From the Minister > Minister's Musings > 2008 Archive

Minister's Musings

Archives 2008








December 2008


I used to find it odd that one of the most popular holiday movies of all time was about a small town banker contemplating suicide. I assume all of you are familiar with the ever-decent George Bailey in Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. Originally released before Christmas in 1946, the film did poorly at the box office. While it received five Oscar nominations, it was mostly panned by the critics who thought it overly sentimental and unrealistic. In fact, the movie studios quickly forgot about the film, so much so that the copyright lapsed. This explains why television stations started showing it in the 1970’s, as it was royalty free programming around the holidays.

It was only then that people started to pay attention to the small town banker of Bedford Falls whose life was seemingly so unimpressive. Based on a short story “The Greatest Gift”, the film is really a fantasy tale about a man who is allowed to see what the world would be like had he never been born. By doing so, George Bailey, and by extension all of us, realize that many of our most important contributions to this world arise not from our grand ambitions but from our everyday kindnesses. George is a local banker who sees that while he may not have maximized the profits of his business, he had accomplished something far greater. Through this, Frank Capra seems to be reminding his viewers that capitalism and markets are financial systems that work best when they serve a higher cause or purpose, or at least are directed by people who do. As George Bailey confronts the greedy and oh so “scrooge-like” Mr. Potter in the film, we see the ways that unchecked greed can ruin a community and a family. We also realize that decency and goodness really do matter in this life.

Perhaps for this reason, I have found myself thinking this year more than usual about this classic film. Our country is facing the gravest economic crisis since the 1930’s. The gap between the rich and the poor is skyrocketing. People are losing their jobs and homes. Certainly part of the blame lies in an unregulated financial system that takes no consideration of the common good or justice. We seem to have lost our sense of community and commonwealth. The magic of a film like It’s a Wonderful Life is that it reminds us of the very American virtues of egalitarianism and community. Like the prophets of old, the film reminds us that the coming Kingdom of God requires not just angels but good hearts and decent people willing to stand up for what it right. I dare suspect that in the days and years ahead, the wellbeing of our society will be determined by how well we can keep our capitalist system within moral limits- and how well we can help - and not hinder - the George Bailey’s of the world, on whom we all depend.

We have a wonderful December planned here at the First Church. I hope you will find a time to join us. See you in church,

Jeff

November 2008


There is something new being observed down on Margin Street on Wednesday afternoons. For several years now, this has been the appointed time each week when the Salem Mission would open the doors to its food pantry. Anyone who lives locally can show up and, after registering, receive a bag of groceries. Five years ago the number of people signed up amounted to about 850 households. However, this figure has shot up in the last few years, with the number of families accessing the pantry going from 1,200 to now well over 1,600. These days the lines on Wednesdays are longer, too, ` with more than 100 people typically cued up looking for some help. As a result, the pantry is actually having a hard time keeping its shelves stocked. In the last month, they have run out of food not once but twice.

This is not the only change. Staff members have noticed that there are now many more people pulling up in cars and SUV’s looking for assistance. In years’ past most of those who lined up for food were on foot or pulling a cart. Now you see families pulling up with children in car seats in search of something to eat.

The Salem Mission sometimes gets a bad reputation among people who live nearby. For a long time, some locals assumed that all the Mission did was help a few drunks and addicts get off the street in the colder months. While that in of itself is a noble mission (especially if you are helping these people to a better life), it can sometimes cloud the larger picture of who the Mission serves. While the Mission does not keep formal data about this, it is clear that its food program has impacts that extend far beyond its walls. As energy and healthcare prices have skyrocketed, as the cost of housing has rapidly increased, as people have gotten caught up in the sub prime mortgage crisis, it is relief agencies like The Mission that can play a small but crucial role in helping a family avert the downward spiral into homelessness. And make no mistake: homeless families are increasing here in the Commonwealth. According to the most recent data, the number of families living in emergency shelters across the state has risen to just above 2,000. Included in this figure are about 4,000 children and youth, with half of them, some 2,000, under the age of six.

It almost goes without saying then that any support for the Mission goes much further than we might think or believe. Yes, it helps them to expand their excellent case management and outreach programs for homeless individuals. But it also enables them to make a small but crucial difference in the lives of many local families who are thankful that they have been able to stay in their homes for a few more months.

As we enter the season of counting our blessings, I hope we all will remember the small but powerful ways we can be a blessing to others. The times are tough and are going to get tougher. The most important blessings of all might be the ones we take for granted such as housing, warmth and food. This month and next we will have several ways for our church community to help local people in need, including a canned food drive on Thanksgiving Sunday. This Thanksgiving, I hope we all will find ways not simply to give thanks but to be a blessing.

See you in church,

Jeff

October 2008


Does anyone else wish the prophet Amos was around these days? You remember Amos, no doubt. He was the country shepherd turned prophet, called by God to witness to the vagaries and corruptions of those ancient Jews in the “big city,” Samaria. He walked into town and denounced their pretense, their drink and their wealth. He condemned their corrupt business practices and their exploitation of the poor. In one of his classic tirades he uttered the famous line “but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (5:24)

I thought of Amos this last week as I, like all of you, watched the historic events of the last month. One of the greatest financial crises in history is unfolding before our eyes. As I listened to the debates about what should be done and who was responsible, I could not help but wonder what has happened to us as a country. The amount of greed and opportunism and entitlement that led to this boondoggle is breathtaking. Perhaps I should not be surprised but I am.

Now I delve into current events in this column rarely and carefully, but for the sake of posterity I cannot resist. Perhaps it is my studies in public policy at Tufts that has emboldened me. Our country is about to pass a $700 billion bail out package that would essentially shore up and recapitalize the financial firms that got us into this mess in the first place. Amidst the debates and reports and commentaries, rarely do we hear about the more than one million people who have lost their homes due to foreclosure and the million more who very well might. Rarely do we hear about the huge growth in predatory lending in the last ten years and the proliferation of sub-prime loans. These home loans are the basis of the mortgage-backed securities packaged and sold by the same companies who now want a bailout from the government.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am all for providing stability to our financial system, but I can’t help but question some of the solutions being proposed, in terms of their efficacy and fairness. I wonder why we do not hear more proposals having to do with helping homeowners who got themselves in too deep with a sub-prime, adjustable rate mortgage. The one popular argument I have heard against this is it is the homeowner’s fault and they need to suffer the consequences.

In the 1930’s, when the New Deal was enacted, part of it involved programs that allowed financially strapped homeowners to restructure their loans with their banks. This allowed people to hold onto their properties and permitted banks to know with certainty they had a dependable, albeit slightly smaller, revenue stream to use. Where, I ask you, is such a proposal today? If the mind-numbingly complex mortgage backed securities created in the last ten years by Wall Street are the main cause of our current financial mess, then why are we are not looking to shore up the one thing we know for sure they are based on: home mortgages.

The terms of some of these loans are unconscionable, with teaser interest rates that begin at 5% and then race up to 11 or 12%. How many of us, I ask you, would be able to stay in our homes if we were faced with a similar situation? While some of these people had no business taking out these loans, the banks had no business approving them. Why is it that the only ones we are concerned about now are the banks?

Like I said, sometimes I wish the prophet Amos were around. I think at times like this we need not just stability but also a little equity and a sense of justice. Economies are more than just economic activity. They serve a larger purpose in a commonwealth, a term that we don’t hear very often anymore. I hope that our church and many others like it are places where this realization is kept alive and well.

We have an amazing October planned here at the First Church, with special services, films and programs galore. I hope you will find time to join us. See you in church.

Jeff

September 2008


“Hello, my name is Andrew.” Those are the words I heard as I hurried into a local YMCA recently to get in a quick work out. I was busy. I had to pick up my daughter in 50 minutes and I planned to storm into the gym and speed off on the first available treadmill. Like many folks rushing through their day, I was not really paying too much attention to those who were around me. I had an agenda and was looking to execute my tightly fit plan. I am sure none of you can relate…

That is when this voice, this small pleasant voice, pierced my self-important, frenetic pace of an afternoon. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Andrew. Welcome to the Y.”

For a moment I was startled. Why was this person introducing himself to me? Doesn’t he see that I am in a hurry? I then looked up and saw a young man smiling at me and handing me a towel. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Jeff – and thanks for the towel.” For some reason, that simple interaction made me realize that I was not just entering a building to work out; I was entering a community. Too often we forget that.

I think we all need a place where we are so comfortable and so secure that we are happy to welcome people and even introduce ourselves. Amidst the frenetic, goal-driven culture in which we live, a simple hello can be startling, even daring. Simply greeting someone and smiling can be such a good reminder about the many communities of which we are a part and are a part of us.

I would like to think that the First Church is one of those places where people feel comfortable enough to offer a few daring “hellos” to those visiting for the first few times. Over the years that I have served here, I think we most definitely have become a friendlier place, where visitors are greeted warmly and where old friends are embraced.

Sunday, September 7 is Homecoming Sunday, when we return to our “normal” schedule after the summer season. I hope many of you can join us for worship, for singing, for coffee and – first and foremost – for simply greeting one another. A simple smile and hello can sometimes be a real gift.

See you in church,
Jeff

June 2008


I met a little, black cat recently. His name is Nemo. He is unusually shy and has to eat every few hours because of a problem with his digestive track. Nemo was adopted by his current (and very loving) owners when he was about three months old. He had been found by the side of a road, wrapped up in a plastic bag with a fishhook through his mouth. At the animal shelter, he was cleaned up and given some antibiotics for the infection from the hook. Cleaning him up was easy part, however.

The moment Nemo was brought into his new lovely house by his adopted family, he scampered away down the stairs and hid in the basement. Finding some boxes and old lumber, he managed to secure himself in a place where no one could reach him. From this "fortress" he would then venture out periodically to snatch some water or food. The owners hardly ever saw him.

Slowly over time, Nemo learned that he did not always have to hide. After about six months, he would carefully sneak up into the house and even then outside. He began to eat more regularly and grew stronger and healthier. He realized that he could trust his new world.

All of us are born asking this same question: "Can I trust my world?" This inquiry is both existential and theological in nature. We are all born into a certain situation and context and our early life experiences frame our answers to this question. Not surprisingly, all of us require a certain amount of assurance, security and love just to grow in a healthy manner. And when we don't receive this, we can be left harmed and scared, sometimes for a long time.

I would like to think that our church is a place that safely and lovingly nurtures childhood. We are a community that welcomes children and encourages and inspires their parents and caretakers. It is one of the most important things we do collectively. As I often say during child dedication services, "our task is to give our children a world of peace and justice in which to grow." Part of our mission, then, is to help the little ones in our midst (and the big ones too!) to realize there are parts of their world that they can trust. For we know what can happen if they don't learn this: there are many Nemos running around our world, both on four legs and two.

This month we will be celebrating the work of our church school on Sunday, June 22. We will also hold up our ministry to children of all ages. I hope you will all will come and join us. See you in church,

Jeff



May 2008


I heard a question asked recently that I thought was helpful: If all of the sudden our church were to disappear, how many people would notice? That is to say how many people would be affected by its closure? In some ways the question cuts to the heart of what a church is and does. A church that is alive is reaching out beyond its walls and making a difference in the community. A church that is alive is energized to find new and fresh ways to make its message relevant and meaningful.

I can honestly report that we here at the First Church would have no problem answering the question in the affirmative. Our answer would be resoundingly yes: people would notice. We do make a difference people's lives. When I consider all of the initiatives and activities here at the First Church, when I note the many ways that our members work and volunteer in the community, I feel both happy and proud.

Our church is growing. We are becoming a more energetic and active community. We are, in short, acting like a liberal Christian UU church that has a story to tell. You sense it at fellowship hour. You experience it when we serve dinner at the Mission. You encounter it at the Pursuing Happiness discussion groups and the film nights that we host. We are becoming more mission driven and joyful. It is very rewarding to witness.

We also are finding our voice as a church and becoming clearer about our message, declaring that religion is not defined by correct belief but correct action: Deeds over Creeds, as they say. Religion does not require that we mindlessly accept dogma, but rather that we grapple honestly and authentically with the mysteries and challenges of this life and then find a way to serve and give back.

Last night we hosted a screening of "For the Bible Tells Me So," a documentary film that addresses the sometimes destructive and hurtful beliefs that people have with respect to homosexuality and the Bible. The film interviews family members as they grapple with trying to understand and accept a homosexual love-one in light of supposed Biblical teachings. Many people believe that the Bible states clearly that homosexuality is wrong. This is just not the case. I can't tell you how healing and powerful it was for some of the people who came to watch this film to hear this message. It was a real moment of healing for some. It was a real opportunity for ministry for this church.

Sunday, May 4 is our Annual Meeting. We will gather to discuss and vote upon the business of the church and elect officers and new members. We will also take a few moments to celebrate who we are as a church. I hope you can come and be a part of our activities.

See you in church,

Jeff

April 2008


My children and I used to take walks down by Derby Wharf and Salem Harbor. It’s one of the benefits of living in a seaside community. Derby Wharf is a half-mile long outstretch of rock beginning at the historic Customs House and culminating in a small lighthouse out in the Harbor. My kids used to love to walk along the beach at low tide picking out shells and shards of old pottery. That’s right: pottery.

It turns out that a little of Salem’s grand maritime past is discarded in the sand and gravel along Derby Wharf. Sailing vessels from the early 19th Century would pull up to this wharf and deliver their goods and wares to local merchants via the Custom’s House. Some of these goods were transported in clay containers and pots that would often be thrown away once their contents were offloaded. I am told that these pots would be cast down onto the rocks and beach near the wharf, breaking up into bits and pieces. I am sure the ship mates at the time could not have possibly imagined that their smashed pots and containers would become bits of treasure for local kids almost two centuries later.

It is experiences like this that make me realize a very fundamental truth about our lives: there is no such thing as trash. There are only items in our possession that we no longer wish to use for whatever reason. This verity is often overlooked as we go about our hectic, American existence. And yet, for most of our species history, the amount of trash we generated was relatively small and was imminently biodegradable. Not so now. In the last 100 years and especially during the last 50, the development of consumerism and a robust materials economy have made trash a mounting issue and concern (pun intended). This is true not only because of the amount of trash produced but also because of the discarding of synthetic chemicals for the first time into the environment. The average American household generates 7.25 pounds of trash per day and very little of that is actually recycled. Most goes to landfills and incinerators. Some of this trash and waste actually leaches into our natural environment and even our bodies. For an entertaining presentation about this, I highly recommend www.thestoryofstuff.com.

April 22 is Earth Day, increasingly a real holiday in this country. It is a day to remember the natural cycles of this planet on which all of life depend and consider anew the ways that we can reduce our impact. If you think about it, there really is a moral aspect to Earth Day: If there is no real such thing as trash, then we have to think anew about the ethics of piling up so much garbage for future generations. What legacy are we as a society leaving for people two hundred years hence? Why do I suspect that they will not regard our refuse as charming treasures? Going forward, there is enormous virtue in reducing, reusing and recycling. It’s good for our planet and it’s good for our souls.

There is lots of activity this month at the First Church. I hope you each can find time to participate. Happy Spring and Earth Day!

March 2008


Why does the date of Easter float around the calendar, varying from year to year? In some ways it really does not make a whole lot of sense. Unlike Christmas, this most ancient and important of Christian holidays cannot be pinned down to one definitive date. When Easter is celebrated very early (like this year), people often become curious about the origins of this unusual schedule.

This is especially the case when we remember that the "first Easter" occurred at the end of the Jewish Festival of Passover. In fact, in most languages the word for Easter is a derivation of the word for Passover (e.g. Pasque in French and Pascua in Spanish). Passover this year does not even begin until April 20, so how is it possible that we can celebrate Easter almost a month before?

The answer to this question entails a long and complicated history involving astronomy, calendar problems down through the centuries and church politics. Currently, Easter is designated here in the West as the first Sunday that falls after the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox (i.e. the first day of spring or March 21). This was the ancient method preferred by the Church in Alexandria, one of the most influential cities in the ancient Near East.

There have, of course, been other methods. The Orthodox churches in the East always followed the ancient Jewish calendar when it came to Easter, ensuring that is always fell just after Passover as it did in the Bible. To this day, that is how the Orthodox Easter is determined. Passover, incidentally, is always celebrated on a certain date in the Jewish calendar (14 Nisan). However, since the Jews follow a lunar calendar with a 19 year cycle and seven (yes, seven!) "leap months" interspersed therein, the date for Passover floats around our western calendar, though again always falling after the first day of spring.

If this is starting to confuse you then join the club. Personally I have decided that perhaps it makes sense to have a celebration of hope and resurrection less than easy to predict. Finding new hope and life is always unpredictable and contains elements of surprise. Perhaps the ancient "schedulers" were wiser than we thought: permitting the date of Easter to be elusive and difficult to calculate.

Resurrections both big and small never happen when we might expect them. Easter is about the possibility that the despair and sorrow we all sometimes feel in this life can be transformed in a way that we cannot entirely anticipate. Like life, Easter is slightly complex and hard to predict.

Easter is about as early as it can be this year, coming only two days after the first day of spring. I hope you will find the time to come and be a part of the celebration - even if it involves donning snow boots and mittens!

See you in church

February 2008


People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Up until a few years ago driving down a certain thoroughfare in Salem on Saturday afternoons could be an ordeal. As luck or Providence would have it, I found myself needing to drive along this street around 5:00 o’clock each week. And as luck or Providence would have it, there was always a snarl of traffic in one particular spot. The 4:00 p.m. Mass from a certain Roman Catholic parish was just getting out at that time, with dutiful churchgoers attempting to pull out of the parking lot.

It was not the traffic per se that was so frustrating, but rather the driving. I was always amazed at the aggressiveness and the rudeness of the drivers pulling out of the church parking lot. At first I found it kind of funny that people, having just participated in a worship service, would behave this way. After I while I just found it ironic and irritating. The goodwill generated during the Passing of the Peace clearly dissipated by the time folks made it out to the parking lot. It was a little slice of the human condition served up each week on Saturday afternoon in Salem.

I describe this scene not to poke fun at a particular church but rather to illustrate a very real aspect of our spiritual lives. Religious practices after a while can become rote and uninspiring, devolving into a mindless habit. Their influence can remain segmented from our everyday lives. This is a shame since the power of any spiritual path lies in its ability to inform and enliven one’s life, to push and prod and encourage one towards becoming a better person, inside the church and outside.

Every once in a while, I think all of us need a slight shock or change of pace to invigorate our religion. That is why I like the season of Lent in the traditional Christian calendar. These 40 days that lead up to Easter are a time in which we are invited to “shake things up” in our spiritual life. This can involve giving something up (such as a bad habit) or taking something on (such as a new activity or interest). It is a time when we are encouraged to push ourselves out of our “comfort zones” to which we have grown accustomed; to challenge ourselves as a way becoming more aware and conscious.

There are countless ways to do this. Read a book that speaks to your soul. Take up a hobby or volunteer for something. Try prayer or meditation. Work for a cause. Forgive someone or ask for forgiveness. Go to church and actually try to sing the hymns! Or even, heaven forbid, drive with a little more kindness. There are myriad ways that we can “jumpstart” our souls’ journey. The trick is to find something that makes you come alive and points you in the direction of appreciating your life and the lives of others.

Lent begins on February 6, Ash Wednesday. I invite you to consider adopting a practice for the season. And please, if at all possible, drive safely and courteously after church!

See you in church,

January 2008


Recently my eight year old son asked me a question that caught me off guard: “Daddy, what is Santa Clause going to do once the North Pole melts?” In the news recently had been reports about the melting of the Arctic ice sheet. The latest scientific predictions indicate that it could be fully broken apart (during the summer) in as little as 4 years, by 2012. This is the same Artic ice sheet that has been a major factor in maintaining the earth’s climate for the last three million years and probably a lot longer than that. Al Gore calls it the “earth’s air conditioner.”

I guess I should not be entirely surprised by my son’s question. After all, he occasionally listens to the news with me and he has heard me talking with others about climate change. If one hears reports about the impending break up of the polar ice sheets, it’s not too far of a stretch to surmise that Santa will need a new home. I suspect more than just Santa will.

It has been a year since I first traveled down to Nashville, Tennessee to train with Al Gore on global warming. I spent three days with Mr. Gore and 150 people from around the country learning about how best to present the urgency of the scientific reports in a compelling way. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate and there is a 95% chance or greater that human beings are responsible. In the last twelve months, I have traveled around the greater Boston area doing presentations on climate change to a variety of business, education and community groups. I thank the church for supporting me in this endeavor and giving me the time to do this.

I also thank the church for listening (sometimes tolerating?) my occasional comments and references to climate change during services and meetings. I know some of you think it is “a bit much” so I appreciate your good will and forbearance. Ministers of this church have a long tradition of speaking to the major issues of the day. When I went back and looked at our history, I saw men who held my office daring to speak out on the evils of slavery, on the virtues of religious tolerance, and on the importance of women’s and labor rights. At times this church has almost broken apart because of these stances and there are most definitely instances when some of my predecessors left as a result of their advocacy on an issue of the day. So I really do appreciate all of your support and encouragement.

If I am right, the challenge of climate change is going to become one of the single most important issues for the rest of our lifetimes and probably the next 100 years. I truly wish that were an overstatement but it is not. The largest scientific panel ever assembled to study anything, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, makes such a prediction, emphatically. (www.ipcc.ch/)

All of us in this church, city, state and country have a patriotic and moral responsibility to begin to reduce our energy consumption and our emissions of CO2. This cannot simply be an option for the well off and virtuous. It must be a countrywide response that enlists every citizen of our blessed country. According to conservative estimates, the United States needs to reduce its CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. We actually probably need to do more than that. And if we don’t? I fear that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will truly hate us for the world we have left them.

This is part of what motivates me here in 2008 to risk being labeled a fool. I want to be able to look my children and grandchildren in the eye and say that when this country saw the enormous problem we created, we did something. All of us would benefit from imagining similar future conversations with our descendants. The golden rule extends not just across space, but also across time.

In the coming weeks and months, you will find in the newsletter a variety of information that provides practical tips for reducing your energy consumption and emissions. I can’t think of a better resolution in 2008 than to find a few specific ways to live more lightly on our small, beautiful planet. Here’s to the New Year.

See you in church,