What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20

Nicole, Fiona, and Olivia at Raye’s Mustard ca. 2010??

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20

Founded in 1900, Raye’s Mustard, located in Lubec, ME, is the oldest, continuously operated stoneground mustard producer in North America. My wife, Nicole, grew up on Raye’s mustard, which she introduced me to when we met many years ago. As a family we’ve been to Raye’s Mustard and toured the facility. It’s amazing to me that they can continue to operate as a profitable business using century-old technology. Inside you can see the giant stones that still turn on the old wooden band and pulley system. I’m a mustard fan, and I’m convinced: Raye’s mustard is the best.

Raye’s Mustard was founded just as the Maine sardine industry was taking off. Mustard was used as a preservative in the canning process, which allowed the perishable fish to be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. During WWI, the U.S. government needed a storable source of protein for the troops overseas, so it contracted with Maine sardine producers to provide for the troops. Maine sardines packed in Raye’s mustard were shipped all over the world making the cannery owners rich. Nicole’s great-grandfather was one of those cannery owners. For a time, Lubec, ME was a thriving town. Until the war ended and the sardines were fished out. Today, the sardine canneries are gone. In fact, Washington County, where Lubec is located, is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. But Raye’s Mustard has been able to adapt and survive. 

The Scripture for this coming Sunday is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The parable starts off ordinary enough: someone plants a mustard seed. What would Jesus’ first hearers expect to follow? From the mustard seed a mustard plant grows. Mustard is a garden plant. It isn’t a shrub; it isn’t a tree, despite the attempts of later interpreters to fit Jesus’ words into modern categories that “make sense.” The point of the parable is precisely that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t always “make sense”; it doesn’t always follow the “natural order” of things. Sometimes in the kingdom of heaven you plant a mustard seed that becomes “the greatest of shrubs” and then, miraculously, becomes a tree! 

It’s the difference between incremental change and discontinuous change. We tend to like incremental change. With incremental change the mustard plant follows from the mustard seed. With incremental change one thing follows logically from the next. We can know what to expect. We can imagine we’re in control. The kingdom of heaven isn’t always like that. The kingdom of heaven is often more like discontinuous change. One plants a mustard seed; one gets a tree. We tend not to like discontinuous change. But are there blessings to be found even in discontinuity? We wanted mustard but we got a tree. And what a beautiful tree! The birds of the air have found a home in it, and their song is beautiful. Discontinuous change isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just unexpected. 

The invitation of the parable is to accept the gifts of the kingdom of heaven even if they are unexpected. The collapse of the sardine industry was an economic and environmental disaster brought on by human greed, not divine will. Nevertheless, Raye’s accepted the gifts of the moment, such as they were, adapted, and grew. We find ourselves in a similar moment of disruption, and I can see how we’re adapting and growing: particularly through the Vitality Team and the Tech Team. While no one wants the disruption of a pandemic, the parable of the mustard seed invites us to expect big, unexpected, beneficial things to grow out of what is currently a time of disruption and loss. 

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Setsusho’s Verse: Gateless Gate #6: “World Honored One Twirls a Flower”

[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. 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. Following that is “Setsusho’s” response!]

6: WORLD-HONORED HELD FLOWER

Long ago on Spirit-Vulture Peak, Shākyamuni Buddha, the World-Honored One, held a flower up and revealed it to the sangha. Everyone sat in shadowy silence. Then Mahākāshyapa’s face broke into the faintest smile. The World-Honored-One said: “I possess the perfect dharma of the eye’s treasure-house, the nirvana of mind’s mysterious depths, the true form of formlessness, the subtle mystery of the dharma-gate. Not relying on words and texts, outside teaching and beyond doctrine—I here entrust all that to Mahākāshyapa.”

Hinton, David. No-Gate Gateway (p. 18). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

Setsusho’s Verse
Ant crawls across IKEA carpet where a sleepy monk sits.

Amarylis blooms like juice squirting from peeled orange.

Monk, ant, amarylis.

This truth never fails.

Setsusho’s Verse: Gateless Gate #7 “Joshu’s Wash Your Bowls”

[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. 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. Following that is “Setsusho’s” response! Note: “Visitation-Land” is David Hinton’s poetic rendering of famous Zen Master Joshu’s name.]

7: VISITATION-LAND WASH BOWL

A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “I’ve just arrived here in your thicket-forest monastery, Master. Please show me what you have to reveal.” “Have you eaten your mush?” Land asked. “Yes.” “Hurry then, wash your bowl!” At this, the monk was awakened.

Hinton, David. No-Gate Gateway (p. 20). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

Setsusho’s Verse

Bowl specked with cereal sits in the kitchen.

Monk covered in bunny fuzz sits on the sun porch.

Unhindered.

Who washes?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd? 7-17-20

Lolium temulentum a.k.a. darnel or “false wheat”

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-17-20

Several years ago I traveled to Michigan to visit my extended family. Two of my uncles and several cousins are dairy farmers, so I spent time touring the farms that I grew up working and playing on and learning the latest news. At one point the conversation shifted to organic farming. My uncle shook his head. “Yeah, one of our neighbors is farming organically. It doesn’t look like a farm. It’s full of weeds.” Then he went on to explain the point of genetically modifying certain crops is to reduce the need for pesticides. It was a wonderful education in the tough choices modern farmers have to make in order to survive in an era dominated by global agribusiness. 

Scripture for this Sunday’s joint worship service is a parable of ancient agricultural practice. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is known as “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.” “Tares” is an old-fashioned word for “weeds.” Rev. Moon is preaching a series on agricultural themes in the Bible, which feels appropriate to the rural character of our community. 

The Greek word for “tares” or “weeds” in this text actually refers to a very specific kind of plant: darnel, also known as “false wheat.” A brief Internet search informs me that darnel has been known since ancient times. It looks very similar to the more familiar kind of wheat we use to this day to make our bread, cakes, and all kinds of daily staples. Wheat and darnel are almost indistinguishable as young plants, but the fruit of darnel is black instead of the golden color we’re used to. Darnel has its uses, but the grain can sometimes get infected with a fungus that causes illness in humans. All of this added up to a common problem for ancient farmers–sorting the tiny darnel grains from wheat grains at harvest. I can easily imagine that this would be a maddeningly tedious and prohibitively time consuming task. 

So it’s unsurprising that farmers might ask, “Can we eliminate the darnel plants before they mature? That way we don’t have to sort the grain at harvest.” The answer of the parable is “No. Attempting to eliminate the undesirable darnel endangers the desirable wheat. Leave the sorting for the harvest. At that time, the fruit will make plain what is darnel and what is wheat.”

Our spiritual practice is not like modern monoculture. The goal isn’t to eliminate undesirable feelings, experiences, behaviors, or people. The goal is to observe and transform them. Scripture says, “Sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In other words, the goal isn’t to eliminate sorrow, it’s to fully experience it and watch God transform it through faith into joy.” The goal isn’t to change that annoying person but to observe the annoyance arise in our hearts and ask, “What does this person trigger in me that I’d rather not see in myself?” Watch annoyance transform into wisdom. And so on. Observe and let go. Observe and let go. This process can indeed be tedious, time-consuming, and inefficient, but ultimately, the fruit of this organic practice is nothing other than the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. What’s coming up in your garden?

Worship Resource: Prayer for Independence Sunday

Make us weavers of the social fabric

God of freedom,

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.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-3-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-3-20

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.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-26-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-26-20

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.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-19-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-19-20

“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?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-12-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-12-20

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.