The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

All posts by Julia Arstorp

 

“John the Baptist said, ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Isaiah the prophet said.” (John 1.23)

Our tall, stately Christmas tree went up yesterday in the sanctuary with no little effort. Things were already looking splendid in there thanks to Molly Watkins and Susan Wilson. The quiet crèche greets us at the main entrance and the unfussy Advent bunting with violet bows festoons the face of our gallery. And let’s not forget the Advent wreath bringing dawning light of revelation at the darkest time.
But people kept asking about the tree. Where was it? The truth is it almost didn’t get up because it’s a demanding, risky task. Were we to hire workers to engineer that multi-person, multi-hour undertaking? Alas, no funds for that in our budget.
But wait, Bob McGee feels about that tree going up like how mother bears feel about their cubs. And his sturdy Advent acolytes Tom Parnon and John Wilson carefully coordinated with Bob, working in tandem to get our tree tall and proud. I walked in there a few times as the work was in progress, worried for their safety. But I felt better as I noticed how these three acted as “spotters” for one another.
Perhaps we associate “spotters” with gymnastics or weightlifting. But John the Baptizer was a “spotter” in his own day. His was a steadying prophetic voice drawing straight, uncompromised lines as the masses curved everything toward themselves, toward their getting to the top of the heap, toward their self-interest.
Think of such a voice and witness as John the Baptizer’s in our own day, rife with degrading molestation and unblinking fabrications, with betrayal and intrigue that would fit right into Herod the Great eager to snuff out baby Jesus like a bad cigar.

How sorely we need prophetic voices willing to speak unvarnished truth without spin, agenda, or self-interest. We need “spotters” in such a time as this, brave people unafraid to survey wreckage on the landscape of our lives, and to sound the alarm, forcing us to notice how eagerly we all compromise ourselves. John’s message of baptism by repentance was not about the fury of self-hate or darkly reveling in how utterly lost people are. No, repentance means a 180 degree shift in the direction from where we are now headed. It is about leaving the circuitous paths of lies and getting on a straight path. Where are those brave voices today?

Last Sunday I said that Advent and Christmas are the answer to the question that implicitly rises within our breasts: why doesn’t somebody do something about the mess we are in? Why doesn’t God act to get us off the dreadful course we’re on?

It’s happening, friends. As we look and hear with eyes and ears of faith, we will see it. No matter how great the dark, God’s light shines and will not be quenched. God shall painfully deliver the way, the truth, and the life. Let us prepare his way!

 

Our homes are joyless this week as we absorb the Baptist church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Grieving these losses within our numbed selves gets harder and harder. Three of the worst massacres in US history have happened in the last two years.  We just hold our breath waiting for the next shooting to occur.  The 2015 South Carolina Sunday School massacre still digs hard within my ribs.

 

The Scriptures enjoin us, “weeping may endure for the night, but in the morning cometh joy.”  But what comfort can these families find?  Time heals all wounds?  It sounds pretty cold right now, doesn’t it? We weep, we pray, and then taste the tears running down our cheeks. And they are bitter tears as they recur and recur.

 

My sadness gives rise to indignation.  As of 1 January 2016, Texas churches can ban openly carried guns in church only if they post large signs in two languages. Did you know that?  Texas churches must minister in an environment where the presumed and preferred path to peace, safety and security is the barrel of a gun.

 

We forget that for Christianity’s first 313 years, the church was wholly non-violent in the way of Christ’s cross. It was only as Constantine co-opted our faith as his Empire’s preferred religion that Christ’s church employed violence. I defy anyone to find a recorded episode where the early church sanctioned violence to achieve peace and security. Refusal of violence was an essential part of our Christian way.  It still is. Christians suffer and die for what we believe in; we do not kill for it.

 

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a proud Texan, says that if the church prefers the way of violence over Jesus’ non-violence, he’ll have to accept it. But at least the Texas churches might have the decency and respect to remove the crosses from their chancels and hang weaponry there to own where they truly place their trust.
Some claim if that Texas church were more heavily armed, the massacre would have been prevented. I don’t believe that makes a lick of sense with everyone’s back turned to the entry of the shooter.  Let’s face it, we are vulnerable during worship certainly in every way. Our vulnerability is a holy space that God enters. And without that vulnerability we will never hear God’s still small voice leading us.

 

My sadness turns to anger.  But anger leads to blaming confrontations and more violence, right?  So to be faithful, my anger must turn back to sorrow and grief.  The Rev Paul Smith, our guest preacher in 2016, touches my heart as he writes:

 

“I share with you the agony of your grief, the anguish of your heart finds echo in my own. I know I cannot enter all you feel nor bear with you the burden of your pain. I can but offer what my love does give: the strength of caring, the warmth of one who seeks to understand the silent storm-swept barrenness of so great a loss. This I do in quiet ways, that on your lonely path you may not walk alone.”

We haven’t observed Reformation Sunday since I became your pastor, but we’ll so this Sunday.  This day is not as often observed anymore, quite frankly, because the numbers of Christians and churches in America is slipping so precipitously, that we can no longer afford old divisions.  Catholic Christian, Orthodox Christian, Protestant Christian, we’re all in it together. It’s not easy.

We’ll commemorate the Reformation this Sunday, however, because it is the 500th anniversary.

 

A motto of the reformation was “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” meaning, “Reformed and ever reforming.”  Our need to Reform is not once and for all, it remains ongoing with each new generation.  I was reminded of this truth last week upon meeting a lifelong personal hero.

 

We’ve heard of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, but Laszlo Tokes, a Hungarian Reformed pastor in Transylvania, Romania fired the spark that overthrew Communism.  As he became a pastor in Timisoara in 1987, he mourned for his land because of how deeply the secular atheism of the regime had bitten into the people’s hearts. Still Tokes believed in the church to reignite passion.

 

He helped them grasp worship as more than Sunday ritual and trained them as a community to infiltrate the world with transforming good. Former members came back; new members joined. The Lord’s Table became the body and blood of Christ rising into their world.  Within two years, the membership of his church swelled to 5,000 members being trained in Christian discipleship.

 

The Securitate of Nikolai Ceausescu found this intolerable, and they weren’t subtle, frisking members before Sunday morning worship. As worship began, agents cradled machine guns or dangled handcuffs with a clear message.  Attending worship had become a silent act of protest.

 

Tokes was denied his ration book for bread, fuel, or meat. His people supplied them from their meager resources. Tokes was attacked. Four men wearing ski masks burst into his apartment while Laszlo and Edith had guests. They beat the intruders with chairs, leaving Tokes bleeding with a facial knife wound. The secret police knew killing Tokes would make only martyr him, so they transferred him to a remote village on 15 December 1989.  On Sunday, December 10, Laszlo Tokes looked over the upturned faces of his congregation. “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I have been issued a summons of eviction. I will not accept it, so I will be taken from you by force next Friday. They want to do this in secret because they have no right to do it. Please, come next Friday and be witnesses of what will happen. Come, be peaceful, but be witnesses.”

 

Five days later, on December 15, 1989, the secret police came to take Laszlo and Edith. They brought a moving van for the Tokes family’s belongings, but they never got to load the truck. For massed protectively around the entrance to the church building stood a human shield. Heeding their pastor’s call, members of the congregation had come to protest his removal. The brick-and-concrete home of their church sat directly across from a tram stop. Each time the crowded cars unloaded, passengers could see the people gathered outside the church building.

 

When commuters learned what was happening, many joined the group. Some were from other churches; some just curious or supportive.  It was past one am as Tokes opened his apartment window one final time. Light from hundreds of candles pierced the dark. The demonstration continued the next day.  Later that afternoon, the people began to shout: “Liberty! Freedom!”

 

Before dawn of December 17, the secret police broke through the non-violent resistance. As they did so, Laszlo and Edith took refuge in the sanctuary near the Communion table. Tokes wrapped himself in his clerical robe and picked up a Bible, brandishing it like a weapon.  The secret police splintered the bolted church door.  The police swarmed into the church building. They beat Tokes until his face was bloody. Then they took him and Edith away into the night.

 

With Tokes gone, the crowds moved from the Church to the central square of Timisoara. By now armed troops, shields, dogs, and tanks filled the streets. But even with the army in place, the people refused to retreat. The Communists responded with the brute force, their usual way meeting opposition.  Security soldiers rained out a barrage of bullets.  Explosions blew off limbs.

Savage gunfire claimed hundreds, but the people stood strong.  No middle ground was possible.

By Christmas 1989, the world couldn’t believe what it saw: Romania was free. Ceausescu was gone. Churches filled with worshipers praising God.  This revolution spread throughout the East.

 

When I met Laszlo Tokes last week, I told him how deeply honored I was to meet him. And I thanked for giving meaning and content to the Gospel as revolutionary power.  He took my arms and embraced me…Friends, we have our own demons being loosed in our own land and in our own time. We’re given the same powers of resistance. It’s not about liberal or conservative. It’s about the Gospel as a radical force in the original meaning of radical, all the way to the root.

 

Where the world brings corruption, we bring transformation.  We are Reformed and reforming. Amen.

Upon awakening Monday morning, of this week, my heart was smashed into pieces yet again at the news of more violence and death in our world.  This time, Las Vegas, CA in which 50+ lost their lives and 400+ injured.

I couldn’t believe it: another mass shooting, another human life taken, and another nightmare.  After coming to my senses, I sat down with my Bible in hand and tears running down my face asking questions such as this: Why?  How come?  What is happening in our world?   Unfortunately, answers of clarity did NOT rush through my mind.  However, the sermon our Senior Minister, Rev. Rosenberger preached on Sunday did.  He talked about the “systematic evil” that exists in our world and the need for a Savior, Jesus Christ.

Do you remember the words of Jesus’ first sermon?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.”

Jesus has such a counter message for these acts of evil that take place in our world.  Why is it that I often feel we have come SO far from his message?  The uncertainty of this question is what drives Pastor Dale and me.  What Pastor Dale said on Sunday is true: “The church doesn’t need more ministers who are underwhelmed.  What the church needs are more ministers who are overwhelmed.”  The reason for our passion is because we can’t rest when we see what is happening to our human family globally, nationally and locally.

Friends, as followers of Jesus we MUST do our micro-part in bringing forth the Prince of Peace.  This Sunday, at our Youth Mission Service, we have the chance to witness some of the beauty that is happening around us.

All week long the faces, hearts and minds of our youth at FCC have kept me whole.  They are a remarkable group of young people and I pray that you will come witness their stories this Sunday.

We look forward to being with you…

Compassionately,
Gary Michael

 

 

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria have made catastrophic impact in recent news.  My wife and I have been praying for her family who lives in Puerto Rico.  As a matter of fact, each morning, before beginning the day I’ve prayed for all the people who have been effected by these storms.  As hurricane season continues, I invite the members of FCC to take time during your day to pray for those people effected.  Prayer works.

 

This Sunday, we are looking forward to welcoming our pets to church.  Animals mean a lot to most people.  Below is a story from the New York Post that moved me deeply describing a Good Samaritan that emerged after Hurricane Harvey:

 

Good Samaritans lent a hand to a Texas woman who spent 14 hours in her attic with dozens of dogs she rescued during Tropical Storm Harvey.  Betty Walter says she was saved by two men walking the neighborhood with a boat Sunday who insisted they could save her and all 21 pups, local station KPRC 2 reported.

 

“It was scary,” she said. “They saw me in need, and the guy said, ‘We’re going to load all the dogs. We’re not going to separate you or the dogs.’”

 

Walter, who has four dogs of her own, was pet-sitting for a friend and also saved many of her neighbor’s dogs as Harvey raged Saturday.  The dog lover says neighboring pups were abandoned during earlier rescue efforts but she “refused” to leave them behind.  Walter posted images of the rescued dogs on the crowded boat in a Facebook post.

 

“I was worried there was too many dogs on the boat and it would tip over,” Walter wrote. “I told them I would stay behind and for them to make two trips. They said NO we are taking all and you.”

 

Walter added that the boat was so crowded she and the rescuers had to wade in water next to the boat to get out.  She updated the post Monday, writing that group remained “safe and dry.”

 

This article brings to life how animals impact our hearts in a positive way even when we are experiencing the pains of life.  Animals are not separate from our families they are actually a part of them.  Jesus, our Lord, loved animals too.

 

We look forward to being with you and ALL your animals this weekend.

 

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

 

Wasn’t that a refrain from an old Carly Simon song? OK, I just dated myself, but that’s ok.  It is an apt sentiment for this moment in our life.  No, it isn’t nostalgia or the arrogance of expecting things to come easy.  We know how hard it is to be the church today.  So many churches falter.

 

Six years ago this month I candidated here to become your pastor. We knew much would be required. FCC had been through much. We’ve worked so hard and come far over six years.  This is not bragging or gloating, because our gains are more by God’s grace than by our merit. But we have made remarkable efforts, and given God room to deploy his generous gifts among us.
We picked ourselves up off the mat in our first few years together.  But as we put the stain of conflict behind us, we looked united toward the future.  That’s what happens as human beings no longer make themselves the center of things, and allow the Lord God to occupy that place.  It unfolded in worship as we rebuilt trust, made room for joy, and looked to Christ as the center of our faith. It occurred as more new members than I expected migrated our way. Why was I surprised? I was flying nearly solo. We were staffed at a level to plateau, not at a level to grow.
We also had major distractions, such as our roof nearly caving in.  You responded with aplomb.

 

Things are so different now. If my calling is to put in place pieces to fortify our praise and service such that FCC thrives, we are right now as much at that moment as I could have ever hoped for.

Gary’s boundless, open-hearted enthusiasm has galvanized our youth and touched our hearts. Also, he has been through the church calendar twice as we now look to his ordination this fall. Christine’s warmth, initiative, faithfulness and competence have already turned heads, rallying young families and shoring up gaps in our ministry to children and middle schoolers. What’s more, 26 households, mostly young families, have already pledged new dollars for 2018, even before Pledge Sunday, to cover all increases of her expanded hours over the previous position.
Dennis Hanlon has gamely fought through losing his beloved Gloria in such a way that he shines brightly with new energy.  Dennis has rented out our building for 2018 to the tune of $25,000 new dollars. (I don’t measure ministry in dollars but do want you to know we pay our way as we go!) Pam Toason has proved a bright light in our office and grows in her skills with experience.
Dan Hague and Max Pakhomov respond to our resurgent Music Committee with new initiative and fresh ideas. Karen Hanson is bedrock in our Treasurer’s office, so solid and faithful is she. Teri Manning remains the pillar of the Nursery School, building this new future along with us. Carlos Maya takes such evident pride in caring for our building as though it were his own home.

 

I could equally go on about our lay leaders. But here’s the thing: we are now staffed for growth, to do great ministry, and welcome new friends. I charge us to seize the moment. How? Start by sharing the joy at our 10 am Welcome Back Jazz Sunday. Expect lively worship, a resurgent Church School, and a festive picnic. These are the good old days, friends.  God blesses us for the task ahead.  Let us answer with deep joy. Remember, joy is not a distraction from the spiritual life, too often depicted as no more than finger-wagging or scolding.  Joy is the heart of our faith.

Last Sunday the witness of FCC, Darien was brought to bear on recent events in Charlottesville.  Some say this is an overreaction and we overdo what the press exaggerates.  After all, only a miniscule percentage of citizens are involved in white supremacist hate groups. For such as these the press is the real problem.

 

For me, that misses the point.  When the highest office in the land countenances militant, organized, and deployed hatred as “fine people”, it mainstreams hatred. Did you read the effusively grateful Tweets of David Duke?  As hatred grows in social acceptability—just “another opinion or point of view comparable to ours”—the danger invisibly deepens. Like some loyal citizens can participate in this evil?

 

Little has been said about the failure of adequate policing in Charlottesville. Why would the police step aside to let those arriving at the rally with clubs, helmets, shields, tactics, and displayed pistols attack ones nearly wholly unarmed? Likely because the white supremacist hate groups attain legitimacy. This trend must be nipped in the bud before hate groups find a place at the table of public discourse.

 

But the real question for us to consider is: what kind of church must we become to effectively oppose tyrannies of hatred?  We look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany for surprising and counterintuitive answers here.

Sam Wells recently wrote about this in the Christian Century, telling of how the Confessing Church understood what the liberal and conservative churches didn’t.

 

First, Bonhoeffer was theological by nature. Remember, German Christians had been seduced into believing that the Fuhrer was a deity.  Did you know that the “heil” of “heil Hitler” doesn’t only mean “hail Hitler,” but also “holy Hitler?” In order to oppose that, you had better know something about the one true God. We don’t have to have completed two doctoral religious theses by age 24, like Bonhoeffer.  But we need to be adept in discerning the stench of idolatry wherever it appears.

 

Second, Bonhoeffer was all about Jesus.  Following Jesus is what landed him in prison. The church fears boldness in Christ because we’ve heard Jesus’ voice coopted by oppressive and imperialistic voices to dominate, exclude, or devalue other voices. And the church has often unwittingly bought into it. But that is not Jesus’ actual voice or the Christ of Scripture. The truth is once the church stops talking about Jesus, we have nothing to say, personally or socially. Why is that? Because the reign of God Jesus proclaimed is the only full-blown revolt against hatred and evil in the history of the world. Why is that? The reign of God Jesus proclaimed is the only true manifesto not based on self-interest, but God-interest.

 

Third, Bonhoeffer was politically engaged. No few Christians in 1930s Germany thought salvation was only about saving souls.  They believe that it wasn’t their business to get involved in politics. That reasoning left 6 million Jews dead and ten times that number globally dead. Politics is the name we give to resolving differences short of violence. If you don’t do politics, you end up doing violence. Do you want the church and Christ’s gospel on the sideline for that exchange?

 

 

George Foreman is a former American professional boxer who competed from 1969 to 1977, and from 1987 to 1997.  Nicknamed “Big George”, he is a two-time world heavyweight champion and an Olympic gold medalist.  Outside the sport he is an ordained minister, author, and entrepreneur. 

This fearless boxer said this about preaching:  “Preaching is the most original thing I’ve ever done. There’s nothing familiar about it. You have to be brave.”  George is absolutely correct in his statement.  One must be brave to preach the gospel.

This Sunday, my younger brother, Mickey S. Morello will be brave.  He is going to preach his first sermon at our historical church.  Mickey is currently enrolled at Nyack Seminary pursuing his Master’s of Divinity.  Mickey and his wife Frances, are extremely grateful that our church is blessing him with this moment in his life.  Faith has done wondrous things for our family.  What I believe, is most inspiring, is the bond we have as siblings since we all became Christians.  This bond that we share is a direct result of following Jesus Christ.  Anytime we do something together we pray that our story motivates others to believe.   

We all have had a first time experience in our careers.  Do you remember yours?  I remember the first sermon I preached.  Moreover, I’ll never forget the people who gave me the opportunity to do it.  Preaching puts one in a vulnerable place.  I have yet to walk into a pulpit and not feel the awesome presence of God.  Rev. Dale always says that when we preach we are mediating between God and the people.  What an honor it is to do this at The First Congregational Church of Darien.

Personally, I would like to publicly thank our Senior Minister, Rev. Dale Rosenberger for his humility in sharing the pulpit with others.  In addition, I want to thank our entire church family for supporting my younger brother and best friend.

Join us, this Sunday, as we encourage a brave young minister to preach the word of God.

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

 

You’ve heard me recall aloud how my preaching professor, William Muehl, urged us seminarians “to preach as though everyone there almost didn’t show up on that Sunday.” His charge was less about that phantom “relevance.” He was more about preaching with urgency on things that matter. Rather than make the gospel relevant to your life in a modern world—which usually means watering it down—I want to make your life in this modern world relevant to the gospel. Big difference!

 

Bill Muehl was way ahead of his time in at least one sense: every year fewer and fewer folks attend worship in America. Perhaps some days you ask: why bother? Our July attendance has been good but every August attendance drops off a cliff.

 

This much is clear. Attending church in order to get your card dutifully punched—attendance for attendance sake–is on the wane. Why? Back in the era of Moses Mather, our founding pastor, our church was the hub of society, culture, and also partnering with others in the life of Darien–besides connecting people with God.

Today much of that gets done on the electronic appliances of an internet world.
So then why attend church? Actually, I know a pastor in Boston for whom such talk as that is a pet peeve. “You don’t attend church. You attend worship.” At first, I wanted to groan at this stickler for detail.  But more and more, I get her point.

We don’t attend church.  We are church.  Yes, just like the Sunday School ditty merrily affirms: “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.  All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together.”
So the real question is: what does it mean to be church? Being the church has something to do with living your life for Christ–in the peaceful and loving shape of the cross–and demonstrating that love by serving others and sharing your faith.

 

Being the church means abandoning being a spiritual consumer in favor of being a faithful contributor, sharing your gifts, both tangible and intangible. We can’t do that apart from other Christians.  Our gathering together is Jesus’ idea. We don’t attend church. We are church as we take on the mission Jesus gives us. Church is less about filling seating capacity than it is about seizing our sending capacity.

 

Another compelling reason to be with us on Sundays is a desire to keep growing your faith. This isn’t so much about increasing how much we know as it is stoking how much we love—both God and neighbor. The future of the church will be built upon those who want to share in this purpose, express it in service, and engage the mission of Christ’s church where we live and even to the corners of the earth.

 

The more we expect from each other such a vibrant level of engagement rather than pandering to spiritual consumers, the more vitality we will see sparkle here. Nothing will change the world more powerfully than sharing the love of Christ with a world in desperate need of it.  That gets me out of bed from Sunday to Sunday.

 

Two key items in our life: I want to announce the expansion of our Church School Director into a broader Director of Christian Education.  I also want to update our summer conversations about our FCC, Darien becoming a Full Blessing Church.
This week our Church Council followed our Stewards and Deacons in approving a 29.5 hour per week Director of Christian Education.  This position will involve reigniting our Church School, leading a middle-school youth group, managing the milestone events like 3rd grade Bibles and collaborating with Gary in confirmation. Of course, hiring more hours for this means more money. We’re working on that.
Gary and I have been recently calling our young families. They are enthusiastic about fortifying and expanding our ministries to our children and youth. Recently, with our strong high school youth group under Gary’s leadership, it has revealed gaps in our work with ages from 4th to 8th grade. We want to eliminate those gaps and create seamless care and spiritual formation for all of our children and youth.

We have been searching for a candidate, and hope to have someone by autumn.

 

The idea for this bubbled-up from our Board of Christian Education over the last nine months. I believe it has broader implications for engaging our young families into our mainstream and attracting new members. A clear pathway to vitality is letting our young families and others new to Darien know that we have their best interests at heart, and want to minster to them in areas that matter most to them. When leaders of a church are mostly a generation older than that—as ours are—we must get outside of ourselves and see through their eyes.  If we seek growth, then we recognize the most important people in our life are the ones not yet here.
Item number two.  In my Flash previous to this, I attached my sermon describing my long journey to a place where I now see my way clear to perform weddings for same-sex couples who desire to live in the Christian covenant of marriage. After this sermon (now found on our web page), we shared an 11th Hour to let members speak.  Seventeen members attended.  Everyone there agreed on this.

 

But not so fast.  That 11th Hour charged me to listen to everyone in the church by soliciting all points of view. We don’t take for granted the sharing and hearing of our many perspectives. That is not who we are or how we roll. I am in the midst of an all summer open listening phase. I spent much of Monday writing to as well as sitting down with those who do not object to civil unions, but see marriage as holy, between a man and a woman.  It’s not like to be a “good” or “real” Christian, you must agree with those differing from you on an issue like same-sex marriage.

 

We need everyone’s input. Please feel comfortable coming forward and speaking honestly and confidentially with me.  I can’t know your convictions unless you tell me. You will not be dismissed or disrespected. But you must speak if you want to register your view. I’ll be around all summer except the first two weeks of August.