What’s the story?

Someone—and this quote has been attributed to everyone from Dostoevsky to John Gardner—someone once said that there are only two possible stories that have ever been written: “A stranger comes to town” and “Someone goes on a journey”.

In a real way, Burlington Presbyterian Church and I are living out those stories. My wife Pam and I have arrived as strangers who are excited to be among you, and with Rod MacDonald’s retirement, BPC has embarked on another chapter in its journey. To be honest, it is probably a time of disorientation for all of us. Pam and I are adjusting to life in a new apartment in Braintree, finding stores and walking trails, but certainly we are missing our walks along the waterfront in Plymouth, checking the growth of the fledglings in the osprey nest, my four mile commute to the Beacon Hospice office and the less than 5 minute walk we made to the Church of the Pilgrimage on Sunday mornings. We are now getting oriented not only to a new home and community, but also a new church and its history, culture, traditions, and core values.

I won’t presume to know the depths of your disorientation after Rod’s retirement, a succession of pulpit supply pastors, and the necessary “radio silence” maintained by the Interim Pastor Search Committee and the Session as they did their work. I do know that you are each, in your own way, grieving (and that’s not too strong a word) your particular relationship and memories of Rod and Cathy. As with any time of grief, no one can set a timeline for moving beyond those feelings. I’m here to honor your feelings and in God’s time help you take some steps forward. I’m not here to “replace” Rod, but I am a stranger coming to town to accompany BPC on its journey, and over time we will all be able to say as Paul said in Galatians, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”.

There are a few thoughts I need to share with you right from the start about the role of the Interim Pastor. First of all, I want to emphasize the “Pastor” part of the title. I am going to be your Pastor, and I am fully committed to providing pastoral care to members and friends of the congregation. My cell phone and home phone are published in our crossroads, and my email is pastor@burlingtonpres.org. If there is a pastoral need, let me know. I will be taking Fridays off, but you can always reach me. And yes, I live in Braintree, but I have a car!

Now let’s visit that word “Interim”. It means what it says: I am here for the time between Rod’s retirement and the calling of a new pastor, and I will in fact probably leave before a new pastor starts. I have signed a contract with the BPC Session and the Presbytery which clearly states: “It is understood by all parties that the pastor under contract may not be considered for the installed pastoral position in this congregation.” I am not now, nor will I ever be, a candidate. Period. My work is to accompany you during this transition time, help prepare you for a new pastor, and then ride off into the sunset. My contract is initially for 12 months, but that can be and is often extended in 3, 6, or even 12 month periods, depending on circumstances.

The contract further stipulates that “It is understood that the Interim Pastor will not be involved in any way with the Pastor Nominating Committee, except to facilitate that committee’s regular reports to the Session”. I will not coach, advise, direct or otherwise interfere with the work of the Pastor Nominating Committee that you will elect.

What I do plan to do once the “program year” begins is to set up some opportunities for church members and friends to meet with me and Pam in a small group setting. I shared with the Interim Pastor Search Committee that I was intrigued by the statement on the church’s website that “we are dreamers and doubters, seekers and believers. We don’t have all the answers, but we are on a journey together trying to follow Jesus Christ. We’d be glad if you would join us.” I asked the IPNC members to share some of their dreams and I look forward to hearing yours.

I often joke with my fellow Presbyterians that “we Presbyterians are not very nimble.” We value our process and procedures, and friends from other denominations are amazed when I tell them how long it sometimes takes for a church to call a new pastor. In BPC’s case, that’s not all bad. You have been blessed with 35 years of caring, compassionate, thoughtful leadership. Presbyterian process and procedure are important, but so is attentive listening for God’s “still, small voice”. I have a poster in my office from my college days, with two large footprints on it and the words “A sign of God is that we will be led where we did not plan to go.” Let’s open our hearts and minds to God’s leading in this interim time.

Most of all, Pam and I are glad that we accepted the invitation on the website: “we’d be glad if you would come with us.”
The Peace of the Lord be with you,

Mike O’Brien

But wait, there’s more!…………….

I’m grateful to Ken Dewar for sharing his “letter of introduction” from the Interim Search Committee, printed elsewhere in the Crossroads. Let me add just a few more personal details.

Pam has worked for the last four years as a Special Education Assistant at Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield, having worked in a similar position at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City, MD for seven years. She’s a lifelong Presbyterian, except for the past four years when she joined the UCC Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth. She’s happy to be Presbyterian again!

Pam and I have a wonderful blended family of four adult children and four granddaughters. Daughter Kelly and her husband Brian have their doctorates in clinical psychology, work for the Veteran’s Administration in Bedford, and live in Chelmsford with their dog Oscar and cat Cashmir. Daughter Katie and her husband Bryan live in Flanders, NJ with 2 year old Zoey and their boxer, Riley. Katie works as an underwriter for an insurance agency and Bryan does high level computer stuff that I can’t begin to understand. Son James and wife Nicole live in Hackettstown, NJ with daughters Isabel (Bella), 10 years old, and Ava, who will be three in November, and dogs Lady and Darby. James works for the same insurance agency that Katie does, and he is in fact her boss. Occasionally Katie acknowledges that. Son David lives in Jackson Township, OH and his daughter’s name is Riley (yes, we have a granddaughter and a granddog each named Riley!). Dave is the crime and courts reporter for the Record Courier in Kent OH, and Riley lives with her mother Brandise in Akron, OH.

I have a great Irish Catholic name: Michael John O’Brien. My father was John Joseph O’Brien and he was Catholic but not necessarily a real strong one, and he married a stubborn Scots woman named Margaret Isabel McCullough Hunt, who insisted the children be raised Presbyterian. That was that, and so I’ve been Presbyterian all my life, and I have the old Sunday School Oak Leaf with cluster and bars attesting to my good attendance for quite a number of years. My parents are deceased, but Johnny still talks to me (you know what I mean). You’ll find Johnny O’Brien popping up in my sermons from time to time.

Three Surprises in Transition

We are a church in transition. What should we expect? After my recent transition to wintering in Florida I’d say, expect the unexpected. So, is that a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is that no one can predict the future. We have just as much evidence for a future “good” surprise as for a “bad” surprise; which is to say, we have no solid evidence that either will occur!

But change can be scary, so people often develop negative expectations. People like me.

One reason for selecting Safety Harbor FL for my winter home is that my brother lives there with his wife and son. Although Valarie is Jewish, she told me that she had heard that there was a really great church near my condo and she was pretty sure that it was Presbyterian. She couldn’t remember who had told her, but they had said that it was very active and had a lot of activities in addition to the services on Sunday. She told me how to get there, so I went to check it out. Indeed it was Presbyterian. Northwood Presbyterian is also quite a large church. Uh-oh.

I grew up in a small church in Tarpon Springs, FL. Later it became a really big church; when I attended the new church it felt like a concert, not worship. So I decided that I could never feel comfortable in a big church. Surprise! Northwood Presbyterian has three Sunday services so it is less overwhelming, and everyone made me feel welcome. I played in the bell choir, attended a monthly Bible Study and a sewing group, and went to several church dinners. Loved it!

I doubted that I would really enjoy Thanksgiving in FL because “I’ll miss my (MA) family and our traditions so much.” I did miss them, but celebrated “Thanksgivingkuh” at Valarie’s parents’ home. Last year, the first night of Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving. My friend Janet and I joined the extended family and a friend of Valarie’s mother, Sally (who said she wasn’t Jewish either) for a wonderful dinner. After the meal, we watched the ceremony of lighting the first candle on the Chanukah menorah. Talk about memorable! Another negative expectation not realized.

When I went to my first Bible Study, I got the third surprise. The leader was the last to arrive. She asked me what had brought me to the church. “Well, my Jewish sister-in-law recommended this church to me.” The leader asked for my sister-in-law’s name. I wondered why but I told her, and she laughed saying, “Marti . . . . . Sally! I just knew that I knew you from somewhere. Thanksgiving!” I had been meeting so many new people since moving to FL that I hadn’t recognized Sally, but she knew me.

And the circle was closed because now I knew who had recommended the church that I thought I wouldn’t like, and I had already met her at the Thanksgiving that I had not looked forward to.

I suppose that I could sum this up with, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Instead, during this transition period I will encourage you to “Trust in the Lord.” And be open to surprises!

-Marti Huff

The Parable of the Persistent Widow & the Stripy Orange Cat

My family includes two cats: an orange stripy one named Tiberius and his all-black brother Data. Those two cats LOVE food. They practically hop up and down while you’re getting their food and get so excited that they’ll knock your hand aside when you try to put the food in your bowl. (This is ok since after they finish their servings, they’ll diligently sniff the entire room to see if any kibble rolled away.)

The persistent cat

The persistent cat

My cats will begin the process of begging to be fed seconds after they finish hoovering up their last serving. They’ll whine piteously. They’ll stare pointedly at their bowl. They will sit on your newspaper, or your head. Sometimes I give in and feed them just because they have begged so much!

The other day, I was feeding those two cats between their mealtimes when I suddenly thought of the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In the book of Luke, Jesus tells a story of a widow who bothered a corrupt judge so much he finally gave in and gave her justice. Jesus says that if a corrupt judge will eventually give justice if you keep bugging him, how much more will a loving God listen to persistent prayer? I love my cats and I tend to their needs even when they don’t bug me. But when they ask me for what they want so persistently, I give it to them – if it’s good for them. No matter how much they bug me, I won’t give them something that’s bad for them, or will harm them.

My cats have literally eaten themselves sick. Eating too much almost killed Tiberius this fall. So I can’t always give them what they desperately want. They don’t understand why I say “no” to their pleas, though. I found myself in front of their food bowls, wondering if there was any parallel to God answering prayers. What do I not know or understand?

Jesus says, “…will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” Luke 18:7&8.

Brenda Flynn

New Beginnings

In June, 1979, a newly-called pastor wrote in this newsletter (then called “Focus”):

There’s a lot to celebrate in new beginnings. The Bible in numerous places lets us know that God takes delight when a fresh page is opened in our lives; when we stand with one foot on a good heritage and the other poised for a new step of risk – and faith.

Funny, but these same words seem to apply as this pastor writes his final article.

I am so grateful for all these God-blessed years in ministry with the people of The Presbyterian Church in Burlington. As someone has said, I kind of grew up here. If that’s true (!), how much you’ve had to do with that!

We have shared much together. We have welcomed many, and said farewell to many, too. We have done a little good in the world – at least, I believe it, by God’s grace.

Now, we are moving on to new beginnings: Cathy and I, to discover what callings God has for us in retirement. This beloved church family, to discover God’s vision for it in fresh ways, and eventually to welcome a new pastor. I know that the future for this congregation is bright, because I know you, and I know the goodness of God.

Our Easter faith proclaims that there is the seed of a new beginning in every ending – that even the darkest realities cannot deny that hope. That is how much God has loved us, in Jesus Christ. As we celebrate together this Easter, and then our “new beginnings,” remember this.

And love one another.

Peace,
Rod

Lent and Our Real Journey

Lent begins in Ashes, on Ash Wednesday, March 5 this year. Ashes are symbolic of the human struggle. We don’t like to think about the evil in and around us, but we know that it is real. Just as are our conflicted relationships, and our perishability.

Why be intentional about these during Lent, when our impulse is to fasten on the pretense that we can be above and outside them? Is it because with Jesus, we are able to journey through the human struggle and learn about dignity and hope? Is it because Jesus faced the worst the world can offer, but did not surrender love? Because with him is our hope of life that is stronger even than death?

During Sundays of Lent this year, we will go with Jesus as he meets up with folks who are facing the kinds of questions and troubles we also know: Nicodemus, the questioning Pharisee; the Samaritan woman thirsty for more than water; a man born blind; and sisters Mary and Martha, grieving the death of their brother, Lazarus.

We will meet again these folks, and reflect on how Jesus ministered to them in ways that opened real life. And we will meet them in ourselves – and maybe find anew that our hurts and challenges can be transformed into something new, and beautiful.

I recently came across this poem by Wendell Berry that speaks to this hopeful paradox:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

And that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

There are rocks in the streams of each of our lives. During this Lent, with Christ, may we find the singing waters flowing in and through us.

Peace,

Rod

Winter Scenes, Church Vitality

Having just come home after an afternoon of giant flakes and tricky driving – one of New England’s little surprises – and an annual meeting at which 26 hardy souls managed to gather, I’ve been recalling some past winter scenes at BPC. I’ll share a few here, not merely to reminisce, but because they are signposts of the vitality of the church family:

Snowy Sunday mornings – I remember one in particular – when the group of us who gathered in the entryway really enjoyed seeing who made it, and who had come the farthest, and the fellowship was so good nobody moved toward the sanctuary until finally time for worship.

Shoveling off the church roof…there have been 3 or 4 times during these 35 winters when the trustees deemed it important to clear off the 3 feet or so of heavy stuff. The first couple times it was definitely all volunteer, young and old up on the roof, quite a lot of us, pushing the stuff over the side, and the atrium filled all the way up to the roof line and above.

Cold spells, really cold, when the concrete floor beneath the pews just wouldn’t warm up and the assembled worshipers were urged to stomp their feet in rhythm to warm themselves up a little.

An Advent Sunday, my first December here, I think, when I set off to walk to church through a foot or so of the white stuff (with a backpack carrying bread and grape juice for communion). A snowplow stopped, asked where I was headed, invited me into the cab and dropped me off right in front of the church. Nobody came…but I was ready!

I do remember a long time ago sledding at Simonds Park with the youth group; at the time, someone had a toboggan or two. I’m sure we headed back to church for cocoa.

A snowy Christmas caroling expedition when we couldn’t make it all the way up one especially long, steep driveway, but left our cars and walked the rest of the way to enjoy singing to Marjorie Murphy.

This is not a church that calls it quits at the first sign of winter challenge. It is a vital church, full of good will and “doers,” blessed as it is with the presence of God’s Spirit. And I know you can look forward to many more winter adventures in the years to come!

(Thanks for letting me reminisce…you might expect some more in the next few months!)

After the Star…

We will soon be peering beyond the glow and celebrations of the holidays into the new year. We eye its coming with expectation and uncertainty, hope and anxiety. We know for certain that change is on the way – for you, and for me. The church family will be entering an important time of both saying goodbye and affirming its strengths as my time for retirement approaches at the end of April. More importantly, we know that the challenges of staying faithful to the meaning of the Incarnation, of Christ’s presence in human life, of the message of his coming in peace and with good news for the hurting, will go on. It was his work; now it is ours.

I’ve used this quote from Howard Thurman many times, so I hope you’ll be patient with my offering it one last time. Thurman was the Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years, the first African American to hold this post at a mostly-white educational institution:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”

— from The Mood of Christmas

Another quote from Thurman points toward the hope we can have as we try to follow the Christ of Bethlehem into a struggling world:

“In the conflicts between man and man, between group and group, between nation and nation, the loneliness of the seeker for community is sometimes unendurable. The radical tension between good and evil, as man sees it and feels it, does not have the last word about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. There is a spirit in man and in the world working always against the thing that destroys and lays waste.”

This “something” we know as God’s Holy Spirit. It is at work in you and me, in the Burlington church, and everywhere people are trying to do “the work of Christmas”.

Good hope for this new year!

Rod