Words of Welcome
The holidays bring with them a mix of emotions: nostalgia, anxiety, anticipation, hope, joy, grief and more. Some of these emotions are more welcome at this time of year than others. We might feel pressure to act happy because it’s Christmastime when inside we don’t feel that way. That’s not the true message of Christmas. God sent the Christ child for the very purpose of sharing our common lot with all of its circumstances and emotions pleasant and unpleasant. In becoming one of us, God accepts all of us. So bring yourself, just as you are to grieve, remember, celebrate, and cherish loved ones who have passed on and the God who embraces us all.
God of mercy, we pray for ourselves. We pray for our dear ones. We pray for those who have passed on. We pray for our neighbors and communities. We pray for all of us, who in one way or another have been affected by this year of global pandemic. Because of the pandemic, some of us haven’t had the chance to say good-bye in a way we had hoped. Our grief is complicated; our loss ambiguous. Wrap us in your boundless embrace. Heal our hearts made heavy with sorrow. Lift our spirits so that we might join the heavenly chorus singing, “Peace on earth and good will to all.” Amen.
This Advent we light the first candle acknowledging our grief and inviting God’s consolation into our hearts.
Lights the first candle.
We light the second candle accepting our pain and inviting God’s comfort.
Lights the second candle.
We light the third candle noticing our fears and remembering that God’s perfect love casts out fear.
Lights the third candle.
We light the fourth candle honoring our struggle as a sign of the divine life that lives in and through us.
Lights the fourth candle.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-26-20
On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Pride Parade was held in New York City. Similar events were held in June of 1970 in Chicago and San Francisco. All were in response to the Stonewall uprising the previous year, which marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
For the first time in its 50 year history the NYC pride parade is cancelled due to coronavirus. Cancelled for the first time in 50 years, on its 50th anniversary.
A couple weeks ago I began an online training for leadership and organizational coaching during the COVID pandemic. As the group was naming the different dynamics around loss, grief, and trauma folks are experiencing during this time, the AIDS epidemic came up. For those of us who lived through the 1980s/1990s decades of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands upon thousands of mostly gay men were dying in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, COVID brings up ghosts of that trauma. As many of you know, my dad was one of those gay men who died of AIDS, so this year’s Pride is just a strange, strange time for me, and I’m guessing for many of my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
Folks are hosting virtual Pride events, but for me and my family the highlight of Pride has always been the parade. My kids tell me that Providence (RI) Pride was their favorite event of the year. People of all ages, colors, and creeds gathered downtown for a day of fun and joy and celebration. We marched as a church. We waved banners and wore silly hats and cheered for the crowd as the crowd cheered for us. The City of Providence was never happier or more together than on Pride weekend.
My Pride story is a family story. It’s a story of my family finding its family: a community of people committed to living without shame; people of all different identities committed to accepting and loving every inch of themselves and every part of every other. Nothing needs to be hidden. Everything can be talked about. Vulnerability, instead of a sign of weakness, is lifted up as a sign of strength. Pride is a time of honoring those who have gone before: martyrs and heroes and loved ones lost who had the courage to live their truth, and because they chose to do so, paved the way for those of us who would follow to more perfectly manifest what, for me, is nothing other than God’s boundless, unconditional love.
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 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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-25-19
The sound of rain on the trees and grass, the smell of moist earth on the breeze drifting through the window screens invites my awarenes to return to just this moment. As I notice the small details of life unfolding just as it is, I’m grateful. Admittedly, this is a pleasant moment when gratitude tends to manifest more easily, but what a gift that we as human beings have this capacity of simple appreciation.
I find that bringing my awareness to the present moment is almost always helpful. It’s easy to get lost in dreams of the past or visions of the future–be they frightening or longed for. Reality almost always turns out to be different from what we imagine.
That’s why after our second Meet the Minister meeting, which we shared this past Monday, I invited everyone gathered in the three season porch on the Wilhelm Farm to bring their attention to the late summer breeze, the patchy sunshine on the concrete floor, and their friends gathered at the table for conversation, cookies, and punch. Not every moment is a crisis. Every moment is potentially a moment to enjoy.
This is so important to remember as we move through this time of transition. We need to know where our help comes from. The Psalmist did. “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” There is a fair amount of grief and anxiety in the congregation right now. There is also a fair amount of hope. Our task in the months ahead will be, among other things, letting go of what once was and trusting that though we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future.
I was sharing some of this with the staff. They suggested that having some sense of a plan would help with the anxiety. It’s not up to me to tell you what the plan is. Any plan is up to us to craft together. That’s in part what the Meet the Minister meetings are for. Nevertheless, I can share my general sense of direction at this point. Right now we are working in a 3-5 year timeline. During that time we are going to shift our focus outward toward reaching new people. New people bring new life, new energy, and new hope. We are right now in the process of forming a Vitality Team to lead this effort. At the same time, we will be working through a process of building congregational health. We have already started this work with Meet the Minister meetings and the upcoming monthly Working Lunch program following worship. Additionally, the Church Council is recommending we engage the services of a consultant to help us with the congregational health piece. Finally, we will continue a process of collaboration with South Congregational Church to build relationships and determine whether or not we share a common mission. For now, all conversations about money, pastors, and buildings should be set to the side. Those decisions can be made once we determine whether or not we want to be together. If we discover that we can build a compelling vision for the future together, then we wil make those other decisions based on that common vision.
I know this is very high level and abstract for some, but maybe it will reduce anxiety to know that I and other members of your church family can see a positive path forward. As we move forward, the path will become clearer. And, once again, nothing is set in stone beyond the fact that if we don’t do something to address the decline trend we’re simply sealing our own fate. Tell me what you think. This is just my sense of things based on my conversations with you, with the folks at South Church, and my 23 years experience working with congregations in transition.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-15-19
Sunday we continue our “My Favorite Scripture” sermon series. This week we’ll be looking at Luke 9:57-62, focusing particularly on verse 62: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This Scripture is a favorite of Ann Wilhelm.
Ann found this Scripture inscribed in the cover of her father’s childhood Bible. Ann’s father, Fred, and his wife, Edith, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, bought a farm in Granby on which they raised Ann and her siblings. Today Ann and her husband Bill Bentley own and manage the family farm. This Scripture came to mind as Ann was thinking about FCC Granby and her role in the church’s transition to a new way of being.
For me, this Scripture points to the tendency of people and congregations in transition to hedge our bets. As the familiar hymn says, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” But we don’t want to let go of it all. We don’t want to turn our church over to Jesus and let him have his way with us. What if something happens I don’t like? What if I’m asked to give up something important to me personally? So there’s a lot of bargaining that goes on in church transition. Not surprising, since bargaining is one of the stages of grief. And transition always involves loss and grief.
But I want to hear Ann’s thoughts. And I want you to hear them, too. So this Sunday we will be doing something a little different with the sermon. Ann and I will be sharing the sermon as a “sacred conversation.” It’s a kind of semi-scripted dialogue in which together Ann and I will be reflecting on the Scripture and its connection to our life as a congregation. I look forward to a great conversation!
By the time you receive this I will have taken a couple days of meditation retreat. I’m grateful for the opportunity to go deeper spiritually so that I can lead the congregation in deepening our connection with God. Successful congregational transition requires that we go in two directions at once. We need to go deeper spiritually because transition is incredibly difficult and demanding. We need to get spiritually “fit” for the kingdom of God so that we can meet the demands of the work ahead of us. We also need to go outward relationally to connect with our neighbors. As I said this past Sunday: the future of FCC Granby lies with the people who are not yet members of our congregation.