The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

All posts by Julia Arstorp


Preaching is strange, believe me. I will never exhaust its mystery. You can sweat over a sermon that falls flat. You can cobble together on the fly something that people find riveting. The latter happened last Sunday. I could tell by your faces. Most of what impacted you was spontaneous and not even on my manuscript. If you weren’t there, I entertained the weighty question: will our children have faith?
I want to build on that theme recalling the story of a young girl with a special faith. Fifty-six years ago Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.  Ruby was black.  The rest of the students were white.  She walked in accompanied by federal marshals.  At some point you have probably seen Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With. That was Ruby.
Ruby’s little walk signaled a major development in desegregation. Before her first day of school was done, parents had emptied that school of white children in a massive boycott. Ruby learned alone in 1961, taught by one teacher who stayed.
Huge crowds of protestors gathered daily outside to yell slurs and death threats at Ruby. Throngs of angry whites waved Confederate flags. Some even shoved a child’s casket in front of Ruby with a black baby doll inside. Mobs can get so ugly.


Episcopal layman and Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles studied children from the Sixties desegregation movement.  Coles took a personal interest in what made Ruby tick. Her display of strength, stoicism, and bright cheer amid her daily hell caught his attention and puzzled him. He began to meet with her every week.


One day Ruby’s teacher told Coles that she had noticed Ruby moving her lips as she was walking into school.  Coles asked her who she was talking to.  “I was talking to God and praying for those people in the street.”  Coles pressed on, “So why were you doing that, Ruby?”  “Well, because I wanted to pray for them.  Don’t you think they all needed praying for?” We are talking about a six year old.
“Where did you learn that?” Coles asked her.  “From my mommy and daddy and the minister at church. I pray every morning going and every afternoon as I come home.” Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.” “No,” she said, “I just keep praying and hope God will be good to them. I pray the same thing for them, ‘Please, dear God, forgive them.  Because they don’t know what they are doing.’”


I ask you again, what I asked you in my sermon.  How many of you want that for your children?   How many of you will support FCC as we try to give it to them? How many of you will help us embed Biblical truth deep within their character?
You say that is impossible in today’s world. I say consider the resources God has provided us.  Ruby’s parents could neither read nor write.  But they discovered through their humility how to practice Jesus’ love in daily living.  Will you join us?


Now back in our beloved Meetinghouse, we naturally ask the Spirit: what’s next?  What big challenge awaits us? What moves would God have us make just now? We’re at one of those rare, inviting “blue sky and clean sheet of paper” moments.


Fortunately, our Board of Christian Education has mulled this over for the past year.  They presented something at our last Council meeting that I want you to know about.  Few would disagree that taking seriously the lives of young families with children is central to the cause of the whole church. Even more so in Darien.

We’ve discussed how millennials are a missing generation within most churches.


Of course, we are gladdened by how our youth ministry has grown and thrived.  Gary and Erica Morello have sacrificed, showing us the way forward. Getting into families and our youth’s public lives—time intensive!–has set the table for youth ministry. Now grade school children excitedly can’t wait to be in the Youth Group.


Many of us feel like, why should they have to wait? The problem is we have gaps in our ministry to children and youth that cry out for us to address. Our Church School was sagging long before Mary Jo arrived. Churches everywhere ask hard questions about reinventing the Church School.  Our number of our confirmands drops from double-digits to single-digit, not that numbers are everything. Having planned for a middle school youth group, that was sadly scuttled as Yale Divinity School pulled out of our program for a student intern at the last moment last year.

Rather than whine or complain, we have asked: why not do something about it?


The Board of Christian Education proposes an expanded Director of Christian Education position to shore up related ministries and supplement Gary’s work.  Council liked the idea but was worried about taking on a full-time salary just now. We tabled the idea for more discussion next month. We wanted you to know this. Think about it. If such dreams can become reality by autumn, we must plan now.
The Director of Christian Education is about rebuilding our church school with an eye toward getting into the lives of young families, as Gary has with youth. Also included in this job description is forming a middle school youth group to feed into our high school youth ministry. The DCE will assist Gary with Confirmation. Mary Jo has been splendid with our children, but we need more hours and other skills.


How do I feel about it? I laud the spiritual investment this makes in children and youth. What is more important? Also, I want young families to know we have their best interests at heart. Inclining toward them to address what matters most to them will pull them in from our periphery, and bring them into our orbit of ministry.


Some feel like it is the next big thing. But all of this is really not so new. A decade ago we were staffed much like this. Maybe we are only coming full circle, healthy and poised for growth. Maybe we should thank God for putting us in this position.


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Acts 1:8

Next week we wade into a graduation season of pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns. Huge, gushing, wild-eyed expectations will be articulated by tongues, loosed with alcohol. It will frighten the graduates much more than reassure them. Well-wishers will predict prosperous paths sometimes in a single word. “Plastics!”


Then there are the fawning speeches. Commencement speakers typically tell our young, “You’re amazing. You are awesome!  You’ve got what it takes and much more! You’re the best and brightest of a new generation.” Better cue more drinks.


But how would the voice of truthful love speak if it surfaced at commencement? Maybe like this. “Listen, I won’t lie to you, but you don’t actually have what it takes. Neither do I. Nor do all of the professors arrayed in their finery before you. If you’re feeling a little anxious today, that’s probably a good thing…But I bring us hope.  You and I aren’t left alone to our own devices and resources. An amazing power is afoot and at work in the world, if you’re willing to tap into it. A power that God will pour out upon those who invite and welcome it, those willing to trust God….So now, despite the ravings of this moment, you ain’t all that.  But God is.”


Ascension Day, when Jesus departed the earth, is the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend.  Pentecost Sunday follows on its heels the first Sunday of June. Taken together, these two are a graduation of sorts.  It was when the disciples finished their crash course with Jesus on the kingdom of God, and set out after it. It was when the disciples received earthy diplomas, graduating into 12 apostles.


Before Jesus bows out of the scene, he doesn’t say, “You’ve got what it takes.” Sort of the opposite, truly. “You need to wait…wait for the Holy Spirit to descend.”


How many times in your life have big moments presented themselves when we wonder if we are up to the challenge, if we’re really up to what awaits us ahead? Do we alone unto ourselves have what it takes to do the things the world needs? The tendency is to puff ourselves up, inject some adrenaline, rile up testosterone. We tell ourselves or await others to assert, “Don’t worry, we’ve got what it takes!”


From a Christian point of view?  It would be truer, wiser, and more honest to say, “Let’s not get ridiculous, ok?  You and I don’t have what it takes to meet all of the challenges of this trembling moment in history. But God does. God has the power you will need and God will not begrudge giving it to you.  But you have to ask for it.  You must want it.  The God of love will not force this upon you.  Ask for it and await its coming.  It will come, I promise.  And you will look back and say, how did I ever do that? It was far bigger than my powers and gifts, thanks be to God.”


In truth, no one would ever invite me to give such a speech. If they do, I’m ready!


You have heard me say more than once that in the course of the gospels, Jesus asks 365 questions but only answers seven of them. Maybe rather than ‘Jesus is the answer’ we might say ‘Jesus is the question,’ if you get my drift.  So much is at stake in asking the right question.  To get good or deep answers you must ask good or deep questions.


I was thinking of this with regard to our 13 young people confirmed last Sunday.  Their faith statements reflected their probing questions, shedding their childhood faith to take on a budding grown-up faith. I was thinking of this with regard to this Sunday, when I will preach a second installment in the sermon series “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.”  I want to ask what’s behind and underneath our fear. My sense is we won’t get anything like good answers for immigrants or refugees until we can ask questions such as these.


Church is where we ask the hard questions. Even when no clear or satisfying answers sound in reply, it is still worth asking them. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, asked, “Is evil a recompense for good?” (Jeremiah 18.20) Or to put his query more colloquially, “Is that what I get for doing the right thing?”  Elsewhere, Jeremiah asks the flip side of that question, “Why do the evil prosper?” Church is where we ask the hard questions.
Questions like these are not low-key or routine inquiries. They are not asked in a neutral tone, as if to say, “Is the food any good there?” or “What station has the cheapest gas?” They are charged. They carry a full freight of feeling: anger, hurt, sadness, confusion, despair, rejection, more anger. Did I mention anger? It is why I want church not merely to be where we put on our “Sunday best”, but where we tell the whole truth of our lives. Otherwise, these deep and confusing truths of our lives might not find voice elsewhere.


To do the right thing and be rejected — or even be attacked — is one of the most disorienting experiences any person can have. Life isn’t supposed to be this way!  And yet, it is. It is this way. The lives of the prophets, the story of Jesus in Holy Week, the lives of countless advocates of justice and righteousness throughout history confirm it.


If we don’t have easy or straightforward answers to Jeremiah’s tough questions, we can at least be grateful that we find them in the sacred Scriptures of our faith. In the Bible we hear people telling it like it is. Thank God. This means that when we are in the midst of such an experience, hearing stories of this happening across time, we are less alone. It means we worship a God who can handle questions born of hurt, anger and rejection.


Slowly, it dawns on us there are no easy or obvious correlations between righteousness and reward, between evil and punishment. We live this side of the Promised Land, which is to say, here and now, things aren’t always clear and don’t always make sense.


But as our faith bids us to ask such profound questions, we still hold fast in the belief that ultimately there is moral meaning in the universe. If nothing else, Easter and the resurrection of Jesus means this much. And if we can adorn and garnish that truth to live with the confidence of moral meaning in a world that daily challenges such trust — that is faith and it is a beautiful thing to behold.  That is what we are going after, friends.


This Sunday you are invited to a dialogue between faith and reason, religion and science.  I will preach on the foundations of truth underlying science and religion. Dr. Fraser Fleming will use my sermon as his point of departure in an 11th Hour address and panel discussion that will follow Coffee Hour within our Parish Hall.

Dr. Fleming, a New Zealander, will be here with his wife, Pam.  They are from Philadelphia. Dr. Fleming heads the chemistry department of Drexel University.   Fleming is also the author of The Truth about Science and Religion: From the Big Bang to Neuroscience. The book explores popular views on science and religion, provides historical and scientific background, and philosophical insight needed to think through issues of science and religion, and their influences upon our lives.

If that sounds drily intellectual to you, consider how much is at stake here. This week I read an article written by Wilfred F. McClay in the Hedgehog Review. The article was the basis of David Brooks’ March 31 opinion piece in the NY Times. May I share a few of McClay’s conclusions? Truly fascinating stuff, at least to me.

“The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West.  But it has not been able to replace them.  For all of its achievements, modern science has left us with two overwhelmingly, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life.

“First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering of ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented.  In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or to die for.

“Second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably…That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not, we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy…

“Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something

like it, and specifically without something like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.”


Congregationalism always faces into and ponders the vital issues of our time. What could be a more pressing issue than this? Come and help us sort it all out.

Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Hosanna in the highest!  The word hosanna (especially in biblical, Judaic, and Christian use) is used to express adoration, praise, or joy.  But the actual definition of the word means: save us.

Imagine yourself standing in a line at the grocery store.  As you wait to check out, you notice someone has come beside you to say hello.  Upon lifting your head to introduce yourself you realize the person standing in front of you is, Jesus Christ.  What would you say to Him?  What would you ask Him?  What would you proclaim about Him?  As we can see, in this week’s scriptures, the gospel of Matthew portrays people being in conflict around who this man, Jesus of Nazareth was.  Some ran like wild horses to cut branches down to spread them on the road for Jesus while others were in turmoil and threatened — confused by all the adoration, praise and joy.

The world has always been a place where people have different perspectives.  We see this clearly in scripture as it pertains to Christ.  Some people loved Jesus while others rejected Him.  In the end, he was condemned and crucified:

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:28-31, NRSV)

The passion of Christ means the suffering and death of Jesus.  This historical event means more to me now than it ever has before.  Every year my love for God grows deeper and it is because the story becomes more personal.

Passion Sunday has energy to it like no other Sunday throughout the year.  The story is provocative, profound and heart penetrating.  I can feel the passion burning in my heart already and we are only halfway through the week.  Come explore the meaning of the cross at church this weekend with arms wide open.

Gary Michael

We live in a young town and our church is trending young.  Many of us might not recall the early ‘60s and how in those years hope seemed to hang in the air.  JFK challenged us to reach the moon by the end of the decade.  MLK seemed to lead us toward the fulfillment of our “all men are created equal” and to redeem us from America’s original sin of slavery. Student idealism asserted itself for big changes.

The Western world felt the upsurge of these student movements, such as the “Prague spring,” and new hopes for the spread of democracy.  The women’s and environmental movements got on their feet, looking to horizons of transformation.

So with lies and subterfuge afoot in our own day, who can feel hopeful right now?  But let’s revisit that former hope to test it before we cave into despair.  Much that we call hope is only optimism. And optimism is dangerous. Reinhold Niebuhr said that between optimism and pessimism, optimism is the more perilous of the two. Much of what we felt in the early 60’s was less about hope more about optimism.

Optimism is about watching trends of cause and effect auguring into good things. It’s about extrapolating good feeling in a moment and projecting it into the future. Optimism is related to another tenuous idea, progress.  Progress is the idea that institutions like business, government, school, church, and military will join arms and march confidently into the future. Every day in every way things will improve.

For most of the insightful people I respect, that notion of progress died with WWI.

That’s why I never describe our church or my ministry as “progressive.” So naïve.

Both optimism and hope involve positive expectations regarding the future.  But their radically different orientations toward reality are worth some key distinctions.

Optimism says since “this” happened then we can look forward to “that.” We see an orange sunset and we expect sunshine the next day. Much positive thinking toward the future grows out of this. This is ok so far as it goes, but this isn’t hope.

Hope is utterly independent of human circumstances.  Hope is not based on the moment’s possibilities and projecting them forward into the future. Hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and the reliability of God’s incomparable promise.

Optimism is about the possibility of how things might come to be. Hope is based on how with God all things are possible, irrespective of countervailing evidence. True hope even sprouts in the valley of the shadow of death, as Psalm 23 has it. Indeed that is the very place where the most sturdy and enduring hope will grow.

My counsel at a moment as we learn about Dietrich Bonhoeffer taking on 1930s Germany and notice alarming trends? Forget about optimism and focus on hope.

Growing up as an athlete, my entire life, I’ve come to learn how important it is to respect the journey. Every year, training for the season began the day after the final game, film study took place on a regular basis and the weight room was never an option. The desire to become stronger, smarter and wiser was preached to us from our coaches from the beginning. The amount of repetitions we endured — enabled us to become the best athletes possible prior to game day.

In the spirit of athletics, I’ve grown to view my faith in a very similar way. The willingness, open-mindedness and courage to get out of my comfort zone so that I may grow closer to the Lord has radically changed the trajectory of my life. However, just like sports, this walk of faith has been a journey. Luckily, I’ve been beyond blessed to have mentors, ministers and leaders who have stretched me to grow deeper in the Christian faith.

One of my favorite human beings and athletes, Tim Tebow, was quoted for saying this about his faith: “I am fortunate to have family members, coaches and teammates around who can help me stay focused on the right things for me to be successful. Seeing how my parents have raised us and provided everything we can possibly need is a comforting feeling. I have been so blessed to have an amazing support group and knowing how passionate they are about God and their children has inspired me.”

Tebow’s quote illustrates that we need people in our lives to help push across the thresholds of life. When we have these intimate relationships with others we can often hear God speaking through them. Small moments that can generate big impacts!

Pastor Dale and I, as a team, constantly pray to God that we bring that same love, encouragement, and passion to each one of you. Going deeper spiritually as a community, investing in the brokenness of our world and leading one another to invest in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Come join us this Sunday as we look to the relationship between Nicodemus (Pharisee) and Jesus!


Gary Michael


Pastor Dale and I have had countless conversations about the patience and grace our church has had during the process of repairing the Meeting House. In fact, we are motivated to conclude that the Holy Spirit has used this time to bring us closer together as a community. The warmth, tenderness and intimacy that Parish Hall provided — gave us the space we needed to still experience the love of God each and every Sunday morning.

Furthermore, it gave us insight into the deep biblical message that our beloved Meeting House has taught us, which is that there are unforeseen blessings in brokenness. Nine months ago, we found out that the roof of our Sanctuary was literally collapsing on us. This was shocking and quite frankly, it was frightening. But then again, how many of us have gone through challenges in life where we too felt as if the roof of our lives was caving in on us? I would imagine, that at some point along the journey, all of us have been in this place. How blessed are we to serve a God who shows up stronger than ever in moments of weakness such as this.

This Sunday, let us not forget all the unexpected gifts that have come from this experience. One of my favorite scripture versus of all-time is written in 2 Corinthians 12:9 and it reads: “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” The wounds of our Meeting House have been exposed and by God’s grace we have been able to repair them. Rejoice, for this is good news!

So, thank you. Thank you to every single member of our church for walking alongside Pastor Dale and I through this process. The character of our church has been exposed and its results are spectacular!

Join us, the time has come to celebrate and give thanks.





Gary Michael


I am baffled by recently publicized attempts to keep refugees out of our country.  I am baffled as an American and baffled once again as a person of faith. I almost don’t know where to begin.

In the late 1600’s, my Rosenberger family was evicted from Switzerland because as Mennonites we “didn’t fit” in Calvinist Swiss cantons. Back then even different Christians hated each other with a cold-heartedness we today reserve for different faiths. So my family forebears—hapless refugees—settled in a devastated river valley in Germany where the 30 Years War was waged. Eking out a life, they were farming land that didn’t belong to them, land nobody else wanted, burned over by decades of warfare. I cannot imagine how fearfully tenuous their existence was.


Already for decades William Penn had been making forays into Holland and Germany to recruit for Pennsylvania. In the early 1700’s he came up that river valley and found my destitute but hard-working family. He spoke of a place where they could farm their own land. He invited them to a place where they would be fully enfranchised to vote giving them say in their destiny.


That was how my family fled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania before 1710.  Whenever I crossed the George Washington Bridge back and forth to Michigan in Yale Divinity School days, I would peer down the Hudson for the light upon the statue with these words, “”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


We Rosenbergers were wretched refuse.  But I felt somehow proud of that because America is built on these unlikely foundations.  The idea of giving broken folk a new lease on life is at the heart of the patriotism I feel for this country. Would we dare abandon what has made us great?


The refugees from Syria today are no more a threat to America than my family was back then. As our Senior Deacon wrote in a recent Facebook post, refugees are not immigrants.  They have been displaced by war or persecution and have nowhere to go. They are fleeing for their lives. Refugees undergo extreme vetting before they come here.  It takes years for them to enter to be approved.  No refugee has been involved in terrorist acts.  Refugees are no security problem.


Proportionally speaking, the US has received many fewer refugees than places like Canada or Sweden or Australia, only 100,000 last year, a miniscule portion of our population. As people enter America—like my forebears of old—they work hard to redeem the new chance. There is no reason to reduce this number, and every reason to increase it.  We are talking about families here, married couples with children, who want a better life.  Nothing could be more American.


As Gary Holmes said, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees into Egypt fleeing the persecution of Herod. Abandoning refugees today is morally equivalent to abandoning Jesus and his family.”

I don’t know how your feel about that, but it sticks in my throat.  Ironically, a letter written by former pastor Albert Schmalz came across my desk today.  He talks about bringing two anti-Nazi refugees, veterans of concentration camps, into Darien to serve as a butler and a cook. Pastor Schmalz sent regular food packages to their families in Stuttgart for their survival. Friends, refugees are who we are, who we’ve been, and who our faith points us toward. St. Luke’s has just welcomed their refugee family.  Noroton Presbyterian’s hopes for the same have been dashed by the executive action.  We had better remember who we are or we could lose it.