Prepare to Welcome Spring

Published in the March 2015 issue of the South Church newsletter, The Voice:

This is one of the coldest winters in many years.  Meteorologists tell us that February was Connecticut’s coldest month on record!  And it’s all anyone can talk about.  Many complain.  Others talk about escaping to Florida.  A few die-hard New Englanders still embrace it all!  Well, as strange as it may sound for someone who grew up in Florida and spent twenty years of my life living in Hawaii, I’m with those die-hard New Englanders.  I love it!

Part of my embrace of our New England winters comes from plain old stubbornness.  When I moved here from Hawaii in 2007, I was determined not to be that thin-blooded, whiney guy from the tropics that was put to shame by Connecticut Yankees.  I shoveled out from each storm, even the thirty inches we received in the 2013 blizzard, with a metaphorical shake of the fist at the sky, “You aren’t going to beat me, Mother Nature!”

But there is more than stubbornness at work in my embrace of winter.  The cold and snow leaves me in awe of creation’s power and beauty.  I look at the layer upon layer of snow on my lawn, with more on the way, and I know that I am not in control of this world we call home.  I am not in control of my life.  When a storm is dumping snow all I can do is let go and wait it out.  And when the storm is over, I do my best to respond, to dig my way out.  This is hard work, but there is a feeling of satisfaction when I am done.  I regain my freedom.  Though when I go back about my business I do so with more caution, move a bit more slowly; I watch out for others on the road.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for sin, while spring communicates resurrection and redemption.  Beyond just complaining we might ask ourselves how best to respond to the winters, sin and all its accompanying hardships, of our lives.  Will we just hunker-down, squeeze our eyes shut, and hope it goes away?  Will we just complain?  Or will we look our sin square in the eye, appreciate God’s power and acknowledge our vulnerability, then do our best to dig our way out of the mess we’re in?  And when the grace and forgiveness of God’s spring pushes up through the hardened, frozen places in our lives, will we respond to our freedom by moving about life with more caution, more attention to the welfare of others?  And, will we remember to praise God through it all?

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Black Lives Matter

Published in February 2015 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

“Black Lives Matter.” We have all heard or seen this quote in recent months. Sometimes appearing on social media as #blacklivesmatter, these words affirm the lives of black people in response to recent deaths of African-American men at the hands of police officers.

I have not encountered anyone who refutes this statement outright; no one has said, “No, black lives do not matter.” Though I often hear, “Yes, of course black live matter, but…” What follows the “Yes, but…” varies. Some want to argue the details of specific cases, suggesting that the men who were killed were somehow responsible, inviting the deadly violence upon themselves. Others worry that statements like #blacklivesmatter are divisive, emphasizing our differences rather than our shared humanity. The most common retort I have heard is, “Yes, but…all lives matter,” suggesting that to affirm the specific value of black lives somehow diminishes the value of other lives.

I do not agree. In fact, Jesus (and the Gospel writers) regularly named specific, excluded people in order to affirm universal inclusion. Consider the story in John’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well. Samaritans were a mixed-race people who were despised and routinely discriminated against by Jews. To Jews, Samaritan lives mattered less than Jewish lives. In fact, Jews believed that Samaritans were excluded from God’s promise and protection. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well affirms her as a child of God. Jesus is identifying a specific group that has been excluded in order to affirm a universally inclusive God. This story and its message would completely fall apart if it said only that Jesus met a “person” at the well. Its power comes from singling out Samaritans (and women) and saying these lives matter.

Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same approach in the civil rights movement. He focused on full civil rights for those who were being specifically excluded, black people. By naming the specifically excluded he was affirming that these rights are universal.

Like the Samaritans of Jesus’ day, African-Americans today still experience unequal treatment in ways small, large and life threatening. These daily threats and indignities send a message that the lives of black people matter less than the lives of white people. I don’t doubt that if Jesus had been on Twitter he would have tweeted a selfie of himself and the Samaritan woman with the hashtag, #samaritanlivesmatter. So today, affirming that #blacklivesmatter is a way to boldly witness to our universally inclusive God.

Blessed Are The Crazy

Published in November 2014 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

In Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church, Rev. Sarah Griffith Lund writes:

“God wants for us to be not a sorority with a Jesus mascot but a Beloved Community, where people come together for justice, peace, and redemptive love.”

“Faith is not an anti-depressant. It cannot be swallowed in order to rewire our brains for happiness. Rather, faith allows us to accept the coexistence of God and suffering. We do not have to choose between two realities, because, if we did, God would have to go. There is no way we could deny the existence of suffering. I believe God exists in this messed-up world, and, in the moments of greatest pain, God is there to wipe away our tears. After all, we aren’t the only ones crying. God is crying too.”

“Mental illness cannot be wished or prayed away. The stigma and shame about mental illness only increases its destructive power. Hiding in our closets, we are swallowed up in its shadows. It is my confession that by exposing mental illness to the healing light of God, through testimony, through carrying one another’s burdens, through therapeutic circles of care, we can find hope and strength. It is my hope that church can be a community of truth tellers, decreasing stigma as we create safe, welcoming spaces for people with mental illness. It is my testimony that the God of love is with us, even when there’s crazy in the blood. It is my gospel truth that blessed, not cursed, are the crazy for we will be called children of God.”

Griffith Lund, “takes the lid off mental illness” by sharing “her father’s battle with bipolar disorder, (her) helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother struggles with his own mental illness, and (her experience) serving as spiritual advisor for her cousin, a mentally ill man executed for murder.” Rev. Griffith Lund’s book has important lessons for South Church as we work to be a reconciled and reconciling congregation for all people.

When I talk about reconciliation (as I do constantly), I most often talk about reconciliation across race and class. Yet mental illness divides us terribly one from another, but we rarely speak of it. The fear, shame and stigma that people feel in response to mental illness enforces a silence that makes reconciliation impossible. Griffith Lund breaks that silence with her powerful testimony and models a way that we can all “carry one another’s burdens” and “become a community of truth tellers.”

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Seeing and Appreciating Differences

Published in October 2014 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

I extend warm and enthusiastic thanks to the entire South Church extended family for supporting and encouraging my sabbatical this summer. Ten weeks of study leave coupled with three weeks of vacation made for a very rich and renewing time. The focus of my sabbatical was reconciliation; how do we reach across the differences that divide us one from another? I took classes, read a stack of books and articles, visited other churches and met with colleagues, and returned to South Church on September 2 energized, inspired and hopeful.

One of the classes I took, a workshop really, was “A Personal Approach to Change and Equity” with an organization called Visions, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visions works with corporations, organizations and churches to help them recognize, understand and appreciate differences. Our group of twelve was half white and half people-of color, young and old, men and women, gay and straight. Over the week two facilitators led us through a series of discussions and exercises that were at once challenging and affirming.

Here is one thing I learned.

How many of us have said, when it comes to race, “I don’t see color. People are people.” This is meant as a very positive statement of anti-racism and equality. Affirmations like this emerged in the 1960s following the civil rights movement. It used to be that African-Americans couldn’t drink from a drinking fountain, sit at a lunch counter or ride in the front of the bus just because of the color of their skin. Saying, “I don’t see color” was a way of affirming that the color of someone’s skin would no longer prevent them from participating fully in society.

I learned that what in one historical context was an affirmation can today be heard differently. Just as our gender can communicate something about our experience and the way we see the world, so skin color can be an indicator of cultural norms and life experiences. How would I feel if someone came up to me and said, “George, I don’t see you as a man; I just see you as a person?” I would feel like you weren’t seeing me for all of who I am. My manhood is an inescapable and important part of my identity.

My wife and daughter love their beautiful brown skin. Skin color communicates something about valued heritage and ancestry. It can speak to shared experiences of struggle and overcoming hardship. When we say, “I don’t see color,” this can be heard as negating all of these, as assuming that your experience is identical to mine. “I don’t see color” can be heard as “I don’t see you.”

Jesus saw everyone for all of who they were. When he encountered a Samaritan woman at the well he acknowledged both her gender and her ethnicity along with the challenges that came with these. He saw her and loved her for all of who she was. And so Jesus calls us to do the same, to recognize, understand and appreciate our differences.

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Our Vision, Our Song

Here is the sermon I preached on July 1, 2012. I weave together the vision statement that I have proposed for South Church (see previous blog post), this clip from the new HBO series, The Newsroom, and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15. This is an example of how our vision statement might be used as a touchstone for conversations and growth.

“Our Vision, Our Song”

Those of you who are on the church mailing list should have received the July issue of our South Church newsletter, The Voice, in the past day or two. If not there are copies on the desk outside the chapel. In my monthly column I propose a vision statement for South Church. A vision statement is meant to articulate where we want to go as a church, what we would like to become. I offer these words for prayerful consideration and discussion, “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” I hope this captures the diversity, hospitality and grace we seek to embody while also calling us to respond to a hurting world. I am planning to preach a sermon series on this vision in the fall, but I thought I would introduce it and give it a little work out this morning.

In The Voice I write of the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country, indeed our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Nowhere are these differences more visible and acute than in our national politics. Battles between Democrats and Republicans have never been so bitter or divisive. This vitriol was all on display this week when the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation proposed by President Obama and approved by Congress. Of course I have opinions of my own with regard to the various issues that face our country and our world. I too take sides. But more than anything, my heart just hurts at the brokenness among and between people on all sides who I believe to be good, created in God’s image.

I love this country. I was walking down my street this week and saw that some of my neighbors had put out their American flag in anticipation of the Fourth of July. When I came home that day I was pleased to see that Lourdes had the same idea and had retrieved our flags from the basement for placement in our garden. My love of country aside, I sometimes worry that patriotism, or more correctly nationalism, contributes to division. All sides in public policy disputes claim to be on the side of God and country, implying that anyone who disagrees is not a good Christian or a good American.

A friend shared a transcript of a speech from a new show on HBO called The Newsroom. Jeff Daniels plays news anchor Will McAvoy. In this episode McAvoy is part of a panel discussion with a liberal and conservative pundit. A female college student asks the panelists, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy hedges, not wanting to take sides. But the moderator presses him and he responds:

“It’s not the greatest country in the world professor, that’s my answer.”

He turns to the liberal pundit, “The National Endowment for the Arts is a loser, yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck but he (referring to the Conservative pundit) gets to hit you with it any time he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes, it costs airtime, it costs column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so smart, how come they always lose?”

He then turns to the conservative pundit and continues, “And with a straight face you’re going to tell students that America is so star spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world that have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, BELGIUM has freedom. So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.”

“And you,” he now directs his attention to the young woman who asked the question, “sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day there’re some things you should know. One of them is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 16th in literacy, 32nd in math, 14th in science, 50th in life expectancy, 49th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, Number 4 in labor force and Number 4 in exports, we lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.

Now none of this is the fault of a 20 year-old college student, but when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?”

This is tough talk and I realize that this is a heck of a thing to share in a sermon on the Sunday before the Fourth of July. First, it may sound like I’m being hard on this land that we love. And second, we might well ask what any of this has to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Well, the answer to both these questions comes back to the vision statement that I am proposing for South Church. “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Nationalistic claims in general, and the claim to be the greatest country in the world in particular do not aide in bridging differences that divide our world, especially when there is evidence that this is simply not true. I should say that I spot checked the rankings in that speech and even adjusted a few numbers based on what I found, so while The Newsroom is a fictional show, these statistics stand up.

Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says that the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is one. We might also say that the first step in bridging the differences that divide us is to tell the truth, most especially to tell the truth about ourselves.

This morning’s lesson from Second Corinthians speaks directly to this issue of bridging differences. In his letter Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to give to the church in Jerusalem. Corinth and Jerusalem represent a central division in the early church, a division between Gentiles and Jews. The founding members of the church in Jerusalem were Jews before they chose to follow Christ, while the Corinth church was made up of Gentiles, or non-Jewish Christians. There was lots of conflict in the early years of the church about whether Gentiles could even become Christians. Maybe the arguments about whether Jews or Gentiles were better Christians can be equated to our present day battles about whether Democrats or Republicans are better Americans. The Gentile Christians in Corinth were wealthier than Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem so Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church to collect an offering to support their struggling brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Paul is “testing the genuineness of (the) love” of the Corinthian Christians by asking them to overcome their judgment and distrust and give to the Jerusalem church. Listen again to his words to the Corinthians, “I do not believe that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

These early Christians were just as divided around matters if ethnicity, nationality, class and beliefs as we are today and Paul made it his mission to bring them all together in Christ. Paul seeks to bridge the divisions that divide the world to form one Body of Christ by asking the Corinthians to set aside their judgments to find a fair balance between their needs with the needs of others.

These lessons apply to each of us today just as they apply to our church. As we examine our lives and our church we are called to tell the truth about ourselves, even when it hurts, and seek a fair balance between our needs and the needs of others. Since before my arrival at South Church the tradition here has been to conclude worship on this Sunday before the Fourth of July with the hymn, This is My Song. The words give beautiful, poetic expression to the vision of a church that bridges differences that divide the world to become on Body of Christ. I close with these words:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, though God of all the nations,
a land of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Ruler of all nations;
let thy reign come; on earth thy will be done.
In peace may all earth’s people draw together,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, though God of all the nations;
myself I give to thee; let thy will be done. Amen.

Please share your thoughts, not only about the sermon itself, but about the use of the proposed vision statement as a focal point for our community.

The Vision Thing

This is my column from the July, 2012 South Church newsletter, The Voice:

President George H. W. Bush once dismissed pleas from his party to articulate a compelling vision for the country by making contemptuous reference to “the vision thing.” This sound bite only seemed to reinforce the perception that Bush’s presidency was a ship without a rudder, wandering from one short-term objective to another.

From time to time someone at South Church will ask me about my vision for the church. I think a shared, compelling vision is essential for any organization, so I haven’t been dismissive of these queries. But I also haven’t rallied the church around a single, coherent “vision statement,” yet.

There are two reasons for this. First, we are a Congregational and Baptist church committed to democratic governance. Ideally, a vision emerges out of a congregational process in which everyone participates. But such visioning processes can be long and, frankly, tedious. Instead of ending up with a powerful statement of vision the result is too often a cumbersome paragraph that looks like it was written by a committee (because it was).

The second reason I haven’t proclaimed a vision for South Church is because there have been lots and lots of other pressing issues before the church. Restoring confidence and hope following a challenging interim period and addressing a life-threatening budget crisis seemed to call for a series of timely responses instead of “the vision thing.” Maybe this is how President Bush felt.

This said, I have had a vision that has served as my rudder since I first experienced a call to ministry. And I have frequently articulated this vision here at South Church; I just haven’t announced it by saying, “HERE IS MY VISION!” But this vision is often discernable in my sermons and evident through the choices I make as your pastor. I wonder how each of you would complete the sentence, “Pastor George’s vision for the church is…”?

My words of welcome on the South Church homepage are instructive:

“Welcome to South Church! We are a diverse community of faithful and seekers. We are Baptist (ABC) and Congregational (UCC); we are black, brown and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, born again and agnostic; we work in schools, offices, factories and Dunkin’ Donuts; we are students, retired and unemployed. We come from backgrounds Protestant and Catholic, while others are discovering church for the first time.

And when we come together with our joys and sorrows, our faith and our doubts – when we worship together, share communion together, sing together, study the Bible together, and fellowship together – we love and support one another to become one body of Christ.

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Welcome home to South Church.”

What to you find here? Diversity? Yes. Hospitality? Certainly. Grace? Of course. But there is still more implied by these words. Try this on for size:

South Church brings people together across the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.

I don’t need to tell you about the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country and our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Attempting to bridge (not resolve but connect across) our differences is a tall order requiring much more than a smile and a handshake on a Sunday morning. We would have a lot of work to do to live into this vision for the church, but when I look out on the congregation on a Sunday morning I believe we are already off to a great start.

Please prayerfully ponder these words, “South Church brings people together across the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Does this vision for South Church speak to you? Could this vision provide a rudder to guide our worship and work together? How do we become the church described by this vision? Let’s begin the conversation and get under way.

I Just Can’t Do It All

I have been asked to write a regular column for the New Britain Herald. Here is the column that ran on November 25, 2011:

Stressed. Anxious. Worried. Overwhelmed. As a pastor, these were some of the feelings I heard expressed by New Britain residents in the days following the October Nor’easter. Most of us confronted cold, dark nights lit only by candles and flashlights. Some were trapped in their homes for days because of downed trees and branches. Many were unable to cook meals or wash clothes. Others couldn’t bathe or flush their toilets and had to stay with relatives or in shelters. This rare storm tested our ability to respond to adversity in our lives.

One comment in particular made me pause and ponder the spiritual lessons we might take from this experience. These words came from a big, burly guy, a former Marine and firefighter, who had set out early Sunday morning to plow driveways for his customers. Like all of us he was appalled by the devastation and destruction he encountered. In his younger days, he thought, he would have taken it all on. He imagined his younger-self brandishing a chainsaw and single-handedly clearing every blocked road and rescuing every trapped little old lady. But now, as he picked his way through the debris, he could only shake his head and say, “I just can’t do it all.”

I just can’t do it all. We should all pause and repeat these words; “I just can’t do it all.” On one hand, this is an honest acknowledgment of our limitations. But these words are also the first step in leading a life of faith. When we acknowledge our limitations, we make room in our lives for the divine to move.

We often associate faith with belief in a particular God, doctrine or set of values. But before we ever arrive at what we believe in, we must know how to act from faith. How will we respond when we are stressed, anxious, worried or overwhelmed, when we confront devastation and destruction in our lives? C. S. Lewis once said, “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.” Our first step is to simply let go and say, “I just can’t do it all,” and trust that someone or something else can and will respond. Then, in faith, we take another step.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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Happy St. Ambrose Day, Rod!

Today is Saint Ambrose Day.

Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and its accompanying website regularly integrate reflections on the lives of saints, ancient and contemporary, into daily prayers. Today’s prayer introduces Ambrose of Milan (339-397):

A provincial governor in fourth-century Italy, Ambrose was drafted to serve as bishop before he was even baptized. Reluctant to serve the church at first, he took the task seriously when he finally accepted the call. Ambrose gave away all of his possessions, took up a strict schedule of daily prayer, and committed himself to the study of Scripture. Called from the world of politics to serve the church, Ambrose was a leader who spoke truth to power and did not back down, insisting that “the emperor is in the church, not over it.”

Addressing Roman Emperor Theodosius about a massacre he had authorized at Thessalonica, Ambrose of Milan wrote, “You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to repentance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocents to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your chiefest glory. Drive him from you while you can.”

The life of Governor (and Bishop) Ambrose stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the disgraced and ousted Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was today sentenced to fourteen years in prison for corruption. Where is our Ambrose?

Of Church, Bikers and Beer!

This ad for Carlsberg Beer has received over eight million hits on Youtube! After you finish laughing, think about how this might reflect someone’s experience walking into a church for the first time. Will we appear as a room filled with intimidating bikers? Will we welcome the brave souls who squeeze into a pew warmly, if not raucously? If not a cold beer, what do we have to offer that lets people know that they are just one of the gang? Turn it around? How would a couple tough looking bikers feel walking into our church on a Sunday morning?

Published in: on November 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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Peace Elmo Joins South Church Community Clean-up!

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at South Church!”

Published in: on October 16, 2011 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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