Let’s face it, these days many Christians are down on Santa Claus, associating him with the mind-numbing commercialization that threatens to engulf Christmas. As for me, I don’t mind when he shows up at church events. He showed up at our Advent workshop and was very well-behaved, much to the delight of our children.
One thing about Santa does creep me out a bit. Have you ever heard Santa do this riff on children where he lifts his eyebrows, peers over his glasses, and says, “Have you all been good boys and girls this year?” This gets oft repeated. Bruce Springsteen works this in his version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” In the modern, ubiquitous A Christmas Story, the Darren McGavin Dad pulls this shtick on Ralphie and Randy. “Santa knows….he knows everything….better watch out.”
I remember that very question posed to me as a child on Santa’s behalf. When an adult asked me if I had been good or bad, I thought that adult must be pretty slow. Of course, I hadn’t been good. I disappointed my mother. I fought with my brothers. I hadn’t nearly lived up to what my teacher expected of me. Was I good enough to stack up on Santa’s naughty and nice list? I harbored serious doubts.
Imagine, a Christmas where only the pure, noble and good children get presents. That pretty much drains the grace of God out of the equation, which is the whole point. When Jesus arrived, the earth languished. Israel was spiritually tone deaf. Jesus came because Israel was unequal to their many lofty promises back to the Lord God through Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. None of us deserved him.
What helps me with Santa is getting behind the one Thomas Nast invented as an illustrator in 1866 or the Coca Cola swilling Santa drawn to drive sales in the 30s. I saw Orthodox icons of Nicholas of Myra when in Greece and learned about him. When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra donated the entire fortune and gave his life over to the Church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for being generous to the poor. As he gave to the poor, he sought to preserve their dignity. At night he lowered gifts through holes in ceilings venting household smoke (no chimneys!) to surprise families rather than make these families feel like beggars. After Nicholas died on 6 Dec. 354, his fame spread beyond what is now Turkey.
But the truth is the kind, generous bishop was also a harsh, fierce bishop. Once jailed for his faith, he hit back after as hard as he was hit, persecuting pagans and repressing heretics. Life is never as simple as how we dream life should be. Like all of us, St Nicholas was a mix of utmost kindness and overzealous ferocity, passions sweet and severe. He was a flawed man in a flawed world, like all of us.
So if we were hoping for some squeaky pure version of Christmas in this season of high expectation–without defect, contradiction or disappointment–we might do better pondering a higher form of mercy and grace than you and I are capable of. Jesus entered a complicated world we want to smooth out and loved us to death.
When I was in college, being Christian was decidedly uncool. My generation saw Christianity as materialistic (in bed with capitalism), imperialistic (arrogantly and poisonously proselytizing), and anathema to human freedom (70’s dictators wrapped themselves in the flag and church.)
Back then, the cool religion was Buddhism. I could see the attraction as peace and non-violence (the principle of ahimsa, “no harm”) have been at the heart of Buddhism for centuries. Also, by minimizing our attachment to material things, Buddhism seeks to neutralize covetousness, and cut the ground underneath resentment, anger, and violence among people spoiling for a fight.
When I was in college, I roomed with four Jews as the sole goy or non-Jew. We often talked about religion in depth, mostly because we were friends and able to trust one another. Trust is important because when we’re ignorant about other faiths, we easily ask stupid questions. And if everyone gets all up in a huff as soon as someone lets one of those fly, little room remains to explore and learn. Safe space is important to grasp the mysterious intricacies of faith. Howard, Ed, Bob, Elliot, Stuart and I chose to laugh at our ignorance rather than shame each other for it.
Since then I have come to a conclusion. Do you know how we might have some rough idea of another couple’s marriage in the sparsest way, but don’t know what is in their heart of hearts? Guess what, the same is also true of those practicing faiths other than our own. And rather than fill the void in our knowledge by speculating with easy stereotypes, we best listen closely and respectfully, if we truly want to learn. Each faith has a logic and language all its own. I find more stereotypes from those who embrace no faith and fewer from those who practice a religion. Why is that? If someone lives their faith they can more easily sense deep mystery in all of them.
So many who thought I was crazy to go to a Christian divinity school after college now profess interest and curiosity in what I do and who I am. (People become more religious with age, as the dilemmas of life multiply and the days that we are allotted diminish.) Those who perceived me as unenlightened and retrograde for embracing my Christian faith by becoming a church leader are not so cynical toward me now. They even ask me questions about what it all means.
And look what has happened to Buddhism since then. The Christian Century reported a survey on materialism among various faiths of the world. What faith most approved of conspicuous consumption and put the fewest caps how many things we might acquire without feeling guilt? Surprisingly, Buddhism won that dubious sweepstakes. And then we look around the world at militant Buddhist groups in Myanmar (where the Pope was in recent days) creating the world’s largest group of refugees out of the Rowhingya people fleeing to Bangladesh and elsewhere. It’s not our standard view of the Dalai Lama and saffron robed monks in monasteries now, is it?
The Rowhingya people fleeing the Buddhists are themselves Muslims. But wait, aren’t Muslims supposedly violent and Buddhists the peaceniks? Down with our facile and profane religious stereotypes, and up with respecting faith in general and listening closely to religion’s adherents.
As his ordination approached, both Gary and I insisted it was not only about his life, but most especially about FCC, Darien. My charge to all churches present at his ordination reflected this. Some churches produce ministers and contribute to the church’s leadership pool for the future (like us right now). Other churches consume pastors and send clergy scrambling for career exits.
It’s an either/or because one way is life and the other spells spiritual death. And it’s impossible to be coming alive and also simultaneously an instrument of death. The difference is subtle, even invisible, but it is real. My charge meant to support the visiting clergy. One described me as, “drawing a protective circle around them.” And that was my intention, to articulate a word needing to be spoken that normally goes unspoken. So here are a few highlights of that charge:
Churches that consume ministers treat us as enabling leaders. That is, we are only here to help the church do what it would have done without us anyway already. These churches act like they know our jobs better than we do; as though what ministry is about is covered elsewhere, like in their daytime jobs. Needing to control us will bring zero discovery and no adventure to ministry.
Churches that produce clergy look to us as initiating leaders. You give us leeway to move and to let God’s Spirit roam. You trust and invite our gifts, training and life experiences for dreaming dreams and seeing visions. You see the church as unique, giving its ministry oxygen to breathe deeply and become Christ’s living body. So instead of conforming to the world, we transform it.
Churches that consume ministers act like customers and treat clergy as providers of religious services. Our job is to please you and meet your family’s perceived needs. It fails to notice how living in today’s intense consumer environment bleakly distorts our wants and needs. Here the church takes on the soul of the world as consumer frenzy swallows God’s overarching purposes.
Churches that produce pastors realize our calling is to proclaim the true and living God in Christ. We don’t please you; we please God and serve you. We find our bearings in God’s idea of what it means to be human, not the world’s. You create a higher ceiling by letting us be stewards of sacred mysteries new to each generation, much more than merely scratching your spiritual itch.
Churches that consume ministers act like ministry is easy. They don’t realize that if it looks easy, it’s because we’ve worked very hard. Such churches teem with trifling little pointers for our benefit without seeing the big picture. Churches that produce ministers respect how hard our work is. Another mass shooting this week? Everyone looks to us for solace and comfort while also expecting a socially prophetic word that offends no one. You try that on for size sometime. Imagine if we showed up at your hedge fund office and started second-guessing your strategies.
Churches that consume pastors chat in hallways or parking lots about us in disagreeing with us. Or as you do address us, you insert “people are saying,” about as brave as unsigned crank mail. Churches that produce ministers have members willing to look us straight in the eye as you disagree and speak for yourself. You don’t impute anonymous support that often doesn’t exist. Let’s just ban the phrase, “people are saying.” We are not fragile hothouse flowers. Just say it. As we stand every Sunday in a pulpit, vulnerable in our convictions, we expect the same of you.
As we bring something new, churches that consume ministers respond with, “Well, that was ok, I guess. But why didn’t you..?” In this church, whatever we venture is never good enough. They forget that building up (creativity) is hard and tearing down (acidic criticism) is easy. Churches that produce ministers come alongside us to fan the spark of the flame of creation, as we bring forward our imperfect, flawed ideas. Together we feed the fire of God’s burning Spirit. Such churches reward extra mile effort, taking the church to the next place and bringing fresh angles.
Last Sunday we recalled the Protestant Reformation. A tenet from back then was simul justus et peccator, which means at the same time we are yet sinners, we are also justified, or made alright by God. So every Christian is simultaneously sinner and saint, which likely squares with even the best people you have known.
Human beings, even the best, are messily imperfect, prone toward selfishness, or sometimes just unheeding and hapless in the hurt that we cause to other folks. Yet that doesn’t change our belovedness in God’s eyes, much as we still love our children when they disobey us. Saints are far from some club of righteousness, posing for marble statues of unapproachably noble ideals, and absent of doubts.
Saints are those for whom God’s generously gracious intent and loyalty has the final word. All of our hope rests in dying and rising in Christ’s gracious love for us. One of my favorite passages from the Bible will be read on Sunday: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It is God’s greatest promise. The day will come when it will mean the world to you.
For now we’re saints-in-training and will often get things wrong, unable to perfect ourselves. But God is up to the task, as we yield ourselves to God’s purposes, when no one else can help us. That means that one day we can become saints.
A day will come when every tear this life brings will be wiped away, and fear will be no more. On that day sainthood will be less joyless perfection and more a celebration of God’s grace and generosity. Maybe while we are on this side of sainthood, that means that today is a great day to make ourselves ready for joy.
This All Saints Sunday we will…
Last Sunday was remarkable in so many different ways. Attendance was robust. Our Show Up and Sing galvanized our praise from the first note of the first hymn. Ten new members joined, sharing their stories. And another ten are in the wings.
Most remarkable was Gary Morello’s convincing and riveting presentation of his Ordination Paper. You could have heard a pin drop. A layman serving with me on the Committee on Ministry (who oversees this process) had never met Gary. He could hardly believe it. He described Gary as a force of nature. He asked why aren’t we doing everything we can to attract and retain such leaders as our Gary. The Wilton pastor wrote, “what occurred yesterday gives me hope for the future.”
Did you see how seamlessly fluent Gary was, never even glancing at his paper? I was tempted to ask Gary’s examiners in attendance, “Could any of you do that?” We now look ahead to his ordination on 12 November 2017 at 3 pm here at FCC.
But something else remarkable happened. I preached on attending worship as a spiritual building block for our faith and character and to strengthen FCC. I invited your greater commitment by pledging, “if we’re in town and everyone is well, we’ll do our level best to be in worship and to bring our children.” Remarkably, no less than 83 households of individuals, couples, families signed on to this covenant. Do you know what deeper commitment does to build the dynamism of a church?
Let’s break that down and interpret what that means in our daily lives. I liken it to my battle to get to the gym, ice rink or pool to work out. It’s not easy! I know what my most cherished and protected excuses are. So what are yours for worship?
With a bevy of new members this Sunday, let’s lift up what Christian community is and is not. As Americans, we are so highly individualistic that we wander somewhere between jaded about community (“Nobody will tell me what to do!”) and sentimental (“These people will never disappoint me!) Community, with its norms, needn’t be authoritarian, but neither is it a utopia.
A certain pastor tells his new members if they haven’t yet met someone in church they don’t like, it means they’re too much on the periphery. They need to get more involved. I like that funny, realistic way of finding our way forward together. When I came here, we could still trace divisions among us. Those rifts have healed. Now we can talk openly about conflict and its uses. Love in the abstract is tidy and perfect, like villages look as we fly over them, without problems. Love in the concrete is messy. Our relations must ever remain well-lubricated with forgiveness. While God is more good and beautiful than we can dream, humans are a disappointing species.
K. Chesterton helpfully observed, the real work of loving begins as soon as we fall out of love. I tell couples that during their pre-marital counseling sessions. Another thing I say is conflict is a normal part of healthy relationships. This is worth saying because the church is in the business of transforming people and society. But transformation means change, which most of us resist.
Friction, we could say, will result. Some feel any friction or tension among us is a sign of failure. I don’t believe that. As your leader, as preacher and teacher, using the Bible’s texts and stories, I want to throw you into creative dilemmas for which faith in God becomes the only answer. That’s what Jesus did with his parables, which seem like cute stories until they make their point.
Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author, believes that those who create social change (let’s add personal transformation also) are disagreeable and even snarky sometimes. Maybe because my best hockey coaches got in my face, not to hurt me, but to get me to play better, I do not fear this. I do not seek togetherness at any cost. I want to stifle my need to be “liked” by everyone.
As a pastor in Colorado, my associate minister kicked me under the table whenever I did this, whenever we were experiencing pangs of birth in boards and committees, and I let it play out. Sometimes we struggle to recognize that pangs of birth can feel much like the pangs of death. A good leader knows the difference, and doesn’t spare us stresses and tensions that spur us on.
I am on the learning end of this as well. When we had the congregational meeting to approve a $2.4 million renovation to our church of 400 members on Cape Cod, one difficult woman stood up and said, “Adding air conditioning and more space means we will use more power. Are we being good stewards of God’s creation? Or just getting bigger and piggier like everybody else?” My first reaction was, “Why doesn’t she sit down and be quiet. She’ll ruin everything.” But the leader in charge of our rebuild, an MIT graduate, did an exhaustive cost-benefit ratio on adding photovoltaic cells. We expanded our footprint, reduced usage, and sold power back to the grid. May the church stay open to the power of the Spirit’s creative brewing of our disagreements!
Our church together with Silver Hill Hospital, in New Canaan, have planned a panel discussion to address this dire problem, Sunday October 1st at 11 a.m. Although our focus will be on teens, all of us are affected by this crisis. We are hoping that many from the Darien community will come. Invite your friends in the community to join you.
Two professional panelists, who work in the greater Darien area, will talk about addiction from the scientific, prevention and treatment perspectives, There will also be two people in recovery telling their stories. Time is planned for your concerns and questions.
Our church and our community needs to be well-informed, support each other and learn how to deal with this epidemic. Gary Morello, who is on the panel, commented, poignantly : “Every human being craves intimacy, and if not found in healthy places, people will do anything to find it.”
Statistics we all should know: In 2012, 259 million opioids were prescribed by doctors – enough for every American adult to have a bottle. (NYT 5/4/17). A recent White House panel assessed drug abuse as a “public health emergency”. This designation usually is assigned to national disasters. (Harvey, Irma) As we all have heard, prescription drugs are a big part of the problem. The following statistics, taken from a recent study by Johns Hopkins University Medical School are amazing! They state that from 42% to 67% of narcotic drugs prescribed for some operations, are not finished, and of those, 41% to 67% sit in unlocked medicine cabinets, without plans for disposal. They should be taken to the Darien police station.
Dr. Eric D. Collins is Physician-in-Chief at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan which specializes in addiction treatment. He is a graduate of Columbia Medical School and did his residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital Psychiatric Institution. He will present specific facts and up-to-date understandings from the scientific standpoint.
Allison Fulton has been the Executive Director of the Housatonic Valley Coalition Against Drug Abuse, since 2002, an organization that gives training, technical assistance and resources to many local prevention centers in towns of western Connecticut. She is a strong supporter of local initiatives. A certified prevention specialist, she is a popular keynote speaker and facilitator for “Parenting with Positive Discipline” and other programs. She is a strong supporter of the power of local initiatives that are data-driven and collaborative.
Jen H. is in her late 20’s, working as a receptionist as she studies for her degree at Norwalk Community College.
Allan Griffin is a young man who is working for Aware Recovery Care, an addiction center in New Haven.
Gary Morello is our Associate Minister. He is deeply involved in community youth programs.
Since returning from our most recent Habitat for Humanity Global Village Work Trip to Costa Rica in 2016, many have asked about our next trip. We only do this trip every other year, so such an opportunity doesn’t come often. We invite you to share in building simple, decent homes with the poor, while deepening your faith.
On Sunday our new Director of Christian Education was up front helping as liturgist. Some have asked, wanting to know more about Christine. So I asked her a few fun and searching questions.
Did you have a favorite pet growing up?
Yes, a Border Collie/Blue Heeler mix named Lizzy! An outside dog, we only had her for a month. My sisters variously had parakeets, fish, and hamsters. My dream pet is an Australian Shepherd.
Tell us about your parents: what are they like and what do they do?
My parents are incredible! Mom studied computers and finance, and after marrying my dad in her late 20’s, became a full-time mom. My dad has been in fundraising, restaurant work, cross-country cycling, ministry, and investing! He is currently in ranching and real estate. I’ve learned so much from my parents. Dad is athletic and business-minded; mom is musical and hospitable.
Who was your childhood best friend? What did you like most about her/him?
That would be my brother, Ryan. We are 21 months apart. We played sports together, solved computer/video games, built crazy forts, and competed in everything from music to academics to how many pancakes for breakfast. Ryan made me more competitive and an adventuresome.
What was the first job you had? And what was the worst job you ever had?
It was as a part-time summer secretary at my Grandpa’s real estate/restaurant headquarters. I was 15. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt important! My worst job was typing hand-written notes from dad’s business meetings. Dad has a bad case of “physician’s handwriting”.
Whom would you say you admired most as you grew into adulthood?
I’ve always deeply admired people who decline glamor in favor of staying in the trenches. As I become an adult, I watched important mentors go through this process. It formed how I see my purpose. Something in me always hopes for approval and recognition, but this cannot be my driving force. Recognition and actual fulfillment/impact are sometimes not mutually inclusive.
What was one of the biggest mistakes you made that you learned most from?
Early at college, I learned what it means to be in community with others in a fresh way. But then I began to conform myself to friends, hoping to win their approval. I lost my confidence and personality. It took a difficult illness and a rough break from those friends to wake me up.
How have you and Benjamin experienced God through your recent move east?
We feel so blessed by FCC, by our new friends at Yale Divinity School, and by our supportive families back in Illinois and Idaho. I see God here in Connecticut each day through many gentle, loving people who want to give their absolute best to their community.
Is there a favorite verse of Scripture or favorite hymn that means the most to you?
I love Horatio Spafford’s hymn, “It is Well”. My life’s trials are nowhere close to those Horatio Spafford experienced (extreme loss in the Great Chicago Fire and the loss of three daughters in a shipwreck), but I certainly have had to heavily rely on my hope in God throughout my life. As family members pass on, relationships change, and responsibilities become heavier, I must stay grounded in my hope in God.
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.
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.