Pastor’s Letter Dec. 1, 2021

“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

  • Mark 12:30-31(NRSV)

Good afternoon Beloved,

I pray that you are all well and experiencing ALL the Love God has to offer in this blessed season of Advent. Love though, as we all know, has so many different ways that it can be experienced. It is the feeling that we have for our significant others. The feeling that we have for our children and for our friends. It can even be the feeling that we have for things like ice cream or a Baconator. Yet in all these ways, we are only describing the feeling of love in our heart, or maybe that which lies in the mind and soul. But none of these various ways truly describe the depth of love we are called to exhibit in “all (of our) strength.” To Love God “with all your strength” includes our bodies. We can understand this idea as the love we reveal through our actions and service to God’s Mission. It is like when our friends gather to help the SonShine Soup kitchen or the Beloved who are learning about Open and Affirming. Basically, it is the idea of showing God’s Love in everything we do, think, and feel. 

This Beloved is actually easier said than done. Yet, sometimes an opportunity comes along to show our love for all humankind with all of our strength. An opportunity which we did not know existed. An opportunity to be the very light of love for another human being in the midst of darkness. Our own beloved Amy Chartrain has brought this opportunity to us this week which I feel exemplifies what it means to be a Christian who loves God with all our strength.

For come to find out, there is a foster home in Lawrence for young girls (ages 13-18). These girls come from troubled homes. Many of their parents are either incarcerated or are formerly incarcerated. Rather than risk going back and forth into many foster homes, the children have chosen to live here. This location alone is a gift of care and love to the least among us as the directors are working at making this place even better. Some improvements include a home gym space so the girls can incorporate activity into their daily routine. However, their upbringing and situations have also made them vulnerable to the worst kind of predators. Those who prey on the children.

As such, these young women have been lured to parties and the subsequent sex trafficking of their bodies through the offer of a new pair of sneakers. Yes, sneakers – predators in our neighboring Lawrence are using sneakers to force children into a life of human trafficking. These horrible crimes must stop and I pray the police find everyone who is guilty. Yet, beloved this darkness also reveals the very way we – you and I – can reveal the love of God with our strength. We can help in this Advent season by taking away the lure. By making one child’s life a little safer from these predators with one 20-dollar gift card to Foot Locker.

Therefore, I hope you will join me in procuring some gift cards and bringing them to worship on December 12th where these gifts of our love will be offered and received. If you have any questions, please ask either me or Amy.

This said, revealing our love can be that easy at times . It can be that easy to give a card but it requires beloved disciples like Amy to reveal the need, to love God and people with all her strength, to bring the darkness into the light of Christ. It requires a discerning mind and the strength to step forward and lead the way. The strength to say, “NO,” when injustices are happening. So, we may end the darkness together. This is part of the love we are all called to do and one way we fulfill the Mission of God.

I feel blessed to witness a beloved disciple loving with all of her strength, thank you Amy. For, you are an example of loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves. I pray we all witness this example and seek with all of our strength to love God by loving one another throughout the season of Advent.

May your week be full of all the Love God has to offer

your pastor, Brian

As always please call (207-350-9561) if you need anything or simply want to talk. Next week, My pastoral care hours are Mon. 8-12, Tues. 12-5, Wed. 8-4 to provide some time for visiting. However, if I am at the church please come in . Many blessings and Love to you all.

Love…Revealed

Image of a cross in front of a cloudy sky. The sun is breaking through the clouds and shining the sunlight on the cross.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH April 4, 2021

Happy Easter, beloved, the journey of darkness is over, and He is Risen. Love is … Wait, I mean Christ is Risen. Not yet at-one with the Father; but has conquered death and Love is… One moment, I mean not yet at-one with God. The prophecies are now fulfilled as the only begotten Son is revealed as our messiah on this Easter morning. Love is …difficult to express. Difficult to express in today’s world when we are in the midst of many – many different journeys of shadow. Words get in the way of expressing the beauty of this Easter morning. Words get in the way of having a conversation about the shadowy journeys we are walking in throughout this life. Words get in the way of embracing the celebration of Love Revealed on this Easter morning. However, words are important as they allow us to reveal the light of Love, like never before. 

Before we begin, would you pray with me

Holy Loving God, who revealed Your Love for us on this Easter morning, open our spirits to Your Love once more – reveal its beauty and make us whole through Your Word. May the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth, o’ God, and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You.

Now beloved, our world today is struggling with many different journeys of shadow. And I like that phrase – especially today – for it shares a different reality than simply saying a social justice movement – an issue – or even the sins of our world. This phrase changes the context to imply that these sins have not come to an end. And, that understanding is healthy; for, they have not. We are not in the kin-dom with Christ – yet. We are still on these earthly journeys along rocky paths. Sometimes the wind is at our back with a smooth downhill road. Sometimes the path takes us up the sheer climb of a mountain with a death-defying breath in each and every handhold. And sometimes – sometimes we witness the glory of Love revealed. Revealed when we come to an oasis in the desert – as people start to think differently about a journey of shadow. 

And we have seen these rest stops on the various journeys – many times. In fact, I am sure each of you – can recall at least one of these glimmers of paradise when Love has been revealed. Perhaps the end of slavery came to mind – though the journey of equality is not over as our society still struggles with racism; maybe, the affirming love we have here for the LGBT+ community – though this journey of equality is not over as this love is not fully revealed to all; or perhaps you thought of equal voting rights, an end to required gender norms, and an increase in educational resources regardless of gender – though this journey of equality is not over as we are still struggling to understand one another, and words get in the way.

Words get in the way like in our scripture this morning from the Gospel according to John. For, the author reveals something that is often overlooked: Mary Magdalene came to the tomb – alone, a clear difference from the other Gospels. Yet, when Mary refers to not knowing about Jesus’ whereabouts, the word used is “we” – “we do not know where they have laid him.” This point changes the context according to the theologian Gail O’Day who understandably believes that the author is not only having Mary represent all followers of Christ; but also, Mary is “ironically echo(ing) one of the decisive misunderstandings of Jesus’ ministry” i.e., “whence Jesus comes and where he is going.” So, why did Jesus come? To save us from sin as the Gospel of Matthew does explain Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” I believe so; but does the scripture tell us how we are saved? Not precisely and this difficulty along with the word “sin” becomes the basis for the misunderstanding around Jesus’ ministry of why he came, especially because there is still sin in the world – journeys of shadow – the Way has not been achieved in the kin-dom of God, for us – yet. Therefore, we fumble with words – not fully understanding Jesus’ ministry or where he went. 

However, the ambiguity of words throughout the Gospel of John also allows us to witness the Good News on this Easter morning – witness a reprieve from the gender equality journey of shadow – and witness God’s Love…revealed. For, here in this passage Jesus says, “go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to the Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” On the surface, this good news alone is beautiful; for Jesus by using this double identification formula of “the Father and your Father…my God and your God” is sharing that what is true for Jesus is now true for all the disciples. Moreover, this truth of the Way is for all of us as Mary is, as you remember, representing all the faithful throughout this scripture. 

Further, this beautiful representation of equal leadership in the early Church is highlighted by the word, “brothers.”  Not because of how we understand the word in English today or not even fully because Mary is the one commanded to bring this message, but because the original word in Greek was “Adelphos” which is not gender limiting, here. In fact, the word is being used inclusively to identify all of Jesus’ disciples as his family according to O’Day. Much like today when we use the word “guys” to inaccurately, and sometimes harmfully, describe a group of men and women. Again, words and the misunderstanding of words get in the way of witnessing the inclusive beauty of what we are trying to say and our scripture which does welcome all people into the kin-dom of God. Yet, when we know the context of the place, culture, and time – then – and only then is the Good News revealed.  

Still, one part of the story eludes us: The Love revealed today? For me, this part is the most beautiful aspect of our scripture reading and the gift from God which is now revealed to all of us because Jesus brought us all into his family. That aspect is the word “Father” and the relationship with Jesus as God’s “Son.” Now, I imagine the understanding of Father in reference to God could and does seem harmful to some people, especially as God created us all in the divine image and we humans have a hard time thinking beyond the physical image of a body, of a male or a female body, of gender identity. However, the reality is that we do not know God’s gender. Is God male as represented by Jesus – female as represented by the Holy Spirit – both? 

We do not know; for, our words are broken, and this truth is why I refer to God as both he and she. That said, we do understand the relationship between a loving parent and a child. We understand the love a Father must have when he watches his Son struggle on a journey of shadow; so, other children may see the Way. I can only imagine the many loving Mothers amongst us must also understand the immense Love God has for all of us to allow harm to come to her child; so, we may all witness the Way through the journeys of darkness. Imagine that for a moment, could you do what God does and allow your child to suffer – so, all your children could find their Way. Could you allow one parent to suffer – so, all people could possibly find their way back to you. The amount of Love that God reveals to us is the Good News beloved – it is a love I cannot imagine but this is the Love that God reveals on Easter morning. How are we revealing Love to God? Are we embracing these journeys of shadow and revealing God’s Love to one another? Are we climbing those mountains – risking all to reveal Love in every breath – are we listening to the meaning behind broken words and trying to find the Way to hold one another in Love? I pray that you are as our journey is not over – yet. Jesus’ journey of shadow is over when he reveals the Way to be free of sin along these journeys of shadow. But beloved disciples, our journeys are not yet over as we are not in the kin-dom, yet. So, let us remember the Love Revealed through God, Christ who shows us the Way, and the Holy Spirit which breathes divine Love into every one of our lives. May you always witness God’s Love Revealed and be a reflection of that Love as we walk through the journeys of shadow – together. Amen

“Called from the Darkness”

Image of Jesus in white robes with a staff standing on a cliff. He is in the shadow facing the rising sun.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH March 21, 2021

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

Mary Oliver wrote this poem called “The Uses of Sorrow” in 2007, well before the isolation and sorrow we are feeling today because of covid-19. Well before the recent divisiveness of politics, the violence of riots, the losses of a full year. Well before the depressive sorrow affecting most people today. No, she wrote this poem when there were just those “everyday” sorrows of living. But today, we are not only dealing with the “everyday” sorrows. We are also facing societal sorrow which means that nearly everyone has or is experiencing some sorrow – some loss – some heartbreaking wound due to the events of last year. So, perhaps now, as we start to reopen the world, it is time to remember those words of hope by Mary Oliver – remember that  

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

Yes, maybe – maybe in this Lenten season it is time to remember that in every box of darkness – every wound – every sorrow, there is also a hope – a gift – a calling to each of us waiting to draw us out of the darkness.

Before we continue, would you pray with me:

Holy Creator create in me a clean heart this day – scribe your covenant upon it and make me whole so we may all be called from the sorrow-filled darkness in our lives to be one with You in the kin-dom. We pray that our meditations this day be pleasing to you God and the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth.

Now, beloved, I do not believe that Oliver is speaking about God within this poem, nor do I believe God gives people sorrow. Rather, I believe she is simply referring to someone “I once loved.” And we all have that someone in our life. That someone who we have forgiven; but yet still, feel wounded by – in our lives. This someone could be our government, our family, our friends. That someone may even be ourselves and these wounds are creating a societal sorrow. For sorrow does not always happen when a tragedy happens – most often the sorrow, the unexpected sorrow which fills our life – which darkens every happy moment of our light comes only after the world resets itself. Then and only then do we have time to reflect on what has occurred and the darkness, at that point, can overwhelm our lives. 

I imagine this concern is what Jesus is trying to warn the disciples about in the Gospel according to John, when Jesus first prophesies about his own death, according to the theologian Gail O’Day. And it is in today’s reading that Jesus does teach about his own death – about why he needs to die – and about what will come afterwards. What a hard lesson that would have been to hear. But can you imagine the depth of sorrow that each disciple could have felt without this teaching – without knowing the reason why Jesus had to die. Of course, you can imagine this somewhat, for we all have witnessed death without knowing why. I have seen these types of losses many times as many people have. I have witnessed people die because of everything from addictions to depression – but still, to witness Jesus on the cross, tortured, and struggling to breathe fills my heart with a sorrow that I cannot fully imagine. And this sorrow is what Jesus is preparing the disciples for – for the sorrow and the pain of seeing their friend – their teacher – our messiah executed, a truth which Jesus knew was coming. So, he told of his death not to frighten them, but to help them find a way out of the darkness – out of the tragedy – out of the sorrow – after he died, and they returned to life. 

Thankfully, this sorrow is not the end of the story – there is Good News in the midst of Jesus’ teaching – He shares the hope which seems almost out of place: Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” When I read those words, I was reminded that Jesus – even Jesus – felt sorrow. His soul is troubled. This truth, beloved, is part of the human condition – we all feel sorrow when there are troubles – when there are boxes of darkness placed before us. The difference is what we choose to do with that box of darkness – that sorrow – that tragedy in our lives. Here Jesus offers another way, a way we can each find our way into the light, again – instead of dwelling in the darkness of sorrow. Mind you, this Way is not beyond forgiveness and prayer, those paths must come first. Those ways prepare us for this blessed teaching. But now, as we begin to reflect and feel the sorrow, Jesus teaches us the next step on the Way to the kin-dom. He teaches us how to be called out of the darkness – teaches our clean heart, there is hope – he teaches us that the sorrow we feel can also be a gift to the world so we may all glorify God through discovering the reason for the darkness we have endured.

So, how do we discover this reason? Perhaps through today’s lesson when Jesus also says, “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Now the interesting thing is that O’Day believes this verse is analogous, or comparable to, the idea in the other three Gospels that one should “take up the cross” which in today’s understanding can be more symbolic – like taking up the cross of a tragedy, a burden, or a sorrow that we carry. We also use this phrase to speak about the Mission of justice or compassion we are called to do in life, like taking up the cause of justice for Equal Rights, for Women’s rights, for LGBT + rights. In reality, however, the phrase means something else: it means death – the following of Jesus unto death. It is this understanding of the phrase that O’day uses as she rightly points out that the scripture in the Gospel according to John is not only asking people to follow Jesus unto death like in the synoptic Gospels, but Jesus is also promising in our reading today that anyone who does follow him – will be with Christ in the kin-dom of Heaven. 

Thankfully, we are not speaking of death – today; but sorrow can feel like death. So, let us consider the scripture in this way. When we do, the symbolic understanding of this phrase seems entirely prudent. For, it shows the Way we may find freedom from sorrow. We do this feat by following Jesus into the darkness – by witnessing the pain – by realizing the wound which is drawing us deeper into sorrow. In other words, we “take up the cross” of this sorrow. But then, we witness the Way out of the darkness by “take(ing) up the cross” of God’s Mission we are each called to do in this life. By following this Mission, we are following Christ out of the darkness to the kin-dom of God. To put it plainly, by being the light – the hope – the healing disciple for the part of God’s Mission which you are called to do, you will heal your own pain – find hope in your own sorrow – shine a light in your own darkness as we return to the world. 

But how do you know what part of God’s Mission you are called to do individually – what is the present in your box of darkness? Well, what wound is filling your heart with sorrow? Perhaps, the very sorrow we are experiencing personally is the part of the Mission we need to fulfill most in our life. The part of God’s Mission which will not only glorify God but will also heal our clean heart and bring us out of the darkness. If this idea is true, where do you feel sorrow? Is it in the sense of loss – the isolation – the political wounds of today? 

Begin there, begin by witnessing your own sorrow and the Way will become clear. To explain, if your sorrow is that of missing family or friends. Embrace this sorrow and follow Christ. Then, let God’s Mission fill Your heart by reconciling with your loved ones. You may do this through a phone call, a card, or the gift of your smile across a socially distant spacing. This Way is part of God’s Mission, it is building the fellowship of Christ. Or perhaps you feel wounded by the violence over the last year – the inequality in our world – the hate perpetrated against people due to an identity – pick up that cross and recognize your pain so you can witness where God is calling you to personally serve her Mission. This calling can be experienced as awareness or teaching – can be the loving example of acceptance of another – can be the disruption of systemic inequalities. Or perhaps your sorrow stems from the political divisiveness, the growing number of people with addictions, the increase of mental illness, the plague of domestic violence or many other issues causing sorrow, today.  Basically, by witnessing your own sorrow, you will discover your part of God’s mission; and by embracing this Mission, you will free yourself of the sorrow and glorify God. 

Now beloved, it may take years to discover this present like it did for Mary Oliver in her poem but the gift is there – for the sorrows which affect us most also reveal how God is calling us out of the darkness – by knowing that darkness we can start to discover how to find the light together and thereby not just heal ourselves but glorify God through the blessed sharing of his Mission. May your week be free of sorrow as we turn from the darkness and follow Christ to the light of the kin-dom of God. amen.

“The Great Reset”

An image of a forest with two rainbows in a partially cloudy blue sky.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem February 21, 2021

This week we began our journey of Lent, a season where we are each invited to reflect on, care about, and grow deeper in our faith as Christians. We begin this journey by remembering that we are mortal – our time here is limited – and to ashes we will return one day. However, that is not the full story of this journey, we are also invited to “turn away from sin and return to the Gospel.” Turn away from sin – seems easy enough – right? We ask for forgiveness each month – reflect on the ways we have sinned and become broken through our actions and our inactions and are then forgiven by God every month directly before we celebrate communion. Some congregations share in this liturgy every week – some people ask for forgiveness every day. So yes, I believe we understand how to turn away from sin; but – but I wonder if it is possible to learn how to avoid sin during this time of Lent? Or at least find ways to avoid the causes of sin especially when we feel our lives are out of our control – spiraling into a broken tempest of apathy for our fellow Creations. Is there a reset button for people which will allow us to return to the Gospel – the Way of Christ – the Mission of God?

As we ponder this thought, would you pray with me?

Forgiving God, forgive us today and reveal in us ways to reset – to care for – to return our lives to Your Mission and the Gospel of Love. May the meditations on all our hearts reflect your forgiving Grace and let the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth.

And it is true, beloved, many people are feeling like our lives are out of our control today. We love our families; but the unknown duration of the isolation is creating stress. Our youth are learning; but the variances in schooling is creating anxiety. We have a vaccine; but the effectiveness and distribution is causing fear in many people’s lives. These causes are called stressors which decrease our ability to engage in situations – lovingly and therefore increase our negative reactions to one another. In other words, as stressors increase so do our sins to God through other people. 

We also set aside the Gospel and the Mission of God – we set them aside because all we can do is focus on the fear, anxiety, and stress affecting our lives right now. This idea is like a computer with thirty web sites open, printing a document and infected by a slew of viruses. The computer cannot focus on the one video about LGBTQIA equality because of all the other operations it is doing and all the virus infecting it. So, that one video will start, stop, stutter, and then start again as long as you are still watching. As long as you have not gotten so frustrated with the viruses and sins in your life before throwing the whole computer out the window.

I imagine this metaphor of the computer is similar to how God witnessed the world. How She witnesses the world in the chapters before our reading from the book of Genesis – I imagine that God had become frustrated with humankind and our inability to reveal His Mission due to our wickedness and sin. The only recourse was to reset the world and throw the whole computer out the window, an event understood as the Great Flood.

Thankfully, the Great Flood is not where the story ends, and God changes Her will: promising to never reset the world again – never flood the world again with the waters – never throw the whole computer out because we have become too infected with wickedness and sin. This message does not mean we are not broken – we are. It does not mean our stressors and sins no longer keep us from God’s Mission – they do. This passage does not mean we do not need to reset our lives from time to time – for we do need that Grace in order to refocus on God’s Mission before us. What our passage means is that God will no longer throw out the whole computer for our wickedness – and the reset will no longer destroy humans or be for the whole world. This covenant – this promise of God to Noah is “everlasting” for all the generations to come. 

But what is the Good News – then – the Good News which reveals the Way God has given each of us to reset our lives, to forgive us of our sins, and free us from the stressors which increase our brokenness. Who is the Good News which allows us to refocus on God’s Mission in our life?

I pray that each and every one of you already knows the answer is Christ Jesus who shows us the Way and suffered for our sins as a whole people. I believe our passage from the Gospel according to John also reveals to us the Way to reset our individual lives. For, Jesus in the middle of dinner stood up and began the practice of foot washing. Now, this practice of foot washing was common at the time. People would commonly have their servants wash a guest’s feet as a sign of hospitality before dinner. However, here in the middle of dinner – Jesus stops, disengages, and takes on the role of a servant revealing his “spirit of lowly service, “according to the theologian G. MacGregor. Think on that for a moment. In the midst of stress, anxiety, and fear – only days before he is about to be beaten and crucified – at a time where almost any human would let those stressors cause them to react negatively, or sin, to those who are causing the stressors. Jesus stops – disengages from the meal – and becomes the servant – the very spirit of lowly service to Judas who is the cause of stress, anxiety, and fear through his betrayal. In other words, Jesus resets his life-focus on the Mission of God instead of letting the stressors or sin rule him.

This Way, beloved, is the Good News of Lent. The Way Jesus teaches us to reflect on, care about, and grow deeper in our faith during the Lenten Journey. I like to call this way – our Great Reset; for, it is a great way to allow each of us to reset our individual lives and turn away from the stressors before we sin against God through our actions and inactions with other people.

However, this Good News is not simple. Yes, Jesus does it throughout the Gospels; but he is perfect, and we are perfectly created in brokenness. So no, this Good News is not simple for us humans as it requires us to be aware of the stressors affecting us, continually practice new forms of disengaging from situations, and forgive ourselves when the stressors become sins. But this Good News is needed now more than ever for our computers are becoming bogged down with stress, anxiety, and fear – so bogged down with all the stressors and sins that the part of God’s Mission we are individually called to embrace is stopping and stuttering before our eyes. It is becoming hard for many people to witness God – Christ and ourselves as servants loving one another through the Holy Spirit when all we feel is betrayal.

But this Good News is what we need – we need to stop – stop when we feel the stress – anxiety – fear rush into our hearts. Stop – when we witness an enemy on Facebook – stop when someone voices their opinion and we only hear our fear. Stop – in that breath before you react – stop, even though we are called to justice – to defend the disenfranchised – to care for all people – this week, just stop – stop before you say anything – stop and disengage. Give yourself this gift of the Great Reset to simply disengage however you can. It can be as easy as saying, “I hear you, but can we talk about this later” to not even looking on Facebook for an hour, two hours, or a day. You may find yourself disengaging from the stress by going for a walk alone, from the anxiety by watching a silly comedy, the fear by picking up your favorite hobby. However, you can disengage will provide you time to reflect on what is causing the stressor – time to care for yourself – and time to grow spiritually before you react with a sinful action or inaction. Finally, consider what God is calling you to do – before you re-engage – while on that walk or during the hour away from social media consider what is your part of God’s Mission? Who are you called to serve? How can you help the Mission, next? Then – and only then will you be ready to re-engage with whatever stressor that is affecting your life. You will be able to re-engage because the stress, anxiety, or fear will seem so much smaller than it was – small enough for you to deal with in a loving way – small enough to engage with and not risk the possibility of sinning in the process. 

This Good News, though, is a journey beloved – a journey of self – reflection, care, and growth in our spiritual lives with God. One which we will not always succeed at accomplishing; but it is one practice which will help us turn away from sin – reset our lives – and return to the Gospel of Love. May your Lenten Journey be a time of self-reflection, care, and growth so we may all become closer to God. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.