What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-15-20

My Cadets merit badge sash circa 1980-something

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-15-20

Every Wednesday evening from third grade through eighth grade I would put on my uniform–including the merit badge sash, which I was very proud of–go to church, line up in the “Fellowship Hall” with the other boys according to our grades, and go through the opening exercises of “Cadets,” my church’s more Jesus-y version of Boy Scouts. 

The opening exercises included reciting the Cadet’s Pledge, singing the Cadet’s Song (“Living for Jesus”), and reciting the Cadet’s Scripture verse, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).” I liked Cadets. I liked earning the different merit badges for knot tying, wood working, electronics, etc. Of course there was a “Bible” merit badge. One of the things I had to do to earn it was memorize the names of the books of the Bible in order–a helpful skill that I use to this day! I liked the campouts, the fundraising, cameraderie, and I’m grateful to the men who gave their time and resources to mentor young boys like me. 

I thought of Cadets when reading the Gospel lectionary for the sixth Sunday of Easter. John 14:15-21 continues Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” which we began studying last Sunday. It’s the Gospel of John’s version of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples before his crucifixion. We study texts like this during the Easter Season to prepare ourselves–as Jesus prepared his followers–to be Christ’s hands and heart for the world. The historical Jesus is a memory. The living Christ is you and I. Contrary to popular belief, loving Jesus is not primarily an emotion. Emotions come and go. Loving Jesus is an action. More importantly, it’s a repeated action. We call repeated action directed toward the object of devotion “spiritual practice.” Worship is spiritual practice, cleaning the kitchen–if it’s done with an awareness of Christ’s presence–can be spiritual practice, donating to the food pantry is spiritual practice, walking the dog can be spiritual practice. 

Mother Teresa famously said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Whatever we do–if we do it as Christ’s hands and heart–has the potential to bring us deeper into communion with God and all of life. This is loving Jesus. This is keeping his commandments.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-3-30

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-3-20

It’s week two of the stay at home order for the State of Connecticut. I’m sitting on the three season porch where I’ve spent the day in Zoom meetings. Late this afternoon I spent an hour on what has been a four year project of cleaning up our overgrown backyard. Otherwise these four walls have defined the limits of my physical movements. Spiritually, I’ve been preparing for Palm Sunday.

When I was a kid, Palm Sunday was the warm up for Easter. I remember lining up before worship in the Narthex with dozens of other kids waiting to receive my palm branch. When the congregation stood and the organ played the introduction to “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” our Sunday school teachers led us in a palm parade down the center aisle. The celebration was loud, grand, and performed with a packed house. It felt like the time my daughter’s fifth grade team won the Downeast Maine girls basketball tournament. Following the championship game the town firetruck led a parade down Main Street. Folks lined frigid streets, dark already at 4pm, to cheer the victors. There’s nothing so grand as supporting the winning team. And there’s nothing so innocent and blissful as children leading the parade.

I love the blissful innocence of the children’s Palm parade. But I can’t shake the heartbreaking irony of the Palm Sunday story. The same cheering crowds would be calling for Jesus’ crucifixion just days later. So if the Palm Sunday story is the story of Jesus’ “Truimphal Entry” into Jerusalem, the lesson seems to be that, at least in human terms, utter defeat can follow closely on triumph’s heels. But if we sit with the story for a while–for me that “while” is closing in on 50 years–we might widen our view and consider the possibility that God’s activity to redeem humanity extends beyond our conventional, self-centered definitions of triumph and defeat.

In this time of global pandemic the range of human potential is being put on display much the way it was that holy week when Jesus made his final journey to Jerusalem. We bear witness to heroic doctors, nurses, caregivers, healthworkers, and first responders putting their lives on the line for the sake of others. We notice common kindnesses among neighbors. Many of us are making an extra effort to connect, to help, and to encourage. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, we also witness humanity’s less attractive tendencies: the tendencies of politicans to posture, the tendencies of rich people to use their privilege to serve themselves, and the tendencies of rest of us common folks to hoard toilet paper and Lysol wipes. 

Our job as Christians approaching Palm Sunday is to widen our view and to deepen our understanding: to cheer with the children, to let our hearts break as we recognize ourselves in the crowds that so quickly turned on Jesus once they figured out he wasn’t bringing the conventional, human triumph they expected, and to step beyond our limited ideas about triumph and defeat into the boundless, redeeming love of God. 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-13-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-13-20

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the third week of Lent! We’re haflway through our season of fasting and prayer that ends Easter Sunday! How’s your practice been going? Last Sunday Connecticut shifted to Daylight Savings Time, so now when I get up for my 35 minutes of meditation-prayer, it’s not only quiet but also dark in the house. The pets scamper and wag until I fill their bowls with breakfast. Then I sit on my cushion while morning light slowly fills the sunporch. It sounds lovely. And it is lovely. But while the universe simply does it’s thing without anxiety or self-centered thought, I’m faced with my racing mind. I rehearse conversations I had the night before: “I should have said this!” I write sermons. I add to my to do list. Part of the value of sitting still in silence is accepting the mess that is my own mind. This is important because accepting my own mess is the first step in taking responsibility for it. 

While I sit as still as possible I bring my attention to the breath. (Remember: “breath” and “spirit” are the same word in the Bible’s original languages!) My mind inevitably scampers away like a puppy that isn’t yet housebroken, but that’s OK. Puppies scamper. Minds wander. That’s just the nature of puppies and minds. Nevertheless, eventually attention returns to the breath. The longer I remain still, the longer attention remains on the breath. Mind stills. The puppy settles down. I notice a clear, calm space near my heart center. Not everything’s a mess after all. A pure, unchanging oasis exists. I can access it. And so can you.

When my youngest daughter, Olivia, was old enough, Nicole and I invited her to take responsibility for tidying up her own bedroom. Mostly this meant putting her toys in the toybox and books on the bookshelf. Nicole and I did this not because we were trying to be mean, horrible parents, but because we believed (and still believe) that learning to take responsibility for your own mess is a key piece of becoming a mature adult. Nevertheless, Olivia spent hours sitting in the middle of her mess screaming and crying and yelling, “I can’t do it, daddy.” Hoping that Nicole or I would relent and clean up her mess for her. It was tempting. Who wants to listen to a child scream for hours on end? 

Instead, I would sit with her in her mess, point to a toy, and say, “Pick up that toy and put it in the box.” When she was truly and finally convinced that I would not clean up her mess for her, Olivia might venture to put a toy in the toybox. Then I’d point to another and repeat the process. It was excruciating and time consuming. No doubt it would have been quicker for me to clean her room for her. But I loved her, and I wanted her to grow into an adult that could take care of herself, so I persisted.

Our Scripture for this coming Sunday comes from Exodus 17. It is one of many “complaint” stories from the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Compared to the reliably brutal structure of Egyptian slavery, freedom in the wilderness was messy and anxiety provoking. The Israelites complained against Moses saying they would rather go back to Egypt than continue through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God’s response to the people’s complaints varied from providing for them to punishing them for their lack of faith.

A key to successful transition is handling anxiety and the resulting complaints. Some complaints express legitimate needs of the community. Even though Olivia was old enough to clean her room, she was not old enough to make her own supper. The need for supper was a legitimate need, so Nicole and I fed her supper, of course. Sometimes, however, complaints arise from emotional or spiritual immaturity. In this case, it is incredibly important for leadership NOT to give in to complaints. Rather, compassionate leadership will equip individuals with the tools to tend to their own mess. Just like each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe space in church by taking responsibility for washing our own hands and managing our own health, each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe emotional space by finding effective ways to manage our own anxiety.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-6-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-6-20

It’s week two of Lent. How is your adventure going? I’m happy to report I’ve been keeping to my discipline of increased daily prayer/meditation time. At the outset I wondered how my body would respond to increased time sitting in formal meditation posture. The biggest issue is that my feet tend to fall asleep. But, so far it hasn’t been a big problem. As I said on Ash Wednesday, the key to Lent for me is picking a discipline that’s doable.

This week’s Scripture is Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come?” I memorized this Psalm as a child. Psalm 121 is one of the most well known psalms–second only to Psalm 23. Like Psalm 23, Psalm 121 speaks of God’s providence. One commentator writes that “this is a song for the anxious and afraid.” In a season of coronavirus and political uncertainty Psalm 121 is a timely text.

Psalm 121 is ancient poetry. One pastor describes poetry as “language for what matters most.” It’s language that speaks from and to that part of our brains that generally operates at the level of dreams, intuition, emotion, and our deepest values. It’s that part of ourselves that we struggled to access in our workshop last month on “What is Your ‘Why?’” Rev. Bamberg, who led the workshop, suggested that a sign we’re operating at the level is when the “tears start to come.” Some of us are more comfortable working at that level of spiritual depth than others, but all of us have the ability to access our deepest selves, and Psalm 121 is tool that can illuminate that space: like a spelunker’s headlamp or the hacker’s “back door” that offers access to the source code.

Our emotional source code was written by many hands: care-givers, parents, teachers, grandparents, siblings, mentors. Our minds weave their words and actions into scripts that play in our heads. Things happen and the scripts play: “You’re a failure,” “This isn’t so bad,” “We’ll be OK,” “The sky is falling!” “When will the other shoe drop.” Some voices are reassuring. Some are fearful and accusing. When for the psalmist voices of fear and accusation arose, she had Psalm 121 as a counter program: “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever more.”

In times of anxiety Fred Rogers’ advice to children was “look for the helpers” because, he said, “if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Ash Wednesday Homily 2020

A woman receives ashes at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Ash Wednesday in New York February 13, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES – Tags: RELIGION ANNIVERSARY) – RTR3DQUC
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Congregational Church of Granby 26 February 2020

Pastor’s Page March 2020

Pastor’s Page March 2020

March brings us to the church season of Lent. Lent is 40 days of spiritual preparation for Easter. The 40 days of Lent correspond to the 40 days of spiritual preparation Jesus did before launching his public ministry. Scripture tells us that Jesus’ spiritual preparation involved 40 days of prayer, fasting, and temptation in the “wilderness.” Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 days and 40 nights of the great flood that was God’s great “do-over” with humanity. It also echoes the Israelites’ 40 years sojourn through the wilderness, which was less about getting to a geographical location called Canaan, and more about shifting spiritual orientation away from a culture of enslavement and toward a culture of freedom.

“Wilderness” is the metaphor author William Bridges uses to describe the time between the ending of an old identity and way of doing things and the beginning of a new identity and way of doing things. In the three phases of transition–ending, neutral zone, new beginning–wilderness is the “neutral zone,” the “in between time.”

We as a congregation are rapidly moving into the neutral zone wilderness. So the timing of Lent is particularly fortuitous this year. It will give us an opportunity to study more closely the dynamics of the neutral zone and develop strategies for gracefully moving through it. 

Many people make spiritual preparation for Easter by taking on a spiritual discipline for Lent. Some give up caffeine or chocolate or alcohol in imitation of Jesus’ fast. I think that’s great. Do what makes sense to you. You might also consider simply making a commitment to worship every Sunday. If you already do that, consider inviting a friend. Wilderness journeys involve risk and discomfort. What do you think it was like for Jesus alone in the desert for 40 days? If inviting a friend feels risky and uncomfortable for you, Lent might be the perfect time to take that adventure. If you’d like some personal coaching around that, see me! I’m happy to help.