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jallen

Monday Moment: Nancy Barber

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Each month a member of our congregation presents a “Monday Moment,” sharing what difference their faith makes in their life after Sunday morning worship has come to an end. This Month’s Monday Moment comes from Nancy Barber. 

The Monday moments series focuses on how our Sunday worship impacts our lives through the week and outside these walls. This past week trumpeted that to me. It was a week of great tragedy, frightening natural disaster. Muslims across the world began the month of Ramadan with fasting and prayer to be closer to God and, yesterday, the Royal Wedding –a service of union and hope– was broadcast across the world. (Of particular interest to those of us who like the hats and dresses).

Our church has taught me that even when there is pain, disappointment, great sadness or anger, God’s love is still present in the world. I have learned that not only can those things be survived, but God’s love encourages us to respond to them with action. And I have also learned to be grateful for and celebrate the good.

When our membership was dwindling and literally the roof was ready to fall in, this congregation rallied around a capital campaign, repaired the building, and by doing so deepened our commitment to God and each other. Years later when the planes struck the towers the day after we had voted to build our addition, we decided to go forward despite how shaken and tentative the world and its economy had become.

And further afield, In the wake of the extreme damage done to New Orleans by Katrina, members of this congregation raised money and went to help that community rebuild. Most recently, after seeing racial hate and injustice throughout the world, the church’s Racial Justice Committee was born – pushing us to talk, read, understand and take action against racial injustice.

Many of John’s sermons help us to feel the power of God’s love and to see God in our everyday world. Two of them in particular come to mind when I think about my Monday moments. First was the one the search committee heard when John was a candidate. It was called Preparing for Miracles. John reminded us of Miriam and some of the other women who, when frantically packing what they could carry as they fled Egypt, took tambourines. Not extra food or water, but Tambourines – John told us they knew that, dark as things seemed, there would be a time to dance somewhere in the future. And, of course, we read they did dance when the Red Sea parted and they were finally free.

The second sermon which informs my Monday moments was one called “Restorers of the Breach”. John referred to Isaiah 58 where, in the midst of national turmoil Isaiah encouraged people to be “the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell”.

So, in a week like this one when we’ve seen the horror of the killings in Texas and the damage wrought by volcanos in Hawaii, the terrible plane crash in Cuba, we can know that God is with us when we cry, and we fume and we are afraid. But, as religious people, we need to take action – fight to prevent further killings, Send prayers, money, whatever might be needed by the victims of tragedy and violence. Learn how we can help in the world and do it.

But I’ve also learned to celebrate the good in the world. In that very hopeful wedding ceremony yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry quoted Martin Luther King, Junior: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world”.

Here at FCC Milton I’ve learned the redemptive power of love and heard the challenge to make this a new and better world and that with God there will always be a time to dance.

 

An Image of God

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It is nearly impossible to describe what happens on a retreat to someone who wasn’t there. On the surface it all sounds simple enough. We talked about God. We played games. We shared meals. We walked on the beach.

Yet. a retreat is so much more than the sum of its activities.

Last weekend, our confirmation class traveled to Craigville Retreat Center on Cape Cod. The best way I can describe what happened in that time is that we formed a beloved community. We put our cell phones away in a box for the full two days. We took time to connect with each other a little more deeply then we might on an ordinary day. We laughed together. We were open and honest with each other. We prayed together, and we strengthened the bonds of trust that connect us.

One of the activities that is always a part of our confirmation class is discussing how we imagine God. We explore the images we have in our mind’s eye about who God is, and we try to learn new ways to see and understand God. We look at pictures of nebulas, forests, sunsets, and cities, and wonder how God is present in each one.

The wisdom and depth of thought of our teenagers never fails to astound me. It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but somehow it always catches me off guard. Along with the other leaders, I can attest that more often than not all we need to do is offer a circle of sofas and a good question, and our youth bring the insight. They bring the connection to their experience and their lives. They bring the wisdom, the beauty, and the hope. They challenge us to dream bigger for God’s world.

On the last night of our retreat, the youth were adamant that we go to the beach. Their buzz-kill pastor wouldn’t let them go swimming in the 39-degree ocean, but they still wanted to at least visit the water’s edge. When we got to the beach, they ran. They ran together toward the water under the star-soaked night sky, and very quickly I lost sight of them in the dark night.

Walking after them, I eventually came to where they stopped, lying in the sand gazing up at the sky together. They were talking, laughing and full of love and joy.

That sight was an image of God for me. I saw God in them. I saw God in the moment. I encountered God in whatever it was in the ocean air, the starry sky, and the human heart that seemed to pause time and create the connection.

It is among the most precious things I know.

No More

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Yesterday being Ash Wednesday, I spent the morning in the sanctuary pressing burnt ashes onto foreheads as a reminder of our mortality. I always find it particularly poignant marking the foreheads of children. Everything in me wants to deny it, but the ritual reminds us, that even our littlest ones share in life’s vulnerability.

Walking out of the sanctuary and opening my computer that afternoon, I was met with another stark image of the frailty of our children’s lives.

I ask you to join me in prayer for the victims of yesterday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I ask you to pray for families encountering staggering grief. I ask you to pray for those still clinging to life. And, following Christ’s command to pray even for our enemies, I ask you to pray for the shooter.

I also ask you to pray for our nation and our community, that we might summon the moral courage to examine ourselves honestly enough to discover the twisted roots of this all-to-common violence. I ask you to pray that we will find the will to face hard truths and make difficult changes to solve this national crisis. There will be varied ideas about what those solutions should look like. These can be engaged in good faith.

But our faith does not permit us to simply give in to an unacceptable status quo. Our prayers alone are not enough if we do not take our part in God’s work of healing, hope, and justice.

Whenever I learn of a shooting like this, I am always reminded of Jesus’ words at the moment he was arrested in the garden. One of his companions drew a sword and struck a servant of the high priest. Jesus cried out, “no more of this!”

That is the call I hear from Christ, standing in thick of this pain, and in the presence of these latest wounds, and in the company of these beautiful souls.

No more of this. No more.

 

Christmas Message

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This story will never get old.

It never loses it’s power. It’s beauty.

No matter how many times we hear this tale it will never fail to shimmer, to glow with radiant light.

The truth is the story doesn’t change. Each year, the same angels make the same announcements. The same shepherds journey down from the hillsides into the same sleepy town, to meet the same child in the same manger.

The same kings see the same star, and follow the same road, to the same place, where Jesus lay with is mother.

And as for our part, we remember this Holy Night with a service that doesn’t change much year to year, same candles, same Carols…

But we are not here because we forgot the story.

Nor do we gather for the easy comfort of a familiar service.

We gather on Christmas each year to tell the story, the same way because Christmas is not just a faint memory of something that happened long ago.

It is a story about what God is doing now. Even this very night.

Christmas is not the anniversary of a great historical event.

It is a yearly witness to God’s ongoing presence in the world.

This night is our reminder, that God’s love for us is so great, so powerful, so edgeless, that nothing, nothing not even the glory of immortality, was too much to give up in order to come into this world and live as one of us.

That is true now. Even tonight.

This night is our witness that when God steps into the world, it happens in surprising places. Unexpected places. Through the lives of the poor and the outcast. The over-looked and cast aside.

And that is happening now. Even tonight.

This night proclaims that the presence of God in the world comes to kings and peasants alike.

This night humbles us with a reminder that barn animals are the very first witnesses to God’s redemption of the world.

This night is our reminder that God’s activity in the world makes the most powerful tyrants tremble in their throne, because the simple power of love will prevail against their might no matter how many times it must.

So with all that going on. With God doing all that. Tonight. And every moment of our lives.

The call of this story is not to reminisce about Holy Night long ago.

It is to find your place in God’s story which is unfolding this Holy Night.

Has a star arrived on the horizon of your life, beaconing you in a direction you never dreamed you would travel? Could you join the journey of the magi and learn that true wisdom sometimes means doing something as foolish as following a star across the wilderness?

And what if at the end of your journey you met something as unexpected as a holy king in the body of poor infant.

Could you kneel and witness the work of God?

Has a voice whispered that you, yes you, have a part to play in the healing of world? Can you summon the courage of Mary to say “here am I, the servant of the Lord?”

Have you been as disappointed as Joseph, wondering what people will ever think of you if they find out your family secrets? Can you find the peace to rest in the mess and trust God’s unfolding work usually makes us pretty uncomfortable?

That is the call of Christmas.

To walk out into the world, and see it as the very world that God is coming to make anew. To expect angel songs. To welcome the gifts that come to us from people who are nothing like us.

To know in your bones that God is here. Here with us. In the midst of it all.

The call of Christmas is to lift the small light of our candles into the darkest night, illuminating the world with the joining of our light. To sing, not of a Holy night long ago, but to sing of this Holy night.

The presence of God in this world. In this moment.

And to know. To remember. To feel. That that light is love. That light is peace.

That light will not leave the world unchanged.

That light will breaks forth for us and for all people.

Across the ages. And throughout the world.

Not just long ago but now.

Not just for kings and shepherds, but for you and me.

A light, for all people.

Emmanuel.

God.

With us.

Our Kids

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Last evening I attended a meeting of the Milton Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition for a conversation about teenage drug and alcohol abuse in our town. Among the presenters were four High School students. They were there to offer their candid assessment and to help us older adults better understand the world of our town’s youth. Two of the four were youth from our church: Arielle Solomon and Alyssa Foster.

Throughout the evening our youth spoke eloquently about the stress and depression so many of their peers face. I was really impressed with these young women who are offering leadership not just among their peers, but to this whole community.

When someone asked what the community could do practically, the first thing our youth lifted up was our church and our youth programs. They talked about what a difference the support and love of this community made to them, and they lifted up our emerging programs as a model of the sort of resources this community most needs.

I share this with you so that you can join me in witnessing the kind of impact that our ministry here has on the world beyond our walls. These kind of stories are certainly an occasion for celebration. But these kind of stories also offer inspiration. They inspire us to dig deeper, work harder, love bigger, and grow together so that we can continue to offer this community an ever-bolder hope.

I am grateful for this church, for all it is, and for all it can be.

Narrative Budget

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Our budget is an expression of our values. We use the resources of this congregation to bear beauty into the world, to tell God’s story to a new generation, to serve our neighbors, and to care for our community.

Our budget tells a story. The story of a community living out God’s call for this time, and in this place. A story of people committed to making God’s love unmistakable.

Our budget aspires. Our budget expresses our hope that what we do here together matters, it makes a difference. Our ministry is worth growing, and we can only do that together.

Charlottesville

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Dear Church,

While I was away on vacation my heart was broken, as I am sure yours were too, by the violence and hatred on display in Charlottesville.

I understand that the interfaith community in Milton gathered on the town green, and our steeple bell rang, to affirm once again our enduring commitment that this community is no place for hate. I am grateful for this clear witness. 

In July, the United Church of Christ adopted a new vision statement: a just world for all. This vision describes the world we believe we will see when the United Church of Christ fulfills the mission for which it was born. A world where all people live with justice, and in peace.

Racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind do not have a place in the world God desires. And they do not have a place in the world that we, as a community of faith, are striving to build.

This year, we will have several opportunities as a congregation to reflect on the enduring evil of racism in our world, to equip ourselves to better confront hatred in all its forms, and to grow as faithful followers of Christ whose message, first and foremost, was love.

I want to call your attention once again to this resource created by the Milton Interfaith Clergy Association, which offers tools for parents to talk to children of any age about racism and hatred, and to help teach them the values of love and justice for all people.

In addition a dedicated group of church members in working together now to bring a workshop to our congregation from the United Church of Christ which will offer us opportunities to explore these conversations and challenges more deeply.

Finally, I ask that you please join me in prayer. Pray not only that life will become easier, but that we will be stronger. Pray not just that the world will somehow change, but that each of us will have the clarity and courage to take our place in the work of love. 

God be with us. 

Make Glad

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I spent this past week in Baltimore at the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ.

Synod is the gathering of our denomination, every two years, to make decisions about how we will use our shared resources, and to give voice to shared values and commitments.

Every two years, delegates from all over the United States, as well as our mission partners around the world, all gather into a windowless convention hall, and subject ourselves to a 6 day long conversation governed by Robert’s Rules of Order.

I know most of you have been to a few congregational meetings in your day.

Just try to imagine one that lasts a week.

Every time I go to synod, there is a moment when I look over the crowd, and watch the people running back and forth between microphones and parliamentarians because they just have to get their favorite word or phrase added right before the end of line 72 in paragraph 5, dashing from table to table lobbying for someone to second their motion…

There is a moment when I see it all and I remember why the United Church of Christ i often called “a heady and exacerbating mix.”

But something else always happens to me in the midst of those long, exhausting days.

Every time I have been to synod. Without fail. A moment hits me.

I remember the alternative.

I remember that for most of the history of Christendom, powerful men, made sweeping decisions and grand pronouncements from behind closed doors, and the faithful were meant to fall into line.

I remember that people like you and me were not trusted to know much about the church, other than that it demanded our obedience.

I remember, in fact, that reformers crossed oceans, and some even died, for their belief in the simple idea that the faithful could be trusted to govern themselves, that ordinary Christians in community could discern the mind of God, and follow the dictates of their own consciences without interference or pronouncements from the halls of power.

I remember that that heady exacerbating mix of ordinary faithful people has also brought some serious beauty into the world.

I remember that on July 4, 2005, it was in a hall like that, in Atlanta that the 25th synod adopted a resolution called “Equal Marriage for All” becoming the first Christian denomination in the world to affirm the rights of all people to marry who they love.

And this year I remembered the words of Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

God speaks, the earth melts.

Be still. And know that I am God.

I am exalted among the nations

I am exalted in the earth.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God!

Like a river, our United Church of Christ is somewhat unruly. It has it’s twists and turns.

And the mighty river that we witness at synod has it’s source in thousands of tiny mountain streams, little trickles of diverse origins, that begin, slowly, and surely, to gather, and to run as one. Build, and grow, and swell.

A river, that brings God’s presence into the world more powerfully than any one of our local settings could alone.

It is always amazing at synod to think about all the beautiful ways that our local church, here in Milton, brings God’s love to life in this, our little corner of creation. And then to look around and realize that in ways both similar and different, each of the churches represented there is doing their part, in their place, too.

So I wanted to bring you this word of my testimony. Of the powerful experience I had spending a week with our kindred in Christ from around the world.

In case you happen to be afraid.

In case you feel that the earth is changing, our that mountains are shaking, our that waters roam and foam.

In case the world feels like it might melt at any moment.

If it feels like the nations are in an uproar.

If you feel like kingdoms might totter.

In case the state of it all makes you afraid.

I want to bring you this simple word of my testimony.

There is a river.

There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God.

There is a river, a heady, exacerbating, unruly, chaotic, frustrating, imperfect, beautiful, hopeful, river, that has gathered and is gathering still, to refresh the world with a vision of love and justice for all people.

There is a river.

There is a river.

I wanted to bring you this testimony, in case, like me, you have ever been tempted to believe that you had to solve every problem you met alone.

In case you have been overwhelmed, feeling like there is too much pain and suffering and injustice in our world and feeling like you cannot rest until you have confronted it all.

What I was reminded this week, is the beauty of our connection, our covenant, with this hopeful mix of folks called the United Church of Christ.

I was reminded that our task here is not to become a rushing river, taking on every possible task that comes before us.

Rather, our task is to tend to our stream. The small source of living water that we tend to here, in our little corner of creation. To pour into it the very best of our lives and our love, but not to be dishearten when it is not enough.

That small stream might seem paltry compared with the crisis of our world. It might seem inadequate to the task.

But I am here to tell you that our small stream is flowing into something even greater than we could ever do here alone.

I just want to tell you that there is a river.

I just want to tell you what gives me hope.

There is a river.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.

Confession

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During Lent we have added confession to our worship service. The idea of confessing can conjure up feelings of guilt, or shame. It can feel like a punishment, or a burden. But in our tradition, as hard as it can be to believe, confession is the furthest thing from a burden. It is an act that sets us free. 

That is because in our God we encounter a love greater than our understanding. We meet grace that surpasses our boldest hope. If we can grow to trust that God’s love for us has no conditions and that God forgives all that we are truly sorry for, then confession will be like laying down our heaviest burdens into the most trustworthy of arms.

As we continue our journey through Lent, continue offering your confessions to God. Not to take on some new burden of shame, but to set yourself free to live in the light of God’s unending love. 

Ash Wednesday

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This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Christian year when we confront death. It is a time to be reminded of our own mortality, and just how fragile life is. The point is not to be morbid. The point is to be honest. To tell the truth. We are made from dust, and to dust we will return.

It is a powerful and humbling reminder that we all need. I invite you to come –either in the morning of the evening– to receive the mark of ashes or if you prefer a blessing with words. I invite you to begin the solemn season of Lent with a reminder of just how badly we need to the Good News of Easter. 

Trust me, it will make the lilies smell sweeter and the ringing bells of Easter morning that much more of a relief.