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

O Come, O Come Emmanuel!

Had it been a big year in the Empire? Caesar Augustus maintained his grip. It was the year of the first Empire-wide census, which was sure to bring taxation to support his wars in the north. Astrologers might have proclaimed the discovery of a new star. Herod and Quirinius, meanwhile, had kept things quiet enough near the eastern frontier, with its ever-present threat of Jewish rebellion.

Hardly anyone had noticed the coming of the child of a Nazareth carpenter and his wife, born in a stable in an over-crowded town.

So much has happened in our world in 2013 A.D. The Marathon bombing, the Philippines typhoon, Edward Snowden’s revelations, Syria’s agony, the health care rollout, the Red Sox… all important in their different ways.

Advent, though, is a time for recalling that long-ago stable birth, and to search today beneath the headline events, in the quiet shadows, for the revealing of the God of the simple and the small. The God who acts through barely-noticed deeds of kindness, love, and justice – person-to-person, like the gradual spreading of a candle’s glow.

This will be the last Advent and Christmas for Cathy and me here in Burlington. I look forward to sharing their traditions with you. But this is not the real news for us as people of faith: for that, we look to the ongoing work of God in Christ, giving birth to the way of hope for us and for all people, today, tomorrow, and always.

O come, O come, Emmanuel!

Touching the Elephant

Life often feels like that old story of the six blind men who touched the elephant, doesn’t it? One touches the leg, and concludes an elephant is like a pillar. One touches the tail, and says an elephant is like a rope. One who touches the trunk decides an elephant is like a tree branch, and the one who touches the ear thinks it’s like a big fan…

So many aspects to our lives, we can’t contain them all, can’t understand them all at once. Doesn’t it often feel that way with our church’s life and mission?

There are so many aspects of our ministry together, and we’d probably agree that all (or most) are important and contribute something good. But as it was with the elephant, we bring our human limitations and can’t touch everything. So…the important thing is, find what it is that God seems to be calling you to, and offer your touch there!

There is a Jewish concept known as tikkun olam, which has the meaning to mend the world. This is the work we are here to do.

This fall, there are many ways to be part of BPC’s life and ministry. Have you gotten to know Alex Haney, our YAV (Young Adult Volunteer)? Find out how you can help support the food/justice ministry he is here to be part of as he works with our Farmer Dave program and more. A team is being formed for a Habitat for Humanity work day in Lowell on October 12 (Tom Hennings is heading this effort). Our retreat based on learning about our spiritual gifts (called Bloom Where You’re Planted) is set for October 19 (Marylou Lynn is coordinating). And there are still needs in our Sunday education program with children (Marti Huff is Christian Education Chair). Our Sunday worship always welcomes new worship assistants, singers in choir and praise group, bell ringers, greeters, ushers…

But if you can only be here to add to our joy in worship as part of the congregation, then, by all means, come!

None of us can be part of every aspect of the church’s life – and none of us should try! We are called to “touch” those places where God and our hearts lead us, and to give what we are able as our small part of mending the world.

Rod

Taking Time

Certainly God is not a god in a hurry. That’s clear.
– John Polkinghorne, physicist and Anglican priest, on NPR’s On Being

God took a Sabbath. We might think that, once the Creator had gotten all the parts in place, God would be anxious to rush on to the next steps. But no, God rested on the seventh day. And ever since, God’s processes seem to be slow and deliberate.

Clearly, we are more advanced than God (!) We no longer seem to require a regular time for resting and soaking in the goodness of all that God created. Many of us are wired, or wi-fi’d, to work and other concerns even when we make a pretense of Sabbathing.

Apparently, we also have a leg up on our parents (or grandparents), too. Going through some old books to donate to BPC’s yard sale, I found an aged clipping from a WWII newspaper. Quote: Vacations are recognized by government officials as important to the health, welfare and efficiency of the American public during the time of all-out war effort, and the limited use of the automobile for a vacation…is not inconsistent with conservation nor is it un-patriotic. During the all-out effort of that war, Americans were still encouraged by our government to go on vacation!

When we do not Sabbath, or allow adequate time to appreciate the goodness of God’s creation, a lot of things get left behind – including reverence for God and fully valuing the lives of those most precious to us. Our children learn from our hyperactive, hyper-connected patterns.

It seems to me that one of the greatest joys of real time away from the pressures of work, even if it is just for a brief time each day, is the luxury of paying attention. When we cease trying to focus on multiple issues or electronic devices, we can be more intentional, mindful, of each thing we see or do. John Walsh, author and art historian, in a speech at Wheaton College, said:
Do one thing at a time. Give each experience all your attention. Try to resist being distracted by other sights and sounds, other thoughts and tasks, and when it is, guide your mind back to what you’re doing.

This is a discipline which we can learn to work on as we go about our everyday tasks. But even better, maybe it could start with some genuine Sabbath time, or vacation, this summer.

It is a good way to become re-acquainted with that slow-paced God of scripture.

Peace,

Rod

A 24/7 Grace Feed

It has been a month, at this writing, since the bombs which devastated the finish of the Boston Marathon. One of the realities we are learning from such horrific events is that the human mind and spirit can be damaged by the 24/7 news feed that follows. Or, more specifically, we are learning that folks who were nowhere near Boylston Street (or Newtowne, or …) can find ourselves injured – not just by the grief and sadness that affect us all, but by having our relationship to the world distorted when we cannot tear ourselves away from the news media for days at a time.

Child experts alert parents to the need to shelter children from the drumbeat of dark commentary – but clergy and other helpers know that adults can be equally vulnerable.

The truth is that until God’s reign is fully realized – in a future that’s beyond our knowing – the world will hold such tragic and inhumane deeds. And it seems that recent times have held more than we recall from the past (though, again, our media plays a role in our impressions).

We need a living awareness of a greater truth: this world, and our lives, exist as the gifts of a gracious God.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…sings the Psalmist (Psalm 24).

The vicious actions of some can’t change this truth. They can’t change the message that God came to us in Christ and shed tears and suffered on our behalf, or that new life rose from the shadow of the cross, or that the response of compassion after something like the bombings is predictably huge.

We can strengthen our faith (and encourage one another) to become aware of God’s 24/7 grace feed. We can sharpen our spiritual senses to see, hear and feel it in the midst of beauty as well as in the valleys of shadows. The days of sun, budding, and blooming we have enjoyed on many days since April 15 are nature’s reminders. The church, with preaching and learning, prayer and fellowship, is Christ’s vessel for this grace.

The next time (and there will be next times) there is a devastating public event, we should remember to separate ourselves from the media coverage enough to remember who we are and Whose we are. And we can be “in training” every day.

Peace,

Rod