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Together in Spirit: Faith

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A Reflection by Doug Gaff

“Even in the best of times, I wrestle with faith.

Here’s a brief synopsis of my Christian journey. I was raised in an Evangelical Christian family. I love my parents, and I’m grateful for the fundamentals this upbringing taught me. But it wasn’t a fit, and as I neared the end of High School, I started to pull away from this expression of faith.

Brenda and I were occasional church goers before we got married. We found mainline Protestantism, which was different enough to feel ok. Then we moved to Boston and found First Congregational Church of Milton, where we got married and restarted our church life together.

But I wasn’t fully back as a Christian. Life at our church has been a discovery process of finding a new expression of Christianity that feels more compatible with who I am as an adult: intellectual, scientific, irreverent, and skeptical. There’s a verse I used to hear a lot as a child that has captured this journey into adulthood:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. (1 Corinthians 13:11, NIV)

Today, I continue to wrestle with the two big questions that plague intellectual skeptics like me: 1) Does God exist, and, if so, 2) Why is the world He created so frequently horrible?

This brings me to the pandemic. Like you, there’s so much about this present existence that I despise: the sickness and death, the lack of human contact, the incompetence of response, the loss of freedom, and the unclear end. The skeptic in me, the one who yells at God regularly, just shakes his head and says, “another day in God’s creation.”

I know that’s not a very inspiring or faithful thing to say to a church audience in a time of grief, but it’s an honest part of my truth. Yet, it’s not the only part. I’m not just a skeptic. I’m also a man who wants to believe in God.

I want to believe in the God who has blessed me with my family, friends, livelihood, and health.

I want to believe in the God who created the sanctuaries in nature that make me feel alive.

I want to believe in the God who has blessed us all with a vibrant church community: a men’s group that keeps me grounded, a music program that inspires us, a Christian education program that nurtures our daughter, outreach programs that provide care to those outside our doors, and ministers who lead us through good times and bad.

More to the point, I want to believe in the God from whom I am made: a God who gets angry, who feels powerless, who make mistakes, who can’t fix everything even when He wants to.

I want to believe in a God who is fallible like me.

This God is aching with us. This God is feeling lonely. This God is wishing He could do more. This God is trying to provide solace. That’s a COVID-19 God.”

Together in Spirit: Faith

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A Photo by Emma Brewer-Wallin

“I used to spend my summers serving in the desert southwest, where dramatic and sudden storms often impeded our work. Every so often, we would be stunned by the majesty of the sky – bringing not only storms, but also great beauty. In these moments of turmoil, a rainbow, like this one, would remind me that the light of our Creator God continues to shine. What image depicts your faith right now?”

Together in Spirit: Faith

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A Drawing by Vicki Pezzini  

Although we cannot be together in person, we can join together in the spirit of community and faith. Together in Spirit is FCC of Milton’s way of inviting the church community to share short reflections of life with each other.

In our second submission, Vicki Pezzini shares a drawing showing the roller coaster ride of feelings we’re experiencing now. “One never knows how one will feel from one minute to the next, let alone one day to the next,” she says. “But, as I contemplate this, I know that it is my faith in God that keeps me grounded, and my faith in God that tells me we’ll be okay.”

Together in Spirit: Faith

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A video by Vinnie Viola 

Although we cannot be together in person, we can join together in the spirit of community and faith. Together in Spirit is FCC of Milton’s way of inviting the church community to share short reflections of life with each other.

In our first submission, Vinnie Viola reflects on what FCC of Milton has meant to him, and invites us to practice gratitude and notice what we’re missing.

If you’d like to offer a reflection, but need help creating it, please contact Emma.

Advent Reflection

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By: Alex Hasha

When Emma asked me to offer a reflection on the spirit of advent, of waiting and preparing for a hope dreamed for, my first instinct was to tell you the story of how I met my wife Adria.  But then, I thought, a self-congratulatory tale of how my dreams came true would probably be more fun for me to tell than for you to hear. So, instead, I want to share what I am waiting and preparing for now.

Like many of my peers, my youth was spent in a productive but effectively self-centered way.  The first fruits of my talent and enthusiasm were spent on MY education, MY career, building MY family.  And God was generous with me, giving me more than I even knew to ask for. So much, that I have an abiding uneasiness that it is more than I deserve and that it will be taken away.

And of course, it WILL be taken away, eventually.  As the old euphemism goes, you can’t take it with you.  As much as we want to deny it, every life is touched by transformative, often unwelcome change at some point.  For me, Christmas is a season where I remember my father. Just before Christmas, in 2006, he died young and suddenly.  We were very close, and losing our relationship felt like losing a piece of my soul. I also lost my youthful confidence that things will never change and that a peaceful old age is a sure thing.  

Societal change is also unavoidable.  If you have lived your whole life enjoying the unprecedented peace, stability, and prosperity that this era offers to the privileged, it’s easy to get the impression that the world owes you more of the same.  That unwelcome change will happen to someone else. But think of World War II, the Russian Revolution, the Industrial Revolution… We look back on these now as well-worn bullet points in the study guide for our history class, but to the people living through them they were shocking and unexpected tidal waves of transformation. Whatever your beliefs about the fate of the universe described in the Book of Revelations, you have to acknowledge that its visions rhyme with episodes of upheaval that are common in human history.

Today, I feel in my bones that some new revelation is at hand, that the immediate future will surprise us.  Everywhere you turn, a clamor of voices are predicting transformation: transformation of our climate, our political institutions and power structures, our technology, our shared values and traditions.  Some of these voices are invested in making us fearful, so we will keep tuning in… exchange our rights for protection… put our heads in the sand and let someone else take charge. But we are not the first generation to face daunting challenges, and we will not be the last.  God is at work in these moments. We have a duty to move beyond our personal hopes and fears and take action. And if you have to sacrifice a measure of stability and prosperity to do so, maybe that’s ok because, after all, you can’t take it with you.

So what I am praying for, in this season of waiting and preparing, in this season of transformation, is for God to help me see clearly what I should be doing differently.  Specifically. Concretely. I know that small changes matter, like giving money I can spare or doing some volunteering. Small things add up to big things. Learning to see myself as a cell in the body of Christ has helped me understand that, while I can’t fix the world by myself, I have a role to play if I can find it.  Maybe those small things are my role, but I must admit I am yearning for a bigger one. I want to discover how I can use the first fruits of my talent and enthusiasm to help build a better world for our children. I want to feel in my bones the connection between how I spend the best hours of each day and the coming of God’s kingdom.  In the Gospels, Christ asks his followers for radical sacrifice, but in exchange he offers a clarity of purpose that elevates and soothes their souls. I want to be filled with passionate intensity to do God’s work.  

I know that for my prayers to be answered, I have to do my part.  I need to stop numbing my anxiety with rich desserts and Netflix. I need to read, and think, and write, and talk to people, and show up.  But I also know I can’t do it without God. So, every day, I repeat the prayer that I learned in this room: Come, Holy Spirit, Come. As I thy house depart, may I be truly thine, that those with whom my life may blend may see thy face in mine.

Community Benefits

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By: Jay Fundling

This is a sermon from our Summer “Voices of the Congregation” series.

 

For the first 15 years of my working life, I was an actuary that worked with retirement plans.  I found that job to be exactly as exciting as it sounds. I switched careers when I turned 40, but a bit of my old life sticks with me.

I worked with pension plans. I’m not sure what you have for your retirement, but pensions work differently than a 401(k) that many of you may have.

In a 401(k) or similar plan, you and your employer put money in an account, you have a say in how it is invested. When you retire you have a large account of money to see you through retirement.

A pension, on the other hand, involves a promise from your employer. They say that when you retire, based on how long you worked there, you will get a monthly check. And you will get that check for as long as you or your spouse are alive.

Working with pensions for so long gave me an appreciation for their benefits, and now, I see a lot of parallels between pension plans, and the church community, while a 401(k) plan is life without your community.

With a 401(k) plan, the day you retire you have a pile of money – maybe a big pile of money – and you are on your own.

If you spend it all, too bad.

If you buy a boat and it sinks, too bad.

If you have health problems that eat up your savings, too bad.

Even if you live a decade or two longer than you were expecting to – in many ways that is wonderful – but financially speaking you are stuck trying to make your money pay for many more years of needs than you were expecting.

A pension, on the other hand, says that it will give you the same check every month, no matter what.

If you spend all your money foolishly one month, you get another check the next month.  If you live a long time, there is no expiration date.  If you have health problems, this won’t cure those problems, but it will provide reliable support.

This is how I see the benefits of the church community.

You don’t get a million dollar check when you come to church, but you get what you need.  Being a member of a church will not prevent big disasters from striking your life, but it will support you dependably when those times come.

When you make bad choices – and we all do – you are still welcome here.   As long as you are alive, you are a part of this community. For some that is a very long time, for some it is much too short, but either way you get the support while you need it.

Sticking with the retirement plan analogy, another similarity is how the money is handled.

In a 401(k) plan, you are in charge of investing your money.

No matter what your day job is, no matter if you know anything about investing, you have to manage the biggest block of money you will ever have.

In a pension, there’s an expert investing your money, and if there is a shortfall – if there’s not enough money in the plan – your company makes it up.

When we are outside of church we often think we are going it on our own.

We are in charge and we make all the decisions, whether we want to or not. When we come to church we realize some of the biggest decisions are out of our hands.

We don’t make all the decisions and that’s okay.  We have to learn to sit back and trust.

In the reading today, Paul is talking to the church in Corinth about acting like a community.

I’d like to provide some context, because I know when you hear the reading out of nowhere, it’s not always obvious what point they are trying to get across.

Why is he talking about eating?  Is this a poetic metaphor, or is he talking about an actual meal?

He’s actually talking about a meal

Paul was telling the church in Corinth how they should conduct their religious service, including how they eat their meal, the Lord’s Supper.

Their Lord’s Supper was not just a small bit of bread and wine like we have, it was a full meal.  It was like communion combined with coffee hour in this church.

Paul is telling them how to have a group meal.

When I selected this reading, when it really spoke to me, I did not first find it in the translation of the Bible that Nancy read from.

I found this passage in a book by an author named Mark Russell.

Mark Russell has written several funny, insightful books I’ve enjoyed and I’m a big fan

This one is called “God Is Disappointed In You”

In this book he retells every book in the Bible faithfully to the source material, but in his own tone.  I found his version of this passage was very understandable.

This is how he conveys Paul’s comments on how the Corinthians were

conducting their common meal:

When you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it needs to be a potluck, and not a brown bag. Last time I was there, everyone brought their own food. And there was some jerk getting drunk on wine and gorging himself with roast lamb, while all the guy next to him had to munch on were a few crackers.  Do you have any idea how bad this looks? If you want to keep your fancy snacks to yourself, eat at home. When we eat together we should share everything like family. What good does it do to celebrate our brotherhood by embarrassing the guy sitting next to you. 

What Paul is saying – either in the traditional translation or the more colloquial one – is about acting like a community.

Some members of the church were wealthy.

They were enjoying their Sunday night dinner with their nice food and lots of wine.

Their bellies were full, but they weren’t acting as a community.

They were full while others at the table were hungry.

Again, this isn’t a metaphor about world hunger, or hunger of the spirit, these were people in the same room at the same table, who weren’t sharing their food.

Paul says you despise the church – or show contempt for the church – if you show up and do not share your food.

Because the point of coming here on Sunday is not what you get as an individual.

It’s not that you enjoy the music by yourself, not that you hear the prayers by yourself,

not that you get something to eat at coffee hour, it’s that we all do those things together.

I started my sermon by explaining how pensions work.

The reason I felt the need to explain them – and one reason I found a new job – is that companies aren’t offering pensions much anymore.

They have found that, for all the benefits, people don’t appreciate the vague promise as much as they should, and prefer to see a large dollar number in an account in their name.

That’s enjoyable, having this big account. It’s enjoyable in the same way that sleeping late on Sunday is enjoyable.

I have my account with my money.

My time, my Sunday morning.

My decisions, my control

my life. I’m in charge.

It sounds good at first, until you think of what you are giving up.

The community.

The support.

The lifetime bonds.

The knowledge that, while bad times will still come, you won’t face them alone.

Tenured Children of God

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By: Niki Rukstalis

This is a sermon from our Summer “Voices of the Congregation” series.

 

It seems like we’re all searching outside ourselves for something inspiration, happiness,
wealth, validation, fulfilment.

Financial blogger Ben Carlson writes about this noting that according to the Internet, all you need to do to be a billionaire is: sleep 10 hrs/day, read 6 books/week, meditate for 2 hrs/day -post motivational quotes (with pictures of sunsets), wake up before 5am every day, work 14 hrs/day, workout 2 hrs/day (before work), but also have a good work-life balance 

…voila that’s it!!

Obviously, all this advice just makes us more frantic, more manic, more afraid that we are doing something wrong. And likely not more inspired, happy, rich, validated, or fulfilled. Now of course, there are practical reasons to be externally motivated. My experience as a professor speaks to this point.

I must start by saying that I love my job that it is my true calling and that I am blessed.
However, it is not without stress.

Here’s the process. If you secure a tenure-track position out of graduate school you start as an untenured assistant professor with a three year contract. If you make the cut, you get another two to four years as an untenured assistant. Then, you come up for tenure. In academia, tenure is the holiest of the grails. It means job security for life.

If you don’t get tenure, you get fired.You likely have to move, go to a less prestigious school, start over. So how does one get tenure? By publishing original research in academic journals that are reviewed by other professors. Other professors, whom you likely do not know personally,
have complete say over whether the paper is published or not. And… the best journals have 5% acceptance rates.

A paper from start to finish takes 3-7 years, sometimes longer.Sometimes one paper in one of those journals is the difference between tenure and no tenure. 

Talk about pressure. 

Talk about looking outward for validation. 

Whew. 

So, oftentimes, there are good and practical and unavoidable reasons to seek external validation. But too often, we assume that “success” on earth translates to “success” in God’s eyes. Some of us have been seeking external validation for so long that when we experience rejection… 

By a journal editor, in a job interview, by a potential friend, by a current friend, or when we experience outright abuse in an unhealthy relationship that we can’t easily escape …we believe that we are worthless. 

We take something external and internalize it. 

But we are precisely wrong. 

God doesn’t love me more if I publish in the Journal of Finance. God doesn’t love you less if you don’t get that job.

God doesn’t blame those that are rejected or abused, in fact, God has compassion and love for all his children particularly his children that have been rejected or abused. 

God’s love is our inheritance. We do not need to earn God’s love by being successful on Earth. He loves us all the same. After all, he created us in his image. 

From today’s reading: He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing! 

Growing up, my faith felt very transactional. It felt like a ledger. Like good deeds went on one side and sins on the other. And there were people in my life who were also transactional.
They sort of kept a ledger too. As long as the ledger was pretty well balanced, all was fine.
But if the ledger got out of balance in their minds, I owed them.

Since people acted that way, I sort of assumed God worked that way too.

But now I’m pretty sure I was wrong, that I had the order reversed. God’s love isn’t conditional on my good deeds, but rather: my desire to be kind or loving or helpful or generous is a direct result of God’s love for me.And not the other way around

Therefore, we don’t have to jump through hoops for God to love us.
In academic language, we are all already tenured children of God. Simply by being born.
This is amazing,
This is humbling,
And this is freeing. 

Our value as humans is not tied up in how much we accomplish on this planet. So what does this mean for us, in a practical sense? 

Well, we know that doing all the perfect things: up at 4, work 12 hours, workout 2 hours, sleep 10 hours, AND have work-life balance… will just make us frantic.

And trying to solve all the world’s problems all at once… will just make us exhausted.

Instead, we must find a way to conduct ourselves as God meant us to; every day, with compassion, generosity, and love.

If we can find a way to do this, and do our best, with open hearts and clear minds, and not at the expense of others. then that is enough. We are enough. No matter the outcome.

We can never be worthless. 

Never. 

And that means that maybe we can stop looking so hard. Stop searching so hard. It’s all here in front of us. And it all matters. And it’s all God. All of it. 

Local Savannah cop Patrick Skinner eloquently describes his job via social media. 

In recent comments, he notes:
“We volunteer for everything that puts us in front of our neighbors;
We clear the 911 call with empathy & transparent justice and move to the next one. Connect. Connect. Connect.”

He also says:
“You’ll go good if you simply approach the challenge right in front of you.
And then do it again tomorrow.”

Finally, Skinner describes an encounter with a neighbor in the local store:
This neighbor says ‘thank you for your service’
which is nice but I always reply
‘thank you for your service, it all matters.’

She stopped & said ‘what do you mean?’
I said ‘what you do matters the same as me.’
She laughed. I said ‘I’m serious’ 

It all counts or none of it does’. It all counts or none of it does. It all matters. We all matter. 

Welcome to the Muddle

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Last week, our congregation voted unanimously to begin a $400,000 capital campaign in order to build a youth center in our basement for the youth of this church and our wider community.

I am proud of our church for taking this bold and faithful step toward the future where God is calling us. I am grateful to be a part of a church that looks at all that we have and asks: How can we share this?

The coming weeks and months will be busy and full with great moments of joy and triumph, and likely some setbacks and disappointments. A mentor of mine, Martin Copenhaver, always said, “Every undertaking has three parts, the beginning, the muddle, and the end.”

Welcome to the muddle.

Last Sunday in my sermon, I quoted our former pastor Jeff Johnson’s sermon from 17 years ago, which was on the morning of the church’s previous capital campaign. “How tempting it would be to want some magical assurances, some guarantees, but ultimately there are none,” he said. “So this is really an exercise in faith, which is what makes it so exciting.”

There are no guarantees. We have done our homework and budgeted for contingencies as best we are able, but nothing is certain. Yet, as a community we have discerned that this is where God is leading us next. And with that confidence, we can take bold and thoughtful steps in a positive direction without needing to know everything the future will hold.

It is also likely that we have only glimpsed in part the dream that God has for this youth center. I suspect there might be possibilities beyond what we have imagined that this new space will open. Our job will be to remain open, creative, flexible, and hopeful.

I—for one—cannot wait to see what God will do next.

Hope in the Christmas Season

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By: Sarah Cambria

On this first Sunday of Advent, John asked me to speak from a minute or two on what hope means to me as it relates to the Christmas season.  I started my reflection with the basics-what is the definition of hope:

The Webster dictionary defines it first as a verb, “To cherish a desire with anticipation, to want something to happen or be true” and then as a noun, “trust, reliance, a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfilment…ultimately faith.”

As I thought about hope during the season of Advent, I was flooded with images, scents, sounds and feelings of Christmas past and present.  In fact, there are symbols of hope in almost every Christmas tradition.  As a child, the smells of Christmas cookies conjured the feelings of anticipation and excitement. The stars and angels on our Christmas trees remind us of the hope that the star of wonder brought to the shepherds and the wise men and the angels’ miraculous news.  The star also gives us hope that if we follow Jesus and try to live in his example, we can also trust in our own internal North Star and that we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.  The images of angels evoke feelings of optimism in tomorrow. The candles in our windows remind that even in the darkest time of the year,  the light of love will always overcome the darkness of hate, fear and in the darkest times of our life.  The evergreen reflects that with the birth of Jesus, we also all received the gift of everlasting life.  The images of baby Jesus in the manager and all the carols we sing about that miraculous and humbling scene of baby Jesus in the manger conjures hope in the world we can all create if, like Jesus, we lead with love, acceptance and care for others.  

In these images, scents, sounds and symbols of Christmas, we can reach across the centuries and be present in that manager and feel awe in that baby who came to teach us to love in this life and promised to love us for eternity.  I pray that throughout the next four weeks-when as we know, at times feel hectic and stressful, we all experience moments of hope-individually, with our families and friends, as a community and as a larger world.  It’s the collective hope and faith which makes this time of year so unique, special and powerful.   Wishing each of you all the hope of the season.

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.