesn't appear to be much joy in our observances. Think about it, we spend nearly 6 weeks commemorating Christ's suffering, passion, and death and only one day celebrating Christ's resurrection. Hmmm??? It's like we enter Lent as if Easter isn't coming. Personally, I prefer to view Lent in light of the Resurrection. I'm not inclined to "park" in my weaknesses and shortcomings for 40 whole days. Instead, I am drawn closer to God when I consider that because of Jesus, my sins are forgiven and in my weakness, I am "made" strong. Isn't that why Jesus came in the first place? Secondly, I prefer to munch on my Oreos and rejoice in knowing that Christ has already made the ultimate sacrifice on my behalf. Now there's something to commemorate.
I'm convinced that drawing closer to God is an ongoing, daily process. It is not merely a once a year, seasonal event. We should always be developing a daily practice of prayer, meditation, and/or worship. Doesn't that seem a bit more useful? When you reflect on Jesus' suffering and sacrifice for you, why not consider the suffering of others and instead of giving up something for Lent, why not consider "adding" something that might help alleviate someone else's suffering. Try adding more kindness, or social activism, consider volunteering your time to the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. This Lenten season, remember that Jesus suffered so you wouldn't have to. For me, that's the joy in re-thinking Lent in anticipation of the glorious Resurrection.
When I was younger I flew kites in March.
A paper kite with a long tail made from my father's rags.
Catch the wind and up, up, up it went.
Satisfied with the progress, pull the string to the right.
To the right went the kite.
Master of the sky, pull the string to the left.
To the left went the kite.
But I can go higher. More string and higher, higher, higher.
Higher, higher, higher.
But the March wind is strong.
I became fearful that my paper kite had flown so very high,
Higher, higher than I had intended.
The kite moved to the right,
I ran to the right.
The kite moved to the left,
I ran to the left.
Could I pull it back?
Should I let it go?
The March wind is strong.
She blows where she will.
I wrote this poem years ago and I've recently been reminded of it as I've reflected on who I am and who I am becoming. But mostly, I am reminded of the holy wind, spirit, breath and how she inspires, moves, and can become frightening at times. But oh, how wonderful it is when she blows. When I was younger I flew kites in March. I know it is time for me to go buy a kite again.
I am beginning a program today called CREDO. This version is designed for judicatory executives who are in the last third of their career. Thank you Pension Boards for paying for 100%!!
Prior to leaving I've been asked to reflect on what were my core beliefs when I was growing up versus what are my deepest values today. I've jotted down several thoughts, but I think it will take some quiet reflection over time to honestly makes these comparisons. The purpose of CREDO is to gain awareness of how our past shapes us, but we are never idle in our personal development. Some beliefs I have lost. Some I've forgotten. Some of what I value today, I couldn't imagine when I was in my early 20's (or even 40's for that matter). We are all pieces of art in the making. Always in the making, so long as we breathe. And maybe after our last breath, we will still be in the making by those who have loved us, who remember us.
It's good to ponder what difference we've made or are making. It's good to contemplate whether such differences have reflected our core beliefs and our deepest values. It is good to live intentionally rather than just live. So I'm glad to be starting this continuing education event. And honestly, I have some fear of what may learn about myself, but I move even toward that with intention.
It's February, and for some this month is all about candy hearts and Valentine treats. Yet for me, February is about the celebration of Black History Month. Founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate from Harvard, the commemoration began as a week long observance and was later expanded to a month in 1976. It is commonly said that Woodson selected the month of February to encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played prominent roles in shaping black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.
I have often heard people openly question the need for this cultural celebration saying, "Black history is American history." The problem with such a statement is that African Americans were rarely mentioned in history until the founding of black history month. For centuries, people of African descent were faceless, nameless slaves and servants who were rarely recognized for their enormous contributions to American history. Yes, black history is American history, but it is a chapter that has been largely miss-told or simply not told.
I am always amazed to discover that many black youth know little about their own heritage beyond the horrors of the middle passage and the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and maybe Harriet Tubman. However, there is so much more to the history of African Americans in this country. Unfortunately the history books have not been generous in telling "our" story. Rarely do we hear the stories of the Harlem Renaissance Movement that is largely responsible for today's classic African American literature? Forgotten are the black inventors like Garrett A. Morgan, a black man, who invented the stop light and transformed streets across the globe? Or what about George Sammon, a black man who invented the clothes dryer and Sarah Boone, a black woman who invented the ironing board? This too is American history that should be honored and celebrated. As a proud African American, I find myself getting chills every time I hear or sing the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a song written in 1905 by James and Rosemond Johnson.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears; thou who has brought us thus far on
the way...We have come over a way that with tears have been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.
Still today these lyrics serve as a cry of liberation, affirmation and hope for all African Americans whose contributions are stymied and whose voices are silenced.
Yes, black history is American history and black history month, is an opportunity to remember and to celebrate the journey, the determination, and the resilience of dark-skinned people, who even now, continue to survive and thrive under the harshest of human circumstances.
Happy Black History Month
Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams
I did not grow up with Ash Wednesday. The African-American Baptist congregation of my childhood did not commemorate the liturgical seasons. However, our church had one tradition that observed the beginning of Lent. Around this time an envelope mysteriously appeared in our pews with forty slots for quarters. We filled them up and presented the $10.00 at Easter. For a church of over 300 members, this made for a more than modest fundraiser for our Sunday school. Nonetheless, observances of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and any admonition of fasting beginning today were not part of my religious upbringing.
Now I commemorate today - Ash Wednesday. And I am both reminded and convicted by the words of Isaiah that is often a text in the Revised Common Lectionary for today:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6 NRSV)
Fasting is an important spiritual discipline. It is one of several that are part of my Lenten season. But similar to the prophet's critique of Israel for their false piety and hypocrisy, fasting merely for fasting sake will do little for Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey; residents in Flint, Michigan; or LGBT communities in Kampala, Uganda. I firmly believe that the fast that God chooses gives something up and takes something on. Prayerfully any fasting choice we make this season will take on the character of Jesus, who calls us to engage in the type of fasting God chooses. It is that kind of fast that not only might change us. It just might change the world.
May the love of God be with you this Lenten season and always,
I don't do it anymore because none of my neighbors do, and I've assumed it's not allowed in my neighborhood. But when I did hang the wet wash on the clothesline, I loved it. I became aware of each article of clothing used by the family. The towels that had small tears, the holes in socks, the shade of each pair of blue jeans. I enjoyed the feel of each article. I liked going back from time to time to touch and access the level of dryness. I felt good that the pillowcases were hanging in the sun. And oh, when the wind blew strong, the bellowing sheets transported me immediately to when I was a small child and imagined that these were the great sails of clipper ships.
So now I take a wet tangled lump and throw it in the dryer. I don't watch it tumble. I turn off the light and leave the room.
It is not uncommon for me that at about 2:00 a.m. the wet tangled lump of my unconscious and "to do list" thoughts begin to tumble in the drier of my mind, in the dark. Like the tumbling load in my machine, I don't examine each piece to know where the tears are, or how dry or wet, or how faded. Rarely do the 2:00 a.m. tumbling thoughts inspire my imagination. They are a lump and not individual problems or opportunities; not individual disappointment or joys; a massive question rather than smaller questions whose answers may intrigue me.
This is one my thoughts that does not have a resolution or a slightly veiled suggestion. This is the reality of this day and I live with it. But I am very much aware of how good it would be to have a clothesline.
People have been on my mind. Over decades, I've met a whole lot of people. So today I'm reflecting upon the top five most interesting people I've had the opportunity to know and why.
#5. Reverend Peter Panagore. There was a picture of Peter in his office where he was standing on one foot on a pinnacle at the summit of a mountain. He looked as if he was about to fly, which is why I only referred to him by his nickname: Peter Pan. There is a story of Peter when he was a newly ordained minister when he showed up in church on Sunday morning, long hair down his back, and barefoot. Knowing him as I do, I understand how he could not imagine why this was the least bit "weird". A free spirit who's ability to get the most out of life is why I have admired him. You can see him at: http://www.dailydevotions.org/
#4. Dr. Elsie McKee. She was my early and reformation church history professor at Andover Newton. She was born and spent most of her life as a white woman in South Africa. Clearly an intellectual giant who might have been described as a bit eccentric. She was so enraptured with historical personalities that she made them come alive for me. No doubt I gained my passionate love for history from her.
#3. Marjorie James. The matriarch of Weybridge Congregational Church, Vermont. Born in the late 1890's, her stories of pre-depression Vermont were fascinating. I could not imagine a more blessed matriarch. She lived across the street from the church and would put a chicken in the oven before she left for worship each Sunday. Then she would scope out the most "lonely" looking person in church and say to them: "I have a huge chicken in my oven that I could not possibly eat by myself, could you help me by having lunch with me." I loved this woman.
#2. Mark Day. My closest friend who died at the age of 26. He was a granola loving, back-to-nature, all organic, re-cycle everything, save-the-planet person before any of that was "trendy". His dream was to one day be dairy-farmer. A freak accident took his life when he served as a Mennonite missionary in Tanzania. I've never gotten over that.
#1. Rabbi Ed Friedman. I think he had more influence on how I live my life than anyone I've known. He taught me about inner strength by self-differentiation. He challenged me to question the value of empathy over compassion. He gave me a life mantra: "Never try to reason with the unreasonable." From him, I learned how to think in terms of systems rather than simply the presenting issue. Quite simply, he taught me to think differently.
While these are the most interesting people I have ever known, it does not mean they necessarily are the once who have influenced me the most. Those who have loved me, challenged me, and walked with me have had the greatest impact. Sometimes, its simply knowing someone is a phone call away that can be life-changing.
As I type, the Conference staff has gathered to train ourselves for a the new conference management software called Arena. We are laughing, smiling, typing and dreaming about all the new ways this software will allow our NY Conference to grow in information and be more responsive to your needs in the days and years ahead.
I confess, I am a geek and I wear that title proudly; gatherings like today make me very happy.
I have many fond memories of building my thoughts with legos and hooking electrodes to potatoes to make a digital clock operate. I smile when I dream about SQL computer code or imagine how to modify wordpress with RSS feed.
Scripture says that in the very beginning of Time.... God Created, and called it good. It does not say that God followed a neat plan. It does not say that God feared changed and prayed that "we would do what we have always done." However, creation can be messy.
I believe whole-heartedly that God's voice is heard in the midst of those moments where the swell of our creative energy is so vivid, that our fingers type and the resulting characters on the screen begin to resemble a piece of art in the making or a dance where the music has only just begun. So much potential for life and being called Good. However, in our humanity Fear often freezes our step and takes our vision away from what could be.
My prayer today for you is that you take time to listen to the tune that is on your heart, and respond to it in the very specific way God is calling you to create in the world.
Grace and Peace,
Looking at me you may find this hard to believe, but at one point in my life I had the reputation of being the fastest runner in my school. I was a sprinter. It was eighth grade and while I was not building the muscles or the endurance as the athletes in my class, I had the sheer will. I would line up at the start line with all the others and I would say to myself "I can/I will." And for a year I did. No one could come close to me on the fifty or hundred yard dash.
I admire my future son-in-law (first time I'm able to say that!!) for being a medalled marathon runner. He has arrived there through a lifetime of practice. He runs almost everyday sun, rain, snow. He knows what to eat and when to eat it. He knows more about running shoes than I can begin to understand. He lives preparing himself for the long run.
All three of my children ran cross-country and did Nordic skiing. They taught me a lot about why these really are team sports and not the efforts of individuals. I admired how important it was for them to cheer on each of their co-athletes and encourage them to finish the race. They repeatedly told me, "yes it is nice for the team to win, but it is more important for the whole team to feel they have done their best."
As I begin a new year, my epiphany is that each of these aspects of "the race" are important to how we live our lives. Sometimes the sheer will is crucial. Sometimes without preparation any hope of success is not achievable. And for the spiritual community, if we don't cheer on the whole team there's no meaning in being there.
Let us run the good race.
It's December 30th. After Christmas shoppers are in the malls getting deals. Leftover inventories of Christmas goodies are being consumed. Holiday music and commercials that dominated the airwaves are all but gone. Some Christmas trees, stripped of their lights and ornaments, are already discarded in streets around the city. These are indications we often see after December 25. Once Christmas day is past and gone, Christmas is over, in the secular worldview.
That is not the view in my home. Our tree stays at a minimum through January 6, where we exchange gifts on what has been traditionally called Little Christmas. Our extensive collection of Christmas music plays, not so much the Santa stuff, but more sacred offerings. Liturgically this is the sixth day of Christmas, a time for bestowing six geese a laying according to "The Twelve Days of Christmas." These are days both for continued celebration and reflection on how to live our lives, now and later, in spiritual cognizance that God is indeed with us.
For me this meaning is well encapsulated in a poem I read and share this time of year from a theological hero of mine, Howard Thurman. Thurman's words speak eloquently and prophetically to the faith-given truth that Christmas is hardly over...
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.
Love, Joy, Peace,
What are you looking for under your tree this year? Golf clubs, jewelry, sweaters, coats. Surely, there is something that we all would like to receive. Over the years, however, I've learned that often the best gifts are those that can't be bought or ordered online. Often the best gifts are those that are walking alongside us each and every day of the year.
I will never forget Christmas 1992; it was probably my best Christmas ever, despite the state of my life at the time. I had a brand new mortgage, I was in the midst of a difficult divorce, and I had a 10-month-old daughter who I was now raising alone. It was a daily struggle just to make ends meet. It was my daughter Courtney's first Christmas, and I didn't hold out much hope for it being too merry.
A few days before Christmas, while walking the hall at work, a co-worker passed me and admired an expensive solid gold chain that I was wearing around my neck. (Needless to say, I hadn't always been this broke). I informed her that it was imported from West Germany, and I'd bought it two years prior. She stated she was disappointed it came from overseas, because she liked it and wanted to get something like that for her granddaughter for Christmas. Quickly, before I even thought, I blurted out "make me an offer". Shocked, the woman's eyes bulged and she said, "Oh, that's gotta be worth at least $900." (I had actually paid $1,300). "Sold!" I shouted hastily grabbing the chain from my neck. The woman gleefully wrote me a check and I took the afternoon off work and went shopping. I bought a droopy looking little tree, some ornaments, and presents for my little girl. The rest I put on the mortgage.
The only present I received that year was a sweater from my parents, but the joy that I felt that Christmas was priceless. Courtney took her first real steps that morning, trying to grab ornaments off the poorly lit tree and we laughed and giggled as we ripped the colorful paper off her packages and playfully stuck the bows and ribbons in our hair. What made this day so special was the excited look on my daughter's face as she spent most of the day playing with the wrapping paper and the boxes her presents came in. In the midst of all my struggles that year, it was in that moment I realized, presents or no presents, tree or no tree, the greatest gift I could've received, I already had, and it was sitting right in front of me.
Blessings of the Season,
This Advent Season is more than half-passed. As a ministry team we have reflected on the power of fear that prevents the light of Christ to break into our world. And yet, when the messengers of Good News appeared to Mary, their first words were: Fear Not! Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love are the lights that incarnate God with us in the night of fear. This is our core mission, this is our sacred raison d'etre-because fear cannot and will not have the last word.
Fear not when you speak out for racial justice. Fear not when you accompany the undocumented. Fear not when you hold the hand of our Muslim brother and sister. Fear not when you advocate for a living wage. Fear not when those who mock climate change call you names. Fear not when you are threatened for your opposition to fire arms registration. Fear not when walking behind the walls with Palestinian brethren. Fear not when you advocate that Israel has a right to exist. Fear not from the pulpit nor from the steps of city hall. Fear not with your voice and your pen. Fear not when silence is the safe alternative. And fear not when political opportunists tell us "now is the time to be afraid."
Because God chose to fully enter in to our humanity through Jesus the Christ, we stand in faith, which proclaims all humanity is worthy of respect, honor, wholeness, redemption, and love. All humanity is touched and valued by God.
So light the candle of HOPE knowing that if we do not begin with hope, we do not begin. Light the candle of PEACE because Shalom is the only path to guide our steps. Light the candle of JOY because the victory is already won. Be the candle of LOVE because that is our core identity, created in the Divine Image. This is our purpose, our reason, our journey, our mission.
Your Conference Ministry Team,
Reverend David R Gaewski
Reverend Ryan Henderson
Reverend Freeman Palmer
Reverend Dr. Marjorie Purnine
Reverend Dr. Marsha Williams
Each year, lately, I bump into Advent with some surprise. When my daughter was young, I'd be making an Advent wreath for that first Sunday and searching the stores for purple and pink candles. Now that I'm not preaching every week (and planning worship well ahead), Advent seems to sneak up on me. November was packed with activity: I was consumed with the tasks of the day. Then the new liturgical year began, with Advent's invitation to slow down, to wait, and to hope.
I love the space and challenge that this season offers. I am not disciplined in my spiritual life, and so I appreciate being reminded to wait - actively - for more than I know and to stretch that little hope I possess beyond any personal or domestic desires. During a month in which I am more aware than ever of the fleetingness of the moment, as college applications are completed and parents grow frailer, I am grateful for that sense of standing in the shadow of generations. As part of a community of memory and expectation, which stretches across the centuries, I sing the ancient hymns and welcome the good news that with God nothing is impossible.
My Advent wreath, sadly, is still packed in the attic, but I did put the Advent calendar on the wall. It's a felt affair that we cut and glued, at my mom's direction, one hot week in July, years ago. And this December, as we have done so many times before, Dan, Lucy, and I are counting the days tree by tree and sheep by sheep...
My aim each week when I sit down to write this reflection is to honestly examine what is in my thoughts. This week I am particularly struggling in asking myself, "what is really on your mind?" The truth is "work". But this was the first Sunday of Advent and I think I should be reflecting on "hope, waiting, expectation, incarnation" and things mystical, etc. But, I'm thinking of staff evaluations, Friends of the Conference letters, personnel policy, and ecumenical relationships.
In the midst of my concentration on an ecumenical issue, a minister unexpectedly stopped by my office to tell me a story. He is helping two homeless women in an upstate community put back together their broken lives. He had a significant story to tell me. So I left my computer screen and focused on him. A couple of times my eyes glanced back to what I had been working on, but I knew that listening to him was probably the most important thing I would do all week, maybe all month. As I think about that visit now, I recognize that he was Emmanuel-truly that visit was "God with us" and what he is doing is incarnating Christ.
So even while I go back to my computer screen to read emails, write a philanthropic proposal, and evaluate staff, I am re-oriented by asking myself, is this "God with us." I believe even personnel policy can be. I guess the point is intentionality. If I had not intentionally given the visiting pastor all of my attention, I could easily have missed Emmanuel. And, I know God shows up in unexpected placed (even in emails).
Take time when the next angel visits you.
This is not a book I recommend, unless you are an absolute History Nerd like me: Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. Really, it is as dry as straw, written in Old English by William Bradford, Plymouth Plantation Governor, who was mostly concerned with commerce. And even while it tells the story solely from the perspective of the Pilgrims, it is relatively honest about the brutality and the beauty of the first relations between the English settlers and the many "New England" First Nations peoples. I always think of this book at Thanksgiving time.
There were in fact some examples of good will on both the side of some New Englanders and some of the First Nations. There actually was a three-day feast in November where both groups brought food to share. The fact that this was possible says a great deal of the obstacles that can be overcome when good will is present. There were also violations of the treaties by both sides. There were many wars. There were disagreements and misunderstandings about culture. There were fundamental different world views on what land ownership (and power) meant. And many lives were lost. But, there also was a curiosity that allowed First Nations and New Englanders to risk knowing "the other" better. That is more of what there was to celebrate than an abundant harvest in 1621.
What I see in so many places is that the curiosity to know "the other" is still a deep seated value in our culture. It is, however, truly at risk. Building walls that prevent us from seeing those on the other side; closing boarders; and re-writing Lady Liberty's acclamation to read "Keep your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe. The wealthy and stable that have the means to contribute, send us these. Keep your homeless. I light my lamp for the golden wallets" this is the cancer that threatens our shining city on a hill.
One radio commercial I heard this week said, "This year let us celebrate Thanks-getting." Need I say more.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a New York minister asking if there were any ways in which UCC members in New York might partner with our German partners in Frankfort/Wiesbaden (EKHN) to assist in their work with Syrian refugees. I asked our partners and received a response last Thursday.
It was confirmed that the work of the EKHN and the overall Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) is heavily involved in refugee assistance. The members of our partner churches are currently assisting refugees with language programs, documentation services, providing housing, opening their pre-schools to refugee children, and providing services at refugee camps. The EKHN will be voting next week on budgeting 15-20 million Euros ($16-21M) for refugee assistance over then few years.
However, even before the events of last weekend, it was reported to me that "the public attitude" that has been so extra-ordinarily welcoming in Germany, was beginning to change for the negative. I can only imagine how that change may have accelerated this week. In their email to me, it was stated, "We are struggling for a welcome culture and we always point out that our partners in the US - that means the UCC New York Conference - are a model for us on being open to people of different cultural background." Further they wrote "We would be happy if you continue to force the US-government to be open for more refugees from Syria and to help to overcome the war in Syria." And finally they asked that we remember the ministry of the German church in our prayers.
My heart is aching as I think of the great pain in Europe. I ache for the families of innocent French victims of terrorism. I ache for the innocent Syrians (so many children) for whom a world attitude is souring. Even as we prepare our menus for a time of thankfulness and bounty, I am deeply moved by the need to share the bounty with the displaced. If our Statue of Liberty were ever to be a beacon of our moral responsibility as Christians living in the wealthiest country on earth, it is now. I ask you to join me in contacting our Senators and Representatives to implore them to open our country to more Syrian refugees. If we are unable to do this, then surely the terrorists have achieved their goal.
I have been reading music and playing various instruments since I was in grade school. Music is in my family DNA. So about 3 months ago I decided that I would learn to play yet another instrument. This time it would the acoustic guitar. After ordering one online, I ripped my package open with great anticipation. I figured I already played bass guitar, so how hard could it be? Well...much to my surprise, mastering it is certainly not the cakewalk I had hoped. Aside from calluses and extremely sore fingers, which experienced players say is perfectly normal, learning this instrument takes an awful lot of practice. Additionally, it is requiring me to read music and chords in a way that I have never done before.
Sometimes in ministry we think we know how something is going to turn out, only to find that the task is much more complex than we anticipated. This could be just the opportunity we need to branch out and try something completely different. Maybe it's starting a brand new program, or it may be learning a new approach to an old one. We do this knowing that in congregations there is always a period of adjustment and "tenderness" associated with any type of change. But just like my guitar playing, with practice and time the tenderness is replaced with improved spiritual dexterity and stronger skills for ministry.
It takes courage to try something different, but the end result is always worth it. There is sweet music and ministry to be made.
Rev. Marsha Williams
John Dorhauer said something in passing the other day that caught my imagination. He said, "What if we were the Uniting Church of Christ?" I haven't been able to stop thinking about that. We have long said that we are a denomination that is "United and Uniting". Maybe now is the time to emphasize the Uniting.
Lest my reader quickly jumps to the conclusion that I am referring to the unification and homogenization of denominations, let me clarify that this is NOT what ignites my imagination. It may take a few words to explain this.
In 1957 we "united". And we then took nearly fifty years asking ourselves/convincing ourselves "are we really united?" And then there was Still Speaking. "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey..." may be the words that clinched the debate. I think with those words (and maybe Marriage Equality) we arrived at where we said we were in '57. That debate is irrelevant to the church today and a boring family story (of someone else's family) for the emerging generation that finds church archaic (like my three 20 somethings).
"Uniting" humanity, however, is a cause that get's my heart pumping. I want a uniting movement that would make a big wall (built by Mexico? Really?) sound like a throwback to a day who's sun had set. Uniting people of all faiths and no faith to join our work to save the environment? Yes, I'm excited. A Uniting Church that is unconcerned with membership and hyper-focused on bringing together all nations, tongues, and races? That's the UCC for me: a Uniting Church. Of Christ? For me, yes, of Christ, because I am a disciple of the radical carpenter who overturned the tables of the Empire. But.... What if.....What if a Uniting Church embraced in fellowship the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Sikh, the Pagan, the Atheist, etc., etc. The fact is, this is already happening. It is not an idea. It is a reality and it is where I see the Uniting Church of Christ already emerging.
"For all the saints, who from their labors rest..." This is one of my favorite hymns. If I remember correctly it is Hymn No. 1 in the Pilgrim Hymnal. On a day like today, cold, October, rainy, I think I could sit most of a day singing this one hymn is a small sanctuary somewhere. As a young, newly ordained minister, this hymn gave me much comfort. Now as one who is neither old nor young, it continues to evoke a warm glow in my soul.
"O blessed communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.."
"And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear, the distant triumph song, And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Aleluia! Aleluia"
William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop, wrote this hymn around 1864. There were originally 12 verses and most of them had a very militant tone positing the ministry of the church in society as a great war to be waged with the assurance of a celestial victory. That cultural context does not "translate" for this judicatory cleric.
However, lifting my thoughts to the generations of saints who have "feebly struggled" for righteousness, kindness, justice, and forgiveness before me; and by implication the generations who will do the same long after I eternally close my eyes; gives me profound comfort in the "living of these days."
So I am simply pausing today to sense the mystic sweet communion with kindred souls long gone whom I have never met and those yet unborn who one day will walk the same path I trod.
A Baptist was standing in a river, his toes sinking into the muddy bottom. And then he said, "Look, I see God!." And necks craned and people said, "Where?" Again even when he was terribly busy tending to the needs of multitudes, he stopped and said, "I see God, do you not perceive it?" And those who desperately were taking care of their own wants and brokenness did not. "We see nothing." But a few opened their eyes and also saw God. (John 1:29-39)
Yesterday I asked the New York Conference staff where they saw God recently. When you see a staff member, ask them, and they will tell you.
I've had some mountain top moments in the past several weeks. Hearing the Argentine Jesuit at Ground Zero humbly speak about religious tolerance has left its mark on me. Meeting the Cuban octogenarian who convinced Fidel Castro that capital punishment morally diminished society has changed me. Sensing the profound "rightness" of the celebration of full communion with our cousins in Canada and covenanting to bless the earth together has left a mark on me. "Behold, the Lamb of God! Do you not perceive it?" Yes, I do.
But the Lamb dwells also in the valleys. Stories that have been told to me in the past several weeks: A teenage girl came to terms with her sexual identity and was asked to leave her church. After a second experience of rejection she gave up on God. And then her high school friends said, "try out church, we're different." She did, and she found new life in one of our congregations. Behold the Lamb of God. A pastor who was deeply wounded by the words and actions of an angry parishioner, heeded my counsel "it's all about forgiveness." The pastor told me, "I forgave him, and I was healed." Behold the Lamb. A woman had not spoken to her brother for decades. But she was touched by grace through the words of a sermon. And she was reconciled with her sibling. Behold, there is God in the valley of brokenness.
The nights grow longer and there is less light. But God never ceases doing a new thing. Behold, the Lamb of God, do you see it?"
A Mountaintop and a Valley....
I sing in, and often direct, a gospel choir comprised of alumni from my undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore College. On October 3rd, we had the honor of participating in the inauguration of the school's 15th President and first President of color, Dr. Valerie Smith. Many of us who advocated for more African-American students and professors during the seventies felt a particular sense of pride as being part of this occasion. We remarked it was a mountaintop moment after years of struggle, similar to how we felt as African-Americans at the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Amidst the celebration of Dr. Smith's induction, some of us in the choir heard the loud honk of Swarthmore's fire alarm summoning the community's volunteer fire department. Soon after we heard the sirens of emergency vehicles. We understood the reason why an hour or so after the ceremony. Taking in the scenery in the woods owned by the college, a sophomore, from Bayside Queens slipped on a cliff and fell fifty feet to his death. From indications I have been able to see, the student, Andrew Chiarenza Jr, was both an intelligent person and a vibrant soul, full of life and promise, tragically ended at age 19.
I could not help but reflect on the juxtaposition of events that were part of our community that day. We know that life has mountaintop and valley moments. And they occur simultaneously. Yet we have the promise of God's presence, in green pastures,in still waters, or in the valley of death itself. Oct 3 was an important reminder of that. For that, I am ever grateful.
Pumpkin Bread, Pumpkin Muffins, Pumpkin Coffee, Pumpkin Candles, Pumpkin Pie, Pumpkin Festivals or Parades, Pumpkin Ice Cream, Pumpkin colored nail polish, Pumpkin bagels with pumpkin cream cheese...
Welcome to the Season of Pumpkin~ a non-church holiday season, that seems to affect much of our culture. Have you felt the power of pumpkin this season?
Recently I have seen a story circulating online that compares God to someone making a Jake-O-Lantern. In this story the pumpkin is humanity and God is the one "scooping out the messy stuff inside us", so we can better shine the light of hope from within our collective lives. The story is powerful in its simplicity and profound in the way it compares us to the image of a cut, scooped-out pumpkin shining light into the night.
William Blake in his small poem called Eternity, challenges us "to kiss the joy as it flies" I love this, as it speaks to my sense that part of the love culture has for Pumpkin, is the idea of loving something that is here for just a small season of life. Pumpkin items are important, because we can't get them all the time. Much like Faith, part of what makes things most important is when God is able to scoop out our messy stuff, and empower us to embrace Joy as it passes and allow that moment of Joy to become Holy.
I hope, before it is gone, you find time to enjoy something Pumpkin and allow the holiness of sacred moments to be in your life.
In the Greatest of Hope
These are very full days. I am not complaining. I love it all. What an incredible honor to attend the Multi-religious ceremony lead by Pope Francis! And what an honor it will be when I leave for Cuba on Friday as part of an official UCC/DOC delegation to our partners after the beginning of normalization of relations. What an incredible time it is as we continue conversations with faith communities seeking a closer walk with the New York Conference! As my chipped coffee cup says to me each morning: "It's All Good."
What I learned from Pope Francis is this: the little things matter. Religious pomp is at best silly and at worst destructive. The "show" doesn't matter. The sincere handshake and look in the eye saying "I need your prayers" is so much more world transforming than a Papal Infallible Decree (Although that Encyclical on the Environment was good stuff, Holy Father! Keep it coming!) And the pomp and circumstance will feed no hungry child or heal any broken heart.
So as I live in the moment through some very full times, I'm keeping my eye on the little things. I am noticing the nuance and paying attention to it. The other day my wife mentioned she read a reflective piece on replacing your "to do" list with a "to be" list. I think that is what I saw in Papa Francesco. He is living to be rather than to do. I admire that. As the whirlwinds of the autumn swirl the leaves and us around, I'm thinking about being.
I never met him. His legacy was well established long before I ever considered ministry in the United Church of Christ. He retired before I was ordained. But Everett C. Parker shaped this denomination that I love as much as any of the founding mothers and fathers. He died in White Plains, New York last week at the age of 102. Please honor him by reading this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/19/us/everett-parker-obituary.html?_r=0
When asked how he would like to be remembered he said, "I want them to remember that I was a guy who fought like the devil for the rights of minorities." I agree with Ben Guess that Dr. Parker did that and much, much more. He changed the trajectory of history. He shaped the United Church of Christ. I never met him, but he enriched my life.
I need not say that the justice work of Everett C. Parker continues. This weekend I received a phone call informing me that an upstate theological school had revoked the invitation for Reverend Graylan Hagler to speak on the justice connections between Ferguson and Palestine. The reason apparently was due to death threats made on the life of Reverend Hagler as well as the protestations of a couple of pro-Israel organizations. I called Reverend Hagler and was moved when he said, "I just can't let them win by intimidation." I thought of Everett Parker and his legacy.
I am deeply appreciative of Henrietta United Church of Christ and the ordained and lay leadership of that congregation for meeting in great haste and agreeing to provide a venue for Rev. Hagler's speech this Thursday, if needed. They made this offer, not because they agree with Rev. Hagler, but because they believe his witness should be heard and debated, as we work together on the difficult issues of our time. The legacy we have inherited from the many who have risked so much in our church history is simply this: Silence is not an option.
September is my favorite month. The crispness in the air energizes me. I hunger for a new challenge. Perhaps it is that I live in the University area of Syracuse, surrounded by teachers and students whose lives change radically each fall. Perhaps it is simply that I have spent so many years of my life in school that I’m programmed to be ready to learn as the leaves begin to color. For whatever reason, I find myself primed to begin.
Last fall, it was a tap class. I had always wanted to take tap, and this intergenerational group was open and friendly and relaxed, with a jovial, charismatic teacher. I struggled to remember each “kick ball change,” but I loved it, for all of two months … until I realized that the pain in my foot always got worse on tap nights. After several visits to the podiatrist, I’m now pain free, but no longer tapping.
This year, I’m trying pilates. After the first class, muscles I didn’t even know I had were stiff, and I moved gingerly for days. Still, I’m back this week. The teacher is warm and welcoming, thoughtful and engaging. It’s a small group, though, and the old-timers seem not to be quite sure about newcomers. I miss the joyful exuberance of the tappers.
It’s funny. I thought I was just looking to move an aging body that spends far too many hours in front of a computer. I thought I was just looking to learn a new practice, a new skill. It’s not bad thing, though, for me to learn again how it feels to be a newcomer, on the edge of a community, smiling through the discomfort before relationships begin to take root. I wonder where I’ll be next September -- feeling at home as an old-timer in the pilates class or shopping again for a community of practice? I can’t tell yet.
I spent the last week hosting a visiting delegation from our partner church in Germany. The group included Volker Jung (President of the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau); Detlev Knoche (EKHN Ecumenical Officer); and Friedhelm Pieper (Ecumenical Relations for Europe and North America). We covered a lot of ground from the U.N. and all around NYC through the Catskills to Syracuse. Visited a rare Rudolph Bultmann collection of writings at Syracuse University. Met with conference ministry team, Judson Memorial staff, Commission on Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations members, the Lutheran Bishop of NY Metro area. Met with UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer, UCC Europe Executive Peter Makari, and Executive Minister for Wider Church Ministries Jim Moos. Also with the help of Rita Root we spent several hours in conversation with Interim Ministers.
We also shared some cultural experiences such as Ground Zero, the Liberty Tower, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I showed off Niagara Falls where Dr. Jung learned the expression "bucket list" (which he then checked off as we left the Falls).
In every setting we discussed the refugee crisis in Europe and especially in Germany, as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Dr. Jung is the chair of the National Protestant church's "Commission on Migration and Integration". Whenever I have spent times with Germans I am always sensitive to their sensitivity discussing the Nazi era of their history. They do not avoid this topic, but I always can sense the pain they feel when the subject arises. Here is what I have been thinking: The headlines of the German newspapers last Friday was "German Churches receive refugees with smiles of welcome." Dr. Jung was deeply joy-filled reporting this to us. At the same time when Micah Bucey spoke about the new sanctuary movement in which Judson is engaged; and when John Dorhauer spoke about his experience on the Mexican boarder and the inhumane ways in which the U.S. government has treated undocumented persons; I then understood the deep sadness that scares German history, as it now carves a scare in our own history. I long for the modern day equivalent to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to reflect theologically on the merciless treatment of humanity that we support financially and with our silence.
Writing "My Thoughts" is one of my spiritual practices. The practice is to quiet myself and clear my mind enough, in order to recognize what is really in my thoughts and on my heart. I am both thankful and "not so" thankful for this weekly ritual. "Not so" because part of my brain is reminding me of the "to do" list and the limited time I have to accomplish it. "Thankful" because quiet emptying is the right thing to do on a habitual basis.
As you might imagine, not all the thoughts that become clear to me during this practice are appropriate to share with you, the reader. This, in itself, is something I find myself reflecting upon. It is very easy to communicate our inner thoughts to a wide audience today, particularly with Facebook or Twitter. For clergy, the challenge of choosing our public words is a weekly discipline as we prepare a sermon. And for all people, it is a challenge each time we open our mouth to speak. One of my favorite children's messages describes our speech like a tube of toothpaste. The minute it comes out, you can't get it back in.
While I am basically introverted, meaning "I think in order to speak," I nonetheless often say things that I wish I had phrased differently. That is human. In preaching, I believe it is helpful to share personal stories that communicate my own experience of life. And I did not follow my seminary professor's advice about never mentioning your children in your sermons. However, for the preacher, I believe the yardstick is this: Am I communicating this information because I want to receive some particular response back? Or, will this story deepen the sacred and the meaning of life? Answering those questions, in themselves, is a spiritual discipline.
For everyone, the toothpaste image is a good one. If our words will diminish any person, we should weigh them very carefully. Sometimes difficult words that cause discomfort are exactly the right ones to choose, because ultimately they will encourage what is whole, healthy, healing, sacred, holy. But choosing the beautiful words to accomplish the same end is even a better way. Choose your toothpaste carefully.
My name is Ryan and I am addicted to being Busy.
There was a time in my life when people would ask me "How are you doing?" I would respond "Busy!" That's all.
Is "Busy" a way to be in life?
Is being "Busy" the dream we have as we close our eyes before peace-filled sleep?
On one hand we all desire to be calm, collect, introspective and thoughtful. Yet other parts of our lives are pushed and pulled to be active, multi-tasking, witty, and sharp all the time. Is this the American Dream? To do more with less and achieve fame or fortune (however we define it)?
Paul says, "Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed." Jesus, in talking to Mary and Martha, says, "You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed."
What does it mean to be a progressive 21st century Christian in a world that does not respect the claiming of Sabbath? We raise our fists in silent defiance as we calm the "Busy-ness" and pay attention to the eternal rhythm of creation that is calling us to rest. We need to take the commandment to "keep the Sabbath and make it holy" seriously.
Please do not hear me incorrectly, I am not perfect at taking rest nor claiming Sabbath, but I am trying everyday to make Rest...Holy.
Will you join me?
The Soundtrack of Faith
I like Music...
Jazz, The Grateful Dead, Zydeco, Barry White, Serj Tankian, Matisyahu, and The Wiggles are in the normal shuffle of my life.
Faith, in many ways, is God's love song for humanity. A song that plays lightly behind all we do during our day. Sometimes it is a sad song, in other moments it is full of hope and yet in another instant we need to kiss joy as it flies in at just the right time.
Especially during the Sabbath of summer and vacations with family~ Life is a whole string of profound moments where God enters into our lives and we are given glimpses of what true grace looks like.
Grace is the cries of babies, sunrises on the horizon, a quiet moment with a hug or being in the presence of a loved one you haven't seen in a long while.
Grace is seen in the tears and times of remembrance as we say Good Bye to family or coworkers~ thinking or mourning "Well done thy Good and Faithful servant."
Grace can be found throughout our daily routines, if we take a moment to recognize them. Allowing your life to slow down just enough, so that you can hear the emotion-filled soundtrack of music that connects us to God and all loved ones across eternity.
May you have the courage to respond to the soundtrack in your life as it comes, by doing nothing less than just listening....
In Hope~ Ryan
I have been teaching UCC History, Theology, and Polity for about 18 years. I've taught for three seminaries, in three states, with online students, and for three specific Associations. No two classes of students are ever the same. I love teaching and I especially love teaching history. I'm always astonished when I hear someone say "history is so boring". For me, history is the retelling of family stories.
In my family or origin, whenever we are all together (which isn't too often anymore) the story of May 1965 will always be retold: the violent thunderstorm that repeatedly shook the house, the bolt of lightening that found a tiny crack in the window and bounced along the floor into the kitchen cabinet; the dog refusing to stay in the house even though the storm raged on outside; the boy running through the neighborhood the next morning proclaiming what was happening; the call to five fire departments; the life sized doll in my sister's room that was mistaken for me; the look of shock on my father's face; the smell of smoke; the summer we lived in "the rent" while the house was being rebuilt. It is our defining story.
And so it is when I teach about the UCC: the Mayflower, the Heidelberg Catechism, Lemuel Haynes, the Amistad, Antoinette Brown, William Johnson, the Willmington 10, the TV Ads, Marriage Equality... all our family stories that define who we are and why we are. I love telling the stories.
And the greatest gift I receive is when (and this happened recently) a student writes a final paper that looks through the lenses of history and through the centuries of re-formation and restructuring, and is able to articulate "and here is where God has shaped God's people toward becoming who we are becoming... and this is why I love this unwieldy movement called The United Church of Christ." It is simply wonderful.
There are many things about life that I learned from my apple tree. Yes, the saga continues. If you have never read one of my previous pieces about my apple tree, here's some background. I moved into my current house in June 2013. There is an apple tree on the front yard, next to the road. It is a large tree. I noticed in 2013 that there seemed to be an un-natural number of apples on it. As the summer progressed I mused that some mutant radiation from outer space beamed down on this particular tree creating what I have called its metamorphosis into "Applezilla". In the fall of 2013 there were, no kidding, 20+ wheelbarrows full of apples with which I created a large compost heap in my backyard. It was back breaking work, particularly because the wheelbarrow had a flat tire.
In the winter of 2014 I paid to have a professional tree service "spare no mercy" in trimming Applezilla. Last year it looked like a limp ballerina with ne'er a sign of blossom or fruit. Thank you Jesus.
This year, however.... Applezilla is back in full force. So this is what I'm learning: plan ahead. Either, I need to buy a new wheel for the wheelbarrow ASAP or, I need to find an apple press. Anyone got a press you're not using and can lend me?
Earlier this year I attended my first ever pre-retirement seminar conducted by the Pension Boards. If you have not done this, two words: DO IT. It is worth every single minute of your time. Don't wait until you're in your sixties. You should do it in your forties, or at least early fifties. The information is so valuable. Last word about planning ahead: the Pension Boards is now offering FREE financial planning services to those who are active contributors to the UCC pension program. Go to pbucc.org to learn how to take advantage of this. Don't be caught at the age of 65 or older with a flat tire and twenty loads of apples to move.
I am often been asked, "What do I do to care of myself?" With all of the varying demands of ministry I always find that to be an interesting question and one that I struggle to answer. Studies show that for clergy, caring for ourselves can be difficult. We are probably very good at meeting the needs of family, friends and parishioners. That's easy. But what are the things that we do to lift ourselves?
I recently read a book by Bishop T. D. Jakes, titled Repositioning Yourself. The book is all about making adjustments in our everyday life that assure us of success in meeting our goals. One of the adjustments the author stresses is the importance of caring for yourself, both physically and spiritually. This care goes beyond just exercise and eating right. Our bodies and souls are similar to a delicate flower planted in the garden. In order for the plant to grow, bloom and flourish, it must be nurtured and fed. The seed must be surrounded with rich soil and water and nourishment are vital to the growth and life of the plant.
Well, we are the same way. If we are to grow, mature and blossom into what God intended for us to be, we too need to be nurtured and fed and surrounded with people and things that help us flourish. I am learning that sometimes it's okay to be a little selfish and think about doing something for myself. How about you? Why not go for a quiet walk, run a hot bubble bath, eat some chocolate cake, take yourself out to a movie, laugh till your sides hurt, or simply take time to pray and reflect. Pause and enjoy life, it will do your body good. As for me, I'm going bowling!
Have some fun,
One of my fantasies is to be a monk in a Himalayan monastery. The mere thought of clearing my mind so completely to allow for emptiness entices me. In a small way it is what I try to do each week when I write these "my thoughts". Alas I am not remotely in a place anything like the hilltop abbey. My computer dings that another email has arrived. I am thinking of the letter I received from a pastor in some distress. I hear the phone ring in the outer office. My eyes glance at the "to do" list which I always try to remember to keep up, because if I don't, I know I'll forget something. Did I remember to update my "to do" list? Ah yes, the life of getting distracted from the distractions from what I thought I was going to do, but never got to. Where is the empty place? The thin mountain air?
But. But, sometimes I am empty enough to allow God in, even in the midst of rolling emails, ringing phones, and the "to do's" I didn't get to do, yet. And that is when I best know who I am and what I am doing here. "Here" does not mean Syracuse, NY or conference ministry or paying the bills or being a Dad or being a spouse and partner. "Here" is simply the moment, stopped in time-mid sentence in the email, the infinite silence between each ring of the phone. I can't remember the book, but the favorite sentence I ever read was this: "Wherever you go, that's where you are." I am here. As you read this, you are here also, your "here" (over there). And in the here, is where God is. Do you perceive it?
When do you know you are in the right place? I believe that is a more difficult question to even begin to answer nonetheless know an answer. Comfort is not necessarily an indicator of "right place". Neither is discomfort necessarily a sign that one is in the "wrong place". I've heard some muse that when they sense a deep peace within, they know they are where they belong. I'm sure that is sometimes true, but I doubt it is always true.
Sometimes there are brief moments that pass when I think: this is heaven. They are usually fleeting. Last week I was sitting in a hotel lobby near a TV screen when the news first hit the wire that the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. I was overcome (briefly) with overwhelming joy: it was heaven. For many years I've advocated that love is just love and all who love have the God given right to give their lives to one another. That advocacy has not always been pleasant, and there were times I'd rather have been doing something else, but it was the right place for me to be doing the right thing. So enjoyment of a moment is not always an indication of "right place".
And yes, God is certainly in all of this. Maybe God is all of this. I recall as a teen-ager my UCC minister (Luther Calvin Pierce, love that name) would sometimes use a benediction that I can't completely remember. But there was a line like this: "May God bless you to a place of great discomfort...." I can't remember any more of it, but when he would say it, I knew it was truly a blessing to be so dedicated to what is right, holy, and just, that you choose to walk through the difficulties so that heaven may draw a bit closer. For me, that's pretty close to the "right place".
An Unexpected Place...
When I am not traveling or in a meeting for the Conference, I typically begin a Saturday morning in a spinning class at a gym close to my home. This is for health reasons, invoking the importance of the body as the 'temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19)." Yet I am sure that my physical temple often wonders why on earth does it have to rise sometimes before dawn, chug a cup of coffee, and get in a car with the goal of putting it through forty-five minutes of sheer torture. The classes and instructors are so tough that I have sometimes thought of calling the UCC Insurance Board and making sure that everything is paid up, just in case....
There are things I expect in my Saturday morning spinning class. What I did not expect last Saturday was Cheryl Gray Watson, a substitute instructor. Like me, Cheryl was African American and over forty, placing us both in a distinct minority in the class. Unlike me, she had no detectable body fat on her. As Cheryl proceeded to mercilessly send us on intervals and hills, something totally unexpected happened. Cheryl, in traditional African-American church vernacular, "got in the Spirit." Walking around our bikes, she proclaimed, "We're taking it to church today!" "We're going to make to the top of this hill together!" "Unity, that's what's going to get us there!" "We got this!" At one point she shook her hands at her side and said, "I've got to calm down, I'm getting too excited!" I wanted to tell Cheryl, 'Well don't calm down on my account, for if I didn't have to hold on to these handlebars for dear life, my hands would be up in praise!' At the end of the class, it became clear to me that people 'got in the Spirit too.' They came to Cheryl to ask whether she did any personal coaching or motivational speaking. I think they would have signed up immediately, as would I.
Today, as you read this, the United Church of Christ will be bringing to a close its 30thGeneral Synod. Its theme is "Unexpected Places" based on Jacob's exclamation after the dream of 'his' ladder that "surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it (Genesis 28:16)! " With recent events in Charleston, Tunisia, Kuwait, and France, it was good to be reminded that God still can show up in an unexpected place - even a Saturday morning spinning class. And that is a truth worth holding on to... for dear life.
- Freeman Palmer
There are important actions that we will consider at General Synod over the next week. In my opinion, the New York Conference has held some pivotal roles in some of the issues that I believe are of critical importance: Dismantling the New Jim Crow; Beyond Fossil Fuels; and Toward a Peace in Israel and Palestine. All these are resolutions co-sponsored by New York. And it is our prophetic witness that is most important. Everything else is either icing on the cake (like the incredible worship experiences) or muck from the gutters (like the controversies over By-Law/Constitutional changes).
And icing is wonderful. And mucking the gutters is essential (or so my wife tells me).
We will carefully discern how we advocate for peace while we stay in relationship with our Jewish friends. This will be difficult work. We will also advocate for renewable energy sources, even as we struggle with how this has painful ramifications on families that rely upon the extraction of fossil fuels to pay their bills and feed their kids. This is hard work. We will again look at the face of racism, only to painfully find ourselves looking in a mirror, dimly. This is painful and profoundly important work that is all about saving lives.
And we will struggle with our own culture as church. Are we ultimately a consultative community or are we to forge forward boldly? This is not easy stuff either, because while forging forward is wonderful, we must be cognizant of anyone left behind or forgotten. Our fear of survival as a denomination causes us to rethink processes of the past that assured all voices were at the table. My opinion, as you may have heard before, is that process defines us as much as prophecy.
So in these days ahead, please pray for our United Church of Christ. And watch us online.
I suppose what really matters is that life is held as sacred and that all we do contributes to that end. And I suppose the real question is: are you/are we doing that? For churchy people like us, the important focus is how we are "getting that done" in what we do. Click Here to see ways in which you are either helping to contribute or not. Go ahead, Click Here, I'll wait to go on until after you have.
Thanks for taking a look at the link. Now you know what this is about. The most important "work" toward ensuring the sanctity of life is done by you and with your local church. And the link shows you where you can find the tools to get the "work" done and the safety net to ensure you will not fail.
If you know me, you know I'm a hopeless optimist. But let me start with the bad news: we are going to go out of business in four years. If we keep moving on the same trajectory, there will be no UCCNY in 2019: no more tools, no more safety net. This conference ministry will close down. This should not be news to anyone. We've been saying it at every Annual Meeting since I've been in New York Conference when we pass the annual budget with it's significant deficits. It is why we covenanted together to make the "Covenant Share" offering successful. It is why Annual Meeting delegates have been tasked to bring this "news" back to their local ministry centers each year. But so far, Covenant Share has not been successful.
For the past couple of months we have asked that Conference Sunday be observed this coming week, June 21st. The Covenant Share envelopes are in your local church office. The promotional materials are posted online here. Of course, you can promote this special offering whenever you want, but we have recommended this coming Sunday.
UCCNY has a multi-faceted plan to "stay in business". It includes growth in OCWM (which we know is possible); growth in Covenant Share; intentional asks for donations to "Friends of the Conference", welcoming new congregations that want to be participating covenantal members of UCCNY, and a new focus on legacy gifts to our ministry so that persons may make a life long impact on the "life giving work" we do together.
If you have not already made your commitment to participating in this endeavor, you can do so right now by clicking here. You can also say something either during the announcement or "joys and concerns" at your church this Sunday. You can say, "because the witness of the United Church of Christ is important to me, I've contributed to Covenant Share, and I hope you will too." My own contribution is automatically deducted by each of my paychecks. It's pretty easy and painless.
Some may say, geez, David sure is aggressive in this years "ask" for giving to Covenant Share. I hope you will hear this not as "aggressive" but rather as passionate. I am passionate for the ministry we do that "equips the saints" for a faithful witness that is relentless for compassionate justice, and holds no reserve in enACTing BOLD Christian leadership.
I just wrote my list, as I do each morning, of the tasks for the day - boxing those things that just must get done (like "My Thoughts") and copying onto the new one a good bit of yesterday's list. The list keeps me focused and lowers my anxiety that something really important will be forgotten. And how I love to cross items off! It also narrows my attention - to this short day, to the tasks that need to be done to make life run smoothly.
My college chaplain, Coleman Brown, died this winter. He is much on my mind these days, as I engage in the ministry that I would never be doing if I hadn't met him. A curious Roman Catholic, I became involved in "University Church," a community of "doubters, seekers, and believers," early in my first year at Colgate. So much of my sense of church is grounded in my experience of that community; so much of my understanding of ministry has been drawn from my observations of and conversations with Coleman Brown.
My experience is far from unique. Many of us can point to someone who has provided a way forward for us by being authentically themselves or to a mentor who has offered guidance and support as we learned to walk on the path we'd chosen. We have the power to shape each others' lives.
If I don't want to forget what's really important, I think I need a new list. This is what I learned from Coleman Brown: notice the person who is ill at ease and reach out, listen deeply, offer a word of encouragement to those who struggle, be humble in the face of mystery, see hope for the world in each effort to make a difference, trust God.
Rev. Marjorie Purnine
Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development.
My daughter, Julia, is very into slides right now. Red slides, Blue Slides, Yellow Slides. We go to this park, that school yard and try to fit in as much time outside as we can.
Truth be told- I like slides also. Park Slides, water slides and those big slides you find at fairs or carnival where you need to sit on burlap bags to go fast.
I'm not sure what I like most, about slides, maybe it is the connectedness I feel to my youth, or that I always relate slides with times of joy, or that I am always hoping to experience that one moment of freedom I feel on slides.
You know the freedom of sliding? The feeling you get just after you leave the top: The first drop, the starting big dip, the sharp curve that lets you know that you have left the place you began and are quickly going toward another destination.
Freedom is one of those virtues in life that many of us often overlook.
But Freedom is #trending. Freedom is being talked about more. I read stories of how we should not forget the price that is paid for Freedom in our country. I receive blogs and notes of how and why we need to continue stand up to bring racial freedom in the face of power. I hear stories of how we live in a world where systemic slavery happens through mass incarceration. #BlackLivesStillMatter
My Struggle...How do we, as a people, lose the message of Freedom we experienced on playgrounds when we were young. Where along life's wild ebbs and flows did we lose the vision of Freedom mixed with all the wonderful fullness that God gives us.
Until I figure it out, I will continue to be "in the moment" as Julia smiles and giggles down the slide with freedom in her eyes.
In the Greatest of Hope
Associate Conference Minister for Youth, Young Adults, and Emerging Ministries
This is how I measure success. As those who live in NYC know, it is very expensive to live there. And to begin to rent an apartment in the city, there are extraordinary start up expenses. My son began his employment with the NY Yankees yesterday, but he has not yet secured a place to live. He has done the extensive application paperwork for an apartment he found in West Harlem. The costs are, from my perspective, astronomical.
As we discussed this as a family, both of his older sisters said: I have some money that I can lend him to help him out. I was deeply moved that my daughters offered to financially help their brother. I know that doesn't happen everywhere. But it is a value that we tried to instill in our children. We are a family and a family helps each other. That is greater than wealth: the unity of a family. I am thankful.
We were all there for his graduation: sisters, their boyfriends, cousin from Brazil, AFS "brother" from Germany, Gram, and Mom and Dad. It was a three-day party. After the commencement ceremony I hugged him and told him how deeply proud I am of him. He whispered in my ear: "Love you, and sorry I'm growing up." He was able to read my soul.
It occurred to me this morning that all the pictures we posted on Facebook were of him as a very small child. He is, after all, the baby of the family. He is not only my little boy, he is his sisters' baby brother. Even our German "son" said "congratulations little brother." He is the youngest of all the cousins both in the US and in Brazil. And yes, he is grown up with his first academic degree in hand and a signed contract to begin work next week. He will move to NYC this week (and no, he has yet to find a place to live!). I had to smile when they handed him his degree, camera strapped to his shoulder, and he turned and snapped a photo of the audience. Yup, that is who he is.
He lives on his iPhone. His battery dies every day because of the amount of texting he does. Several days ago I texted "where are you?" No answer. I then texted "No matter how old you are, you will always be my son, and I will worry about you every day of my life. That's fatherhood." Of course, his battery was dead and he didn't get the message until the next day. And he is grown up. And he is my baby boy.
Imagine this. A wife asks her husband: "Why did you sell our house and withdraw all our life savings, investing them in emerging technologies without even asking me what I thought?" The husband responds: "You have always resisted change. I am modeling adaptive leadership that ensures a vibrant and secure future for us. When you married me you vowed to respect me, so I'm not willing to discuss this with you. Now is the time to be bold, confident, and courageous. Follow me."
Or imagine this. A pastor ascends to the pulpit and says: "You called me to lead this congregation toward a vibrant future that meets the spiritual needs of our community and hopes of new generations. Therefore after worship we will vote on the sales agreement I've secured on our aging building and changing our practice of requiring congregational votes for future decisions of our church. I am certain this is what God is calling us to do."
Or this. The chief of police says to the citizens of the city: "You hired me to reduce the crime rate. I've achieved a 5 percent decline in my first year on duty. Do not question the methods my force uses to accomplish our goals. Besides you are only concerned with your own small enclave, you don't see the big picture."
In each case sacred trust and covenant is, at best, tested? Efficacy and nimbleness are good qualities to strive toward, but they are not in and of themselves goals. Neither is homeostasis a worthy goal. Financial security, responding to emerging spiritual needs, and physical well-being are worthy goals. And.... shared decision-making, covenantal visioning, and equal justice for all is the road to get there.
"Boxes, and tape, and bubble-wrap, oh my...". There is something about moving, and packing and unpacking that is both exhilarating and exasperating all at the same time. I'm not sure if it's the accumulation of unnecessary junk that frustrates me, or the hope of new adventures that excite me. Either way my "borderline" Type A personality is working to embrace an "out with the old-in with the new" kind of mindset.
Moving across the country, where you know absolutely no one, can be scary and a bit overwhelming. Especially when you glance out the window and it's snowing in April! However, the many congratulatory emails and invitations to worship we have received from many of you have made us feel most welcome. As we settle into our new home and our new responsibilities here in New York, Michele and I are looking forward to meeting all of the good folks of the New York Conference. So when you see us at Annual Meeting, in worship, or at various other events, don't hesitate to come tell us your name and say hello. We want to get to know you, and we want you to get to know us. (I also want to know all of the good places to eat).
Please know that I am honored to have an opportunity to share the work of ministry with Rev. David Gaewski, and such a great conference staff. Everyone has been super. Further, I count it a privilege to serve God through serving you. So, until we meet..."boxes, and tape, and bubble-wrap, oh my...".
Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams
Associate Conference Minister for Clergy and Authorized Ministry Concerns
There are two tensions that I am frequently thinking about. They are not dissimilar, but there is a nuanced difference. As the cliché goes "these are things I learned in seminary." However, anyone who observes life should be aware of these.
The first is the age-old ethical dilemma: do the ends justify the means or are the means, ends in themselves. The second one pertains to the functionality of all human systems: a balance must be achieved between obtaining goals and maintaining the relationships within the system. These were utmost in my mind when I participated in the drafting of The Open Letter to the UCC (www.openletterucc.org ). I thought a lot about whether to do this. As a member of the United Church of Christ Board of Directors, I participated in the passing of the recommended by-law changes coming to General Synod. I voted in favor of the financial and ministerial by-law changes. I voted against the changes that pertain to the Collegium of Officers and General Minister and President. And the vote for changing decision making regarding General Synod was taken so quickly, that I was not aware that this was what we were voting on, until after the vote was taken.
You will see in the letter that I am not urging that we defeat the recommended by-law changes. Rather, I believe that in this case, the system needs maintenance through consultation and I believe that the processes that have been followed are not the means that I hope will define this denomination. Because I pray for complete transparency in our church, I do not hesitate to associate myself with this letter.
I am thankful for Linda Jaramillo's leadership in holding a sacred conversation on race with the New York Conference Board. We began by telling our own stories of where we came from and what has shaped our identities. We then watched a short film of a young African American man who goes into a convenience store to purchase a bottle of water, band aids and an apple. The video is very tense as it clearly shows with no words spoken the preconceptions of the clerk and an elderly white woman in the store. I believe the film also showed some of the pre-conceptions of the young man toward the other two in the film. We discussed the film, watched it again, and discussed it again. Each of the African Americans present in the room shook their heads in deep understanding. This began the difficult and sacred conversation that we were there to have. It is natural form some to intellectualize the experience and for others to feel it. That is who we are and neither reaction is right or wrong. What is essential is to have the conversation. In the months ahead we hope to offer several opportunities to train trainers who can convene this conversation in local congregations throughout New York. I ask for your prayers that this initiative be faithful and valuable. May the Holy Spirit lead us to faithful witness, compassionate justice, and bold Christian leadership.
I am thinking about resurrection. As I was looking out my window, straining to see a crocus, the question that came to me was this: Is God able to do a new thing in me? Then, of course, I realized how preposterous and presumptuous that question is. Am I able to allow the Holy Spirit to change me in ways that better embody what is holy in my life? Likewise, am I able to allow God to change me in ways that brings holiness into all the lives of the people whom my life touches? Holiness, of course, does not mean that all the rough roads are made smooth. The road to the cross was holy, and not pleasant. But resurrection could not have happened without Golgotha.
So I am thinking about resurrection and what that really means at 11:39am on Tuesday, April 7th in Syracuse, New York. While I love the story of the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly (and I do think it worked very well during the children's message at the Easter service I attended!), it is the tangibility of the power of life over death that I am contemplating for this moment (and we always live life in this moment). The next word I speak, the next text I type, the next phone call I answer, how will I live the resurrection? I hope it will be intentionally, mindfully, and with honest integrity.
I may be wrong about this. If you are under the age of 40 and reading this, please let me know if you think I'm getting this right. I think the current thinking regarding a model for effective leadership in the church reflects the goals of corporate America from about 15-20 years ago. What I mean is this: efficiency lays in the elimination of bureaucracy, multiple committees are inefficient, centralization of authority and the assumption of decision making power allow for streamlined efficacy. I think corporate America models were translated into "church talk" by folks like Easum and Bandy, as well as my own mentor Ed Friedman. And I suspect that these models are correct for the aging membership of our churches.
But I don't think these are the values of the millennial generation. I believe Millennials, like my three adult children, have a different value system than the one we seem to tout for effective church. I think there is a greater value for relationship today than twenty years ago. I think connectedness via technology is in the DNA of the raising generation. I think networking is an imperative (and I must admit I find this difficult because of my own limitations is cutting edge technology). I don't think bureaucracy is valued, but I do believe clear and agreed upon processes are essential. Finally, while I believe it true for previous generations, I think transparency in decision-making is the bedrock for the efficacy of all systems for Millenials.
Using terminology from my seminary ethics class: we are incarnating a teleological model of church (ends justify the means) rather than the deontological values of Millenials (means justify the ends). Is this the paradigm shift that deters the rising generation from embracing church as we have made it?
I suppose I am a bit surprised that a white man is the current nominee to become the next president of the UCC. I am assuming that after Linda Jaramillo's retirement the position of Executive for Justice and Witness Ministries will be eliminated leaving the three leaders of our denomination all being white men. I have very high admiration for the work of Jim Moos and Ben Guess. I also admire the work that John Dorhaur has done in justice work along the US/Mexican boarder issues. And I am glad to know that John's doctoral work was on white privilege. I think that John, Jim, and Ben are very capable leaders.
Still. I am nagged by a sense of hoping the UCC leadership might embody our ideal of inclusivity and equality. I am all too keenly aware that I write this as a white male conference leader. And I know there are fewer women and persons of color in denominational leadership positions today than when I started in conference ministry seventeen years ago. And that unsettles me. Are there really less talented women and persons of color aspiring toward denominational leadership? Or is denominational leadership just a much less coveted position? The later may have some validity. But I know of many women and persons of color with great gifts and visions that could easily have been chosen to lead our progressive and visionary denomination.
So I go this week to the United Church Board meeting and I will be asked to vote on the nomination of a person, like myself, who has white male privilege. I am not sure what I will do. I know that no matter what, my conscience is unsettled.
I was asked a question last night that I don't think I've ever been asked before. "What does the UCC do about Jesus' great commission?" (Go and make disciples of all the nations...)
It took me by surprise. But it is one worthy of some reflection. First, what aspect of the UCC? Local Churches? Conferences? National Setting? As a member of the Board of Global Ministries, I know that our philosophy is to be partners with churches around the world rather than the old model of being "missionaries to" the world. Having significant "on the ground" experience with Christian communities in Latin America, my observation is that the closer one lives to the precarious nature of life due to violence, poverty, and hunger, the greater the vitality and passion of faith. Therefore the Southern Hemisphere has much to share with the affluent North about living discipleship.
Also, it is a false dichotomy that is sometimes drawn between the "spiritual nature" of making disciples and the activist faith of incarnating justice. When South Hempsted UCC and Garden City UCC engage in conversations about institutional racism, discrimination, intimidation, and violence in their communities, they are doing the work of "making disciples". When Matt Starzyk (18 years old) preaches a sermon at Regional Youth Event about "why I love Jesus", he is engaged in discipleship building. So, yes to the question. The UCC takes the great commission very seriously. Perhaps the bottom line is: that's all we do.
When the conversation begins about "the church of tomorrow" or "the emerging church", I become bored with how narrow the thinking can be. There is no single blueprint or template of what the church will look like in five, ten or twenty years. There never has been. I also yawn when the conversation includes "this is a unique moment in church history." Give me a break. Every moment has been unique since the last supper. Corinth could not have foreseen Westminster Abbey. Scrooby could not have foreseen Old South Boston. Salem could not have imagined Judson. And Martin Luther could never have imagined the United Church of Christ.
The only thing I am certain of is this: the love of Christ is the beginning and the ending. Human beings will always long in their hearts to know this love ever more fully. One day we will see face to face, but on this blue orb, the mirror will always be a dim reflection of the perfection of the Body of Christ. There will be no less "forms" of church in 2060 as there are in 2015. There is no single template for faithful witness. And we will struggle each day on earth to more fully reflect the image in which we are made.
At least, let us change our terminology to "the churches of tomorrow" and "the emerging churches". Anything else is, in my humble opinion, at best arrogant, self-aggrandizement and at worst, an attempt to sell snake oil.
I should be writing about the Lenten Veggie Fast: Blessing the Earth. But if I did, I wouldn't be honest to my goal, which is to actually write about the thoughts that most occupy my mind.
Gracie stopped eating on Friday. I had noticed signs of incontinence for a few weeks, but wasn't sure if it was Gracie or George. If you don't know the significance of naming my Cocker Spaniel Gracie in 2002, some UCC history is needed. "Never place a period where God has placed a comma" (Gracie Allen's last message to George Burns). The Vet said it was most likely cancer and that some extensive (and very expensive) tests would be needed to absolutely confirm that. Gracie was thirteen, George was twelve. George has long suffered with separation anxiety, a relatively common condition for Cockers. He essentially always cried when he thought he was alone. I could not imagine George adapting to life without Gracie.
I can't venture to ponder if animals have souls or spirits. I suppose at my core I am a panentheist, believing that if it breathes, there is sacredness. The decision to take away breath has been among the hardest decisions I have ever made. I am certain there is nothing absolutely right nor absolutely wrong in this. It is just hard.
About ten years ago I gave a children's message at a church where the pastor and her husband were separating. I told the children that what God wants most from all of us is to live lives that are holy and healthy, and sometimes we would have to make painful decisions in order to do what we believe God wants us to do. And so yesterday, I think and I hope that I did that.
Say Goodnight Gracie. Goodnight George.
I'm a bit out of breath and my lower back aches. One way we try to be frugal in the New York Conference is that while we do pay someone to plow our parking lot, we don't pay anyone to clear our sidewalk and front steps. Yes, today it was my turn. And yes, there was a lot of snow.
I think it is a good thing, when one is able, for a pastor-from time to time-- to shovel the snow from the sidewalk or steps of the church. Something about washing feet comes to mind. If Jesus could wash the feet of his disciples, I believe a pastor should think about the potential of "slip and fall" for her parishioners.
My mentor into ministry was my pastor in Monroe, Connecticut: Luther Calvin Pierce (gotta love that name!). Monroe Congregational had over 500 members and was a very happening church. What amazed me about Luther was that no matter who called him or stopped by to see him, he acted as if their conversation was the only thing in the world that mattered. He is a staunch New Englander with very measured emotions. But I never doubted that he loved every single person that walked into the door of his office or sat in the pew. I'm sure he didn't like them all. But I never doubted his love. There is a humility that I believe is learned by practicing unconditional love and vice versa. That is why your conference minister shoveled the steps (and sanded). Thank you Luther.
I don't know when snow stopped being magical for me. But it did. And I am not happy about that. I can vaguely remember the adrenaline rush of seeing "Monroe Schools Cancelled" scroll up on channel 8. I do have a clear memory of the storm of '68(?) when the snowplow piled a twenty foot mountain at the end of my driveway (well it was at least ten feet...). My buddy Joey and I spent the next week shaping it into a castle. It was wonderful. And I also remember the storm of '78 when I was a sophomore at University of Connecticut. It was piled so high that my friends and I could not walk through it; we had to roll over it. I'm still smiling.
But my important meeting was cancelled yesterday and I'm disappointed. I look out the window and see.... just snow. I shoveled my steps this morning without a single thought about hot chocolate. Maybe it was the storm of '93 that ended it for me. My son was only two weeks old and we lived in Vermont. They predicted a massive blizzard, and we did not have a woodstove in the house. The day before the storm I drove from one end of Vermont to the other to find a kerosene heater...just in case we lost power. It wasn't fun. We didn't loose power.
When I was very young I remember the magic of watching the Catholic Mass. The bells, the incense, the robes, the pictures in the windows... it was all magic and it was wonderful. Last Saturday I took my mother to Mass, and it was over in 45 minutes...that was all.
Matthew 18:3 "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." I have something to relearn about mountains of snow, and laughter about rolling around, and bells, and stained glass windows, and beautiful colors of ecclesiastical garments. I wouldn't use the word "magical" to describe the realm of God. But marvelous? Wondrous? Incredible? A new world? Oh yes. Oh yes.
I am still thinking about the consultation I attended last November in Mainz, Germany. It was a gathering of all the international partners of the EKHN (Evangelical Church of Hessen and Nassau). The purpose was to discuss all the things our respective denominations were doing to ensure global environmental and economic sustainability. My presentation was on the UCC Divestment in Fossil Fuels. (I am proud to say the New York Conference Trustees have taken this mandate very seriously and have made significant strides in moving this conferences invested funds in that direction!)
The magnitude of each partner's contribution to global environmental sustainability varied significantly. The question of economic sustainability is very different when looking at the context of Europe and North America vs. African and Asia. Nonetheless I was intrigued by the global embrace of sustainable food consumption practices. Our European partners emphasize a global initiative called "World Veggie Day". And that got me thinking...
For a couple of months I had a post in Happenings about an idea of a Lenten Veggie Fast. The responses were numerous and extremely encouraging. So a couple of weeks ago we had an organization conference call. The Veggie Fast described in this Happenings is the result of our brain storming. You can learn more about this Lenten spiritual discipline both here in Happenings as well as on the Facebook page: Lenten Veggie Fast - Blessing the Earth. You can pledge to participate in this fast either simply by "liking" the Facebook page or through the bulletin insert tear off provided by your church in their Sunday bulletin. If you don't see it in your bulletin, ask your church office to run it.
Maybe we can actually change the world, one meal at a time.
For the most part, I enjoy writing. I like to write metaphorical messages about apple trees or building a rock wall or the changing of the seasons. And I love getting responses from folks who let me know that what I said meant something to them. It's not all that different from preaching inspiring messages after which very nice remarks are given to the preacher as folks shuffle out of church. I really like that. Makes me feel good.
I don't like to write about the ugliness of life or about issues for which I know very well that there are strongly held differing opinions. And like everyone, I think, I don't like getting the feed back that my message was not appreciated (to put it mildly). And while I like to think that I am a fool for justice (and Jesus!), it is painful when shedding light on ugliness causes intense anger. But...but...if the real hard places are ignored, if the ugly words are never used, if the risk of "lousy message pastor" is never taken, then the ministry isn't real. Real life is ecstasy and agony, deep joy and unbearable pain. And there isn't always a bright side.
But....but....even in the painful places there can be such great encouragement and hope. After receiving threatening messages through a variety of modes of communication, the leadership of one of our Euro-American churches voted to keep the "Black Lives Matter" banner on their sign. They were not intimidated. Glimmers of light: an Asian man says "No, don't change it to "All Lives Matter", now is the time to speak to these particular incidents."
The day will certainly come when I will write about the wind in the trees, and my mother's gnarled arthritic hands, and the child's face covered with tomato sauce. But that is not today.
I don't know what to pray. I know that each child is born with your holy image, whether with brown skin-- one day to grow up to be a police officer who aspired to be a chaplain; with black skin one day to loose his life while selling cigarettes to make ends meet; whether Asian or White; whether born where there was no room; or where there is abundant room. I know each life reflects your holiness. I know this. And I know that life --holy life-- is suffocated when there is no food or when the water brings disease, and that this happens every single minute of every day. And I know this is not your will. I know it is not your will that one grown child takes the life of another. I know you grieve with the crying child of Officer Ramos and with the daughter of Eric Garner and the sister of Tamir Rice. I know your tears mix with theirs.
And I know, God, there is much anger. We are angry that young black men are distrusted before they are trusted. Angry that police officers are painted with one stroke of the brush. Angry that some are told their heart felt feelings are wrong or un-worthy. Angry when we are told we do not deserve to have so much. Angry when abundance is not shared. And Herod was angry too. And so was Pilate. And so were you, when you turned over the tables. But I also know that there is right and wrong. You were, and are, right. Herod and Pilate were wrong.
So, God, as always, we need your help.... and right now is the time. It's not that I'm imposing my will, but rather, I am quite desperate for your will. Your will be done. Your glorious will. And I know that is why the angels sang and why the shepherds were awestruck with wonder and fear. It is why the powerful Magi gave from their abundance. It is why we come to this time of year....again and again and again with hope and wonder that the glory be born anew, on earth, in us. O Emmanuel, I pray that we not turn from one another but that we face one another, here on earth as in your holy realm. May we look deeply into one another's eyes and recognize the holy image, even when there is anger. And may we keep talking: you, my sister, my brother, and I so that together, thy will be done. Yes, that is my prayer. I pray that this Christmas be the time of the incarnation of "thy will be done."
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Marian Shearer, Associate Conference Minister for Clergy and Authorized Ministry Concerns.
First, you get to be an angel. Then a shepherd. If you are lucky, you get to be Mary or Joseph one year. And to be one of the three wise men? The top. To have to be the donkey? The bottom.
I am convinced that children who live through Christmas pageants learn the story with their bodies, not just their minds. So at this time of year, I am more acutely aware of what families who do not go to church are missing.
That is, during Advent, it is in church that we hear the timeless words of hope from Isaiah; the upside-down promise of the Magnificat, Mary's song, that the poor shall be filled with good things but the rich sent empty away.
It is in church that we light the Advent wreath candles one by one, inviting one another to wait with real expectation for God coming among us again, as one of us.
In the face of the terrors and sorrows of our world, how can we keep plodding onward if we have not ingested that hope, year after year?
We sing it in the Advent hymns and Christmas carols; we act it out in the Christmas pageants, we declare it as we light candles and recite that the Light of the World is coming. I am convinced that we learn hope, from our earliest years, when we observe Advent in church. We say it, sing it, hear it, act it out. We ingest it.
And without that hope, that consistent declaring that God's intention for the world is to reconcile and restore all peoples, how can we go on? Let the words of hope ring out again and again. It is our calling as communities of faith to strengthen the weak knees and lift up the tired arms for the work of justice. In part, we do that by dragging out the angel wings and donkey ears again, for one more version of the Christmas story. Be blessed by it all.
I can not light the pink candle this year. It will not burn in my Advent wreath. Hope: it all starts there; Peace: It is the way; Love: That's what it is all about. But this Advent, no joy.
Soon we will hear the result of the Grand Jury verdict on Tamir Rice in Cleveland. He was twelve years old. TWELVE. We expect that the verdict will follow the pattern of no trial. Twelve.... Enough is enough.
The outrage is not about the actions of a few police officers. It is about a systemic racism that has brought our country into the new Apartheid era. It is about a militarization that causes black parents to tell their sons what they are not free to do-- activities that my son can get away with, but for which Tamir Rice was killed. It is about the fact that if The Congo were a white country, the US and United Nations would declare a no fly zone and we would hear about the atrocities every single night on CNN. But it's a black country and our silence is a deafening example of our institutionalized racism. It is about the fact that if you are born black and male, you have a one in three chance of spending time in prison.
The hymn "For Everyone Born" is my Advent prayer. The fifth verse is:
"For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear, and simply to be, to work, to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born, the right to be free. And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace; yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy."
But now there is no justice. No joy for me this Advent.
As a day of thanksgiving passes and as the advent of Christmas morning approaches, I am wondering about things like "plenty", "abundance", and "enough". In particular I question myself, "When do I have enough?" I think this is a difficult question for those, like me, who are privileged in so many ways. When do I have enough money? When are my possessions enough? When is my consumption enough? I am deeply troubled when I hear the phrase "I deserve". I am mindful of God's grace, which is freely given to me. I have not earned it. Maybe that alone is what is "enough" in my life.
A couple of weeks ago I attended an international symposium of church folk from around the world who reflected together on sustainable economic growth and environmental security. For many coming from regions of the developing world, "enough" has not been obtained. But for those of us from Europe and the US, our inability to identify "enough" directly causes the "not enough" for the vast majority of the planet. So a "Black Friday" is truly a sign that our indulgence is, well, perverse.
While this may seem theologically like a Lenten reflection, for me it speaks of the advent of God's fullness, freely given. "God with us" is so much more than enough.
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Geoffrey Black, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
In the months that have passed since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown last August, the attention of the nation on Ferguson, Missouri, has sharpened the reality that racism still exists in our country and is as deadly as ever. Our prayers for justice have been fervent but the truth remains that in communities around the country, racial profiling of people of color by law enforcement, and particularly of young African American men, far too often has lethal consequences.
Day after day, protestors have peacefully marched in the streets of Ferguson, demanding that justice be done. People of faith, including UCC clergy and leaders, and young people living in the area, have provided key leadership in this organizing effort. Even so, a state of emergency was declared days before the announcement of the St. Louis grand jury decision on whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would face criminal charges.
Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith reminds us that God promises to all who trust in God "courage in the struggle for justice and peace." In the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson and the implication that Michael Brown's death was justified, the people of Ferguson, of the St. Louis area, and of the nation at large are left with an open wound and no visible means to begin the healing process. Disappointment, frustration and anger abound. Any and all of these responses are understandable.
However, we are also reminded by our statement of faith that we are engaged in a "struggle for justice and peace." These two concepts are appropriately joined. To engage in the struggle takes courage and a renewed commitment to advocacy and action, to deepening racial awareness by engaging in sacred conversation, and to truthfully examining - then dismantling - the systems of privilege set in place by racism. It requires building God's beloved community beyond racial divides. That is where true peace abides.
We in the national setting of the United Church of Christ stand in prayerful solidarity with the people of the St. Louis Association and the Missouri Mid-South Conference. We join you and all others who are advocating for justice and working for peace in Ferguson and the St. Louis area as well as in communities around our nation. We invite the whole United Church of Christ to do likewise.
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Freeman Palmer, Associate Conference Minister for Conference Development.
(NOTE: One of the things I did during my recent sabbatical was traveling Historic Route 66 from Albuquerque NM to its' western terminus in Santa Monica CA. Combined with another trip several years ago, this trip enabled me to complete the entire 2,448 miles of Route 66 from its' eastern terminus in Chicago. This is a part of what will prayerfully will be a part of a book of spiritual reflections based on my experiences on the road).
Route 66 is a very long road. One can travel its' length from Chicago to Santa Monica CA in about 30 hours, but that is on the three interstates (55,44, and 40) that mostly encompass 66's original route. Yet traveling on 66 takes far longer. One of the things that felt strange in traveling 66 was the juxtaposition of the old road to the Interstates. There are many instances, particularly in the Southwest, where what is now Historic Route 66 is the 'Frontage Road", defined by Wikipedia as "a local road running parallel to a higher-speed, limited-access road" which provides "access to private driveways, shops, houses, industries or farms." Riding along 66 as a frontage road was a strange experience at times. 66 and the Interstate would be side by side, separated by a fence, about fifteen feet apart. It felt strange, unsettling, and oddly lonely riding on a road with few or no cars for miles in full view of everyone else zooming along at speeds of 65+ miles per hour.
Yet there were times when the longer road would do something that the shorter road would not. 66 would gracefully meander into a beautiful curve through a mountain pass while the interstate would barrel ahead with no angle. Or 66 would come to a hill with a majestic view of vermillion and burnt orange rock formations framed by emerald green Guajilo trees. Or 66 would diverge from the Interstate altogether, containing unforgettable vistas calling to remembrance the sheer beauty of creation. These were blessings bestowed not by zooming along the interstate, but gained by taking the time to take the long road.
This analogy holds for our spiritual journeys. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. This was hardly a large area. According to biblical maps the area of the wilderness is less than one-tenth the size of Texas in square miles. Now that is a long road. Nonetheless God through Moses told the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 8:2 (NRSV) to "Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep God's commandments."
Clearly the people of Israel did not have a road map or a GPS. They clearly did not know the shortest route from Egypt to Canaan. And they clearly did not want the journey to take as long as it did. Yet in their wanderings, despite their impatience and outright disobedience, they experienced how God provided manna and quail when they were hungry, water from a rock when they were thirsty, safety in the midst's of the wilderness' dangers, and direction, albeit a circuitous route to the place promised to them. By the time they finally made it to Canaan, they knew who were and more importantly, they knew who they were in relation to who God is.
We tend to want to get from 'here to three' faster in many, if not all aspects of our lives. But maybe...just maybe.... the longer road might, through surprising, unexpected, providential ways, might enable us to arrive 'there' not faster, but better, thanks to the journey itself.
Continuing on my thoughts about authority in the United Church of Christ....
A quick look at our roots first: the Congregationalists rejected the word "independent" as even the Cambridge Platform (1648) emphasized the need of various congregations to be accountable to one another; the Evangelicals in St. Louis gathered first at the Kirchenverein des Westerns (1840) affirming "in essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity"; the German Reformed finding themselves without an authorizing body in Penn's Woods reached out to the Dutch Reformed in Manhattan (yes, these were the founders of the Collegiate Churches) to ordain their first minister (1725); and the frontier Christians affirmed that they were more faithful when they associated with one another across the eastern continent (1826). Hence the DNA of the UCC is one of associating for purposes of accountability (or as CNN sometimes says "keeping them honest")
Today, we place this authority for oversight and accountability in our Committees on Ministry (Metro: Ordination and Ministerial Standing). For all the reasons mentioned above we have "evolved" to place the authority of authorizing ministry (both of ministers AND of congregations) in these committees. The important distinction here is that our Committees on Ministry have the authority to authorize on behalf of the United Church of Christ as a whole denominational body.
The work of these Committees is weighty and sometimes quite difficult, but that is the nature of authority. What value would there be for frivolous or thoughtless granting of authorization? It is because the task is difficult and requiring of prayerful and careful discernment that their work is respected as the place were faith and order as a denomination is held.
So here's my dilemma. I have committed to not using this venue to push a conference agenda. But I've also striven to authentically write about what is on my mind. So what do I do when my most active thinking is over what appears to be a conference agenda item? I'm feeling a bit like Paul at this point: Woe is me, Conference Minister that I am....
I am waking up at 3am and the numbers 47 and 11,538 keep going through my head. Our conference is $47,000 behind where it was last year at this time in OCWM income. Covenant Share donations are currently at $11,538 of our $361,790 goal. Soon we will be deep into the planning of the 2016 budget. When I came to New York two years ago I asked many times, what is needed? The current staffing pattern was clearly what I heard. During the few months that Freeman has been on sabbatical I saw how difficult it was for all the staff to be one FT position short. (And Freeman, we love you and we are glad you are taking the sabbatical you so deserve!)
I had a hunch that 2014 would be a tough year financially for us. The dedicated work of the Stewardship Team takes time to "kick in". And I do foresee 2015 with a better financial forecast. But in the meantime, I wake up and think about 47 and 11,538. What I ask is this: pray for the United Church of Christ in New York. I am hopelessly a believer in the Good News of Christ that is communicated and incarnated by the UCC in NY. So I ask that you pray for us and our ability to continue to do and be what we do and are.
There is a praise song with the line: "You are a royal priesthood." I was taken back a few months ago when I went into a pulpit to preach after the Praise Team had powerfully sung that song. There I stood before the royal priesthood. The priests were in the pews. What authority did I have to speak a word of God? Does a pulpit give or communicate authority? Or is it simply a symbol of power?
When I talk to students about power I warn them to be aware of the power that is handed to them. There is power conveyed when standing in a pulpit that is "above" the congregation. Wisdom, however, is the recognition that power is best when it is shared-not given. The priests are in the pews, which is to say: the mediators of God's grace, healing, forgiveness, and justice are in the pews. And the word of God from the pulpit is to encourage the mediation of the priests.
A theological education instills knowledge and there is authority in knowledge. And knowledge is a very good thing. But more important than knowledge is wisdom, and only the Holy Spirit, not a M.Div., provides wisdom. Wisdom is an equal opportunity employer-if it is pursued.
So, preachers, know to whom you are preaching. Your knowledge gives you the authority to "give a word". But seek wisdom before you speak. And congregants, know that the word given is to encourage you to do the work of ministry: heal the sick, forgive the trespassers, do justice, show grace, and walk humbly with God. In my opinion, that's what happens on Sunday morning: it is prep time for the work week.
Focus on: Ministry for Leadership Development
Last month, I spent ten intense days in Israel-Palestine. With four German partners from the EKHN, and three other NY delegates, I listened to more than forty people speak about their lives and share the work they do to bring peace and healing to their communities. I listened, and listened, and filled page after page of my notebook (in the last visits, I was scribbling in margins and on the cover). I wanted to understand at more than just a surface level, so that I could give, when I returned, what anthropologists call a "thick description" of the place.
These days, I find myself thinking about how to bring that experience into my ministry. I've given presentations. Deanne, Laurie, Tony, and I are working on a webpage for www.uccny.org that will share the work of groups like the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan (www.silwanic.net) and Rabbis for Human Rights (www.rhr.org.il/eng/). I also find myself thinking about how I can give that same quality of attention to those I encounter on this side of the Atlantic.
I love the breadth of my role. As Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development, I'm working with students in the New York School of Ministry, supporting Committees on Ministry in two associations, advising search committees, talking with those who wrestle with a call, and planning events like the upcoming fall retreat, "You Hem Me in Behind and Before." Still, what's been on my mind since I returned to the flurry of activity that is my life is an intention, renewed day by day, to bring a depth of focus to each moment, to each conversation.
My time in Israel-Palestine made me look again at my tendency to speed through my days, skating on the surface from one task to the next, with my goal of checking items off my "to do" list paramount. It made me open my ears to the poetry and yearning in the words I hear and hunger for more than a thin understanding of any situation. And for that I am thankful.
From an historical perspective we have arrived at the current cultures of the United Church of Christ from numerous origins. The German Evangelicals and the Frontier Christians were the most egalitarian thinkers amongst our ancestry. While the German Reformed, who highly valued church order, where perhaps the most hierarchical. The Congregationalist were something of a mixed bag: while they touted the autonomy of the local congregation and the authority of the church membership in decision making, they also valued a highly educated elite to govern the community. Among our African American roots, the Afro Christian Conference reflected the Christian values of a priesthood of all believers, while the Black Congregationalist leaned more toward a federalist form of leadership. In both African American traditions, however, it is my reading that the ordained leaders tended to demonstrate more authority than in their Euro-American counterparts.
In 2005, the General Synod of the UCC adopted the "Ministry Issues Proclamation" which has become, I believe, a more significant document than we could have foreseen a decade ago. It sets a clear vision of a "called culture" among the members of the United Church of Christ, which is to say: all people are called to the priesthood of believers by virtue of their baptism. Of course, speaking of "authority", the Synod can only speak tothe denomination and cannot speak for or as the United Church of Christ. Nonetheless, I would put forth that the 2005 document set the needed direction at the right time because a decade later we have embraced the "discernment of call" focus as opposed to the assumption that a "call" is only to ordained ministry.
These thoughts are simply a prelude to my reflections on the topic of authority. I would welcome comments and questions as I continue to develop this series of reflections for future "My Thoughts".
Most days the tasks at hand outnumber the minutes in the day I have to accomplish them. If I wanted to bring my work home, I would accomplish more, including paving a very fast road to burnout. So I do not bring them home....usually. What I have found helpful is amid the cacophony of demands, I regularly ask myself: Where am I? Am I here in the moment? If I am not living in this particular moment, then I am not where I am most needed.
There is a book I read many years ago entitled Wherever you go, There you are. My recollection of it, or should I say the impact it had on me, was to stay aware of the moment in which I am living. I don't think that quiets the cacophony, but it does put it in it's place. Even when the noise sounds overwhelming, finding the silence within is possible. No, not possible....it is essential.
If your tasks outnumber your minutes, I encourage you to listen for the silence in order to find the perspective of where you are and why.
Today's My Thoughts is from excepts of UCC news and Facebook concerning the People's Climate March on September 21 in New York City attended by Rev. David Gaewski, Conference Minister.
UCC marchers part of 400,000 advocating for climate justice
The massive demonstration on Sunday, Sept. 21, the largest climate march in history, sent a clear, loud message to world leaders gathering at the United Nations climate summit in New York this week that the people of the planet are looking for action on climate change.
"I do think the turnout of hundreds of thousands for the Peoples Climate March sends an important message to elected officials and key decision-makers in business and industry," said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC's Justice and Witness office in Washington, D.C.
"Not only was the turnout of the march impressive, it also reflected an impressive diversity of communities and constituencies, from labor to student groups, faith communities and scientists, senior advocates and health activists, local and state government representatives, peace, justice and LGBT groups, and environmental justice and sustainable agriculture advocates," Sorensen added. "This is an issue that cuts across all demographics -- race, socioeconomic status, religion - so the most vulnerable communities must be at the forefront of this work.
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Ryan Henderson, Associate Conference Minister for Youth, Young Adults and Emerging Ministries.
Focus on Ministry to Youth, Young Adults and Emerging Ministries:
My earliest memories of Church were playing in the sanctuary while waiting for my Father (who is Pastor) to get done with a meeting so we can go home. I can remember using the offering plate as a hat, crawling under the pews to find dropped coins and standing in the pulpit to see how far I can see. Much of who I am today in the church is formed from the reality of being a Preacher's Kid (PK). Being a PK is both a wonderful blessing and an occasional struggle.
One of my favorite images from the bible is the way in which God appears to Moses in the burning bush of Exodus 3. God tells Moses to "take off his shoes" for the ground around the burning bush is holy ground.
I have felt honor to be in ministry with you for the just under a year as the ACM of Youth, Young Adults and Emerging Ministries. I have been amazed by the wildly creative spirit is seen in midst of moments where discernment is sought as to where God is calling us to go. I have seen "holy ground" when gifts are offered to make worship happen, and further the mission of God's unconditional love for humanity is shared.
I an excited about the future of the NY Conference and am especially looking forward to: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the State Youth Event, continuing to build bridges between Youth of NY and EKHN (our ecumenical partners in Frankfurt Germany), and even begin to dream at National Youth Event -July 2016 at Disney in Orlando FL (email me to be connected to planning)
I continue to be passionate about the online presence of the New York Conference of The United Church of Christ. I encourage you to connect to the variety of online communities that the NY Conference is growing:
May God continue to Bless each of you with a Love that is beyond our understanding and Grace that is more extravagant then we can comprehend
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Marjorie Purnine, Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development traveling in Israel-Palestine.
It's just after lunch on out first full day in Jerusalem, and I'm filled to bursting with images and words. We've already had four meetings: with a Palestinian Catholic priest, a Catholic priest with a Hebrew-speaking congregation, the international director of inter religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and an analyst from the International Crisis Group. The layered complexities of the situation here can boggle the mind.
A few images: we drove from the airport on a highway which was off limits to Palestinians, with walls in sight, reminding me of a train ride I took through East Germany to West Berlin before the wall came down. We ate dinner in East Jerusalem, with West Jerusalem just on the other side of the wall.
A few words we've heard: "Many walls outside and inside us but walls are not impossible to cross." "To love our neighbors is to understand their pain." "We need to watch every word that comes out of our mouths because words create the world...they are the bricks that the next generation uses to build."
One would think that one would grow accustomed to this sort of thing. It's not like this is the first time. I've been in this place numerous times before. I don't know if it is me, or if this is part of fatherhood, or if this is unique to the Brazilian culture which is the dominant culture in our home. But when a child is far away...across the pond in this case, there is a large hole inside. And while it is only for this semester, it bodes for what we will encounter again after he graduates from SU next spring.
It is not that we have been over-protective or helicopter parents. We've encouraged all our adult children to travel by themselves internationally (and they all have). We have encouraged all to live in large metropolitan areas and make a life for themselves (and they all have). We've encouraged risk taking and choosing the road less traveled. And still, each time they do, there is an ache inside the parent's heart.
My mother-in-law is a saint. I am mindful of her today. I'm thinking about 29 years ago when my wife told her that she would be leaving her country and traveling many thousands of miles away to make a life for herself on the other side of the ocean. I didn't think much about that back then. But today, my compassion and love for my mother-in-law is over-flowing.
The agenda. My life has long been filled with many meetings. People gather for a dual purpose: to accomplish something and to be a community. Both a equally important. One without the other makes for an ineffective meeting. There is a continuum of how important each of these is for each person. Those on one extreme of the scale often find those on the other extreme frustrating. A good leader builds an agenda that aims for the middle: task and relationship. An ineffective leader is unaware of this essential dichotomy AND that it is the responsibility of the leader to set that agenda.
When I write these "Thoughts" each week, I wrestle with "the agenda". For whose agenda do I write. There isn't a simple answer to that and there isn't a right or wrong answer either. Essential for me is to keep it real. If it doesn't feel real to me, then I'm on the wrong agenda.
A bigger question is the agenda of our life. What is the task that is unique to us and what are the critical relationships we need to work to maintain. A hyper-focus on our agenda, in my opinion, leaves no room for the movement of God. No focus is the equivalent of being lost or adrift.
Just some thoughts.
I have been moved by the number of persons who commented on My Thoughts last week regarding the death of Robin Williams. Several persons expressed some concerns that I would like to clarify and affirm. Robin suffered from mental illness which is a disease in the same vein as any debilitating ailment. Suicide is a deeply painful and sad action that should never be interpreted as welcomed liberation. As one who has felt the hurt of suicide I can attest to the way it impacts generations in a family history. Mental illness is not shameful and its stigma has caused countless persons to hide it resulting in the lack of needed treatment. It is imperative for the church to work for the liberation of those who have lived in the closet of mental illness. When I was the pastor in Vienna, Virginia, we had a prominent church sign that weekly displayed (at the church's request) the title of my next sermon (I do NOT advocate this). One Sunday my sermon title was "Christianity and Prozac". Attendance that Sunday over doubled with visitors. That alone is a sign of the need for the church to speak opening, prophetically, and compassionately about depression and mental illness. Be BOLD.
It is hard for me not to be thinking about Robin Williams. I immerse myself in my work, my emails, phone calls, etc, but my mind slips back to Mork and Mindy, Dead Poet Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, and on and on and on. I smile again and then, I sense a tear in my eye. He did add joy in my life. I’m grateful. What a supreme blessing is laughter.
I am thinking about the depth of the human condition; what we see on the surface and all that exists layers and layers below. What we choose to share and how. What we cannot express. Made in a divine image that is oh, so complex. An image we either -- oft times -- cannot see or with which we wrestle. Williams’ wrestling, I believe, was no more complex than any of us. Wrestling with the demons is part of the divine journey. I selfishly grieve that his wrestling has ended. I pray his liberation is fulfilled. But I would have appreciated at least another twenty years of him.
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Freeman Palmer, Associate Conference Minister for Congregational Development
More precious than any Infinity Gem
In what has been said to be a dearth of summer blockbusters, I went on Friday to finally see one generally well received by reviewers and audiences: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. As one who avidly collected Marvel comics in the seventies, I went with great anticipation as one who actually knew something about them.
Hopefully I will not spoil the movie by saying that it centers on a group of intergalactic outlaws, including a talking raccoon and a talking tree (really!). They individually seek to obtain an Infinity Gem, a stone that gives God-like power to its owner. At first, their interactions are characterized by greed, distrust and suspicion. They undermine they other. They argue. They fight. One wonders whether they will ever band together, let alone become heroes. Yet as they reluctantly bond, these characters with checkered pasts discover things they have in common: loss, loneliness, -- needs for friendship and love. As they come to know each other, some things emerge from within them more precious than the jewel they sought to obtain; good, nobility, and heroism. And this group of law-breakers ends up uniting to save a galaxy.
The Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me of the extraordinary power that exists in Christian community. Something wondrous can happen over time as we dwell together in authentic, caring and loving relationships. As we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, individual agendas can fade, differences can dissolve, and gifts and abilities can appear. Similar to what occurs in the movie, good, nobility, and heroism can emerge from unexpected places and people. That was the witness of the early church in the book of Acts, repeated throughout the course of history when churches raised their prophetic voices for human rights, global, justice, and the sacredness of all creation. We have a God-given gift potentially more precious than any Infinity Gem - the gift of community. And with that, we can end up uniting to save lives, save communities, save a world, and maybe... even a galaxy.
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Ryan Henderson, Associate Conference Minister for Youth, Young Adults, and Emerging Ministries
Timing is one of the biggest issues I think about when I stand behind the barbecue grill with smoke billowing into my face. How much time is enough for each side of this item? I don’t want to overcook or else it will be dry and not taste as appealing. Sometimes as I standing waiting in front of the grill, I turn off my phone, breathe deep and allow myself to get lost in the moment. For just an instant, time seems to stop~ as the birds fly by and the sun rays warm my skin. The crackle of the cooking and the smell of grilled perfection wafts into the sky as a humble burnt offering to a collective spirit of summer. As quickly as the sacred pause comes, it leaves just as quick.
Standing near the barbecue grill, is a time of Sabbath for me. A time to break from the normalcy of a daily routine, and allow the simplicity of fire, spice, smoke and cooking take lead. The Bible speaks of two types of time: Chronos- the time we measure with our watch and Kairos- the time we measure with our hearts. Claiming Kairos seems to be one of the things I am not good at, I try, but it remains a decision I make often when I find no more energy to resist it. That’s right, I’m a type-A-Sabbath-Avoider. (small smile)
My prayer for the rest of summer is to claim Sabbath as a choice of the first fruits of my calendar, a decision coming from the very best life can offer, instead of scooping up what is left at the bottom of the barrel. I promise to focus more on the Kairos of grill-moments and less lament about the Chronos of what has been forgotten. Will you join me in claiming karios? Will you join me in making Sabbath holy? Happy Grilling...
Today's My Thoughts is written by Rev. Marian Shearer, Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development
It's chancy to be an amateur astronomer in the northeast United States. Observing planets, stars, moon, and faint fuzzy objects, is dependent on clear skies. Our clear sky record in the northeast is, well, about fifty-fifty for the nights that it's good to gaze.
And even when the are few clouds, sometimes conditions are still not great. If it's a damp night, dew will condense on the telescope parts. If it's a cold night, toes and fingers will chill. If it's a warm night, the mosquitoes. . . well, I could tell you mosquito stories. And we have to travel a bit to get away from city lights and their sky glow.
And yet, we persist. Last weekend I, along with some other members of the astronomy club, set up my telescope at the Landis Arboretum, for one of our public star parties. There was a scrim of clouds over nearly the whole sky, despite predictions of clearing, and we were struggling to find the brightest objects as night fell, to show our guests. Finally Mars and Saturn broke through sufficiently for us to get them in our sights. We could line up the camping kids and their advisors and the first-time visitors and the folks at the folk concert next door, for a real-time glimpse of a planet.
I call it the "eureka moment." Someone who has never before looked through a telescope, catches sight of Saturn and its rings, glowing against the star-spangled background. Or the orange blob of Mars looking fierce. And out comes, "Wow!"
I love that "wow" moment. Even though there were clouds, conditions were not great, mosquitoes were biting, still, we gave someone a "wow" moment. Even more gratifying is if someone comes back a few minutes later and asks for a second, or third, view. With telescope observing, the more you look, the more you learn to see.
Can we trust that visitors to our churches could have a "wow" moment? Even if our equipment is old, the skies a little cloudy, things not perfect? If they come back again, will they learn more, see more, feel more, of God's intense and all-encompassing love? Jesus invited us, no, commanded us, to go and make disciples. Let's line up some sights, sounds, words, music, silence, smiles, welcomes, mission, justice, so that peering in, a new disciple will be moved to say, "Wow!" Eureka.
I had the radio on in my car and the song started to play: “See you in September. See you when the summer’s through….” And I started to think of the rhythms of life. I understand the feeling of that song because I lived it (haven’t all of us?). Even when I was the pastor of a local church, there still was that “see you in September rhythm”. But as I drove, it occurred to me that since I have been engaged in my current form of ministry, that particular rhythm is missing. It is good to have rhythms in life.
So I am thinking deeply of rhythm. Recognizing more cognitively the changes or absence of rhythm as my life changes. Rhythms ensure us that experiences we know and toward which we look forward are on the road ahead. Even if the regular upcoming event (April 15th for example) isn’t our favorite rhythm, there is still some comfort in knowing we have walked this way before. We know this road. These anxieties, this restlessness, this anticipation is normal. I’ve been here before. I’m not referring to weekly rhythms here. I am more mindful of seasonal rhythm. Even the violent thunderstorm in mid-summer comforts me with the rhythm I have known since a child.
I am thinking I need to be more pro-active in putting in place those things which cause the rhythms of life to be in-sync.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is troubling. Much can be said about the limitation that this decision establishes on the constitutional rights of women. I am dismayed by this direction of our government. Equally, however, is my deep concern with the growing precedent in granting religious rights to corporations. The establishment of rights for corporations is well established in our country. Longevity of this precedent does not legitimize whether it is right or wrong. I believe a human being is a human being. A corporation is not a human being. Likewise a church is a religious organization. A closely held, for profit company is not a religious organization.
Religious freedom, in my opinion, is the freedom of individuals to practice their faith SO LONG AS that practice does not limit the freedom of another human being. It is my belief that this principle has historically distinguished the values of American society. Yesterday’s decision established the precedent that individuals who control a for profit corporation can utilize that corporation, based on religious beliefs, to limit certain freedoms of other individuals. I find the op ed in the New York Times is helpful: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/opinion/the-supreme-court-imposing-religion-on-workers.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region®ion=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region&_r=1
What I have learned after 19,710 days: most days are good days. The best way to start a day is to bring a cup of coffee to the one you love. In life there are no distractions, the distractions are life. The 40 year old self, and the 23 year old, and the 17 year old, and the 7 year old, is still living and figuring it out. The thin, transcendent moments have no pattern: they come at random and can’t be manufactured or staged. Mistakes are opportunities and BIG mistakes are BIG opportunities. Friends are precious. Being a parent is a vocation with more rewards than any job or career. A career is a sacred journey like a hiking trail with twists, turns, look-out points, shade, sweat, mosquitos, wild flowers, silent awe, and markers along the way. Regret is just that, and it’s best acknowledged and left on the side of the road. Tomorrow is always a new day. There are a lot of stories and metaphors about apple trees. Getting old, really old is not for the faint-hearted; it takes deep courage (and faith helps). Courage is not about the absence of fear, it is about the capacity of the heart to endure. Humor is almost always good and should be used in excess. Love is the begin all and the end all, I highly recommend it.
The United States is the country of my birth. Brasil is the country of my re-birth. I love both. In Brazil I heard my call to ministry and found direction to my life. I absorbed the culture over thirty years ago and have lived with it ever since. I speak Portuguese every day. I make the coffee in the morning. Sueli says I make better Feijoada. A great compliment was when in an airport in Sao Paulo, a Brazilian woman asked: Are you from Florianopolis?
So when Brazil hosts the World Cup, it is a big deal. Soccer is not a sport in Brazil. It is a cultural heritage. This is a little hard to explain, but trust me, it’s much more than a game. This World Cup is complicated. As Brazil has arrived as an educated super-power with a strong middle class, what led to the arrival of the World Cup has been very painful. We see almost nothing about this is the US news, but on Brazilian TV the violence and the public outrage is ever present. There are frequent moments when civil war seems to be on the brink. What has happened is that the Brazilian government has show cased the World Cup on the backs of the poor. Brazilian are ashamed of their government.
Still, today Brazil and Mexico will face off in Brazil’s second game. Brazilians around the world will stop to watch, to yell, to laugh, and to hear “GOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL”. And if they win, Brazilians will still say “They could have played better.” They always do. So why then, if Brazilians are outraged with what has happened in preparation of the World Cup, do they not boycott the games? Before we in the US criticize them, we should ask: Why in the US do we still talk on cell phones. Over a million Congolese have been killed (and are being raped and killed every day) because of our addiction to our cell phones. Still we keep them. We can’t criticize Brazil when we text and post on FB from our smart phones.
Sandwiched. That’s who I am as a 53 year old man with three adult children, a 91 year old mother who is living with us and an 87 year old mother-in-law living in Brazil. About 85% of all conversations that are taking place between my wife and I are about the two sides of the sandwich. Unless you are in a similar sandwich, I can’t imagine how you might fathom the complexity of maneuvering through this stage of life.
It is more than managing complex and changing needs. It is more than: arranging for Senior Day Care; Medicare Coverage of ever increasing prescriptions; transportation for a summer internship in New Jersey; passing the bar; open conversations about when marriage will take place; when should Grad School begin; to mention a few. It’s more. It is about the quality and meaning of living. It’s about living in the moment with the memories of the past (both joyful and painful).
What do you say when Mom says “Why have I lived this long? I don’t want to be here.” How do you encourage your youngest child to “go for it” even when you know if he gets the internship (which he did) it will be a significant inconvenience for Mom and Dad? How do you talk to your adult children about money management and how that changes in a marital relationship? The considerations are all complex and all tied up with the meaning and purpose of living. And then there is the spiritual dimension to all of these issues? Where and what is holy? What grounds me is the inclination that it is ALL holy. And holiness is not always a warm fuzzy, transcendent feeling. Sometimes holiness is sacrifice and sometimes it is uncertainty and doubt.
Now we see in that mirror dimly, but someday… oh someday….
A Prayer From Niagara Falls
Even as the cataracts thunder and fall into the rising mist,
We too fall into your love and grace and depend upon these
To sustain us and encourage us to be BOLD in our faith and witness;
Even as we venture from the dark wood of uncertainty
We welcome the darkness as a gift to teach us trust
A gift to call us out as BOLD Pilgrim on a journey
Always on a journey, always moving forward,
Never resting or atrophying where we are, but always
Seeking that which is greater and holier
Even as we converge in places unexpected
Where we encounter the other tribe we have feared
There it is where You show us: here is the other half
Of your broken heart.
You have all you need, You say;
But where is it: we ask?
And you smile: love your neighbor as yourself.
The neighbor you fear has what you need.
Even as we engage with partners, pilgrims near and far
We see with eyes wide open the poverty, the violence, the injustice
We are there with the women raped today in the Congo,
We are there with the shoeless street children in Managua,
With the 50,000 homeless in our largest city,
With the rural poor unable to purchase fuel or medication,
With those whose land has been taken,
With those in fear of the next suicide bomber.
You, God, open our eyes and show us all this and say:
“Pilgrim in the dark wood, do you see?
Heal this for my sake – this is what will save you.”
Even now as we depart the thunderous falls
And we travel to high mountains, to a long island, to finger lakes,
along the meandering canal, to the great metropolis,
Now as we depart the unity of faith we have celebrated here,
Make us the BOLD witness we pray to be for your sake,
For the world’s sake, for Jesus’ sake, for Jesus’ sake.
There is a slowness to Spring that is difficult for me to appreciate. My neighbor, the semi-professional landscaper, has Hostas that are a foot high, mine are not. Across the street another neighbor has a Magnolia that’s been blooming for a week; who knows if applezilla will offer even one blossom after it’s severe RIF. Yes, there are daffodils here and there, and tulips, and the rest, but not enough. The stone of winter was rolled away, didn’t anyone tell these trees? It’s time for an explosion. Time for a radical change of heart.
Sometimes there is a slowness to a radical change of heart that is difficult for me to appreciate. Historical Congregational theologian, Horace Bushnell, argued against the effervescence of the Second Great Awakening, asserting that children should grow up in the church never knowing themselves as anything other than Christian. He argued against the “radical second birth”. In many corners of the denomination I have come to love, that is a prevailing thought even today.
For me, I’m neither here nor there. When the rock is rolled away and new life springs forth, it is indeed a new day. And still, new life that is deeply rooted, well grounded, and ultimately bearing great fruit, takes time, nurture, care-taking, pruning, watering, and yes, tender loving care. So I will settle myself to be patient with the slowness of my Hostas, and other things.
I am blessed. These are the most beautiful things I have ever seen: the Na Pali Coast on the island of Kauai; the Hagia Sophia; the Abby on Iona; Scotland (period); the statue of Chopin with his head tilted to listen to the wind in Warsaw; the glint in a child’s eyes looking up at the lights on Times Square; the sparkle of the water on the West Canada Creek in the Adirondacks; the cranberry colored leaves of low bush blueberries in late October with a touch of snow in Downeast Maine; my sister-in-law’s face when she first saw the angels at Rockefeller Plaza; the bright yellow-colored costumes of the dancers in Beijing; the full moon raising over the desert in northeast Brazil; the Robert Frost trail in Ripton, Vermont; the young bride standing beside me when I said my wedding vows; my eldest daughter waiting at the bus stop on her first day of school; an endless field of snow geese on the Lemon Fair River Flats; Navajo rugs for sale on the side of the road in New Mexico; the Pemaquid Point lighthouse when the waves crash violently; the first kite I ever flew by myself; the ONA vote of the Maine Conference with all the hands in the air; every hummingbird I have ever seen. The good Earth has blessed me. Bless the Earth O my soul.
She said: “The system is severely dysfunctional and hugely complex as well.” No disagreement there. I tried to assure her that she had the skills needed to move it in a healthier direction. I reminded her of the support she had. After I hung up the phone, I didn’t think she was convinced. I believe she was convinced of her skills, but not that the system could become healthier.
I’ve been in the “church business” essentially since I graduated from college. And I really need to strain my brain to think of a church, any church, that could completely, irrefutably, absolutely be able to shed the label, dysfunctional. Why was that term ever invented? (Some dude wanted to make money, I suppose.) Isn’t the human condition, essentially, a dysfunctional one? The Apostle Paul put it so eloquently when he wrote: I don’t do what I want to do. It is exactly what I don’t want to do, that I do. Ah, dysfunctional man that I am! Who will save me from this hopeless mess? Thanks be to Jesus Christ.
I should call her back and say: if it was simple and functional, they wouldn’t need Jesus. And yes, I do believe she can show them Jesus.
Along with sex and money, something we church-folk don’t like to talk (too much) about is anger. Anger definitely ticks me off. And yes, after several therapy sessions it wasn’t too difficult to understand that my father’s excessive anger easily resulted in me bottling up mine. And yes anger can be righteous and holy and effective (Scripture does demonstrate this). However anger is not the same as violence; and in our small day to day interactions with each other, that line can become blurred (or ignored).
So when does anger become violent? Words can definitely be violent (something about cutting like a knife….). But before words there are intentions. I wonder how often we are really aware of our intentions? In Family Systems theory Ed Friedman would often speak of the “reptilian brain” sparking the fight/flight irrationality of human interactions. Friedman’s “tactic” in addressing reptilian violence would be to use paradox and humor, always recognizing it is not our responsibility to change someone else’s behavior. For example: Someone shoots you an angry and only slightly veiled insulting email because you only gave them two weeks notice to get back to you on something. Response: “I’m so appreciative you read my emails so quickly, most people take a couple weeks to respond.”
At issue is how commonplace it really is that we are not aware of our intentions. Several months ago I wrote a piece about when someone slaps our hand, our instinct often is to slap another hand without even thinking. But here again Scripture has something to say about ending violence (something about another cheek). Of course, this too is an example of Family Systems paradox. When someone slaps you on your right cheek, tell them “you forgot this other side”.
Yes, it is time. I know some who follow my reflections have been waiting for this. But yes it is definitely time to trim Applezilla. I had a professional come out and look at the beast last week. I told him “I want a severe trimming, but don’t kill it.” He said, “you don’t want to do a radical cut.” I said, “yes, I do”. He said, “that’s not what you want, because if you do, you will have an explosion of “sucker” branches.” Being the apple tree expert that I am, I knew he was right.
I described my ordeal last fall with wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow (after wheelbarrow) of apples. He said last year was the perfect storm for all apple trees (you’re telling me, I thought). He said that the year before there was hail damage so the trees had a lot of “pent up energy”, and last spring the conditions at blooming time were perfect. So I guess that explains my autumn aching-back damage.
So a moderate trim will yield more of the results I seek than the “Edward-scissor-hand” approach I was imagining. Something about pendulum swings comes to mind. I have witnessed that so many times in life, especially in the church. The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, while most of the time, what is really desired is some moderation. So, I won’t be suckered into what is tempting me most with my beloved apple tree. Praying for a moderate bloom this spring.
It is the “A” Train to JFK; the “6” to Park Avenue Christian; the “ACDEFNor R” to Judson; and the “1 to Broadway and Riverside. I’ve got the subway system down pat. I know how to squeeze in and hold on. I know how to observe the homeless and appear that I’m not looking at the same time.
Last week I sat across from a woman that intrigued me. She tied her cart to the rail at the end of the seat so that it would not roll away as she slept. At first I wondered, could this actually be Sandra Bullock with heavy makeup and playing some role. I looked carefully at her face. I imagined that when she was younger she was strikingly beautiful. And I judged that somehow her life rolled away from her and here she sat on the longest subway run in order to sleep in a warm place. I am thankful that I was deeply disturbed.
I tried to imagine the series of events that might lead to my life coming to a point similar to this woman’s. It was hard to conceive, but possible. I think that if I were Christ-like I would have sat next to her and asked “Woman, what is in your cart?” But instead I was silent and struggled with my dis-ease.
It must have been at Lexington and 53rd when she untied her life and rolled out in order to catch another train. And so nearly a week later I am still thinking of the “Sandra Bullock” on the E-Train and wondering what went awry, and why. And I am unsettled with myself because I’ve got the system down pat.
In just a few days, my daughter, Julia will be celebrating her second birthday. As this special day comes closer I find myself reflecting upon memories, smiles and ways in which our family has grown. One of the skills I did not expect was mastering the art of listening to cries. Maybe you can relate. Julia has one cry that says she’s hungry, a cry that means she needs a new diaper, a cry when she like to play with a certain toy or ready to take a nap, and even once special cry when her favorite college basketball team (that wears orange) loses.
Hearing cries is important, it requires listening, cries deserved to be pay attention to. However, how we react is different in every case.
How much time in your day do you spend listening to cries?
One of my first life changing memories from growing up in the white steeple congregational church of my youth, sitting in the basement as part of the youth group. I remember the minister asking us “What do you hear God saying to your life and how will your respond?” Somehow this time, through my teenage awkwardness, this question made sense. The minister further added the often quoted “You might be the only God some people might ever meet.”
This struck me deeply…How might I be the outreach of God, listening and responding to cries of those in need?
In just a few days, the UCC along Christian Church-Disciples of Christ, and The Unitarian Universalist Association will be participating in a combined mission outreach called March Forth (ucc.org/marchforth). March Forth is a one day effort where, listening and responding together, we can raise awareness for justice issues around the world via simple acts of justice.
On March 4th I challenge to stand up for justice or do something you are passionate about: reduce your carbon footprint, cut back your electrical use, commit to using only fairly traded products for your home or church, write letters to your representatives calling for immigration reform, recycle, commit to prayer or listen for where God’s justice might be most needed in your community.
Listening and hearing Cries is never easy work, but it is a spiritual practice that many of us can continue to improve on as we quiet our minds, open our hearts, wiping away tears or changing diapers, as needed.
May you have the courage to be quiet enough to listen, and then respond.
Grace and Peace~Ryan
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow I was ordained at Monroe Congregational UCC in Monroe, Connecticut. I added extra ordination vows regarding my ministry to the developing world and disenfranchised; and I invited clergy and laity to come forward for the laying on of hands. I can still feel the weight of that moment. These thoughts are hardly sentimental nor self-congratulatory. They are a brief reflection on a quarter of a century of experience.
I can honestly say I have always loved all the people for whom I have been a pastor and leader. There are many I did not like, and there are many I would have preferred to avoid. But I think God is the one who has surprised me by granting me the gift of always loving them. And love is a gift.
I have preached a few decent sermons, and many I wish I could have re-written or re-delivered. I have provided some very good counsel. And there are times I should have kept my mouth shut.
I don’t regret accepting the call to any setting of ministry I have served. And there have been more than a few days I wished I were doing something else. But I have never ministered in any setting because that is what I wanted to do. It has always been the case that it was where I deeply believed God wanted me to be. And yes, I have wrestled with God throughout the night and walked away bruised and named.
I was blessed as a child with appreciation for the beauty of the Catholic Mass. I was inspired as a young adult by the harmony of Mennonite community and service. I learned from Moody Bible Institute. And true to our promise, I was welcomed by the United Church of Christ as the son coming home for the first time, and you set me apart for ministry. I have loved both the local church and the denomination, and I have been dismayed by them. I am unable to give up hope in them. Maybe that is because there have been mantras that have returned to me over and over and over. These are my guideposts and pillars:
God is doing a new thing.
Grant me justice!
Love your neighbor as yourself.
What is truth?
Love is gentle, love is kind…
Equip the saints…
Thank you Cornwall Congregational, Weybridge Congregational, Emmaus UCC, Maine Conference, New York Conference, and the United Church of Christ.
You can only have these thoughts if you've been around the block at least twice. This is going to be a bit vague, but it needs to be. When you've been engaged with the same type of work or ministry for a significant amount of time, you are afforded the opportunity to see visions espoused come to fruition.
I have been thinking for the past few days about a vision someone else had, a seed they planted, an arrow they shot into the sky several decades ago. About that same time I too had an idea, dream, whatever you want to call it. And while our ultimate goal (this other vision and mine) were not all that far apart, the means of getting there were quite different. You might say we shot arrows into the same cloud, but in very different directions.
So now after quite some time, I have the advantage of seeing how it all went. And what I'm confounded by is that the results are insignificantly different. While I really disagreed with my colleague's methodology, and he disagreed with mine, what we each started a long time ago, has pretty much landed in the same place today. Is there anything really new under the sun?
It was absolutely worth the effort, I am sure, for both of us. Lives were changed for the better and maybe the realm of God came incrementally closer to breaking through the seam work of time. And all along the way there have been blessings. What I'm stuck on is how much I really did disagreed with my friend way back when. So this has to have some bearing on how I live today, right?
I started to write "My Thoughts" many years ago when I was in my former conference. My goal was always to write exactly that: the thoughts that I had on what has happening in my experience of life and ministry. The intention was and continues to be a spiritual practice reflecting on "the experience of living". The temptation was, always has been, and continues to be writing something about the agenda of conference ministry. It is difficult not to be driven by a work agenda, period.
What I do each week before I write this is close my door and ask myself "What have I been thinking about?" And that proves to be a very difficult question. Sometimes because the honest answer is: "I'm not really clear what I've been thinking about, I'm too busy to hear my own thoughts." Other times the answer is: "What you're thinking about is not as important as what you need to communicate regarding the work agenda!" Other times my thought is: "You've received so much positive feedback on previous My Thoughts that you better continue to be clever in constructing a good message this week!" The later thought is the best way to arrive at writers block. But please know I really do appreciate the feedback, including the occasional constructive feedback.
So why not write about the work agenda? The reason is because there has to be more to daily living than the work agenda that drives us. If we do not take the time to really stop long enough to look into our own hearts, our own thoughts, and ask "what is there?", then we lose the perspective of who we really are. If we don't know who we really are, then not only will we squander our creativity of attending to our vocation, but we will also lose our effectiveness in doing our work/ministry.
I receive a weekly email reflection from a retired Wall Street investor. He comments on all the economic trends in our country and the world. What is more important is he also includes his thoughts on living life in the midst of the economic reality. That is what makes his thoughts so valuable.
Do you know what's on your mind and in your heart?
Responding to anger with anger feels good for about five seconds, okay maybe ten. But my experience is that usually after that it feels crappy. So, a deep breath is usually a better response to it. And then it helps me when I actually think for a second, where is the anger coming from? In our church circles, it is usually stress of many sorts. And sometimes it is a perceived or unperceived disappointment in God. "So God, how come YOU allowed this to happen?" Whether that is our theology or not, my hunch is it is our knee jerk reaction. Stress doesn't exactly motivate our cerebral cortex to higher levels of functioning. In fact, stress motivates our reptilian brain stem: fight or flight. So someone is stressed. They get angry. They lash out. The recipient becomes stressed and angry for receiving the likely unmerited lashing and either flees for fights back. And so the world goes round and round. Not good.
So I am thinking about deep breaths. On my Pandora.com I have a station called "The Lady and the Unicorn" (guess what, it is playing right now). It helps me breathe. On XM Radio I love "60's on 6", but often I find it helpful to turn the station to Spa and breathe. Have you noticed that when someone is angry they take fast short breaths and after someone laughs they often take a deep breath. I am thinking about deep breaths. Join me in my campaign "More Deep Breathing, Now!"
"My Thoughts" this week is written by Rev. Marian Shearer, Associate Conference Minister for Clergy and Authorized Ministry Concerns.
As I was leading a Sunday School hour at Emmanuel Friedens church this week, Sandy and John Detwyler, long-time members, reminded us that they were about to leave for three months in Nicaragua to reconnect with friends and missions there. "Ah," I said, "Our conference minister David Gaewski will be in Nicaragua this week too, to visit our mission partners Mision Cristiana; do you expect to meet up with him?"
They did not have plans to connect while they were there, but that's all right. We're already connected.
Next weekend, our UCC minister and Protestant chaplain Sandy Damhof will escort 14 interfaith students from UAlbany to their annual work week, this year in Mobile, Ala For several years after Hurricane Katrina, Sandy took students and church members to New Orleans. Jan Grigsby, another member of Emmanuel Friedens in Schenectady, for several years has accompanied students from Union College where she teaches, to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina rebuilding. Reading a minister's background information today, I learned that the minister used to work for the Salvation Army in post-hurricane rebuilding. These folks did not exactly connect while they were in New Orleans over the years; but that's all right. We're already connected.
One of our ministerial candidates in the Word and Sacrament program of the NY School of Ministry is hoping to arrange the required cross-cultural experience among our Native American Indian congregations in North Dakota. Our former regional conference minister David Felton is still the conference minister in North Dakota. They may connect up while our NYSOM student is there. But even if they don't, that's all right. We're already connected.
And those are just the connections in my neighborhood, or crossing my desk this week. If we added all the connections in your neighborhoods and crossing your desks, what a great connection we would reveal!
We are already connected across the lines of conferences, colleges, and churches when we engage in mission with our neighbors, near or far. We are already connected with our partners in other lands and faraway states because we are in covenant with one another, and in prayer for one another. We are already connected because Jesus prayed, as recorded in John 17, "That they may all be one." It's good every now and then to shine the light on that network and illuminate the fine web in which we are suspended. No matter who is doing the good work, or making the connections, whether we know them or not, it's all right. We are already connected in the heart and intention of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!
The word in Portuguese is "crente", pronounced "crenche". I learned it when I was 23 while I was first learning the language living in Brazil. It means "believer". My new Brazilian friends told me that you can tell someone is a "crente" because they use crente deoderant. I gave a perplexed looked. "You know, it's the Bible they carry under their armpit wherever they go." It was both a humorous and not so flattering comment at the same time.
With time what I learned was this was actually part of the culture war that was occurring in Brazil in the mid 1980's. The predominant Catholic culture that accepted African Condomble/Voodoo (not in the sense of toleration but rather welcoming diversity of religious expression), celebrated the Samba and worshiped Futeball (soccer) was clashing with a North Americanizing influence of conservative non-Catholic missionaries that valued a strict moral code, Protestant work ethic and utilized literal Bible translation to justify an ideology. It was the Brazilian culture war. As a Mennonite volunteer I was caught in the middle. Because I wasn't Catholic I was considered a "crente", BUT because of the values I espoused I didn't "smell" like one to the native culture.
For some reason I am thinking about this as we turn the calendar page into 2014. I am thinking of all the ways that we find to disagree with one another in our own contexts. How might I express my fundamental values in all that I do? The word that comes to mind is "caridade" or kindness. I hope that in all contexts and within all debates the bottom line is kindness. While a Scripture text doesn't leap into my mind to "justify" this, I do believe it is what Jesus would do.
Ali MacGraw could not have been more wrong when her character shaped my generation with the declaration, "Love is never having to say you're sorry." It was so cool to hear that when I was a teen and I spent the next thirty years erroneously believing it. I think I see a similar ethos in a younger generation, but it appears more to do with success: "Being right means never saying you got it wrong." Success means never admitting failure? Build on strength alone.
What I've learned on the bumpy road of life is that love is always willing to say I'm sorry. Success is built upon learning from failure. Strength springs forth from the personal knowledge of weakness. Brokenness is not defeat; it is the doorway toward healing and new growth.
For some reason I'm mindful of this even as we hear the story of the poor pregnant teenager who can find no comfort in childbirth; no room for her; no soft linen; no promise of economic security and long life for her infant son. But somehow love and joy are defined by her plight and the life of her child.
Viktor Frankl could not have been more correct when reflecting on life in the concentration camp. Success is not about achieving comfort. It is about finding meaning. How might this be conferred in the gifts I give this season and my resoluteness for a new year? How about you?
Bear with me here. My Uncle Eddie taught me how to believe. I was probably five or six years old when I first truly, absolutely, unquestionably believed. And that unshakable faith helped to shape my life. Uncle Eddie was an over-the-top prankster. I remember him as a joke-a-holic: one after another after another. Still my first memory of absolute belief was his doing.
It was in fact Christmas Eve and the Polish clan had gathered at Aunt Marty’s house. Uncle Eddie must have planted one of my older cousins (of which I have a score and four) outside with bells. There was casual boring adult conversation taking place in the kitchen. As one of the youngest cousins I was, as usual, lost in the crowd. But then it happened. Uncle Eddie stopped the conversation: “Shhhh, listen!!” “Outside, do you hear it!” A gleam in his eye, Uncle Eddie looked at me and the other “youngest”. To be honest, I don’t know if he actually did plant someone outside, but O God, did I ever hear it! “Sleigh Bells, can you hear them? He must be in this neighborhood!” I ran to the window and flattened my ear, nose, and eyes to the cold glass. “Yes, yes, yes, I hear it! I believe!” I was approaching the age of doubt, but Uncle Eddie allowed me to experience a certainty of faith for perhaps the first time. That was nearly fifty years ago.
Since that evening with Uncle Eddie so many life experiences, including seminary, have challenged, questioned, and shattered my faith. The adult requirement of certainty has, at times, nearly left me faithless. My northeast intellectual snobbery has come close, at times, to rob me from any and all belief. So as Advent lights the way to the Christ flame, I am thankful to Uncle Eddie who showed me how to truly believe. Do you hear what I hear? Shepherds, why this jubilee? What can I offer, poor as I am? What child is this?
Yes, I believe. I do.
About ten years ago I was on one of those judicatory trips to Cleveland where I have 8am-9pm days and eat the wonderful Radisson Hotel food (not). While I was away, Sueli was home alone with our son Chase who, at that time was about ten years old. That night the Aurora Borealis lit the Maine sky. It was an extraordinary display and lasted for several hours! Sueli and Chase bundled up, got a blanket, and lay in our driveway just looking at the night sky. They have told me the story of what they considered one of the most amazing moments in their lives so many times that I can just about picture the sky myself. Even today when I look at the stars I strain to see if there are any unusual lights on the horizon.
Pictures of the Borealis often come to my mind this time of year. And when they do I think: why not star struck shepherds? How far it is from a glowing green, blue, red, orange starlit night to the sound of angels wings and transcendent song? And it doesn't really matter to me if Kings arrived at the manger or chronologically a decade later, what matters is great power and authority can be awe-struck by God with us. What matters to me is that what our children act out in the shepherd costumes with old sheets, and angels with glistening garland wings, and Mary with a runny nose, and giggling lambs is an abstract remembering of what is most real, most meaningful, and most needed. Which is to say: "God with us" is the story of every lonely shepherd, every scared Mary, every cold Joseph, every angel on a mission, every wondering Inn keeper, and you and me as we sit under a sky we will never understand, but simply marvel at what is really before us. And so we tell the story again and again and again.
This week, My Thoughts is written by Rev. Freeman Palmer, Associate Conference Minister for Congregational Development
Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy football and watch mostly portions of games as my time allows. My favorite NFL team, all recent controversy with its name aside, is my hometown team, the Washington Redskins. As customary on Thanksgiving, I watched some of all three games on the ‘docket’ that day. Yet soon after, I came across a troubling article in the courtesy copy of USA Today provided by the hotel where I stayed during the holiday. The article reported that since 2000, 88% of arrests of NFL players with traffic stops involved African American players. In a league where roughly two thirds of its players are black, both players and civil rights experts point to this disproportionate rate of arrests as racial profiling.
Unfortunately, reading this article came as no surprise. It reminded me of an instance where I was followed and eventually stopped in Georgia while driving to Tampa for the UCC General Synod in 2011. I gave the officer my identification, and told him I was a minister on my way to a denominational gathering. But apparently to prove this to him, I not only had to present my card, but the programs I had worked on as part of the Synod’s Worship Team so that he could see that my name was on them as a worship leader. I drove away without a ticket, yet feeling demeaned and hurt by having to legitimize myself to such an extent. In my mind, the officer saw this profile: an African-American man, driving a Jeep (God help me if I had taken the Lincoln Navigator the rental car agency offered!), with Connecticut license plates, in Georgia. This profile unfairly merited a traffic stop. So I’m not taken aback in the least that an African-American NFL player -- a young, athletic, well dressed black man, driving an expensive car in an affluent neighborhood, has a higher probability of unfairly meriting a traffic stop.
The word profile is mentioned often among us as Conference Staff. We review ministerial profiles. We work with churches seeking to call pastors on their Local Church Profile. Yet, in part based on the above experiences as well as the prominent issue of ‘stop and frisk’ in New York City, I firmly believe and tell Search Committees that the profile is not the full story. I take to heart the story from First Samuel 16 where David is anointed as the future king of Israel. When Samuel thinks that David’s brother Eliab is the one to be anointed as king because of his physical appearance, God corrects him by saying that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” In a world where depending on context all of us can be profiled for all the wrong reasons, this “God view” provides hope and comfort almost inexpressible for words. In this Advent Season, I am profoundly grateful for God’s way of ‘profiling’, and look to the coming of the One, who, also unfairly profiled, still came to save us from this… and all of our sins.
I wanted to pose a provocative question to my UCC Polity students that would stimulate a lively debate: What is more important: the survival of the local church as we know it, or the survival of the UCC “brand” of Christianity? Specifically, I am not referring to the survival of the UCC as a denomination. I am speaking of an expression of Christianity that emphasizes radical inclusivity, hospitality, a “God-is-still-speaking” interpretation of Scripture, and justice oriented faith whose purpose is to change lives. If this “brand” of Christian expression could thrive outside of local congregations as we currently conceive of them, what is more important for the future of Christendom: the movement or the local congregation? And a lively debate it was for 9:30 in the morning—clearly everyone had more than one cup of coffee that day!
“There is no movement without community, and the community is established by local congregations.” “Local congregations are the basic component of the “movement”. “When is a local church not really “being church”? Remembering a quote from “Jurassic Park”: “Life will find a way.” “If the “brand” ceased to exist, the human spirit inspired by the sacred, would recreate it.” “Who can really define “emerging church”? But more often than not, when we do, it doesn’t look like the local congregations we usually conceptualize today.” I believe the overwhelming opinion of the class was that local congregations are essential, but they were piqued by the audacity of the question.
I don’t believe the question is theoretical. I believe it is a real debate that is taking place among various circles of the United Church of Christ. It often occupies my thoughts and so I share it with you.
These are the hands that held me when I was only minutes old. Yesterday my mother asked if I could help her button her blouse. It has become very difficult. So many of the tasks I do with my hands each day are things that cause my nearly ninety-one year old mother to take pause and sigh.
“I never thought I would live this long,” she said. “I don’t know why I am here.” “I don’t want to be so much trouble to you.” “Please give me hug.” These are the words she has said recently that have kept me awake at night, even as she sleeps deeply. “Thank God I don’t lay awake at night,” she said. No Mom, I do that for both of us.
When my father died I told her that I promised she would always be well cared for. Of her eight siblings only she and one younger brother are alive. She has now lived longer than anyone in her family. And Bridgeport, Connecticut of the 1930’s and 40’s are clear and vivid memories. She worked at Bridgeport Brass making bullets during WWII. Yesterday she told me, “By rights, we should have been married at St. Patrick’s, but I chose to get married at St. Michael’s because I was marrying a Polish man and I knew that it would make my parents happy.” I never knew that. “Did you know that your father’s mother organized our wedding reception. She was in her sixties then.” “No, Mom, I didn’t know that, but she actually would have been around fifty at that time.” “When you’re my age, you’ll forget things too.” “Maybe, but I already forget a lot.”
The time has come when she needs more of our time. Time. Time. So much time she has lived and loved, endured and suffered, waited and regretted, laughed and danced. “David, I wish you would sit and talk to me more.” “Okay, Mom, I have some time for you.”
I’ve been there, I bet you have also. Life becomes surreal. This can’t be happening. Wake me up from this nightmare. Wake me up. But you don’t wake up and life continues to happen. And it hurts. And you wonder if life will ever return to normal. And it doesn’t. Life just changes.
I am unable to imagine the nightmare in the Philippines. I know that literally millions of people woke up this morning thinking, “the bad dream is unending.” I remember when I visited Honduras in 1998 a month after Hurricane Mitch. I was told that the children cried every time it started to rain.
The United Church of Christ has announced our goal to raise $250,000. See: http://www.ucc.org/disaster/philippines_typhoon_appeal.html. It is a drop in the bucket, but I believe it is a realistic goal for us. God help us exceed this. God help us end this nightmare.
I have a sister-in-law in Brazil whom I call the “prayer warrior”. She prays more intently than anyone I know. I have been the beneficiary of her relentlessness. I have no idea how prayer works… really. I know we are told from childhood that we should pray, that it is a good thing. I also know that for me personally, prayer is not a laundry list of everything I want. It is rather a quietedness of being in the Presence; looking inwardly and outwardly with the vision of the sacred. But I am also absolutely certain there is no right way to pray. My sister-in-law is not the mystic that I am, and whatever she does, I am certain it is not at all like my prayers. But I am also absolutely certain, beyond any question in my mind, that her prayer life is efficacious.
So however it works for you, I personally ask that you join with me in praying for the relief from the nightmare; pray for the crying children in the Philippines and everywhere; pray for the parents who are living in the surreal. Dear God, hear our prayer. Amen
The United Church of Christ has filed an Amicus Brief in the Town of Greece vs. Galloway case that is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. The New York Conference did not initiate this action and was not consulted prior to the action being taken by legal counsel of the National Setting of the UCC. The news release for the UCC can be read at: http://www.ucc.org/news/amicus-brief-separation-church-state.html. Also, a more detailed explanation of the case can found at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/08/16/everything-you-need-to-know-about-town-of-greece-v-galloway-the-supreme-court-case-about-government-prayer/
It would be a gross error to interpret this action as the United Church of Christ having any opposition to prayer. The issue at the heart of this matter is radical inclusivity and the deeply held respect for all faith communities as well as for those persons of no faith. While our predecessors were slow in supporting the dis-establishment of the state support of the church, once we “got on board”, we have ever since understood that when the church is independent of the state, the church is stronger. In the early 1800’s Congregationalist leader Lyman Beecher wrote about the disestablishment of the church, it was “the best thing that ever happened” to those churches for “it cut [them] loose from dependence on state support and threw them wholly on their own resources and God.” The reasons the United Church of Christ has filed the Amicus Brief in this case is to ensure we do not more backwards in the clear separation of church and state.
There is a tree in my neighbor’s yard that appears to be loosing all it’s leaves today. I don’t know what kind of tree it is: very tall, large green leaves. But unlike the maples and the oaks and the birches, today is its day. It does appear that every leaf will fall off the tree today (it didn’t start slowly, few leaves fell before this morning). But it is raining large green leaves in my neighbor’s yard. I suspect that when I come home from work this afternoon, the tree will be bare. Now I do have a plant science degree and I can surmise that this was triggered by last night’s heavy frost. One day it is full and green and the next day it is barren and dead.
I prefer maples. Red and Sugar Maples to be exact. I love to see the hint of change before it is obvious. And then I love the orchestra of colors in mid-Fall. I am glad the reds and oranges stay on the trees for as long as they do. And as they very slowly let go, I enjoy the recognition of the passing of time.
On the other hand, that big tree in my neighbors yard is the only one there. When he comes home from work today, he can rake the leaves and then he’s done with it for another year. One day, and it’s done.
As much as I love the slow change of the maples, I cannot say the same about the white hairs in my beard and on my temples. No, no way. I will fight it. Hair color is my friend. Neither do I like the pain in my knuckles, which immediately conjure vivid memories of my grandmother’s gnarly hands. I wondered at them when I was a child, how could fingers be so crooked? And what ever happened to the face in the mirror? Is that really me? I can hear Joni Mitchell singing “The Circle Game.”
But the seasons are good and holy. In all of it I do indeed glimpse that timeless sacredness. Sometimes the maple leaves change slowly and sometimes all the leaves fall in one day. Both are as they should be. “She is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you perceive it? She will make a way in the wilderness; and there will be rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)
A month ago I fell and significantly hurt my wrist. While I’m still wearing a brace some of the time, I am nearly completely recovered. For the first two weeks, however, the pain was severe. Once during a painful night I thought to myself: “I can’t live with this.” And that got me thinking of a life memory.
There are some subjects that we prefer not to discuss. Topics taboo for polite conversation. So allow me to be real for a bit and set aside some polite protocols.
When I was twenty-three years old I received a message that my best friend, Mark, (high school buddy, college roommate, etc) was in a tragic accident and fell to his death. I was devastated and required years of therapy to heal. I was in Brazil when this happened (he was in Tanzania). I was and am close to his mother. We have a special bond. His father, I believe, never found any healing.
About two years after Mark’s death I received word that his father, Burt, had committed suicide. The suicide note said that he could not endure living with chronic back-pain. While I knew Burt suffered with back problems, I also knew that this was the lesser of his pain. As I write this I am overwhelmed with feelings I have not felt for years. And that is how it is with these unspeakable things. But stuffing them down into the dark wordless voids of our sub-conscious where light never shines is also another death.
About a month ago on Facebook Mark’s sister Debbie asked us all to advocate for the naming of a small lake in Monroe, Connecticut after her family. Burt made this lake and for many years it was his fish farm. A glorious place. When the Monroe town council agreed and named it Loch Day, I sensed a ray of light so bright and healing that the positive emotion was higher than the depth of all voids.
Living with pain is…. is living. Avoiding pain is not. Finding help for our pain is best and celebrating new resurrections is oh so glorious.
I should not be amazed that technological glitches are as disorienting as they are. I’m loosing sleep, my anxiety level is elevated, and my primary focus since the malfunctioning of my Mac two days ago has been hyper-focused on getting it fixed. In ninety minutes I hope to get a diagnostic of the severity of the problem. It is very difficult to think of anything else.
I am trying to imagine an equivalent experience from the pre-computer age? The office burned down and we’re not sure if any files are saved? Maybe something like that.
There are back-ups. Hard drives can be mined. I have my smart phone and iPad. But that is not what I’m getting at here. It is a deeper sense of incapacity clothed in frustration. I have every reason to believe that my problem will get resolved, perhaps in less than a couple of hours. But the experience of powerlessness and inability is worth sitting with. Talking to. Arguing with. Yelling at. Walking with. Attempting to understand.
I have a dear friend named Jeanne. She is disabled and differently-abled. Her whole life has been and always will be a struggle with clear communication. It will not be resolved in ninety minutes….ever. And I have never thought of walking in her shoes until now. And this has brought me to a very deep place where God must be. I want to say “reliance” or “dependence” on God is needed. But for these moments as I walk in Jean’s shoes, I hear those as negative words. Reliance and dependence are freeing for the able bodied. Self-reliance and independence are freedom words as I sit with Jeanne.
I saw Jeanne this week. She always smiles when she sees me. I watch other faces when she speaks in public. She is so brave, so courageous. She knows the faces all too well. And she has found holiness in her bravery and her unyielding commitment to disability ministries. I need to be thankful for these past couple of days when I could not rely on my Mac. The frustration has brought me to a new, and very real, place. Jeanne is a retired UCC minister who preached for many years. I think I just began to obtain an ability to hear her message.
In third grade there were try-outs for the play: Snow White. It came down to three finalists for Prince Charming: Mark, David, and me. The three of us all needed to sing again and again. Come to think of it, it was pretty high pressure for third grade! In the end, Mrs. Fiegel, the third grade teacher I loved, announced that there would be TWO Prince Charmings: Mark and David. I would play the part of the Huntsman. I still remember my one line: I can not kill you, you lovely child (or something like that). I am sure there were many contributing factors to my quest in life for excellence, but getting the part of the Huntsman was one of them.
When I've been asked to speak recently in various settings, I use the phrase "excellence" frequently, especially excellence in worship. What merits some time is pondering "why excellence?" My dear friend Marcia is fond of saying "If you make it a performance, it's not worship." I don't think of excellence in worship as a perfect performance. Very, very simply put I think of it as being and doing one's best for the glory of God. And I don't believe that includes "winging it."
It is a tender balance. On the one hand if the goal is to avoid perfection (like an Amish Quilt which is always intended to be somewhat imperfect) we may welcome mediocrity for God. On the other hand if we seek excellence in order to be Prince Charming, we risk self-aggrandizement and arrogance. And being arrogant for God is never a good thing.
Another old friend, when responding to praise, always said: "Therefore but by the grace of God, go I." I think that is excellent.
"Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin." I never liked that saying. It always seemed to be used in the context of pointing a finger at a group that I didn't believe were sinning. To the best of my knowledge, it is not a text from Scripture. Nonetheless, it's not really a bad idea and does indeed seem to me to be consistent with what Jesus said.
How could I not love a sinner? Fundamental to how I understand the human condition, is that every one of us is made in the image of God. (Gen. 1:27) Further, from what I know about Jesus, he seemed to be saying that sin was something that caused us to turn away from living face to face with God; and not some sort of cataclysmic event that burned our bridge to God. So, hating sin and loving everyone does make sense to me.
Now that I've shared my thoughts on sin, here's what else has been on my mind. In the past when I've written about gun control in the wake of horrendous shootings, like Newtown, I've advocated that sane gun control laws should be a sound Christian position to take. Some folks who haven't liked that idea have pushed back saying "Guns don't kill, people do." The problem with that, for me, goes back to people being created in the divine image AND my belief that no one is fundamentally apart....separate.....divorced of God. I do believe that taking the life of any innocent is sin. The problem, however, is not the sinner whom I love. It is the sin. And the sin is not the semi-automatic rifle or other weapons that have no place other than a war zone. The sin is the taking of innocent life. But the sin is also complicity in a society (and silence is complicity) with laws that allow semi-automatics in the hands of citizens. We know this is not what the framers of our Constitution were thinking about when they advocated the "right to bear arms". The framers of the Constitution had no concept of "arms" other than rifles that took minutes to load one bullet. Not having a ban on these weapons for all citizens is not only senseless, it is sinful. So, I'm thinking about loving the sinner and hating the laws that allow gun massacres. I'm also thinking about loving the members of the NRA, and hating the obsession with power.
There are two songs I remember my mother singing around the house when I was a small child. They are both songs sung by the Andrew Sisters about separated lovers during WWII. The first was "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and the other was "I'll Be With you in Apple Blossom Time". For those who have been following "My Thoughts" you may have an inkling where this is going. I think this will be the last of my Apple Tree Chronicles. Someone said the apple tree in my yard must be connecting to me on some deeper level. Yes, Martha, I think you are right.
My mother's voice around the house as a child; the trees in my yard as a youth; Cider Mill Road in Cornwall, Vermont where I started my ministry; Lakeside Apple Orchard in Maine; not to mention of course, the Big Apple. While the apples continue to fall off of "Applezilla", they are slowing. A professional tree pruner stopped in front of our house last week and said to my wife: "you know that tree does need pruning." No kidding. We will get it done in February/March when apple trees are meant to be pruned. There is a right time for these things. And no, the tree won't be cut down, because it does indeed speak to me on many levels.
I told my 90 year old mother - as we were standing near the tree - that I remember her singing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree". She thought for a minute and started singing it from the first verse. It was sweet, even as she forgot some of the words.
I think there are touchstones in our lives that serve as gates to memories. And they are sacred even as all the memories are not perfect and some we try to forget. Still the touchstones are important to remembering who we are.
I could just hear the lilt of the words of the pastor's eloquent prayer. I sat in the pew, second to the front, pulpit side. Next to me was the pastor's three year old son and partner. The child was "acting up." His words were louder than his Dad's "shhh's". I closed my eyes and listened to the sincere words of petition entwine with the words of innocence. Together they were holy.
During Communion the three year old raised his voice as his father presided over the elements. I thought back twenty-two years ago when I was about this pastor's age and as I broke the bread four year old Lyvia walked up the side aisle, hands green with finger paint, proclaiming in a very loud voice "Daddy, look what I've done!" Not a beat was missed. Her beautiful hands were acknowledged and arms from the congregation scooped her up saying, "Let's wash those lovely green fingers." Months later a young mother confessed to me, it was that moment when she knew this was the right church for her.
When it came time to pass the peace, what I really wanted to do was turn to the pastor's partner and say, "In twenty years you will long to still have him sitting next to you in this pew. Savor this. It's okay." Maybe he knows now.
Every fifteen seconds another Syrian citizen is fleeing their country. Many of these are children fearful of the stories of mass killings. Many adults are wondering when will the bombs from the West begin to fall. It is a no win scenario. We are here again as a world power that is damned if we do and damned if we don't.
It is easy to say we urge humanitarian relief. It is also easy to say "remember Iraq, do we have proof of atrocities." I think everything else is very difficult here. Al-Assad says "beware, the Middle East is a powder keg!" Of course, when hasn't it been? Hawks say "make a clear case and intervene." In the past seventy years, has a case ever been perfectly clear? Dove's say "what is the cost?" Define cost.
With the very limited information available to me, I struggle as a U.S. citizen, a global citizen, and a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am convinced that the simplistic response of "pray and advocate for humanitarian relief" is not sufficient. But I dread the remote possibility of a conflict that leads to boots on the ground for U.S. troops, and for civilian casualties by airstrikes.
I hate war and I am tired of it. I'd like to remain ignorant. However, my faith and my civic duty is not to ignore what is so easily ignorable. Just changing the channel to the Food Network or the Antique Road Show is not an option. Neither is depending upon truth from CNN or FOX.
I was standing under my cursed apple tree for hours yesterday, raking up rotting apples. Drop. There's one more. Two visits occurred over those few hours of raking. First a woman I had never met before stopped her car and said, "There's a lot of apples on that tree. Can I pick a few?" "Lady, you can have the whole tree," I said. She told me she had lived down the street for many years and knew two of the past owners of my DeWitt home. She told me how the past previous owner had loved this apple tree and wanted it to produce abundantly. "He would hammer fertilizer stakes all around the root system of this tree," she explained. I continued to rake rotting fruit and thought of a few choice words I'd like to share with that former owner. I have a ladder set up under the tree. I told her she was free to use it and to come back whenever she wanted more apples. My only warning was that she watch out for the frequently falling fruit.
Later my neighbor from across the street, a nice guy in his 80's I would guess, walked over. "There's a lot of apples on this tree." "You don't say," I thought. "You are the first owners to rake up the drops, and I've been watching this tree for fifty years." I thought about mounds of rotting apples in October, nope, can't deal with that. He then began to share how bad he felt that they had to cut down a lovely, old maple tree on their property, directly across the street from mine. "It was a fine tree. It was already old when we moved it fifty years ago. The road crew did such a bad job trimming it away from the power lines that we had to take it down completely." He looked at the three small maple trees he had just planted. "Don't think I'll be around to see these little guys in fifty years. If I am, they'll put me on the cover of National Geographic."
I am mindful of the passing of years and of the tall trees that watch our progress in life. I wonder who planted my mutant apple tree. I wonder what may become of the seeds I plant.
It was very difficult returning to our house in Maine this past weekend. The property is on the market and it has been leased. The tenants moved out about a week ago. Frankly it was heart-breaking to see the state of the property. It appears the lawn has not been mowed for several weeks. The gardens were abandoned. The inside was, frankly, filthy. I think this was the most pain I have experienced, perhaps ever. For several hours I cut the lawn while Sueli and our daughters silently weeded several of the large flower beds. This is the house where out children grew up and graduated from high school.
It is difficult to write about this. However, I've made a commitment that "My Thoughts" would always be honest reflections upon what is in my heart, on my soul, and within my head. I would be dishonest to write about anything else. So, I come to the place of pain.
I would rather not describe pain. My preference would be to avoid it. But it is there, nagging like a neglected toothache or the first signs of an appendicitis. The intensity has something to do with a sense of being violated or a rich memory not honored. It is deep and wide and empty. But it is there, just sitting there. I am clergy, so I want to fix it. I should know better.
So where does one go with something this intense? Even as I write this, I hear the words I've read aloud so many times: "Out of the depths I cry to thee, O God! Hear my voice! Hear my supplications!" (Psalm 130). Where else can any of us go when the hole is so deep? We can only look upwards.
When we were house hunting and we first set eyes on the house that is now our home, it was hard to miss the very large apple tree in the front yard, next to the road. It was apple blossom time. The number of flowers on this truly large tree was attention grabbing. "What a beautiful tree," I thought. It is one more sign that this was the right place. Our new neighbors commented: "Not sure we've ever seen these many blossoms before!"
After we had moved in I began to notice the tiny apples on the tree. A few weeks later the sheer number of small green orbs enthralled me. And a few weeks after that I was downright aghast with what was beginning to look like the mutant apple tree. Had the tree received some sort of cosmic radiation that transformed it into apple-zilla? And that's when things went down hill.
At first a few little green apples falling on the lawn in July seemed quaint. I could mow the grass under the tree and I would smell that hint of autumn. But as the apples grew, and grew, and grew, I noticed the branches on the top of the tree sagging lower, and lower, and lower. Then I heard the first one. CRACK! Limb after limb began to break on the top. And soon the lovely apple tree was draped with ugly brown, dying, and dead branches with shriveling red/green Macintosh. I was particularly horrified one morning when I found a large (and I mean large!) branch-filled with apples--had fallen onto the street. Imagine if a car had been driving under it at that moment! I would have been sued!
Now this is a true story. And I might end the real-life metaphor on over-functioning right now. Those who have ears to hear..... But this is not the end of the story.
I am estimating that about 80 apples are falling off that tree every day. And I see no end in sight. I can no longer mow the grass there until I have raked, shoveled up, and bagged the soon to be rotting fruit. I am prone to back pain. Apple-zilla is tripling my intake of Advil. This is not my fault, however, the owner of the tree has responsibilities. Next February/March, you can bet that Apple-zilla will be severely pruned back. No showy blooms, no mega-abundant fruit is worth this much pain. Those who have ears to hear....
There are several memories from when I was about eleven years old that shaped my life and certainly has impacted some very recent changes in my day-to-day routines right now. These are memories of my step-grandfather. My paternal grandmother remarried when she was sixty-five. Her husband's name was Raymond Ryzcer. He was the most loving and affectionate male model I had in the early years of my life. I think he may have been the only man to tell me he loved me.
When I was about eleven he began to develop what was probably Alzheimer's and increasingly became a burden to my grandmother. A decision was made to place him in a Nursing Home. The night after he moved into the Home, my grandmother (who had been in excellent health) had a heart attack. She was hospitalized next door to the Nursing Home where Raymond was. Raymond was told this. One day later my grandmother died, but Raymond was not told. He "escaped" from the Nursing Home to see my grandmother-whom he passionately loved-in the hospital. When he arrived the nurses coldly informed him that she had died. In affect my grandfather's life ended that moment. His body was alive for only another six months.
I remember him crying and agonized that my parent's allow him to have a corner of our house where he would be willing to sleep on the floor. It was difficult for me at that age to understand that my parent's correctly assessed that this was impossible. Nonetheless it forever impacted my perception of elder care and end of life issues. There is much more to add to my worldview of this stage of life, including the fact that after 28 years of marriage I really am bi-culturally influenced and Brazilian culture is a significant part of my psyche.
Yesterday my ninety and one half year old mother moved in permanently with us. She is in good health, mobile, and as clear thinking as when she was sixty (this is not to say there aren't some memory limitations). This is not easy for either Sueli or me. But on some spiritual dimension, for us, it is what is right.
Yes, I've been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for the past several weeks. I have not written about this until now because I honored my vacation time and did not submit a "My Thoughts" to Happenings while on vacation. But yes, like much of our country, these events occupy my daily ponderings.
I'm certain about this: the tragedy, the court case, the verdict, and the public reaction is both very simple and like an intricate web very complex. Is there any question that a man with a gun shooting and killing a 17 year old boy with skittles in his pocket is wrong? Is there any question that Martin's race and Zimmerman's race did not complicate everything? What would the outcome have been if Martin were white and Zimmerman were black? Is it not clear that the outrage across the nation with this verdict is in itself a clear indication that this event has touched on a significant issue for our country?
Then there are the complexities and the intricacies that bring these events to much deeper levels. The history of lynching in the American south is a deep and painful scar. The "Stand Your Ground" gun law is a watershed legislation for the NRA. The NRA has "skin in the game". This is as much about race relations as it is about sane gun control. And both of these issues illicit strong emotional engagement.
Finally, as UCC leaders have been hotly criticized for criticizing the result of due process in our legal system, we are confronted with the dilemma of what we do when our Christian faith questions the morality of a law. When our belief in what is right in God's eyes conflicts with what is right by human law, how shall we speak what we believe is "truth to power?"
In my opinion if we are silent we are unfaithful. It is wrong to shoot a 17 year old boy with skittles. If Zimmerman were African American and Martin were white, Zimmerman would have received at least a life sentence. The NRA is the impetus behind this tragedy. Our silence on insane gun laws contributed to the death of Trayvon. We are responsible.
This old house. We purchased our home from a young couple with two small boys. They needed to up-size. We are down-sizing. On the wall of one bedroom in large letter it reads: JACK. There is a small space in the fence in the backyard so that JACK and his brother could go visit the kids next door.
Yesterday we began to replace the carpet up stairs--- long story, not good. Underneath the carpet are brown tiles that remind me very much of my grandmother's house, vintage 1950 or earlier. Because we've run into complications with replacing the flooring, the brown tiles will be exposed for several weeks. When I see them the clear visual for me is an elderly woman with black shoes walking across the floor. But I wonder whose life walked across those tiles. Was there another JACK?
In Monroe, Connecticut there is a house that someone is living in now. I wonder if they wonder who once lived there? There. Where I lay in bed at night listening to rain and thunder. And outside my bedroom window where I would fly my kite seemingly above the clouds, almost to the moon. In their living room they will never know that a little boy would hide behind the couch when his parents argued about money.
I am mindful of the generations of lives that these old houses remember: the dreams, the pain, the laughter. We did not meet JACK's parents, but they left us a note on the kitchen counter which said: "Dear Gaewski family, we hope you love this house as much as we did. It is filled with many happy memories." They blessed the house and us. And so I am thinking about how to pass that along today.
I am writing this sitting on a farm in Riverhead, Long Island. It's a small family farm with chickens, ducks, a few cows, and vegetables. A small stand is set up behind the house selling strawberries and eggs.
There is a steady flow of customers. Some returning egg cartons and buying another dozen; or glass milk bottles picking up another gallon; and empty fruit cartons for a fresh quart of strawberries.
One of the farmers is inspecting the roof of a shed. Perhaps there was a leak from the heavy rains the past several days. The ground is saturated with many puddles in the fields. The grass is wet. Everything smells wet.
I am admiring the stacked wood. It is incredibly organized with the tightly stacked kindling on one end and the larger quartered logs on the other. It's a lot of wood.
The chickens are clucking and I hear empty milk bottles rattling. I'm also hearing a staple gun, but I haven't a clue what direction the noise is coming from. Someone is also hammering.
It's a routine morning. Nothing is extraordinary. This is normal. Normal is good. Some children are looking at the chickens. Another customer is arriving.
A number of years ago in my former setting of ministry I wrote a "My Thoughts" that I entitled "cacophony". I just like that word. So maybe it's just the amount of caffeine I've ingested this morning, or perhaps it is because Annual Meeting in on the nearing horizon, or then again it could be a myriad of other reasons, but cacophony sums it up. My thoughts today are cacophonous. Finding the space for the still small voice of silence at this moment seems unlikely.
Still.... Still....without the empty, silent, waiting expanse inside of me, there is no room to be filled with the unexpected holy. Busyness, being needed, providing opinions is not a sign of success-at least not what I consider my own personal success.
When I was a boy I thought to myself, when I grow up I want to be like Pastor Pierce. He was the solo minister of a 500 member Connecticut church. In the back yard of the parsonage he raised rabbits, honey bees, and a large and beautiful vegetable garden. When I came to his office to ask him my questions, the world stopped and he listened to me as if there was nothing else happening in the universe. I honestly don't think he faked it. I believe he learned to focus on what mattered most in the moment. I still want to be like him.
Life is full and busy. There is nothing we can do or should do to change that. I think stepping back far enough to recognize the discordant noises that fill our day is the first step, maybe the most important step, toward finding the quiet place in the mist of the cacophonic chaos of daily living. How else can we hear divine whispers? I'm switching to decaf right now.
Again. And Again. More tragedy. More children lost. Heart-breaking. Moore, Oklahoma was devastated by an F-5 Tornado in 1999. I was dumb-founded when ABC said, "Can you believe this coincidence!?" Coincidence? Really?
Two hundred years ago the CO2 in the earth's atmosphere was 275 parts per million. Today it is 392ppm. A safe upper limit is considered 350ppm. CO2 heats the atmosphere that traps more water in the atmosphere, which is now five percent wetter. A third of the Arctic sea ice is gone causing the oceans to be 30% more acidic. Does ABC really think we are so stupid to swallow the word coincidence as an explanation? How many "once in a hundred year" storms will we see in 2013?
The tragedy of a child lost in a collapsed school building is heart wrenching. And every life is a story worth telling and remembering. And there is a bigger story that we are ignoring, another story about death. But in this story you and I are the perpetrators of death. My six cylinder RAV4 that I drove this morning convicts me. Our preference for US Postage mailings when we could find the way to be 100% electronic condemns us.
"Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with her people," (Micah 6:1-2). "God has showed you O Mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God upon God's good earth." (Micah 6:8)
There is no coincidence. The tragedy is intentional.
As I am certain everyone knows, ministers are never critical of each other's preaching skills or sermons. We never, ever critique a sermon on those rare occasions when we sit in a pew and are able to participate, rather than lead, worship. We are always magnanimous and gracious when listening to our colleagues. And we.... okay, you get the point. We are human and just like the plumber who looks at the pipes another plumber has laid, we think of how we would have done that differently.
Perhaps I am the only person with an M.Div who struggles with this (not). But it is hard to be a "professional Gospel proclaimer" and remain truly humble when sitting anonymously in a pew (which believe it or not, I actually have a chance to do from time to time!). So I've been thinking about this.
On the one hand it is simply factual that there are some poorly prepared and poorly executed sermons and worship services. That is just a fact. On the other hand, worship is NOT a show that is intended to be flawless. Worship should not be perfect. Like a Mennonite Quilt, it should have some imperfection to keep us humble are remind us that while we are designed in a divine image, we are not divine. And while what we do is hopefully divinely inspired, incarnating divinity is not our calling. I believe that our calling is to keep it real, walk humbly, be faithful, and speak the truth as it has been made known to us in love.
I truly love exceptionally well-executed worship. But even more, my soul is stirred by the imperfect words that are spoken with vulnerability and sincerity that emanate from the depth of another soul. The imperfection is what reminds me of my daily, hourly need of God's grace. Again, I need to say I LOVE exceptionally well prepared worship. But I am not ministered to by another persons attempt to be flawless. Rather, my soul is fed when the humanity of fellow gospel-wrestlers (lay and authorized) connects me with God's gift of grace.
I've lived in large metropolitan areas before: Chicago, Buenos Aires, Recife, Brazil. And I grew up in not far from New York City. I know about subways and I know about the way in which metropolitan dwellers focus on getting where they need to go and shielding themselves from "craziness". I get it. I do it.
I got on an E train yesterday and immediately the smell of urine was overwhelming. Someone, don't really know for sure if it was a man or woman, was curled up on the end seat. Everyone in the car was moving as far away as possible. So did I. I know that NYC folk have probably all had this same experience. Still, my heart sank. I tried to imagine the tragedy of this life. Earlier the same day I had a similar experience. Also E train, also the seat at the end of the car. A boy, maybe 20? Maybe 25? Very high on something. Laughing and sleeping intermittingly. Clutching a bag. My heart sank.
Somehow during the two moments I also thought of Dzohkar Tsarnaev, sadly a now infamous name. I thought of his mother. I thought of the toddlers: now one in jail, one high, one curled in a ball; and my heart sinks. Perhaps what is most important for me right now, is at least the recognition that while I go about my business and I ignore the junkie, the desolate, the prisoner, my heart is not so hardened as to break when I see a life so lost. How terrifying it would be if one day I felt nothing. Then I too, would be completely lost.
Dishwashers get installed, not people, except for ministers. I’ll be installed as the conference minister of the New York Conference, United Church of Christ next Saturday. Here’s what I hope. I hope the time in worship will be a marker in time for the New York Conference. I hope we will pause and truly, deeply, wonderfully celebrate all the gifts that God has given us. I hope we will see blessing in our midst.
The music is going to be fantastic. You will be awe-inspired, and if you’ve never called out Hallelujah or Amen in church before, I think you will on Saturday.
The word will be preached by my colleague and friend. Lynn Bujnak and I go way back. We’ve covered many miles of ministry together and she is my 911 to call when I need a listening ear.
Journey UCC, my home church, is.... Well, they are being themselves: loving to throw a party, because, after all, isn’t church all about celebration.
Dear New York Conference, it is my prayer that this Installation service be all about you; all about God’s abundant blessing; all about the wonderful diverse mix of God’s saints that you are. The table is set, you are invited.
When she left for work this morning Sueli said “I am afraid”. I understood. She is not afraid that a bomb will go off at the retail store where she works. She is afraid of being a darker skinned person with an accent.
The day after 9/11 Sueli was moved to go to the local Sears store and buy an American flag. In the parking lot returning to her car after her purchase a group of women approached her. “Where did you get the flag?” “At Sears, but this was the last one on the shelf.” Pause. “Well, at least you’re on our side.” My wife had never imagined that there were “sides” in the tragedy.
Within hours yesterday, the media identified “Saudi male” and “dark skinner male in black sweatshirt possibly with ‘foreign’ accent” as persons of interest. This morning it was reported that the Saudi male, who is in the hospital with serious leg injuries, told the police to go search his home. They found nothing. He is not less of a person of interest.
How many dark skinned males with black sweatshirts are there in Boston? A lot. How many are afraid? Every one. How many Bostonians with accents are afraid to speak today? Too many.
It may turn out that yesterday’s horrific tragedy was the result of foreign based terrorists. But it is a very big world in which the majority of the planet is of dark skinned with a non-American accent. And that’s the way God made us. But fear of one another is what we have created, and it is sin.
My daughter is in Boston and I’m shaken. I’m grieved by the extensive physical injuries and loss of life (an eight year old, sigh…). I am also afraid of the temptation of xenophobia, suspicion, and hatred. Give us this day, our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
I have taught United Church of Christ History and Polity for about fifteen years. I love teaching. I have a passion for teaching. I've taught in a variety of settings and I've had the privilege to teach a great diverse student body. Every UCC Polity teacher knows the fundamental challenge of our polity is the tension between covenant and autonomy. One might expect that when an "ecclesiocrat" such as myself presents the dichotomy, there is an emphasis upon "covenant".
I love covenant, it is the glue of all human relationships. My marriage is based on covenant as is my unconditional love for my family, my ministry, my faith. I pay taxes and abide by laws because of my civic covenant with society. But one might be surprised by my equal emphasis upon autonomy.
The 17th century Congregationalists based their relationships on autonomy not because they wanted independence from one another, but because it called forth from themselves a mature faith - in Family Systems thinking: a self-differentiated faith. The Cambridge Platform insisted that each church "had all that it required to be a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ." That is why autonomy is important to me, because it requires of us a mature and effective witness.
The best piece ever written on this was by a professor of Lancaster Seminary: Dr. Don Freeman. He argued that we are not "autonomous from", but rather we are "autonomous for" a purpose. And that purpose is effective, passionate, radical witness. Autonomy is what allows us in the UCC to maintain our cutting edge, the "muscle" of our authenticity.
So while some "ecclesiocrats" bemoan autonomy, I cheer it on with one caveat: "autonomy from" which isolates and instills self-agrandizement is foolishness; "autonomy for" is the path toward robust faithful witness. I believe this is something we need to safe-guard in the United Church of Christ.
This is true. I sat down to write these "thoughts" and wanted to write about the meaning of "home" for me. I have a house under contract and I've really been thinking about "home". I had nearly completed the piece when it seemed "not right" to offer that during Holy Week. "I should write something about resurrection," I thought. So I scratched the piece and thought, and thought.
The phrase that I heard was the last line from perhaps my all time favorite poem, East Coker V, Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot: "The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning." Yes, I thought, that is filled with Holy Week stuff. But I couldn't remember exactly how the poem began. I looked it up. Here's the first line: "Home is where one starts from". Okay, so that was weird.
Home is where one starts from..... The western Christian faith starts with the Easter story..... it is the beginning of faith...... our starting place....
T.S. Elliot: "As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living." (I understand that better now than I did when I was 21.) "Not the intense moment isolated, with no before and after, but a lifetime burning in every moment and not the lifetime of one man only.... Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter..... We must be still and still moving into another intensity for a further union, a deeper communion."
I have lived decades of Good Friday's and Easter mornings. The depth of home for me, is the place in between, between the many deaths we endure in life and the many, many resurrections, including rising each morning from a place of rest....home.... to face the potential of a new day. Home is where we stand with one arm extended toward what has gone by and the other toward what is coming.
There was a period this morning when after I answered my desk phone my cell phone would ring. Finishing the first call, I answered the cell phone and then my desk phone would ring. It happened back and forth several times. Fortunately, I am in such a personal space to find it a bit amusing rather than anxiety producing.
When I travel outside of the conference on behalf of the Council of Conference Ministers (as I did last week) it is usually very difficult to keep abreast of the emails that come in, so at this moment there are about 300 emails that need answering. My approach is triage based on the subject line (now you know my secret). Which fire is burning hottest as far as I know?
It is 11:37 on Tuesday morning and Brea just asked me: David, will you have a "My Thoughts" for this week? She needs it by noon.
So here is what I'd like to share about "my thoughts." When the cacophony soars and the whirlwind of needs spins, I close my eyes and listen for the quiet. In the dark space behind my eyelids I pause and find the moment. This moment is all I have. God calls me... us.... to live this moment as well and as faithfully as God has equipped us to do. And that is enough. In the whiz of life, there is always a quiet space behind our eyelids where God's silent wisdom awaits us.
There are many things Irish that I like. Potatoes, Irish Soda Bread, the color green, and a variety of libations. As a child growing up near Bridgeport, Connecticut, ethnicity was a big deal. Most kids were proudest to announce they were English, after all, that was the "winning" language. It was also cool to be Scottish. All kids loved spaghetti and pizza, so being Italian was pretty cool too. And in March, it was best to be Irish. Who couldn't feel good about that on an international holiday? The African-American kids never participated in the "ethnicity conversation".
It was difficult growing up in the 60's and 70's as Polish. The "All in the Family" sitcom made this particularly difficult. It was very easy to tease the "meat heads". Polish was not a cool language and there were no holidays celebrating Copernicus or Madam Curry or Chopin (to name a few world contributing Poles). Rather there were impossibly difficult names to pronounce: Lutryzkowski, Sucheczki, and Gajewski to name a few. I always knew on the first day of the school year when the teacher came to my name. Is David Ga..... Gaw....Gawds (and then the dreaded) Gay-ski present? All the kids would turn and look. Yup, that's me. My oldest sister liked the pronunciation "Gay-ski", but my brother and I who followed her in school never appreciated that road she paved. It is "Guy-es'-ski" Ma'am.
When I entered into adulthood I was told that in our multi-racial world, I was considered Anglo. Me, Anglo? Really? There is no Anglo-Germanic DNA in my gene pool. But it wasn't until I found my way into the UCC that I really got it regarding "white privilege" and the doors that the color of my skin would open. No, I'm not Anglo, but my skin color handed me power.
I have been thinking a great deal about race, about ethnicity, about class and white privilege lately. I think this is on my mind every day, but perhaps because of St. Patrick's Day, it has settled in my upper most thoughts. I hope to reflect more on this in these weekly "ponderings". This isn't a meditation that I can neatly wrap up. Race and power and inclusivity and exclusivity are too complex and too important to merit a clever concluding sentence.
It's about this time of year when I can expect the annual conversation with Sueli:
"Look, can you see the red in the trees?" she will ask.
"No, I can't."
"No, look, really! Can't you see the buds on the maples are starting to turn red?"
"You're imagining it."
"No, it's really there! Spring is almost here!"
"It's still winter."
But in reality, every year she is right. Spring does come... if not eventually.
How about this conversation?"
"Can you see the faithful people in the pews?
"The church is more than half empty."
"No, but look at the commitment they have!"
"The church is dying."
"This message of unconditional love, forgiveness, continuing testament, radical inclusivity, deep purpose to life, equanimity of spiritual vocation is totally amazing!"
"The church is irrelevant to modern society."
"No, really, look!"
I am thoughtful of the pessimistic voices. Perhaps Spring will come sooner if pessimism could never be considered as a spiritual practice.
I am now of such an age where as many people say to me "you're still a babe" as those who say, "wow, 52, that's old". The reason I'm thinking of this today is because it is my son's birthday and as of today I no longer have any teenage children. Also, as Sueli and I are now earnestly looking to purchase a house, we do so with keen awareness that my 90 year old mother will move in with us this year. So, this is indeed the experience of the sandwich generation. My girls are "launched" but they keep in daily touch with us. My son is the only child that will appear on my tax return. And my mother's move to Syracuse, I know, will be her last. It has been my family's plan since the time my father died that one day my Mom's last move would be into my home.
There are days when time moves more slowly than other days. Today is such a day for me. It feels as if within each minute there are ten minutes of pensive reflection. I suppose, to be honest, there is also some grief. While I am the proudest Dad on earth of my three children, I miss them at the dinner table, the noise, the school plays, the track meets. Likewise, I am deeply joyful that I can provide a home for my mother. And yet, as I welcome her into her new home, I remember my father and the house that they lived in for over sixty years.
My mother often reflects on the past. My children are building their future. Today I am pensively looking both forward and backward. I definitely am ready for grandchildren (although my girls tell me they are definitely not ready). I think I am prepared for the next chapter of my mother's life, and I pray she will be happy. But, there is a lot I miss of days gone by. Looking forward, gazing backward. Sandwiched.
Today is the 24th anniversary of my ordination. I am thoughtful of that event, but more, I am thoughtful of the meaning of ordination. I teach in polity that the United Church of Christ has a high/low understanding of ordination. "High" insofar as it is a once in a life event. We only ordain once in the UCC and we don't re-ordain those who have been ordained by other faith communions. "Low" in that our authorization as ordained ministers can come and go. Authorization can expire when not engaged in an active and recognized ministry before the time of jubilee (retirement). Authorization can also, regrettably, be removed.
Over my years in conference ministry I have pondered our liturgy of ordination, and in particular the laying on of hands. I have asked myself, "Is this so different from how we celebrate sacraments?" "Is God and God's grace not somehow more uniquely present in this moment?" If we do not call this sacramental, then why do we insist on it only happening once, like baptism? And most importantly, if God calls each and every person at the time of baptism to a unique and faithful ministry as part of a priesthood of all believers, then why are our ordinations so often ornate? Does God not call each person to unique forms of service?
On Facebook this morning a seminary friend commented on my status, saying that he was ordained at about the same time. Reflecting on his past, he called the event "inconsequential". While that seemed harsh to me, I am thoughtful of the comment. I suppose that for me the act of ordination is not inconsequential, but more consequential is the community sacrament of baptism. How sad it was when, as a pastor, someone would call and say "I need to get my kid done." Baptism is when God calls us by name. It is when the village stands before the sacredness of all life and rededicates itself in our pursuit of what is holy. Now that is consequential.
I have been thinking a lot about Greek yogurt. Have you noticed how over the past two or three years the yogurt section in the supermarket as tripled in length? Recently I was told that Central New York has become one of the major yogurt manufacturing centers of the country. So this would all appear to be good news, right? People eating healthier, more jobs in New York to boost the economy.
Last Wednesday night I attended a vigil for worker's rights at a local Catholic Church. Jose (not his real name) is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He told many stories about dairy farms in the Central New York area, in places like Skaneateles, and Marietta and Syracuse. One story was of an undocumented immigrant who was told her would work alone milking 500 cows. With the yogurt boom and demand for milk, the owner increased his heard to 900 cows. No additional workers were hired and the immigrant was not given a pay raise. When he complained the owner simply said, "Your alternative is to find another job."
Another story was of a young Central American undocumented immigrant who was working 17 hours per day, 7 days per week. When he complained he was told, "I can report you to the authorities." Jose visits the many undocumented workers in this area and he brought the young man tortillas to cheer him.
This is a complex problem because simply exposing and denouncing these employment practices (which appears to be a modern form of slavery) will immediately impact the welfare of the undocumented. They would immediately loose their employment. So I am thoughtful when I buy yogurt. And I am distressed with the expanding selection at the market.
I am sure there have been times when it would have been very difficult for me to say this, but, I can't say I've ever met a single person who's words or actions were solely motivated by ill-intent. As a young pastor in my 20's I thought Ed was evil. Talk about your clergy-killer! Over years I learned of some of the severe emotional pain this man was subjected to as a child. Even though he was more than 20 years my senior, I came to see him testing me as to whether his pastor (me)-a father figure-would also reject him.
Having done what I do for quite some time, I've seen many church conflicts. I've also met more than a few people I found difficult to like. It has always been helpful for me, however, to remember that my God does not expect me to like everyone. My God expects me to love. I have always found loving easier than liking. Also helpful has been starting with the assumption that no healthy person is desirous of doing evil. In fact, while I've experienced unhealthy people incarnating evil acts, my deepest belief is that this is not what they want to do.
I guess I simply believe that each person does the best they can with what they know, what skills they have acquired, and what grace they have been granted. It is freeing for me not to expect anyone to be perfect.
It is difficult for me to fathom seeing the world through my mother's eyes. This week I celebrated her 90th birthday with her. When she was born Warren G. Harding was President of the United States and Calvin Coolidge would soon take office. As a child, in the neighborhood where she grew up, English was a minority language (although in school it was the only language spoken). Bridgeport, Connecticut was the promise of all that American could be. The thought of flying in a plane was beyond her wildest dream. The dream of a voyage to the moon was pure fantasy.
My mother was required to leave school before she graduated from high school. Her mother insisted that she work to contribute to the family income. College was the thing for presidents, governors and mayors, such as P.T. Barnum. Even now, I am not certain my mother really understands that her children hold various post-graduate degrees. I do recall, however, the deepest pride and sense of satisfaction she had when in her 60's she completed her high school education and received a diploma. From the perspective of 1923, she has achieved a great deal and learned to live in a new world.
When I was born John F. Kennedy was about to be elected President. The idea of a personal computer was sheer science fiction. A phone receiver without a wire connected was a ridiculous thought. And while I wanted to believe that all I saw on Star Trek might one day be true, I never imagined that many of those gadgets would indeed "materialize in my replicator".
I doubt I will make it to ninety like my mother, but if I do... What will the world of 2050 look like? Like my mother, I simply can't imagine that new world.
I had an appointment to meet with Nicole at 9am. And even though I had never met her, I planned on dis-liking her. I had imagined an unfriendly woman who would speak to me with an abrupt attitude and whom I would need to interrupt in order to express any of my concerns. (By the way, this appointment had nothing to do with my work, in case you were wondering.) I had completely figured Nicole out before I met her. No matter what she had to say, I had decided I wouldn't like it.
I sat there and waited for her to come into the room. Then a thirty something women opened the door and her infectious smile disarmed me. She sat down and the first thing she said was, I have some questions for you, but really I just want to get to know you. She was incredibly relaxed with that semi-sarcastic attitude (that I always like in a person) that communicated that she was only half serious. So, my mission went un-accomplished. I could not make myself dislike her.
So what is this about? Hey, I'm 52 years old, it's that time in my life when I'm required to get a colonoscopy. And I'm looking forward to it about as much as I do going to the dentist. I had equipped myself with everything I thought I needed to dislike the person who was going to explain to me this "pain in the you know what" procedure. Later when Nicole had suggested that they do an endoscopy at the same time, I joked with her saying "Just don't have them use the same tube, okay?" She told me no one ever said that before. Really?
Why am I writing this? It has something to do with what I wrote last week about my commitment to look for ways I can impart grace. My encounter with Nicole was "grace finding me". And I am grateful.
I never saw Les Miserable on Broadway, even though one of my closest high school buddies was the understudy for Jean Valjean for several years and had the good fortune of playing the part on Broadway. I saw the movie this past weekend. I am still catching my breath from what I considered a heart-wrenching, overwhelming, and breath-taking experience. So many aspects of the story remain in my utmost thoughts. But I think the most important one to continue to hold close is that of un-merited grace, forgiveness, and the real possibility of a reformed soul.
If you do not know this story, the basic plot is this: Valjean begins his early life imprisoned for a petty offence and although he makes parole, he is hopelessly bitter over what fate has done to his life. After being caught stealing from a wealthy priest, the priest informs the authorities that all that was allegedly stolen was actually a gift he had give to Valjean. Valjean is then tormented by this act of grace. The rest of his life is one that steadily moves in the direction of holiness. Even remembering the story as I write this brings tears to my eyes. In the end he comes face to face with God. I won't give anything else away: GO SEE IT!
What I am dwelling upon these days is the power we posses to forgive and to be God's instruments of grace. So while I am not one inclined toward New Year's resolutions, I will make one for 2013. Each day I will look for one more thing I can do to spread grace and grant forgiveness.
And then something unusual happened. It must have been an act of divine love. And a young, unmarried girl was pregnant. Somewhere a voice whispered, shouted "Do not be afraid." And there was no room for her at her time of need. But love prevailed anyway. And when the child was about six years old, like all perfect children, he was sitting in the mud and making doves from the brown clay.
So today when a six year old girl shapes her play dough and thinks about what is possible, it is clear: this is a perfect divine image. And the image is carried each day of her life; your life.
In years to come some would say that the event changed the course of human history. But perhaps the trajectory was always moving in that direction.
Because water tasted as wine all would imagine the unimaginable. And a woman would reach out to touch and be healed. And friends would risk their own lives to lower their beloved into the presence of healing. And two walking on a road with a stranger would come to know that even death had lost its sting. Oh yes, yes, possibility, purpose, and meaning; all on account of one act, one spark of undreamed of love. So dreaming could begin, and come true.
And yes, dear one, it is all true. All things are possible. And you are the image. And you are the miracle. Fear not.
This is very close to home. I grew up less than ten miles from Sandy Hook, Connecticut. As a teenager I "hung out" in Newtown. My brother had track meets at Newtown High. My sister's first home was in Sandy Hook. A niece and nephew were both baptized at St. Rose Catholic Church where many of the vigils took place. My eldest niece went to Kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
I am thankful that President Obama said that Newtown will be remembered for the bravery of six teachers and the courage of first responders. I am gratified that the clergy of Newtown modeled an interfaith cooperation that has been rare since 911. And I find peace in the support that is being shown by the surrounding communities for the brokenness felt in Newtown. But... I use to like going to Newtown this time of year because they had the best Christmas lights in the center of town. For me, no matter how much time passes, when I think of Newtown and Christmas, I will see the vigil candles and tears. The scar is permanent. Even healing will not take it away. And yes, God grants us memory for a reason.
It is my belief that we in the liberal, progressive, Protestant tradition are very nice people. We have a long tradition as rationalists, as logical, as middle ground seekers. So I say this, yes from a very knee jerk place: nothing rationalizes, nothing is logical and there is no middle ground to the killing of innocents in Newtown; not when we already know many of the answers of how to prevent a tragedy like Newtown. Obviously we know the reason why something like this happens. (Just like we know why a hurricane like Sandy happens.) We are repeating over and over in conversation after conversation our knowledge of "the why", although we poise our knowledge in the form of questions.
Do you think a ban on semi-automatic rifles would have made a difference? Do you think that more funding of mental health programs would have made a difference? Do you think violent video games affect our youth's psyches? Do we think these things? Of course we do. We know them in our hearts.
The purpose of these weekly "thoughts" that I share is not to suggest an agenda or to call for action. My purpose is the share with you what is in my mind and heart. And I am troubled as are so many. Even as I share these thoughts I am also very cognizant of the many more deaths of innocents that is occurring even today in Syria and elsewhere. I am aware that raising the issue of mental health funding runs the risk of stigmatizing all the healthy people who come out of the closet by discussing their own struggle with mental illness. I am aware that speaking of gun control at a time such as this appears as political opportunism. But today two six year olds are being buried very close to where I went to first grade. Silent reflection is not an option for me. Like the Jewish Rabbi whose sung lament in Hebrew could be so clearly understood beyond words, these scribbled sentences are my deep moaning. O Come, O Come Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, who lies is lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.
Yesterday I attended a lecture given by a Jesuit priest who was once an astronomer for the Vatican, interesting right? Yes, very. His presentation addressed the birth and expansion of the universe in an Advent context. So all this has indeed filled my thoughts.
I understand that when we look into the night sky and see the points of light, these are indeed stars and galaxies as they were hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago. The light we see is the past. Some of those lights in the sky may no longer actually exist. So that is a bit mind bending for me. What may be of more interest are the dark parts of the sky where the human eye can see nothing and the best telescopes on the planet can see very little. The dark areas may be the present and the future where the universe is either now unfolding or will unfold.
I'll get back to the light and darkness of the night sky, but for a moment I turn to the Advent wreath.
As the days wane shorter and the dark nights longer, I've long appreciated the symbolism of the growing lights of Advent. A new thought for me is that the lit candles are reminders of what has been (like night stars) and the unlit candles of what might be (the dark sky). And on Christmas when all the last hymns are sung and all the candles are blown out, all we are left with is..... possibility: the unlit future. And so the hopeful cycle begins again. Once again God makes all things possible and new. I choose to believe this. It helps me to know that looking into the darkness of the sky and even of life is also a great blessing, because it allows me to focus on what is possible. And the stars, the lights, the candles, are all reminders of what the past has promised us. Possibility and promise, yes.
"Watcher, tell us of the night, what its signs of promise are. Traveler, O a wondrous sight! See that glory beaming star!"
I can hear clearly in my memory the times my parents would speak with my grandparents about Europe. These conversations were not frequent, but the feelings around them were intense. My grandparents' leaving of Poland were not pleasant memories. They were all under duress, either economic or political. But still, I can hear my grandmothers' words, in broken English, filled with almost otherworldly feeling, longing, some sadness.
I write these "thoughts" from Frankfurt, Germany. Tomorrow morning we return home. We will fly out of the Frankfurt airport, a place often mentioned by our German partners for a variety of reasons. But today, I am thinking of this airport as a 21st century parallel to Ellis Island. While Ellis Island seemed romanticized in American folklore, I can attest that three of my grandparents entered those gates with great fear. They did not remember it fondly. Our Polish names were corrupted; dignity was diminished.
A quick side story: in Frankfurt I visited a school for high school students who were unable to succeed in the normal German school system. I looked on the blackboard and saw their names: Mohammad, Ozan, Yassar; Abina, Yaaba, Amma. The minority were Helmut or Jutta. These are the children who struggle to find a new life. A hundred years ago in Bridgeport, CT they were Frank Sucheczki and Czeslawa Sludzinski (my grandparents).
Today, immigrants are regularly entering Germany through the Frankfurt airport. The EKHN has mentioned that this may be a setting for which they would welcome a New York intern. So tomorrow when I walk through the airport I will walk fully aware that among the Ghanaian and Turkish faces I will see are my own spiritual ancestors, not necessarily thinking of "a land of opportunity", but wondering "how will it be with my life?"
Back to normal. I wonder how many times I've said to myself during particularly extraordinary times: "everything will be fine when things get back to normal." But when I really think about that, I haven't the slightest idea what that means. When are things "normal" or to be more precise, more normal than any other time.
Every morning when I rise I walk into a new normal. I stretch my body and my mind into the newness of the day. Is any one day the same as a previous day? What would make yesterday more normal than today? And today, is always different from yesterday... always. So, I will pause the next time I find myself mumbling under my breath.... "when things get back to normal", because they won't.
Normal is the moment. Whether the moment is crisis, bliss, struggle, reward, satisfaction, anger, they are all the normal for that point in the chronos of time and the kairos of God. Every day is, as they say, the new normal.
My ministry in New York is evolving into a daily new normal after the hurricane. But this pales to the daily new normal I witnessed when I was in Queens, Nassau County, and lower Manhattan last weekend.
As a holiday season is now unleashing its frenzy upon our culture, nation, and media both our memories and our consumerism attempt to define what is a normal holiday. But, what is this year's normal will be just what it is. Probably like every other year, it won't be perfect. And this year will be very hard for many whose lives were changed by this disaster. And this year will be a new normal for all who have reached out with compassion to comfort and serve. I guess that is what it must have been like to be a Christian in 33 A.D. (and every other year since).
I am moved with gratitude for the network of caring that exists in the United Church of Christ. In the past few days I've received numerous messages from all over the country simply expressing care and assuring us in New York that we are held in prayer. What good is a denomination? Well, this is pretty darn good.
It does strike me odd that in the middle of this disaster my thoughts are on gratitude. As information trickles in on damages, flooding, fires, and looting; and as I watch scenes on my television I ache for those who are suffering right now. At the same time, I am thoughtful of the long run. The network of relationships assures me that in the weeks and months ahead, our UCC churches will be buoyed by our family. And more, I am confident that our ministries will have the support to respond to our community needs, even as we do not know them at this very moment. And that is why I have this sense of gratitude. We are not alone right now, nor will we be in the future.
I was very moved today by a voice mail message from Kent Siladi, Conference Minister in Florida. He said "New Yorkers were there for us when we were hit with hurricanes. We just want you to know that when you are ready for us, Floridians are poised to come help you in New York." The best thing, however, is I know this is not a quid pro quo. It really is about genuine, human caring. Likewise, I received a phone call from our German partners in the EKHN (Evangelical Church of Hessen and Nassau) letting me know that they wanted to send us $5000 Euros for NY disaster response! Why does it take something this terrible to sometimes allow us to see the deep caring that is always there?
This is not unlike some of the experience I had with Hurricane Mitch in Honduras. Years after the clean up was done one Honduran pastor said to me, "How could we ever imagine not being in partnership with you. While others come and go, you just stay. That's what family is." So for better or worse, we in the UCC are a family. We disagree, we fight sometimes, sometimes we keep our distance, but in the end we are there for each other. I am grateful.
Some of my colleagues over the years have chided me when I've said that I appreciate the work of Karl Bart. I may not agree with a chunk of Bart's theology but two things I have appreciated: his clarity and his understanding of the church's role in society. I recall the description of Bart's thinking as "Just as Christ is the center of the church and radiates outward to influence the church, so the church is the center of society and radiates outward to influence society." Granted, I have a bit of uneasiness with the assumption that the Christian church is the center of society, but I am convinced that the role of the church is indeed to influence society. Hence when we come upon national elections, it is indeed the critical role of the church to speak to the issues as Christ, the Scriptures, the traditions, and human reason have led us. To imagine that Jesus had nothing to say about politics is to completely dismiss the monumental political impact of his teachings and life, first upon the Roman Empire, and ever since upon every source of organized power. Speaking truth to power is a fundamental role of the church and of Christian vocation
This is why I am not the least bit hesitant to express my concerns over political issues that are in the middle of this election process. Some of the issues I care most about have been addressed such as education and health care. However, the 270 minutes of deafening silence during the presidential debates regarding global warming is maddening. How can we possibly debate national security issues without at least mentioning the greatest threat to our security! Jobs are very important, particularly because honest work promotes human dignity. However, to imply that the creation of jobs with a disregard to environmental impact is justified, is simply wrong. Our national and global security depends on how this generation addresses the already irreparable damage caused by global warming.
For clergy and laity alike who would appreciate some guidelines on the church's role in politics and the election process, I would like to point out two critical resources:
I commend these resources to you and urge all of us to speak the truth in love during this political season.
I suppose it would be disingenuous to indicate that there is anything more in the forefront of my thoughts than the upcoming election. I attempt to follow the unfolding political campaigns on both the television and radio, although this is practically impossible to do as "news" finds the way candidates smile or drink water of equal importance with life and death issues such as the environment, a woman's right to choose, and education. I grant some credit to both presidential candidates that in last night's debate there was at least some attempt to discuss a few issues-- although the planned "zingers" were painfully obvious.
I do believe this presidential election is critical to my children's generation. Frankly, there are two issues that I lose sleep over when thinking about how this election may impact our future. The first is the environment and the second is the Supreme Court.
The need to look into our future and envision how we move toward renewable energy is already about 20 years late in coming. Has irreparable damage already been done on account of our narrow focus on "energy needs" rather than smart and ethical use of natural resources? Probably. But I also simply believe that the earth, in its deep goodness, does have a way of healing. Our attention to the growth of renewable resources, I believe, must be a priority higher than even energy independence which relies of growth of oil drilling, hydrofracking, and coal mining (especially mountain top coal mining).
Certainly in the next four years at least one, but probably two, Supreme Court Justices will retire. I get a cold chill in my gut to imagine the potential of overturning Roe v. Wade. I recognize that in the UCC, while we hold and honor political diversity, the overarching tendency is one that leans toward the political left. And so, I am preaching to the choir. For me, however, it is critical to speak up on the issues for which I am passionate and to connect the dots (even when it is obvious) on how the November 6th election will have ramifications for generations.
Among the best words of advice I ever received were "If you think you're going to be able to tie up all the loose ends, you're kidding yourself." They came from a clergy friend about a week before I was to start my first ever sabbatical. And four months later when I returned from that wonderful sabbatical some of the loose ends tied themselves up, some were addressed by someone else, some remained as untied as ever (and I suspect ten years later they still are), and new unresolved issues arose.
During that first sabbatical among other fun things like going to Iona, I did something I had never imagined myself doing. I built a stone wall. It was wonderful. Unlike all ministry I had ever known, there came that day when I stood back, looked at each piece in its place and said to myself, "it is done." Sure, from time to time I thought "maybe that stone could have been better placed." But I resisted ever rebuilding it and enjoyed looking at it and watching plants grow over and around it, for many years. I know it still stands today.
I am mindful of how frantic we can allow our lives, our work, our inner thoughts, our ministry to become. Too often I catch myself running down the road of "loose ends." But it has been helpful to remember that running faster won't help you arrive. It is enough to know that when a day ends it is like a stone in a great wall, a wall way too big for anyone of us to fathom. But each day is in and of itself complete. I rest knowing that most days, I've done my best. And that is enough.
The concluding dialogue with the EKHN at the Fall clergy retreat has left me thinking a great deal about the culture of individualism vs. collectivism. Not a direct parallel, but a layer upon it, is a similar dichotomy I teach in UCC polity: autonomy vs. covenant. It was clear to me during the EKHN dialogues that the cultural perspective in our country bends toward the individual. The self critique I heard from UCC clergy is that we are quicker to admit to and own individual "sin" or dysfunction but reluctant to see or speak of these in a corporate sense.
I understand the comment that we are born as individuals and we first need to work at putting our own house together, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, before we can contribute in a healthy way to the community. Maybe it was the years I spent living in Mennonite community or perhaps the way in which Latino culture influences/ shapes me, but I challenge whether we really are born as individuals. Are we not born into family and through relationships (some healthy, some not)? Ironic, isn't it, that the predominant tradition in the UCC is infant baptism where the community declares it's responsibility to nurture collectively while Mennonites tend to invoke adult believer's baptism. The fundamental question for me is, who is responsible for our spiritual wellness? After all, "Am I my sister's/brother's keeper?" Well, yes, I suppose I believe the answer to that is "yes".
This tension subtly plays itself out in the spiritual lives of church members and of inter-church relationships (covenant). It is starkly evident in our national culture war and political debate. Just as the word "liberal" was painted negatively several decades ago, so too is anti-individual today. For the Trekkies amongst us, it is the "We are Borg/I am Hugh" saga in which individualism (even in the 24th century) is the victor.
I am glad to be uncomfortable with these thoughts. Discomfort usually indicates the proximity to something important. I am also grateful that the relationship with the EKHN has stirred this up for me.
There is something about autumn that puts me in touch with the seasons of life. And more, I find myself thoughtful of the seasons of the generations in my life. I can smell the fire of the leaves my father burned in the back yard. And so I think of my father, who I saw in my own face for the first time this week. Dad died at the age of 90 two years ago. I think of my grandmothers, my five-year old next door neighbor and best friend, Joey. I am also ever so mindful of my phone conversation this week with my 89 year old mother who, although still living independently, is finding the daily tasks of self-care increasingly exhausting. I am mindful of good friends from whom I have drifted away; and of childhood friends I've reconnected with on Facebook. Amazing how little forty years can change; and how much too.
I remember the smell of dry brown oak leaves when I would jump into a pile of them, age six, with my twelve-year old brother. I remember the first time I tasted roasted pumpkin seeds and thought nothing could be better than this. I will take out the iconoclastic picture I took of Emily and Lyvia (around 2 and 3 years old) sitting in a vast patch of orange pumpkins. And with the smells, tastes, and visual memories of autumn, I also hear Joni Mitchell's voice:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.
I was debating whether I would buy mums (one of my favorite flowers) to place on my front steps. I will do it today, because this season will be over soon and each moment, each smell, each color, each texture, each memory matters in the fabrics we weave. There is something about autumn....
When I was twelve or thirteen years old I was a very frail, shy, and soft-spoken kid. The school bus ride home took about 25 minutes. I suppose that was my early definition of "hell". None of my friends were on my bus so I either sat alone or with one of the other "not cool" kids. There was another boy on the same bus who became fixated with me. He was very strong, loud, and lived on the edge of rage. Knowing what I do today, I would surmise that he was severely abused at home. During my last six months of eighth grade I became the target of his anger. Each day I was beaten, sometimes severely, on the school bus ride home.
I was ashamed of this. To this day I don't think I ever told either of my parents or siblings. My older brother (then in college) was athletic and popular. That only added to my shame of being both physically and psychologically bullied. When I came home to my empty house (both parents were working). I would sleep for about two hours. Today I understand that as the expression of my depression. The bullying was never addressed or resolved, it simply went away with time after I got to high school.
This time in my life is on my mind right now for two reasons. First, as I sat in the Social Security office in Syracuse last week (I lost my card and needed to apply for a replacement) I witnessed what probably crossed the line as child abuse. A young mother with two small children was threatening to beat them (and this with a very full room silently watching and ignoring). I believe if she had actually hit them I would have intervened. But the threat of beating is just as damaging. Was I watching the formation of two small bullies who would one day take their rage out on a smaller and weaker human being?
The second reason for this being in my thoughts is on account of the murder of Ambassador Stevens in Libya. Without addressing the issue of the anti-Muslim video on YouTube (which also is an abuse of power and senseless violence) I am mindful that random acts of violence carried out by those who are enraged for many, many reasons is still... senseless and deplorable. I am thankful for Secretary Clinton's and President Obama's condemnation. I am particularly thankful for the very thoughtful words of Secretary Clinton when she said, "This situation is profoundly complicated." Politicians who simplify the complexities of the world, and particularly the mid-East are equivalent to the adults who think bullying is about "kids getting rough with one another."
Say anything. As long as you say it like you actually believe it is true, then at least some of the people will believe it is true. Say it as if you haven't a single doubt that what you are saying might actually not be true. It doesn't matter what you say, all that matters is how you say it. That is what creates truth. True? As I watch both political conventions, that certainly seems like it's the modus operandi. It makes me think of my 89-year-old mother who said, "But they said it on TV, it must be true." I sure wish THAT were true!
Speaking what you believe is true, what you want to be true, seems to be an art form. And there are certainly masters of such an art. I am not that artful. The art is lost when more than communicating a point of view, one wants to be honest, accurate. But wanting to be honest appears not to be valued as it once was. Being convincing is a greater goal. True? Apparently it is. I say that because we the consumers of rhetoric want the words uttered by the people we admire to be true. I am guilty of it. I listened to the Democratic convention last night and just drank it in like the finest wine. I wanted to believe every last word spoken. Perhaps it is a deeper need to believe that allows us to accept the convincing word as truth.
What I am wondering is how far afield the convention podium is from the pulpit. I am wondering what would happen if the preacher said "I'm not sure this is true. It might be. But I have some doubts." Would the person in the pew with the deep need to believe walk away because they were not convinced? Honestly, I don't know. But I do believe there really is truth. I also doubt that all truth is absolute.
I am thankful that in the backyard of our little rental in DeWitt there are tall trees. I had a forest of very tall trees behind my home in Maine. Ever since I was a very small child I loved to watch and listen to the wind in the trees, and if the winds were powerful, all the better. I have never been afraid of thunderstorms. Considering that my parents' home was struck by lightning and burned to the ground when I was 5 years old, it is a bit odd that I have no fear.
During those times in my life when I have struggled with some of the hardest issues and decisions, I've hoped that there would be strong winds to which I could listen. Not sure why, but I am deeply calmed when I hear the wind. And it need not be in a forest for me. A strong wind coming down a city street has the same affect upon me. It always causes me to pause and.... feel the moment.
About four years ago I took my son on a pilgrimage to Poland. In Warsaw there is the most incredible park. And in the park there is a circular rose garden. In the middle of the concentric rings of roses there is a large statue of Chopin. You can clearly see that the pose illustrates him listening to the wind. His hair and clothes are blowing as if in a tempest. The statue shows him reaching out with one hand poised as if about to strike the keys of a piano. That, in and of itself, was enough to feed my soul, but wouldn't you know, the day we were there was a powerfully windy day.
I am convinced that each of us has our own place where we most "connect" with the transcendent; where we come closest to the "thin veil" that separates this reality with that which is greater. It isn't a place where we need to dwell long. In fact, I don't think we should. After all, life is about being engaged with this world. Ah, but there are moments when proximity to "thinness" does indeed feed the soul. What is that old Irish blessing? "May the winds be always at your back." Well, maybe not always, but often enough.
I've enjoyed having XM Radio for the past several years. No doubt I am a news junkie, or to be more precise, a politics junkie. However, when the politics of the day is driving me nuts, I have turned to either 60's on 6, or 70's on 7 for solace. A couple of weeks ago one of those incredibly ridiculous 70's songs caught my attention. Please don't laugh. The song was "Billy, Don't be a Hero." If this were Facebook, you would read next: Click here if you remember this. Normally I WOULD indeed change the channel as soon a song like that started to play. Don't know why, but I kept listening. It was a mindless, bubble gum hit from the early 70's. I never gave it a second thought. But it occurred to me as I listened that if this song were released today, there would be significant protests claiming it was un-patriotic, un-American, and disrespectful of our troops. The artist would be chastised by some hoping to win political points. It took me back to think how much American society has changed since 1972.
Everyone, (I hope everyone), laments over how polarized we have become both culturally and politically. "Billy, Don't be a Hero" gave me a cold feeling in my stomach to think how extreme the cultural/political divide has become. I know myself to stand firmly at one end of that cultural/political divide and Rodney King's "can't we all just get along" is definitely not a message I can embrace.
Finding a middle ground on most of the social and economic issues that I feel strongly about is unacceptable for me, and I will explain why. My experience of mainline liberal thinking is that we seek middle ground and we shy from conflict. However, if MLK compromised we would not remember him as we do. I am not willing to compromise when it comes to human dignity, earth care, or the well-being of the marginalized, discriminated, violated, and/or dismissed. That is how my faith has shaped me. I'm not willing to compromise my faith.
A friend of mine has recommended a new book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, "It's Even Worse Than it Looks". The summary in this link speaks of the imperative of an informed public. It's my opinion that the role of pastor and teacher includes calling forth an informed public, and not a church that settles for middle ground, if middle ground means a mediocrity that "settles" for some injustice. I don't like conflict. I like it when we can "get along". But I can't stomach one iota of anything that diminishes God's goodness of all that God made.
Hello New York Conference,
The welcome I've received this week as I've begun this new ministry has been warm and gracious. Thank you. I look forward to our future where we will come to know one another and engage in the ministries that God calls us to incarnate.
I will do my best to communicate regularly with you using this weekly conference email as the medium to carry the message. In my previous ministry I wrote a weekly email that I called "My Thoughts". It was intended to simply let you know what is on my mind. Sometimes what I wrote specifically address ministry issues we face, but sometimes "my thoughts" were reflections on day to day life. I realized after a few years that the "My Thoughts" email had become corrupted when it began to have an agenda to communicate conference activities. So I stopped writing it.
As I begin this new ministry, I would like to start anew the sharing of "my thoughts" so that you know what goes on in the mind and heart of your conference minister. These will tend not to be long reflections.
So it is day four for me in the NY Conference. I am not surprised by the complexities that exist here, I had a fairly good idea what God was calling me to. My schedule is filling in very quickly. I know that I will need to be vigilant to keep some open spaces in my calendar so that I can listen to God and reflect. But I also know that as we begin our new relationship, it is imperative for me to "get out there". And so I am doing just that.
Listening is a real skill isn't it? How often I have found myself in a conversation in which when the other person was speaking, rather than listening, I was thinking of what I wanted to say next. It takes a real effort to truly listen, without an agenda of things to say. I suppose that is how I best like to think of prayer: listening without an agenda. I believe that is the only way of actually hearing anything.
And so it begins. I ask that you pray for me as I am praying and will pray for you. May we listen well together.