Leader: O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
People: Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
Leader: I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
People: May my meditation be pleasing to the LORD, for I rejoice in my God.
Holy God, where can we go from your Spirit? Where can we flee from your presence? The advent of your Spirit is this very moment. Our only home is this very place. All that is required to rest in you is simply to rest. Draw our hearts here. Fill our hearts now with this breath and the next. Amen.
This weekend our nation celebrates Memorial Day. In the UCC this weekend also marks “Rural Life Sunday.” Though I grew up working on my grandfather’s dairy farm, much of my ministry has been in cities and suburbs. Up until now. As a town, Granby has a distinct rural flavor that connects to my memories of childhood and my love of the natural world. So we’re celebrating both this Sunday: Memorial Day and Rural Life Sunday. This is a fortunate convergence. It creates an opportunity for important conversations around the role that military service plays in the life of rural communities.
In particular I’m remembering a conversation I had with a student at Narraguagus High School while I was substitute teaching there during the winter of 2008-2009. Here’s the context. It was the Great Recession. My wife, Nicole, and I had taken a call to do a church start in Indiana. Starting with no one, we had managed to gather 25 people in a town hall for weekly worship when the denomination told us that our funding had disappeared in the stock market crash. We suddenly found ourselves without income. Many people don’t realize that there is no unemployment insurance for clergy. The saving grace was that we managed to sell the house we had purchased a year earlier.
We packed everything we could fit into a station wagon and a Pontiac Vibe, put the rest in a storage locker, and drove with our two young children to Milbridge, Maine. Nicole’s grandmother owned a house in Milbridge. She had recently passed away. The house had been emptied of some its contents, but it hadn’t been sold, so we slept on the floor of the master bedroom under a pile of blankets that cold, cold winter while the girls slept in a couple of twin beds. As a part of our church start strategy, we had worked as substitute teachers in Indiana. As a part of our survival strategy, we now worked as substitute teachers in rural Maine.
Not enough people know this, but Maine is the second poorest state in the U.S., it’s poverty rate just below that of Louisiana. And Washington County, Maine, where we spent that winter, is the poorest county in Maine. Like most poverty in the U.S., Maine’s poverty is rural and, therefore, mostly invisible to the wider world. Nicole was already aware of Maine’s rural poverty. Her father grew up in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He escaped poverty by joining the Air Force. He served in Vietnam and returned with PTSD the effects of which ended his life at the age of 52. Grandpa Philip never had the chance to meet any of his grandchildren. Nevertheless, upon returning from Vietnam my future father-in-law earned a college degree and created life for his children in which they would not have to experience the poverty he had as a child.
Generations later, this continues to be the path for poor young people in rural Maine. I’ll never forget the day I was teaching and one of my students came to class with an excitement I hadn’t seen in him before. Usually quiet and sullen in class, words spilled out of his mouth. The other students looked up from their desks to hear the news. He had been accepted into the Air Force. He was getting out of what he and the other boys in class considered a dead-end town. This class had the reputation for being the worst in the school. It was a class consisting only of boys with serious emotional and behavioral problems. There were very limited social services for them. No other teachers would take the class, so I was put in the class as a long term substitute. Celebrating the news of a classmate’s acceptance into the Air Force was a very brief respite from what otherwise was an extremely grim situation.
So this Memorial Day weekend/Rural Life Sunday I want to celebrate the slim ray of hope that military service provides to young people locked in cycles of poverty, particularly the invisible poor people of rural areas who continue to have too few options and little support. And I would like us as Christians to reflect on whether it is just to ask poor people to shoulder a disproportionate burden of sacrifice for freedoms all of us enjoy.
We are beginning our journey together as pastor and congregation. Life has taught me something about beginnings that may seem counterintuitive to some: start with the ending. Another way to say it: begin with the end in mind.
This reminds me of a personal story:
The marriage proposal was a disaster. I went ring shopping over Christmas break. Nicole and I had been dating for three years. Both of us would be graduating from divinity school the following spring. I had the strong sense that decision time was approaching: would we stay together or go our separate ways? I wanted to stay together. I took my younger brother with me to the mall just to do some initial ring pricing. I told Brett that I planned on proposing to Nicole on Valentine’s Day.
So here’s where things went sideways. Valentine’s Day rolls around, and I haven’t quite settled on a ring. No problem. Nicole’s birthday is February 17. I’ll propose to her then. What I didn’t know was that Brett had told my dad my plan to propose on Valentine’s Day. Apparently dad immediately started spreading the news to the whole family.
Valentine’s Day evening, Nicole and I had had supper together and were studying in my studio apartment when the phone begins ringing. It’s dad.
“Congratulations,” he says.
“What are you talking about?” I reply.
“Did she say ‘Yes’?”
I take the phone into the bathroom, the only place with any privacy. I explain the situation: the new plan is to propose in three days, on Nicole’s birthday. But it was too late. The phone kept ringing and ringing as one after another family members called to congratulate me. Finally, Nicole looked up from the book she was reading and asked what was going on.
I apologized. I knelt down next to where she was lying on the folded up futon. I explained the situation. This wasn’t what I had planned, but would she marry me? She said, “Yes.” Then we discussed what that would mean. Both of us were children of divorced parents. Could we realistically promise “‘Til death parts us” knowing how fragile promises can be? And even if our marriage survived the travails of time and change, death stood at the end, the ironclad promise that is the inescapable inheritance of everything that breathes. Together we squarely faced our future. Out of that conversation this private promise arose: “Whatever happens, we do it together.” We started with the end in mind, and out of that end, we fashioned our vow.
Six months later at Church of the Three Crosses Nicole and I promised to “love and sustain” each other “as long as we both shall live.” For the past 22 years we have been faithful to that promise. I’m confident that whatever life brings our way, our promise to face it together will hold.
I realize that this might seem a little disconcerting. But as I said at the beginning, I’ve found that the most powerful bonds are built when we start with the ending. As your Transitional Senior Minister, I begin with the acknowledgment of impermanence. Every one of us is temporary. It is not up to us to decide how much time we will have. It is up to us to decide how we will use the time we’ve been given. As for me, I vow to make the most of it. What will your promise be? I hope that whatever the future brings, we will face it together.
Holy God, teach us your peace that passes understanding. While the world around us burns with conflict and hatred, we take shelter in your boundless love. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to return to you. Amen.
*Prayer of Dedication
We want to be ready, O God, to enter the Holy City, to sit at the banquet table, and to join with all creation in celebrating your salvation. We can’t do that, however, if all we do is take. We give back a portion of all you’ve given hoping that one day we might be at peace. Amen.
Holy God, the one true gift is the gift of life, a gift none of us asked for, yet each of us receives. It is a priceless inheritance: ours to squander by hoarding or multiply by sharing. Makes us multipliers of this most precious life. Amen.
Hi friends! My name is Pastor Todd Grant Yonkman. I’m the new Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Granby. “Transitional,” you say. “What’s that?”
Like many churches across the country FCC Granby is in a process of transition. The way we’ve done things in the past cannot continue to be the way we do things in the future. What we will be is not yet clear. What is clear is that things need to change. Hence, transition.
A transitional minister is a special kind of minister who job it is to lead change.
I love transitional ministry because I love working together with teams of people to create something new. In Scripture God says, “Behold, I do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”
Moment by moment God brings new things to life. What about you? What’s God doing in your life? Can you perceive it? I’d love to hear about the new things God is doing in you, in your family, at you work, in the community. Let me know when we can chat. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe you are in some kind of transition: new job, new house, new kid, new town, newly retired, new diagnosis, new sense of calling in your life. Churches in transition are great places for people in transition. We can support each other both through the excitement of what might be and through the pain of letting go of what was. This is life! This is what it means to be mature, responsible, and loving.