Ordained Ministry: The First Decade

Laying on of hands. The moment of ordination.Today marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination. I remember the service as if it were yesterday. The afternoon started out sunny and bright. As the service got underway a mighty storm blew in. Nanette, her mom Jean, and my brother Alistair were sitting in the front pew. Liz Meyer Bolton preached the sermon, encouraging me to keep a scrapbook of the high points in ministry for surely, she said, I would need a reminder of what was good about ministry when the low points came. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed as I was presented to the church and took my vows. I knelt as the congregation laid its hands on me, the gravitas of the moment eluding description. Gifts were given. Newly ordained, I stood before the Lord’s Table and, as I raised my hands with the intent to proclaim the Words of Institution for the very first time, with perfect comedic timing a low rumble of thunder rolled over the church. The congregation laughed. I nervously hoped this was not an omen.

My first decade in ministry had its fair share of storms. Called to a ministry of reconciliation in conflicted congregations, I faced some formidable situations and personalities. Seemingly intractable inter-personal or organizational conflicts pushed my faith and learning to their feeblest limits. At times it felt I was preaching to the choir. At times stubborn devotion to perceptions of past glories and rigid obeisance to outdated structures and traditions seemed an impenetrable fortress. I was troubled by the limits so many imposed on their faith, happy to confine it to an hour of worship but not willing to fully extend it to attitudes and deeds “in the world.” The ad hominem attacks, when they came, were fierce and most often directed by those who had to be confronted about unhelpful behaviors. Speaking truth to power has its consequences.

Yet, on that Pentecost 10 years ago, when the service had ended and I was making my way to the reception, a friend rushed to get me. I had to see the rainbow. The sun had come out and, indeed, a beautifully distinct rainbow was painted against the departing storm front. God’s covenant with Noah came to mind, God’s promise that never again would vengeance outweigh love. And this is the truest metaphor for my first decade in ministry. No matter how tough things seemed, how challenging situations were, how many terrible things happened in the world, God’s unconditional love would always surface. It surfaced in the most unlikely of ways, through the most unlikely people, in spite of the most persnickety of moods. But surface it would – time and time again love would be revealed.

Faithfully striving and fervently praying for the heart of a servant leader helped me embody, at least to some faltering degree, the abundant love of God. Drawing on my upbringing, I sought to honor each and every person as a beloved child of the God I have come to know in Christ Jesus – the Holy One whom the scriptures declare to be Love. I’m sure somewhere along the way someone thought I was preaching about love a little too much. But love animates the scriptures, it brings to life in tangible ways God’s heart for peace and justice. Love undergirds the most elemental aspects of life in community. Love is at the heart of the Good News about God’s resurrecting power in Christ Jesus.

As I look back over my first 10 years in ministry, I am grateful for the transformation I have witnessed – in myself, in others, and in the organizations I have served. I am frustrated by my failures, but appreciate lessons learned. I marvel at the people I have served and with whom I have served. I am humbled by the trust so many placed in me simply by virtue of the fact that I am an ordained representative of the Church. The Apostle Paul’s words come to mind: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us this ministry of reconciliation….” (2 Corinthians 5:18)

Having further refined in the fires of conflict my understanding of my call to ministry as one of reconciliation, I am looking forward to starting the next 10 years at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where I will be working toward a PhD in Theology and Peace Studies. All of my professional experience to date – serving in the church, reporting on a nation in transition, and the study of conflict and peace – have brought me to this exciting juncture in my life. I look forward to the many doors this will open for me in academe, the church, and out in the world.

Onward!

Newly Ordained

Chrismation

A Wildly Inclusive Welcome

Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.

Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven

A Year On

The months have flown by since my last post. I elected not to write as the winds of change made their mark on the landscape of my soul.

In June last year I was called by First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, Connecticut, to become their Pastor and Teacher. It meant saying goodbye to the dear people of The Congregational Church of West Medford, where I had just entered my fifth year of ministry. What was in many respects a sad time gave rise to an opportunity to celebrate the progress the congregation had made, a capstone of which was a mission trip last August to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A testament to the faithfulness of the folks in West Medford, the congregation had been transformed during my pastorate among them into an outwardly focused, mission-driven church that sought in new and exciting ways to rise to the challenges of a new day. I hold them dearly in my prayers as I now minister at First Church in Farmington.

My ministry here is also one of peacebuilding and congregational transformation after years of tumult. Again I have been met by God’s grace every step of the way and am blessed by a community striving toward greater faithfulness and a true Christian identity. God has prepared me well for the challenges I face here and the congregation has offered an amazingly gracious welcome. The progress we’ve made in just a few months is enormous and I’m grateful for the ways God has blessed us.

After goodbyes, changes, and transitions, I am grateful to be able to echo the words of that great hymn written by Horatio Spafford: It is well with my soul! It is well, it is well, with my soul!

First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, CT
First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, CT

On Being Green

It was Kermit the Frog who once sang, “It’s not that easy being green.” I quite agree. The bright red stoles of Pentecost have been neatly folded away. The white and gold of the 50 days of Eastertide deserve good rest after adorning the sanctuary since replacing the dark shadows of the Paschal Triduum. The purples that guided our imaginations in Lent won’t be seen again until the first Sunday of Advent.

Liturgically we’re on the cusp of the long season after Pentecost known as Ordinary Time. It’s the second and longest period of Ordinary Time in the church year. The stoles on the lectern or draped over the preacher’s shoulders will be green for the 24 weeks that follow the white of this week’s Trinity Sunday service. It’s a long season that encompasses the bright greens of June, the lush dog days of summer, the first cool nights, and the glorious tapestry of fall. It can seem like a long, unexciting season for those of us who don’t celebrate minor feasts for saints or other commemorations. Ordinary Time can come to seem a little, well, ordinary. Yet it is in the ordinary where the extraordinary can come to light.

Kermit reminds us that while it’s not that easy being green, “Green’s the color of spring, and green can be cool and friendly-like, and green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder? I’m green. And it will do fine. It’s beautiful.”

Joan Chittister frames the essence of Ordinary Time this way: “Like an echo off a mountain that ripples and repeats itself down the valleys of life, the Sundays of Ordinary Time stand as a stark and repeating reminder of the center of the faith. Each Sunday, remember, is a feast, a little Easter, in its own right. Unencumbered by the overlay of any other feast, they carry within themselves, stark and unadorned, the essence of the Lord’s Day. Each of them is Easter, a return to the core of the faith, the center of the church, the call of the Christian community that ‘Jesus is risen.'” (The Liturgical Year, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, p 185.)

Imagine what the church will become if we used Ordinary Time as an opportunity to return to the core of the faith, to get back to the basics of what we have come to believe. Imagine how much more meaningful Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany will be. Imagine what Lent, Easter, and Pentecost will come to mean. Imagine, if you dare, how your life will be transformed when you more fully live the commitment that Christ is risen.

So let’s heed the wisdom of Kermit and Chittister and live into what’s special about being green. Let’s celebrate Ordinary Time in a way that opens our hearts and minds to the extraordinary presence of God in the world. What a tremendous gift Ordinary Time promises to be!

Spiritual Refreshment on the Internet

Doing as much work in front of my computer as I do, I find it helpful at times to go to places on the web where I can find refreshment and renewal. Rather than frequent pilgrimages to news sites where the hype of “breaking news” is overdone, I find the sites offered below help me gain perspective and inspiration. They often lead to a reflective walk around the sanctuary or through the neighborhood.

One of the first places I like to go is The Painted Prayerbook, where United Methodist minister and artist Jan Richardson brings together writing, art, and faith in a way that leads to deep reflection and prayer. I am astounded by the volume and depth of the work she does.

The United Church of Christ’s daily devotionals can be received by email or accessed on the denomination’s website (you’ll need to scroll down and select the reading for the day when accessing online). True to the identity of the UCC, these reflections are inclusive and seek to respond to real-world concerns and questions.

Contemplative Outreach, according to its vision statement, “is a community of individuals and Centering Prayer groups committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in everyday life.” Father Thomas Keating, a guru of centering prayer, is one of the founding members. The articles, videos, and newsletters under the resources tab provide helpful reminders and practical advice about the practice of contemplative prayer.

Finally, for now, as a preacher I enjoy visiting WorkingPreacher, where scholars comment on the texts prescribed for the week’s lectionary. I believe anyone who wants to engage the Bible can gain much out of the insights offered by a range of commentators. In find the work of David Lose particularly insightful and very much enjoy his “voice.”

The Daily Office … Online!

I’m back and apologize for not posting another round of spiritual practices last week. Much of my time was occupied with grief and crisis counseling, planning and conducting two funeral services, along with tending to my flock and usual duties. I find it is especially at times like this that it’s important to have spiritual practices and resources on which to draw.

So today (and for the rest of the week) I thought I’d offer some online resources that I turn to for inspiration.

The most logical place to start is wit the daily office. My two favorite sites for this are Mission St. Clare and Oremus. I especially love the focus on the Psalms, on which I like to prayerfully dwell (meditate) each day. In both the morning and evening offices one meanders through prayers, scriptures, hymns, and moments of acclamation. I especially enjoy the scripted prayers, many of which have been prayed over thousands of years.

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect about praying the daily office is that thousands of people from around the globe are participating in one way or another, albeit at different places and times. My heart sings with the monks at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham and Weston Priory in Weston, Vermont, each time I read the office. In their communities I’ve found peace and quiet on retreat, a feeling I carry with me even sitting in front of my computer or iPad. Mission St. Clare has an awesome app!

I’ll end there for today. Check back later in the week for some lectionary resources as well as other awesome sites for contemplation.

Lectio Divina: Part 2

We met in a small room off the sanctuary before worship one Sunday afternoon. I was facilitating group lectio divina for the first time and of my six companions five had only recently returned to church after many years away. One of the beautiful things about the aptly named Hope Church, a church start in Boston, was that it attracted seekers from a broad spectrum of society, including many who had been rejected and alienated by churches because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.

I did not know it at the time, but of the six present four did not even own a Bible. That was about to change. Over the course of the next 45 minutes of praying the text together the rich tapestry of the scriptures came into focus. The insights each participant brought transformed our perception of the Bible from a single dimension (dominated by a few who claimed the authority to rightly interpret it) into a multidimensional reality where God is still speaking. The experience enriched not only our study that day, but our relationships with each other to this day.

The method I used I first encountered at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC. I was told the method originated in South Africa, which I found intriguing for obvious reasons.

Here’s the process:

Select a text. Then find three different versions (translations) of the text, which is easy to do at BibleGateway. Have a copy of each available.

Gather a group. From my experience in Bible studies and committee settings, I’d limit the group to 8. Any larger and it would be wise to split into two or more groups.

Ask for three volunteers to the scripture and hand them each the version they will read. (At this point it’s wise to summarize the process for the participants so that they know what to expect. Assure the group you’ll guide it every step of the way.)

Open in prayer:
You can ask for openness, reverence, a listening heart, the kind of silence into which another voice may speak. Then leave space for silence.

First reading of the text:
Before the first reader begins, ask the participants to listen for a word or phrase that stands out to them.
After the reading, encourage them to share, as they’re comfortable, the word or phrase that stood oout. Ask them just to mention the word or phrase (we’re not looking for explanations). When the sharing has ended, leave space for silence.

Second reading of the text:
Before the reader begins, ask the participants to listen for the way this text intersects with their lives. After the reading, encourage the participants to share, as they’re comfortable, this insight. Once again, we’re not looking for explanations. When the sharing has ended, leave space for silence.

Third reading of the text:
Before the reader begins, ask the participants to listen for what they believe, through this scripture, God is calling them to do. After the reading, again encourage participants to share this insight.

Close in Prayer:
After a few moments of silence close in prayer. At First Church we each prayed for the person sitting to our left and concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.

Debrief:
You can ask participants what surprised them, what they learned from the process, and how they might practice it in their lives going forward.

Lectio Divina: Part I

In my personal prayer life, I find lectio divina an effective practice for quieting down, focusing, and reaching a more contemplative place in my prayers.  It’s often difficult for many of us to carve out the time to intentionally pray, let alone pray deeply to the point where we can rest in the arms of the Divine. Yet these days of Lent provide us a great opportunity to begin making time to pray.

From personal experience lectio divina is one of the most accessible of the spiritual disciplines. All you need is a block of private quiet time, a Bible, and the desire to engage the Word of God in a slow, purposeful, and ultimately contemplative way. One of the most ancient Christian practices, once widely used, lectio divina empowers one to cultivate deep listening, or “listening with the ear of our hearts,” as St. Benedict said in his Rule.

Lectio can also be a communal prayer activity that can greatly enrich those burdensome church committee meetings or even one’s time together as a family, but I’ll get there tomorrow. For today I’ll offer a brief description of individual lectio divina:

Find a passage of scripture that resonates with you or perhaps one of the texts prescribed for the week in the Revised Common Lectionary. Take notice of the parameters of the text, where it begins and where it ends.

Then take a few moments to prayerfully quiet yourself and to open yourself to the word God has in store for you. It’s useful to breathe deeply and ensure that you’re sitting comfortably yet attentively.

Then begin reading. This is not speed reading, the kind we’re used to in practically ever other setting of our lives. Rather it is slow, reverential, deliberate reading. One might even call it meditative reading.

As you’re reading notice what word or phrase starts to resonate with you.

Read through the text a second or third time, keeping your pace slow and deliberate and being attentive to that word or phrase. Memorize it. Hold on to it and then begin to prayerfully ponder it in your heart.

When your thoughts begin to wander, come back to that word and simply rest with it. Let it become a focal point for you, drawing you more deeply into your prayer, into communion with God. Think of this communion with the Divine, this contemplative place, in the words of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
Be