God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, you call us to leave behind the familiar and venture into the unknown. You called our ancestor Abraham to leave his home and family in Ur and follow your call to a land that his descendants would inherit. Generations later one of those descendants named Jesus would leave the safety of his father’s carpenter shop to lead a movement that would challenge the authority of Rome. Like his ancestor Abraham, Jesus dreamed God’s dream of peace and justice for all. Give us a new dream for a new day. Amen.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-3-21
Scripture tells us that when the great Israelite king Solomon, son of David, was a boy, God appeared to him in a dream and offered him his heart’s desire. Rejecting power and wealth Solomon instead asked for wisdom. One of Solomon’s wise sayings is, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18, King James Version). The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “perish” literally means “let go, neglect, uncover.” The NRSV translates, “Where there is no prophecy, the people ‘cast off restraint.’”
Here’s how I put it together in my mind: Prophecy and vision refer to God’s dream for us as people. We find this dream in many forms in the Bible.
Isaiah 25:6-7, for example:
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.”
Or Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Without this prophecy or vision of God’s dream for us as God’s people we lose our identity as a community set apart for God’s service. Without a sacred calling, what’s the point of being a church? Without a purpose, the people “perish.” Without a vision, the people “cast off restraint.” If God’s dream doesn’t hold us together, we are “uncovered, neglected, let go” to find our own way in the world without any guiding principle.
It was no surprise that God communicated to Solomon in a dream. In the Bible dreams are one of the primary ways God talks to people. That’s why our fall worship theme for First Church and South Church is “Dreaming Together.” Together we are opening our hearts and minds to God’s vision–God’s “dream,” if you will–for us as a united UCC presence in Granby. Without this vision, without this dream, without a divine word (another name for “prophecy”), we risk losing our way in a confusing world of competing claims on our lives.
I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing from our working groups. It sounds like the coaching is going well and a vision is emerging. The opposite of “perish” is “flourish.” With patience God will bless us with a vision in which our uniting congregations flourish.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-27-21
The fall 2021 theme for worship at First Church and South Church is “Dreaming Together.” As a reminder, we will be sharing Union Services on the first and third Sundays of the month. The remaining Sundays we will be worshipping separately. In September and November the Union Services will be hosted by First Church. In October and December the Union Services will be hosted by South Church.
At our “What is Your Why?” workshops way back in 2019 and 2020, we watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek in which he refers to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Sinek argued that over 200,000 people showed up on the Washington Mall that day in 1967not for Dr. King but for themselves. They showed up because they had already dreamed a dream of racial justice in the U.S. Dr. King’s genius was his ability to articulate a dream that many already shared and to translate that dream into concrete reality.
The purpose of the “What is Your Why?” workshops we shared together with South Church was to invite both of our congregations into a similar “dreaming” process. African Americans have faced and continue to face indescribable suffering due to system racism. The dream of racial justice arose out of that suffering. First Church and South Church are facing our own communal suffering due to diminished human and financial resources to support our ministries. Staff have been cut, beloved events have fallen by the wayside, programs have been discontinued due to lack of participation, volunteers face burnout, members have left, conflict has arisen, fewer people are supporting a greater share of the annual budget, the long term health of our endowments is threatened. The list goes on. Just as a communal dream arose in response to racial injustice, so too, a dream for collaboration and consolidation has arisen in response to decline among the congregational churches in Granby. Godly dreams arise out of real world suffering. Making these dreams real can change the world.
Over the summer six working groups composed of First Church and South Church members have been working on clarifying a dream or dreams of a new, consolidated Granby UCC. Worship at both churches this fall will focus on what it means to dream God’s dream for our lives. The work of dreaming together isn’t for the working groups alone. The dream of a vital, sustainable UCC movement in Granby will become reality when each of us takes up the work of dreaming together.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-4-21
Nothing brings energy to people like making history from a positive vision for the future. Last week I was having a conversation with a couple of First Church members over lunch on a sunny patio. We were discussing church business including our ongoing consolidation work with South Church. We spent some time talking about some of the missteps we’ve made and some of the challenges ahead. The consensus was that this has been a messy process whose outcome is far from guaranteed. Nevertheless, one person offered, “I’ve been a member of this church for 35 years and served in a number of leadership roles. I remember when the church was full on Sunday. I served on Christian Ed when the Sunday school classrooms were full of kids. Recently a colleague asked me about my experience at the church and I told him, ‘I’ve never been more excited about the church than I am now.’”
My response was to thank this person for sharing, that this is why I do my job. There’s no greater joy for me than to share in the joy of doing something big, risky, and costly in service of God’s mission. When I shared this exchange with my wife, Nicole, later that day she said, “Yes. That’s why this person is so happy. You’re doing something big. You’re not simply planning next year’s program.”
My experience of the church in New England is that there is a lot of focus on preserving history. Less thought is given to making history. We sometimes seem to take the attitude that our ancestors took all the risks and made all the sacrifices. Our job is simply to acknowledge their efforts and enjoy the fruits of their labors, that is, the legacy of this property, these endowments, these buildings, these traditions, these stories, this church. There is a place for enjoyment and appreciation. There is a place for preservation and legacy. But when these become our primary preoccupation, that vital spirit of risk, sacrifice, and adventure that created the legacy in the first place begins to diminish. We begin to lose a sense of serving a purpose beyond our own personal comfort.
One of the things I love about transition work is the possibility of making history. Last year as a part of our transition process, First Church did a timeline exercise. We then made some observations about the timeline we created together. You can find notes on those observations here.
Some of the “big” dates on the timeline included: 1736, the Salmon Brook society begins holding meetings at Daniel Hayes’ tavern; 1739, construction of the first meetinghouse begins; 1775, the meetinghouse is moved two miles northwest of original location; 1818, establishment of a singing school; 1831, the church votes to build a new meetinghouse, a large number of members leave, “low ebb” of the church, “little interest in religion”; 1872, the minister resigns to start a new “society” with 38 members at Salmon Brook village (now South Church) . . . and the list goes on . . . What makes the “big” dates “big” is that they have an impact not just on the life of the church, but on the life of the town. The town is already talking about our consolidation efforts. It’s clear our neighbors are anticipating big things. Our denomination is looking to us as a model for successful consolidation. It’s not everyday we have a chance to make history.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-16-21
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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-19-21
Part of our discussion at GUCCI (Granby UCC Initiative) this week was the formation of work groups that will be tasked with visioning a new, unified UCC congregation in Granby.
One of the points we emphasized was that the work groups should be led by visionaries who are clear that their job isn’t to recreate the past but to imagine something new. This can be trickier than it sounds. It is a natural human tendency to stick with what we know. We all want to be experts. None of us wants to fail or look foolish. As the old saying goes, the safest place for the sailboat is in the harbor, but that’s not what it’s made for. That’s not what the church is made for.
In their research of hundreds of church consolidations, Tomberlin and Warren have found that a–perhaps the–key to success of any consolidation is a forward looking, outward facing vision (Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work). What does it take to discover God’s vision for our future?
I suggest we start with some study, reflection, prayer, and conversation. Start with study of vision passages in Scripture. Some that come to mind are God’s promise to Abraham to make of him and Sarah “a great nation.” God showed Abraham a vision of the stars. God says, “Look toward the heavens, so shall your descendants be (Gen. 15). In Isaiah. 43:19 God says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Or Jer. 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
A key question for developing an outward focused vision is asking NOT what kind of church do I prefer, but what kind of church does this town need? There are many resources for this. Please check out the detailed demographic data for the town of Granby from MissionInsight and posted to http://www.firstchurchgranby.org. Also important is developing a survey and interviewing leaders, neighbors, and friends. YOU CAN HELP. Just say to your neighbor, “If you were to go to church, what kind of church would you go to?” Or some such similar question. You will find that many folks will be eager to share their opinions with you. Please document your findings and share with GUCCI.
Finally, gather a prayer group, dedicate time to pray personally, or make a prayer request during worship for God’s vision. The Bible promises that if we humble ourselves, pray, and “seek God’s face,” God will hear our prayers, provide healing and hope.
What makes a space sacred? That’s the question at the heart of today’s Scripture.
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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-22-21
Sunday evening, January 17, First Congregational Church of Granby engaged in a productive and enlightening conversation around two proposals for our future: one produced by the Downsizing Task Force and one produced by the Collaboration/Consolidation Task Force. I observed deep listening, careful questioning, and honest responses as we explored the proposals together.
Overall there was little disagreement, but one moment stood out for me. At one point in the discussion of the downsizing proposal, someone said, “Well, it’s clear this just isn’t going to work.” A few minutes later, someone else commenting on the downsizing proposal responded, “It is going to work.” Is it going to “work?” Isn’t it going to “work?” This is a great question for both proposals. The answer depends on what our goal is.
At the beginning of the meeting, moderator Bob Giles shared with us the now familiar church life cycle graph and reminded us that we had all agreed that as a congregation we were on the decline side of the graph heading toward death. The goal, Bob said, was to shift the congregation into a growth trajectory, in other words, to reverse the decline trend.
I understood the comment “This just isn’t going to work” in light of the goal that Bob had identified: reversing the decline trend. And to my ears, that seemed to be the unarticulated worry underlying the conversation: is simply cutting expenses really going to turn things around? Research and experience shows that it is common for churches to focus on deficits as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” Sometimes this is the case. But in a situation where a church has been declining over a number of years, deficits are a symptom of a deeper problem that budget cuts alone won’t fix. So in this sense, the downsizing proposal “won’t work.”
So was the person who argued that the downsizing plan will “work” wrong? Not necessarily. If the goal isn’t to reverse the decline trend but, in the words of the downsizing report, “maintain independence,” then the downsizing plan will work . . . for a while. As long as the underlying problem that set us on the decline trajectory remains unaddressed, simply cutting expenses will only prolong the decline process. The end will be the same.
What is the “underlying problem?” That would be a wonderful conversation to have. Proverbs 29:18 reads, “Where there is no vision (Hebrew: chazon), the people perish.” Bob pointed out on the church life cycle diagram that churches beginning on the growth trajectory begin with a compelling vision and continue by building relationships with people in the community. (By contrast, churches nearing the end of the life cycle have a greatly reduced vision and a primary focus on maintaining current relationships rather than building new ones.) As we consider these two proposals, we might ask, “Which captures my heart? Which provides a compelling vision for the future?” The prophet Joel wrote, “In those days young people will see visions and elders dream dreams.” What vision is God laying on your heart today?