From the Minister > Minister's Musings > 2009 Archive

Minister's Musings

Archives 2009







December 2009


Several years ago, we began something of a counter-cultural tradition here at the First Church. It may be one of the more socially radical things we do each year. Ten or so days before Christmas, we gather at the church in the early evening, bundle up in scarves and hats, and venture out into the dark and cold to do the unthinkable: sing to strangers. We go caroling. Armed with flashlights and rumpled songbooks, we attempt to bring a few tidings of great joy, or at least a little bit of good cheer.

Every year it begins the same way. We arrive at the church, circumspect and unsure if this is a good idea. We nervously check our flashlights, hand out songbooks and wanly practice a few carols before we embark. Then, we step out into the cold night air and start walking down the street looking for a suitable mark. That’s when the magic of the night slowly commences. Ringing a doorbell, we huddle together on the sidewalk and begin to sing: “Silent night, holy night...” Sometimes a light pops on or a door cracks open, with someone nervously listening from within. Sometimes a face peeks out from behind a curtain not sure what to do. Every once in a while, a light flips off, which has the effect of making us sing louder.

There is something elemental and ancient inherent in singing good tidings to people you don’t always know. A sort of leap of faith is required to do this in our distrustful day and time. Caroling runs up against our sense of tight-lipped propriety here in New England. (The Puritans frowned upon it, after all.) And yet, after an hour or so of caroling, with fingertips and noses numb from the cold, one can’t help but feel that the possibility for lasting peace and joy in this life involves moments and opportunities like this. How often do any of us have the chance to bring tidings of comfort and joy – if only for a moment? If there is to be peace in this world, I suspect it involves moments of such revelry, if only to remind ourselves of the ties that bind and the blessings we all share. Good will must be shared, not just quietly considered.

This December is chock full of events and holiday mirth at the First Church, including an evening of caroling, (which always concludes with sipping hot soup by the fire in the Cleveland Room). I hope you all can join us to celebrate the season. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Good Yule!

November 2009


For the last four years, I have had a somewhat usual way of reminding myself to be thankful. Every six months, my wife and I take our youngest son to Children’s Hospital in Boston for an evaluation of his heart. Each time, it is more or less the same routine: driving into Boston, hurriedly parking the car (since we always seem to be running late for these appointments), rushing into the lobby of Children’s Hospital, and then dashing up to the second floor Pediatric Cardiology Unit. Our typical visit usually lasts three hours or so. We then we make our way back down to the lobby of the hospital at a much slower pace, sometimes stopping for lunch.

None of this is especially noteworthy except for one key observation that can almost be assumed: we are not alone. Children’s Hospital is teeming with children and their families. Some are happy. Some are sad. Some look elated, others forlorn. What I can tell you for sure is that nothing makes you feel more thankful for your lot in life than spending a few minutes in the lobby of this hospital. Each time I leave that place, I am impressed yet again with the quality of the staff and thoroughly thankful for my life and situation. If you have hands and feet that work, if you can walk and talk, if you think of yourself as reasonably put together and bright, then you are truly blessed. Not everyone can take those things for granted.

Gratitude is not so much a state of being as it is an orientation, a mindset. The Roman statesman Cicero once observed that it was the mother of all other virtues. It is a fundamental recognition that our lives, our health and whatever good fortune we possess are gifts – not givens. Sure, we all benefit from hard work and individual initiative, but autonomy is a temporary stage (or ruse) in this life. When we take a moment to consider all the many things that we take for granted and we did not actually earn, the realization can be staggering. In a very real way, I think authentic spirituality cultivates this perspective as we go about our lives: the profound recognition of how dependent we all are on forces and developments over which we have little or no control. Most of the time, this leads us to count our blessings AND to be a blessing to those around us.

We have a busy November here at the First Church including lectures and pancake breakfasts and special services. I wish you a joyous season for Giving Thanks.

October 2009


I just paid my life insurance premium for the year – a sobering moment for any parent. This is not a small amount of money but it buys me the piece of mind and security that my family will be cared for in the event that I should die in the next twelve months. Of course, this is highly unlikely, which is why there is a business called insurance. According to actuarial tables I consulted recently, the average man my age has only a .002026 chance of dying; i.e. approximately 2 out of every 1000 men my age might pass away in the next year. However even knowing the unlikely odds (and that I eat salads and wear my seatbelt), I still nonetheless sent in my insurance premium. In a sense it would be wrong not to do so if I can. Certainly it would be irresponsible. When calculating risk, one must make a distinction between likelihood and severity and plan accordingly.

Oddly enough, I delve into this because our country is currently debating a climate change bill. There are very powerful interests in this country who maintain that we cannot afford to reduce our emissions and confront climate change. They claim it would harm the economy and be too expensive. And yet, the largest scientific group ever formally assembled to study anything (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who won the Nobel Prize for their work in 2007), has declared that the world’s industrialized nations must reduce their carbon emissions drastically (i.e. 80% or more) within 40 years. If we fail to do this, preeminent scientists like James Hansen at NASA believe that we are consigning our children and future generations to potentially dire circumstances. According to the best estimates of scientists who look at this, the risk of runaway climate change with an 8 degree (Centigrade!) increase in average temperatures is approximately 1%. Maybe higher. And yet there are huge interests in our country claiming that we cannot afford to address the issue, including the US Chamber of Commerce; a stance that I believe will be regarded by future generations as irresponsible and immoral.

Our country and world is confronted with a gathering storm that could potentially devastate our way of life. There is 1% chance that this might occur and there are people claiming that we cannot do anything to respond. I have just one question: Don’t these people have life insurance. Don’t they understand the principle of protecting oneself from catastrophic events or changes?

On Saturday, October 24, the First Church will be participating in 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action. Among other things, we will be joining in a rally at 2:00 PM at the Essex Street Mall. We will also ring our church bell 350 times starting at 3:00. The goal of the day is to raise awareness about the importance of the U.S. passing a strong climate change law this year and moving our country onto a more sustainable path that will help the world achieve atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 350 ppm. I invite all of you to come and join us as we participate in this historic movement. We each have a stake in ensuring the future and insuring our world.

September 2009


Year ago, I felt almost embarrassed about it. Early in my ministry here in Salem I would often receive unsettling, quizzical looks when I mentioned the fact that my church took a break in July. I was practically apologetic as I tried to explain to people why the church was “closed” for a month. Inevitably, it seemed like someone would ask with a sardonic grin: “Why, does God take a vacation?” I would nervously shrug my shoulders and smile.

Trying to explain our church calendar to someone not familiar with the rhythms of a New England seaside town can be a little challenging. In other regions and traditions, the idea of closing the church for a month is outrageous, even anathema. Here in Salem, it just makes sense. Traditionally the height of the summer season corresponded with the time of peak labor. It was during the warmer months when many of our members had the best opportunity to set their sails, or cast their nets, or sink their hoe in the stony topsoil around these parts. Summer was the time to get things done and prepare for the coming winter.

Admittedly, things have changed since that bygone era. Even today, however, all of us benefit from the change in routine ushered in (hopefully) by summer. Worship, reflection and contemplation occur in myriad ways and places. The magic and spectacle of a New England summer are best admired and appreciated outdoors: the scent of basil in a garden patch, the rush of a starboard breeze, the feeling of sand under our bare feet, the crack of a serve or the whoosh of a drive. Summer smacks of charmed possibility even it does not always materialize. There is value in breaking from our regular routine and finding time to recharge, regroup and re-create.

In a way I think this pause makes the resumption of our “regularly scheduled” existence all the more satisfying. As we gather together once again, fresh from our fields and boats and outings, we find that we have plenty to celebrate and to share. The wonder of the summer break can inform and enliven our religious life. It can be a source of inspiration and a reminder of how fortunate we are to live where we do. And so these days, I don’t worry at all about what anyone thinks of the church’s summer break. I encourage people to have a great summer and to find a religious community that encourages wonder and awe – both inside and outside.

Sunday, September 13 is Homecoming Sunday. As you will see inside, we have a terrific fall planned here at the First Church. I hope you can join us.

June 2009


Three weeks ago I attended a conference for The Climate Project in Nashville, TN. Founded by Al Gore two and half years ago, this is a group of 1,500 people from all over the world whom Mr. Gore has trained to deliver an updated, slightly more technical version of his now famous slideshow about global warming and the climate crisis. I am proud to say I am one of those people trained by Mr. Gore and I was proud to be one of the approximately 350 people in attendance at this conference in May.

Among the highlights of this trip was having the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Dr. Rejendra Pachauri, the head of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Gore and they are an international organization of some 1,500 scientists who have conducted the most comprehensive scientific assessment of the data pertaining to changes in our climate. It is not an exaggeration to state that they are the largest scientific body ever formally assembled to study anything. (Their findings can be found at www.ipcc.ch/).

It was amazing and sobering to listen to Dr. Pachauri state that we are living in a five to ten year window of time during which the largest emitters of CO2 must reduce their emissions. If we do not we are potentially consigning ourselves to runaway climate change that could result in a dramatic collapse in the natural systems that support over six billion people on this planet. Drinking water shortages, an increase in sea levels, the collapse of major fish populations in the world’s oceans, and environmental refugees on a scale never before encountered in human history are all distinct and real possibilities in the next 30 to 60 years if the wealthy countries of the world do nothing. And right now, that is what we are on track to do, for all practical purposes. Simply increasing our level of recycling (for example) is not even close to the scale of response that is required.

There is a huge disconnect between the warnings by the overwhelming majority of the world scientific community and the policies being proposed by our government. It’s actually breathtaking. We need to reduce our CO2 emissions in this country by 80% or more in less that 40 years time. This requires a society wide response that is almost unprecedented in our nation’s history. “Almost,” however, is the key word.

Some of you might remember what occurred on December 7, 1941. It was the day that United States was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. It resulted in a huge, overwhelming, unprecedented response by the United States. People began conserving resources. They planted Victory Gardens. Factories retooled their assembly lines to produce bombers, not cars. I remember my grandparents describing the sense of resolve that grabbed hold of the country on Pearl Harbor Day.

Well, in a sense, we need another Pearl Harbor, except this time, we need the enemy is our huge carbon footprint as a nation. This time the enemy is our ridiculously high dependence on fossil fuels. The challenge we face is to find a way to maintain our standard of living while living more lightly on this planet. Unlike 1941, we need to declare war on our consumption. The good news is that we can and this is beginning to take hold in certain parts of our society. Even so, I see nowhere close to the urgency and concern that is necessary and appropriate. Indeed, when I begin to describe what our country is up against, I am quite often met with expressions that would indicate I am either crazy or far too radical.

I suspect in the next ten years, more and more of us will realize the challenge we are up against. I hope and pray that is the case. Going forward, it is our patriotic duty to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels and pursue renewable alternatives. Going forward is our moral responsibility to find a way to live more lightly and sustainably on this planet, our only home.

On June 13, the City of Salem will host its 2nd Annual Green Fair at The Old Town Hall. There you will find a huge amount of ideas and vendors for “going green.”

I wish you a happy – and low carbon - summer season.

May 2009


A couple of years ago, I had a somewhat unique experience in the local Home Depot. I was standing at the Business Services Desk inquiring about setting up a business account for the church. I was handed a one page application that asked the typical sorts of things one would expect: name of business, address, phone number, contact person, etc. There was one item on the form that gave me pause, however: “year business was founded.” After a moment’s thought, I figured I should not lie. (It would look bad as a minister!) So I wrote down, “August 6, 1629.” I then wrote down our State ID number, signed the form and handed it to the clerk behind the desk. This gruff looking man turned his back to me and sat down at a computer to enter my data. After a minute I heard a guffaw of laughter. “Sir, is this date for real?” he asked. The computer won’t even accept it.”

“Sorry,” I said. “We were founded before computers.”

Sometimes being part of an almost 400 year old institution presents unexpected opportunities for amusement. Every once in while, I find myself amazed at the longevity of this church, especially when I try to explain it to others. I think part of the reason The First Church has been around as long as it has is that it is a community that remains relevant and dynamic. We have been able to inspire, motivate, chasten and encourage generations of members. It has nothing to do with our building (which is only a paltry 173 years old, by the way). It has little to do with our hymnals or even our location. Rather, it has everything to do with our covenant, the simple promise we make to each other during each service. Human beings are promise making (and sometimes promise breaking) animals. We need places and groups that inspire us to make good and decent commitments in this life and then live in a way that best allows us to keep them. That in a sense is what our covenant does. That is what our “walk together” is all about. When we gather to worship something greater than ourselves, when we collectively acknowledge the creating, sustaining and transforming power amidst our lives (be it God or some other word we might prefer), when we come together to effect some common good in our community, we are, in effect, continuing our “walk together.” This has been the abiding and hallmark source of this church’s ability to remain relevant in a world that is always changing.

On Sunday, May 3, we will have our Annual Meeting. We will gather to review reports, discuss current issues and vote upon the business of the church. We will also elect new members and church leaders. From one perspective, this is nothing new or remarkable. After all, we have been holding meetings like this for almost four centuries. From another point of view, however, this meeting is extraordinary: it is a celebration of our community and proof that our religious community remains vibrant and engaged. This “walk together,” that we all commit to as members of this church, is what makes this day very straightforward but also quite remarkable.

April 2009


At least twice in the last ten years I have performed an unusual action during the “Children’s Moment” on Sunday mornings. As most of you know, each week there is a time early in the service when the children are called forward and I tell them a story or lead them in a discussion while the congregation listens. On two separate occasions in the last decade, I have done the following: I announce to the children that I am about to perform what I consider to be “a religious and spiritual act.” Then, as quietly and ceremoniously as possible, I proceed to a nearby pew and pull out a lamp with a shade. Removing the shade, I slowly unscrew the incandescent light bulb. I then reach behind the Communion Table and pull out a compact fluorescent light bulb (a CFL) and screw it in.

The first time I performed this “ritual” almost ten years ago, I was met with more than a few snickers from the kids and plenty of eye rolling from the adults. More recently, the reaction was more solemn and quieter. Performing such a mundane task in such a ceremonial way playfully and powerfully reinforces the new reality in which we find ourselves as a community and as a race. Starting now, our religion must embrace living more lightly on this planet. Beginning now, sustainability must become an essential part of our religion. I truly believe that going forward, any authentic spirituality must encourage people to live wisely and consume modestly.

We are about to live through a period of dramatic change in the history of our country. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, those of us in this country must reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by more than 80% by 2050. If we do not do this, we are consigning our children and their children to a potentially bleak world. The kids who attend this church currently are members of the generation who will be forced to face this challenge head on. We should be preparing them to think about their lives and their lifestyles in a way that will inspire and embolden them in the years ahead with the changes they will have to make.

April 22 is Earth Day, a holiday that is only growing in importance. I hope all of us will take this as an opportunity to consider making some changes and saving some energy. Replace a few light bulbs. Install a programmable thermostat in your house. Have your furnace tuned up or perhaps updated. But more than that, find a way to connect the life of your soul to the life of this planet. Read up on the latest dire findings about the climate. Go to www.myfootprint.org and measure your ecological “footprint.” Plant a garden. Talk to your neighbors about what you are doing (even the one who watches Fox News and doesn’t believe in Climate Change!) Spirituality is not just about going to church on Sundays. It’s about recognizing interconnection and finding a way to serve in this life. It can even involve something as simple as changing a light bulb. I’ve seen it done.

We have a huge month of festivity and fun in store at the First Church with the Easter and Passover Seasons. I hope you can come and be a part of it. See you in church,

March 2009


You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

These words from the Bible are the inspiration behind the well-known ritual performed in many churches each year on Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of the season of Lent in the traditional church calendar. I can remember as a teenager during an evening service, standing in line waiting for the minister to “paint” on my forehead a bit of ashes and intone softly, “Remember that you are dust.” It actually is a very strange and somehow exhilarating experience to have someone look you in the eye and speak those words. It can inspire reflection about how short the time is that we have in this life. As it turns out, dust is both an amazing and daunting thing to be.

During this last month we celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, that most famous of biologists. Among other things, we talked about how the insights from biology, cosmology and archeology have been assembled into a new “Common Creation Story.” The findings and key conclusions of science are now revealing for the first time how life on this planet came to be. One of the “chapters” to this 14 billion year long story tells us that our bodies and most of the elements on this planet are actually the debris and “dust” from first generation stars that exploded billions of years ago. In the process they created heavier elements (than just hydrogen and helium) including the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen that combine to form the blocks of all life. We literally are the products of ancient stardust. Who knew? In this sense, to be dust is amazing, even awe-inspiring.

But the writers of Genesis were implying something different I suspect when they mention dust. There is in many religious teachings this reminder of our mortality, the transient nature of our lives. We literally are beings that emerge and develop and live for relatively short periods of time. Our bodies emerge and then return to the earth from which they come. There is enormous wisdom in reminding ourselves periodically of this unavoidable verity. Ash Wednesday and Lent can do that for us by inspiring humility without humiliation. I personally regard this season as a reminder to take nothing for granted, to count my blessings, and find ways to “reconnect” with my world and myself.

We actually have several ways we are doing just that this month at the First Church. On Saturday, March 14, we will be hosting a conference on ecological sustainability and how we might move towards living more in balance with the earth, as individuals and as a society. In addition, we will be having a special communion service to mark the beginning of Lent on the first Sunday in March. We will pause to celebrate our lives and remember how exhilarating - and humbling - it is to be comprised of dust.

See you in church,

 

February 2009


The voice of the Lord cries to the…Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked…? Can I tolerate wicked scalesa bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; inhabitants speak lies,tongues of deceit in their. Micah 6:9-12

With all of the headlines of the last month about corruption and dishonesty amongst America’s business elite, I decided to conduct a bit of informal research. At the Tuck School at Dartmouth, there is one course taught on ethics, an elective. At Harvard Business School, a quick review of their core curriculum for the MBA program reveals no class that deals explicitly with morality, though you can register for a course named “Managing the Modern Financial System.” At the Sloan School of Management at MIT, there are actually two classes offered on ethics, again both being an elective option for second year MBA students. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business at least lists “Ethics and Responsibility” as part of its “core curriculum,” though it is unclear whether an actual course is offered.

These schools produce some of the most powerful and influential business leaders in the country, including our former President, who has an MBA from Harvard. In my recent attempts to understand the depth and breadth of our current financial crisis, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to look at how some of the people responsible for this mess were trained. I did not find any answers, but what became evident is that these schools place a premium on technical analysis and relegate considerations of ethics and the use of power to an afterthought.

We are living during a time when some of this country’s most wealthy and powerful think it is acceptable to enrich themselves and their associates while the Federal Government is spending more than $700 billion (to date) to clean up their mess. We are living amidst a financial system where the best and brightest honestly believed until very recently that it was acceptable to leverage themselves 30 to 1 and then risk that money in high stakes positions. There were a whole lot of “smart” people who got caught up in a culture of short-term profits, shameless promotion and greed. And we are literally going to be paying the price for this for the next 30 years.

It would appear that we are amidst a turning point when the rules and needs for modern life are changing and yet human nature and sin have not. Indeed if the words from the Prophet Micah from 2,700 years ago are any indication, nothing much seems to have changed. The only difference now seems to be that the stakes are higher: the number of individuals involved is far greater, the amount of money is far bigger, and most importantly, the number of victims is far larger.

Somehow we need to rediscover the lost notion of commonwealth, the idea that all us have a part to play in making our country and society a better place; that we are all interconnected and “in this same boat together.” Instead of analytically focusing on our own narrow interests, we need a whole lot more people willing to live with the larger needs of the country - even the world - in mind. Some would say that such a suggestion is silly idealism. I disagree. I think it is the beginning of an authentic spiritual path; i.e. attempting to take into consideration the needs others. In fact, it is the sort of thing that is taught in houses of worship and kindergartens all over the world. Perhaps the business schools and more of their graduates should pay attention!

February at the First Church holds many opportunities for community, reflection and fun. I hope you can come and be a part of it. See you in church,

January 2009


Every year it seems like it gets more difficult and annoying. The amount of time required increases and the tools needed grow in number. One would think that opening presents on Christmas morning would be a delightful experience rather than a challenging chore. But that was before toy companies found a way to display their goods in new fangled packaging that practically requires a blow torch and the "jaws of life" to extract the truck or doll for gazing youthful eyes and hands. In the last five years, the way that toys are packaged / secured has become much more complicated and I find my frustrated amusement growing into a less playful concern. As I sat there on Christmas day with an array of knives, screwdrivers and scissors by my side, I was amazed at how involved and lengthy the process has become simply to open a box containing a child's toy - not to mention how much paper, plastic and metal wires are discarded.

I find myself wondering who puts these packages together. Given the number of wire twists and strategically placed pieces of packaging tape, it can't be done by machine alone. Clearly, there are people behind these packages (working away in China, no doubt) and a whole lot of wasted energy and material as well. And all of this is for the purpose of encouraging American consumers like me to purchase a toy. There seems to be an "escalation of arms" when it comes to toy packaging that is bizarre and just out right annoying.

Now why would a minister be writing about this in a column? (Even one with three children?) It has to do with sustainability and the moral imperative of moving towards generating less waste in our society, not more. It also has to do with salvation, or re-use as it were, a term that is central to both the mundane world of trash hauling and the more rarified world of theology. Most of the world's religions deal with methods for using the ordinary stuff of life in extraordinary ways, Christianity included. That is why we call it salvation, after all.

So as I sat there cutting and tearing away at the latest toy packaging, I couldn't help but wonder about what was wrong with this picture. We live on an earth with finite resources. More of us are becoming aware of the urgent need to reduce our ecological footprints (our material and energy consumption) significantly (to measure yours, go to www.myfootprint.org). And yet, here we all are generating more waste on one day in this country than some countries produce in a month or even a year. And we are being told that in order to jumpstart our economy, we need to consume more, not less. Our economic assumptions are at odds with the needs of our planet (and by extension ourselves). I suspect this may very well emerge as one of the biggest challenges for the next 50 years.

If sin can be defined as "missing the mark," than we as a culture are way off target in terms of our use of stuff, without even trying to be. I dare suspect in the coming years and decades, we all will become more aware of the moral obligation to reduce, reuse and recycle. Maybe some toy companies will get the message and see this as a marketing opportunity. After all, if YOU could purchase a toy whose limited packaging did not require a bolt cutter to open, would you buy it? At this point I know I would! Gladly.

We have a fun and engaging January planned at the First Church. I wish you all a happy, healthy and sustainable New Year. See you in church,

Jeff