What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-26-21
The theme for the First Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Keep Awake.” On one level this sentence contains a contradiction. How can those who keep awake dream? We know that dreams happen when we’re sleeping. That was assumed to be the case in many of the dream stories we studied throughout the fall. In the cases of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, the Bible tells us that their dream messages from God disturbed their sleep, which motivated them to seek an interpretation from Joseph and Daniel respectively. In what sense do those who dream keep awake?
Those who dream keep awake by keeping their eyes open and their hearts attuned to what God is doing in the world. Our Scripture text for Sunday is Mark 13. Scholars call it the “little apocalypse.” It is a sermon by Jesus that he gives to his disciples during his final days on earth. He gives them instructions on how his followers can live faithfully in the midst of upheaval. “Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “revelation.” Jesus is giving his disciples a “peek behind the curtain” so that they can see that God is active in the world even when circumstances are difficult. When we see through the eyes of faith even difficult circumstances can be a source of hope because they reveal more clearly God’s actions on our behalf.
I enjoy watching “post-apocalyptic” movies. This is a genre of movies in which some great cataclysm has taken place. Survivors are confronted with the challenges and perils of creating new ways of living in the face of greatly altered circumstances. My daughter, Olivia, is a film student. Last year she and I were talking about post-apocalyptic movies. We noted that one of the common apocalyptic scenarios is global pandemic to which I responded, “We don’t have to wonder about what living through an apocalypse would be like anymore. We’re living it!” It’s no surprise to me that real life apocalypses are much more mundane than movie apocalypses.
In his apocalyptic sermon Jesus encourages his disciples to “keep awake.” This means cultivating awareness of what God is up to and to keep focused on what is truly important in life. Last Sunday after our Thanksgiving worship a group of volunteers decorated the church for Advent. A church member and I found ourselves chatting and setting up an artificial Christmas tree in Cook Hall. He said to me, “I’m so grateful for being alive and that we can be together, but I forget to be thankful. That’s why I need worship so I can remember what is truly important.”
Though theology can be incredibly complex and subtle, thought the language of faith can at times sounds strange and unfamiliar, the practice of keeping awake is very simple: gathering in person or online for worship, taking time daily for prayer and meditation, again and again giving ourselves whole-heartedly to just this moment: just chopping the carrots, just washing the dishes, just talking with friends, just watching the birds at the feeder, just this grief, just this joy, just this loneliness, just this one precious life.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-19-21
This week I had the honor of being interviewed by Rev. Dr. Jim Latimer for his “Wisdom from the Field” podcast. We covered four topics: 1) Why I use “Transition” in my title, 2) Shifting from a white dominant ministry model to a multi-ethnic one, 3) Know your options for a future with hope, 4) Walking with a congregation through the decision to sell their building.
It was a lot of fun working with Jim. Last week we did an hour-long “pre-interview interview” to get a sense of the topics we wanted to cover and how to focus them. The actual interview was done over Zoom in four 10-15 minute segments, which Jim will produce and make available on his Website www.coachingforinterims.com. I look forward to hearing how they turned out.
I love talking about ministry, congregations, transitions, social justice, and everything God is up to in and among us, so you can imagine it was a pretty high energy conversation. I’ll let you know when the podcast is available.
Also last week I led an in person and online “Zen for Christians” meditation class at First Church in Windsor. We had seven in person attenders and 170 online. We’re talking about the possibility of making this a regular offering. Zen meditation practice has been a powerful tool for transformation in my life over the past 22 years. I’m happy for the opportunity to make it available to others. Check out First Church in Windsor Facebook page and website for upcoming dates and times.
Additionally, the holidays are upon us. Deacons, Church Council and staff from both First Church and South Church have been planning for safe, meaningful, and memorable celebrations of Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. If you haven’t been to church in a while, now’s a great time to reconnect.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-12-21
There was a lot of First Church related activity last weekend. A group of First Church and South Church members participated in the Habitat for Humanity Faith Build in East Hartford. Anne delCampo and Paula Modine participated in a Granby prayer walk organized by Life Church New England, Serve Team led our monthly food drive, Kerri Krough and Beth Lindsay led our weekly Grab and Go snack pack program, the Steering Committee for Granby Racial Reconciliation (GRR) met in Cook Hall with facilitator Malik Champlain for our first ever retreat, we celebrated a Veterans Day Union Service with South Church, and GUCCI–the steering committee for our collaboration/consolidation project–met to move that process forward. This in addition to all the other ways First Church folks express our Christian faith in our communities. Though choosing can be difficult, I love it when there’s more stuff happening than I personally can participate in. It’s a sign of a vital church.
The GRR retreat was particularly energizing for me. To be honest, I was feeling tired and uninspired about spending Friday evening and Saturday morning doing the difficult work of deconstructing the racial biases and blindspots that continue to affect and infect my attitudes and behavior. It is scary, uncomfortable, unending work. And yet by the end of the retreat I felt like I had witnessed a miracle. Our group of five people of color and six white folks forged even deeper, honest, and more authentic relationships under Mr. Champlain’s leadership. I left feeling energized about what is next for this group.
At First Church we have been through a lot together over the past 2.5 years. Together we have faced grief, disappointments, confusion, a global pandemic, and an uncertain future. We have also witnessed miracles. When I arrived in 2019 I didn’t imagine the level of transformation that would happen in our church and in the Town of Granby. I look forward to seeing what the coming weeks and months will bring.
God of all creation–earth, sky and sea–teach us the way of humility, of “humus,” of earth, soil, and growing things, root us in this very place, nourish us with your boundless love, which meet us in this and every moment. God of every perfect gift, we thank you for your Son Jesus who emptied himself for our sake. Teach us the way of open hands and open hearts. Teach us the way of peace. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11/5/21
Coaching a transition process and change management are two different things. This is one of my big “light bulb” moments from the past two weeks of online professional conferences I’ve been attending as part of my continuing education.
Last week I attended the annual professional conference for the International Coaching Federation (ICF). ICF is the world’s largest credentialing body for professional coaches. Our transition coach, Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg is credentialed through ICF. The coaches facilitating our working groups are ICF credentialed as well.
The difference between change management and coaching is who is in the driver’s seat. Change management operates under the assumptions of hierarchical business and organizational structures where there’s a boss or a board driving the change. The shepherding is done by the “project manager” who is in charge of designing and executing the process. Change management lends itself well to technical challenges where the problem is fairly well defined and the solution is somewhat familiar. Organizations and projects where roles are clearly defined and leadership has tools to enforce compliance (through, for example, a paycheck) are served well by a change management process. In change management the boss or board hands over the keys to the change manager who takes the organization from a clearly defined point A to the desired destination point B.
The example that was used in the change management seminar I attended had to do with a business shifting from a traditional office-with-doors workspace environment to a more modern open concept workspace. A complicated shift, for sure, but very different from trying to consolidate two centuries old churches.
In coaching, the “client” is in the driver’s seat, not the coach. Often the client is facing an adaptive challenge, which means that first we have to define what, precisely, the problem is. This is an awareness building process that leads to an “aha” moment in which the “problem” is identified and a range of possible solutions brainstormed. Using the tools of powerful questions, artful language, and deep listening the client identifies resources, accountability structures, and paths forward as new possibilities arise. There’s no need to get “buy-in” because the solution comes from the client themselves. Shifting metaphors: the coach acts as a midwife to bring the new life out into the world; however, it’s the client’s “baby,” and they have to do the “labor.”
Our transition process has primarily relied on the coaching model because it is most appropriate for the type of organization we are working with and because of the type of challenge we are facing. There have been some elements of change management, which may have led to confusion for folks more familiar with the change management approach. The coaching model is challenging because it invites the client to do the difficult work of transformation. The coaching model is the appropriate model because when it comes to personal or organizational transformation, no one can do the work for you.
Holy God, your Scripture points beyond conventional understandings to the heart of the matter. Who is rich? Who is poor? How is it that your abundant life is often so apparent among those who have relatively little and so hard to find among those who have so much? And who are we? Rich or poor? Like the widow who “put in everything she had,” teach us to step past conventional understandings of poverty and wealth into the limitless provision of your boundless love. Amen.
(Note: Normally my sermon manuscripts are a jumping off point for the sermon itself. The words spoken don’t always match the words on the page. Last Sunday, however, the following is more or less what I said.)
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon Series: Dreaming Together (in the Circle of Blessing)
17 October 2021
Text: 1 Kings 3:1-15
My wife, Nicole, and I signed the mortgage on our first house while she was in labor with our first child, Fiona. Looking back, it’s tough to recall the mix of excitement, stress, and exhaustion that I know we felt when we brought our newborn home. I will never forget the gut-wrenching fear and shame I felt when after a routine infant wellness check we found out that our perfect daughter had tested positive for lead poisoning. After the initial shock, we immediately mobilized all of our resources to locate the source of the lead in our house and remove it. We figured out that the old woodframe windows, which had been painted with lead paint, were the culprit. We did not have the money to replace all of the windows in our house, so my mom–who worked as a hospice chaplain–somehow found the space in her budget to loan us the cash. Within a month or so of our remediation efforts Fiona’s lead levels began slowly to go down. The doctor was hopeful that we had caught it in time to avoid any lasting effects.
I’m happy to say that today Fiona is a successful software engineer living in California. She’s healthy, happy, and strong. Thank goodness that the State of Illinois had mandatory lead testing for infants. Thank goodness we had access to resources to protect our child. Because when your house is poisoning your child, you don’t say, “Someone else put lead paint on those windows. It’s not my responsibility.” When the cost for protecting your child seems beyond your reach, you don’t say, “It’s too expensive. I’m not going to fix it.” No. When there’s poison in your house you move heaven and earth to protect your child. Period. Our churches are like a house with lead paint in them. That lead paint is systemic racism. We didn’t put it there, but it’s our house now and it’s our responsibility to fix it.
The First Church South Church collaborative theme for this fall is Dreaming Together in the Circle of Blessing. Dreaming together has to do with our work to bring our two churches together to create a new UCC presence in Granby–one that is vital and healthy and strong. The Circle of Blessing is taken from South Church’s stewardship theme for the fall which draws on Native American cultures to teach about generosity. Whatever we imagine the circle of blessing to be, my guess is that deep down all of us long to stand in it; however, the Bible teaches us that before we can stand in a circle of blessing we need to reconcile with our neighbor. Unacknowledged, unresolved harm poisons our relationships; therefore, before we can reconcile with others we need to acknowledge harm, repent, and repair. All of this requires a “listening heart.” Our Scripture this morning tells us that God came to King Solomon in a dream. God said God would give Solomon whatever he wanted. Solomon wisely prayed for a “listening heart.” I’m going to invite us to listen with our hearts this morning to the story of Native American Boarding Schools in the U.S.
The past weeks have offered us as Christians several opportunities to uncover our history of racial harm here in the U.S. September 30 was the National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools. Perhaps some of you heard in the news recently about the hundreds of Native American children buried in mass graves on the property of boarding schools operated by Christain churches in Canada. You may or may not be surprised to learn that churches operated Native American boarding schools in the U.S. as well. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Center has a Website that documents the traumatic legacy of Native American Boarding Schools including a list of those Christian denominations that operated them. The Congregational Church operated three boarding schools with a total of 14,476 students. What were Indian Boarding Schools like?
“Kill the Indian, save the man”: This was the policy of Native American boarding schools, articulated memorably by Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first school known as the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. From 1879 to the 1970s 376 schools in locations around the U.S. took Native children as young as 4 or 5 years old from their homes. Once at the school, their hair was cut, they were made to wear European style clothing, and they were prohibited from speaking their native language. At first the schools were located on reservations. When native children started fleeing the schools en masse, the schools were relocated far away from reservation land. Because of the cost of travel and the poverty of indigenous families, most children rarely, if ever, saw their families again. When the children did return they could no longer speak with or relate to their families.
At the schools native children experienced malnourishment and abuse. Many died. They operated like labor camps. Native families resisted the taking of their children. They taught their kids to play “the hiding game” whenever the people from the boarding schools came around. In one particularly haunting story, a group of Hopi men in Arizona surrendered themselves to be imprisoned in Alcatraz in exchange for saving their children from boarding school. The native families had little choice but to send their kids, but many still found ways to resist. This is just one example of the Congregational church’s problematic history with race in this country. It might feel better for us to ignore these and other difficult pieces of our history, but until we do, we will never be able to take our place in the circle of blessing.
Indian boarding schools were the result of the systemic racism that is built into the very foundations of this country. It’s my understanding that First Church and South Church are considering coming together to create something new. Both churches are going through a process of looking at what is and what was in order to imagine what might yet be. We are taking down the drywall, looking at the studs, scraping back layers of attitudes, assumptions, and traditions to get to essence, the firm foundation of what it means to be a church so that the new thing can be a safe, life-giving space where all can thrive.
Now is a great opportunity to lay a new anti-racist foundation for our congregations’ future. When there’s poison in your house, you do whatever you can to fix it. Racism is a poison in America. Our congregations are not immune from its effects. Now is the time to acknowledge the harm, repent, and begin the work of repair. It will cost us our comfort. It will cost us time and effort and resources. With God’s help we can do this. Like Solomon of old with a listening heart and hands willing to do the difficult work of healing we will one day find our place in the circle of blessing.
Holy God, we deal with powers beyond our comprehension. Algorithms shape our preferences. The ebb and flow of international finance affects our economic well being. Time and chance determine our social location. Changing weather patterns can damage our lives, livelihoods, and shelter in a matter of hours. A global pandemic can alter our habits and harm our health. In the face of these faceless powers we turn to you timeless creator, boundless benefactor, source of all that is. We entrust our lives to your abundant provision and matchless wisdom. Amen.