Through Jesus Christ you free us from sin. Though we remain selfish, we can choose generosity. Though we remain fearful, we can choose to act with courage. Though hatred raises its ugly head all around us, we can choose love.
God of unity,
Knit us together. The fabric of our nation is continually fraying. Though we need each other, our greed, anger, and ignorance keep us apart. Make us weavers of the social fabric. Make us lovers of the common good. Make us builders of a better world for all.
Monday I participated in two really wonderful Zoom conversations. The first was our joint First Church South Church Bible Study. The second was a New York Times Wellness conversation with Rev. angel Kyodo williams. Both conversations were wide ranging. In both conversations the theme of freedom arose repeatedly.
This is not surprising. Saturday, July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day, a day commemorating one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence formalized a process of political separation between the English colonies of North America and the British Empire. The process was long and bloody. American colonists fought a War of Independence from 1775-1783 and then a “second war of independence” known as the War of 1812 (1812-1815). In between the colonists wrote a Constitution (1789) formalizing a new political entity they called “The United States of America.” The preamble of the Constitution begins with the famous words, “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” From the beginning our experiment in freedom on this continent has attempted to hold unity and separation in tension.
But “we, the people” did not mean “all the people.” In 1789, “we, the people” meant white, land-owning men, who were the only people allowed to vote at that time. What on the surface seems like a statement of unity in fact covered over the deep severing from our own humanity that was required to make the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and the second class status of women and impoverished people on this continent possible. This collective wound has been 400 years in the making. It will take some time to heal.
Given this history it’s not surprising that COVID-19 has brought the tension between separation and unity, independence and freedom to the fore. Stories of people refusing to wear masks, for example, because it infringes on their “freedom” though disheartening are based on an idea that freedom is fundamentally about “separation.” This is the freedom of “no one can tell me what to do.” I find this understanding of freedom incredibly narrow–childish, even. It makes me sad that freedom as separation and division has reached such a level in America that behaviors to protect each other from a deadly virus are framed as a partisan “culture war.” What have we become?
But freedom as separation or “independence” is not the only way to understand freedom. Christian freedom, as defined by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, is freedom from the “flesh.” The “flesh” is Paul’s word for the human ego, selfish desires, human sinfulness, willful ignorance, and negative emotions such as fear, greed, anger, and hatred. Christian freedom means our lives no longer need be controlled by these powerful internal forces and we can instead freely give, freely receive, freely act out of our moral commitments all because of our relationship with Christ.
COVID has revealed that the fundamental nature of the universe is connection. COVID does distinguish Democrat and Republican, American and British, rich and poor, Black, white, or Indigenous. As long as we in America continue to demand our “personal freedom” regardless of the cost to our neighbors, our health as a nation will continue to deteriorate. Recognizing our interconnection, Rev. angel Kyodo williams suggested that this July 4 we celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I invite you to pray that we as a nation wake up to the reality that all are connected. I invite you to pray for the true freedom that is found in an open and loving heart that honors the inherent dignity of each and every one.
On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Pride Parade was held in New York City. Similar events were held in June of 1970 in Chicago and San Francisco. All were in response to the Stonewall uprising the previous year, which marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
For the first time in its 50 year history the NYC pride parade is cancelled due to coronavirus. Cancelled for the first time in 50 years, on its 50th anniversary.
A couple weeks ago I began an online training for leadership and organizational coaching during the COVID pandemic. As the group was naming the different dynamics around loss, grief, and trauma folks are experiencing during this time, the AIDS epidemic came up. For those of us who lived through the 1980s/1990s decades of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands upon thousands of mostly gay men were dying in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, COVID brings up ghosts of that trauma. As many of you know, my dad was one of those gay men who died of AIDS, so this year’s Pride is just a strange, strange time for me, and I’m guessing for many of my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
Folks are hosting virtual Pride events, but for me and my family the highlight of Pride has always been the parade. My kids tell me that Providence (RI) Pride was their favorite event of the year. People of all ages, colors, and creeds gathered downtown for a day of fun and joy and celebration. We marched as a church. We waved banners and wore silly hats and cheered for the crowd as the crowd cheered for us. The City of Providence was never happier or more together than on Pride weekend.
My Pride story is a family story. It’s a story of my family finding its family: a community of people committed to living without shame; people of all different identities committed to accepting and loving every inch of themselves and every part of every other. Nothing needs to be hidden. Everything can be talked about. Vulnerability, instead of a sign of weakness, is lifted up as a sign of strength. Pride is a time of honoring those who have gone before: martyrs and heroes and loved ones lost who had the courage to live their truth, and because they chose to do so, paved the way for those of us who would follow to more perfectly manifest what, for me, is nothing other than God’s boundless, unconditional love.
“If we let it fall apart, what could we do then?” In the early days of the COVID pandemic, I used the phrase “stay safe, stay together” to chart a course through what has been a difficult, scary time. I’m glad to say we’ve done that.
March 22 was our first livestream only worship service at FCCG. In those early days and weeks, we were in emergency mode–or at least church leadership was. Every day new information about the pandemic was coming out from state and local officials. As a church we had to learn quickly and adapt nimbly to keep everyone safe and everyone together. Folks were frightened and disoriented. We were looking for direction and trying to find our footing.
We adapted quickly. Many of us learned how to use Zoom. We adapted our worship service and upgraded our technology. We learned new routines of working from home, of checking in by phone, of making sure people were safe and supported. We started new programs: weekly Zoom Bible study, “Thank-Goodness-It’s-Zoom” virtual happy hour, online prayer group, daily online devotional. The Vitality Team has really shined in these past months (thanks Beth Lindsay, Ann W, Don S, Anne delC., Dick L, Kerri C, Heather D!) raising money for essential workers, organizing a cheer parade, delivering Easter cheer baskets, thanking postal workers, organizing mask making, organizing gardening supplies and cheer cards for the residents of Meadowbrook, and more. The one thing I love about this COVID time is that it has opened an opportunity to connect with new groups of people beyond our walls–people we have overlooked for too long.
Now we’re at a different place. Summer is upon us. Folks are getting restless. For some, perhaps, the novelty of worshipping from home has worn off. Zoom gatherings that were well attended at first have tapered off, so we’ve discontinued them for now. I hear complaints. The diversity of opinions about whether and how to continue our collaborations with South Church is wide. The weight of grief over what’s been lost over the past months and the worry over what is to come are significant. I’m finding that leading the church from a place of staying safe and staying together is actually becoming more challenging the deeper we move into this pandemic.
One of the things we learn in coaching training is the technique of asking “powerful questions.” Questions that point to the heart of the situation can sometimes shift perspective and remove obstacles to growth, life, happiness. It occurred to me that a powerful question for this moment might be “What if we let it fall apart? What could we do then?” We still need to stay safe. And I think we still want to stay together, but what if we took a breather? What if we relaxed the meeting schedule? What if we let go of our expectations of “going back to normal” and just did the things that brought us life, joy, and energy? What if we focussed on the work of the Vitality Team that is bringing blessing and joy to so many people?
The Re-Open Team–Lori F, Lisa R, and Sue M–will be beginning their work soon. I’m hoping in the coming weeks we can begin to define when, how, and under what circumstances we can begin some in-person gatherings. Until that time, what do you need to let go of? What do you need to embrace?
I recently heard on a news podcast that something like 70% of Americans think our country is “out of control.” I don’t know where you’re at, but this statistic points to a feeling we’ve been noticing around us and perhaps feeling ourselves for some months now. The recent protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery just add to the generalized feelings of chaos, uncertainty, and grief that we’ve all been facing.
Recently I was invited to join a cohort of clergy and lay people to receive training on hwo to coach individuals and congregations through the COVID pandemic. Training began this week and will continue (online, of course) through the first half of July. We’ve been learning to identify and contextualize the component parts of the circumstances we’re facing in order to more effectively address them and help people through this time.
There are some practices I’d like to suggest that may be helpful in dealing with feelings of grief and feelings of being “out of control.” When circumstances feel out of control, it’s helpful to find ways to “stay grounded.” Staying grounded is a big reason why I spend an hour every morning sitting still and silent, minding my breath. Literally sitting “on the ground” is an incredibly effective way for me to feel “grounded.” Circumstances can be swirling about me, but I know there is a stable place of rest that is always present–literally beneath my feet.
How will you “stay grounded?” Another technique for when you feel out of control is to identify and describe in detail five things near you. For me, it’s the IKEA couch supporting my back, the Sisal trunk that I’m resting my feet on, the roar of a motorcycle engine on the street, the sigh of the breeze through the trees, now the sound and smell of rain. Is the world really coming apart? Yes, in some ways the world is coming apart. In others it’s coming together. And through it all like the finest of thread the rhythms of the universe continue completely unbothered by our small concerns. While some things are out of our control, other things are in our control. Sometimes it’s helpful to focus on the things we can control beginning with where we place our attention.
Many of you are probably familiar with the five stages of grief originally identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross some decades ago: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. Perhaps you weren’t aware that later in her career she identified a sixth stage: meaning-making. Meaning-making is the stage of grief that produces creative new life out of death. For example, parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims creating the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Or Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, who was recently killed in an encounter with police, testifying before congress in support of police reform.
In the context of our congregational life and our individual lives, I’d like to suggest a powerful question as a tool for meaning-making: “In this time, what are you discovering is ‘essential’ as opposed to merely ‘traditional’?” In other words, what things were we doing before COVID out of mere habit that we’ve found we can do without moving forward? What things have we found we can’t do without that we want to give extra time and attention to moving forward? Loss without a sense of meaning is unbearable. Loss that leads to a simpler, happier, more productive life offers each of us an invaluable opportunity.
Holy God, you call us to make disciples, but how can we invite others to follow when we ourselves have such a tendency to stray from your way of love? Tune our hearts to your call to return to the boundless embrace of your never changing love. Amen.
Invitation to the Table
Jesus said: “I am the bread of life; anyone who comes to me shall not hunger; anyone who believes in me shall never thirst.” Nevertheless, we hunger; nevertheless we thirst. We hunger for justice on behalf of Black lives lost and Black bodies broken under the crushing weight of systemic racism. We thirst for righteousness that is necessary for all to live in peace.
This table is open to all who hunger and thirst for God. Come to this sacred table not because you must but because you may. Come not because you are fulfilled but because in your emptiness you stand in need of God’s mercy and assurance. Come not to express an opinion, but to seek a presence and to pray for a Spirit.
Come to this table, sisters and brothers, as you are. Partake and share. It is spread for you and me that we might again know that God has come to us, shared our common lot, and invited us to step past the bonds of hatred and fear into God’s boundless embrace.
The Great Thanksgiving
Holy God, we praise and bless you for creation and the gift of life and for your abiding love which brings us close to you, the source of all blessing. We thank you for revealing your will for us in the giving of the law and in the preaching of the prophets.
The prophet Amos called on the ancient Israelites to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Centuries later your prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on the people of America to do the same.
We thank you for the prophets of this moment who call us to once again examine our hearts, to shake free of our complacency, to open our ears to the cries of those suffocating in the grip of racial hatred. We thank you for calling us to be the healing hands and passionate heart of Jesus to our world.
With the faithful in every place and time, we praise with joy your holy name:
Holy, holy, holy God of love and majesty, the whole universe speaks of your glory, O God Most High. Amen.
Sunday, May 31, 7am: “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd called out for his mother and pleaded with the Minneapolis police officer who had his knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe,” said Mr. Floyd, until he lost consciousness and later died. “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd, an unarmed African American while a white police officer squeezed the life out of him and four other police officers looked on.
When I read the story and watched the video of George Floyd’s death this week I was immediately reminded of Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man who called out, “I can’t breathe,” while a white police officer held him in a choke hold on a Staten Island street corner several years ago.
The stories of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, the nine who were gunned down during a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church–Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson . . . (say their names) are stories of a system of racial violence that goes all the way back to the very founding of our nation; nevertheless, the cry “I can’t breathe” also reminds me of an interview I heard back in March with an Italian doctor responsible for a hospital in Milan overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. He described what it was like to watch his patients die in isolation, their breath cut off as their lungs filled up with fluid. And even though coronavirus doesn’t discriminate based on the color of one’s skin, here in the U.S., people of color are disproportionately dying of the disease because as a nation we refuse to directly confront and address what pastor and activist Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin.” So even in the case of coronavirus, we cannot escape the specter of systemic racism.
Though my chest is tight with grief, anger, and fear on behalf of my family, friends, former parishioners, brothers and sisters in Christ, my neighbors, my neighborhood, my country, I can breathe. And as long as I can breathe I am going to speak out against racism in all its forms wherever I see it. And I see it all around.
Monday, June 1, 3:29pm: Much has transpired in the past 24 hours. While I can only imagine what it’s like for my friends, neighbors, biological family, and faith family of color to experience the repeated traumatization of systemic racism in America, I know that to bear witness to trauma is also to receive that trauma into one’s heart. Emotions in my household remain raw. Nevertheless, I had an encouraging conversation with a small group of Granby town leaders this morning. We are determined to channel the collective energy of our grief and fear into positive action. Our dream is to lead a sacred conversation on race in the town of Granby. I invite you to pray for us, to pray for yourselves and your neighbors, to pray for our town, our nation. I invite all of us to breathe for George Floyd. I invite us to breathe for Eric Garner. I invite us to breathe for all of our brothers and sisters of color who have swung from the lynching tree. I invite us to lament and repent the sin of systemic racism. And then breathe once again, for the healing of your heart, for the healing of our world.
This past Memorial Day, my family and I traveled to my brother-in-law’s house nearby for what one of my friends joking calls a “get apart.” (You know, a physically distanced “get together.”)
Our conversation covered a broad range of topics–as it usually does–including our common situation of global pandemic. My brother-in-law, who works as a federal prosecutor, noted that New Zealand and some European countries (like Germany) were able to much more effectively contain the virus because, in his opinion, in general their citizens have much more trust in their federal governments than, for example, the U.S. does.
While trust is only one factor affecting a government’s coronavirus response, it reminds me how critical trust is to human flourishing. In many cases, it is literally a matter of life and death.
Trust is also a critical factor in congregational life. One of the foundational tasks of transitional ministry is building and maintaining trust among congregation members and between congregation and leadership. Steven Covey in his book The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness writes about “the speed of trust.” High trust levels in organizations allows them to move quickly to adapt and address problems. If we had higher trust levels in the U.S., would we have been able to move more quickly to prevent infections and deaths? It is a sobering question. This is a critical question for maintaining our national health. It also illustrates why high trust levels are so important to congregational health.
How does one build trust in a congregation? Three tasks: competence, compassion, common mission. Competence: leadership has to prove to the congregation that they can do the job in a consistently competent fashion. Show up for meetings, do your homework, strive for excellence. If you don’t know something, get training or ask for help. Compassion: people have to know that you have their best interest at heart. You need to demonstrate that you see your role as promoting the health and well-being of the congregation as a whole, not your personal needs for power and control. Common mission: this is illustrated by a Scripture text for this coming Sunday–Pentecost Sunday.
The Old Testament reading is from Numbers 11:24-30. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro tells Moses that he can’t lead God’s people on his own. Jethro recommends Moses appoint 70 “elders” to share the leadership burden. Moses follows his father-in-law’s advice. Moses gathers the 70 elders around the tent that served as the holy space for the people as they may their wilderness journey. God’s spirit “rested upon [the elders] and they prophesied.”
Here’s the part I love: a couple of the elders didn’t make it to the tent for the ceremony. For some reason they had stayed in the main camp with the rest of the 600,000 or so Israelites. Nevertheless, God’s spirit had gone out to them as well causing them to prophesy among the people in the camp even though they hadn’t gone through the formal authorization the others had. Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, said, “Moses, stop them!” Moses responded, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Moses was clear about his role as leader among the Israelites. It wasn’t about him, his status, his ego, his power. His role was to work with God to create circumstances in which God’s people could flourish. His job wasn’t to control the process but to bless, notice, and name God’s spirit wherever and however it shows up.
This Sunday marks both the seventh Sunday of the Easter Season and Memorial Day weekend. The gospel lectionary for this Sunday is John 17:1-11. Jesus has been giving his disciples an extended farewell address following what would be their last supper together. Chapter 17 contains the concluding prayer of Jesus’ farewell address.
My years learning the crafts of preaching and writing have taught me to pay special attention to endings. For example, while I may go off script while preaching the body of a sermon, I always make sure I have a carefully crafted final sentence that will bring my homiletical flights in for a landing. Of all the things one might write or say, folks tend to remember the ending.
Another rhetorical strategy for helping an audience retain information is repetition. In his concluding prayer Jesus repeats the phrase “that they may all be one.” This is the message that Jesus wants to leave his disciples–that he wants to leave us: “that they may all be one.” It also happens to be the motto of the United Church of Christ: That they may all be one.
The UCC motto “That they may all be one” caught my attention while I was a divinity school student. I had left the denomination of my upbringing and was searching for a new church home. While I didn’t know a lot about the UCC, I thought Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, his dream for the world, was a great foundation upon which to build my faith, my vocation, my career.
Over the past 20+ years I’ve learned a few things about the prayer that they may all be one. The most important is this: on the most fundamental level of reality, the level that is beyond human comprehension, we are always already one. In other words, Jesus’ prayer is less an expression of a goal he wants us to achieve and more a description of a reality he wants us to wake up to.
Buddhists use the metaphor of waves and the ocean to explain the confusion we experience around unity and separation. Like waves each one of us is a manifestation of the movement of the great ocean. We are never at any moment not a part of the ocean. In fact, waves are the ocean. We are one with God. We are one with each other. At all times. What affects the ocean affects the waves. What affects the waves affects the ocean. It would be ridiculous for a wave to say, “I am not the ocean,” or for a wave to say to another wave, “You have nothing to do with me.” Yet, that is how we humans too often behave. We act as if an injury to one has nothing to do with us. We wallow in self-pity thinking we are bereft and alone. We become envious or annoyed with others thinking their words or behavior are somehow personally directed at us when more often than not, they are just rolling along, manifesting as one small crest on this great, ever active womb of life.