Commentary: How Are we Doing?

So how is everyone doing?  Are you working form home?  Are you home schooling your kids? I hope that you are all doing well and that you have found enough to keep you busy during what can be very long days of confinement. It can be difficult to deal with these situations especially since we do not know when it is going to end. All the medical folks tell us that if we hope to defeat this, and I believe we will, we need to just stay put, hunker down, and ride it out until it is over.

It can also be daunting to watch the news and try and make sense out of everything that we area hearing, this is closing that is closing school here in Massachusetts will not be closed until at least the first week in May and all the rest. Try and get sometime away from it all if you can. The weather is starting to warm up and we can get outside for a walk or starting the spring cleanup around our yards.

But this time a year our thoughts start to turn toward the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning but this year, as of right now anyway that celebration could look much different. As a church leader I have been asking my self what will be do if we cannot all be together in the sanctuary of our beautiful church on Easter? What about Palm Sunday and all the other services that will take place during Holy Week? These are all questions that I will be dealing with in the coming days and weeks.

Missing services on Easter and other times brings a sense of loneliness and perhaps grief, yes grief is a real part of not being able to gather. We all long for the “good old days” of just a few weeks ago when we could all gather together and celebrate birthdays and other such miles stones and not being able to do that now can cause a sense of loss and along with that loss comes grief.

But the upside of all of this is that Jesus does not need to be gathered in a finely decorated building for the resurrection to take place, Jesus has risen from the dead and remains with us when we are together and when we are apart.

I was reminded recently of that first Easter when the apostles and other were gathered in the Upper Room and locked in because of a very real danger to their lives. This happened during the season of Passover when the remembrance of being locked in for fear of another real threat to the lives of people was happening. The Apostles and other were locked in and Jesus came to them anyway. He came to them through the wall and bid them peace.

I know things are going to be different this year and I grieve right along with you but the important thing to remember are those words that Jesus spoke after the resurrection, peace. Jesus brings us peace and although it may not feel like it right now, it is that peace that I hope you are able to find this day and, in the days, ahead.

Sermon: Breath of Hope

John 11:1-45

One of the side benefits of holding worship online is that I get to pop in on worship services all over the world. It is fascinating to see how people in different parts of the world gather for worship.  Today I spent a few moments in worship with a Church in Scotland and one in England. Last week it was churches across the United States. Another benefit of this, and more serious, is that I get to see what others are preaching and “borrow” some of it for my sermon.

Another benefit of all of this is that I cannot tell if you are laughing at my jokes or not, so I am going to assume that you are at that these jokes are the funniest things you have ever heard!

Two weeks ago, when we gathered to worship for the first time online, I asked if you were overwhelmed. I am asking again this morning if you are feeling overwhelmed and if you are taking care of yourselves and each other. It is hard to believe it has only been two weeks, as it seems so much longer. In those two weeks, we have learned a new vocabulary, words, and phrases like Social Distancing and Shelter in place. And we have had to learn new skills like getting a worship service online.

But in all of this, all the uncertainty all of the craziness going on all around us the Church is still the Church, and we are here, albeit, at a distance, the Church is still being called to be the Church and to care for one another.

Today we come upon what I believe is one of the greatest stories in Scripture the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. I say that this is an excellent story because not only does Jesus raise his dear friend Lazarus from the dead, but we get to see a glimpse of his humanity as well.

Jesus is no stranger in the town of Bethany; in fact, Scripture tells us that Jesus often went to Bethany to find rest. In Bethany lived his friend Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. As the story goes, Jesus was about a day’s journey from Bethany, and word came to him that Lazarus was sick. But Jesus did not come straight away; he waited two days before returning.

When Jesus arrived, as the story goes, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. This is an essential point for those us reading the story now. Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, which means he is truly dead, and there can be no mistake about it. But when he arrives, he is confronted by Lazarus’ sister Martha who scolds Jesus for not coming sooner.  Martha believed that if Jesus had come before this, her brother would not now be dead four days.

Jesus takes a moment to comfort his friend Martha and tells her that her brother will rise. Martha is sure she knows what Jesus means and assures him of that when she says to him, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection, but she does not quite understand what is about to happen.

Martha takes Jesus to her home, where he sees Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, and those who had come to be of comfort to them in their mourning. I am not sure if you have ever been around professional mourners, but the sounds in the house were sounds coming from the very depths of their souls. There would be crying and wailing, as you have never heard before. In John’s version of the story, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Now keep in mind, Jesus knew what he was about to do; he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but seeing those around him in mourning, he was overcome with grief for them and at the loss of his friend. He is going to raise him, but he was still overcome at the sight of those around him mourning their loss. Perhaps it was also a stark reminded to him of his own death that would soon be upon him.

Jesus asks where he was, and the women say, “Come and see.” These are familiar words, “come and see” these are the words that Jesus spoke when he was assembling his disciples at the very start of John’s Gospel. Now they are placed here as a reminder that following Jesus leads us to the tomb, not in a physical way but in a spiritual way. To be followers of Jesus, we must die. Die to self, die to what we want for what someone else might want. We must die to hatred and bigotry of all kinds since we cannot follow Jesus unless we truly love our neighbor. So, when they say to him, “come and see,” this is a reminder from John of the cost of discipleship.

Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, and Scripture tells us, “Jesus wept.” I mentioned this passage last week as a reminder that Jesus understands our grief as he shared in it and shares it with us. Jesus walks the same road we walk and shares in our joys and our sorrows, and he will never leave our side.

Jesus asks for the stone to be removed; this is all by the way a foretelling of Jesus own raising from the dead in a few days’ time. He calls for the stone to be rolled away, and they object because of the smell. Again, John throws this in there, so we understand that Lazarus is really dead. They roll the stone away, and Jesus looks to heaven and then cries from deep within himself, “Lazarus come out.” And he does.

I have read this story probably a thousand times, but it has taken on new meaning for me these days. Here we are, the Church of the 21st Century and some might say, on our last legs some might even say we are in the tomb, and along comes Jesus and says in a loud voice, Church come out! Come out of your four walls and come out and be with the people, serve the people, and one another. Come out and witness to the world that all of creation is a cathedral, and what is of the utmost importance in caring for each other and loving one another.

In all of the doom and gloom of these days, we have seen some extraordinary acts of love. Nurses and doctors are going to work, day in and day out, putting their lives on the line. People checking on their neighbors and see if they are okay. Shopping for them and just striking up conversations to they days do not seem so empty and endless. Each day I am amazed at what I see going on out there in the world.

But this has also forced the Church to reexamine what Church really means. People who were once resistant to the digital revolution have now embraced it, and I hear conversations about how we need to keep up this online stuff when this is all over. This is a reformation of sorts; the stone has been rolled away, and the Church has been called out of the tomb, and I can say with confidence that she has embraced it with both hands.

But in all of this, let us not forget that there is grief. I wrote a short essay this past week about grief and how it comes in many different ways, maybe you read it, I posted it on the Church Facebook Page. We are all grieving loss right now, the loss of being together, the loss of worship, the loss of worshiping on Easter, and all the rest. What this story tells us is that even when we know the outcome, as Jesus did, it is still okay to grieve and to weep. But for those of us who know, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story, we know that after a long and dark night morning comes and then the resurrection.

My friends, Jesus is here with us, walking with us and showing us the way. Sure, times will be difficult, and we are going to grieve, but Jesus will never leave us, and for that, I am truly thankful.

Amen.

Grief Comes in Many Ways

We need to have a conversation about grief more often than we do. Grief, and the pain associated with it, is not something we like to discuss. We try to avoid it at all costs. But, if we love, we grieve. Those who help others deal with their grief will say that we need to acknowledge our grief as part of the process of working through it. Grief is not something we get over; instead, we learn to exist with the new normal in our lives.

Society understands grief after a loss of a loved one; in fact, the definition of grief includes the phrase “especially grief caused by someone’s death.” Society is starting to acknowledge that grief associated with the loss of a pet can be just as painful as the grief that comes with a human loss.

But what of other types of grief that might be less socially acceptable? The grief that comes with the loss of movement due to quarantine or a Shelter-in-Place order, the grief that comes from not being able to be with family and friends, grief that comes from the loss of a job? And, what about the grief that comes from not being able to worship together physically? All of these are examples of loss, and all of these come with some level of grief.

Very often grief that comes from a loss other than death is not accepted, and that makes coping with it more difficult. If the first stages of coping are acknowledging the grief, and society does not allow for that, how does one grieve? Not being able to express the emotions that come with grief over such a loss or being made to feel that your feelings are illegitimate makes coping that much more difficult.

I am a local church pastor, and since the order was given a few weeks ago, we have suspended in-person worship. We have worshiped the last two Sundays virtually, and it has been uplifting as well as rather fun. But it does not replace in-person worship. I understand that we can worship God anywhere, at any time and that we do not need the building. But buildings help us to focus and hold memories for us, like memories of happier times, weddings, baptisms, and Sunday worship. Of course, buildings can also hold bad memories like funerals and the like. Worship space and being with others is an essential part of who we are as a community.

As we approach the Holy Season of the Church calendar, Holy Week and Easter, we realize we may not be able to come together in the way we usually do. I have fond memories of the pageantry of the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter, and I will miss those this year. I will miss the faces of the people in the congregation and seeing their new “Easter Outfits.” I will not only miss all those things; I will grieve the loss.

Everyone experiences grief in their way, and everyone deals with grief in their way. Grief is a very natural response to a loss, any loss even if those around you do not acknowledge that loss. Grief can be debilitating, and the symptoms can manifest at any time. Coping with that loss is one of life’s biggest challenges. But whatever the cause of the grief, there are healthy ways of dealing with the pain.

Although you may not think so now, it will become less painful with time. We never “get over” the loss.  We learn to adapt to the new way of being community, being family and being church.   We will build on what we have already grown to know and love.  It may look and feel very different.  We may grieve the ways of the past, but that is always the case in our lives.  We now find different ways to do that and we will do it together.

Sermon: Restored

John 9:1-41

There is certainly a lot going on in this passage of Scripture we just heard. We have Jesus meeting a man blind from his birth. We have Jesus’ disciples asking Jesus who had the greater sin, this man or his parents? You see, the ancients believed that illness or handicap was caused by sin and so the question for them was a valid one.

We have the man being healed. We have the man being hauled in and questioned before the authorities. We have his parents throwing him under the bus. We have religious leaders more concerned about following rules than about the fact that this man, who has been blind from birth, can now see. We have the man being cast out of the Synagogue because he dared to challenge what the leaders were saying. And we have the testimony of the man born blind, “I believe Lord,” to which I will add, “help my unbelief.”

The words I have added to the story come from a different story and can be found in the 9th chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark, but I believe that in our world today, they ring very true, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Some crazy things are going on in our world, including this virus that has us all on edge. We are worried, and rightly so, what is going to happen. Sure, I can stand here and try and reassure you all will be well, and my faith tells me that it will, but during the storm, that is not easy to believe. We so desperately want to believe that all will be well, but we are scared, we are worried for ourselves and our families and friends.

Last week I spoke about the story of Jesus calming the storm, and I want to believe that Jesus will calm the storm. I want to believe the words from Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I keep telling myself, “I shall not want,” “I shall not want,” “I shall not want.” It has become a mantra that I repeat over and over again in my head and my heart, but I am still scared, and I am still concerned.

But what of the blind man from today’s story I am sure he was afraid. He could not see; he had never seen. He had been stumbling around his whole life, shunned by most and pitied by the rest. How was he to care for himself, feed himself, clothe himself, earn a living? Then along comes Jesus. The man did not ask to be healed. Jesus healed him.

Now he was scared for another reason. Now he can see things he had never seen before, things that he had drawn images in his mind that might now be changed because he can actually see them. He is so excited that he can see. Then he gets hauled in before the Church council and grilled about how and when he was healed and, in the end, he is cast out, and once again, he is scared.

Being thrown out of the Synagogue was a horrible thing to have to happen. He is cut off spiritually and physically. Now he is back to worrying about how he is going to care for himself. But along comes Jesus again, this time looking for the man because Jesus has heard what happened to him. Jesus asks if he believes and, after a few moments of questions, he tells Jesus that he does believe.

Now get ready because here comes the meaning behind all of this, and I don’t want you to miss it.

Come one, get ready… Jesus healed the man born blind, but he never abandoned him. Jesus healed his physical ailments and then came back to look after the spiritual ones. Last week Jesus calmed the storm and then stayed with his Disciples to make sure they were okay. The point is, Jesus will never leave us no matter what. Turn to the person next to you and say, “Jesus will never leave you no matter what” go on, those of you at home go on I’ll wait, Jesus will never leave you no matter what.

Now I know it’s easy to say and hard to comprehend. When the waves are crashing over the side of the boat, when the virus is creeping around and we don’t know where, when Tom Brady signed that contract with Tampa Bay I know it feels like you are all alone but you are not, Jesus is right there with you.

I know this is going to sound strange, but I get great comfort from the story of Jesus in the garden just before his arrest. He has gone off to pray by himself. He knows what is about to happen, and he is scared.  Let me say that again, Jesus is worried. He starts to pray, and he is pleading with God. Scripture tells us that his prayer is so intense, so focused that drops of blood form on his forehead. He is pleading with God to take this cup away. But in the end, he finds comfort, and he tells God, not my will but yours.

A few hours later, he is hanging on the cross. Everyone close to him is gone save for a few brave souls that have come to be with him. He is in agony, and he feels totally abandoned, and he cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me.” And God comforts him in his time of desperation and need.

So, what is the message? It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to cry out to God. It’s okay to struggle with your belief at times like these because Jesus has been there, and he knows what we are going through, and He will never, ever leave you. I hope you believe that.

Commentary: Coronavirus Week 2

So here we are, facing another week with our lives much different then they were a week ago. Last Sunday, like many of my clergy colleagues across the country, I fired up Facebook Live for a church service. The interesting thing about this week was that it was my first Sunday in the new Church.

I started as Interim Pastor at Second Congregational Church in Beverly, and my introduction to the congregation was via Facebook Live. I mention this because we are all doing what we must do during these unprecedented times in our lives. But I also mention it because of something I saw recently on Facebook. With Church, doors closed, it reminds us that being Church was never about the building it was and is about helping our neighbor and those less fortunate and on the margins. Being Church is about loving one another just as Jesus has loved us. Sometimes we need those gentle reminders.

I will confess to you that I was reluctant to close the Church and suspend worship services. My feeling is, in these times, people need the Church the most and that the physical manifestation of the Church is the building. People need to be able to support one another, and we do that with the weekly gathering as Church. Then it all started to make sense to me; the very thing I was advocating for could make people sick—the very act of gathering as a community could make things worse. So, we suspended worship and had to find other ways to be a community.

As I already mentioned, we fired up Facebook Live, which has been tremendous is helping to create community these last days. I sat in my home study, just me and my notes on the service, while my parishioners gathered in their homes in their pajamas and coffee, and we worshipped together. I opened the stream a few minutes before the scheduled time so folks could check in with each other in the chat room, and they did. We worshipped together, read scripture, asked for prayer requests, and held each other, albeit from a distance during this trying time. We were Church without the building!

Right now, we are in the “honeymoon” phase, and the prospect of not being able to gather in person for Easter has some folks depressed. Yes, Easter is the day when we should all gather together and worship our risen Savior. Still, whether we are on a beach at sunrise, in a church with great fanfare, or sitting on our couch watching a computer screen, Jesus is still Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection is still valid.

In a recent conversation, we were talking about that first Easter. Those closest to Jesus were in hiding. They were locked in a room because of real danger on the other side of the door. Sure, what they were experiencing is much different than our situation, but the point is, on that first Easter morning, people were locked up for their safety, and Jesus came to them with words of peace. He entered among them and bid them peace.

In my sermon last week, I preached from the story of Jesus calming the waves during a storm. For those of you unfamiliar with the story: Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, a great storm arose. Jesus was sleeping and, as usual his disciples were going crazy, so they woke him. He calmed the storm and rebuked them a little by asking if they had no faith. They point of the story is, if we are taking all the precautions, if we have prepared our families and us, then all will be well. Jesus will bring us the peace that passes all understanding and will help us settle our minds and our hearts.

None of us can predict how long we will be hunkered down, and no one can predict what life will be like after all of this has blown over, and my faith tells me it will. But I have hope. Hope is the promise of Jesus when he appeared after his resurrection to those locked in the house, peace.

My prayer in the weeks ahead for all of us is that we can find that sense of peace.

Sermon: Jesus Calms the Storm

Mark 4:35-41

How many of you feel overwhelmed right now? How many of you feel like the disciples in the story we just heard, holding on to something, anything as the waves of life crash all around us. Things might be out of control in your life right now; you might feel that things are as bad as they can get. Maybe you have decided that you are not going to go outside for the next few days or weeks or months. The world seems to be spinning out of control, and along comes Jesus and reminds us that all will be well. He places his hand on our shoulder and says to us, fear not for I am with you.

This passage has brought me great comfort this week, and I think it might be the passage that we adopt for the remainder of Lent. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be easy, Jesus never promised us anything other than he would never abandon us and that he would love us no matter what and I find great comfort in these words this morning. Things are out of our control, we cannot change what is going to happen, but we can prepare ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually.

This was undoubtedly not the sermon I was going to preach this morning.  I can tell you that the one I had written for today was one of my best, but I guess we will never know. Circumstances have changed how we are being church this morning, and the vital thing to remember is that we are indeed the church. Nothing has stopped us from gathering and worshiping God in the midst of the storm. The waves might be crashing over the side of your boat, but here comes Jesus to calm your fears and bring some peace to your life.

So here we are, my first Sunday with you.  I bet none of us will forget this Sunday. I know I won’t. I have had a lot of first Sundays with congregations, but this is a first for me. But we make do, and we do the best we can. I am encouraged by the number of church communities around the world that are gathering today in this virtual way. I am thankful that we have the capacity and the technology to be able to have this time to spend together. Next week we hope to be able to have some music along with our service if the technology cooperates.

You have been through a lot in these last months, and I am happy to be with all of you. We will spend time over the next months getting to know each other better. I want to listen to your stories and find out where you have come from and your desires for the future. I know there is the desire to “just get on with it,” but we need to slow down a little and take some time for holy rest. We have been busy with the business of the church, and now it is time for us to be the church for a while. I am certainly not equating myself with Jesus, but I am here to calm the winds of change and to settle to waters that might be crashing over the sides of your boat.

Although it might seem a bit chaotic at the moment, things will calm down if we take the time to calm ourselves first. These days when nothing is going on, are good days for us to center on our spirituality. Perhaps we can use the time we might typically set aside for the hockey or basketball game to read and study Scripture. Maybe we can use this time for some reflective prayer, writing, or reading. If you feel safe, go outside and go for a walk in nature, and explore the beauty of creation and listen to God, speak to you through his created world. Watch the wind blow through the barren trees that are just starting to show signs of new life. Nature is a reminder that after the storm, after the darkest days, life springs up again, and soon the earth will send for that life from its slumber.

Here is a radical idea: take time to talk to each other. I would encourage you to check in with each other young and old.  Call people that maybe you have not spoken to in some time. Send an email or Facebook message to see how they are. Check on your neighbors to see if they need anything who knows; you might be the one that calms the storm in someone’s life.

One of the ancient practices of the church is what is called Lectio Divinia; it comes to us from the tremendous monastic St. Benedict. Lectio Divina or Divine Reading is a way of letting the words of Scripture wash over us and allows us to drill down deep into the passage. I want to ask that we spend some time this week with this passage from Mark that I read this morning.

Find a quiet place. Sit in a comfortable chair. Open your bible or print out the passage and place it on your lap. Read the passage through one time. If you can, read it out loud Scripture was meant to be heard not read. Then close your eyes and try to shut out all distractions around you. Sit with the word of God for a few moments. Then open your eyes and reread it, slowly, stopping on any words that might speak to you and listen to what they are saying. Don’t worry if you hear nothing, primarily if you are not used to this type of contemplative reading. Just let the words wash over you, and you read them, pausing, listening, asking God to speak to you.

Try this for 10 minutes or so at first and build up.

You can use any passage from Scripture you like, but I would like us to use this passage this week and read and pray together.

I want to end the sermon today with this prayer that I found just this morning. It was written by Michael Kurth, and Episcopal priest from New York and is called A Litany Amidst the COVID-19 Outbreak.

Commentary: Coronavirus & Faith

For the last several weeks, the news has been filled with information about the Coronavirus or COVID-19 as it is now being called. Recently, the World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a Pandemic. This week President Trump suspended air travel from most of Europe, the NBA has suspended its season, colleges and universities in Massachusetts are going to online classes and sending the students home, and Governor Charlie Baker has declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts.

All reasonable steps, I would say, in the face of what we are looking at.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force testified before the House Oversight Committee this past week that we need to take this outbreak seriously. When asked about the comparison between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, Dr. Fauci responded, citing data gathered from the outbreak in China and South Korea, “Though 80% of the people infected would get sick but recover, about 15% would experience a significantly higher mortality rate.”  Fauci continued, “The mortality for seasonal flu is 0.1 [percent]. The mortality for this is about 2, 2½ percent. It’s probably lower than that; it’s probably closer to 1. But even if it’s 1, it’s ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu. You’ve got to make sure that people understand that.”

Now armed with all that information, there is still no need to panic and start hoarding toilet paper. Being prepared is a good thing, and the recommendations are to be prepared for up to 15 days if you get sick, but we still do not need to panic. Sure, older folks and those with preexisting conditions are at a higher risk and therefore, should limit their exposure to large crowds. However, the advice is still that handwashing, coughing, and sneezing into a tissue or your elbow, and practicing social distancing is still the best way to combat the spread.

As a faith leader, I believe it is my responsibility to provide the facts, as I know them, and to bring a sense of calm in the storm. There is a story from the Gospel of Mark of Jesus and his disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. While they were sleeping, a furious storm blew up and threatened to sink the boat. The disciples woke Jesus, and Jesus brought calm to the storm and to the others with him in the boat. He asked those with him, “do you not have faith?”  I have faith, but my faith requires me to use my brain and to pay attention to those with the medical knowledge that will guide us through the storm.

I will go back to my comment earlier about preparation. We need to take the time to prepare, do not need to go crazy, but we need to prepare. The leadership of my congregation has met and discussed a plan that we have put in place. At this point, we will not close the church or suspend church services, but we will be altering how we worship. These are all measures that we are taking to protect those around us. There is so much we do not know about this virus that it is better to practice good safety measures.

(Update: Since writing this commentary for the program, Church Leadership and I have decided to suspend church services for at least the next two weeks.)

But what of our spiritual and mental health. I would suggest, and I am going to practice these things myself, is that we unplug even for a short period of time. Turn off the news, watch a gardening show, or a home improvement show.  Go outside and rake your lawn and dig in the dirt. Go for a walk around the neighborhood and wave to your neighbors. Listen to music, read a book, meditate, pray, do yoga, just get away even if it is for a half-hour or an hour a day. Get plenty of rest, eat the right foods, drink enough fluids to stay hydrated, and continue with life as best you can.

Look, we are hearty New Englanders who have faced blizzards, nor Easters, hurricanes, tornadoes, losing baseball seasons, the possibility of Tom Brady leaving the Patriots, and we have gotten through all of it. We know how to prepare for things, and this outbreak should be no different. This could be a long duration event, so we need to pace ourselves and try not to get caught up in all the hype. Listen to accurate information from reputable sources. The critical thing to remember in all of this, do not panic, do not get stressed as stress affects us physically and drains us emotionally. Get yourself prepared and practice trying to stay calm in the midst of the storm.

Spiritual Self-Care During an Outbreak

We have all heard the advice from the medical folks, wash your hands, cough or sneeze into your elbow, keep your distance from others, stay home if you feel sick, etc. All the health advice is great, but what of our spiritual health during times of high stress?

Deborah Ringen, Transitional Minister of Health and Wellness for the Southern New England Conference, UCC has written a beautiful essay on spiritual health and stress release during this time. Here is a bit of what Ringen has to say:

“Spiritual, as well as physical and emotional self-care requires deliberate energy and time spent engaged in activities required for well-being and good health, including rest and relaxation. The first step toward self-care is recognizing our physical, emotional stress and anxiety. Feeling tension and stress in our bodies as headaches, backaches, joint pain and high blood pressure, in our minds with worrying, depression, and low self-esteem, and in our spirit as a feeling of emptiness, or distance from God tells us we need to respond with care. Our overall health depends on getting some exercise every day, making sure we eat lots of fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, sleeping 7-9 hours each night, keeping up to date with our vaccines and taking our medications as prescribed. Physical, mental and spiritual health go hand in hand.

As activities and events are canceled you might find yourself with extra time. What will you do with it?  Maybe this is an opportunity to care more for our emotional and spiritual needs. We can learn to slow down to focus on those we love, maybe even spend some time learning a new spiritual practice. We can lean on God who will sustain us!”

She goes on to say:

“Time for personal prayer, bible study, learning a new prayer practice such as Lectio Divina or meditation or relaxation breathing may help us hear God more clearly. We can use our time wisely and invite God in to bring healing to ourselves, our families, our neighbors and the world.”

Read the rest here

Commentary: Restoring Civility in America

This commentary was written as the opening segment of my new radio show Faith in America.

I recently came across this profound saying:

“By being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a misunderstanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have civil conversations about a difficult topic.”

By not having these conversations, we have forgotten how to have civil conversations about difficult topics. There was a time, in the not so distant past, when a conversation could be had about an issue, and it would remain on the subject. Sure, it might get heated, and maybe tempers would flare a bit, but the conversation or debate usually stayed on track. It was thought disrespectful and uncouth if you will, to make the discussion personal. Now I don’t mean not talking about yourself and how the issue being discussed affects you on a personal level. I mean attacking the speaker on a personal level to try and discredit them not on the facts of the issue or the weakness of their argument, but attacking the speaker to discredit them personally. Debates used to be won and lost based on the facts of the argument and not the personality of the speaker.

It seems today that if we cannot defend our position or worse have no interest in defending our position, we go on the attack personally. Recently this happened to me. I was discussing an issue and the person on the other side, obviously did not like something I said, so they went on the attack. They attacked my profession and me as a person but did not try, in the slightest, to defeat my position with facts, just personal attacks. People on both sides of the theological and political spectrum are guilty of this; this is certainly not a one-sided issue.

We need to get back to the time when we focused on the position, the facts of the argument, and not the person taking a particular position.

The other part of this is the misguided notion that we can agree to disagree. I will admit that on some issues, this can be the case, but not every position is valid or equal. For example, there are not two sides to racism, white supremacy, or white nationalism. There are not “good people on both sides” there is only one side to these issues. I will not buy into the fallacy that because we have freedom of speech in America, the statement everyone is making is valid. I am not willing to surrender the moral high ground on issues whatever that issue might be. Agreeing to disagree is not a solution, walking away or not engaging is a solution, but agreeing to disagree is not. Who is the arbiter of this, I am, you are, society is. Society determines what is acceptable and what is not. And society has determined that there is no room for some opinions. You have every right to hold your opinion, and I have every right to disagree with you. By the way, if I disagree with you, if I fight against everything you stand for, I am not oppressing you; that is a weak response.

The final point is learning how to listen. Sure, we listen to each other, but are we hearing them. Most of the time and I am guilty of this as anyone; we are only listening to find a spot where we can jump in and push our point.  Active listening is a technique that is used in counseling, training, and solving disputes or conflicts. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Active and attentive listening requires that we not only hear what the other person is saying but that we listen to them, really listen to them with an openness to understanding and learning.

You cannot force someone to comprehend a message they are not ready to receive. Still, you must never underestimate the power of planting the seed. That is what I hope to do here on Faith in America is plant seeds, get us all to think a little more about things, grow a little more, and yes, make this world, or this part of it anyway a kinder gentler place. We may not always agree, but if we disagree, I hope it is with dignity and respect.

Sermon: It is Finished

First Congregational Church of Salem, New Hampshire

Matthew 22:36-40

To quote the late, great Frank Sinatra, “And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.” Although my time here is coming to a close, this is not an ending but a beginning. Nicky and I are embarking on a new ministry, and soon, you will start a new ministry with a new Settled Pastor. I know that God has already chosen the person that will come here and minister with you, and I also know that whoever that person is, they will be very lucky.

My being here was actually a fluke, or some might say the work of the Holy Spirit. I was in search of a new position, and, on a whim, I sent an email to the New Hampshire Conference and asked if they had an interim position open within driving distance of Boston. I received a rather quick response with only one Church, First Congregational Church of Salem.

I read over your profile and asked that mine be sent to the search committee. I drove up here in March a little less than a month after my mother had died, not knowing what to expect, but from the moment I walked in, I felt at home and welcome here. If memory serves, I called Nicky from the car and told her that I hoped I would hear from the search committee with an offer, and well, I got one.

I first stood in this spot on the first Sunday in June 2018, not all that long ago. I had come here after a not so pleasant experience in my previous Interim, and so I was tired and a little disheartened with this thing called Pastoral Ministry. Pastoral ministry is not easy. There are a lot of demands placed on pastors these days, and we have to be Jack’s and Jill’s of all trades. One moment we are working on a sermon or a bulletin, and the next, we are at the bedside of someone who is taking their last breath. Pastoral ministry under ideal circumstances takes a toll on the minister, and my previous position was not ideal.

I had all but given up on the idea of staying in ministry. I had started looking at teaching again or going back to school to finish my clinical time for counseling, but apparently, God was not finished with me yet. I’ve mentioned my struggle with depression and PTSD. Both come from a combination of things, one of which is past church work. But I resolved to give it one more shot. I told God that if he wanted me in Salem, I would go, but my expectations were not high.

So I came and met all of you, and things started to brighten. Then July came, and I had Sunday’s off! For the first time in close to 20 years, I had weekends off again! I have told a few of you that the Wednesday services during the summer were indeed the tipping point for my coming here. I was considering another position, but it indeed was the Wednesday services that decided for me. It is a great respite during the summer months to have those weekends, and I have told the search committee to play that up when interviewing candidates.

I am not sure how many of you have ever heard of the Barna Group, but they are a group that studies trends in society as they relate to the Church. They have launched a study called The State of the Church 2020, and although it looks at the Church today and the future, the research has been ongoing for about ten years. The first part of the study had to do with pastors and what is on their minds concerning the state of the Church. 51% said that reaching a younger audience was top on their list of concerns. The pastors were then asked about the challenges facing the Church today, and 71% said that watering down the message of the Gospel was of great concern as it is with me. Although I believe that God is still speaking and that it is our responsibility to listen to that still small voice continually, we cannot water down the message of the Gospel which is for me the very passage that we heard this morning, love God with all you have and love your neighbor, your black, brown, gay, straight, Muslim, Jew, poor, rich, hungry, Palestinian, Iranian, legal, illegal, short, fat, tall, skinny, young, old, transgender, binary, democrat, republican,  whatever they are and whoever they are we are commanded to love them. I hope that I have made that point abundantly clear during my time here.

St. Paul said it best; if I do not have love, I am nothing more than a clanging symbol or a crashing gong. Without love, we are nothing but cranky, hate-filled people who would instead build walls than longer tables. We would rather honor statutes of old white men than human beings created in the image of God. We would rather separate families at our borders than work towards a sensible solution that keeps people together and obeys the law at the same time. We would rather rant online, and call people names and bully people, then really listen to what others have to say and truly understand them. But if we have love, all of those barriers have to be broken down because that is what love does. Hate is what crucified Jesus Christ, but love is why he did it!

I do not care what your theological or political philosophy is, but if it does not begin and end with love, it has nothing to do with Christianity because, as we heard this morning, on these two hang all the law and all the prophets. Love God and Love Neighbor is what it means to be a Christian that is it! And those are not my words but the words of the Word of God!

I have walked with some of you as you buried loved ones and walked alongside me on the day my father died. I have baptized some of you, and you celebrated with Nicky and me when we announced that we are expecting our baby in April. I have, or soon will, marry some of you, and those of you who have been married for a long time have witnessed to me about the power of love between two people. I have fed you spiritually through my teaching and preaching, and you have fed me with your presence, your questions, your disagreements, and your love. I have stood at this table in that sacred moment of communion when we enter into the presence of the Savior, and we have fed each other’s souls. I have driven hundreds of miles and sat thousands of hours in traffic, but I do not regret any of them, and I would gladly do it all again, just not too soon, okay?

As I stand here today, I genuinely believe that I am leaving you in a better place than I found you, and I know that I am leaving in a better place than you found me. I am not sure how effective I ministered to you, but I can honestly say you have ministered to me in ways that you will never know. You have restored my faith and passion for pastoral ministry, and you have refreshed my soul, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

Before I go, and at the risk of leaving someone out, there are a number of people I need to thank, these come in no particular order. For starters, the search committee that brought me here. I know we had a picture taken a few weeks ago but if any of you are here please stand and be recognized. It is their fault I am here.

Merri, you have been a friend and a colleague and I wish I could take you with me. I hope you all know what a wonderful gift you have in the ministry that Merri brings here.

Mark and Laura, you have been my constant guides through these days and have made worship planning easy, thank you for your constant attention that you pay to ensure that all of our worship services are worshipful. And thanks for the glass of water!

David, for your gift of music that enables us to be transformed and that brings a great sense of meditation to worship, and some fun.

To the choir, it has been said that those who sing pray twice. You are a wonderful gift. Keep on sharing that gift with the community.

Alan, who I know is basking in the sun on Hilton Head, Thank you for the times you filled in and share your gift with all of us. And to Norma, who knows everything about this place. If you have any questions about anything, just ask Norma.

To Karen in the office and Edie before her, they are the backbone of this place and working with me is not easy but they made it look easy.

To the VLT, thank you for your constant leadership and your desire to serve God and to serve this local Church.

And to all of you who came here week in and week out and put up with me, thank you.

And now, the end is truly near, but my final curtain will not be until after the Ash Wednesday Service on Wednesday night. But the time has come for me to go to another place where I hope I might be of some service. I ask that you pray for me as I begin a new ministry with the folks at the Second Congregational Church in Beverly and pray for them as well. They have gone through a lot in the last year, and they are in need of prayers. Know that I will continue to pray for all of you, and I know that God has great things in store for you if you just keep listening to his voice.

God bless all of you!