One: O LORD, our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
All: When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
One: Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.
All: O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
God of the universe, we sometimes feel small in the face of that which is so far beyond our understanding much less our control. Does my life matter? What does it all mean? Why bother doing anything at all when my efforts seem so insignificant? Give us wisdom to discern your creative activity in every moment of our lives. Give us the courage to meet you right here, right now, for this is the meaning of our lives. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God of this and every moment, God who gives everything its time and place, we thank you for meeting us in this time and place, right here, right now. We offer ourselves wholeheartedly to you. Amen.
Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? These are questions a church vitality coach/consultant that I’ve worked with successfully for many years suggested we at First Church Old Saybrook consider. This vitality coach, Rev. Paul Nickerson, also told me that this is the bulk of the work he’s doing with congregations right now. Following the COVID pandemic many congregations are feeling a need to reinvent themselves. Worship attendance is down 40%-60% in all sizes of churches and in all denominations. As Americans continue to explore the many options available to us to lead lives of meaning and purpose, where does the local congregation fit in?
This echoes some of the things I’ve been hearing from FCC Saybrook. At a recent deacons meeting one of the deacons raised the issue of identity and the fact that in her opinion the church didn’t have a strong sense of identity–the “Who are we?” question–and is nevertheless moving in a direction to better define that identity.
Paul suggested FCC Saybrook gather a group of leaders for a Zoom consult with him around the questions Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? My invitation to you is to consider whether you might be interested in being a part of that call. Stay tuned!
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.
As a kid I loved adventure. I would spend hours playing outdoors either with friends or by myself. It didn’t matter. As long as there was a hill to be climbed, a trail to be followed, insects to catch, flowers to pick, game to track, berries to harvest, a fort to build it didn’t matter to me whether I was alone or accompanied. I loved to explore.
When it got too dark to play outside, I followed the street lights home, where mom ususally had a casserole in the oven. Soon it was time to set the table for supper. Afterwards it was dishes and homework and lying in bed reading about adventures: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just writing it down makes it all seem like a quaint, distant world.
Nevertheless, what I realize now is that safe-enough space to explore on my own, use my imagination, and create adventures with minimal parental supervision was key to who I have become. I still love adventure. I’m happiest when I’m facing the joy and fear of the unknown over the horizon. I didn’t realize it at the time but the safe-enough space I experienced as a child gave me the mix of confidence and caution that has made bigger and bigger adult adventures surviveable, enjoyable, and transformative.
Two weeks ago First Congregational Church of Granby did a worship and workshop around the theme “Know Your ‘Why?’” We explored both our personal “whys” and our “why” as a congregation, that is, what is our purpose? First we had to slog through what turned out to be a series of items that we thought were “whys” but turned out to be “whats.” For example, “To feed the hungry.” That turned about to be “what” we do. The question is why feed the hungry? Finally, after hours of deep conversation, tears, and several attempts at articulating powerful, inarticulate longings of the heart, we came up with “A safe place to explore who you truly are and who God is calling you to be.”
I would say a “safe-enough” place or space is key to all spiritual development. A part of my kid adventures was the possibility of injury, discomfort, getting lost and then reoriented. My vision for First Congregational Church is that we create a spiritual container large enough for each of us to experiment, fail, make mistakes, repent, bactine and bandage our boo-boos, and develop our own sense of self-confidence and self-worth that is not overly dependent on others’ approval. The abundant life Jesus promised is rooted in the declaration at Jesus’ baptism and ours: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well-pleased.” Rev. William Sloane Coffin said, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” Foundational trust in the boundless love of God makes every adventure possible.
When I was a kid, we had our own slang. Now that I have kids of my own I find myself in the role of deciphering the distinctive, sometimes confusing languages of their tribes. “Salty” is a term my youngest, Olivia, likes to use. From context clues I gather it means something like “annoyed,” as in “I was salty with my professor because she gave a list of assignments for the week on Monday but then added more on Wednesday.” “Salty” can also be used in the context of disagreeing with something someone said in class, a friend forgetting a birthday, someone undeserving getting recognition. When Olivia uses it, “salty” isn’t particularly angry, resentful, or mean, but I think that has more to do with Olivia, who is a naturally happy and loving person, than with the term itself, which, according to the Urban Dictionary, is more along the lines of “angry, bitter, resentful.” For Olivia, “salty” is along the lines of “feisty.”
“Salty” as a term for angry, upset, “suddenly enraged,” is actually throwback slang first used in 1938 and associated, not surprisingly, with sailors, who had a reputation for gruff, rowdy, and drunken behavior.
The other common use of “salt” as an adjective comes from our Scripture text for this Sunday. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt should become insipid, by what shall it be made salty?” From this famous text we get the phrase “salt of the earth.” I hear people use this term to describe folks who are humble, have moral integrity, and are generally considered “good people,” “pillars of the community,” whose goodness often goes unrecognized. While I think there’s some of that meaning in the text, it certainly doesn’t capture all of it.
To get the rest of the meaning, we need to look at the rest of the sentence: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt becomes insipid, by what shall it be made salty? It is no longer of any use except to scatter outside for people to tread upon.” “Insipid” means “dull, boring, flavorless, weak, vapid, spiritless.” Yes, “salt of the earth” has to do with humility, moral integrity, and all of those things we tend to like as Christians. But I hear Jesus giving a sharp, dare I say, “salty” warning to his followers against dullness, irrelevance, blandness, a kind of false humility that is really just acquiescence to the status quo. It’s a form of spiritual laziness that views the church’s role as being “chaplains to power,” reassuring the wealthy and spiritually satisfied that everything is “OK.”
I am super grateful that my children are faithful Christians and dedicated churchgoers. I don’t attribute that to any special example that their parents set, other than that while they were living at home, we brought them to church every week. If you asked them, my guess is that they would agree with many young people that the church is too often “insipid, boring, and irrelevant.” And, by the way, it has little to do with whether a band is used in worship or video clips or anything like that–though these things can help. The reason my children are still engaged is that church provided the context in which they could build authentic relationships with “salty” Christians, that is, feisty Christians who had some flavor, some fire, who were not satisfied with the status quo but who risked their personal comfort to stand up against injustice, who viewed the church not as a social club where “we take care of our own,” but as a social movement whose purpose is to change the world.
Loving God, as children we learn to ask Why? Why is the sky blue? Why do ducks quack? Why do I have to go to bed? Why do I have to share my toys? “Why” is how we learn about our world and our place in it. God of “Why,” you have told us that unless we become like one of these little children, we will not enter your kingdom. Teach us to never stop asking Why. Teach us to never stop trusting your answer. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
We dedicate our gifts and our lives to your holy purpose, O God. Amen.
February is discernment month for First Church Granby. Feb. 9 following worship will be our annual congregational “discernment” meeting. I think it’s great that FCCG has one meeting a year devoted to the spiritual practice of discernment. There are many different approaches to discernment. You can find a number of different examples in the Bible: prayer and fasting, casting lots, consulting prophets, rituals involving sacrifice, pilgrimage. Gideon famously put fleece outside overnight to discern what God wanted him to do in battle. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. We won’t be doing any of these things. We will be doing prayer and conversation. But what all these have in common is the ancient human attempt to determine what God wants or what God is up to, in more formal language, “divine will.”
Divine will is a notoriously difficult thing to determine. The Bible is full of stories of individuals who claimed to know the divine will when, it turns out, they didn’t. The results are usually unpleasant. So humility is the first and most important quality to bring to discernment. The second is patience. Scripture says that “the Spirit moves where it will.” God answers in God’s good time. And sometimes the answer is silence. In which case, we might decide to sit with the question a while longer. But I want to encourage us that it is indeed possible to discern God’s deepest longing for us. I’ve experienced it. I’ve witnessed it happen in congregations. We’ll know we’ve nailed it when there is a moment of connection, joy, and release. God’s will may not be pleasant. God may not be inviting us to do something we particularly want to do. But there is joy and release knowing it’s the right thing to do. There is a deep sense of connection knowing that in the long run discerning and doing God’s will leads to abundant life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.
So don’t miss worship Feb. 9 and stay for the meeting after. Our transition coach, Claire Bamberg will be joining us and facilitating a discernment discussion on the topic of “What is Your ‘Why’?”
I spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning this week on meditation retreat. I came home and took a nap. Why? Because sitting on the floor in silence while maintaining as still a posture as possible for 10 hours a day is, in fact, exhausting. Why do I do it? Scripture says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Humans like to move. We rush around doing this and that. But even if we’re “vegging out,” our minds jump from this thought to that thought. The practice of meditation is stilling the body and mind together to become completely still like water on a pond. It turns out that the Bible is true! I can attest that cultivating stillness does, in fact, create circumstances in which God can be encountered in a profoundly life-changing way.
When asked my purpose, I tend to say “Helping people connect to God.” How can I help people connect to God if I am not myself living out of that connection? As a personal purpose statement, “helping people connect to God” seems to work for me. Working with our transition coach, Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg, has taught me to ask a different question, namely, what is your “Why?” I realized this week that “helping people connect to God” doesn’t answer the “why” question. Why help people connect to God? Great question!
I don’t know the answer, yet, exactly. Maybe something like this: I know the pain of being separated from one’s deepest longing. I also know the joy of connection. A world of joyful, connected people is a world I want to live in.
As a congregation articulating a “why” is vital to our future. More important than what we do is being clear why we do it. Claire will be leading us in a congregational conversation about our why. In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to watch these short videos and think about what is your “why” and what is FCC Granby’s “why.” The videos show why the question of “why” is so important.