Dear Friends, ‘
Since I will be sending out a special Easter message in a special mailing, I want to focus this pastoral letter on the recent announcement that I have accepted an appointment to the New Covenant United Methodist Church in East Hartford, CT., effective July 1. Many of you are already aware of this announcement, but no doubt there are others who are hearing about it for the first time here in this newsletter. In either case, I wanted to share a few thoughts about my impending transfer.
Here is the primary thing that I want my beloved church family to understand. This de- cision is in no way prompted by anything that has happened to me or my family during our time here at FUMC, or by any concerns I might have about FUMC’s future, or by any sense that FUMC is anything but a great church with a great future ahead of it. You all have been no less than loving and supportive of me and my family from the moment we arrived here nearly four years ago. This church is gifted with many committed followers of Jesus, and many leaders who give so much of themselves. It is involved in vital and important ministry in our region. The presence of so many retired clergy in the congregation is a wonderful resource that any intelligent pastor would give his or her eye teeth to have at their disposal. In many ways, it has been a dream church to serve.
So why, then, did I accept an appointment to another church? The simplest answer is that as time has gone by, I have experienced a growing desire to get back to a more urban en- vironment. I recognize that for many people, living in the Lakes Region is like heaven and earth. To be sure, it has much to offer in terms of natural beauty and opportunities for enjoy- ing the great outdoors. But as a city guy, I found myself longing for a busier, more crowded, more diverse environment in which to live and to serve. As I neared my 60th birthday I began to see that if there was ever a time for me to respond to that longing, it needed to be now. And so I shared with my district superintendent that if a church in a more urban setting be- came available I would be open to hearing about it. When the opportunity to serve in East Hartford was presented to me, it felt right, and so, with no small amount of bittersweet feel- ings, I said yes to this new appointment.
And so, we are in transition—the church, yes, but also me and my family, as well as the pastor who will replace me and his family and the church he is serving. I invite you to join me in praying for all of us—pray that as we experience all the various feelings and uncertainties that come with this sort of transition, we would be open to the ways our unchanging God is present for us on the journey. We have these next few months together to share with each other, to say goodbye properly, to prepare to receive a pastor, and, lest we forget, to continue to be co-creators with God, as together we build an Evergreen community of faith, where people are invited to experience spiritual, emotional, and physical vitality in all stages of life.
Grace and peace,
By the time you receive this edition of The Traveler, Lent will almost be upon us. Lent begins, of course, on Ash Wednesday, which takes place this year on March 1. As an appropriate way of starting this holy season, our church will once again offer an Ash Wednesday ser- vice at 7:00 PM that evening, led by the Rev. Vickie Wood Parrish. I encourage you to make every effort to attend.
As far as other special Lenten offerings happening here at FUMC, one of the wonderful traditions that has taken hold at our church are the weekly Lenten Soup and Study gatherings. As we continue this tradition, this year we will be studying World Religions utilizing a wonder- ful resource put together by the Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, called Christianity and World Religions: Wrestling with Questions People Ask, starting on March 8 at 6:00 PM, and continuing for the next five weeks, ending on April 12. As we enjoy wonderful and warming bowls of soup, we will watch a 15 minute video presenta- tion in which Rev. Hamilton will share some of the basic beliefs of some of the world’s major religious traditions, and how those beliefs compare to our beliefs as Christians. Following the video, I will lead a conversation about the content presented in the video. For those wishing to delve a little deeper, copies of the book on which the video presentations are based will be available for purchase on March 8. The cost of the book will be $8.00. The book is also avail- able on amazon.com in Kindle format for those who prefer that option. While you can profita- bly participate in these sessions without reading the book, I can assure you that doing so will make these sessions even more enlightening and meaningful.
Why study the faiths of other people? There are two reasons. First, the world is be- coming increasingly smaller and more interrelated, making it more important than ever for us to have a better understanding of the faiths that shape the habits, customs, beliefs, and values of billions of people all over the world. And of course, it is increasingly true that those who practice these other faiths are not just living in countries far away from us, but are, in fact, our neighbors, co-workers, and in some cases, family members. Harmony and understanding, if not survival, have become dependent upon our willingness to learn about each other.
Second, learning about the faith of others helps us learn more about our own faith.
We often hear people saying that all religions are basically the same, but that is simply not the case. While there are certainly common threads that appear in many of the world’s major religious traditions, there are also stark differences between the various religions of the world that cannot entirely be reconciled. Learning about these differences causes us to look at our own faith in new and enriching ways. Speaking for myself, I would have to say that my study of the other major faith traditions has made me a stronger Christian, while at the same time enabling me to more meaningfully and respectfully participate in dialogue with people of other faiths.
For these reasons, as well as for the opportunity to share time and fellowship with folks from my church family, I am eager to encourage as many of you as possible to participate as often as possible in these Soup and Study gatherings, and look forward to sharing these times with many of you.
In Evergreen love, Pastor Tom
I first became familiar with the phrase annus horribilis back in 1992, when Queen Eliza- beth used it to describe the unpleasant events that the Royal Family had undergone that year. The phrase is Latin, and it means, simply, “horrible year.” Looking back on it, 2016 has been something of an annus horribilis for me and my family. Some of you know that I lost my mother in April, but in addition, my wife Wendy has undergone several surgeries, requiring a long period of recovery. There were certainly highlights, including our daughter’s graduation from college, a long-awaited trip to the Holy Land, and the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908. But I will readily admit that the losses and challenges cast a pall over even those happy occasions.
While these events were specific to the way I and my family experienced this past year, I am well aware that I am not alone in being relieved to see 2016 in my rear view mirror. No doubt many of you reading this have experienced your own losses and struggles. But I am also speaking in the general sense of this having been a tough year for our country and for the world. An ugly presidential campaign, terrorist attacks, the heartbreak of Aleppo, a terrible hurricane and devastating fires in Tennesee, have buffeted the spirits of us all.
So yes, many of us are ready to say goodbye to 2016, and embrace the turning of the year. We do this every year, but some years are more easily let go of than others. And we do it, not because there is something magic about January 1 that makes the hurts and struggles of the previous year suddenly disappear, or because we have any way of guaranteeing that the new year will be a whole lot better than the last. But, especially for people of faith, at least, there is this thing called Hope; Hope that somehow things can be better, that even perennial problems can be solved, that we can learn from past mistakes and make better choices. Hope is what makes the New Year new.
I mentioned the Cubs’ World Series victory as a highlight of 2016. I grew up rooting for the Chicago Cubs, a team that was even more heartbreaking than the Red Sox. But one of the things that helped me keep hope alive was the attitude exemplified by my favorite Cub, Ernie Banks. Each year Banks would come up with a slogan to express his undying hope that this year would be the year for the Cubs to turn it around. “The Cubs will be great in ’68.” “The Cubs will be fine in ’69.” It was as if he was saying, “Last year may have been an annus horribi- lis, but that doesn’t mean that this year can’t be an annus mirabilis,” which is, as you have probably guessed, is antithesis of the annus horribilis, and means “wonderful year.”
Keep hope alive, keep trusting in God, keeping loving God and each other, and who knows, maybe, just maybe, 2017 will be a year to celebrate. In any case, Happy New Year, and many prayers and wishes for an annus mirabilis for you and yours.
In evergreen love, Pastor Tom
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Psalm 133:1 (NRSV)
We live in divided times, do we not? Unfortunately, the divisions in our nation are mirrored in the Church, especially in America. Across denominations and even in many local churches, we are locked in a struggle around our understanding of the Bible and how to read it, and what we are called to commit ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. In many corners of the church, people have aligned the Christian faith with this or that political party, an act that invariably sows division, as well as making the Church vulnerable to manipulation.
In both the political and religious spheres of our culture, these divisions have led to a lot of talk in many circles about how greater unity might be achieved. Fingers are pointed as to who is to blame for our disunity, and many calls for “coming together” are heard. Unfortunately, some of these calls for unity amount to little more than telling those with whom we disagree to “get over it,” which sounds an awful lot like a polite way of saying “Shut up.”
Unity, is of course, a wonderful thing. The scripture that I cited above winsomely ex- presses the longing that many of us have within us for what Martin Luther King referred to as “the beloved community,” where people are in right relationship with each other, and com- mon values are shared and celebrated. The notion expressed by Rodney King in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where he pleaded, “Can’t we all just get along,” speaks to not only that longing, but the naïve notion that “getting along” should be fairly easy to accomplish as well.
But unity, real unity, is a tricky thing, and living into authentic unity is really hard work. Part of the problem is that there are counterfeit forms of unity that seem to be the real thing, but are anything but. For example, ways of “getting along” that are based on avoiding controversy and conflict is not real, authentic unity. Neither is it unity when one person or group is required to stay quiet in order to maintain that “unity.” When politeness and “being nice” is valued over truth telling, that is not unity; it is avoidance masquerading as unity.
As the Psalmist says, real unity is precious. It is precious not because people have been stifled, silenced, or shamed in order to keep the peace; it is precious because it is characterized by reconciliation, redemptive love, and “speaking the truth in love.” It is characterized by the hard work of staying engaged with each other even when we profoundly disagree. Any community that is serious about building the Beloved Community will discover that there are many steps along the way that won’t feel much like unity. Angry words will likely be spoken, and indeed, sometimes they very much need to be. In all our efforts, we would do well to remember the wise words of Rosabeth Moss Kanter: “Everything looks [and feels] like failure in the middle of it,” and therefore do not lose heart.
Unity is a wonderful goal. But let us make sure we prize it enough to be unwilling to settle for its counterfeits.
In Evergreen love, Pastor Tom
I know that many of us have participated in the exercise of making New Year’s resolutions. But I’m betting that some of us have also made “Christmas resolu- tions.” We may not have used that terminology, but if you’re like me, at least once in your life, you said to yourself or to your family “This Christmas is going to be different” and then laid out some ways you were determined to make that happen. Maybe you have pledged to make Christmas less hectic, or less stress- ful. Maybe you have decided to try and be more focused on the real meaning of the season. But whatever you decided to make Christmas better than previous Christmases, I would call that a “Christmas Resolution,” wouldn’t you?
Now, like many resolutions, our Christmas resolutions have no doubt met with varying degrees of success. For example, you might well have found that trying really hard to be less stressed can be, well, stressful. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for a richer, fuller experience of Christmas that many of us feel should be ignored. Christmas can and should be a time of truly meaningful worship, fel- lowship, and service. But that doesn’t just happen, especially if we go with the flow of the cultural, commercial, and even religious currents that will sweep us along in a direction that we don’t really want to go.
One step in keeping our Christmas resolutions is to make a point of being in wor- ship during the Advent season. It is part of the function of worship to keep our lives centered and focused, and to strengthen our individual and collective re- solve to faithfully follow Christ in all things. Some of that is accomplished simply by joining together in the countercultural experience of corporate worship. But the proclamation of a Word in due season can also go a long way to helping us stay on track.
The theme for Advent 2016 at FUMC will be “A Different Kind of Christmas,” dur- ing which I am hoping you will find encouragement and strategies for keeping your “Christmas resolutions” this year and in years to come, as well as some fresh ideas for keeping Christmas.
See you in church!
In Evergreen Love, Pastor Tom