The First Congregational Church of Darien

United Church of Christ

A community of faith since 1737

Category Archives: From Dale

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

Saint Francis of Assisi, was an Italian Roman Catholic friar, deacon and preacher.  Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.  He articulates one of my favorite quotes, regarding preaching: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”  In this substantive quote, Francis illuminates how important it is that our words and our actions are aligned.  This charge has become the framework for my ministry, my life and my spiritual formation.

Over the years I’ve listened to, studied and watched countless sermons.  However, there is one preacher who has changed my life more than any other preacher in the world.  His name is, Jesus Christ.  Jesus was the living example of God, which Saint Francis got his inspiration from.  He was masterful at preaching to everyone, everywhere regardless of age, race, sexual identity, creed, religion or lack of religion.  In all four gospels there are countless examples that separate Jesus from any other preacher.

This week, I offer you a prayer that has been my guiding light for years.  These words are more than just black ink on a white sheet of paper… They are truly words to live by:

 

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

 

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

Amen.

 

Join us, this Sunday, as we explore how God’s light shines through the darkness of despair.

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.

Every Sunday, at The First Congregational Church of Darien, the Holy Spirit is moving in new and energetic ways.  Pastor Dale and I, through prayer, are constantly asking the question: “Lord, what is the next move for YOUR church?”

As you may have heard, we have been actively seeking a new Director of Christian Education to add to our Church staff.  We believe this position is vital to strengthening our ministry to families and supplement the great work that is taking place in our church.  A sub-committee of the Board of Christian Education has spent the last six weeks interviewing potential candidates and brought forth two for additional discussions with Pastor Dale and me.  We are delighted to have clear consensus around one of these candidates.

Her name, Christine Geeding!  Christine hails from just south of the Chicago area and will be moving to CT in early August — as her husband, Ben, will be starting at Yale Divinity in the fall.  She has been actively involved in the Church from a very young age.  She has a strong music background, currently teaching as well as being employed as the Assistant Music Pastor at her church.  She loves children, working mostly with Elementary and Middle School kids.  She has 2 degrees: a Bachelor of Music in Music Ministry and a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry.  Christine comes across as very energetic, enthusiastic, creative and kind-hearted.  She has a warmth and kind spirit about her.  The search committee feels she will be a great fit for us.  She is eager to take this journey with us.

Christine will be with us this coming Sunday, July 23, for the 9:00 am service and will be available to visit with you during the coffee/lemonade hour.  This is a great opportunity for us to showcase our amazing Church community while allowing us to get to know her a bit better.

In addition to Christine being with us this Sunday.  We are also going to be giving the Denoyer family a church blessing as they embark on a new journey.  They are moving to Indiana where Anna’s family hails from.  This decision comes with great celebration but also with heavy hearts.  The Denoyer family has been extremely involved in our church and seeing them leave will be bitter sweet.  Such is the journey of life.  This Sunday we will be sure to send them off with great love.

Sunday’s sermon title is: “Walk in Faith” which speaks directly to many of the events taking place at church.  This week, without a doubt, has been one of the greatest weeks of my entire life.  I look forward to preaching this word that the Lord has placed on my heart to share with you.

Come, as you are, we look forward to worshipping with you!

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

 

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.

 

On June 19, 2006 a letter was sent to our church membership declaring that our clergy were empowered on behalf of First Congregational to perform civil union services for same-sex couples.  On June 26, 2015 the US Supreme Court struck down the statues of any state forbidding same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

Because the terms of what is at stake here have changed, we need to update our position regarding the consecration of the relationships of same-sex couples. And I propose we do so now as I preach on the subject this Sunday and invite you to join us afterward in the Morehouse Room for an open hearing of all views. Trust me, every point of view will be heard and every person will be valued in that setting, very much as we spoke of racial reconciliation under the sacred canopy.

Why now?  It is something how our journey unfolds, isn’t it? I meant to lead us in this discernment a year ago, but then the roof threatened to cave in, and we got busy. Then after we returned to the Meetinghouse I decided it was time, and a lesbian couple united with us, to confirm that timing.  God speaks in such ways to signal our engagement with and discernment around the vital issues of our time.

In 2006 we arrived at our discernment on civil unions by group consensus rather than congregational vote. I like that approach again this time round and believe it augurs well as we look to the future.  Voting can get political and divisive, making some feel like winners, others like losers.  Building and sharing in consensus is where not all of us necessarily agree, but we can agree on finding a way forward.

What might we achieve? The United Church of Christ has an activist-based Open and Affirming process all about affirming the rights of gays and lesbians. The churches opting in eventually get designated as “Open and Affirming Churches.”

As for me, I don’t see folks coming to us wanting us to affirm their rights so much as offer a blessing.  Rights are the language of the nation-state. Such talk tends to politicize an already difficult issue. But blessing is the language of the church.  So I want us to consider the nature of the blessing we have for same-sex couples.

My hope is that we will become what I call a Full Blessing Congregation.  And let me tell you what I mean by that. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian church had zero official blessing for gay people. These relationships found no sanction in the services of the church. Sometimes gays were actively persecuted by the church.

Then in the Seventies, some pastors performed services of commitment on the sly for gay couples, sometimes in our sanctuaries, but more commonly outside of them. Church authorities couldn’t stop us clergy from acting on our consciences, but kept this from occurring in their buildings, lest these services be construed as approval or complicity.   We might call this phase of our history “partial blessing.”

I’m asking for same-sex couples desiring the church’s blessing, and willing to submit to marriage as a time-honored covenant, and to model their love after the self-giving love of Christ, whether anything is to prevent us from offering them not only the sanction of our services, but even the full blessing we offer every couple.

For me, this is a matter of moral and spiritual discernment, not rights activism.  So will you come and be with us on Sunday and help us see God’s way forward?

 

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?

I said something recently that I wish to retract or maybe merely modify. I led off a sermon a few weeks ago saying that there are three answers to our prayers. The first answer is the most popular one: yes.  The second answer often baffles us: no.  The third answer to our prayers is the most agonizing and confusing: wait.

So much of getting clear in faith is asking right questions. I wish to question the idea of prayer working for us by getting answers we deem acceptable or helpful. Peter W. Marty recently wrote that in discussing prayer and its outcomes, we should eliminate the word “answer.”  Suffice it to say, that really got my attention.

What did Marty mean? Well, now to claim there are only three answers to prayer, it sounds utterly saturated with our self-interest.  It sounds centered around us rather than centered around God.  Those are not the directions I want to lead us.

Yes, Jesus did encourage us to pray for things we need, even specific things.  And I still believe that doing so is a sign of spiritual maturity, a sign of closeness to God.  But we should remember that in the context that prayer is not mostly about us. Prayer is mostly about God, and sharing in the life God has given to us.

When you ponder prayer, picture relationships with friends across decades. We have special friendships, where time and distance can’t intrude. We know friends with whom we can pick up where we left off in a lifelong ongoing conversation. Such settings evoke deep conversation that inspire curiosity, promote honesty, and reveal transformations of ourselves, which might otherwise remain invisible. Those visits are less about achieving a result and more about sharing company. We know such relationships are beautiful because such company as that is rare.

Prayer is much like that.  Perhaps the most important outcome of prayer is not getting what we want or deem necessary at a certain moment within our journey.  Perhaps it is to enough know God, and therefore know ourselves.  Or better still, perhaps the purpose of prayer is to enjoy God so we can rejoice within our days. Robert Farrar Capon has said, “Prayer is just talking to someone who is already talking to you.  (Prayer) is listening to someone who is already listening to you.”

The place where I have learned the most about prayer is sitting with the dying, reading Psalms to them, taking their hands into mine, and settling into our prayer. We always reach a point where we put aside prayers that seek certain results, such as healing.  And we begin to pray for things like God’s presence, constancy, companionship, guidance.  We pray for God being strong for us in our weakness. Those prayers have been for me some of the most free and liberating I’ve known.

On this Celebration Sunday, we recognize Church School teachers and children, bid farewell to Mary Jo, and look to a new era of ministry to our young. We do not yet know where we will be as we reshape all these ministries to eliminate gaps. Would it be enough to pray for God’s presence, constancy, companionship, and guidance?  Would it be enough to let God usher us forward?  Yes, yes, and yes.