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

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