Friday, March 30, 2012

Holy Week and Easter at Pilgrim Church UCC, Sherborn, MA

Palm Sunday Service
Sunday, April 1, 10 am

Maundy Thursday Service
Thursday, April 5, 7:30 pm

Good Friday Service
Friday, April 6, 7:30 pm

Prayer Vigil
In sanctuary, post Good Friday service to midnight on Holy Saturday, April 7th

Easter Sunday, April 8
6:00 am Easter Sunrise Service 
at Farm Pond
Led by the Senior High Youth Group

9 am Easter Service
Featuring the Pilgrim Band

11 am Easter Service
Featuring bell and brass and voice choirs.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Is America's Religious Liberty Really Under Attack?

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and State."            
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802

Imagine this: living in a country where tyrannical religious leaders rule the day, not freely elected public officials, but self-appointed, supposedly God-anointed clergy.  Disagree with them at all and you’ll quickly find yourself under surveillance or thrown in prison or tortured or maybe even put to death. The state is religion and religion is the state, no separation at all, a theocracy. In 2012 it might seem improbable that such a religious dystopia exists but it does and it is called Iran. 

Imagine this: living in a country where you can practice any religious faith or no faith at all. A secular government, founded in law, enshrined in a Constitution, neither endorses nor opposes religious practice or the lack of religion for its citizens. You can go to temple or mosque or church or just say “no” to God and faith. The God choice is up to you. It is personal, private, and sovereign in this democracy.  In 2012 it might seem amazing that such a religious utopia exists but it does and it is called the United States of America.

Yet you’d never know it by the alarmist tone and shrill cries from a small but vocal group of folks of faith, who lately have been telling anyone who will listen that religious liberty is under siege in the United States. That people of faith are being coerced by the power of the government to deny the basic tenets of their belief in God or worse, muzzled in their dissent.

This cultural firestorm erupted in response to the announcement by the federal government that all employers, including religious ones (save for local houses of worship), will be required to offer basic contraceptive health care benefits to employees as a part of the new national health care law. Two confessions: I wholly agree with that mandate, as a person of faith and citizen, as a matter of justice.  But I also understand the view of my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters who oppose this provision on religious grounds. 

And so I say to them: fight it if you will: in the courts, in the streets, in the legislature.  That’s what makes democracy great, competing voices mixing it up, slugging it out, and then trusting the ballot box to judge their vision for America.  But to claim that religious liberty itself is at risk?  Listen to the red hot rhetoric, especially from the politicians.  A spokeswoman for Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he, “…stands with…all religious organizations in their strenuous objection to this liberty- and conscience-stifling regulation.”  Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner: “[This is] an unambiguous attack on religious freedom.”

Come on, really? “An unambiguous attack upon religious freedom”?  Last time I checked there were no army tanks parked outside of the church I serve as a clergy person, no soldiers blocking the way, no cease and desist orders barring the front door of any house of worship in America from opening. There was a police car in front of my church on Sunday but that was to make sure folks could cross the street safely.               

The hottest of vitriol and faux faith based defensiveness comes from Presidential candidate Rick Santorum.  He’s a nice guy, no doubt. Sincere in his deeply held faith, committed to serving his country.  But to hear him talk you’d think folks of faith were being dragged into jail cells every time they tried to open their mouths and protest government policy.  As Santorum said on the February 26th edition of the ABC News talk show “This Week”, "I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up."

Beyond Santorum’s gag response (maybe he needs some Pepto-Bismol for the campaign trail), I think his claim is specious, hyperbolic and flat out false.  No one is denying the right of folks of faith to organize, protest, lobby or vote in the public square.  No one is shredding religious liberty in America. I wonder if Santorum’s martyr-like claims are more about gaining votes in a tight race rather than reality.  I worry that he thinks he’s running for Clergy In Chief and not Commander in Chief.  I ask where’s the more substantive debate on the real issues facing America? You know…the national debt, the economy, the rise of China, the income gap between rich and poor. 

Is religious liberty under attack in America?  Nope. Not by a long shot.  Last time I checked the religious and the non-religious alike in America are still able to speak up in the public square and argue their opinions on any and all issues: contraception, or abortion, or the death penalty or racism or poverty. 

If one really wishes to see a place where freedom of religion is under attack go to Iran or China or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.  There folks of faith are actually fighting for their lives. There faith is often about life or death. There people pray in the fear that at any moment a door could be kicked down and worshippers dragged away to jail cells. There folks have good reason to be afraid of their governments when it comes to religion.

But not here. Not in the United States.  Let’s get serious.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jesus Goes to Spring Training: A Poem

by Pastor Steve Garnaas Holmes, from his blog

Toward the end of winter I came upon
the Lord on a diamond, batting.

I said, “ Lord, what are you doing?”
“These are your sins,” he said,

as a shadowy figure on the mound
with a vicious arm pitched.

He had no instinct: swung at everything,
even dirtballs. And hit 'em every time.

He had a beautiful swing,
fluid, sure, and joyful.

He hit pitch after pitch, endlessly.
I lost myself, watching.

“Out of the park” he said, his eye
on a nasty looking knuckleball,

and swung like a dancer,
gracefully unwinding. Chock!

It rose up over the fence, over the trees,
released from all earthly bonds,

floating free until it disappeared,
infinitely gone, still rising.

He watched it go, as if
he'd never seen such a beautiful thing.

“I love this game,” he grinned,
and set for another pitch.

I think he was honestly
pleased with himself.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Myth of the Good Old Days

Nostalgia (noun)  1. A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past. 
--The American Heritage Dictionary

Rest in peace Encyclopedia Britannica (EB).  Born 1768, died 2012. Cause of death? The digital age.  That’s the essence of obituaries which ran last week for a “good old days” old technology, the printed encyclopedia, which once represented the penultimate way to organize knowledge. Until its demise the EB was the oldest continually published print edition encyclopedia in the world. Its volumes graced the bookshelves of scholars and school kids, libraries and lyceums, for 244 years. 

Growing up, my family’s encyclopedia was “The World Book”, still published, all twenty two volumes, 14,000-plus pages, for $1,077.  I have sweet memories of those encyclopedias in my childhood home.  My Dad decided to purchase the multi-volume set when he was out of work, a great sacrifice. I recall my Mom wasn’t that happy he’d made such a big purchase when we really couldn’t afford it. But for my father, the encyclopedia represented a precious gift to his kids, human knowledge, all neatly summarized and organized in just one set of books.  So if one of us needed to write a school report on volcanoes or human hearing or wondered what the tiniest country in the world was or wanted to lose ourselves on a rainy afternoon in Volume “W” (warthogs, weather, West Virginia), the book was there, waiting to be cracked open and explored.

This is the part in the column where I’m supposed to wax even more nostalgically about the death of the EB, write poetically about the feel of the paper, the brightness of the color photos.  Launch into a screed about “the good old days”. How tragic it is the EB died. As a coda I’d then decry the coldness of the Internet and a screen, how a Kindle Fire or I-Pad can’t ever compare to the heft of a World Book, its physical truth. Cue the sad music. “Those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end….”

But that’s the mistake of nostalgia, our human predilection for remembering the past and worshipping it as better, sacred, “golden days” to be mourned, pined for, especially when compared to the supposed “bad days” of now. Nostalgia in itself is not always bad. By writing about my Dad I re-visit him through the tender gift of human memory even though he is no longer alive.  I step into my past and am comforted by this journey.  Good nostalgia.

Yet these days I hear much bad nostalgia, societal lamenting about what we’ve lost or how we got lost and how we must return to the past. Presidential candidates speak about returning America to “what it was”, to “its greatness” as if to turn the nation back is as easy as making a syrupy speech.  I do sympathize with the nostalgic among us.  We live in an epoch of radical cultural and technological change which can feel as if we are being whipsawed much too fast into the future.  Guttenberg’s printed word is slowly dying, no denying that.  Old media like this newspaper fade away.  America’s place in the world shifts, from lone superpower to who knows what?  Church as the central repository of God and faith recedes.  Traditional family morphs.  What is not changing these days? Not much. 

Yet bad nostalgia commits one unavoidable sin.  The past remembered is really not true, not objectively. It’s a past we selectively remember, sometimes narrowly, often sugar coated, certainly romantic.  The bad stuff inevitably gets edited out.  Author John Steinbeck wrote, “Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change....”

Bad nostalgia doesn’t allow the room to remember times of great change when everything shifted for the better.  Yesterday polio. Today a vaccine.  Yesterday intolerance of “the other” for their religion, gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.  Today: a more civil nation.  Today cancer. Tomorrow—perhaps a medical breakthrough.  But for this to happen we can’t get stuck in a past which never really existed, nor fear a future yet to be born. 

Life is finally change.  We can sweetly remember the past. We can be grateful for it.  We can learn from it but finally we can never, ever go back. 

So farewell Encyclopedia Britannica. You did a good job but you had to die to make way for the awesome information wave which is transforming our world in ways we could never have dreamed. 

As a person of faith I finally rely on the advice of the Psalmist: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Yes those were the days. Yes these are the days.  But imagine what is yet to come. Bring it on.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Prayer for March 17th

Prayer of Saint Patrick, “The Breastplate”, (alt.—mid fifth century)

I arise today, through the strength of heaven; light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of the wind, depth of the sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock.
I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me; God's eye to look before me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, from all who shall wish me ill, afar and a-near alone and in a multitude.

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul, Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me. Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
I arise today.......

And a link to a beautifully sung version by Shaun Davey 

Monday, March 12, 2012

To Build Up or To Tear Down?

Build (verb) 1. to construct by assembling and joining parts or materials: to build a house. 2. to establish, increase, or strengthen (often followed by up )    --Random House Dictionary

Have you ever watched a house being built?  It is an amazing site. Beginning with just a ragged hole in the muddy ground, a structure emerges, slowly pushing up towards heaven. First a foundation, then the ground floor decking, all flat and smooth, then walls built and raised up, then a second floor constructed, then a roof, with its triangles of protection from the wind and the rain.  Sometimes to build up a home: it can even be a miracle.

Last week I returned to the city of New Orleans for the seventh time, to help build a Habitat for Humanity house. I’m one of more than 1,000,000 American volunteers who have traveled to the Crescent City since August of 2005 to help rebuild that place after Hurricane Katrina.  It’s been six and half years since the storm hit and the floods overflowed New Orleans in the worst natural and manmade disaster in the United States in a century.  Remember? Hundreds of thousands of folks fled the rising waters in the largest domestic migration since the Civil War.  182,000 homes were destroyed or damaged.  Then to add a cruel twist to recovery, in April of 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Gulf Coast and spilled millions of gallons of black crude into the waters and upon the shores of the region.

But still New Orleans: it continues to be built up, rebuilt, and built anew. Not just because Uncle Sam has poured billions of dollars into the region, though that helps.  No. Ask a New Orleanian what has made the real difference and they’ll tell you. It is all the folks from all around the country who have gone down there as volunteers to work and to build up.  From all fifty states.  From churches and mosques and synagogues. From colleges and corporations and non-profits like Habitat for Humanity, which today is the second largest builder of homes in New Orleans.    

Its awe inspiring work to take part in. That’s why I go back year after year with folks from the church I serve.  I’ve worked side by side with college kids from Philadelphia, New York City, North Carolina, Michigan and many other places. I’ve raised walls with fellow Christians from Delaware and South Carolina and Vermont, and tacked up siding with America Corps workers from Texas and Missouri.  The oldest volunteer I’ve met is 80, the youngest a 12 year old girl who worked with me on the house she now calls home. 

What binds all these diverse folks together is this: a commitment to be a person in the world who builds up rather than tears down.  Who constructs rather than destructs.  Who sees a chance to serve others, a neighbor in need and says, “I will do something. I can do something. I must do something.”  A child of God like you or me who sees a devastated neighborhood, a city hurting, or folks without a home and declares that rather than decrying the problem she will be a part of the solution. To build up.

The week I was in New Orleans the news was dominated by a story about radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh who on his program, verbally attacked and tore down another human being. He called a young woman named Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her public stand on a controversial issue. Regardless of the pros or cons of the debate, it was a shocking example of what happens when we humans choose to tear down and not build up in this life.   

Because each and every day that’s the choice God gives us: to be one who builds up others and the world or to be one who tears down people and Creation.  It doesn’t have to be on a national stage like Limbaugh’s. Most of the decisions we make about being positive or negative or constructive or destructive, take place in the little dramas of daily life. 

What language do we use with our families and loved ones? Are our words respectful and kind or sharp and cutting?  How do we act at work and in public? With patience and care or rudeness and a dismissive attitude?  Do we smile and offer a gracious “thank you” to the person who serves us or walk away in silence?  On the sports field: are we the obnoxious parent who yells and rants at the coach and referee or a fan who cheers for everyone?  How about the poor?  Are “they” just slackers who need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or are they folks who need a helping hand and some compassionate care? In politics: is our opponent the enemy or the loyal opposition? 

In every human encounter we have a choice: to build up or to tear down.  My prayer is that God will give all humans big hearts and hopeful souls and a shared commitment to always be the ones who build up.  To see a hole in the ground and imagine a home.  To see a stranger as a friend we’ve yet to make.  To see a world in desperate need of repair and decide to be constructive. To take a hammer and some nails and then make a difference. 

To build up or to tear down?  How will you live today?


Friday, March 2, 2012

Sabbath is a Slam Dunk!

Sabbath (noun) 1. any special day of prayer or rest; a period of rest, sometimes for religious observance. From the Hebrew shabath, meaning intermission, repose, to cease, to put away, to still           
--Random House Dictionary and Strong’s Bible Concordance              

What could be more important in the life of a teenager than the chance to play for the state basketball championship of Texas?  Texas: where youth sports are larger than life and where Friday night lights have blazed away for generations. The Lone Star State: where the glory of high school athletics is the heart of civic life.  What could possibly be a higher priority than “the game”? Homework or family time or a job? Maybe another student group commitment, a play or a choir concert?  Or how about religion and the practice of faith? 

That’s the priority for a group of Orthodox Jewish high school boys who play basketball at The Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston. This Jewish day school won its regional championship in late February and was all set to compete in the state semifinals.  Problem is that the game was scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Friday night, right in the middle of the Sabbath. Observant Jews honor their Sabbath each week by eschewing all work and activity for twenty four hours, Friday sundown until Saturday sundown.  That sacred time is reserved for a family sabbath meal, prayers, worship at temple and rest.  This ancient discipline comes from the first of the Ten Commandments:  “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work….the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20)

As of last week, the group which governs the state championships, The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, refused Beren’s appeal to change the game time.  This despite the fact that several other basketball teams in the tournament graciously offered to change their scheduled game times. Hard choices. What does matter more?  Athletic competition or religious observance? Going to a house of worship or the local playing field? Bending your knees in the pews or on the offensive line? The sabbath or the secular?

There once was a time when the wider culture made accommodations for folks to practice their faith and claim a sabbath.  It was called “Sunday”. Granted that one day favored just Christians, not Jews like those boys in Texas, or other faiths or folks of no faith. But this principle of a sabbath is one to reconsider. 

Think of it. To intentionally set aside just one day a week, one special time, and one sacred space of twenty four hours for every one, the faithful and the non-faithful alike.  To go to church or temple.  To sleep in.  To peruse the newspaper.  To share a family brunch. To take a long walk. To slow down.  To read. To do a hobby or favorite pastime. No stores, save a very few, open.  Relatives visiting with each other or the neighbors.  The briefcase set by the front door on Friday night and not touched again until Monday morning. Rest. Sabbath.

Now I’m tempted to get all nostalgic, even preachy and call for a return to a culture wide day of rest, but that’s just not going to happen. In 2012 America is a land of many faiths and no faith.  More telling, Sundays as sabbath have been swept away in a societal shift of priorities. We are now hooked on 24/7 activity. We often work in jobs through the weekends with cell phones and email keeping us tethered.  We expect to be able to shop wherever and whenever we want, no matter what the time or day. What once was free time for kids is now scheduled time. Families spend hours and hours in the car, driving from practice to game to scrimmage to home then back out again. We bank online in our pajamas and go to CVS at 3 in the morning for cough drops and ice cream.  There’s no room for sabbath in this world unless…we choose to claim it.  We decide that a sabbath, spiritual or secular, matters. That we need it.

Tough choices.  Folks of faith like those kids and families in Texas are forced to make hard decisions about what will take priority in their own lives and the life of their families.  They are forced to juggle the competing priorities of making God a part of life while also trying to participate in this busy world, including the joy that is youth sports. Modern life is sure complicated. 

Yet still this sabbath ideal tugs at us. To get some rest. To have time to be with our loved ones and be with our God. To carve out just one day, a holy time when we take a break and slow down.  Not easy when the world never ever seems to just shut off, or take a time out, or chill, or stop. The crammed family calendar is the new cross to bear. How can we do everything? Church and temple and sports and activities and work and play and rest and family? WE MUST DO IT ALL!   

The truth is we cannot do it all and to imagine we can is foolish or arrogant or both. Time is limited. A day is only twenty four hours long and in each of those days, we choose our priorities. What matters the most for ourselves and our loved ones.  What we will do and what we will not do. The myth of modern life may try to sing its siren song of more, more, more, preaching that busyness always equals meaning, purpose, and happiness. But at some point that manic machine must break down.  We all need sabbath. Even God rested after six days of work. 

So here’s a shout out to those boys on that team in Texas and the school administration and parents who backed them up.  They bucked the system. They chose to make their sabbath a life priority.

To me, that is a win every time.