Donald Trump and the Gratitude Gap

The realization came to me while watching the “Mothers of the Movement” speaking at the Democratic National Convention. These mothers of children who had died too young and too violently, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and more, had come to Philadelphia to speak. Sandra Bland’s mom was leading them off with words of faith and grace.

And that’s when I thought about Donald Trump’s speech at his own convention last week, and about the overarching message of fear, intolerance, and negativity that has come to define his campaign. I thought about his calls to “make America great again” and the implied message there that this country is not great, and about how he said that only he alone could fix it.

What a contrast to these women on the stage, mothers who have suffered the deepest of losses, who were expressing gratitude to God and hope for their country.

That’s when I realized what has made me most wary of Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.  Never have I heard him express any gratitude for anyone other than himself, and his immediate family. None for God’s grace, none for this country, and none for other people.

Donald Trump is a man who has just about everything he could ever want. Born into wealth, the breaks have always gone his way. Even when he has failed tremendously, he has walked away none-the-worse for it. He has had every privilege, and every advantage of a well-born American.

And yet, he believes only he is responsible for his greatness.

That should not have been surprising to me. This is a man who, despite his professed Christian faith, when asked about whether he ever seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins stated, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Donald Trump’s faith is his own, and only he and God know its depth, but as a Christian that is stunning to me. My own understanding of Christian faith is rooted in the fact that we are God’s beloved children, and yet time and again we mess up. The good news is that God acts through Christ to forgive us, turn our hearts back around, and set us back on the right path.

This is called grace.

picmonkey_imageI also believe that the only proper response to grace is gratitude. The only way we can possibly begin to say thank you to God is by living lives that reflect that gratitude. And so, we seek to love others and to make this world better for all not because we are great, but because God is great.

But if you have never acknowledged that it is God’s greatness, and not your own, that is amazing, then of course you will not be grateful. If you believe every good thing in your life has come to you because you are special and talented, and that grace has played no part in it, then how could you be?

You’ve never been repentant. You’ve never known what it is to be aware of your own failings. You’ve never understood that only God alone can fix it.

That’s when we fall into the most damaging of spiritual conditions: staggering narcissism, unquestioned entitlement, and belief in our own ability to do it alone.

Those are spiritually dangerous places for all of us, but they are even more destructive when they exist in those who would be leaders. The ungrateful leader is not aware of their ability to be wrong. They lack the wisdom that grace brings, and the sense of purpose that is tied to gratitude. They approach their work not with the humility that it demands, but with a cocky self-satisfaction that has the power to destroy those they lead.

There is a saying that those of us who are in recovery from addiction often repeat: a grateful heart will never drink. That means that a person who wants to stay sober must be aware of the grace they have received, live with real gratitude, and always give thanks to God for what has been done for them.

For one who seeks a position of leadership, that saying might read something like this: A grateful heart will never take for granted those whom I serve.

This country needs leaders who know that they have received God’s good grace. We need the launch codes to be in the hands of someone who is humble and wise. We need budgets that are written by just and merciful people. We need leaders who can speak with kindness and strength in the same voice.

We need leaders who live lives of gratitude.

I cannot tell you how to vote come November. That is your choice. But I can say that where there is gratitude there is neither intolerance nor mockery, fear nor exclusion, rage nor violence, grandiosity nor idolatry. Gratitude leaves no room for those things.

Note: All opinions on this blog reflect only my own thoughts as a private citizen, and not those of the institutions which I serve. 

Through the Fire: A Sermon on the Book of Daniel, November 8, 2015

Daniel 3:19-27

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, 20 and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. 21 So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. 22 Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[f] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.

At the risk of offending our science teachers in the congregation, I was never a good chemistry student. I struggled with the class. For some reason the formulas with the chemical reactions never made sense to me. And the experiments we did in the lab I just never got exactly right. They would work for my lab partner, but they never ended up working for me.

But I remember one thing I learned in the labs. There were these little tiny white porcelain cups that we used to heat things up in experiments. You would put the elements into them, and hold them over the bunsen burner with tongs. And it never seemed like they should be able to withstand the heat, but they always did. Even when whatever was inside of them changed or evaporated, they remained unbroken.

They were called “crucibles”. And they seemed to be able to withstand the hottest of flames.

I think about those crucibles when I read the book of Daniel, and particularly today’s passage. Daniel and his friends had been plucked out of an occupied Jerusalem and taken to Babylon, the home of their occupiers. And in Babylon they are being taught about a culture that is not their own. More than that, they are being taught to reject where they came from. But Daniel and his friends resist; in fact they refuse to even eat the food of the oppressor.

So, as you can imagine, Daniel and his friends sort of developed a reputation as troublemakers. And they go back and forth with the King, Nebuchadnezzar, who can’t decide if he believes in their God or not. And this all comes to a head when Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow down and worship a statue of the king, because to do so would be blasphemous for them. And so the king becomes so angry that he throws those three friends friends, Shadrack, Meschach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace.

So, that should be the end of them, right? You get thrown into a fire that hot, and you are not going to make it out.

Daniel's friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Daniel’s friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

But when the king looks into the furnace the men are fine. They are walking around in the midst of the flames, and they are untouched by it. And a fourth person is walking with them, and Scripture tells us that he looked “like the Son of God”. And so, the king has the men pulled out of the fire. Alive. And even the king changes his mind, and stops forcing them to worship other gods.

So, it’s a great story. But what does it mean for us? I mean, if one of us ever got thrown into a furnace, I think we’d pretty much be toast. But, maybe the truth of this story doesn’t come from the literal, fiery details, but from an even more powerful truth.

Because the reality is that I think each of us has had to walk through a fire at one time or another. And many of us have nearly been destroyed by the flames.

That’s true for me. Some of you know that a little over a week ago I sat on one of the We the People panel discussions on the addiction crisis in our area. And you know that I told my own story, one of a recovering alcoholic.

When I was in my late teens and into my 20’s I drank a little. And then I drank a little more. And then I drank a lot. But I was lucky. I had friends and mentors who loved me enough to tell me I needed to stop, and who helped me to get into recovery, and to get sober.

Because of that, the days I didn’t have a drink turned into months. And the months turned into years. And today, the idea of a drink holds no appeal for me.

But those first days and weeks? That was hard. And those times of having to look inward and face the things that drinking made easier? That was even harder. It was as though I spent each day walking through the flames. But I kept walking, surrounded by others, and the flames never consumed me.

When I became a pastor, people told me not to tell anyone this story. “You’ll never be called anywhere,” they said. “People will think less of you.” “It will make people feel uncomfortable.”

But for me, I knew I couldn’t help but tell this story. I don’t tell it to draw attention to myself or my past, but instead to say, “look, I know what it is like to walk through the flames…and I know what it’s like to survive.”

I’ve always been open about my sobriety because recovery is the best evidence I have in my life that God’s grace is real. Why would I ever try to hide that?

And yet, too often we who are Christians hide our struggles. And the trouble with that is we also hide our victories. And sometimes there are people all around us who need to see those victories, and who need someone who has been through the same thing to walk with them through the flames.

One of my favorite TV shows of all times is West Wing. And one of my favorite characters is the president’s chief of staff, a recovering alcoholic and addict named Leo. In one episode when another staffer deals with post traumatic stress disorder he hides it from the others because he is worried it will threaten his career. But Leo sees what is happening, and gets him help. And he tells him this story:

“This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

And then Leo says:

“Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?”
Sometimes in the church we worry that if we are honest about our lives, and if we are honest with our struggles, we will not be accepted any longer. For some reason we’ve come to believe that church people are perfect, and holy, and sinless. But that’s just not true, and it never has been. Because church is not about dressing up, and looking holy one hour a week. Church is for people who need God’s grace the most. People like me. And people like you.

Or, to put it another way, “long as I got a church, you got a church.”

At the beginning I was talking about chemistry class, and that tool we called the crucible. It was the container that could literally survive the fires that would destroy anything else.

When the king looked into the furnace he saw a third figure walking with the three friends. There was someone there with them in the midst of their fear, and certain destruction. There was someone there who could help them to survive the crucible that they had been cast into. And I truly believe that was some manifestation of God, walking alongside them in their greatest trials. Standing in the midst of the crucible with them.

We understand crucibles not just as physical objects, but also as experiences which push us to our brink, and transform us. And, while we would never willingly choose them, and while we do not deserve them, they can transform us in powerful ways. But it depends who is with us in those flames.

The comedian Stephen Colbert gave an interview recently where he talked about his faith. And he talked about how his father and brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was young. And he recalled the way his mother’s faith, a faith that never once denied the pain and tragedy, had sustained him in the years to come. He said, “by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. But bitter, no.”

Hemingway said the world breaks us all, but some become “strong at the broken places”. He was right. But the best strength, the best repair I know, comes from our faith. And that is especially true when we have others beside us who walk through the same flames, who fall in the same holes, and who rise again like Phoenixes from the more hopeless of places and who show us how to do the same.

That’s what church is all about. It’s about the worst the world can do to us. And it’s about our resurrections. It’s about emerging from the crucible, and thriving. I think there’s a lot of poetic resonance in the fact that the very word “crucible” comes from the Latin word “crux”. Or, translated, “cross”. And who better to guide us through the flames than the one who overcame the cross, and the community he has called to be his body?

We will all walk through the flames. We will all face crucibles that will threaten to destroy us. We will all have pain. But because we are the church, we will always have a place to go, filled with people who have been here before.

So, tell your stories. Tell about the times God has lifted you up. Tell of the saints who have walked with you on the way. And walk through the flames, knowing that they will not consume you, and that, indeed, you can thrive. Amen.

Privacy, Secrecy, Transparency and the Church

Let’s talk about the difference between privacy and secrecy. But before we do, let me say that this post is not inspired by any one recent event. It is, however, inspired by a number of recent events in the larger mainline and progressive spheres of the church over the past six months or so, all of which have caused me to clarify my thinking on the difference between the two. Here’s how I understand them: privacy is about keeping things that are personal, but not harmful to others, confidential. For instance:

A person’s personal finances are private.

A person’s sex life is private.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless they wish to share them with others.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private.

Secrecy, however, is different. Because secrecy has to do not with confidentiality, but with concealment. And when the church tries to conceal something, it’s usually people with little-to-no power who pay. Let’s take those examples from above and see how they can become secrets:

A person’s personal finances are private, and we aren’t going to ask why the church books aren’t adding up.

A person’s sex life is private, so I’m not going to say anything about the fact the pastor is sleeping with someone they are counseling.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others, so you are going to need to stay closeted to work in this ministry.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private, so someone’s addiction should be too, and none of us are going to tell Bob that he needs help because he is drinking too much.

IMG_4707Here’s the issue for the church: we often can’t tell the difference. I am all for privacy. I’m a big fan of it. But I’m not a fan of secrecy because it tends to breed more dysfunction. Secrecy is about covering up what is harmful. And so, it’s little wonder that we have a saying in the recovery community: you’re as sick as your secrets. That applies to being the church together too. When we mix up privacy and secrecy we end up creating the perfect atmosphere for people to get hurt. Our job, then, is to challenge secrecy. That might look something like this:

A person’s personal finances are private BUT the church’s financials are not.

A person’s sex life is private BUT if you are having sex with someone who is underaged, unable to consent, or with whom you have a pastoral relationship, that is not.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others BUT if you are telling others to remain in the closet for the “greater good” that is not.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private BUT your unchecked addiction and the destruction it caused is not.

Jesus told us “the truth will set you free”. I believe that. And we, the church, are supposed to be the ones who do this whole Jesus thing better than anyone else. So why, when there’s a public crisis in the church, do we revert back to secrecy and call it privacy? Why do we hint to others “if you knew what I knew, you would feel differently”? Why do we cover up, refuse to challenge, or look the other way in the belief that “it’s not my business”? Why do we enable addiction? Why do we push obviously wounded leaders back into the public arena before they have a chance to get well? In short, why do we fail to accept the freedom the truth can bring? And, what if we church leaders changed the discussion? What if our greatest concern had to do not with protecting secrets but with transparency? Let’s take the same examples from above:

A person’s personal finances are private BUT the church’s financials are not AND SO this church is going to have an open-book policy when it comes to our joint accounts.

A person’s sex life is private BUT if you are having sex with someone who is underaged, unable to consent, or with whom you have a pastoral relationship, that is not AND SO this church will neither tolerate nor shelter clergy who break these covenants.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others BUT if you are telling others to remain in the closet for the “greater good” that is not AND SO this church will allow clergy to live openly as the beloved children of God that they are.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private BUT your unchecked addiction and the destruction it caused is not AND SO this church will encourage discussion about addiction and provide support to those wishing to be in recovery.

Transparency takes the conversation one step further. It’s not just exposing secrets. It’s changing the way we respond so that the whole church benefits. It does not violate the privacy of individuals, but it also does not allow for the destructive actions of individuals to continue unchecked.

So what happens when it becomes clear that something that has been kept/is being kept secret is hurting the larger body? That’s the tricky part. Each church or denomination has different accountability structures, and so each process will look a little different. But here are some things that should not happen:

– Don’t absolve the system too quickly. What was known? What did others in positions of power avert their eyes from rather than address? How did the system allow harmful behavior to continue.

– Don’t undermine the credibility of someone seeking answers, or try to silence them. Don’t orchestrate smear campaigns against them, either overt or by whispers.

– Don’t accuse those who are trying to tell the truth or ask hard questions of gossiping. Those aren’t the same things. Do not misuse Scripture to silence conversations that need to happen.

– Don’t violate someone else’s privacy in retribution. Even if you think they are the worst people in the world (which they’re not) don’t share private/covenanted information out of spite.

– Don’t create an atmosphere that will make it hard for someone with a similar problem to come forward either for fear that they will not be taken seriously or fear that they will be scapegoated for the actions of another (for instance, all clergy recovering from addiction being punished for the actions of a clergy member who was never in recovery from their addiction).

But here are some things that can help:

– Do welcome outside perspectives and the fresh eyes of those who are impartial and wise. They will be able to see things that others cannot. Their observations may be painful at times, but they may also be vital.

– Do admit that you might not have all of the story (even if you are really, really sure you do) and therefore may have misjudged things.

– Do encourage dialogue on the larger issues that come up, and provide spaces to talk about them.

– Do ask, “What can the larger church learn from this, and what can we do better in the future?”

– Do pray for all involved.

I don’t profess to have comprehensive answers on any of this, but I do believe these are critical distinctions. What would you add?

Addiction, Recovery, and the Church: Coming this summer to Star Island

I’m excited to share that this summer I am going to be the Speaker of the Week for the United Church of Christ gathering on Star Island. I’ll be speaking on addiction, and what 12 Step recovery communities can teach the church about spirituality, ministry and life together. The conference will be held from Saturday, August 1st to Saturday, August 8th on the island.

IMG_3288If you’ve never been to Star Island, you are missing out on an amazing place. The island is a part of the Isle of Shoals, a group of small islands off the coast of New Hampshire, and stranding the line with Maine. Star is independently owned by a corporation of United Church of Christ and Unitarian-Universalist individuals, and is a non-profit organization. It is a strikingly beautiful place, and the community that gathers is warm, inclusive, and welcoming.

Discussions about addiction and recovery have taken on new importance in faith communities, across denominational lines. Come and learn more about how recovery principles can inform, and complement, the life of the church.

Learn more here: http://starisland.org/conferences/2015-conference-listing/star-gathering-1-ucc-family/

On Bishop Heather Cook, Sobriety, and Who is Qualified to be Clergy

A few people have asked me, as a clergy person openly in longterm recovery, what my thoughts are on whether Bishop Heather Cook, the Episcopal bishop in Maryland who struck and killed a bicyclist and who had a history of driving under the influence, should have been serving as a bishop. Here are my thoughts.

First of all, the person we should be remembering, and whose family we should be lifting up in prayer, is Thomas Palermo, the man who was struck and killed by Bishop Cook, and then left to die in the roadway. Mr. Palermo and his family, including his children, should be our first concern as the church. In fact, if you would like to make a donation to his children’s education fund, here is the link: http://www.youcaring.com/tuition-fundraiser/children-of-tom-palermo/283939#.VKQf_XwNgGw.facebook

But to turn to Bishop Cook, and the discussion of clergy and alcoholism, this is what I can say. In the aftermath of Bishop Cook’s actions, I have seen a number of posts on social media debating whether or not a person with substance abuse issues should have been elevated to bishop. In my mind, most have lacked nuance. Several things need to be taken into account.

Untitled copyFirst, there are many clergy persons in recovery from addictions. Second, there are many more who should be in recovery. Third, I don’t know to which group Bishop Cook belonged.

That said, her 2010 DUI charges were particularly disturbing. Many of us in recovery never drove drunk, but the facts of her prior case seem to indicate that substance abuse was indeed a problem. My hope is that when she was charged she saw the need to get sober. My other hope is that the Episcopal Church supported her in that endeavor.

But as far as her consecration as bishop, a very short period of time had elapsed between her DUI incident and her elevation. If she was sober, she was still in “early sobriety” and taking on a position like this, with higher stress and demands on time, would have likely been discouraged. And, if she relapsed, as now seems likely, it was on her to step back and say “I need to focus on getting healthy.” But Bishop Cook alone is not at fault. Church communities are often too quick to push those who have had major falls back into the spotlight. They are not doing the one who is recovering any favors by pushing a false rhetoric of “forgiveness” or “grace”. Sometimes grace means saying “you need to work on yourself for a while”.

With Bishop Cook too many questions are unanswered, and too little time had elapsed since her “rock bottom” of a few years ago. Something went wrong, and she found an even lower “rock bottom”, and this time a man is dead, not because she was in recovery but because of her own choices. Add to that the fact that this was a hit and run, and Bishop Cook took no responsibility for her actions until she was chased down, and it is clear that her behavior is exactly the opposite of what we are taught in recovery, regardless of whether or not she was drinking when she hit Mr. Palermo.

The question for me is not “should a person in sustained, active recovery be elevated to a position of leadership” but instead “should Heather Cook been elevated”? Because what we don’t need in the discussion of Heather Cook’s actions is a knee-jerk response that people in recovery shouldn’t be in leadership positions anyway. That will only add more reasons for people to hide when they are struggling. And I know plenty of clergy who are struggling, and who fear the reaction of the church and their parishioners should they seek help. In the end, if they do not get sober, they will cause far greater harm than if they continue to carry on as functional alcoholics.

In the recovery community we have a saying: “you’re as sick as your secrets”. I believe that’s true. And I believe that the church is sick when it makes people who need treatment hide out of fear for their professional lives. This is what happens when we don’t encourage honest discussions around alcohol and addiction within clergy circles. We need to be able to talk about it, and to encourage recovery.

In the end this will not just benefit clergy, but the entire church as well. As I have written elsewhere, our inability to talk about our imperfections as clergy has only been a detriment to the church. We have somehow communicated the idea that Christians must be people of perfection, and not people of grace.

That’s too bad, because when the day is done, I think that people with long-term sustained sobriety actually are assets to the ministry. Staying sober requires a sort of spiritual journey and honesty that can only help clergy. I would not hesitate to elevate a person with sustained recovery to a position of leadership.

And in the end, a story of recovery is a story of grace, and a story of the healing power of God’s love for us all. This is the story the church should be telling, because it is a Gospel story. I long for the days when our clergy’s stories of recovery are celebrated, and our stories of tragedy and destruction are avoided. This is possible. But it’s going to take a huge cultural change in the way we talk about recovery and addiction in the church.

The good news is that, like Jesus said, the truth can set us free.

Falling: Recovery, Silence, and the Church

Untitled copyTwice in my life I have competed in contact sports. After a childhood spent envying the boys on my block who could play on the football team, I joined my college’s rugby team. It was a club sport at my school, more adventure than varsity, but it was one of the few places I had found where women could play a rough-and-tumble game without others trying to protect us. After college I found my way to the local judo dojo where that same truth held. There on the mat we sparred together, a mix of genders and abilities, starting standing face-to-face and ending with throws and pins to the floor.

What struck me about both sports was what I learned at my very first practice. My first night on the rugby pitch I learned how to throw a tackle. But, more importantly, I learned how to be tackled. A friend of mine knelt down on the field and, as I ran at them, threw a perfect tackle just above my knees. I soared over their shoulder and hit the ground safely. We did this again and again that night until being tackled was second nature.

My first night in the dojo was similar. Before I was allowed anywhere near the other students, I spent an evening sitting on the mat and practicing falling backwards. Each time I fell backwards I would strike the mat with one arm to absorb the blow. Once I mastered the art of falling down from a sitting position, I fell backwards from a standing position. That first night I thought judo must be the most boring athletic endeavor ever, but after I was thrown to the mat the few times I realized the point.

With both sports the idea was this: you’re going to fall. You’d might as well learn how to fall safely, with minimal injury, so that you can stand back up.

So what does this have to do with the church? At first glance maybe not that much. But last week I found myself lying face up in our village market’s parking lot thinking otherwise. I’d slipped on a patch of Vermont black ice while carrying a bag of groceries, but as soon as I had felt myself lose balance I immediately, instinctively, did what I had learned in the dojo: I fell back, didn’t panic, and tried to distribute the impact as broadly as possible. In the end the only thing injured was my pride. I stood back up, picked up the groceries, and drove home unscathed.

And that’s when I started to think about the church. Recently a clergy friend told me that he had been advised by older clergy mentors to hide the fact that he is in recovery from addiction. I immediate felt sad about that. This is a person with sustained sobriety, and an incredible story of recovery. His testimony could be a powerful witness to God’s healing, as well as one of hope to those “still sick and suffering”. But his congregation might never hear it.

My friend had been told that clergy shouldn’t show weakness. They shouldn’t admit to perceived failures. They should allow those around them to live under the impression that, no matter what is going on, everything is fine. And, while I do believe clergy need to be careful not to overshare our personal lives or to preach our own stories more than the Gospel, I believe this is the attitude that not only contributes to clergy burn-out but hurts our whole church.

The reality for all of us is this: we fall short, we mess up, we lose our traction, and end up on the ground. In short, we live life. Clergy and lay together. But often we don’t talk about that in church. Instead we bring ourselves to worship in our Sunday best and hide the truth that sometimes things just aren’t that great.

It’s no surprise. For too long we’ve been taught to do just that. We clergy have taught, often by our own example, that appearances are more important than honesty. We’ve taught that appropriate vulnerability is career suicide. We’ve taught that falling down defines us no matter whether or not we get back up. And, inadvertently, we’ve taught a sanitized, powerless Gospel.

Somehow we have taught that Christians are people of perfection, and not people of redemption.

This past year, as the Boston mayoral race heated up, eventual winner Marty Walsh ran television ads that briefly mentioned his recovery from alcoholism. I watched the ads and thought, “that’s brilliant”. He, as Robert Kennedy used to say, hung a lantern on his biggest problem, the thing that might have come out in sneaky attack ads and bombed his candidacy. Instead, his recovery became a part of his story. It showed that he knew how to get back up and rebuild.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

In my ministry I’ve never hidden the fact that I am in recovery. I’m blessed to be able to say that because of that I’ve been able to be a first call for parishioners and non-parishioners alike when they finally hit rock bottom. But I’ve also never talked about it in my writing all that much.

This Sunday marks another year of sobriety, one day at a time, for me. It doesn’t matter how many years, but I can say that it’s far more than a much younger me ever thought I could string together the first time I admitted I needed help. I give thanks every day that I got it.

I also give thanks for the ones who I’ve met in recovery who have taught me that falling down in life is as inevitable as falling on the rugby pitch or in the judo dojo. Most have had much more dramatic and devastating falls than my own. Most have made far more dramatic and inspiring recoveries. And, though they may not have realized it, and though most have never stepped into a pulpit, they have preached the Gospel to me in the most powerful ways I have ever heard it.

I only wish that those of us who did occupy the pulpits could preach the Gospel of redemption with such power and transparency and strength.

But then again, maybe we can.

New Year, Old Me: Five Things I’m Going to Keep Doing in 2014

528599_10151161854801787_1430087781_nIt’s that time of the year when every website, magazine, and Twitter feed is selling January 1st-dated potential. Headlines like “New Year, New You” or “Ten Ways to Lose Weight/Get Rich/Find Love/Be the Best Person Ever in 2014”. And, hey, if that kind of inspiration works for you, more power to you. Go with it. May 2014 be your best year ever.

The only thing is, New Years Day, and the companion resolution-making process, has never been all that exciting to me. If anything, it’s always a little depressing. I have made resolutions but, truth be told, I’ve never really felt all that motivated to keep them. I used to think that was a character flaw. Now I just think that maybe resolutions tied to the date of January 1st just aren’t right for me.

I grew up in the South surrounded by Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God and other churches that emphasized the need for having some sort of big religious experience where you turned your life immediately over to God. The only thing is, that never happened to me. My extended family was mostly Catholic and Presbyterian, and those aren’t exactly the sort of traditions where blinding light conversion stories take center stage.

Instead my coming to faith, like most things in my life, was a gradual process. I didn’t become a Christian by “making a decision for Christ”. I became one because gradually I was drawn by the story of Christ and I wanted to live my life following him. I can’t tell you the date that happened, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t January 1st. It wasn’t any one day.

Really, no significant change has ever happened in my life because I have set a date for it to happen. I fell in love gradually and unexpectedly. I got sober because gradually I realized I had to do it. And one day in college I decided to trade my law school applications in for seminary ones, not because that day was special, but because it had just come to the point that I knew that was what I needed to do.

The thing about God’s grace, and the changes that it causes us to make, is that it rarely comes on our own schedules, and my guess is that it even less rarely comes on a date that has rather arbitrarily, at this place and this time in the whole of history, come to be the start of a new year. So my guess is that if something big happens in my life this year, it will come because of God’s grace, and it will come on some random unexpected time, and maybe all at once, or maybe little by slow.

So, this year I’m not making resolutions. I’ve decided I don’t want a “new year, new me”. Really, it’s taken a lifetime to get to this “me”, and I’m pretty happy with who I am, and all the little graces that have made me me. My hope is next year at this time I’ll be pretty happy to be me too.

So, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to list five things that I randomly started doing at some point this year that I’ve decided to keep doing. They’ve made my year better. My only hope is that 2014 will add to this list. Either way, I think it’s going to be a good year. Here they are:

1. Writing more notes and cards with my favorite pen. I’ve used fountain pens for years. I have this one that’s not a big, expensive, fancy one. It’s just a solid, black, medium nibbed fountain pen that feels heavy in my hand and puts ink down perfectly on paper. I’ve used it a lot this year. I’ve written more cards and notes to people I care about, and while I hope they have brought them joy, I have to admit that writing them has probably brought just as much joy to me. I’m going to do more of that this year.

2. Reading less theology and church leadership books, and more fiction. I have a college degree in religion, a Master of Divinity, and a second masters in systematic theology, along with half a PhD in theology and psychology. I’ve read a lot of theology, and a lot of church leadership books. This year I stopped doing that. I switched to fiction. I read “Great Expectations”. I re-read “Dubliners”. I kept a pile of the novels I had always wanted to read on my bedside table. And, honestly? I think I’m a better pastor for it. Plus, I don’t feel guilty for not reading every new church book that comes along. A win all the way around.

3. Letting fewer people live in my head rent-free. There’s an old recovery saying: Don’t let people live in your head rent-free. In other words, the world is filled with people who can’t stand the success of others, can’t control their temper, can’t see past prejudices, or can’t be positive. We still have to love them, but we don’t have to let their toxicity get into our head. Those folks don’t deserve energy you could be better spending on others. This year I learned a lot about how to not attend every argument to which I’m invited. Sometimes walking away, saying a prayer for the other, and then shaking the dust from your feet, is the most grace-filled and Christian thing one can do. I highly recommend it.

4. Valuing what I produce over the amount of time spent working. My first year pastoring I worked an unsustainable amount of hours. Sometimes ten hours a day without a day off. I got a lot done, but I still went to bed each night with a hefty to-do list. I’ve been gradually changing my work/life balance over the past few years. Now I take my sabbath day fully, turn off the phone for dinner with my wife, and go to bed at a decent hour. Now I work significantly fewer hours but, surprisingly, I’ve found I’m able to get more done. Even better, I’ve found that the quality of what I do, from sermons to pastoral care to writing, has gotten better. It’s been a great change.

5. Reading Scripture: Like many pastors, I have at times found myself getting away from the very spiritual practices that first drew me to consider ministry. With a busy schedule prayer time has felt like a luxury. Or, retreats have felt too inconvenient. One thing that had been getting away from me was Scripture reading. This year I changed that by making a commitment to read three chapters of Scripture a day; for me, a very manageable amount. And as I’ve re-introduced myself to Scripture, I’ve found myself falling in love with that complex, beautiful, and sometimes baffling collection all over again. It has deepened my faith walk, and it’s a habit I’m glad I developed this year.

So, those are my five. What are yours? How will the “old you” make 2014 even better?

Water, Wine, and the Places that Need Filling: Sermon for January 20, 2013

We really should have listened...

We really should have listened…

Recently I’ve had occasion to think a lot about wedding receptions. We had a fairly small wedding, family and closest friends only, but that doesn’t mean that planning a reception was easy. You find a caterer, you negotiate a price, you pick a menu, and you stress out about whether or not there will be enough food.

When it came time to get our wedding cake, multiple friends gave us the same advice. They told us that we would be tempted, pressured even, to order a cake that the bakery said was big enough for every person at the reception to get a full piece. Our friends all told us to only order half of that. They said most people only ate about half a slice anyway, and others didn’t have cake at all, so a smaller cake always turned out to be plenty.

We were convinced they were wrong. We knew that as soon as we did that, there would be a massive run on cake that would end with half our guests getting none. And so, we ordered the big cake.

I was thinking about that when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus goes to a wedding reception in the town of Cana, and his mother is there. And she comes up to Jesus and tells him, “they’re out of wine”.

Now, maybe she wanted a glass herself, I don’t know, but the big issue here is not just that no one had wine. It’s that this was potentially humiliating for the couple who had just been married and their family. It reflected badly upon them as hosts, and opened them up to the ridicule of others. The fact Mary pulled Jesus aside was probably because she didn’t want the families to be embarrassed at their own wedding.

Mary already knew that there was something extraordinary about her son. I’m not sure she knew just how much so, but she knew he could do something to fix this. But when she tells him that the wine has run out, his first response isn’t “okay, I’ll fix this”. It’s, “Mom, why is this my problem? It’s not my time yet.”

His mom, like most moms, doesn’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t even respond. She just tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do. And Jesus, maybe knowing he’s not going to win against his mother, tells them to fill up six large, stone jars with water. And then he tells them to draw some out. And when they do, it’s not water anymore, but wine.

Scripture tells us that when the chief steward tasted it he called the groom over and said “why did you keep the good stuff until now? Everyone knows you start off serving the good stuff and then, once everyone is drunk and they can’t tell the difference anymore, you switch over to the cheap stuff.” Sage advice from the Bible.

But more importantly, we are left with this: the first of the signs of who Jesus was, and this final line “and his disciples believed in him.” Jesus performs many more miracles over the course of his ministry, but this is the first. And it was the one that started to truly reveal to the ones around him who he was.

I confess that I read this a story today and I feel a little anxiety for the newly married couple. We were so worried about running out of food at the wedding, and this was our nightmare. We didn’t want to be embarrassed. That’s why at the end of our reception, despite our friends’ unheeded advice, someone sent us to the hotel with a box filled with over half of our wedding cake. And Heidi doesn’t even like cake.

We were so worried that what we had wouldn’t be enough, that we vastly overestimated our need, to the point that in the end a lot went to waste. Now, this is an extreme example, but I think it points to what we do in a lot of areas of our life. We worry that we don’t have enough. We worry that the cake will run out, or the wine will run dry. We worry that we won’t have enough money, or we won’t have enough time. We worry that our best won’t be good enough, or that we won’t make it through.

We worry so much that we often fail to see that we have more than we need.

Now at this point you might be saying, “but the people in this story…they didn’t have all that they needed. They ran out! This is a cautionary tale about not getting caught with too little.”

And that’s one way to look at it. But it’s not the only way. And, I would submit, it’s not the way to look at it if you want to see Jesus.

Jesus performs a lot of miracles in his life, but as miracles go, in a real way, this one wasn’t all that impressive at first glance. He didn’t feed 5,000 people. He didn’t raise someone from the dead. He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t do anything that really transformed the world or changed lives. He just helped out a family that didn’t pick up enough wine at the store. Creating infinite wine is hardly the stuff that inspires discipleship.

But like I said, the real point here is not that they ran low on wine, and it’s not that Jesus can make more. If Jesus hadn’t been at that wedding, maybe it would have been a little embarrassing for the family for a little while. Or maybe not. Maybe they would have cut everyone off and said, “look, you all drank all the wine already…you’ve had enough.” Either way, we’re not talking about a crisis.

What we are talking about, though, is this: Jesus was there, and because of that scarcity became abundance.

Asking Jesus for more wine seems so trivial. Like asking Jesus for a parking space or praying that the ball will curve just enough that it makes it through the goal posts. But if you look at the miracles of Jesus, you find a common thread. Every time, the people thought that they had either lost something, or they didn’t have enough of something. They had lost life, they had lost health. They didn’t have enough fish, they didn’t have enough bread. And every time that they thought there was too little, Jesus transformed it and they ended up with an abundance.

This is just a common, everyday example that, if you ask me, may have had something to do with the fact that Jesus’ mother asked him to do it. And Jesus knew enough to listen to his mother.

And it’s an example to us too, especially those of us who are in the habit of buying enough cake to feed a small army. We tend to be the same people who worry we won’t have enough in the places where it really counts. Places like our spirit. Places like our hope. Places like our faith. It’s a sign that Jesus can create something incredible in those places where it feels like we have run dry.

Maybe you’ve experienced that. Maybe you have hit your rock bottom in another way. Maybe something in your life has reached the point of not being sustainable anymore. Maybe the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have enough wine, but that all the wine in the world couldn’t satisfy your thirst.

A lot of us here know something about that.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me several years ago and told me they needed to stop drinking. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They went to meetings and went to counseling and did everything else. But the hard part for them was the faith piece. They kept being told to have a higher power, and they had grown up with the kind of religion that had, in my mind anyway, probably had something to do with driving them to drink. They wanted to do it on their own. They didn’t need, as they put it, the superstition and religious mumble-jumble. And they wanted to be sure I knew it.

Okay, I said. I’ve always wondered why people single clergy out to tell us why they don’t need God. I think they think it’s going to shock us or offend us or something. But at any rate, I said okay, and that they should do whatever works for them.

But gradually, they started to see that they couldn’t do it alone. That as much as they wanted to reach into their own stores of self-reliance and strength and resolve, at the end of the day they were coming up empty and it wasn’t quite working. Eventually, they opened themselves up to the possibility that maybe there was something bigger than themselves in the world, and maybe that something, whatever they called it, was going to provide the miracle. Maybe in their hour of greatest need, that something would fill them up, not with wine, but with strength where there was none. Serenity where there never had been any before.

They wouldn’t quite call that something God. Not yet anyway. I would, but they wouldn’t. And that’s okay. I’m not sure that the groom at the wedding in Cana ever figured out exactly what had happened either. All he knew is he had more wine.

But the reality for me is this: we all, regularly, know what it is to run out of wine at the worst possible time. We are all scraping the bottoms of our barrels in more ways than one. We are all facing shortages, physical and spiritual, and we are all afraid of losing more. And yet, we live. And often, we more than live, we thrive.

Whether we see it or not, whether we believe it or not, I think it’s because someone is filling us back up without us even knowing. I look back at the places in my life where I had absolutely nothing left in my own, and I see how even in that scarcity, God transformed nothing into a blessing. I have had my share of miracles, whether I know it or not. Whether I give God the glory or not. Whether I choose to believe it or not. The challenge for me is that when the steward comes back and says to me, “did you know all this wine was here? Where did all this good stuff come from?” That I don’t pretend that I’m somehow responsible for it. And that I don’t pretend like it just came from nowhere. That I open my eyes to the miracles around me.

I’ll close with this. Tomorrow is the day we observe Martin Luther King Day. As a college student in Atlanta, his hometown, I was always aware of his impact there. Some nights I would drive down to his old neighborhood, down to where his tomb is now, and I’d think about who he was, and how he did what he did. I would think about what it meant to have that kind of courage when everyday you knew there were people who literally wanted you dead. People who, in the end, got their wish. To keep on day after day like that is a miracle.

I think Martin Luther King was a great man. But what amazes me even more about his story is his faith. He was first and foremost a pastor, and more importantly, first and foremost a Christian. I have to believe that there were days when the wells were dry, and yet, someone filled him up again and again. He may have been a great man, but he believed in an even greater God. And in the end, I think that God worked miracles to fill him up again and again, and to keep him going when most of us would say “no way”. And throughout his life he gave the glory and the credit for that back to God.

You and I, we might not being making speeches on the Mall. We might not be inspiring social change on the level that he was. We might not be fearing for our lives everyday yet still moving forward. But we are all wrestling with our own fears. We are all pushing back against the voices that tell us there’s not enough. And we are all waiting for the miracles when our wells run dry. On this day I challenge you to do this: find the places where you have already been filled up. And then give God the glory. I promise you, your life will change because of it, and you will rarely be left with the fear of an empty glass again. Amen.

God’s Welcome, and Our Welcome: Sermon for September 9, 2012

429279_10150562577556787_1270530573_nJames 2:1-10, 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

2:2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,

2:3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”

2:4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

2:5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

2:6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?

2:7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

2:8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

2:9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

2:15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,

2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

________

Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever had an experience where you were pretty sure people would rather you not be around? Or, at least, they didn’t seem too happy that you were there? I think all of us at some point in our life have.

When I lived in Provincetown there was no UCC church in town, but there were a few others. I wanted to go to church while I lived there, so I checked one out. I got there, parked, went inside, sat through the service, and the left. With the exception of the pastor, who quickly shook my hand at the door on the way out, I don’t think anyone said anything to me the entire time. I felt pretty unwelcome. I left wondering what I had done wrong.

A couple years later I was talking to someone I know who visits Provincetown frequently. He asked me if I had ever found a church to go to there. I told him I’d tried this particular church, and that the service was okay, but that no one had talked to me at all. He then told me that he had too and that the exact same thing had happened to him.

I felt a little better. It wasn’t about me. But I hadn’t known that at the time. And, even worse, it seems like a lot of folks had left that church feeling that way.

You probably have a story like that somewhere in your life. Maybe not in a church, but somewhere. None of us likes to feel like we are not welcome, and, hopefully, not of us intentionally tries to be unwelcoming to others. And churches should be places that “get it”. Churches should be places where all who come through the doors are welcome. But the sad thing is that many people have at some point in their lives experienced churches as an unwelcoming place.

The text we read today is from the Epistle of James. The writer is essentially talking about how to treat people who come to church. He gives the readers an example. He talks about two people who will come into their church: one is wearing expensive clothing and gold rings and the other is poor and in dirty clothes. And he tells them that if they take the wealthy person and give them the best seat in the house, and then take the poor person and make them stand in the back, that they have no clue what Christianity is all about.

He goes on to tell them that at the end of the day if they will send the one who has nothing back out into the world and they say to them “take care, keep warm, don’t go hungry”. But if they the church does nothing to ensure that they actually stay warm and aren’t going hungry, then they just don’t understand the Scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I used to attend a church in Atlanta that had a big meal on Sundays after church. This is more common down South. Church starts at 11, so by the time it gets out everyone is hungry. And they had a chef who cooked, and it was always pretty good. It didn’t cost a lot. Maybe $5. Cheap enough that I could afford it as a grad student, and certainly cheaper than eating a meal out.

But this church was also located in an area where a lot of folks lived on the streets. And to be fair this church did a lot to help those folks. And they welcomed them into worship. But on Sunday afternoons, that meal that only cost me a few dollars became a feast that was out of reach for them. If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t eat. And they’d go back out onto the streets hungry.

I wonder what James would have said about that? More importantly, I wonder why it took me so long to notice that it was happening for myself? I was comfortable and fed, but I never noticed that none of our homeless guests were staying for lunch, or that there was no system to allow them to do so, until someone pointed it out.

I wonder how often I miss that. I wonder how often I overlook the fact that while I might be feel welcome, others may not. One time in Georgia I was talking with a friend about this small barbecue place about an hour outside of Atlanta. I’d gone there and really liked the food. And she was from the same area originally, so I suggested that someday we try it. She agreed and asked me the name. And when I told her, her face sort of sank. And she said, “I can’t go there…I wouldn’t be welcome.”

I said, “What do you mean? Of course you would.”

And she shook her head and said, “Emily, you don’t get it…I grew up here, and I know that place. Black folks like me aren’t welcome.”

Of course I didn’t get that. I hadn’t had to even think about the color of my skin when I went there. I just went in, paid my money, and got a plate of barbecue. But she did. I had no idea how much I was taking for granted just being welcome in certain places.

Now, we hear that story and we all realize how horrible it is. But what I want to stress here is that unless she had told me she was unwelcome there, I never would have known. And I believe that she genuinely was unwelcome. This is an area that still had Klan marches when she was a kid. But the take away for us today, and for churches everywhere, is that there are some folks who are sure they will be unwelcome in this church because they have genuinely been unwelcome in other churches. And as much as we genuinely want to welcome them, that’s keeping them from coming through our doors.

It might be surprising to hear the questions I have had from people in this valley who have met me and found out I was the pastor at this church. They’ve been curious about coming to church, but they’ve had bad experiences other places and they just assume that they will be unwelcome here as well.

A few have been members of the 12 step groups who meet here regularly. They actually spend more time in this church every week than just about anyone else. And they wonder whether someone like them, a recovering alcoholic or addict, would be welcome here.

Some have been folks we as a church have helped financially. They wonder if they are allowed to come here after receiving help from us. A few have asked me whether they would be welcome despite the fact they really have nothing nice to wear or nothing to put in the plate when it goes around.

Others have told me about how they or there families were judged for who they were when they tried to go into other churches.

We hear these words from our neighbors, and we say “of course your welcome. Everyone is welcome here.” We are appalled to think that there is any question. I can truly tell you that you are a warm church when folks walk through the doors. I hear that all the time. But this is not about you, or who you are. It’s about the fact that unless we make our welcome explicit, they’re not going to walk in the doors.

We might not realize that because we’ve never felt anything but welcome from churches in our lives. But for those of us for whom that is true, we are very lucky. For some people walking through the front doors of this church, of any church, is more than an act of faith. It’s also an act of courage.

So, we try to change that. We try to be explicit about our welcome. And we often reinforce it by using the slogan from the United Church of Christ that so many of you have told me you like so much: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I love that slogan. But we can’t just give it lip service. We can’t just say it or print it on our letterhead or have it on the bulletin. We have to live it.

The church is not a selective club. We’re not a place where eligibility for membership is determined by someone’s bank account balance or the car they drive or where they went to school. It’s not determined by whether they can put “x” number of dollars in the collection plate. And it’s not determined by whether or not they’ve made some bad mistakes in life or whether they’ve ever been down and out. It’s determined only by this: that the person loves Christ, no matter how imperfectly, and wants to be a part of this community of disciples. All are welcome here because we don’t own this church. Christ does.

That’s good news. That’s really good news because it doesn’t just mean that others are welcome here. It means that you are welcome here too. And not just the best version of yourself. Not the part of you that cleans up well and says the right things and has it all together.

It means all of you. The part that has doubts. The part that doesn’t have things quite together. The part that yelled at your spouse or kids when you know you shouldn’t have this week. The part that deep down you would rather no one else knew about. That part is welcome here too. All of you is welcome here.

We are welcomed here because we have been welcomed extravagantly by God. God loves us so much, that the doors of God’s heart are open to all of us and to us all. Even the parts we’d rather hide sometimes. That’s the beauty of grace. That’s the beauty of what God has done for you.

And that’s the beauty of what those of us who are already here can do for those whom God wants to be here. That’s the beauty of being extravagantly welcomed by God. It makes it possible for us to extravagantly welcome others. We don’t do it because we want our church to keep growing bigger, though, make no mistake, an unwelcoming church is a dying church. We do it because if God’s grace is real, than we can do nothing other than this. We welcome others because God welcomed us first.

This week, as you go about your usual life and work, who could you pass that welcome on to? Who could you assure that God’s love and grace for them is real? And how can we as a church make our welcome more explicit to our neighbors? If God’s grace in us is real, than these are the questions we can’t help but ask ourselves. You can’t truly understand that you have been welcomed by God without in turn opening the doors of welcome wider to others.

May we as a church keep striving to live into what we proclaim: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Really. Amen.

The Dove and the Olive Leaf…a year later: Sermon for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Irene

Genesis 8:6-12

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

A year ago this week, on Saturday night, I spoke with the leaders of both churches about the hurricane that had been predicted for the next day. We talked about the weather forecast, and about canceling church services, and we agreed that probably nothing out of the ordinary would really happen. But we canceled anyway, just to be safe.

You know what happened next. A year ago, on a Sunday like today, it felt like the whole world had come crashing in. The river crested, and then spilled its banks, and the destruction was beyond what we could have ever imagined.

I remember seeing many of you that day. You were opening the evacuation shelters. You were working with police and fire and rescue. You were here in Dover or up in Wardsboro. Or you were there when we all finally made it down to the middle of Wilmington and saw the way the river had cut through town.

Some of you took big losses. Your businesses. Your homes. Your sense of safety. In many cases you didn’t have electricity or plumbing for days. And that day I think we all wondered whether life would ever be the same again.

The Sunday afterwards, we gathered here at the church and we read this same passage from Genesis. I had already heard by that point people who said the flood was God’s judgement on us. I heard someone say this was just God reminding us what God can do. I told you then, and I’ll tell you again today, I don’t believe that’s true.

The text we read then, and read now, is about the aftermath of a flood too. And while the flood in the Bible is attributed to God, I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that this one was too. But I like this text, because it reminds us of the promise God makes in the aftermath of a flood. A promise given so long ago, and a promise given to us.

I believe the flood “was”. But I believe even more that God “is”.

Noah sends a dove out after the flood looking for dry land. It searches, and searches, and finds nowhere. And it comes back to him. And for seven days it stays there with Noah. But seven days later he sends it out again. It the world is not yet back to normal, but there is enough of what used to be there that the dove plucks and olive leaf, and brings it back.

Last year we talked about that olive leaf. That first sign that there was life again. That sign that the world could be rebuilt, even if, like the dove, we could not yet put our feet on solid ground again.

We came that day to claim an olive leaf. And we did. We found our signs of hope, and we went out and we did what needed to be done. And now, a year later, we have stories  of all the olive leaves we have found to share.

There are three things I’ve been thinking about this week: remembrance, gratitude, and hope.

First, we remember. We remember what that day was like. We remember how we felt when the full extent of what was happening became clear. We remember all the destruction and all the shock and all the high water marks. We remember the young woman who was killed on Route 100. And we remember all of those whose lives were changed in such unforgettable ways.

But that’s not all we remember. And this is where our memory turns us to gratitude. Because we also remember what happened next.

People tell me that they have never seen a community bounce back the way this one did. In fact, people say Vermont’s recovery as a whole has been spectacular. The day after the flood, bright and early, neighbors started helping neighbors to rebuild. They pumped water out of stores. They hammered things into place. They moved trees and rocks and earth. And they staffed the food pantry everyday. They kept the shelter open at the high school. They brought water to people who didn’t have it.

Our church, our churches at that point, did what they could too. We kept the doors of the churches open for those who needed to pray or rest. We opened our doors to 12 step groups who had been displaced. We gave out water and energy bars. We helped to organize a diaper drive. We drove in health buckets and school kits from Church World Service. We opened the doors of the Wilmington Church to St. Mary’s who had lost their building. And the basement of the Wilmington church even became storage for the food pantry.

The fact so many came out to help their neighbors, and that we got to have some part in that, is a cause for gratitude.

And it doesn’t stop there. Strangers came to help too. They came from all over and they brought water and food and tools. They joined with us and they gave their time and talents over the next weeks to help us rebuild. Likewise, our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, remembered us too. Within days of the flood they had sent grants to both of the churches to help us to help respond to the needs that arose in our area. Over the past year we have used those funds to help out local families and non-profits, and we will continue using them as we begin new ministries here.

And through the year the blessings kept coming. These are just some of the stories I know. But I know you know a hundred more. I know that none of us has been unmoved by what happened here. And I know that God has been good to us. Things may not yet be completely “back to normal”, but we have come so far from those first days. And we have come that far because of the grace that has been given to us. Our gratitude for our neighbors, and for strangers, and for the grace of God can never be buried.

And so now, a year later, we meet in worship again. And we read the same passage. The passage about the dove who brings Noah the olive leaf. And this year we read a little more of it. We read not just about that dove coming back after severn days, but we read about that dove going out again.

This time Noah sends the dove out, but it does not return. The dove goes out and sees that the world is safe again. It is returning to normal. And it finds places where it can land and live and thrive. It doesn’t have to go back to its emergency quarters on the ship. It’s free.

The dove symbolizes peace in the Christian tradition. More importantly, we equate it with the Holy Spirit. And for us, the Holy Spirit means hope. If you think about the dove that way, think about what this story means. First the dove brings back a tangible sign of hope to us, just as we began to receive last year. And then, the dove goes out into the world, unbound by the flood any more, spreading that hope to everyone.

We can do two things now. We can stay in the boat, or we can follow that dove, that symbol of the Holy Spirit, out into the world and in this second year of recovery we can continue to help to bring hope to our community and beyond.

We have done so much in this past year. And it has been good. But there is still so much that needs to be done in our community. And God is equipping us to do it.

Where will the Holy Spirit lead us this year? And are we willing to follow it? I believe we are. And I believe we will. And I believe that a year from now our community will continue to emerge stronger and with more hope than ever.

I’ll close with this. Last summer I baptized the infant daughter of one the families in our community in the Deerfield River. They live on the river, and wanted to baptism to be done with the water that they love. So we waded in, took water from the river, and poured it on her head and welcomed her to the family of faith. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.

It was not long after that day that the same river flooded, and changed life as we knew it.

But yesterday I stood in that same river again, this time with their infant son. And again, we baptized him with that water. Baptism is the ultimate sign of new life. And now that river that caused so much destruction can again be a symbol of God’s hope for us. God’s new life. It was a reminder for me that God can turn everything into good again, and God can give us hope in the most unexpected places.

And it was also a reminder that God has more for us to do. This year, what will God transform in our community? What will God transform in you? And what will God find to use to give us all hope. If we keep our eyes, and our hearts, and our hands, open, we won’t miss it when the Holy Spirit decides to use us again.

If we keep our eyes open for those olive leaves that God has offered up for us, if we follow that dove out into the world to the places God is leading us, we will never go wrong. God’s hope is here for the claiming, last year, this year, and for all the years to come. Amen.