The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

All posts by Bill Lattimer

Our world is broken.  Our nation is divided.  How can we find healing?  We must look to Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  Irrespective of what people believe about him we can learn from him.  The evil, hate and segregation that infects the human heart can be cured.  However, we cannot be silent, we cannot be afraid and we cannot do this alone.

The terror that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia was appalling.  Quite frankly, I have VERY ill feelings towards people who preach hate.  I was desperately seeking God for guidance this week and I was led to, 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  This verse, from our Holy Bible, has challenged me all week to go deeper with God.  I’ve been in conversations, on phone calls and in prayer with clergy about how the church can be a voice during a time such as this.

With all the opinions, blogs and articles being posted the national office, of The United Church of Christ, has sent a response that I share with you below:

August 15, 2017

As a response to the violent clashes between white supremacists and counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., that left a woman dead and 19 injured, the national leadership of the United Church of Christ issued this Pastoral Letter:

Dear Members, Friends, Clergy, and Leaders of and within the United Church of Christ,

The Officers of the United Church of Christ and the Council of Conference Ministers have both composed a Pastoral Letter and a set of liturgical pieces. We share both with you now, and invite you to read the letter in your service of worship, add it to your website or social media pages, or print it in your newsletter or bulletin. Please feel free to incorporate any or all of the liturgical pieces in this week’s worship.

Pastoral Letter

Last weekend, a group of white supremacists came to Charlottesville, Virginia, and incited violence to protest the removal of a Confederate monument. Although protest is the bedrock of our nation’s democracy, coming in riot gear proves that they intended to do more than simply protest.

We, the Council of Conference Ministers and Officers of the United Church of Christ, strongly condemn the acts of violent hatred expressed by these white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members. Their white robes and burning crosses were replaced with polo shirts, khakis, and tiki torches, while their lynching was replaced with a speeding car barreling through a group of peaceful protesters with the intention of harming and killing others, which it did. Their vitriolic hatred is the same.

We confess that the events of Charlottesville are systemic and communal expressions of white privilege and racism that continues to pervade our nation’s spiritual ethos. And if we only condemn the acts of August 12, 2017, without condemning the roots of racism, which perpetuate discrimination in our American schools, justice system, business, and healthcare systems, then we have sinned as well. We must work toward the Kin-dom of Heaven here on earth now for the sake of a just world for all.

We do this by committing to follow the ways of Jesus, who stood with the oppressed, spoke out against political and religious powers, and courageously embodied a just world for all as he sought to create it. Today, we must follow the ways of Jesus in addressing the hatred of white supremacists and racists among us.

Our local UCC churches must be true solidarity partners with those who march in the streets.  Our UCC churches are encouraged to move from the sanctuary and walk alongside other clergy and community leaders who seek to resist, agitate, inform, and comfort. We must resist hatred and violence. We must also agitate ourselves, and our neighbors to acknowledge any racism within or among us. We must inform ourselves, and our neighbors what our sacred stories reveal to us of a just world for all. We must lament and grieve with those who are injured or murdered during violent confrontations with those who mean us harm. And we must comfort those who have been discriminated against with the transformative love of God.

As we go forward, let us model the legacy of activism through our sacred call given to us by our UCC ancestors: May we be prophetic truth-tellers like our Congregational Christian forebears, who marched in public squares demanding equality for all. May we serve others, and remain faithful witnesses like our Evangelical and Reformed forebears, who tended to the needs of the forgotten. And may we be courageous like our non-UCC forebears, who left their spiritual home and joined the UCC in order to fully live out who God created them to be.

In the days to come, may God’s truth, mission, and courage be our guide to embodying the Kin-dom of Heaven here on earth. Amen.

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

Saint Francis of Assisi, was an Italian Roman Catholic friar, deacon and preacher.  Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.  He articulates one of my favorite quotes, regarding preaching: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”  In this substantive quote, Francis illuminates how important it is that our words and our actions are aligned.  This charge has become the framework for my ministry, my life and my spiritual formation.

Over the years I’ve listened to, studied and watched countless sermons.  However, there is one preacher who has changed my life more than any other preacher in the world.  His name is, Jesus Christ.  Jesus was the living example of God, which Saint Francis got his inspiration from.  He was masterful at preaching to everyone, everywhere regardless of age, race, sexual identity, creed, religion or lack of religion.  In all four gospels there are countless examples that separate Jesus from any other preacher.

This week, I offer you a prayer that has been my guiding light for years.  These words are more than just black ink on a white sheet of paper… They are truly words to live by:

 

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

 

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

Amen.

 

Join us, this Sunday, as we explore how God’s light shines through the darkness of despair.

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

Every Sunday, at The First Congregational Church of Darien, the Holy Spirit is moving in new and energetic ways.  Pastor Dale and I, through prayer, are constantly asking the question: “Lord, what is the next move for YOUR church?”

As you may have heard, we have been actively seeking a new Director of Christian Education to add to our Church staff.  We believe this position is vital to strengthening our ministry to families and supplement the great work that is taking place in our church.  A sub-committee of the Board of Christian Education has spent the last six weeks interviewing potential candidates and brought forth two for additional discussions with Pastor Dale and me.  We are delighted to have clear consensus around one of these candidates.

Her name, Christine Geeding!  Christine hails from just south of the Chicago area and will be moving to CT in early August — as her husband, Ben, will be starting at Yale Divinity in the fall.  She has been actively involved in the Church from a very young age.  She has a strong music background, currently teaching as well as being employed as the Assistant Music Pastor at her church.  She loves children, working mostly with Elementary and Middle School kids.  She has 2 degrees: a Bachelor of Music in Music Ministry and a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry.  Christine comes across as very energetic, enthusiastic, creative and kind-hearted.  She has a warmth and kind spirit about her.  The search committee feels she will be a great fit for us.  She is eager to take this journey with us.

Christine will be with us this coming Sunday, July 23, for the 9:00 am service and will be available to visit with you during the coffee/lemonade hour.  This is a great opportunity for us to showcase our amazing Church community while allowing us to get to know her a bit better.

In addition to Christine being with us this Sunday.  We are also going to be giving the Denoyer family a church blessing as they embark on a new journey.  They are moving to Indiana where Anna’s family hails from.  This decision comes with great celebration but also with heavy hearts.  The Denoyer family has been extremely involved in our church and seeing them leave will be bitter sweet.  Such is the journey of life.  This Sunday we will be sure to send them off with great love.

Sunday’s sermon title is: “Walk in Faith” which speaks directly to many of the events taking place at church.  This week, without a doubt, has been one of the greatest weeks of my entire life.  I look forward to preaching this word that the Lord has placed on my heart to share with you.

Come, as you are, we look forward to worshipping with you!

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

On June 19, 2006 a letter was sent to our church membership declaring that our clergy were empowered on behalf of First Congregational to perform civil union services for same-sex couples.  On June 26, 2015 the US Supreme Court struck down the statues of any state forbidding same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

Because the terms of what is at stake here have changed, we need to update our position regarding the consecration of the relationships of same-sex couples. And I propose we do so now as I preach on the subject this Sunday and invite you to join us afterward in the Morehouse Room for an open hearing of all views. Trust me, every point of view will be heard and every person will be valued in that setting, very much as we spoke of racial reconciliation under the sacred canopy.

Why now?  It is something how our journey unfolds, isn’t it? I meant to lead us in this discernment a year ago, but then the roof threatened to cave in, and we got busy. Then after we returned to the Meetinghouse I decided it was time, and a lesbian couple united with us, to confirm that timing.  God speaks in such ways to signal our engagement with and discernment around the vital issues of our time.

In 2006 we arrived at our discernment on civil unions by group consensus rather than congregational vote. I like that approach again this time round and believe it augurs well as we look to the future.  Voting can get political and divisive, making some feel like winners, others like losers.  Building and sharing in consensus is where not all of us necessarily agree, but we can agree on finding a way forward.

What might we achieve? The United Church of Christ has an activist-based Open and Affirming process all about affirming the rights of gays and lesbians. The churches opting in eventually get designated as “Open and Affirming Churches.”

As for me, I don’t see folks coming to us wanting us to affirm their rights so much as offer a blessing.  Rights are the language of the nation-state. Such talk tends to politicize an already difficult issue. But blessing is the language of the church.  So I want us to consider the nature of the blessing we have for same-sex couples.

My hope is that we will become what I call a Full Blessing Congregation.  And let me tell you what I mean by that. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian church had zero official blessing for gay people. These relationships found no sanction in the services of the church. Sometimes gays were actively persecuted by the church.

Then in the Seventies, some pastors performed services of commitment on the sly for gay couples, sometimes in our sanctuaries, but more commonly outside of them. Church authorities couldn’t stop us clergy from acting on our consciences, but kept this from occurring in their buildings, lest these services be construed as approval or complicity.   We might call this phase of our history “partial blessing.”

I’m asking for same-sex couples desiring the church’s blessing, and willing to submit to marriage as a time-honored covenant, and to model their love after the self-giving love of Christ, whether anything is to prevent us from offering them not only the sanction of our services, but even the full blessing we offer every couple.

For me, this is a matter of moral and spiritual discernment, not rights activism.  So will you come and be with us on Sunday and help us see God’s way forward?

I said something recently that I wish to retract or maybe merely modify. I led off a sermon a few weeks ago saying that there are three answers to our prayers. The first answer is the most popular one: yes.  The second answer often baffles us: no.  The third answer to our prayers is the most agonizing and confusing: wait.

So much of getting clear in faith is asking right questions. I wish to question the idea of prayer working for us by getting answers we deem acceptable or helpful. Peter W. Marty recently wrote that in discussing prayer and its outcomes, we should eliminate the word “answer.”  Suffice it to say, that really got my attention.

What did Marty mean? Well, now to claim there are only three answers to prayer, it sounds utterly saturated with our self-interest.  It sounds centered around us rather than centered around God.  Those are not the directions I want to lead us.

Yes, Jesus did encourage us to pray for things we need, even specific things.  And I still believe that doing so is a sign of spiritual maturity, a sign of closeness to God.  But we should remember that in the context that prayer is not mostly about us. Prayer is mostly about God, and sharing in the life God has given to us.

When you ponder prayer, picture relationships with friends across decades. We have special friendships, where time and distance can’t intrude. We know friends with whom we can pick up where we left off in a lifelong ongoing conversation. Such settings evoke deep conversation that inspire curiosity, promote honesty, and reveal transformations of ourselves, which might otherwise remain invisible. Those visits are less about achieving a result and more about sharing company. We know such relationships are beautiful because such company as that is rare.

Prayer is much like that.  Perhaps the most important outcome of prayer is not getting what we want or deem necessary at a certain moment within our journey.  Perhaps it is to enough know God, and therefore know ourselves.  Or better still, perhaps the purpose of prayer is to enjoy God so we can rejoice within our days. Robert Farrar Capon has said, “Prayer is just talking to someone who is already talking to you.  (Prayer) is listening to someone who is already listening to you.”

The place where I have learned the most about prayer is sitting with the dying, reading Psalms to them, taking their hands into mine, and settling into our prayer. We always reach a point where we put aside prayers that seek certain results, such as healing.  And we begin to pray for things like God’s presence, constancy, companionship, guidance.  We pray for God being strong for us in our weakness. Those prayers have been for me some of the most free and liberating I’ve known.

On this Celebration Sunday, we recognize Church School teachers and children, bid farewell to Mary Jo, and look to a new era of ministry to our young. We do not yet know where we will be as we reshape all these ministries to eliminate gaps. Would it be enough to pray for God’s presence, constancy, companionship, and guidance?  Would it be enough to let God usher us forward?  Yes, yes, and yes.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.  Every year, the week before Memorial Day, I spend my time in prayer asking God to wash his love over the families, friends and soldiers who have been affected by war.

I would like to invite you to join me this week in prayer for our fallen sisters and brothers.  Remember, God’s heart is broken right alongside these people.  As a result, keeping them and those close to them lifted in prayer will lead the Holy Spirit into their hearts.

Recently, my wife and I watched a movie called: “Hacksaw Ridge”.  The true story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss played by Andrew Garfield, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life — without firing a shot — to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.

This movie impacted me deeply.  Truthfully, I cried throughout several scenes.  Desmond Doss, reminds me of the parable that will be preached this Sunday in church, The Good Samaritan:

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ (Luke 10:33-35, NRSV)

There are many ways to interpret this text but at the heart of it is, Divine Intervention.  Doss saw an opportunity to serve in a most courageous way.  I’ve been fortunate to witness countless examples of Good Samaritans.  Because of this, I’m motivated to conclude that human angels do exist in our world.  Many of whom I met in our church.

Compassionately

Gary Michael

 

Our hope is that so much occurs on Sundays of such a vital nature that you will feel like you missed out big time by being away from worship on a given Sunday. We hope that not because we aspire to amuse or entertain you, trivializing the church. We hope that not because we have a need to bask in the spotlight, diverting your attention away from where it should be–your relationship with God.

We hope that because your spiritual walk in your spiritual home is not one more piece in the pie of your lifestyle—alongside work, leisure, vacation, family time, community involvement, etc. We hope that because what we are doing with you at church in worship is more like the pan coherently holding that life-pie together.

We hope the equipping FCC gives you to live out your life is foundational to you becoming the best person you could be, the one God means for you to become. If all of that sounds far too ambitious, then I ask you: why would we settle for anything less? In this contemporary world, so much competes for your time, money, and attention. Distractions are the rule and not the exception. We need to show up and do our job right to give God a shot at holding you within his grasp.

Unless I am missing something, church is the only place, or at least the primary place, that puts first nurturing your relationship with the Creator who made you and the Redeemer who will someday pick you up from the dust of non-being.

So without resorting to stunts, we aim to keep things as lively, engaging, fresh and transforming as the Gospel we proclaim.  Accordingly, this Sunday, aside from the celebration of Rory James Swenson’s baptism—which our people find riveting–Gary and I will try something new. We will engage in a dialogue sermon.

All preaching is dialogical. That is most obvious in the African-American churches where the back and forth between the preacher and people is the art form itself. You would be surprised by how much both Gary and I draw energy from what we see in your faces, from the receptivity we feel in your posture, as you listen to us.

Many comment on the bond between Gary and myself despite our differences in age, experience, style, temperament, stage of life, presentation, and personality.  No few find that surprising.  One person said to me, I can’t believe you called him given how different he is from you.  Of course, oneness in Christ makes all of that possible. We illustrate Paul’s words, that there is a variety of gifts but one Spirit.

This Sunday that dynamic is on full display as we two dialogue around I Cor. 15.1-18, Paul’s declaration of Easter good news. Be there or be square. Show up then or risk having to find out secondhand what happened. So see you in church!

Confirmation rolls around again this Sunday and I find myself eagerly anticipating it every year. Even if this is only a first confirmation for these 13 young people, and not a final confirmation of anything, with other confirmations of faith to follow at stages along life’s way, it is significant.  So much so that I invariably find it chokes me up. Yes, we want to cast what this means in the broader sweep of life.  Yes, we want to make it as personal as the gifts of each individual youth.

Right now I’m viewing Confirmation in the broader context of everything we’re attempting with our children and youth at FCC, Darien. Our goal to make this ministry seamless across the 18 or so years we have a shot at forming our youth. It’s exciting that the last stop—high school youth ministry—is alive and strong.  We have gone from involving 3 or 4 youth to several dozen in our youth ministry, courtesy of Gary. But we need to build backward from high school into a vibrant and vital middle school youth ministry, and downward from that into a spirited Church School. To do this, let’s notice how our ministry to high schoolers has come alive to grow exponentially.

We were talking about this last Monday night as the Connecticut Conference Minister, the Rev. Kent Siladi, was visiting us, asking about FCC, Darien. Kent preached here last January as I was in Annapolis to do Lise’s wedding. He already gets why this ministry thrives.  And that is why Kent is enlisting Gary and Shawn (from the UCC in Greenwich) to show other UCC churches the way.

Have you noticed how much time Gary spends out there, in the world of our youth, at their concerts, at their sporting events, their plays and their award ceremonies?  Have you noticed how much effort Gary expends getting to know parents? The arc of ministry today takes us out into the world rather than tapping our foot waiting for folks to show up because we are terrific.

In the old ways of ministry, now past and gone, all roads led to FCC, Darien. All we had to do was open our doors and wait for folks to show up.  Not only were we the only church in Darien for a hundred years after our founding, all town business was transacted here, and this is where citizens would pay their taxes.   All roads led to F.C.C. because we owned the spiritual franchise.

Today no spiritual franchise exists. The largest growing religious group–a full one out of three under age 30—is “none of the above.”  So if we wait for them to come to us, get ready to watch spider webs grow and dust to gather within our beautifully restored and fully prepared church.  If some wonder why Gary isn’t here in our church more, spending more time with “our” youth, it no longer works that way anymore.  If our territorial instincts got the better of us, and we were to reel Gary in from being out there with his time, you would see our youth ministry ebb.

The simple truth is that the rest of our ministries need to become more out there in the world if we seek to thrive on every front.  Of course, this is a shift in paradigms, and change like this will always come slowly.  It is the same reason though, why you have heard me go on and on about inviting newcomers to worship.  Our new members tend to do this naturally while our veteran members will ask, why?  “That is not how I got here.”  Well, the world for which we were all so carefully prepared is gone.  And we must prepare to minister in another world, glory be to God.

Hearing the story of Christ’s passion, as we did last Sunday, I can hardly believe the likes of Gary and I must retell that story, and that you must hear it again. Why is that? The story is so heartbreaking. As Gary reminded us, God’s was the first heart to break at this turn of events. In hearing it, it breaks our hearts afresh. We go deeper into hurt and suffering, hoping we might arise with Christ into his joy.

What is the alternative? Today a church member sent me the notice of the official Darien Easter Egg hunt this Sunday morning.  All right, we have an Easter egg hunt as well, featuring the Easter bunny. But it is a concession to our very young, not a replacement for everything else we do on Easter morning.  Maybe it would not bother me if they scheduled it other than Sunday morning when the churches are offering services.  The point is, we don’t want to splash in the shallows, but rather swim out into the depths of what God was up to in Jesus’ dying and rising.

I am glad for the reassurance of the Psalmist, that God will not turn away from a broken and contrite heart. (Psalm 51.17)  My friend Mary Luti writes the best translation is that God will not spurn a contrite heart.  God cannot turn away from such a heart.  What is it about a heart that has been shaken, shattered, opened, and made pliable that God cannot resist?  We tend to recoil, but God draws near.

That makes me ask: what would it be like if I took on a contrite heart as a way of life, not just for the shame I feel at having done something in particular wrong. Frankly, that’s what Holy Week is all about: letting our hearts become broken with God through Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.  Why do something so counterintuitive?  Because the promise is God will draw near to us.

I am not talking about wallowing in guilt.  I am not talking about perpetual self-loathing, posturing self-abasement, or gloomily beating our breast and wailing. I am talking about gaining a heart aware that we make hurtful mistakes and will do so again.  I am talking about assuming that as our baseline as human beings.

Yes, again, it’s counterintuitive. But notice, as our hearts accept and welcome frailty, and take on the vulnerability of others’ hardship and adversity, our hearts become magnets for God.  Every soul needs a heart conversant with failure.

The Psalmist prays for a heart truthful about what it lacks, a heart that lives on its knees at hearing of misfortune, a heart surrendered to the grace all around us. That is the heart I want.  That is the heart Holy Week would gladly impart to us.See you tomorrow for Maundy Thursday Tenebrae at 7, or Good Friday walking of the cross to St. Luke’s (where I am the first preacher), or Good Friday vigilant, reading through as much of the New Testament as we can cover.  God hears us. God knows the broken parts of our hearts, because his was broken so deeply.

See you tomorrow for Maundy Thursday Tenebrae at 7, or Good Friday walking of the cross to St. Luke’s (where I am the first preacher), or Good Friday vigilant, reading through as much of the New Testament as we can cover.  God hears us. God knows the broken parts of our hearts, because his was broken so deeply.

My sermon on character last Sunday was vigorous, even bracing. In a day when truthfulness feels like it is in retreat, I offered five different ways to test ourselves, search our souls, and examine our integrity. None were easy. All were strenuous.

Yet you welcomed the challenge. It didn’t surprise me. Why? First, we describe our FCC brand as authentic. We understand church as a place to tell more of the truth of our lives rather than just exchange pleasantries or prop up appearances. We embrace that. Also, it was a down-to-earth, practical message we can apply to daily life. As Americans, a very practical people, we love that kind of message.

So everything’s hunky-dory, right? Why not weekly approach preaching like that? Not so fast. It is one thing to preach a practical, down-to-earth, readily applicable sermon on character, or three keys for dealing with conflict, or common pitfalls in communication. We can break them down into parts and put them back together. They are challenging realities, yes, but not nearly so difficult or promising as the sacred mysteries revealed in the stories of Israel or Jesus bringing us unto God.

I don’t stand before you to spin out my pet themes or favorite insights and bask in adulation as the fixer of your lives. The gospel cuts much deeper than touching us up a little.  I am sure you’ve noticed, our problems as humans are much more serious than that.  Why, most Sundays, I don’t even pick the text that I preach on.  They are assigned to me (called a lectionary) to prevent me from becoming your ultra-groovy avatar of self-fulfillment. Most of the texts are intractably mysterious. Like the one this week on the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and his sisters’ grief.

Believe me, we’d quickly lose interest in church if God’s Word weren’t as deeply mysterious and layered as the lives we lead. So often after hearing the stories of God’s rescue project to save humankind, people will say, “I don’t understand.” I get it. I’ve preached the three-year cycle of lectionary texts now 13 times. And I still don’t fully understand either. We don’t so much understand these texts as we stand under them, hear them afresh, glean the hidden meanings and absorb new insights with new experience. We don’t grasp them so much as they grasp us. We don’t take Jesus’ parables apart and put them back together again so much as they take us apart and put us back together, as the people he wants us to be.

To be honest, even more than you not getting it or rejecting my message, I fear domesticating the gospel, reducing it to schemes and rendering it powerless. The gospel isn’t something we’ve chosen.  It is the power of God that has chosen us.Finally, faith isn’t very plausible, predictable, expected or conventional. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So will you open your heart with me in worship? Will you open yourself as God’s wild and improbable mysteries have their way with us? It requires us to let go of our powers and competencies, and trust what God gives.

Finally, faith isn’t very plausible, predictable, expected or conventional. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So will you open your heart with me in worship? Will you open yourself as God’s wild and improbable mysteries have their way with us? It requires us to let go of our powers and competencies, and trust what God gives.