What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-9-19
Yesterday eight folks from First Congregational Church of Granby grabbed some sandwiches after worship, put on our winter boots, and stepped out into a cold, bright, sunshiny afternoon to sing Christmas carols in our neighborhood. It was fun!
Neighborhood caroling is a new activity we developed out of our Vitality Team. Team members are Ann Wilhelm, Heather Dobbert, Beth Lindsay, and Anne delCampo. Other supporters are Chris and Vicki Saunders, Aurelle Locke, and Kerri Crough. Our singers yesterday were Ann Wilhelm, Bob and Peg Giles, Chris and Vicki Saunders, Catherine Kibby, and Duncan Rowles.
Just to review: the Vitality Team is a part of the Reaching New People plan that a group of us from FCC developed at the Reaching New People workshop with Rev. Paul Nickerson last September. Since that time, the folks who participated in that workshop have been meeting via conference call every other month to implement the plan we developed. The role of the Vitality Team is to continue implementing the plan and to create a culture of invitation in the congregation. Neighborhood caroling was a joyful event that got us out of our building and got us inviting our neighbors to church for holiday worship and activities.
We visited 20 houses because that’s how many goody bags we had. Aurelle and Vicki very lovingly prepared them. I was the doorbell ringer. Then we gathered together, sang a few carols, and handed whoever answered the door a goody bag filled with cookies and our advent brochure. Some people did not answer the door, so we sang carols and simply left the goody bag inside the storm door or hanging on the doorknob. Those of us who took this adventure have lots of stories to tell. I hope you will ask the singers how it went.
At one house we went to, the homeowner stood in his doorway. He had tears in his eyes. We sang, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I handed him a goody bag. As we were leaving, the homeowner said, “I’ve never experienced anything like this. Thank you so much.” I felt the joy in those tears. Many years ago, Christian author C. S. Lewis, wrote a book called Surprised by Joy. Joy is the surprise of connection. Joy is the theme of the 3rd Sunday of Advent. Joy may be closer than you think. It might be waiting for you next door in a compassionate connection with a neighbor.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-5-19
I’m swamped. The theme for the Second Sunday of Advent is peace, but how does one cultivate peace in the midst of chaos, conflict, and the everyday pressures of a to-do list that only gets longer? This is not a rhetorical question. Let me know!
Too often in popular culture peace tends toward the kitschy and clichéd: quiet woods, sandy beaches, laughing children, sleeping puppies, lamp-lit snow-covered villages. Bourgeois fantasies of escape tinged by nostalgia. Those aren’t particularly Biblical images of peace, thank God. While I love a walk in the woods or on a beach as much as the next person, I need peace when I’m sitting in front of my laptop or in a meeting with leadership.
The prophet Isaiah writes, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah then goes on to describe a divine king who will “with righteousness judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” This king’s power will be such that it extends beyond the human sphere to bring an end to violence among animals and between animals and humans.
Peace begins with a stump and a shoot. What made the stump? In the context of Isaiah, the stump is an image of the Davidic lineage cut down by exile. This suggests to me that peace is an expression of a life force that the devastating violence of human empire will never be able to eradicate.
Nicole and I bought our current house on short sale. The backyard was overgrown with trees of all kinds. The health of our backyard mini-forest required that we thin the trees, so we had a bunch of the smaller ones cut down. The next spring, of course, the stumps started sending up new shoots. So I rented a chainsaw and a stump grinder and ground the stumps below the soil line. Even after that, many of the ground down stumps continued to send up shoots. So I dug around the stumps and cut them out by the roots. Oh my goodness, so much work. Peace is a stubborn pain in the ass!
Isaiah concludes his vision of peace with another powerful image: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Biblical peace isn’t primarily a sandy beach or a snowy woods. It’s the bone deep knowledge that you, I, and the entire universe, no matter what devastation we may face can be cut off from life in God.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-25-19
A print of bricolage artwork that hangs on the wall of my church office speaks to my understanding of hope. It shows two sparrows with twigs in their beaks flying above a jumble of houses and buildings, some tipped over. The landscape is jagged clump of fragments above which float fluffy green-gray clouds and an orange sun that looks a bit like a basketball. (I don’t know what the weird, brown, rock-looking things in the sky are. Giant meteors?) It’s not a particularly attractive piece. I bought it primarily for the quotation at the top: “. . . We are not in the least afraid of ruins . . . We carry a new world here in our hearts . . . .”
The quote is from Buenaventura Durruti. I didn’t know who Durruti was when I purchased the print from a funky little craft store in downtown Providence. At the time I was pastoring a dying congregation through a major transition, and the words along with the image resonated with me. The congregation knew that things were falling apart. They saw all the empty pews every Sunday. And they were afraid. Their fear, however, just made things worse. The more they tried to control the situation, the faster things deteriorated. Part of my job was to help the congregation calm down, step back, and accept that things would never be the way they were. The spiritual practice of simply sitting in the ruins of what once was creates a space in which a new world can arise. Later I learned that Durruti died fighting Facists during the Spanish Civil War. Key to Durruti’s struggle for a more just world was the ability to courageously face the ruins while carrying a new world in his heart.
The sparrows in the bricolage remind me of Jesus’ teachings on fear. In the Gospel of Matthew he says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father . . . So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (10:29, 31). Durruti also found courage in Jesus’ words, specifically the promise that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Durruti could face the ruins because he trusted the promises.
Once in a while as I work with a church in transition a member uncomfortable with change will say, “You are ruining my church.” That is 100% untrue. All I am doing is facing the falling apart that is already underway and inviting others to do the same. Why? Because I am committed to living not some fantasy world where nothing ever changes but in the reality that a new world is possible if we get out of the way long enough to let God bring it forth.
A new world is absolutely possible. It can’t be controlled. It can’t be manufactured. It emerges on it’s own timetable and in it’s own form. Our job as Christians is to observe and nurture it. That is difficult to do if we allow either despair or anxiety to take over.
Hope is the theme for the first Sunday in Advent. The difference between Biblical hope and false hope is that Biblical hope courageously faces the impermance of every human endeavor. There are always ruins to face because always somewhere something is falling apart. Biblical hope as opposed to false hope trusts not humanity’s ability to create the world we long for but in God’s ability to keep God’s promises and our ability to cooperate with God’s work in our world. In the immortal words of songwriter Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Maybe your new world isn’t in some far off place at some far off time. What if it’s shining through the ruins right now? Will you notice it? Will you nurture it? Will you, even now, celebrate the abundance to come?
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-21-19
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27).
Recently my wife’s aunt Susan shipped her a set of family silver table settings and a set of family China. My wife, Nicole, and I have been hosting Thanksgiving for family and friends since we started dating 26 years ago. And as we’ve moved around the country, our extended family have made it a priority to travel any distance to be a part of the celebration. This year the family will be joining us to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family silver and China.
The China has been passed down from Nicole’s grandparents. Burleigh Crane and Dorothy Warren had set their wedding date for the summer of 1942 when Burleigh was called up for active duty in the U.S. Army. The wedding date was moved up to February. After the wedding Burleigh was deployed to Italy as an artillery commander. Upon his return in 1945 Burleigh and Dot settled into their home in Milbridge, Maine where they would live for the next 60 years. They raised two children and were fixtures in the community. At their wedding they received two sets of China. They used one. The other was never opened. They stored it in the attic where it remained for over 75 years. Until this year. Next week the family will gather for Thanksgiving to use Dot and Burleigh’s China set for the first time.
A couple weeks ago, Nicole and I talked with Aunt “Sue-sue,” as she is known, about our Thanksgiving plans. Susan wept as she talked about how meaningful it was to pass something of the family legacy on knowing that it will be used to celebrate the rituals of gathering together and giving thanks.
This year the gospel lectionary for Thanksgiving is John 6:25-35. In this text Jesus unfolds a complicated metaphor around food. Backstory: Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish and then left to sail across the Sea of Galilee. The crowds, amazed by Jesus’ miracle and wondering if there was more where that came from, followed Jesus and his disciples across the sea and caught up to him in the town of Capernaum. When the approach Jesus, he says, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
What is the food that endures to eternal life? In the context of the Gospel of John, this “food” is faith. For Nicole and me, our commitment to giving thanks, gathering family, and honoring legacy arises out of the faith that was passed on to us, a faith that sustains us day to day, moment to moment through scarcity and abundance. Let’s face it: family can be a real pain in the ass. Traveling long distances to attend family gatherings can be difficult and even dangerous at times. There are family conflicts, losses, absences, and griefs. There are times when we set our own preferences and agendas aside for the good of the group. There are some days when the sacrifice doesn’t appear to be mutual. Faith means looking beyond the moment to what endures.
All of us–Nicole, Aunt Sue-Sue, me, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, and the rest–are looking forward to feasting on brined turkey, mashed potatoes, squash au gratin, roast vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce, gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, pies, ice cream, carrot cake, and Nicole’s famous espresso-and-Grand Marnier-infused chocolate mousse for dessert all served on the family China. Left-overs will keep us fat and happy for another week or two. But the food that endures is faith, love, and a legacy of gathering to give thanks.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-11-19
I’m sitting in one of the living-rooms-turned-into-conference-rooms of the Edwards House Retreat and Conference Center in Framingham, MA. Edwards House is a giant farm house situated on several acres that serves both as the (now former) Massachusetts Conference UCC headquarters and–as the name would imply–a site for conferences, retreats, meetings and other types of church-related gatherings.
I’m here for a week-long training in leadership coaching. This is the second part of a Lilly Endowment funded program to train an ecumenical group of clergy–who were selected through an application process–in the theory and practice of coaching groups and individuals for the purposes of raising awareness, clarifying values, and maximizing effectiveness.
Coaching is NOT therapy. It is not spiritual direction or pastoral counselling. It is a way of working with people through deep listening, artful language, and powerful questions that is designed to produce real world, life-changing results.
Coaches work with pastors, lay leaders, congregations, non-profit and for-profit organizations, managers, “C-suite” executives, parents, teachers, and leaders of all types. The idea behind training clergy in leadership coaching is that clergy can, in turn, coach their staff, volunteer leaders, and teams. Coaching is a leadership style that brings out the best in individuals and groups.
I have greatly benefitted from working with a number of coaches over my 20 years of ministry. If it weren’t for the coaches who have encouraged me and helped me grow as a leader, I probably wouldn’t be in ministry today. I’m glad for this opportunity to give back. Once we’re certified, those of us who are being trained are required to donate 50 hours of coaching to churches, teams, and/or individual leaders of the Southern New England Conference UCC.
My training requires that I log 500 hours of coaching for certification. If you are interested in a sample coaching session, email me at email@example.com to learn more.