The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

All posts by Julia Arstorp

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.

 

That is what I want our membership to do anyway during the summer: to slow down so you can read more. To ponder things that you cannot always on the run. To pray to find a way forward for you, your family, and the spiritual family of FCC.

 

But I have an extra assignment this summer.  Last Sunday I preached about the blessing FCC brings for couples.  Not just for the bride and groom on the top of the wedding cake.   But for when two men or two women approach us to be wed.

 

In 2006 FCC reached a consensus to allow its clergy to bless gay and lesbian couples in commitment services to form a civil union. But with the Supreme Court decision in 2015, the way has been cleared for the church to extend the rite of marriage to same-sex couples. For some, holy marriage is far beyond civil union.

 

So I preached on this last Sunday.  Attendance was good for a summer Sunday, but we need to reach more of you to update our consensus.  We shared an 11th Hour gathering which 17 persons attended.  Each of us spoke out of personal convictions, and respect for everyone’s point of view carried the day. We want that to continue.   The consensus in the room was for FCC to take the next step.
I propose we declare ourselves a Full Blessing congregation. Let me explain that.  For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian church was a Zero Blessing church to gays and lesbians, expecting them to keep secret their sexual orientation, rendering them invisible, or in some cases even becoming party to the persecution of gays.

 

In the 1970s, some pastors began doing commitment services for gay couples.  Most churches tolerated these pastors exercising their conscience, but no few churches forbade them from conducting the services within the church sanctuary. I am calling this in-between period of recent decades our Partial Blessing church.

 

By proposing to become what we call a Full Blessing Church, we agree to offer an unhesitating and fully celebratory blessing over two men/two women forging a holy covenant together before God to love the other as Christ loves the church.  Last Sunday’s text had Peter the Apostle exclaiming, “God shows no partiality.”
While the consensus within our 11th Hour gathering was clear, we want to make the effort to seek out all of the congregation for your sense around this change. My sermon from last Sunday follows this Flash so that you can read and ponder, pray and discern.  Take the summer to search your heart and soul and spirit on this matter. By fall, we’ll hold another 11th Hour hoping to hear from any and all. Or if you prefer, call me personally any time this summer to chat about this issue.

 

 

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.