This Grace That Scorches Us

While the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit filled the house where they were staying with the sound of rushing wind and divided tongues of fire, which rested upon each of the disciples. And then, in verse 4 “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The crowds gathered there were from every nation, and they were amazed to hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages asking, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is like a reverse Tower of Babel story, where rather than separating people from one another based on different languages and cultures, God brings the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, in their own native languages, so that all may hear and understand. The Good News is not for one race or people; it is for all people, everywhere, as is made clear at Pentecost. We are living in a time of great division between people; a time when deep fears and hatred toward “the other” have been stirred up and encouraged to fester. Pentecost reminds us that God calls us all to be one; to love one another; to share the Good News of God’s love for the world through Jesus Christ through our words and actions.

This poem, written by Jan Richardson, is a beautiful reflection on the blessing that Pentecost offers us, to look beyond ourselves and our own limited world-view, and to be open to the gift of the Spirit at work in our lives and in the world.

This Grace That Scorches Us
A Blessing for Pentecost Day

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.

It is stubborn
about this;
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.

To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes of
your own.

Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history
it refuses to rise above.

I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.

But in the place
where you have gathered,
wait.
Watch.
Listen.
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.

See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom

or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you

this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,

for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.

Belhar Confession

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ…”
(2 Corinthians 5:17-20a)

Throughout the season of Lent, a small group has been meeting to discuss the Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, in both their historical context and their meaning for us in the church today. One of the things I appreciate most about these two confessions is their unflinching stance against all forms of discrimination and injustice, and the church’s responsibility to resist injustice wherever we encounter it. When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, it means that all earthly powers and principalities are secondary to Christ’s power in our lives.

The predominant theme through both confessions is reconciliation, both in terms of God’s saving act of reconciliation through Christ’s death and resurrection, and in terms of how we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. The word, reconciliation, can be defined as 1.) the restoration of friendly relations following a disagreement or 2.) the act of making one view or belief compatible with another. It feels quite relevant to our present moment in history to be discussing reconciliation.

At a time when many of us have a hard time discussing opposing points of view, even with some members of our own family or circle of friends, it is important to remember that we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We are ambassadors for Christ, and that is an incredible responsibility. The Confession of 1967 states “The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare. Their strength is in their confidence that God’s purpose rather than human schemes will finally prevail.” (C ’67, 9.25)

Acknowledging that we may have differences in how we respond to the social, political, and economic issues of this present moment in history, we must also ask ourselves how we can be ambassadors of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in and for the world. Not just for those who think as we do, who agree with us on the issues we think are most important, or who share our same belief system; but even with those from whom we feel most distant or divided, by ideology, religion, race, or socio-economic circumstance. As we prepare to walk with Jesus down that road to the cross once more, let us remember that it is through Christ’s sacrificial love that we find wholeness, and are empowered to be agents of God’s reconciling love in the world.

In Christ,
Pastor Trina

Proclaiming the Mystery: Advent 2016

So much of life is, indeed, a mystery to us. My Gran had a chronic form of leukemia, with which she had lived and managed quite well for several years. But eventually, the treatments that were available became less effective and then unable to prevent the progression of the disease. We knew that she was dying, and with the help of home hospice services, we were able to keep her comfortably in her own home, where she wanted to be. One afternoon, she was feeling well enough for a visit from her next-door neighbor, who had recently had a little girl. She brought the baby over, and my Gran held her quietly, staring into her sleeping little face. After a while, she whispered, “Isn’t it something? One life ending and a new one just begun.”

Every birth, every new life, is a mystery. And death is a mystery to us as well. And both are a reminder to us of how we are all connected to the mystery that is greater than ourselves. None of us knows how it will all work out. None of us has all the information we would like. Sometimes we don’t have all the information we would like, but we have to make a decision anyway. And in those moments, the best we can do is to step out in faith, like Mary, a young woman faced with carrying that mystery into the world, and trust in the promises of God to catch us.

Mary’s song is one of resistance, of hope, of mercy, of joy. In her reflection on how to live in hope even in the midst of a world filled with pain, Lindsey Anderson writes: “Active Advent waiting, hopeful resistance, shining on means, in the face of that which would destroy, we choose, again and again, to live. And to live fully, to embrace all that it is to be in this wide world. To resist the evil agendas of injustice, greed, fear that seek to steal away our humanity. To reject the lie that to be unaffected or impervious is best; instead we choose to be open to beauty, mystery, risk to the brokenness and suffering of others and so to the redemption that has been seeded into each of us.”

She continues, “There is a power, a light, a resistance in choosing, choosing our humanity, choosing to inhabit our life. In Advent, we live into the reality of our dying selves, knowing that weak and vulnerable, finite form is where the miracle of God’s Love chose to come and do its work.”

We are called to proclaim a mystery. A mystery in which the very heart of God was made manifest in a tiny, fragile baby; born to a young, vulnerable mother; of an occupied and oppressed nation. In the words of Isaiah, the desert shall burst forth with life, and streams of water will flow in the wilderness. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” says Isaiah, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” (Isaiah 35:3-4, NRSV)

This Advent season, let us proclaim the mystery of our faith. Let us, like Mary, step out in faith, leave our fears behind, and believe that every word God has said will come true.

Pastor Trina

Creating a Culture of Hospitality

What makes you feel welcome when you visit a place for the first time? What makes you want to come back again? Think about going to a store, a restaurant, a hotel…what are some of the hallmarks of a place that will keep you coming back? A friendly, warm greeting; attentiveness to your needs without being too pushy; clear directions and signage so you could find what you needed; a clean and hospitable environment – all these things would likely make your top ten list of places to which you would want to return.

Church Leadership Consultant Thom Ranier has worked with hundreds of churches in his career and provides great insight on how to create a welcoming culture for new visitors and guests to the church. Below are fourteen things that help make a church feel welcoming. Ranier says that Genuinely Friendly Churches (GFCs) have at least eleven of the fourteen items present in their church culture:

1. They are intentional about being friendly. Warmth and friendliness are clear values of theses churches. They are articulated regularly. All organizations, including churches, naturally drift toward an inward focus unless they are otherwise intentional.

2. The leaders model warmth, humility, and friendliness. The friendliness is not contrived or phony. These leaders have prayerfully become genuinely friendly men and women.

3. The leaders are clear that genuine friendliness is more than a brief stand and greet time in a worship service. The efficacy of a stand and greet time was debated extensively on this blog. Regardless of a church’s decision in this practice, leaders in GFCs were adamant that true hospitality and friendliness extends beyond a two-minute welcome time.

4. GFCs utilize a secret guest at least twice a year. One small church of which I am aware budgets $100 a year for a secret guest. They pay the guest with a $50 gift card to come to the church and provide feedback on their experience. I call this process “looking in the mirror” because it gives the church a real opportunity to see itself as others do.

5. GFCs had a guest friendly web site. The web site typically set the tone for a guest. If it did not have obvious information for a guest, such as worship times and addresses, the guest came to the church with a more negative disposition.

6. The church has clear signage. Far too many churches lack this signage. They assume that everyone knows where everything is. First-time guests know nothing about the church or its different facilities.

7. GFCs have a well-organized greeters’ ministry. They have greeters in the parking lot, greeters in the entrances, and greeters in other strategic locations inside. Many GFCs utilize newer members in this ministry.

8. These churches have clear information places. It may be something as simple as a well-marked table manned by a member of the church. The signage points clearly to the information table, booth, or kiosk.
GFCs have clean and neat buildings. It is amazing how much a clean facility adds to the positive mood of a guest. It is equally amazing how few churches pay attention to this issue.

9. They have a guest feedback process. To the best of their ability, GFCs follow up with guests to get feedback on their experiences. They also encourage the guests to be open and frank in the feedback.
The children’s area is clearly safe and sanitary. Don’t expect young parents to return if the church does not give clear attention to this matter.

10. The majority of church members in GFCs are involved in the community. They thus exude genuine friendliness in the worship services because they are regularly connecting with non-church members other days of the week.

11. Small groups are highly intentional about reaching people beyond their own groups. Thus when these group members are in a worship service, they are already accustomed to reaching out beyond those with whom they already have relationships.

12. GFCs have new member classes that emphasize the responsibilities and expectations of church members. Members are thus more apt to look beyond their own preferences to serve others. That attitude shows up in the worship services.

Imagine that you were coming to Burlington Presbyterian Church for the first time this Sunday. How many of the following things would you experience? Where do you see room for improvement? I welcome your comments and feedback. Let’s build up a culture of hospitality in order that we may welcome others in a genuine and intentional way, as a church family.

Peace, Pastor Trina

Everyone is Welcome

Everyone Is Welcome

This summer, Nelson and I made the decision to buy our first home together, after many years of renting. We are excited about moving into our new place in Framingham, and meeting our new neighbors, and getting to know the community in Elena’s new school as well. It has been a busy time, and one filled with all kinds of questions and some worries too. All this “newness” also brings with it some trepidation, as any big transition does. Will she like her school? Will we fit in? Will we find a warm welcome for our neighbors?

It has gotten me thinking a lot about the idea of “welcome,” of hospitality. It is something that was important to Jesus, as he often talked about widening the circle of welcome. Rules of etiquette and social hierarchy dictated who was “in” and who was “out” of social circles in Jesus’ day – and it might not be that different now! Table fellowship was shared with those of similar social status to oneself, with the expectation that you would be invited in kind. It was a mutually beneficial system, reinforcing who held the status, wealth and power, and who was kept out. But Jesus said, “When you give a banquet or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

As a church community, how do we widen the circle of welcome, as Jesus urges us to do? How can we be both a place of welcome for people to come, and people of welcome, who bring that spirit of inclusion into the places around us? One opportunity for us as a church family is in reaching out to new members of our surrounding communities. I have been particularly drawn to the needs of new refugee families being resettled in the Lowell area. In early September, the International Institute of New England expects to receive about 13 families, which is about 30% of their annual caseload. The IINE is in need of material supplies for furnishing new apartments, and volunteers to help the families feel comfortable in their new homes. There is an article in the newsletter detailing ways we can respond to the needs of these families.

We have a global community right here in our small church. On World Communion Sunday, October 2nd, I would love to celebrate our global heritage by representing our various and diverse cultures in worship. If you would like to participate by bringing a type of bread that is important to your culture; bringing a cloth for the communion table; wearing clothing that represents your heritage; or sharing some music with us, please let me know by September 25th. And let us seek to be a place where everyone is welcome, and everyone is included – for that is how the Kingdom of God is!

In God’s Love,

Pastor Trina

Christ’s light shining in the darkness

Dear BPC Members and Friends,
We’re moving into the season of Advent, and on November 29th we’ll light the first candle in our Advent Wreath. “Joy to the World” proclaims “let every heart prepare him room”, so the four Sundays in Advent—concluding on December 20—are special times for preparing our hearts, minds and homes for the birth of Jesus Christ.
Our worship during Advent, especially the lighting of the Advent candles, proclaims that the light of Christ shines in the world’s darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. As Isaiah proclaims, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” In many different activities during December, the congregation will show forth Christ’s light as we touch the lives of many different people through our charitable activities such as the Wish Tree, the PJ’s and Underwear collection, the Christmas Joy Offering and so on.
In the midst of all the busy times of the Christmas season, it all comes back to whether we are truly preparing room in our hearts for the good news of Christ’s birth and the difference that following him makes in our lives. While much important work takes place at and through the Church, how we celebrate at home and open our hearts to the message of Christmas at home are vitally important, too. Can we find still points of peace during the hectic times of the holiday?
On Sunday, November 29, my sermon will focus on “Saints and Sinners: Jesus’ Family Tree.” We’ll look at the genealogy that Matthew gives us in the first part of his Gospel, and we’ll reflect on the fact that the genealogy is not comprised of just Saints. On the second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the sermon is “The Tree of Life”, inviting us to look at the symbolism of the Christmas tree down through the years.
On Sunday, December 13, members of the Women’s Bible Study Group will present a sermon in several voices, reflecting on who Jesus’ mother Mary was in the context of her times. Then on December 20, I’ll also do some reflecting on Mary and her “Pondering Heart”.
Advent and Christmas are so very familiar to us that perhaps we don’t think we’ll hear something new or learn something new about the familiar Christmas Story. I firmly believe that each one of us has something new—maybe several “something news” that God is inviting us to reflect on during this special time of the year.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and may God richly bless our preparation for and celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Peace of the Lord be with you!

Pastor Mike

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,

Mike