What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-24-20
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-24-20
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.Psalm 51:10-12
The end of the year is a time for looking forward and looking back. Before I go any farther, a couple of caveats: 1) I recognize and honor all of the loss, grief, and anxiety of 2020 including the global COVID pandemic, our nation’s racial reckoning, and the ongoing political “civil war” that is tearing at the social fabric; 2) I recognize the longing to “go back to normal”; 3) as far as the future of our church goes, I’ll do my best to support whatever direction the congregation chooses.
That being said it seems highly unlikely that it will be possible to go back to pre-COVID “normal” entirely. Too much has changed. New habits have been formed and will likely continue–like worshipping online and doing meetings on Zoom, for example. Yes, we will resume doing things in person, but we will be connecting online much more than before COVID just because it’s more convenient and actually better suited for certain kinds of interactions. The good news is that we may have unwittingly perfectly positioned ourselves for this moment.
I encourage you to check out the blog post “Five Reasons Why 2021 Should Be Your New Baseline.” The author, Thom Rainer focuses primarily on church metrics (how we measure our ministry), but his suggestion is that churches treat 2021 as a “fresh start.” If 2021 is a year for “fresh starts,” it seems to me that either the “downsize” lane or the “consolidation” lane could offer the opportunity for the freshest of all fresh starts–depending on how it’s done.
I get it. We human beings tend to resist letting go of anything lest we lose something “important.” Wise discernment is necessary for deciding what to leave behind and what to carry forward. But it is also true that an important part of our faith is the opportunity to start again, to lay down our burdens, to let go of the past including all our mistakes and regrets, to receive forgiveness, to get a second chance. As horrible as 2020 was in many respects, 2021 might just present us with an opportunity many people long for: a fresh start.
Vast Insight Surpassing Wisdom
[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. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. 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. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names (in the example below, “Quingrang”), Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters, so Quingrang becomes “Light-Inception Peak.” Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
A monk asked Master Light-Inception Peak: “The Buddha of Vast Insight and Surpassing Wisdom sat in meditation for ten kalpas on Buddha-Way Terrace, but the Buddha-dharma never took shape for him. How is it, in all that time, he never wholly became Buddha-Way’s turning seasons?”
“A question to the point exactly,” replied Light-Inception.
But the monk persisted: “After all that meditation on Buddha-Way Terrace, how is it he never wholly became the Buddha-Way?”
“Because he never became a Buddha.”
Deaf monk sits beneath a dead branch
Half moon hangs in the sky
In Kenosha, Jacob Blake
Lies in hospital, spine severed
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20
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).
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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-24-20
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-24-20
It’s difficult to know what the lessons of the week will be on Monday morning. This is always true. Human beings have a notoriously mixed record in the future-predicting business. Last week was a great example. The first part of the week was what has become “normal schedule.” Monday: get “to do” list from Sue, start at the top with creating Zoom links for the week’s program schedule, write “What’s Up with Pastor Todd,” do the Monday “Daily Devotional,” create staff meeting agenda, write worship for the coming Sunday, and so on.
By Thursday all my plans for the weekend had been blown out of the water. My oldest daughter, Fiona, got a message from her boyfriend, Riku, that his building was under emergency evacuation. Within 30 minutes Fiona and I were driving to Chicago to pick him up and bring him to Connecticut. This circumstance changed meeting plans, worship plans, sleeping and eating plans. What was up with Pastor Todd on Friday was very different from What was up with Pastor Todd on Monday. Here I am today facing yet another Monday and asking, “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?”
I suppose one solution would be to wait until Friday to write my column, but I’ve found it a helpful discipline to begin the week with a self check-in. And the truth is, even in an unusually disrupted week like the last one, parts of what I had written on Monday were still relevant when it came time to preach the following Sunday. My Monday self check-in ended up being a gift to my very different reality seven days later.
There’s a common principle of spiritual practice that encourages us to “be here now.” Mindfulness teaches us to “stay in the present moment.” But I find that this doesn’t exclude looking forward and looking back. Rather, it includes both and gives a stable place from which to reflect on the past and anticipate the future.
Daily Devotional 4-3-20
Can These Bones Live?
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-27-20
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-27-20
Welcome to the fifth week in Lent and the first week of Governor Ned Lamont’s “stay-at-home” order for the State of Connecticut. My wife, Nicole, who is Senior Minister at First Church in Windsor, my two daughters, who were sent home from their respective colleges to do distance learning, and I are learning to share work space in what a couple of weeks ago seemed like a more-than-adquately large house. I’m always glad when we’re together as a family, but the circumstances of this together time are difficult.
One of the difficult moments for me was two weekends ago. My oldest daughter, Fiona, who is a senior at Williams College, was required to leave campus along with almost all of her classmates. The campus is closed because of coronavirus. When the moveout notice came, I felt a mixture of sadness for Fiona–who was very upset to have to say goodbye to her friends, miss her final crew season, and miss all of the other rituals of senior spring–but also some selfish happiness that she would be coming home for a while.
What I wasn’t ready for was the feeling I had helping her pack and move out of her apartment. I suddenly had the realization that I was moving my oldest from college for the last time. Fiona went to boarding school for high school. So the rituals of move-in day and move-home day have been a part of our lives for the past eight years. In the fall, Fiona will be beginning her first full-time job and living on her own in Boston. She will be a full-fledged adult. This was a big moment, but there was no graduation ceremony, no bacclaureate. The family didn’t have time to gather. There were no graduation presents or cake. Also, the weather wasn’t right. In the past, moving our children from their dorms was done in the warm, late spring sunshine. The day I moved Fiona from her campus apartment for the last time was cold and gray.
We will get through this crisis time as a family. We will get through this crisis time as a church. And I’m hopeful, though the behavior of some worries me, that we will make it through this time as a nation. But we are lying to ourselves if we don’t recognize the fear, grief, and loss that many are experiencing. The kind of loss that Fiona and I and the rest of our family is experiencing around senior spring has a name for it: “ambiguous loss.” Ambiguous loss is a term coined by professor and psychotherapist Pauline Boss. Her book is entitled Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.
We experience ambiguous loss when conventional rituals and processes around grief are either unavailable or inadequate. Too often our culture devalues ritual, but things like funerals, graduations, weddings, going-away parties, or simply the chance to say good-bye are hugely important for helping us process grief and helping us heal. When those things aren’t available, grief gets frozen and our emotional and spiritual development gets stuck. A lot of us are going through experiences of ambiguous loss. It’s important that we recognize this and find ways to grieve and to heal.
A way to move through the experience of ambiguous loss is to find other ways of making meaning of the experience. For example, my dad came out as gay in 1991 and died of AIDS in 2012. I am dealing with this ambiguous loss by writing a memoir. How can we find creative ways of making meaning in the midst of global pandemic?
Ezekiel 37 records the prophet’s vision of a “valley of dry bones.” These are the remains of a devastating battle or a devastating disease: dead left unburied, lives left unmemorialized. It’s a terrifying vision of social annihilation. God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds, “O God, you know.” Then God answers God’s question by reconnecting the bones and putting flesh on them. Through God’s power the dismembered corpses are “re-membered” and given new life. The bones in this vision aren’t just the remains of ancient, long-forgotten soldiers. They’re your bones. They’re my bones. In this time when coronavirus has dismantled our expectations and thrown our futures into confusion, can we live? I can’t wait for God’s miraculous answer.