God our creator, Jesus our friend, Christians have awaited your arrival for millenia. We, too, await the day when “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” We long for the New Jerusalem in which you will “wipe every tear from our eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Give us patience in our waiting, resilience in our suffering, and oil in our lamps to keep the light of love burning bright. Amen.
God in heaven, we thank you for saints who show us the way of Jesus. Give us eyes to see the light of your love shining from every corner of your vast world. Give us the ears to hear your call from each bird chirp and breath of wind. Give us hearts to sense your blissful presence even in times of distress. We call on the saints who have gone on before us to inspire courageous action today. Amen.
This week Beth Lindsay, Kerri Crough, and I along with a couple others from the Vitality Team visited Life Church New England to learn about their partnership with Food Share. Food Share provides low cost food to partner organizations that serve as distribution sites to food insecure people. The Vitality Team has a vision that First Church could serve as one of those sites. The need is great. The mission of the Vitality Team is to grow the church. Food ministry in itself doesn’t necessarily grow the church. But food ministry can provide the context in which a church might grow if the ministry is designed in such a way that it gets us outside the church walls and provides opportunity to build authentic relationships with people who are not yet members of the church.
Clearly this has been the case for Life Church. Volunteers take the time to get to know clients, pray with them if that’s appropriate, and otherwise walk with them as the hands and heart of Jesus in their lives. Volunteers also invite their friends and neighbors who aren’t food insecure to join them in this ministry. In this way Food Share not only meets the real needs of hurting people but also provides another “entry point” for people who may not have food needs but who may have spiritual needs like needs for purpose, meaning, and community.
Not only am I excited about the possibility of reaching new people through a Food Share ministry but also about building a partnership with Life Church. Vital partnerships are another strategy for building vital ministry–particularly when those partnerships bridge racial, cultural, and theological differences. I’m grateful to Beth and Kerri for finding new ways to lead us beyond our walls.
Holy God, your one law invites us into the infinite complexity of your vast universe. Give us the courage, clarity, and patience to meet each moment as it arises with your boundless love. Open our hearts to each person we encounter as an expression of ultimate worth. Lure us beyond our comfort zones. Stretch us past our fear of heartbreak. Teach us to keep your Great Commandment. Amen.
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names, Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters: “Visitation-Land” a.k.a. Zhaozhou/Joshu. Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
Master Visitation-Land stopped at a shrine-master’s hut and called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
The shrine-master simply held up his fist.
“You can’t anchor a boat in water this shallow,” said Land. Then he left.
Later he returned to the shrine-master’s hut and again called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
Once more the shrine-master simply held up a fist.
“Ah you–you can offer up and steal away, put to death and bring to life,” said Land. Then he bowed reverently.
The news this week of coronavirus’ spread among our top political leaders reminds us that the pandemic is still very much with us. It is unsettling to think of how the virus is compromising the health of the leaders we count on to guide and protect us. While I pray for President Trump and First Lady Melania’s health along with the many White House staff and congressional leaders this outbreak has affected, I am reminded that each of us hold the other’s health in our hands. Compassion demands care. This is not letting the virus “dominate us”–to use the President’s words. This is simply being sensible. Our faith is not about denying reality. We practice our faith by facing reality and then taking wise action to protect the precious lives God has given into our care. I don’t understand why our President and those around him don’t see what is so obvious to me, but this is the difficult, complicated situation we face.
Regarding the difficult, complicated situation we face: I am so proud of our staff both paid and volunteer. I’m proud of our leadership: Church Council, Trustees, Deacons, Tech Team, our program committees (Vitality, Serve, Explore, Connections, Care Team). I am encouraged by the patience and grace I see in all of you. My “star word” this year is “hopefulness.” When I drew that word from the basket during worship that first Sunday in January, I had no idea that global pandemic was in store for 2020. Nevertheless, I find that 10 months into the year I remain hopeful.
My hope is not that everything will be wonderful and pleasant in the coming months. It seems pretty likely that disappointments, difficulties, and dangers will continue to present themselves. The abundant life that Jesus promises to his followers includes disappointments, difficulties, and dangers along with miracles, bliss, and joy. Abundant life embraces everything.
Psalm 23 says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” This is why I’m hopeful: no matter what the coming months and years will bring, God’s goodness and mercy will never abandon me. Neither will they abandon you.
Hi folks! Looking forward to our virtual congregational meeting Tuesday evening, Sept. 22, 7pm. Since the agenda has to do with providing a budget/funding for our Vitality Team, I thought it might be helpful if I offered a little context for the Vitality Team and where we are overall in our transition process.
The Vitality Team was formed last year after First Church sent a group of about 12 people to a Reaching New People workshop at First Church in Windsor. At the workshop the team developed a plan for reaching new people. The Vitality Team was tasked with implementing that plan. The role of the Vitality Team is to create a culture of growth at FCCG. It is NOT the Vitality Team’s responsibility to be the only people in the congregation reaching new people. That is the job of every member of our church. The Vitality Team’s job is to implement the plan and develop new ways for our congregation to invest in people who are not yet members of our church.
Following the Reaching New People workshop we did a workshop with Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg on the church lifecycle. We did a self-assessment of where we are currently in the life-cycle that begins with birth, continues on an upward trajectory toward maturity, and then begins a downward path of decline and eventually death. Somewhere on the decline side of the curve churches pass a sustainability threshold. Our sense at the time was that we were below that threshold. Hence the focus on reaching new people.
In many areas of our society COVID is accelerating trends that were already underway before the pandemic: online shopping, decline of retail, reliance on social media, etc. The same is true in the church world. Many congregations that were already in distress before the pandemic are closing their doors. The pre-pandemic trend with FCCG was preparing to step outside our walls and engage our community. I’m glad to say that the pandemic has only accelerated that process. The Vitality Team is leading the charge in getting outside our walls. The future of our congregation lies with people who are not yet members of our church. This is true regardless of what happens in our conversations with South Church. Though COVID presents a challenge to new engagement, together we are planting seeds for future growth.
Holy God, clearly you love stories. Thank you for the teaching stories lovingly curated and handed down to us in Scripture. Teach us to find ourselves in Jesus’ stories. Open our hearts to their disruptive and freeing power. Open our eyes to suffering. Reach us at a gut level that compels us to respond with compassion. Amen.
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names, Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters: “Lucid-Black.” Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
Lucid-Black asked Master Twofold Mountain: “I am perfectly alone now, perfectly impoverished. I’m an alms-beggar here. Won’t you please grant me the sustenance of your teaching?”
“You are Lucid-Black, acharya, great dharma-sage!” Twofold-Mountain called out in response.
“Yes, replied Lucid-Black.
“You’ve savored three cups of clear wine from our ancestral household of green-azure origins. And still you say you haven’t moistened your lips?”
This coming Sunday is known by many names in the church world: Homecoming Sunday, Rally Day, Christian Education Sunday, or–more recently–Faith Formation Sunday. It’s the Sunday in American churches that marks the beginning of the program year, the return of children to school, the return of families from summer vacation, the fall season of sports, holidays, harvest.
I’m not sure which of the terms for this coming Sunday I prefer. The UCC, our denomination, calls it Faith Formation Sunday now, so I’ll go with that. In any case, Faith Formation Sunday 2020 is unlike any other I’ve planned and led in my entire career. Kids are going back to school–sort of. Many of our young ones are on a “hybrid schedule,” which means both days distance learning at home and days in the classroom. My college-age daughter, who should be in Los Angeles right now, spends her class time sitting in front of her laptop on our three season porch here in Windsor, CT.
At First Congregational Church of Granby this Sunday marks the next stage in our gradual reopen process. We are inviting the public to pre-register online to observe the worship livestream in person in the Sanctuary. COVID protocols will be followed to ensure that everyone who chooses to be together in person can do so safely. Last Sunday we successfully celebrated our second outdoor in person worship service. I’m grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make it possible to be together safely. It was moving to see the faces of friends again.
Confirmation class, which was disrupted by the pandemic, will resume on Zoom this Sunday. I will be working together with the Explore Team to figure out our programming for the young ones. I don’t know about you, but I have moments when all of this feels very difficult, stressful, and depressing, but I’ve noticed that those moments, like all moments, pass, and a new thought, feeling, or experience arises. Remaining spiritually grounded through the changes gives me the energy I need to forge ahead.
Last Sunday after worshipping outside under the trees, feeling the breeze on my skin, seeing the sun above and familiar faces around me, I realized that the sadness I had been carrying with me was gone. In its place was joy. This experience reminds me of a favorite song, one I’ve shared before: Richard Smallwood’s “The Center of My Joy.” I leave you with links to a couple of versions: one from the composer himself, and another . . . well, check it out for yourself.