Bad News / Good News

Dear BPC members and friends,
First, the bad news: on Sunday, November 1, sunset will be at 4:38. That’s always a jolt to my system.

The good news is that “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” As November begins, we will celebrate All Saints Sunday on November 1, remembering the faithful who have witnessed to the light of Jesus Christ in their lives.

What is All Saints Day about? A recent Washington Post article on “5 Myths about Hallowe’en” tells us that “the origins of the holiday can be traced back to a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced “SAH-wen”). For the Celts, Nov. 1 marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new year. They believed that the souls of the dead mingled among the living at that time. And so they associated the fruits of the harvest with death, the afterlife and the supernatural.

Later, after Saint Patrick and other missionaries converted Ireland to Christianity, Nov. 1 became All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows Day, and the eve of All Hallows became known as Halloween. It featured feasts, the blessing of the hearth, and the lighting of candles and bonfires to welcome wandering souls. It was and remains a family celebration in Ireland.” My communion meditation for All Saints’ Sunday is “Dinner with Jesus and Uncle Charlie”.

Midway through November, I’ll be preaching a sermon entitled “Bethlehem or Bedlam”, inviting us to reflect on our Christmas celebrations and traditions while encouraging a simpler celebration of the holiday.

As November ends, we will begin lighting the candles in the Advent Wreath, as we prepare for our celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Light will indeed continue to shine in the darkness as we move forward through December to the shortest day of the year, followed quickly by Christmas. My sermons will look at Jesus’ family lineage, the meaning of the Christmas Tree, and two sermons focused on Mary’s role in the events of that first Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve we will light the Christ Candle during the church’s traditional Christmas Eve service with tableaux.

Even as the days get shorter and the sun sets earlier, there is much to be thankful for and much to celebrate! May the light of Christ shine through our every celebration.

The Peace of the Lord be with you,


New Beginnings

Dear BPC members and friends,

Our new church program year will be starting up on September 13, and the month of September will bring with it new opportunities for study, fellowship, and sharing.

Rally Day, September 13 will bring with it the start of a new Church School Year, as well as a new opportunity for study and sharing in the Adult Class. Starting September 13, I’m going to lead the Adult Class in a study on “The Power of Forgiveness”. We’ll be using a couple of different resources; one of them is a Public Broadcasting Service documentary entitled “The Power of Forgiveness”, which looks at the understanding of forgiveness from a number of religious traditions. Along with the video, we’ll also be using a book by Lewis Smedes, “Forgive and Forget”, a very pastoral look at the dynamics of forgiveness and its importance for our well being. Copies of Smedes’ book will be available for purchase beginning August 30.

Sunday, September 20 brings with it the annual Fall Luncheon, which will take a different form this year as it will be an International Pot-Luck Fall Luncheon, and it will include the kick-off for the church’s participation in the New Beginnings Mission Study process. Our consultant from New Beginnings will lead us in a time of sharing where we can identify what’s most important to us about our life together at BPC. Our preacher that day will be Boston Presbytery Resource Presbyter Cindy Kohlmann who has a very engaging preaching style which I know you will enjoy.

The New Beginnings process will ultimately result later in the fall with a series of “cottage meetings” which may take place at members’ homes and/or at the church. Those meetings will be designed to encourage our hopes and dreams for what the future of our church will look like, with each meeting group coming up with ideas for what our ministry can be in the future.

Brenda Flynn is chairing the church’s Mission Study Team, which will use the results of the New Beginnings process to put together a Mission Study document which will guide the church Pastoral Nominating Committee in its search for the next installed pastor of the congregation.

This fall will be an important time for the church to pull together, pray together, share together, dream together and work together as we discern God’s will for the congregation.

Worshipping together will be an especially important part of this journey as we pray for direction and guidance from above. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

The Peace of the Lord be with you, Mike

Who Are We? Who is our Neighbor? What is God calling us to do?

From the Interim Pastor:

In May I led a Session Retreat in which the Elders were asked to look at the mission and ministry of the church. Session members were invited to look at the life of the congregation through several “lenses”: Bible Study; the cultural context in 21st century America; Leadership Styles; Membership, Attendance, and Giving; and the Life Cycle of the Church.

It’s easy to recognize that the cultural context in which the Church is called to ministry has changed dramatically since the time of the church’s founding in 1962: Mainline decline shown in loss of membership across the country, the rise of the “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation), a shift in definition of “regular attendance” at church from what used to be 3 or 4 Sundays a month to perhaps two times or even one time a month; 90% of pastors wishing to make their own housing arrangements, whether owning or renting; and movement through what is called “The Life Cycle of the Congregation”.

Let’s focus on the Life Cycle for the moment. The Session and I looked at a model of church life cycles that I had learned at an Interim Ministry Workshop in Florida. Other models use terminology like “Start, Incline, Recline, Decline, and Death” to cover the stages of a congregation’s life cycle. Those words are a bit mechanical, so we used a model which compared a living congregation to a living human being. The broad stages are Birth, Growth, Prime, Redevelopment or Revitalization, and Aging.

In looking at the internal life of a congregation, there are four main areas that contribute to a church’s vitality: Vision (Purpose, Core Values, Mission); Relationships (Experiences, Discipleship); Programs (Events, Ministry, Services, Activities); and Management (Accountability, Systems, Resources).

At the start of any church’s life, Vision is paramount: Who Are We? Who is our Neighbor? What is God calling us to do? This grows into Relationships and Programs, along with Maintenance, and a church at its prime of “Adulthood” is characterized as VRPM—all cylinders are firing, and everything is strong.

As with any living organism, the church can change, and as something becomes less of a priority or less of a stated purpose, it gets characterized by a “small v” or “small r” or “small p” or a “small m”. As a church moves past its mature peak, more letters are in lower case.

Working independently, two groups of elders each came up with the same conclusion of where BPC is at this point in its ministry: vRpM. Relationships are important, as is Maintenance, but vision and program have suffered. The Elders all agreed that some degree of revitalization is necessary for the church.

The Presbyterian Church in Burlington is indeed a living, breathing organism with a rich history, but there are issues to be faced as the congregation seeks to live up to its full potential. The Session’s evaluation leads to the conclusion that new work has to be done on Vision and Program to restore some of the vitality of previous years.

This is the point at which you, the members of the church come in. Session will be making a final decision on July 15 on what the Mission Study we are required to do will look like. No matter what shape the Mission Study takes, your input, your opinions, your thoughts, your prayers, your concerns are all necessary to helping the church plan for the future under a new pastor. The church must re-establish its vision and begin to rebuild some of its program, and put all that in writing, which will be the basis upon which the pastoral search is conducted. Essentially, this is the church saying to potential pastors: “This is who we are and what we feel God is calling us to do. Do you want to be a part of this and share your gifts to help us pursue our calling?”

When the Mission Study rolls out in the fall, in whatever form it takes, be assured that you will be an important part of that, and your participation is absolutely necessary to help us discern God’s will for the future of the Presbyterian Church in Burlington. Stay tuned for more word from the Session as the summer continues………

The Peace of the Lord be with you,


The Ascension of Christ & next pastoral steps

Dear BPC Members and Friends,

On the liturgical calendar, we’re still in the Easter season, celebrating the Apostle Paul’s declaration in Romans that “Christ Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so that we too might walk in newness of life.” Before the month of May is finished, we will be celebrating Pentecost, when the gathered Church in Jerusalem received the power of the Holy Spirit.

Tucked in between Easter and Pentecost is the Ascension of Christ. To be honest, for most Presbyterians the Ascension is often overlooked, and not given the attention it probably deserves. In the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second volume of Luke’s history, he writes, “So when [the apostles] had come together, they asked him ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times of period that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The apostles are asking the time honored question that parents often hear from the back seat of the car, “Are we there yet?” ☺ To which Jesus answers, “not exactly”, in fact “you have work to do in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.”

At BPC, the equivalent question that is asked is “When will we elect a Pastor Nominating Committee and search for a new pastor?”, and the answer is “we have work to do…” on a Mission Study. Boston Presbytery, through its Committee on Ministry, has shared its wisdom, based on experience across the denomination, that any church after a long term pastorate should take its time before jumping into a Mission Study. Well, the time is now and we will be moving forward. The first step will be a Session retreat on May 2, the formation of a Study Team, and then information gathering and planning for events in the fall. The basic questions we will be asked to answer are “Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What is God calling us to do?” We’ll look at internal and external Strengths, Weaknesses, Threats and Opportunities as you set a vision for what you hope the new installed pastor will help BPC accomplish, with God’s help. We’ll identify how “being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth” translates into BPC’s context. Here’s a hint: Jerusalem? This is us. It is the people who are already here as members and participants of this congregation. These are the people whose names we know, whose faces we recognize. We are comfortable with these people. But God’s call doesn’t stop there—the mission we are called to begins as we leave the church each Sunday.

In the coming weeks my preaching will focus on the Acts of the Apostles and lessons we can learn from the early Church as they asked and answered these kinds of questions. Perhaps we can have some discussion/feedback times after those sermons as we take those first steps into the future that God is calling us to.

In Luke’s report on Jesus’ Ascension, he writes, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Jerusalem, why do you stand looking up to heaven? The next chapter begins in Jerusalem…….

The Empty Cross

From the Pastor:

In a Lenten devotion for Sojourners Magazine, Kari Jo Verhurst shared this story: “A friend from college, soon after arriving at Notre Dame for graduate school, removed the corpus (Christ’s body) from the crucifix that hung in his dorm room. Unsure of what to do with that body, he put it in his bureau drawer. Raised a good Protestant, he was used to crosses that symbolize resurrection, not crucifixion.”

A disclaimer: Don’t do this at home, kids! I’m not recommending or condoning the graduate student’s behavior. If you choose to attend Notre Dame, you don’t have to give up your Protestant heritage, but you probably ought to respect the Roman Catholic beliefs of your hosts. But the student’s action does identify a clear difference between two major streams of Christianity. The empty cross of Protestantism represents victory over death while the crucifix of Catholicism emphasizes the depths of his suffering. For those of us who follow Christ, is it an either/or decision? I don’t think so.

I’m a lifelong Presbyterian. I was confirmed at a Maundy Thursday service, where the focus was on the Last Supper. Looking back, I think my experience was very much like most Presbyterians: historically, we Presbyterians have moved too easily from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the joy of Easter, without entering deeply into the mystery of his suffering and death. Growing up, I attended only one Maundy Thursday service, and that was primarily because I was being confirmed and receiving communion for the first time. Growing up, I never experienced any focus on the depths of Jesus’ suffering.

My arrival at Princeton Seminary coincided with a liturgical renewal movement in the Presbyterian Church. At seminary, I experienced worship services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday along with a Saturday night Easter vigil that touched my heart and soul very deeply and gave me a much richer understanding of the meaning of Holy Week.

Don’t worry; I’m still an empty cross kind of guy. We worship a risen Lord. For communion, we gather around a table—a symbol of fellowship—rather than around an altar—a symbol of sacrifice. Still, we need to remember and honor the suffering that Jesus Christ endured for us. The empty cross vs. the crucifix is not simply an either/or decision—it is a “both/and” decision. A complete understanding of the events of Holy Week requires both: meditation on Christ’s suffering as well as the incredible joy of Jesus’ victory over death.

That’s why what we used to call Palm Sunday is now called Palm/Passion Sunday. In our service on March 29, our children are going to help us raise the roof with “Hosannas” at the beginning of worship, but as the service continues, the focus will shift to the meaning of Christ’s passion for us. I hope you can be there not only on Palm/Passion Sunday but also on Maundy Thursday (7:30 p.m.) and Good Friday (7:30 p.m.) On Good Friday, we will leave the sanctuary in darkness, with only the Christ Candle lighted, symbolizing that “the light shines in the darkness” as we anticipate the joy of Resurrection. This Holy Week and Easter, I hope that each one of us can, to borrow a phrase from the late scholar Marcus Borg, “hear the Story again for the first time”.

The Peace of the Lord be with you,


Winter as the Ninth Circle of Hell

From the Pastor:

In reflecting one day on the horrible snow, ice, ice dams, mountains of snow and sub-zero temperatures we have endured this winter, I concluded that this might be what Hell is like. I was taken back to a literature class I took in college. I remembered learning about Dante’s Inferno and how, in the final circles of hell, the worst of the damned—traitors who had betrayed benefactors—were not burning in the fires of hell. Here’s what (kind of a Cliff’s Notes for poetry) tells us in their summary:

Still journeying toward the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante becomes aware of a great shape in the distance, hidden by the fog. Right under his feet, however, he notices sinners completely covered in ice, sometimes several feet deep, contorted into various positions. These souls constitute the most evil of all sinners—the Traitors to their Benefactors. Their part of Hell, the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, is called Judecca.(named after Judas Iscariot)

Dante and Virgil advance toward the giant, mist-shrouded shape. As they approach through the fog, they behold its true form. The sight unnerves Dante to such an extent that he knows not whether he is alive or dead. The figure is Lucifer, Dis, Satan—no one name does justice to his terrible nature. The size of his arms alone exceeds all of the giants of the Eighth Circle of Hell put together. He stands in the icy lake, his torso rising above the surface. Gazing upward, Dante sees that Lucifer has three horrible faces, one looking straight ahead and the others looking back over his shoulders. Beneath each head rises a set of wings, which wave back and forth, creating the icy winds that keep Cocytus frozen.

Just another day in Massachusetts!

On a more serious note, we are in the season of Lent, a time of repentance, reflection, and self-examination. For some people, it is a time to “give up” something, but increasingly churches are suggesting that it is a perfect time to “take on” something to give one’s life focus as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross.

The word Lent is said to come from an older word meaning “lengthen”, referring to the lengthening of the sunlight as Easter (and Spring) draw closer. Although it has no relation to Lent, for me, the fact that Daylight Savings Time begins on March 8 and we will have an extra hour of daylight will be especially welcome after this winter.

The Forty Days of Lent ask us to recall how the number 40 appears in the Bible (both Hebrew Bible and New Testament) at times when God is preparing to do something new. Think Noah’s Ark, the Israelites in the wilderness, Moses on the mountaintop for 40 days before coming down with the Law, the prophet Elijah also on a mountain until he finally hears the “still, small voice”, and of course Jesus’ Temptation, and the 40 days between his Resurrection and Ascension. In every case, God is powerfully at work.

Interestingly, the 40 days of Lent do not include the Sundays in Lent. Christian tradition is that we worship on “The Lord’s Day”, the day of resurrection, and so each Sunday becomes a “little Easter” for us.

Let’s hope that as Lent continues through the month of March, we will be able to gather for worship each Sunday and commit ourselves to journeying to Jerusalem with Jesus. And ultimately, not even the icy Hell of Massachusetts can prevent us from welcoming the light, warmth, joy and hope that will come once again with the church’s cry: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed.”

The Peace of the Lord be with you, Mike

Mike’s Meditations on Snow

Dear BPC members and friends,

As I write this, I’m sitting in the dining room area of our apartment in Braintree, watching the snow fall, following small birds flitting back and forth in the wooded area outside our windows, listening to quiet music from the TV, enjoying the Nativity scenes lining the window sills around me and the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. Sure, it’s January 24th, and next week we’ll think about (maybe) taking the tree down, but it’s an important part of our celebration, our tradition, and our “routine” for Christmas and the month following.

“Routines” are important for us, as they give structure and provide a sense of security for many of us. One of my routines is to pick up a copy of the Boston Globe every day, because I’m “old school” and I need an actual paper in my hands. It’s just not the same if I read the paper on-line on my computer or iPhone.

Embedded in the word “routine” is another word: rut. You’ve all probably heard the saying that a rut is “a grave that’s been kicked open at both ends”. Like that old story about putting frogs in a pot of water and slowly increasing the temperature until it’s too late for the frogs to know what’s happening, we don’t always know that we’re in a rut until it hits us in the face.

As I’m preparing for the sermon that I’m preaching tomorrow (January 25), I’m looking at Jesus’ call to his first disciples. Good fishermen all, they certainly had a routine that they needed to follow each and every day to maintain their nets, boats, and other equipment, not to mention catching the fish and then preparing them for market. Along comes Jesus saying “Follow me” and their lifelong routine is broken and they are off on an adventure which wasn’t routine in any sense of the word.

I recently shared with the children and the congregation the framed poster that hangs on the wall in my office, as it has hung in all of the pastor’s offices I have occupied. It shows two big footprints and a quote from the Christian writer Louis Evely: “A sign of God is that we will be led where we did not plan to go.” I’ve experienced the truth of that saying in some very dramatic ways in my life. Let me quote from a sermon I preached a couple of years ago at the Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth where Pam and I worshipped while I was serving as a hospice chaplain:

“I went to college believing I was meant to be a history teacher, but during college that changed and I was headed for a journalism career, but the next thing you know I was in seminary. I considered chaplaincy, but was led to parish ministry for over 30 years. Several years ago, I began to feel that there was something else God wanted me to do. I thought about it, prayed about it, did a spiritual retreat, and talked to friends and colleagues and a small group of trusted members of the congregation I was serving at the time. The next thing you know, we had sold our house in Silver Spring, MD and moved to a garage apartment on 20 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California where friends welcomed us to live. We heated with a wood stove, split wood, cut down trees, drove our friends’ tractor, saw lots of wildlife and birds, and in Pam’s case, she helped them build two stone pillars and learned how to weld as part of the process of putting snow chains on the tractor. I commuted 104 miles round trip each day to Sacramento for a whole year of Chaplaincy training as we lived off a “stipend” that was dramatically less than what I had been earning at the church. Pam couldn’t find a job in the midst of California’s 12% unemployment. Crazy, right? Well, it was one of the best years of our lives, with incredible learning professionally and personally. It was a combination of work, education, sabbatical and vacation. And when it was over, God brought us to Massachusetts where I serve as a hospice chaplain, and Pam is fully employed in her true calling, as a special education assistant.”

It was truly God’s doing, and in “breaking the routine” of the kind of ministry I had been doing for over 30 years, God led me in a new direction. In the same way, after several years of hospice chaplaincy, God has led me to Burlington to accompany you during this interim time of transition.

Which leads me to think about how we can make sure that as a group we don’t fall into a routine that keeps us from different ways of expressing the faith that binds us together in worship, fellowship and mission. Worship is really the most important thing that we do, so this month I’m going to try a couple of things that will break our routine. In place of the Gloria Patri as a response of praise after the assurance of pardon, we’re going to sing a verse of a familiar hymn tune. The Gloria Patri isn’t disappearing, but it will take its place in a rotation of a number of ways we can express our thanks for God’s forgiveness. We’ll do the same with the Doxology, another song of praise, and use other words and tunes as we present our gifts to God. Part of the reason is that the words that many of us have routinely sung all our lives aren’t necessarily known by the growing number of unchurched folks who don’t have the same history as we do. But part of it is also that some elements of worship can become too routine and it doesn’t hurt to explore some fresh words and tunes.

To round out this “Trinity” of different words, we’ll also put into our rotation the “Ecumenical” version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is distinguished by its use of the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, and “save us from the time of trial” instead of “lead us not into temptation”. It also omits the words “thy” and “thine”, which is actually usage that dates back to 17th century English, and is not from the original biblical text, which the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “you”, as in “your kingdom come, your will be done”.

So, some words and tunes are changing. As we continue on the church’s transition to its next installed pastor, there will certainly be other changes that will be made. There may be things we need to let go of and there may be new mission directions that we pursue. This coming week I’m off to a seminar sponsored by the Interim Ministry Network. On the third page of a book I’m required to read in preparation for the seminar the author makes a distinction between change and transition. Let me quote what author William Bridges writes: “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, the retirement of the founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team, the revisions to the pension plan. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.”

I think of a dear church member from New Jersey named Mabel Cox. She was our oldest member and a plain-speaking soul from Maine, where she knew L.L. Bean (not the store, the person!). I always walked baptized babies back to Mabel’s last row seat so she could see them. She was poor and lived very simply, but she always graciously welcomed the newcomers moving into the big houses on what used to be farmland. When the church had outgrown a very small building, the members voted to buy 10 acres down the road and build a new church. A couple of months after we moved into the new church, Mabel was giving a “testimony” during the Stewardship campaign. In her very direct way, she looked out at the congregation and said, “You know, when we moved to this new church, I wasn’t really sure I liked it. But then I looked around me and I saw all the people I loved, and everything was all right.”
May it be so.

The Peace of the Lord be with you,

Mike O’Brien