The First Congregational Church of Darien

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One of the most common questions I get asked when in public goes something like this: “Gary, what on earth are you so enthusiastic about!”  Every time I get this question my heart starts to pump with joy and a smile instantly finds its way to my face.  My response, always: “I’m enthusiastic about life because I’ve found faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ.  Holding close to my heart, Jesus’ most important commandment, to love God passionately and to serve my fellow neighbor as if he or she was family.

Friends, I see the face of Jesus Christ every single day of my life. Loving our neighbors and our enemies is apart of who we are as Christians. Joe Pankowski, recently posted a story on Facebook that I couldn’t wait to share on a flash. This story comes from a young man named Dylan, a U.S. veteran of the Iraq war. I hope when reading this story you too can see the face of Jesus Christ in the most beautiful way possible.

“Years ago, on my first deployment to Iraq, I befriended a local boy, Brahim, who would quickly become one of our interpreters. He was able to do so because the turnover rate for local nationals who worked with us was enormous. And not because they quit, because they were killed. Besides the money, we were able to get them to volunteer with us by promising them refugee status in the U.S. if they completed a tour. (But really, I think the chain of command knew that most interpreters wouldn’t make it through their contracts alive).

Anyway, Brahim would tell me about all the family members he lost in the conflict–brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them. He told me how he lived in a one-bedroom house with 7 people. No clean water, power every other week because of the rolling blackouts, etc. He told me how they did have the basic necessities most days and that him volunteering with us was one of their sole sources of income. One day, I went down to the store and bought him $20, maybe $30 worth of toiletries. No big deal really. I just didn’t want the dude to smell bad. When I presented it to him, he cried. Literally bawled his eyes out and said he’d give his life for me. OVER SOAP. Completely sobering. He spent the next year acting as our liaison, providing us with valuable intelligence, and essentially saving our lives on a daily basis – at the age of 16!  At the end of my tour in Iraq, I knew I was leaving him to die. I knew I’d never see him again. I was just kind of like ‘take care kid.’

Fast-forward 5-years. And I’m flying home to Phoenix to bury my little brother who was brutally murdered. (Gun violence is another subject). I remember the day like it was yesterday. I cried my eyes out all the way from Hawaii to Arizona. Absolutely brutal. Spend 6 years fighting wars and you don’t expect to get a phone call that your kid brother was randomly murdered in a carjacking. Anyway, I land in Arizona and it’s pouring. Hop off and walk down to the taxi stand. I get in the first taxi that pulls up and we’re off. Driver starts to make the standard small talk. Where you from, what do you do, etc. I tell him I just got out of the military and blah blah. He says ‘Oh, great. I love the military. You ever travel anywhere?’ I tell him, ‘Sure. Been to every corner of the globe. Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.’ He says ‘Oh! I’m from Iraq! What part?’ I say ‘Kirkuk, mostly.’ And he says, ‘I’m from Kirkuk.’ And then it gets really quiet. Like awkwardly quiet. Making me nervous quiet. My first thought is I killed one of his family members and he recognizes me.

And now I’m literally getting ready to bail out of the cab. I see him staring at me in the rear view. I can see the anguish in his eyes. And then he starts to PULL THE CAB TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. He stops, turns around and says, ‘Dylan, you remember me? It’s me, Brahim.’ And I’m like Oh my God. And just start sobbing.

We got out of that taxi off the I-10 and Rural and hugged it out on a bridge in the rain. I didn’t even care, man. So I’m like BROTHER WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN ARIZONA?! HOW? MAN WHAT? And he’s like I did my 4 years and they gave me a visa. They gave him some cash and a 1-way ticket to the States. Asked him where he wanted to go, and he said where the weather is like Iraq. So they sent him to Arizona. 5 years after I left him in Iraq and a few days after my younger brother was violently murdered, the universe linked us up again.

Brahim literally saved my life, twice.”

America and Iraq. The LOVE of God is everywhere. We just have to open our hearts to see it…

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

On behalf of the Music Committee, our Senior Minister, Reverend Dale Rosenberger and our Music Director, Dan Hague we invite you to join us this Sunday, January 29, for Hymnfest.

Members of the Congregation will speak about Hymns in which they will share personal associations, emotional ties, or just plain favorites among the selections.  Also, Dan Hague, will give a meditation on the history of hymns, why we sing them in church, and where this music comes from.

My Baptist grandmother use to say to me: “Singing a song is equivalent to praying twice!”  I believe grandma absolutely knew what she was talking about.  Music is the heartbeat of the church.  The First Congregational Church of Darien has been blessed with many talented singers and musicians – we must rejoice over this!

In the letter to the Ephesians 5:19-20 its states: “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us give thanks this weekend to Jesus Christ and sing loudly the hymns of our faith.  Come, this Sunday, and “Sing Out”.

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

 

Last Sunday FCC took a very real step forward. In the sermon and following renewal of baptism, we went a step deeper with God and one another. How that happened was equally remarkable. We shared the simple blessing of hearing spoken over us: we’re beloved daughters and sons of God and dwell in his favor.

If someone asked—informationally—if we already know that, we’d say, of course. But realizing that blessing, experiencing it, is something else altogether.  Last Sunday illustrates how grace is not something we mediate unto ourselves. It is something that gets mediated or imparted through living in authentic community. Living in a community where the avowed purpose is putting Christ at the center.

But where do we go from here?  Was it a one-shot deal? Last Sunday Dale said experiencing our belovedness in God’s eyes is the beginning of the spiritual life.  But what is next? You might not realize Dale’s sermon was based on the lectures and sermons of his divinity school teacher, Father Henri Nouwen.

Henri Nouwen, was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian. His interests were rooted primarily in psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community.

Henri wrote the book Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.  On Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 at 11:15 am you’re invited to a discussion group to explore what began last week, the journey hinted at by our renewal of baptism. If what happened last Sunday resonated within you, let’s then follow this thread and see where it goes. Books are available ($10) at worship Sunday for the Feb. 5 class.  Confirmands will meet with Gary at that hour, so confirmand parents are doubly invited.  If you have more questions, please bring them to Dale or Sally Bassler.  All are welcome!

Compassionately,

Gary Michael

Brace yourself, here we go again. We sense our approach to Christmas is fraught with peril and opportunity. So much depends on our angle of approach, more of an ellipse than a straight line. It is good to identify two horns upon which folks hope not to become caught and tossed in any season, but especially not in the run-up to Christmas.  We do not want judgment in the form of rejection and condemnation.   Neither do we desire to sink lost in a bottomless pit of nostalgia.

Let’s take them one at a time. Every church I’ve served, including ours, lives in dread fear of our saving faith in Jesus, personal and precious, getting drowned in personal rebuff. Divorced and remarried persons fear getting cast as irredeemable sinners (Mark 10.11-12).  Gays and lesbians fear being defined by what some construe as their sheer unacceptability (I Cor. 6:9).   Seeking and inquiring Christians fear a lock-step reading of God’s word sealing their doom (2 Tim. 3.16). Naturally, the faithful seek a spiritual community where they can fully belong and feel at home.

Then John the Baptist says in Sunday’s reading, addressing Judaism’s mainstream, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume…” Is John a toxic judge, scorning and condemning all unlike himself as lost? I don’t think so. For he says of himself in relation to Jesus, “I am not worthy to untie his sandal.”

John’s core message is very much like that of Jesus: “Repent, for God’s reign is near.” Repent is the single most misunderstood word in the Gospel, often warped by preachers who don’t get it.  Repentance is not about self-hate for our sins; not about lifting ourselves by moral bootstraps; not about wallowing in guilt and unworthiness; not about God condemning or damning us. In Greek, the word “repent” means turn your life 180 degrees and point it toward God’s promises.

Repentance conveys our lives into God’s determination to realign us with his life in Jesus Christ. Repentance is not about guilty reproach, but being remade in Christ’s sublime image. The dark word “repent” is actually the light of positive invitation to metamorphosis and transformation. Changing us is finally of God’s doing, not our own.  But we can shore things up, sift through our values, starting by refusing to presume sufficiency unto ourselves.  John puts us on our toes that God truly cares about what we do and how we act, if we want any real part in God’s new reign.

Turning from fearing judgment to dreading nostalgia, we often imagine that we want nostalgia. But nostalgia is a kind of spiritual junk food.  We consume more and more of it until we reach a moment when we realize it will never satisfy. Sifting back through Christmases past for an ideal and enchanted Christmas is particularly painful for people like me, having just lost my brother.  It’s one reason why in times of struggle, people dread Christmas. For it can all feel so dishonest.

No, we can’t freeze life in fond or favored moments of our remembrance to always be like that. Advent is about looking ahead, actually.  Advent shows us how, in the odd economy of God’s grace, we can only look forward, by looking back at the path John paved for the Messiah. Just like Dickens’ Scrooge had to look backward before he saw his unfitness for the future. Nostalgia is memory filtered through select and sentimentalized feeling. Faith is memory filtered through gratitude to the Lord for taking the initiative to do for us what we clearly can’t do for ourselves.

If you were to ask us, every pastor’s cherished desire is for our church to become a beacon of hope in a world up to its waist in despair. That is why we try to build trusted groups and ministries out of which unflagging hope can rise. It hurts us as some feel dejected, disappointed and cynical with our life in Christian community.
I want to dialogue on this with Sam Wells, rector of London’s St. Martin in the Fields, as he parses out six key assumptions and projections in his own church.

First, it’s possible to be a church strong in our faith without being closed-minded or defensive. Jesus unabashedly declared he came to bring us all life in its full glory. God made each one of us just as we are because God wanted one of us. God wants us to live fully in this lifetime and not just in the life to come. I propose as we all eventually meet our Maker, it will shock us how continuous eternity is with this lifetime. This world and lifetime are part of the eternal, not just a trial run.

Second, it is possible for us to care for the ostracized or troubled in ways that enhance community rather than diminishing it. Christian community differs from other communities in that the challenge of gathering many identities and races actually enriches who we are. Here caring for others has less to do with any self-important altruism and more to do with recognizing that we need the stranger to help transform us. Because we look for Jesus in strangers, we don’t dread them.

Third, if we make the effort, we can be aspirational, financially responsible, and fully participatory all at once. Many great ideas fall to the floor never to be picked up again because they focus on only one of the three, and overlook the others. All three are beautiful, having their reason, place, time and season within our life.

Fourth, it is possible to grow as a church without becoming impersonal, trite in our theology, or imperious in our attitude. Loving our spiritual home, we naturally want to share it—like any good thing. But we don’t want to get so large as to lose the joys of having a community that interacts in accessible and humane ways. We’ve all witnessed something spontaneous and responsive become formulaic or stilted. Living in true partnership, our faithful practices keep us honest like this.

Fifth, incredibly beautiful things can happen here if we begin and ever insist upon perceiving each other’s assets rather than focusing upon our deficits. Fear-based communities always begin with shortcomings or past hurts as proof that God will never transform us, individually or collectively. What happens as we peel off labels like liberal or conservative, evangelical or progressive, wealthy or frugal, and instead see what God sees in us: passion, enthusiasm, generosity, even humility? God has given us all we need to thrive and prosper. Do you embrace that? Are you willing to cleave to that as challenges seem steep and forbidding?

Six, in the face of the church’s decline writ large, we dare to believe that in Christ our future is bigger than our past. In a storied church like ours, it’s tempting to take refuge in the past, our centrality to Darien and former ways of doing things. So many churches are limping badly as public discourse pines for a golden age. We are founded on two convictions: the forgiveness of sins, always allowing for healing; and everlasting life, claiming a future with no end. Do you believe our future is bigger than our past? Do you find inspiration and energy in our church?

September is right around the corner, with the resurgence of life within FCC, D. As I look at all God has given us in the last five years, you all give me great hope.

  • Insist on doing everything through channels; never permit shortcuts to be taken to expedite decisions.
  • Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.”
  • Attempt to make committees as large as possible—never fewer than five.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions.
  • Refer back to a matter decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of its advisability.
  • Raise doubts about the propriety of any decision.

So what do you think?  It could be the public access broadcast of a Board of Selectmen meeting struggling for traction or it could be the ground rules of some church Annual Meeting from hell.

Truth be told, I have attended that meeting, though thankfully it was not here at FCC, D and it wasn’t recent. Do you give up yet? This was advice the CIA gave to its operatives in 1947 to slow down, disrupt, and sabotage organizations.  Pretty clever, don’t you think?   Slow and insidious. But before you know it, you want pull out your hair, walk away, and never again come back.

I share it not just because it’s absurdly funny, demonically clever, and somewhat dark. I share it to make a vital point whenever we gather to plan and order our common life as Christ’s church.   Don’t forget, we gather around 11 am on Sunday at our Annual Meeting, Part II to elect leaders.  

The life of Congregational churches was predicated upon active, lively and fresh engagement with the Holy Spirit.  When churches forget what that is, or grow immune to it, or no longer want to live lives so risky or edgy as that, they settle back into what I call “proceduralism.”  When that occurs, the Evil One smiles, for a body of Christians becomes extremely vulnerable.

Proceduralism is when the By-Laws become better known and more important than the Bible.  Proceduralism is failing to trust in smallish matters leading exactly no one to venture anything like a larger vision.  Proceduralism is settling with mere rules as lives cry out for transformation.

Sometimes when I orient new members, I’m tempted to say we run our church as a democracy. But that is not quite true.  Democracy is the “cousin” the colonial New England Congregational townmeeting spawned centuries ago.  Churches are Christocracies. Jesus is the only authority higher than the coming together of our entire church membership into a Congregational Meeting to make budgets, call pastors, approve new initiatives and set out new lines of leaders.

Caroline Burke does an excellent job as our Moderator. Her fair and flexible sense of the order of our common life is rooted in a real and seeking faith.  So I do everything I can to support her.

New videos here:

Ave Maria from First Congregational Darien on Vimeo.

Max on the piano, Mary Jo’s group of children, and anthems by our awesome choir.

 

Children sing with Mary Jo from First Congregational Darien on Vimeo.

 

Ron and J20160501_121626anet were here Sunday to dedicate our new facility at 11 Brookside Road which will be known as the Evans Center, in tribute to Ron and Janet’s many contributions to the church and community for 22 years.