Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-21-22

The year is 1965. The place is Newport, RI. The event is the Newport Folk Festival, which had been founded six years earlier as a response to the more established Newport Jazz Festival. The Newport Folk Festival quickly became a gathering place for the various protest movements of the time: the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the labor movement. Famous artists like Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Lee Hooker, Joan Baez sang a mix of traditional folk songs and their own compositions that told the stories and reflected the values of common, everyday people. Of all these great artists, perhaps the most famous was a young, newcomer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan. 

By 1965 Dylan had released three hugely successful albums: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964), and “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965). Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become the anthem of the anti-war movement. In fact, the 1964 Newport Folk Festival closed with the entire lineup of artists joining Dylan onstage to lead the crowds in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that today is considered a classic of American songwriting–one of the many classics that earned Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.

Already in 1965 Dylan was shifting away from the traditional folk compositions for voice and acoustic guitar that had made him famous toward music that featured electric guitars and a full band. Nevertheless, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival he was planning on playing an acoustic set like people expected of him. The story goes that the day before his performance, Dylan overheard someone from the Folk Festival make disparaging remarks about electric guitars. In a flash of righteous anger Dylan completely changed his set list to feature him playing an electric guitar backed by the Butterfield Blues Band. When he took the stage the next night, he began his set with “Maggie’s Farm.” He played a loud, jangly Fender stratocaster and sang, “Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”–a clear declaration of artistic independence. People started booing and shouting. Pete Seeger was furious. By the end of his set Dylan did return to his acoustic guitar in a gesture to the crowd’s expectations, but the message was clear: Dylan would not allow himself to be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His ultimate allegiance lay far beyond any particular style or movement. Dylan’s ultimate allegiance was to the artistic endeavor itself.

I was reminded of the above story during the First Church South Church Bible study this week. We were considering the gospel lectionary for this coming Sunday: Luke 4:16-29. It begins with Jesus getting a very favorable response to his preaching from his hometown crowd and ends with them attempting to throw him off a cliff. Why this sudden turnaround? Jesus had been preaching about the “Lord’s favor.” The crowd understood this to be a simple affirmation of the lives they were currently living as God’s “chosen people.” They became upset when Jesus corrected their understanding. Jesus explained that their God wasn’t theirs alone, that God chooses sides and it wasn’t necessarily theirs. Rather the God revealed in Jesus choses the unchosen. God loves the hated. And Jesus’ ministry won’t be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His allegiance lies far beyond any particular style or movement. Jesus’ ultimate allegiance is to the boundless love of God itself.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-17-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 12-17-21

Some of you have heard me tell this story before. It’s one of my favorites. Context: My youngest daughter, Olivia, attended four different schools from second to third grade. It was in the middle of the Great Recession, and for employment reasons our family ended up moving from Indiana to Maine to Rhode Island. Little Olivia started out the school year at Hoosier Road Elementary (Indiana), beginning in December attended Milbridge (Maine) Elementary, and then finished second grade at a public elementary school in Cranston, RI that I can’t even remember the name of. Next fall she began third grade at yet another school–Community Preparatory School in Providence, RI. The good news is that Community Prep is an extraordinary school that ended up being a game-changer for both Olivia and her older sister, Fiona. 

The story goes like this. It was Olivia’s first week at Community Prep. I picked her up after school. She threw her backpack in the back seat and climbed in after it, chattering the entire time. I asked her, “Did you make any new friends today?” Olivia replied, “Daddy, they’re all  my friends. Some just don’t know it, yet.”

Our theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Are Not Alone.” Here’s why: God is with us. When the angel visited Joseph in a dream to tell him that his fiance was pregnant with the Son of God, the angel quoted the prophet Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” I know what it’s like to feel lonely. I know what it’s like to feel separated from the one’s you love. The pain can be excruciating. In those moments remembering that the same God who was with Mary and Joseph is with me and my loved ones helped me sit with that feeling of separation long enough for it to transform into motivation to pick up the phone and make a connection. The love that is strong as death (Song of Songs 8:6) that nothing in the universe can separate us from (Romans 8:38-39) that binds all things together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14) is always and everywhere available to us. It means that we’re always already connected. Our job as Christians is simply to make that already existing connection real in the world. 

My spiritual director likes to say that spiritual practice is about cultivating a “basic friendliness” toward ourselves and others. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent when we remember God’s love incarnate in Jesus, I invite us to remember that those who dream are not alone because God’s love always already connects us. When we’re feeling disconnected and alone, I invite us to consider Olivia’s wise words, “They’re all my friends. Some just don’t know it, yet.” 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-16-21

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.

Worship Resource: Advent Wreath Liturgy 2020 (inspired by UCC Book of Worship

Advent wreath readings 2020

Advent Wreath week 1: Hope

Introductory Sentences

Today is the beginning of Advent–the preparation time for celebrating Christ’s birth. We are here because God’s promises to our ancestors came true when Jesus was born. God’s promise is kept each Sunday when we worship and wherever we worship because Christ is in our midst. God will keep the promise to come again in glory. 

Scripture 

Isaiah 60:1-2

 Arise, shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 

2 For darkness shall cover the earth,

and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you,

and his glory will appear over you. 

Lighting of the Candle

We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is hope. (Share one thing that gives you hope.) We believe in hope that is more than wishful thinking. We believe in hope that is grounded in the birth of Jesus. 

Light the first candle on the Advent wreath.

Prayer

God we thank you that Jesus brought hope into the world. Help us to be ready to welcome Jesus so that we may be a people of hope for the world. Amen.

Advent Wreath week 2: Peace

Introductory Sentences

We gather around the Advent wreath today knowing that we are not perfect–we all make mistakes and cause others harm. Jesus creates a more peaceful world by helping us repair the harm we’ve done. Jesus helps us accept ourselves and others so that we can be at peace.

Scripture

Isaiah 9:6-7

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

7 His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Lighting of the Candle

We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is peace, for Christ is called the “Prince of Peace. We believe in the power of peace to heal the world.

Light the second candle on the Advent wreath.

Prayer

Eternal God, we thank you that through all the years you have given peace to your people. Help us to cultivate peacefulness in our lives. Show us how to be peacemakers with those around us because we believe in peace. Amen.

Advent Wreath week 3: Love

Introductory Sentences

St. John wrote, “God is love.” As we gather around the Advent wreath today we celebrate God’s love sustaining us moment to moment regardless of our actions or circumstances. God’s love is embodied in Jesus and in each one of us. Because of this we say, “We believe in love.”

Scripture

1John 4:7-8

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 

Lighting of the Candle

We light this candle to porcelain the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is love. Such grat love helps us to love God and one another.

Light the third candle on the Advent wreath.

Prayer

O God, we thank you that Jesus showed your love for every person–old people and young, sick people and those who were strong, rich people and those who were poor. Your love in Jesus changed the world. For this reason we say, “We believe in love.” Amen!

Advent Wreath week 4: Joy

Introductory Sentences

Soon we shall celebrate the birth of Jesus. We worship God with joy in our hearts as we are reminded of the words the angel said on that first Christmas Day: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.” With the angels long ago we say, “We believe in joy.”

Reading of Scripture

John 15:9-11

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Lighting of the Candle

We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is joy. Joy is ours not only at Christmas but always.

Light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath.

Prayer

O Holy One, as Christmas draws near, we look for that familiar sense of excitement. Perhaps we glimpse it out of the corner of our mind’s eye: a wisp of memory, a childhood song. In this time of global pandemic and political transition we confess to you and to all the world that we believe in joy because you promise us that while “weeping may linger for the night, joy comes with the morning.” Thank you for the gift of Jesus–Morning Star, light of life, bringer of joy.

Christmas Eve

Introductory Sentences

Good evening! On this Christmas Eve we are gathered as God’s people to celebrate again what Christ’s coming means to the world. We join with Christians and all people of good will around the world who are celebrating tonight in saying, “We believe in hope. We believe in peace. We believe in love. We believe in joy.”

Reading of Scripture

Luke 2:10-14

0 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Lighting of the Candles

Tonight we relight the four Advent candles and recall what the good news means.

A leader lights a candle while saying each word: hope, peace, love, joy.

Jesus Christ is the greatest gift who makes all these other gifts possible. So we light the Christ candle now as we welcome the birth of Christ in our lives.

A leader lights the central Christ candle.

Prayer

We thank you God, for your gift of Jesus Christ to the entire world. We thank you that Christ’s coming makes hope, peace, love, and joy possible. Make us your hands and heart to our hurting world because we believe

In hope,

In peace,

In love,

In joy,

And in the matchless gift of Jesus.

Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-14-20

Sporty Red

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-14-20

I had two experiences in the last two weeks that changed my perspective on the accessibility movement for people with disabilities: 1) I listened to a podcast on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act; 2) I had my regular visit to the audiologist.

I’m writing to this topic not only because of these experiences but also because I’m wondering if a part of our vision for the future of First Congregational Church of Granby might be reaching individuals with special needs and their families. I’ll explain, but first my recent experiences.

Did you know there was such a thing as “ugly laws?” I didn’t. That was one of the shocking things I learned listening to the history of the ADA. 

In the United States a number of cities in the 19th century enacted laws that prohibited beggars, poor people, people with mental illness, and people with disabilities from public spaces. An 1881 Chicago law read as follows: 

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense (Chicago City Code 1881).

“An improper person” . . . What a telling line. I had always assumed that the need for making public spaces accessible arose from the ignorance of the able-bodied people designing the spaces. I didn’t realize that the lack of accessibility also arose from a feeling much deeper than that: disgust, embarrassment, that uncomfortable feeling that arises when one encounters someone with obvious physical differences that remind us of the fragility of our own bodies. I am aware of having those feelings myself, for example, when I encounter an amputee or someone with severe mental or physical challenges–particularly, if I haven’t met them before. There is a little moment of adjustment as my mind shifts to encountering this person whose ways of moving through the world are different from mine.

The disabilities movement isn’t only about access to public spaces. The disability movement is saying, “We want you to see us. We are human beings with intrinsic worth. We will not be ashamed of who we are.” This new (for me) perspective resonated with me. I can now see connections with other civil rights movements: racial justice, LGBTQIA+ movements, and women’s movements, for example. 

It also helped me understand the conversations I’ve had again and again with my audiologists over the years. Every time I go in for a new pair of hearing aids (like I did two weeks ago) I get to choose a “color.” There are usually six or seven colors to choose from. Five or six of the colors are different shades of beige, brown, or black–to match skin tone or hair color. But there’s always one color that’s bright. I remember when years ago I chose electric blue. It created quite a bit of consternation for my audiologist and even my family. A few years later I chose emerald green. Once again my audiologist said, “Wouldn’t you rather match your hair?” My newest pair is “sporty red.” Now instead of asking, “Why did you choose that color?” my family asks, “What color did you get!” But my audiologist still somehow felt obligated to ask, “Don’t you want something less visible?” 

Learning the history of the ADA and the “capitol crawl” demonstration of 1990 taught me that visibility is the point.  I invite you to watch the video of Jennifer Keelan, who at 9-years-old got out of her wheelchair, crawled up the steps of the Capitol Building, and changed the world. 

I also invite you to follow the links below for videos of an inspiring weekly worship service called “Parable” developed by Wayzata Community Church, a UCC in Minnesota. 

The service is designed with differently abled people and their families in mind. The joy is infectious. I know it’s difficult to plan during COVID time, but I find this time is a great opportunity to dream. It might seem like a heavy lift for our little church to do something like “Parables,” but perhaps if we partnered with South Church and maybe even East Granby?

In his famous hymn to love the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.”

To be seen and known is to be loved. When we see each other with all of our brokenness and beauty, a new world is possible.