One: Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness. Come into God’s presence with singing.
All: Together will all beings we offer ourselves in worship. What is our true worship? Returning to this very place. Returning to this very moment. Breathing in, we breathe in the Spirit of God. Breathing out we release our worn out stories, our tired regrets, our distracting fantasies.
One: Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God and bless God’s name.
All: For the LORD is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
God of creation, you made us for joy. You don’t want us to hurt forever. We recognize that suffering is a part of life; nevertheless your Scripture tells us that suffering doesn’t define who we are. We are your children and nothing can separate us from your boundless love. We confess that too often we find ourselves stuck in what once was. Instead of dealing courageously with what is, we find ourselves paralyzed by fears of what might be. Create in us a new heart, O God. Teach us how to be open, honest, transparent, and courageous. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
Creator of this beautiful, fragile planet, we recognize that generosity is the fruit of a joyful heart. May our offerings bring joy to us and others. Amen.
One: O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
All: Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
One: There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it. These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand they are filled with good things.
All: I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD.
Holy God, we thank you for the infinite diversity of your creation. We thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to open our hearts to our intimate connection with all things. We confess that too often we live as if we’re on our own. Teach us to trust our neighbors. Teach us to love our neighbors. Teach us how to connect with our community in life-giving, life-changing ways. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God of infinite abundance, we are your children. Moment by moment you offer us far more than we could ask or imagine. Give us a mind attuned to extravagant provision. Amen.
Last week we began exploring the second half of Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock. This section describes 21 models, forms, paradigms for doing church that the authors have observed emerging in the 21st century. There are a lot of unknowns about the church of the 21st century, but one thing Nixon and Estock seem fairly certain of is that the “neighborhood, denominationally-franchised church . . . with a weak local vision and identity” is about to disappear.
As I read through the weird church paradigms, it seems to me that a number of them might be components of a new UCC in Granby: “The Simple Cell,” “The Dinner Party,” “The Soulful Community,” “The Community Enterprise,” “The Pilgrimage,” “The Innovation Lab,” “The Tabernacle,” all might manifest themselves in some way even if they don’t become the dominant or “stand alone” model. The book gives current examples of churches following these models. Which one of these example churches would you like to learn more about?
My hope is that by the end of this process we will land somewhere with some kind of emerging, distinct local identity that new people can connect with. One of the reasons the denominationally-franchised church is headed for extinction is that too often it tries to be everything to everyone and so ends up unable to connect authentically with anyone. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says to a “lukewarm” church “I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:16). Trying not to offend anyone, the church as we have known it has feared being weird.
I’m reminded of our “What’s Your Why?” training. Simon Sinek makes the point that the successful organization connects with the people who already on some level share the organization’s values. That’s why it’s so important as we go through this process to ask “Who is God calling us to reach next?” Rev. Paul Nickerson sometimes calls this person “unchurched Harry and Mary.” All of the weird church paradigms are targeted toward a specific group of people with particular spiritual, emotional, and social needs.
Several years ago Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC Executive Minister for Witness and Justice, preached at a meeting of the newly formed Southern New England Conference UCC. Her text was the story of the Crossing of the Jordan God’s people were nearing the end of their forty year wilderness journey. Looking across the Jordan River, they could see the Promised Land. Like God did at the Red Sea forty years earlier, God had promised to part the waters for them so that they could cross over. But the waters didn’t part until the people at the front of the procession actually stepped into the water. A way opened up where there hadn’t been one before, but only after the people were willing to step out in faith.
Time and again I’ve found that to be true. And I’m finding it to be true now. I’ve had several exciting conversations with community members who are aware of our collaboration efforts and are interested in partnering with our congregations in creating something new. Every day has the potential to give rise to a clearer vision for our new combined future as long as we are willing and brave enough to continue moving forward in faith.
God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of quark and quasar, the Psalmist looked at the vastness of the heavens and wondered at your compassion for mere human beings. Thousands of years later we, too, wonder at the vastness of the universe while we exploit and pollute the Earth. Teach us to love our only home the way you love us. Teach us to treat our fellow beings with care. Free us from greed and fear, which drive our self-destructive behaviors. Teach us to trust in your abundant provision. Amen.
Our transition coach, Claire Bamberg, recommended everyone from First Church and South Church read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock as a resource for envisioning what the new church God is birthing among us as a result of our collaboration might be. In chapter 5, Nixon and Estock write about “shame-based systematic theology” (p. 51), which has been a feature of many Christian churches for centuries. The authors propose a shift away from “shame-based theology” toward an approach to doing church based on love and letting go.
While this may sound a bit abstract mystical, it is not in the least. Some researchers argue that shame is the most powerful force in human psychological, social, and spiritual life. Shame is an emotion. Emotions are made up of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Here I think it’s important to distinguish between what some researchers call “healthy shame” and “toxic” or “chronic” shame. In it’s benign or “healthy” form, shame simply lets us know when we are out of alignment socially. It might be that feeling of “dis-ease” when we enter a room of strangers or that feeling of embarrassment when we make an inappropriate comment. Internally it could arise as a sense that we are not living in alignment with our values.
Healthy shame can prevent us from doing socially harmful things. This is the kind of shame the Prophet Jeremiah writes about: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush” (6:14). For an in depth study see Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattinson.
When Nixon and Estock are writing about “shame-based theology,” they are referring to “toxic” or “chronic” shame. Toxic/chronic shame is the sense that “there is something fundamentally wrong with me.” Whereas guilt is the sense that “I’ve done bad,” toxic shame is the sense that “I am bad.” Author Brene Brown talks about this as the difference between “feeling shame” and “being shamed.” Listen to her podcast “Shame and Accountability.”
When I moved from my church of origin to the “liberal” UCC I thought I was leaving shame-based theology behind. I discovered that we have our own version. Some call it “toxic wokeness” or “cancel culture.” All of it–whether it’s from the “right” or the “left,” conservative or liberal, “blue,” or “orange,” or “green” stages of spiral dynamics (to use Estock and Nixon’s terminology) arises from a deep-seated desire for purity. It’s a belief that there’s something fundamentally wrong with reality and if we could just eliminate it or “them” everything would be “good.” It’s a worry or a sense or a fear that the declaration of Genesis that “God saw all that God had made and behold it was very good,” no longer applies.
Toxic shame is a tool of oppression. In her podcast, Brene Brown quotes author and activist Audre Lorde: “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” A “weird church” won’t abandon working for justice, but it will avoid using the master’s tools to do so.
The vision of a theology oriented toward loving and letting go is grounded in a practice of radical acceptance. It looks more like a “yellow” or “turquoise” stage in spiral dynamics. Loving and letting go means letting go of our dreams of purity and meeting the world as it is. Filled with deep faith in the ongoing goodness of creation, we can meet each moment whether pleasant or unpleasant, each person whether loveable or hateful, each situation whether harmful or healing, with fierce tenderness and longsuffering patience because everything we encounter is woven into the seamless fabric of God’s boundless love.
“Marriage mergers occur when two comparable churches, similar in size and/or health realign with each other under a united vision and new leadership configuration. Marriage mergers in churches are a lot like a marriage of two people coming together as one bringing strengths, and liabilities to the new entity. and like a lot of human marriages churches coming together may have some difficulties, but they can work through them.”
This seems to pretty accurately describe our situation. In this metaphor, as I understand it, the past three years of Union Services and GUCCI meetings and other joint efforts could be described as “dating.”
The vote this coming Sunday is to “get engaged.” No metaphor is perfect. Different folks will have different understandings of what it means to “get engaged.” The important thing to keep in mind is that getting engaged is NOT the same thing as getting married. It’s a commitment that the parties will make whole-hearted and good faith preparations for making public and sacred vows of union.
So engagement is serious, but it doesn’t mean the marriage is a done deal. Even with the best of efforts things can fall apart. That’s OK. There’s no way to know for certain beforehand, but if we proceed with openness and honesty we can walk this journey together and find some blessing in it regardless of the outcome.
My wife, Nicole, and I are both children of divorced parents. We approached our engagement with few illusions. I asked Nicole to marry me Valentine’s Day (I know, so cliche) 1996. She said, “Yes.” Afterward we had a very serious but honest conversation about our expectations for our engagement and anticipated marriage. Nicole said to me, “This means that whatever happens, we do it together.” Fast forward, this year we are getting ready to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
That’s my understanding of the step we as churches are being invited to take. What’s yours?
How marvelous! How wonderful! We gather in your presence, Holy God. We gather in this sanctuary space. We gather in our home spaces. We gather online here in Granby and around the world and in every place and every time you are there. Each cup of coffee, each snowflake, each fur baby, each floorboard, each thing shines with your light. Every smiling face, every salty tear, every broken heart, shines with your glory. Give us eyes to see, minds to perceive, and voices to praise you. Amen.
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.