Eight fourth graders will come forward this Sunday as we present to them their official First Congregational Bibles. I like the look on their faces as they do, as though this is really a big deal, like going on a voyage around the world, as though it marks a serious and public coming of age.
May I put this in context? When I served in Colorado, an NHL hockey franchise came to Denver. So the Denver Post had a contest asking readers to pick how the teams would finish. I was glad for this, as I was fluent in hockey, and they were newbies. So I entered all four family members with variations on final standings. Despite thousands of folks doing so, I was confident we’d hit one of them. Sure enough, my daughter Lise won a hockey stick autographed by Gordie Howe.
She treasures that hockey stick to this day. But it’s hard for her to see all that it means having never played. She doesn’t know this heavy Northland stick with a flat blade and a lie five is the same Gordie used. She doesn’t know what it is like to carry a stick to a pond in winter and use it to shovel the ice. She doesn’t know that when I was a kid, and broke a stick, I’d have to repair it with screws and glue, as we couldn’t afford new ones. (Gordie was raised in a prairie home in Saskatchewan with nine siblings, and no indoor plumbing, using catalogues for his shin guards.)
None of this is to criticize Lise. It is a little like saying, if you want to understand the music of George Gerswhin, you have to spend time in a big city. Or if you want to get what Johnny Cash was up to in his songs, you need to spend time in the Deep South. None of it is self-explanatory.
When we give Bibles to our children, we typically quote the aphorism about the Bible being the most published and least read book in the world. That is true enough. Let’s start there. If we do not use these Bibles, if we don’t read them to our children, then our presenting them is in vain.
But we must say more. The Bible only makes sense as our children live lives of discipleship, lives of following Jesus. The Bible isn’t self-interpreting. (Think Church School!) It needs a life context where we relate to Peter, denying Jesus by a late night fire; where we’re like Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, with Jesus before us, but unable to see who he is. Otherwise, we say foolish things like we’d never deny Jesus, like we always see Jesus clearly in our daily walk.
People who believe the Bible is self-interpreting, skeptical of this context of following Jesus, say silly things like, “The Bible expounds universal life principles running through the morality of all world religions.” I don’t believe that for a minute. I believe the truth of the Bible only makes sense in light of the people of Israel and Jesus’ earliest followers and our efforts to follow him.
All of this is to say, the Bible is a living word, requiring living interactions, not a dead rulebook. The Bible needs our transformation before it releases its secrets. Parts of the Bible never made any sense to me until I was sweating in a third world country, building footers for a house. As the Bible re-narrates our lives in light of Peter and Cleopas and the rest, we realize the story of our life is much bigger than we ever realized. As great as the God who is our origin and destiny.
Welcome Back Sunday isn’t a church calendar fixture year like Easter or Pentecost. But the Old Testament’s most compelling story is Israel’s search for their home, the place where God wanted them, having been liberated from slavery. Retelling that story is what the Passover seder is about. If you found you missed something indescribable over the summer, if something was not quite right, maybe you missed your spiritual home, our First Congregational Church.
This Sunday is our Welcome Back Sunday. We will share a Jazz Sunday with our own Max Pakhomov, John Stuart, and the Dixieland style band we welcomed a couple years ago. We will welcome eleven new members into our fellowship. An ice cream social with face painting will follow. We hope you’re making plans to be with us as we feel this energy surge among us anew.
Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Mark Twain said that. So maybe it is fitting that my sermon theme on Sunday is authenticity. When people and places are real or genuine, we cannot always exactly put our finger on why. But our antennae are always out, searching and wondering, do they really mean it? Or are they just going through the motions?
So what does authenticity mean in a church? Will Willimon, of Duke University, shares this vignette. An irate father called him one day, exploding on the other end of the line. “I hold you personally responsible for this!” he shouted. He was angry because his graduate-school-bound daughter had decided to “throw it all away” in Haiti to do mission work with the Presbyterians.
“Isn’t that absurd?” screamed the father. “She has a B. S. degree from Duke and she is going to dig ditches in Haiti! I hold you personally responsible for this!” Willimon said, “Why me?” The father came back, “you ingratiated yourself and filled her up with all of this religion stuff.” Will didn’t back off an inch. He asked the father, “Sir, weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”
“Well…..well, yes.” “And didn’t you take her to Sunday School when she was a little girl?” “Yes.” “And didn’t you allow your daughter to go on youth mission trips back in high school days?” “Yes…but what does that have to do with anything.” “Sir, you are reason she is ‘throwing it all away.’ You introduced her to Jesus, not me.” “But,” said the father, “all we wanted was a Presbyterian.” “Well, sorry, sir, you messed up. You’ve gone and made her into a disciple.”
Since hearing that story, whenever I meet with the family before baptizing a child, I always tell the parents that by having their child baptized that if Jesus later wants or lays claim to her for any number of ministries, easy or hard, near or far, they must let her go. It’s a speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace moment. They generally swallow hard and nod yes. In Colorado, a new member family told me a story some years after they had joined that First Congregational.
They joined wanting to baptize a child. I gave my usual spiel about the completeness of God’s claim upon his baptized. In the parking lot, the wife said, “Wow. That was a little over the top, don’t you think? Pretty intense.” The husband answered, “If he doesn’t really believe it, or only half believes it, then how much do you think we are going to believe it?” I am ok with that.
See you Sunday! One service only at ten am!
We are at that pivotal moment in the year when the children return to school, the caregiving parent ensconces into the home routine to propel the family forward, and the providing parent returns to the job routine–all with a vengeance. Have you ever heard anyone say at work, when something very bad happens, “Don’t worry too much about it, in a hundred years who’ll care?”
On the lighter side of Labor Day, here are some jobs that no longer exist, a hundred or more years later. I don’t offer these to diminish or relativize our work today, but to give perspective, even before we need it. Someone said, “American worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship.” Maybe we shouldn’t worship our work. Maybe we should relax more into our play. Maybe this is the time to get more serious about attending worship. Here goes…
I am thankful for our jobs. Those without work truly suffer. On even my worst days as a pastor, I am glad to work in a job that has been around for 2,000 years and will be here for 2,000 more.
The Statue of Liberty evokes our loftiest ideals, the history of how 99% of us arrived here, and how America became what it is. Driving between Detroit and New Haven in divinity school days late at night when traffic was low, I would strain to see its light from the GW Bridge, and smile. On our second date, Cecile and I rollerbladed to Manhattan’s tip and shared our first hug there.
Its message, the poem from Anna Lazarus, still resonates a century later, in these final strains:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
To get here my own Rosenberger ancestors were kicked out of some of Europe’s best countries. So let me ask, are these fond ideals buried in a storied past or do they have any currency today? It is easy and sentimental to consign such ideals to past patriots who sacrificed and stood tall, meeting the challenge flung before them in their life moment. Spare me that kind of patriotism. What about our own moment in history? How do we measure our character and sleep at night?
I’ve made 17 trips to Latin America and spent two years there. Right now, the rate of murder in Honduras is the highest on earth. I only saw shades of that—driven by the drug wars–the last time I was in Honduras. Think Rwanda or Bosnia in the 90’s, and all we might have done there.
I wonder how the immigration crisis plays in your living room. Do we recoil and cry foul fearing a welfare state? Or do we see the crises these children flee from for what it is, as dangerous as anywhere on earth. Let’s recall these are children, not criminals or terrorists. Let us ask, do we regret helping Jews escape the Nazis or Russians the Soviet gulag? My church in Columbus, Ohio helped hundreds of Cambodians escape Pol Pot. Too many saw their own parents killed. Two of them became valedictorians of their high school class. They began umpteen businesses.
Before you decide if these children are a drain or an opportunity, go to Miami and look around. Miami, if you didn’t know it, is really the world capital of Latin America. It has only blossomed and become the great city it is since the Latin Americans inhabited it and sweated to make it so.
Or ask yourself this: do you have any idea how many couples are being denied adoption in this country? Russia has tightly constricted the flow of their adopted children, like some other lands.
What do we fear? Staying true to our loftiest ideals as a nation? Becoming like the Samaritan of Jesus’ parable, where loving his neighbor involved a national border being crossed? Who are we? Have we become so prosperous that we’ve lost the ethos of how we became who we are? Nikolai Lenin once said refugees vote with their feet. They vote against tyranny and for peace.
St. Augustine described Christians as resident aliens in this world. It’s not our permanent home. Populaces remain in flux since his day. And the oppressed still look for the light in our window.
Whenever anyone asks for feedback as they ponder entering the ordained ministry, I ask three questions. First, do you have the heart for it? Through your varied experiences has God touched you in a way leading you to believe he is enlisting you in his service? Do you have a passion for the many odd things God has a passion for? Do you love those Christ loves—which happens to be all of us, including the unlovable? No one should not begin a journey toward ordained ministry with anything less than that. People can tell if you lack the heart, and it just won’t fly.
Second, I ask them, do you have the head for ministry? Maybe this is the easiest, because a good divinity school can help big-time here. But devoting ourselves to understanding scripture and grasping the theology issuing forth from it is a passion of which we must never tire, if we’re to expect people not to tire of our preaching and teaching. But not only this, beyond charting God’s ways as revealed in Jesus, we make the study of the human spirit our lifelong passion. Ministry is an ellipsis with two foci nestled within: God and humankind. Both are indispensable.
Third, I ask them, do you have the stomach for it? Ministry demands so many different things of us, it is difficult to do them all well: teacher, preacher, fund-raiser, staff supervisor, pastor, comforter, counselor, prophet, event planner, mission stager, liturgist, visionary, emergency relief, priest, budgeter, etc. God keeps us humble like this. It takes a decade of immersion to feel basic competence. We are under constant scrutiny, measured and evaluated. Never mind that some reject all your gifts in spite of your best efforts. So do you have the stomach for this?
I once heard someone say about being called to ministry, don’t do it unless you have to, unless you cannot not do it. If all of this sounds unduly harsh, that’s better than half-baking a life plan. The basic fact is a majority of those entering local church ministry leave within the first 5 years.
If I am waxing reflective on all of this, it’s because next week marks the 35th anniversary of my ordination at First Congregational in Branford, Connecticut. On Sunday I’ll talk about what I’ve learned along the way, how ministry has changed and still changes. This might offer some clues as we at FCC, Darien strategically reflect upon our future, and the course we’ll together chart.
Meanwhile, the beat of ministry goes on: if you are moved to do so, come this Saturday as we commend to God with gratitude the mother of former Moderator, Jon Bigelow. The memorial service of Anne Lehr Bigelow begins at 1 pm. Also, you won’t want to miss the baptism on Sunday of John Joseph “Jack” Saager, IV, best known as the second grandson of Anne MacInnes to be baptized this year. I adore hearing so many say, “I just love the baptisms at our church!”
Last week I was in Vermont with a pastor friend who has moved from the pulpit to academia. “How often do you preach these days, Dale?” he asked, jolting me a bit. I paused, calculated, and replied, “About 47 times per year.” His eyebrows shot up. “I’ve never preached that much.”
I last preached here on Graduation Sunday, a glad day when everyone seemed to find something helpful in the sermon. A Deacon said as much. I appreciated his encouragement because it’s easy to quibble around the edges of sermons with tweaking suggestions. That is like sitting in Yankee Stadium, saying about Jacoby Ellsbury missing a liner, “I would have had that!” In preaching, what is hard is delivering the goods while riveting people, week after week.
Someone observed, “Only a mediocre man is always at his best.” This means taking risks, trying different approaches, taking you from your familiar world and into the Bible’s strange world, at times frontally direct, other times subtly sneaking up on you with the truth, as the parables do.
The task of preaching reminds me of my mother’s cooking. Not every Sunday is a Thanksgiving feast or a birthday dinner. Not all of it can be memorable. But hopefully hearers are fed the spiritual nutrition they need for the strength to be equipped to live from one ‘meal’ to the next.
The upshot is sometimes things work, sometimes not so much. But you give me freedom to range wide and far. After 35 years of preaching (as of July 29 this year), that enriches my pulpit work. Maybe the big surprise in preaching is how much of it transcends my biblical knowledge, my oratorical skills, and my use of language, how much of it depends upon what you bring here.
William Willimon—a top preacher today—claims faithful preaching is frighteningly dependent on faithful listening. Obviously, I have my part, standing in our historic pulpit, but surprisingly, so do you. Some Sundays I can feel you listening to my message so acutely, so on the edge of your pew, it actually pulls better sermons from me. But it goes beyond eager or unreceptive expressions on your face. It even has to do with the welcome you have in your heart for God’s admittedly strange and off-the-beaten-path Word. Yes, good preaching requires good listening.
No congregation gets better preaching than its listening warrants. How much truth will we hear on Sundays having lived with half-truths all week? How vulnerable are we willing to become as I become vulnerable telling stories on myself? How willing are we to enter the odd “otherness” of the text, as I candidly struggle over how Scripture challenges, even assaults, the conventional wisdom of how the world must be? How much do you grasp that preaching is less about making the Bible relevant to your life (that is for children) and more about weighing how relevant your life is to God’s reign in Christ? How accepting are you that the goal is not like TV–amusing or entertaining you–but real transformation, getting you to vote ‘yes’ with your life as a disciple?
Not to put too much pressure on you or on me for Sunday, but now we all have our assignment. It’s about Paul’s last sermon (Acts 26) before they take him to Rome, where he meets his end.
The goal of a thriving church is to transform lives, remaking us in God’s image. You can tell churches that are truly alive because we see signs of transformation. For this to happen, we venture outward beyond our solitary selves, even beyond our familiar daily circle. We gather with others and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this is in standard “churchy” ways, other times in human ways.
As we come together sharing a common purpose, to connect with each other and support each other in this hyper-individualistic society, we know that God smiles. This is how God equips us to cope with bad times and celebrate good times. We easily lose track–imagining ourselves self-made—how much we need each other.
God calls the church form these essential connections by creating community and modeling that the church is where we look for comfort, support, and a sense of belonging. Actually, we have been working on this at FCC, Darien since last summer, and even now see the fruits of it already beginning to appear among us.
Sally Bassler, Mandy Teare, and Mariann Bigelow spent most of last autumn go-ing up to First Congregational, Ridgefield to learn about their use of small groups. We have all been in conversation to apply what that church does to our setting. We have been rolling out what we are calling small group Connections where we can be together, where we might also invite many who don’t already attend here.
You’ve heard us mention groups like men’s fellowship, gardening, films, novels, sharing faith journeys, ladies’ fellowship, young mother support, and still others. We hope this is just a start in creating gatherings for us to know and be known by each other, and to invite newcomers into accessible and appealing groups where they might become caught up in the energy of our church by knowing its people.
The truth is we live in a forever changed world. The mainline church has been slower to come around and respond to this new era. Just stomping our feet and wondering why others aren’t coming to church the way most of us came is not good enough. If lots of us found our way into these Connections groups–some explicitly sharing the faith, others not so much—it would energize our church life.
Would you let yourself enter into such a group? Would you consider creating one where you affiliate, get caught up in other people, and let God at work with that?
Like this, we start where we are to move deliberately toward where God calls into the future. The beauty of Jesus is how he accepts each of us wherever we are on life’s journey. He accepts us just as we are, but he doesn’t leave us there either.
If we have been wondering about and praying for a vision for our church, it might begin in ways as humble as this. It’s fitting to lift this up at Pentecost. After all, the mainstream church is certainly at a crossroads moment, just like Acts chapter 2
This Sunday is Church School Sunday. Pulling this together has been a challenge for our Kate Nelson. But it promises to be special as our children interpret Jesus walking on water, the ascension, and doubting Thomas. Our attraction to this charming yearly celebration of Church School and teachers is their fresh, winsome spin on ancient texts.
At a recent gathering of the Darien Clergy Association, I learned the lead churches in town all have “holes” in our Church Schools, despite receiving younger new members into our memberships. The modern Sunday School movement was born in Connecticut through Hartford’s own Horace Bushnell. It appears we shall have to take a stand here if we wish to see it shape, educate, and transform our little ones for coming generations.
John Westerhoff writes of five guidelines for sharing our faith with our children from birth through childhood. Of course, these suggestions are not only for the church. Parents are the biggest shapers of their own children in every possible way—including spiritual.
Many liberal-minded parents somehow accepted the position on child-rearing which assumed that our children were somehow “not up to” sharing our life of faith as adults. Instead of directly sharing with our children ourselves–to share our passion for Christ and the life of faith–it is enough to merely let them observe us as we pray, worship, study and perform good deeds. Many parents now know that approach holds no water. That while shaping their reading and athletic abilities, for example, we ignore their faith.
So here are five guidelines for sharing our faith, whether in your house or in our church.
1. We need to tell and retell the biblical story—the stories of faith—together.
2. We need to celebrate our faith and our lives.
3. We need to pray together.
4. We need to listen and talk to each other.
5. We need to perform faithful acts of service and witness together.
All five will occur on Church School Sunday. We are here year round to empower you in your spiritual care of your young, with Church School as a focal point. See you Sunday!
As the summertime comes, we get outdoors to work out more. And don’t we love the feeling of moving and exerting ourselves? Nothing could be more natural, or more important as we idly while away entire lifetimes sitting in front of electronics.
But let’s admit it, exercise conjures odd behaviors. I remember on Cape Cod, riding my dated ten-speed on the lovely Cape bike paths, dressed in cut-offs. As I greeted other professional-looking riders in matching Lycra shorts and jerseys emblazoned with sponsor logos, riding bikes rivaling my Jeep in cost, I’d smile and say hi. But they would never answer. After all, they were serious riders, and I was some schmoe, out getting exercise. I detected a proud self-righteousness.
Cecile and I like to skate at the free ice rink in Manhattan’s Bryant Park in winter. It is always chock full of people. Last time we were there we saw this aged fellow dressed in full Olympic Lake Placid workout gear and racing skates, dating from 1980, and skating so seriously and deliberately as though he might compete in 2018. He just expected everyone to get out of his way, many of them, first-time skaters. After all, he was a serious skater, and this workout of his was serious.
I accept looking ridiculous working elliptical machines or Rollerblading the side streets. But can we skip the ridiculous posturing and one-upsmanship of looking down on the less skilled, the less muscled, or the less work-out savvy, please?
We have all heard of “works righteousness”, thinking we are better than others. But what about “work-out righteousness”? I am sometimes tempted at the YMCA, as we’re buried in our routines, bodies and physicality, taking ourselves so very seriously, to stand and say, “Excuse me, does everyone her realize that we are going to die someday?” The exercise machines are not a pathway to immortality.
Having said that, get outside, feel the sunshine, revel in the thigh burn as you push yourself to new limits. It feels heavenly, even if our redemption is otherwise.
Last Sunday at our Annual Meeting we called a fresh, hopeful, gifted group of lay leaders to guide us into a new year. Servant leadership in the church differs from leading in other places. Adam Copeland, faculty at Concordia College, remembers a story putting all this in perspective.
“Around the time of desegregation, black congregations were sending delegations to visit white congregations as a witness to the need for integration….Some elders at a certain white church heard about the upcoming visit from blacks and hastily called a meeting. How could they keep the visitors away? many elders wondered. After listening to the debate, the pastor finally spoke up. ‘You elders can do what you want, but the instant one of our brothers and sisters is shown anything but the finest hospitality, I will be leaving the pulpit. And I won’t be coming back.’”
That defines leadership in a way we seldom see in our time. Rather than consult a leadership coach, pause for “a view from the balcony”, or poll key members as a focus group, he stepped out in faith. He knew the African-American visit would cause unrest, probably conflict within his church. But rather than worry about their little boat getting rocked, he charted a course in a far-flung voyage. What qualified him to do so? They described him as a prayerful, faithful man.
Here is the point: before we lead, we must know ourselves as followers. And the one we follow isn’t a leadership seminar guru. Such as these stress the “how” of leadership at the expense of the grander “why” of leadership. To get at the greater “why” of leadership, we who lead must first follow. That’s right, we who speak must first listen; we who act, first look to Jesus. FCC needs leaders with passion for Christ’s gospel, with dog-eared Bibles, leaders who follow Jesus.
In Matthew 4, when Jesus called his fisherman followers alongside the Sea of Galilee, he didn’t say, “Here are my long-term objectives in bullet-points. Talk through my proposal with your stakeholders at your conclave and let me know if your analysis suggests the mission is scalable.” No, it’s a simple story, sparing in details, a testament to one bringing the power of God’s reign.
If our goal is to preserve the church as institution and ignore our core mission, we are probably hiding in what is too safe and easy. Are we aware that we are part of a movement across time and space? We get to help write the next chapter in God’s reconciliation of heaven and earth. “Make no little plans.” wrote Daniel Burnham, architect of the Flatiron Building, “They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work…” God calls us today to move beyond mere institutional caretaking to rally a movement that touches hearts, especially God’s heart. Of course, as soon as I say, “think big”, let me also add, “be willing to start small”, like Jesus with meek, humble fishermen.
If you can see it, if you know it’s right, if it warms God’s heart, heed that instinctive spontaneity. Of course, there are many silly things not worth getting in trouble over. But if you are a leader, people will criticize you, and you will get into trouble. Get in trouble for the right things. Dr. M. L. King, Jr. once challenged, “A leader is not a seeker of consensus, but a molder of consensus.”