The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

Category Archives: From Dale

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?

  • Sunday is my only day to sleep in. I accept that I serve a hard-working congregation. But Sunday is when God raised Jesus from the dead. Truly, compared to that act on our behalf, getting here by 10 am isn’t strenuous.
  • I don’t need to attend to be faithful. Some say they worship God as well on a golf course. But let’s get real. The basic unit of our faith is community and not the individual. Without each other, we quickly wear down. Spiritual slippage is real, even if it is mostly invisible. We all need to attend worship.
  • I don’t get anything out of it. Not every sermon interests everyone. But we are not here to cater to your needs. We are here to proclaim the true and living God. Consumerism will kill a church. In this narcissistic world, going somewhere where it’s all about God, not you, is what will save you.
  • I have been feeling down lately. As I feel down, I confess, I don’t want to do anything or go anywhere.  Sometimes I am teary singing a poignant hymn. But church is a place for all seasons of life. That is why we have both joys and concerns. Despite wearing our Sunday best, worship is where we experience the whole truth of who we are without editing.  We won’t inflict phony cheer or say it’s not that bad. We’ll come alongside you to rejoice in your blessings and share in your sorrows. That is real healing.

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!

 

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

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.

The panelists:

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.

 

 

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

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.

  • Since 1989 Habitat, Mexico has worked with more than 57,000 families for a better life. Still, 45% of Mexicans lack access to a modest, useful home. Mexico’s poor tend to live in huts of planks, palm trees or discarded stuff, which are often roofed with rusty corrugated tin sheets. In many cases, two families live in one small house. And it’s not uncommon to find grand-parents, parents and children living in the same room and sharing beds. Dirt floors and unvented cooking spaces make health hazards for families
  • Chacala, our destination, is a quiet fishing village of about 300 along the Pacific Ocean.  It is a quiet and unhurried place, friendly and welcoming, a destination where Mexicans tend to vacation. Alas, they can’t eat the view.
  • As of now, our travel dates are Sat., Jan 20 to Sun., Jan. 28, 2018.  This might shift a day or so, depending on the availability of inexpensive flights. (We are always cost conscious.) Our week of work is happens in between.
  • We will fly into and out of Puerto Vallarta, pausing to orient ourselves with Habitat as we arrive, and to reflect and catch our breath before we depart.
  • Our group will number up to 15, with FCC members having first priority at securing a spot on the Mexico trip.  Your $800 deposit will hold your place.
  • You need not be a body builder, a skilled laborer, or a construction worker to go. Just be in good health.  We work at our own pace and support one another. The work is important because it bonds us with our hosts. But productivity is not top priority. The top priority is spiritually sharing our own gifts as God’s children with new friends, who want the same things we do.
  • We will stay in a modest local hotel with clean rooms and hot showers. Simple, tasty (and safe!) meals are served to us as a group.  Of course, we’ll learn about the history, politics and economy of the people, as we go.
  • We begin each day with short devotions at the work site.  We often work in subgroups of 3 to 4.  Box lunches arrive from the hotel.  We pick up the work in the afternoon and return “home” for dinner.  After cleaning up and dinner, we go for walks and end with group evening devotions.  This is our chance to process our day and live the experience as spiritual pilgrimage.
  • I expect a cost in the $1,700 range. Most of that is airfare. Each of us pays his own way (including myself). All donations—to the last cent—go to build simple decent homes with the working poor. The homes resist hurricanes using a modular construction we learned in the 2016 Costa Rica work trip.
  • I’ve led 12 such trips resulting in 87 new homes now occupied by families. As owners pay for their new homes, the funds build more homes through Habitat.  With this winning formula, Habitat has built over a million homes.
  • I always promise participants that your life will never be the same, having gone. No one has ever disputed my claim. I keep returning because God’s power to make a difference like this has gotten in my blood. It is a real joy.

 

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?

 

 

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

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

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

August 15, 2017

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

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

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

Pastoral Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

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