Guest Blogger — Rev. Todd Farnworth on Guns and Us

Editor’s note: This is probably the third time I have had a guest blogger whose ideas I wanted to share. The first was Joe Roberts and Cathi Chapin-Bishop on saving energy. The second was Liz Solomon Wright’s story about a Veteran who couldn’t get aid due to a policy. This is the third.

Rev. Todd Farnsworth is the pastor at Hamden (Mass.) Federated Church, UCC. One of the most kind and friendly people I have ever met, his preaching style is –and always has been — experimental. While I try to be serious and loving in my writing, Todd just tries to be well, Todd. He just loves his people, and his message here shows that. I am posting this sermon — preached last Sunday at his church for two reasons: 1) It’s a different take on the subject than mine and 2) to point out that great preaching happens in just “regular old” UCC churches all the time. I don’t know anybody at a BIG church like Riverside in New York. Generally — though there are some jerks among us — if you go to UCC church, you can find preaching like this.  OK, not like Todd’s preaching, but of similar quality. May you be fed by this sermon, and may you consider any UCC church where you can be fed…  [The sermon is printed in its entirety here, as it should be].

Title: Perks of Faith

Mark 10:17-31

The parallels are Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30. [ NOAB]

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

I’d like to begin with vs 21 of today’s text. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

It’s important for you to know that the rich man in today’s story was not a bad man. He wasn’t a haughty man. He wasn’t a man trying to make a name for himself. He was a good guy. Tried to be faithful to the Law of Moses. Tried to follow the rules of his day. He was a decent guy. Even his repartee with Jesus was sincere. It was the kind of conversation that students and teachers had all the time. A little give and take discussion to clarify, to crystallize one’s thoughts. Probably similar to the questions and answers you would hear at a Bible study or during a children’s message. Perhaps a little bit of cheekiness thrown in on either side to keep things lively…but all done with respect and a desire to learn…to grow in one’s awareness of faith stuff.

So this beloved man runs up to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” He sincerely wants to draw closer to God. He really desires to “make the grade.” Jesus parries with a teasing comment about only God being good, and the young man replies that he has done his best to keep the law…keep the rules….do what is right!

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

What happens next is remarkable.

Jesus invites the rich man to “draw closer.”

Jesus offers the rich man a way into the “perks of faith.”

Jesus says, “do this, and you will receive:

peace of mind, healthy respectful relationships,curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, hope, healing, compassion, joy, a sense of safety,  a leaning toward justice, and love.

Not a bad list. Notice, it’s not things that can be purchased; it’s not things that can be forcibly taken; it is the stuff of heaven, it is the inheritance of those who follow Jesus…and this guy seems like a good candidate.

Jesus does all this by giving the rich man a directive designed to set him free so that he can really experience what it means to be part of the realm of God.

Now, I’ll confess that I am not a rich man…young, old or somewhere in the middle. I know that probably comes as a shock! But the point of Jesus’ words are not targeted at wealth or age, so in light of recent events in our country, I’m going to paraphrase Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I could have said, “Go, sell your cell phones…or Go, sell your tablets….or Go, sell your Hummel collection….but I’d like to stick with “guns” for the moment.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had many guns.

We have many guns in our culture. We have come to treasure them. To stockpile them. To rely on them to keep us safe and secure. To protect us. To do our talking for us. To resolve our differences. To make our statements of dissent. They have become, like cell phones, tablets, or Hummels…our treasure; a distraction to our faith…and when I say, “distraction” I mean, “they stand between us and the realm of God.”

When we keep guns to do the work that God is capable of doing, we lose focus on the Holy and become obsessed with the mini god at hand.

I believe that happens in situations where people are killing each other with guns on college campuses. I believe that happens in situations where people are killing each other in the streets of our community or in local homes. I believe that happens where people are going into schools and movie theaters and claiming a godlike power over people who may or may not have done them wrong in the past. I believe that happens when we fool ourselves into believing that if we wake up in the middle of the night and find someone stealing our stuff, we will have the presence of mind to shoot the invader before he or she shoots us…or, before he or she wrestles the gun from our sleepy, frightened hands, and then shoots us.

These uses of guns do not point us toward Heaven. They lead us toward fear, and anxiety, and distrust, and anger, and retribution, and hatred.

This is different from the gun owner who uses guns to hunt their dinner, or practices a steady hand shooting targets. That mental and physical challenge can give us an awe of the power and the responsibility inherent in gun ownership. It can lead us to a life of discipline; a life that points us toward the realm of God; a study that leads us closer to the stuff of healthy respectful relationships, curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, and hope.

Please hear me clearly: Guns are not inherently evil...but a reliance on them that surpasses our reliance on God, can be a distraction…and Jesus understood that…and Jesus knew that rich man was a good man…and Jesus believed that rich man really wanted to get closer to God…and Jesus loved that man who was coming to him seeking a deeper relationship with the Holy…and Jesus advised that man to “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had many guns.

We have many guns. We have many cell phones. We have many tablets. We have many Hummels. We have lots of  stuff that is drawing our attention away from the remarkable perks of faith God has in store for us!

And we can go away sad. Or we can go away mad, claiming that Jesus just doesn’t understand!  Or we can go away and later, change our minds and come back.

At the end of the day, no matter how far we go, no matter what we decide, we need to remember, that Jesus loved that man. He was not trying to hurt him. He was not trying to deny him something important. He was not putting the man in jeopardy…in harm’s way. He didn’t chastise or begrudge  the man for the decision he made or the decision he couldn’t make at that moment.

At the end of the day, the truth is, Jesus loved that man….like he loves little Madison and little Wesley. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to experience all the perks God has to offer. He wants us to know: peace of mind, healthy respectful relationships, curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, hope, healing, compassion, joy, a sense of safety, a leaning toward justice, and love, without distraction. He wants us to experience the kingdom of heaven…the realm of God…In this moment. like Jesus experiences those things in this moment.

The choice is ours. To hold onto what we have, or let go and receive something far more valuable.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record, that  As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What will we do? In Jesus’ name. Amen.


This S— Has Got To Stop. It Just Does.

Today, more people died in a school massacre. I don’t need to publish the date, because — unless we do something NOW that first sentence will still be appropriate.

Apparently, there have been  142 (One Hundred and Forty-Two!!!!) School shootings since Sandy Hook.  This doesn’t include Columbine or the Colorado movie shooter!
This has got to stop.

“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America — next week, or a couple months from now,” said President Obama. The President has been trying to do something since Sandy Hook. When a problem of this magnitude can’t be solved by the “leader of the free world”, there’s something wrong — seriously wrong — with our society.

Apparently, the NRA has more power to govern (at least regarding gun laws) than our government does. I don’t know how many members the NRA has, but as a percentage of the US population, it shouldn’t be enough to overcome majority rule. It’s not. That’s a problem. Money in our political system has made things this way. We need to get money out of our electoral process. Overturn “Citizen’s United”? If it’ll help, let’s do it.

Gun control is next up. Clearly, we can’t agree on anything regarding guns in this country, but we need to take the health crisis of “lead projectile enters body and causes death” seriously. I’m not making this up. The CDC has said this for a long time. For whatever political reasons there may be, no one can justify the sale of assault rifles, machine guns, gattling guns or anything like them to a civilian population. They are weapons of war. Unless we want to live in a war zone, we need to stop selling them, period. Another means to control this here would be to stop selling bullets that go in those type of guns. This is not a solution to gun violence, but it is solution to mass gun violence.

To those who say that the Constitution says that people need guns to overthrow corrupt governments, I will even give them that. Yes, the Constitution seems to say that. The Revolution that started all this — the American one that those people are so in love with — was fought with single shot rifles and their leaders told them to wait “until they see the whites of [the British Army’s] eyes”. If you can’t have your modern revolution with single shot rifles, maybe you shouldn’t be considering it at all. If that’s all it took the first time, that’s all it should take now. The idea that one weapon can get off more shots  in a shorter time than all the guns at Lexington and Concord suggests we don’t need it. Enough is enough. Ban Assault weapons now. Ban the bullets that fill assault weapons now. Either one of them will work. I’m for both.

For those who say, “those shooters are mentally ill”, you’re probably right. Either that, or they’re simply evil. I’ll get to the “evil” option next. If they are mentally ill, then cutting services to the mentally ill as part of our plan to build a safe nation is not going to work. Stopping Obamacare will mean that the mentally will have less chance at services than they have now. Insurance rates increasing or not covering mental health services also isn’t going to work. We have a Mental Health Parity Act in place but the desire to enforce it isn’t always there. Besides that, therapists need to understand that poverty (or simply the inability to pay bills) is one of the greatest stressors I know of. The AAMFT used to have a rule that said we couldn’t turn away people for the inability to pay. I don’t know if we still have that rule, but there are a lot of folks in my profession who don’t deal with the issue because they would like to make a good living, rather than simply making a living. Mental Health Care in this society MUST become a priority. Making it less of a priority makes it more likely these shootings will go on.

If these school shooters are simply evil, then there are more evil people in our society than we ever had before Sandy Hook. When you add in Church shootings, theater shootings, gang shootings, terrorist shootings, native-born terrorist groups like White Supremacists carrying out shootings, that’s an awful lot of evil out there. We have to figure out why this is. In addition to long-term biological studies which we will need, we need to do something now. At the very least, let’s stop teaching hate. Let’s affirm that every life matters. Let’s stop having flame wars about poor people vs. rich people, Black people vs. White People vs. Korean, Japanese, or Chinese people. Let’s stop dividing ourselves into the deserving and the “not deserving”. Let’s teach our children (maybe even at a church,  synagogue or mosque) to have the values that give life rather than the ones that lead to death. Let’s actually raise our children. All of us. All of them.  Let’s teach them right from wrong. In addition to looking for outside causes for evil, lets look for inward causes of it.

If we do all of these things, these school shootings won’t happen. If we do some of them, it’s a start, but not enough, I suspect. However we get there, this s— has got to to stop. It just does.



Reminders from “Selma”

It has been a long time since I was at seminary and a long time since I had a congregation to lead, which required spiritual time and Bible study, so sometimes these things fade into the distant haze of my brain and heart, and every once in awhile something reminds me of the things I believe — a movie, a song, a friend, a hug, a picture — and I feel more like the person I want to be.  The family and I saw “Selma” tonight and it brought back some basics for me — as well as some new lessons.

The new, first: 1) People put their lives on the line when they want their rights non-violently. They must be scared out of their mind doing it.

The fact that they do it anyway ,means they are a) brave, b) honorable and c) full of dignity. They should be recognized as such. I have been to protests, but have never faced clubs. I have seen friends hit with a club by police, but — ironically — not at a protest, but at bar in L.A. Because I have seen Andrew Young, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, I have seen people I am in awe of as an adult, Yes, I have seen Dr. King on TV as a child, and have been in awe. That awe was always from the outside, seeing them do their thing or talk about it. The movie “Selma” shows it from their perspective and so the fear they must have experienced became evident.

2) The Voting Rights Act’s recent gutting needs to be fixed. I knew vaguely about poll taxes and increased requirements for registering. The ripple effects they talked about in the movie were new to me. Then again, I don’t spend my days thinking up ways to oppress people.

Now, the old:

1) It is important that human beings are brave and stand up for themselves and others. — it brings out the best in them. It is the job of parents and clergy and helping professionals to teach children to believe in themselves and be brave living everyday life. The quote by Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” is both true and horrible.

2) Religion is not meant to oppress. Religion is meant to worship God. God is good. Religion that worships God does good for the world. Any religion that doesn’t make the world a better place, as is God’s intention, is not a religion worth having or practicing, and is certainly not a true religion.

3) God likes justice. Faith and love and justice are not mutually exclusive. God calls us to be our best selves — and even better. God knows what our best selves are and we don’t. We just guess at it and aim in that direction.

4) Black lives matter because all life matters. Black lives are a part of humanity — a humanity that the Spirit endows with life. They are not better or worse. They are simply lives. But “simple” in this case is also “holy”. They ought not to be taken lightly.

5) Good is good. We know it when we see it. Bad is bad. We know it when we see it, Being a faithful Christian is often like standing in the middle of the road — you get hit by cars going both ways. Still, it is the best way to be.

6) Contrary to what many of my liberal friends and my conservative enemies believe, violence never solved anything. Conservatives are not enemies because they are conservative, but people who are way off the conservative deep end  tend to believe in violence — and ignorance. Off-the-deep-end liberals tend to be educated and violent. They are still wrong, but they are smart and I like that better. Of course, I could be wrong about that.



“Career Creators” vs. “Job Creators” — Education and “Reform” (for Dawn)

I have wanted to write something for my friend Dawn, who is a teacher outside of Boston, for awhile. She posted on Facebook that some new ruling/department decision was making it nearly too hard to do her job. There are two or three things you should know about Dawn — 1) She loves teaching; 2) She’s not a particularly political person; 3) She never complains. In short, she is normal, but unrepresented in the press. She goes through life, raising her kids and her students, whom she sees as “her kids”. She goes to work, does her job, and goes home. She cares about people, wouldn’t rip anybody off because, well, she wouldn’t. She pays her taxes and — though you’ve never heard of her — she makes the world better in her corner of the world.

For the world to lose such a person in such a career would be a terrible waste and a sign that something is wrong. When we make life hard for the average person who isn’t doing anything wrong — and in fact, is doing things right — there’s a problem. When the political among us write and say and do things, we expect backlash. When non-political types start having difficulties, there’s a serious problem.

Education reform is a complicated thing based in a lot of factors, mostly politics and money, test scores, standardization, privatization and unions and/or union busting. Given all of that, it’s hard to understand the situation and I have generally refrained from saying something I don’t actually understand.

Turns out, I know a lot of teachers and I hear from them all about the complex system that causes them pain when, frankly, they’d rather just teach. They teach because they believe in education, they teach because they like kids (on a side note, there are a lot of teachers who don’t like kids and are working out their own issues of control on students — especially inner city ones — but that’s a whole other blog piece) and their kids get smarter because of it. College professors, high school teachers, early-education teachers, elementary teachers, generally teach because they believe in education and creating fully functioning individuals who know things about their world.

Schools where students are overwhelmingly violent are not schools, really, but warehouses until those kids can be let out in into the world and society can say “Good luck!” to them. No teacher should be forced to work in a situation like that and no student should try to learn in a situation like that. So, yes, there are things that parents should be doing in this whole educational process. This is difficult when there’s one parent or when both parents work, so economics again effect things. Aside from that, though, it seems like we’re doing things wrong in schools.

This is what I think is wrong: as in much of America today, we’re too short sighted. The new basic philosophy is that students should be 1) productive and 2) ready for work in the jobs we foresee coming. In short, those “job creators” we pay so much attention to want people to fill those jobs and it’s the educational system’s job to create the people who can do that. Further, they want teachers to prove that they are doing that, so that they can keep their jobs.

Put succinctly, they want education to produce people who know things, not think about things, or create things. I think we’re starting with the wrong premise. we are aiming for people who know what we know about, rather than people who can face anything. I always kind of thought it was stupid to publish lists of careers that people should go into because a) people already know what they like to do and b) if everybody rushes toward those jobs and college takes 7 years, by the time they get there, the job market will have changed and people already in the field will have taken those jobs. Oops.

The best teachers that I know want kids to know things, to think about things, and to creatively face whatever challenges face them. They want kids to learn because they are curious more than anything else, and they see kids as full people who need to know about the world they live in.

I still can’t believe it when I see what my kids are expected to know and do in school and — right or wrong — I go back to my own childhood. Kindergarten was a half a day because kids can’t be expected to produce all day long. They can be expected to play. Our “texts” were “We Read Pictures” and we played with trucks and sand and dolls from 8am to noon.

Later, in elementary school, we learned basic fundamentals by rote. I know that this is not every teachers favorite style of learning, but it worked. I can add, subtract, and multiply in my head to this day I have a fairly good vocabulary. I do believe in learning facts and I think that may have been where the problem was that people felt we needed to reform.

In junior high, aka “Middle School” now, we started developing Selves — figuring out who we were, who we wanted to be and what we were good at. In High School, we began to think about what it all meant. We could learn about atoms in elementary school, figure out that they were cool in junior high, and think about the ways they should be used — or not — in High School. If we wanted to think more or think in depth, we could go to college. If not, we could think on our feet and adjust to life. We were supposed to be “well-rounded individuals”. Out of that, I got an undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees. I got a career or two and a way to decide what to do with my life.

In those days, though, we had recess. We had art, we had music, we had vocational and tech ed. Now, like everybody else in America, we want our children to do more with less. We take away art as not “practical enough”, we take away music as “not practical or productive enough”, we de-fund programs for hands-on learners and then we test them about what they know.

Brains don’t function that way, though. Music and beauty and fun and time to think and time to play are all important to learning, and they make the difference between smart people and wise people. It’s like an orange and orange juice are better for because of things that are in the peel than reduced to their core, processed, and put in a can. It’s the whole thing that makes it work, not just the obvious, and not minus the obvious. (Orange peel is no substitute for a whole orange, and it doesn’t make much juice).

We should educate kids as they are, and we should let teachers teach to kids as they are. They know how to teach. They know what it takes to make wise, well-rounded adults. The Powers That Be won’t let them do that. They have different goals in mind.

Kids coming out of the way of education I experienced have careers, not jobs. They have callings, not an 8 hour day. They create new industries, rather than jobs for the old ones. Let Dawn and all the teachers like her do their job. Fund education, let kids be kids, and let them use their whole Self. It might make things messier, but it’ll be a whole lot more useful.



It’s A Good Year For Thinking

As the Jennifer Lawrence-and-everybody-else nude picture scandal happens, It occurs to me that it’s been a good year for thinking, if one is inclined to do so.

I read an article that said, “If Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t a ‘good girl’ (e.g. Miley Cyrus, Rhiannon, Nicki Minaj), we wouldn’t be having this conversation”. Wow. I never thought of that before, but it’s true. But now it is being thought about. The conversation has shifted from “people (women) shouldn’t take nude pictures of themselves” to “it’s a matter of privacy” and “blaming the victim here is like saying ‘her skirt was too short'”.

The tone of the conversation has changed. Because I like the show “Chuck”, I was fascinated by what actress  Yvonne Strahovski said: “It is with great sadness and disappointment that I address this hacking issue. To my fellow actresses whose privacy has been invaded—my heart goes out to you. I’m so disappointed that there are people in the world who feel the need to comitt these criminal acts. Some of these pictures are fake, my own included. Regardless—I ask you all—do not share the links. Don’t even look at the photos. Just let people have the privacy they deserve. Integrity is sacred.” Again, after a decade of “leaked” sex tapes of the rich-and-famous where we all assumed the person leaked it themselves for publicity/financial reasons, now we’re acknowledging (as a society) that there are people on those videos or pictures and maybe they are embarrassed by them being seen by others. Strahovski is asking people to have integrity and/or respect the integrity of others. I suspect that she is, because she’s not generally thought of as a “political” actress, speaking the thoughts of your average person without an axe to grind.

By and large, the last time there was this much change in thought about sex and gender roles, Anita Hill was speaking before Congress. I don’t know yet, but I suspect that most men are cool with this new thought. We’ll have to see.

This summer, of course, Ferguson happened, as well as violence around the country between Blacks and authorities. As usual, there were the resounding voices of “if they weren’t criminals, they wouldn’t be in this mess”, but there was so much happening, in so many places, that the talk didn’t stop there. If one kid was shot by police, it could be a fluke — either a bad kid or a bad cop”, but racism and violence and race issues were so present, the issue had to be discussed. The press was attacked and jailed. Protesters were marched on by soldiers. There were a lot of people involved, on so many different levels, and they were all affected by it.

Also, this year, we have heard discussions about money and power and the inequality behind them as well. We have heard about Veterans that we called “heroes” being denied services by the scores. The idea that “climate change” might be real (remember last winter? I do). The idea that creation might be more than 6,000 years old was challenged by a respected scientist on PBS as well.

It occurs to me as I write this that we really — for the last 30 years or so — have had real difficulty conceiving of the world as more that one dimensional. We have moved into rigid categories of “Good” and “Bad” on both left and right, sometimes with good reasons, sometimes without. In any case, we have come to believe that because Good and Bad are so clear that people’s lives are the same way — Good Things happen to and come to Good People while Bad Things happen to and come to Bad People. Jesus said, “Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike” and we still have problems with this idea all these centuries later. But big events, where even “Good People” have “Bad Things” happen to them, challenge our notions of what’s out there and how the world works.

How does this happen? It happens when Good People step into the lives of people they don’t know and discover the reality that is the other person’s life. Police clashes with Black men have been happening for years. This time, there were people watching. Sexism has caused us to divide women between “sluts” and “good girls” for years. This time “good girls” are caught in the web of sexism. Rigid “patriotism” has separated “Real Americans” (supposedly “hawks”) from Un-American-types (supposedly “doves”) for years. This time, “Heroes” aren’t getting support from people that supposedly supported them and we now wonder “who is a true American”. As we all shovel out our driveways or stay inside because even the dogs won’t go out or deal with tornadoes we’ve never seen before, we are all caught in what ever is happening, whether we “believe in it” or not.

We have a chance like we haven’t had in years. All of these things cause us to think, to challenge what we know about others, because we have come to realize we are the “others” — they are related to us as we attempt to relate to them. In short, because we care enough or have been forced to look, we can now see. Let’s make the best of it. Let us listen to each other, let us watch each other, let us see the complicated reality of our not so simple world — and maybe let’s live in it together.





The Hidden Reason I Love The UCC — It’s Us

My friend Evelyn Eddy posted a reminder on Facebook the other day that about three tears to the day before I was born, something great happened. My denomination came into being and made the world a better and safer place. By my standards, we are the best denomination out there. The reasons are not immediately evident, but they are vital to my understanding of what God calls us to be.

When I do chaplaincy with the mentally ill at Hartford Hospital, I begin with this:

“Hi, my name is John. I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and I’m a member at South Church in New Britain, and I come to here to bring worship and the word and prayer and communion and all that sort of stuff… That’s who I am. You are?…” I say this because I am proud of all of that. I’m proud to be ordained. I’m proud to be a member at South Church, and I am proud to bring worship and the word and prayer and communion to people that other people would not acknowledge or scorn or simply throw away. I would be proud to be a part of any denomination that did that last part because that’s what Jesus would do. To be fair, many of my colleagues in all sorts of denominations would do that because it’s what Jesus would do. So, while that’s great, it’s not unique. But, when recently ordained Salem, Oregon minister Emily Goodnow does the wedding of two homeless gay people who fell asleep on the church steps, I know that tradition continues and I am proud. When supposedly “retired” minister Peter Wells goes to workshop after workshop teaching people how to make lasting change in the world while understanding how difficult the world is, I am proud. When Gordon and Cy Sherman and a gazillion people they raised in the faith are out caring for people and nature and causes you never heard of, I am proud.

Still, I have too may minister friends to say with any certainty that the UCC has the best minsters out there. God raises up great people in all sorts of denominations. I will say that being who and what we are attracts the best ministers to us, though. If you read this blog on any regular basis, you know the people I am talking about — Todd Farnsworth, Emily, Peter, Rick Fowler, the Shermans and the Deering crew. You also know that Baptists like Charlie Crook and independent pastors like Benny Claytor and Methodists like Newt Perrins are out there. God does what God does whenever and wherever God feels like it.

What makes our denomination so special? Barbara Brown Zickmund, one of ours, published a book years ago called “Hidden Histories in the UCC” in which she laid out the reason — people you never heard of fighting for women’s rights and civil rights and freedom from all sorts of slavery if I remember correctly. But what she also tells is the history of our polity (the way we do things) — and it is there that we find the hidden, subtle, not always understood thing that makes us great.

It is not that we don’t have problems. We do. We have abusive pastors, just like other denominations. We have mean and twisted congregations, just like other denominations — or non-denominations — do. It’s not that we have the greatest liturgy because every church has great liturgy and my favorite kind of Quakers have no liturgy at all. It’s not that we have the greatest music — our hymnal is as controversial as the next one and missing some incredible hymns bound to other denominations. It’s not that we’re right all the time about every issue. We’re not. We can’t be. We’re still human.

So here’s the deal, at least from my perspective: Our history and our polity yield a psychological health that makes it the best place to be you and me in the presence of God. Our denomination is not really just one denomination. In 1957, four denominations merged to form the UCC. On one side of the faith, there were the Congregationalist and the Christians who had become the Congregational Christian Church and on the other side there was the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Churches in America who joined to be the Evangelical and Reformed Churches. The Congregationalists (who I grew up thinking we were) are the Pilgrims and the Puritans from Europe and they believe that everyone should get a vote about what goes on inside the church. They believe in freedom and simplicity. The “Christian” church is the remnants of African-American churches started by and within slave communities. They also believe in freedom, of course, and had simplicity pretty much forced on them. I love the idea of having “Black Church” worship, with it’s deep, intense spirituality, in my blood.

The E & R side is really about limits — the limits imposed on us by sin — and the way we redeem ourselves from it. It’s also about doing good things in the world because they want to be good people in the world. It comes from a gritty, realistic view of what humans can be — in Germany during World War II, for instance. Not really into piety and moralizing myself, I thought I would hate these people but two of my favorite people — Daehler Hayes, former Conference Minister in Rhode Island and Doris Luckey, a parishioner in Rochester, NY — come out of this tradition. There are a series of hospitals and a health care system for seniors that comes out of this tradition. Further, as someone who works with addicts can attest, coping with the reality of sin and how to redeem and forgive ourselves is so very important.

Even people I didn’t think I should like inform and strengthen my faith because they force me to look at things I wouldn’t normally look at. Besides, I still don’t get how Daehler — one of the most unique people I have ever met — can come from such a structured background, but he does.

We are all on a continuum of faith and needs — some need more structure, some need less, some really need the Bible and some really need politics, some like prayer and emotions and some like to stay in their heads. If you can’t find a place where you fit in the UCC, you’re definitely not looking hard enough. That thing we say, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”, is incredibly true and basic for us. We take in “strays” from other churches all the time because we can.

Taking you through “life’s journey” requires people who see faith as a life-time journey. There is a small movement here in Connecticut around life-cycle Christian Education and some of it’s leaders highlight the diversity of views here. Caroll Cyr, more conservative; Jane Rowe — traditional but not necessarily conservative; and Char Corbett — grounded but not necessarily traditional or conservative, all are involved and they get along well, informing each others’ work while committed to helping you figure out what you believe. They are them and they respect you for being you because that’s what we do and that’s how we think we should be.

My favorite psychological theorist, Virginia Satir, used to say, “The problem is not the problem. Coping is the problem”. We as humans can’t predict what the future holds. But we can figure out how to live with it and deal with it. We cannot control the existence of problems in the world. The challenges of today — Climate Change, Gay rights, immigration reform, prison reform, the existence of new “designer” drugs — weren’t even real things to our ancestors, but we deal with these issues all the time today.

How do we do it? We know that no one person or no one ideology or no one anything has all the answers. No one is right all the time, and the changes keep on coming. Our answer, in the United Church of Christ, is to widen the size of our possible answers enough that you can find yours. In one circumstance, Jane may have the right answer or process, in other Caroll or Char might. In another, Daehler or Doris might. In yet another, I might or you might. And even when an answer comes nationally (at our Synod, every 2 years), we acknowledge that it might not fit for the local congregation, so it’s not binding until they agree to it.

This dynamic isn’t who we are, because we change all the time, but it comes from who we are — it’s a bi-product of our being together. That’s what makes it “hidden” and hard to put your finger on, just like it’s hard to put your finger on The Spirit.

But, while I have a chance to make things more visible, I have wanted to write a piece on “be careful of the quiet ones”, people you never heard of doing incredibly good things in the world for a while. Here’s a shout-out to some of the UCC people I know that you should know, too.

Bob Kyte, somewhere in New Hampshire, a good counselor and friend that the Spirit just quietly flows through.

Julie LaBarr, and her family, the Sloths, genuinely nice people who care deeply and wrestle with issues all the time, while remaining Christian through it all.

Lynn Carmen Bodden, now living in Upstate New York and working in Connecticut, one of the best interim ministers in the entire country — loving and caring warmly while taking people through the deepest changes.

John Hudson, The Sherborn Pastor, in Sherborn Massachusetts, intelligent and caring, making a difference with his writing and his biking during the summer.

Leigh McCaffrey in Florida, the hardest working woman in the biz. The Blackest White Woman I know. Met God in a bar, and still believes those people have something to say.

The list goes on. As Mark Strickland of Lynnfield, Massachusetts used to sing, “You can meet them all at tea or at lanes or sea. The saints of God are folks like you and me. And I mean to be one, too”.



Rebekah Anderson — Woman/Girl Extraordinaire

It’s been an interesting week in birthday land, and I had already planned to write this post, but it turns out there’s more to this story even today, and there will clearly be more to come…

In the world of political correct language, I am not sure how to describe someone who’s “handicapped”. My wife and I have a very good friend who is blind, for instance, and is proud of it. She sees it as “who she was made by God to be” and she celebrates it. At least, I think she celebrates it. It is soooo far off of who I am that I just don’t get it and I haven’t read enough about disability movements to understand yet. In any case, she’s a cool woman and a good mother and a caring human being, so I’m glad to know her.

I have friends who work with the handicapped/disabled in skiing and the work that they do is incredible as well, but I understand that there are terms that are used and expected-to-be-used in working with folks that I would call “handicapped” or “disabled”.

I get it, in one sense. You don’t want to call attention to a person’s handicap, and you don’t want to say that the person IS their handicap or disability by any means. You don’t want to limit them or see them as limited, because they might not be. They are a person with …..(fill in the blanks). It’s part of who they are, but it\s not the totality of who they are and they should get help dealing with it in their lives.

At the same time, everybody loves an underdog story, which is why Hollywood makes so many of them. I had planned to share a really good underdog-makes-good story because I am so amazed at what the subject of this article has done. I wanted to give her “her props” for doing as much as she has already, despite overcoming tremendous odds!!! (isn’t that how they say it in Hollywood?).  But I learned today that the story goes beyond that, so here we go…

Years ago, two very good friends of mine from seminary who were  in love did the thing that people in love do – they had a baby. Their first-born is everything I would have expected of their offspring — he’s literate, good with words and interested in them, a little brilliant and a little goofy and into music — in other words, the arts is his life and they live in him. Brendan Anderson is a cool kid and I would have expected nothing less. He’s a Sophomore at a college in Vermont and he will add to the good of the world in some way or another. You just know that about him.

After these people had this baby, life led us to drift apart — they went to Maine and back to Boston. I went to Rochester and Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Northern California before returning back East with my lovely wife. Somewhere in all of this, my friends had another baby and they called her Rebekah. She would, no doubt, if the stars had been right and all was well with the world, have become as literate as her brother and able to withstand Monty Python and puns for the rest of her life. She would probably have gone into the helping professions as her parents are wont to do, and so on. She, too, would have been another great kid produced by great parents in a good, intelligent environment.

But the stars apparently weren’t right and all was not well with the world. Rebekah somehow, as a small child, developed cancer of some kind. Needless to say, her parents were “freaked” about their precious child having such a horrible thing happen to their daughter. My wife and I were freaked for them 3,000 miles away. Her illness deeply affected both of her parents and — with miracle after miracle — medical miracles, financial miracles, prayerful miracles, Rebekah’s life was spared.

As I wasn’t around at that time, I don’t know much except what we read on line about her condition and, later, that the Make-A-Wish Foundation had been really good to the family and they had gotten to go to Disney parks in Florida during all of this. In other words, the family had support, Bekah had support and good things happened. Bekah’s life was, as I said, spared… but her sight was not.

Bekah is some version of legally blind in at least one eye, but I think both to this day. As time went by, her parents divorced for whatever reasons, and I assume from my work that that was difficult on her.

OK, so she a) had cancer; b) became visually impaired ; and c) her parents got divorced. With this many things her in life by a young age, many children — maybe most — would have collapsed in a heap somewhere. Many adults, including myself, would have been “out of it” for years given these challenges. I’d like to believe that I could “recover” from all of these things and live a “normal”, productive life and be mentally healthy and be proud of myself for it. That would, as far as I’m concerned, make a great story all on its own — adult faces serious challenges, time after time, and comes through it all to be normal and live a healthy life. I see people all day who do just that and I am astounded often by how much a person can overcome to live a healthy, productive life.

Bekah, who turns 18 today, apparently didn’t take the five-or-ten-year plan to recovery that I think it would have required. She doesn’t really need the Theme from Rocky playing behind her to make it somehow. I don’t know how she did it, but at 18, even with all of this, she graduated High School at age 17, with her classmates. She was not a minute late, not a year late, not a decade late, but right on time. Given the number of kids I know who drop out of school, just that is enough to make a parent proud and Rebekah’s parents are. Your average kid graduates and that’s a moment to be proud of. She or he goes off to college, that’s another moment to be proud of. But, whatever strength, stamina, or blessing Bekah has makes it all the more impressive. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. Despite handicaps, Bekah pushed on against the current and became “just like every other kid” and did better than many kids I know.

Does the story end there? No. Because, in addition to overcoming obstacles to graduate on time, Bekah, in June of this year,  graduated in the top 10% of her class, was a National Merit Scholar, a member of the National Honor Society,  a member of the Tri-M Music Honor Society,  received 2 scholarships, a Choral Award, an Achievement Award in Creative Writing, and something called the Mitzi Yates Award for achievement and leadership in the Academy community  So, yes, she’s a scholar, and a musician, and an award-winning writer and a leader. In addition to graduating from High School, of course, she is now the National Merit Scholar for Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Pretty cool, right? Well…

Today, for her 18th birthday, she went from her home state to Rhode Island to protest, in person, the haters of the Greensboro Baptist (supposedly) Church. That is, for her birthday, she celebrated in the service of others. I am astounded that I know such a child — so far ahead of so many people I know who grew to be incredible later in their lives.

All of these things, and I know her as “that sort-of shy kid that comes to my house sometimes and horses around with my kids”. Yes, Bekah is “visually impaired”. Yes, Bekah survived cancer. Yes, Bekah has had some issues in her personal life growing up, but I will be darned if I can figure out how she got to be … well, Bekah — Girl/Woman Extraordinaire.

There are resiliency studies in the field of psychology which describe how some children overcome diversity. The results are this: children can have horrible lives and overcome or transcend them with this one tool: there must be one person that they can always talk to about their lives, who will be both loving and honest with them. Bekah has loving parents, a loving brother, a loving aunt and wider circle of friends all of whom support her both lovingly and honestly.

These are the kind of people that I see in the world who overcame some obstacle or other. These are the people that I see in my office and the person I hope to be with them, that they might develop resiliency. This is God’s spirit alive in the world for “normal” people.

Apparently, if you start with the right genes, and add support-times-ten-or more, you get extraordinary. Rebekah Anderson is that.



Good Things Are Happening, Too.

I’m scrolling through Facebook tonight and my good friend Mark has posted a sonogram of a fetus inside the womb of the woman he loves (Anna) and joy breaks out across my face!

I and my friends have had enough death this year. I don’t need to list the people who have died in the last year. Their names are written in pieces throughout my blogs. And needless to say what’s left of Oklahoma and Newtown’s populations are no doubt looking for good news.

While they probably don’t know Anna and Mark in those places , there are no doubt pregnancies and births happening all around THEM as well. They sneak into our lives as part of nature, quietly enough that the news doesn’t pick up on it.

Here in West Hartford , even though the streets are flooded, the grass is still green. Though the rains come , my friend Char can still post pictures of rainbows because there still ARE rainbows.

Yes, I’m sure that global climate change is still happening. Yes, the government still is reading our email. Yes, Turkey is quelling riots by force. For the most part those are the things we are in charge of.

But the cycles of nature are full of grace, despite our best efforts. They may not be as intense as the evening news cast, but nature’s beauty cycles have a quiet dignity and beauty all their own.

As much as I see the worst of what people can be, it is times like this that I am reminded that good people also impact the world by bringing children into the world and there is hope because of their influence. Good people raising spiritually beautiful children in the universe is also part of the world’s grace and a real joy to us, despite the world they are apparently brought into.

On days like this, I remember the good things in life — “I tell you that not even King Solomon in all his regalia was clothed as beautifully as this”, Jesus said about nature and it still is true.

My wife recently posted a picture of my two daughters when they were a toddler and a baby. They are now 14 and soon-to-be 12. They are beautiful and smart and talented and funny because they just are. Friend post on Facebook that their children are graduating from High School or College. How do these things happen? These things happen quietly, too, because we — like nature itself — put in a continual bit of energy and it grows in grace — the mystery of God’s will engaged in the world with or without our help.

My point is that sometimes we get lost in the pain and the destruction because they are so frequent and loud. Beauty and grace are just as frequent but nowhere near as loud and all it takes is the potential of a fetus to remind us … Just sayin’.

Congrats to Mark and Anna.

Peace ,


Jerry, I Hardly Met You

The adults in my house have come to the conclusion that 2013 has too many deaths in it already. Our housemate has done 6 funerals in the last month or so, my wife grieves and notices all the catastrophes of late and so far this year I have seen too much death too close to friends.

Today is no different. This evening I drove to Ansonia to support my friend Char at the funeral of her father, “Jerry” Curtiss. The pastor — Rev. Douglas Clark –did a nice job, remembering Jerry as storyteller, then he did the thing that makes psychological sense to me at these things — he left open space for people to say and do what they needed to.

The people who spoke weren’t your standard fare for such things. A woman spoke about Jerry as the kind of guy who took care of his own
parents. His son-in-law spoke about him as a good father-in-law who took in strays. Then a nephew (I think) spoke about him as a fisherman and friend.
The shock of the funeral (to me, anyway) came when a boy –probably 7 years old or so — stood up to speak. He saId a few quiet words about missing his grandpa and sat down with tears in his eyes.

Later, Jerry’s daughter, Sioux, also spoke and the service ended and we were all invited back to the home of family, but the magic had already been done. This man whom I has probably met 3 or 4 times had given me an insight from beyond the grave.

THAT is what I want to speak about. Years ago, when her first-born child was born, my friend Evelyn said the experience was emotionally “like Roots’ picture — holding the baby up to the sky and seeing the connection to every mother that ever been” in her family. Both of my “in-care” people — Char and Carrol Cyr — have been Christian Educators. The new staff person at South Church, Jane Rowe, is involved with the “intergenerational faith formation” movement in the Connecticut Conference with the other two. And Jerry, whom I barely knew exemplified all of them in one felt swoop.

Here’s the point: the Jews have it right. Whether or not there’s an afterlife, we transcend time with our lives. Jerry impacted four generations with one life, even if he never made it to heaven. He reached backwards in time, impacting his parents’ generation. He reached through his own time and his daughters’ and son’s generation. He touched the next generation after that, impacting the memories of his grandchildren. Whatever experiences he imparted to his grandchildren will be felt as well, by a fifth generation. Not bad for a man who, in theory, only lived onelife and now lives in eternity.

Each of us has that chance to transcend time through our one life, and probably do. The question, of course, is in what way?. Does our life reach across the generations with love, as he apparently did, or do we reach across generations with hatred? Do we care?

For those of us that are lucky enough to have children, the answer — for good or bad– is obvious. But even those who don’t literally give birth, give birth anyway if they are involved in education or mentoring or sharing or leading youth. this is how we transcend time and live forever, often even without knowing it. If God rewards us with an actual afterlife, that’s a special gift, but one we have proved we can handle if we cared enough to share our values in this life.

Jerry pulled it off. Maybe we can, too.



People In Your Neighborhood — Patti

One of the joys of belonging to a church is that you meet people you wouldn’t normally get to meet. While Sunday morning is still one of the most racially segregated times of the week in America, South Church in New Britain is a real mix of people of all colors, classes, ages, denominations and ethnicities.

One of the joys of belonging to an Open and Affirming church is that you get to meet more , as they sing on Sesame Street, “people in your neighborhood”.

Patti is one of those people from the “neighborhood” that is South Church. She is a deacon, she sings in the choir. She used to be a teacher (maybe still is?). She continues to grow as a person — recently she went back to school — she’s now a pastry chef and married. Patti — after years with one nice woman, married a spiritually feisty younger woman this year and they seem to balance each other out really well.

When my wife and I joined South Church, Patti was one of the first people at South Church we met, and the distinguishing thing I noticed was her haircut that screamed “I’m a lesbian”. Of course, the pink triangle button added to the impression, but it was mostly her haircut that made me assume she was gay.

That said, because I have trouble with names in the early stages of meeting someone, Patti became “that nice lesbian”. If we were talking about her after church, I’d say to my wife, “you know, the nice lesbian whose-name-I-forget really gets our kid. I guess she works with Special Needs kids and she absolutely treasures our younger daughter. Says she’s really bright and creative”. This is a good thing to hear when your child has you at your wits end. Children aren’t always easy, but Patti said it more than once just to make sure we got it. (We like to think our children are brilliant, but every once in awhile, it was nice to be reminded of it when they were getting into things or running around at the speed of light).

Patti is — like many people in churches — remarkable but not spectacular about it– and that’s what makes her special. She’s not a public figure like a politician. I don’t know her political views, though I could guess. She’s not on the news, changing the discourse on public policy with the pundits. Instead, she is one of those people who changes your life in small ways, building people up until they believe in themselves and others. She is the person that always gives a hug if you ask for it, but will also tell you the truth if you ask her for it — the kind of person that slows down a screaming child with a big hug.

So, on her birthday, here’s to Patti and all other people who just make life worth living — the people you meet in your average Open and Affirming neighborhood.