Category Archives: 2011

Is Christmas Really Just for Kids?

  by Duane R. Brown During Advent, I often hear people say: “Christmas is just for the kids.”  I also hear people frequently complain that Christmas services often deal with too much “adult” material.  I want to explore those concerns in this article. While the Christmas traditions associated with gift-giving, Santa Claus, and happy family gatherings does indeed provide an enjoyable atmosphere for young children, those things have little in common with the Nativity story found in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.  In fact, if we are concerned about the impact it might have on impressionable young children, we might need to censor the story so severely that virtually nothing is left but to say that “Jesus was born.”  All but the most theologically conservative biblical scholars agree that the Nativity stories were never intended to provide historical details of Jesus’ birth, but rather to provide an introductory theological interpretation or overview of Jesus’ entire ministry – his life, death, and resurrection.  But even if we were to take the story as historically factual, there are many elements that parents might not want their children exposed to. Obedience to Dreams In Matthew’s account, Joseph discovers that his fiancé is pregnant, and rather than create a public scandal, decides to quietly abandon his wedding plans.  It’s easy to imagine how deeply hurt a man in that position would feel, and how disillusioned he would be with the moral character of his intended spouse.  But then, he has a dream in which an angel instructs him to go ahead and marry her anyway, because God is the One responsible this shocking and unexpected development.  So Joseph gets up and does what he’s told in the dream.  (In fact, he will respond to the instructions given to him in dreams several more times as this drama unfolds.) But is this responsiveness to dream messages something we want to expose our children to?  Do we want to encourage them to even entertain the idea that their dreams might be divinely inspired?  Do we want to suggest that decisions about something as serious as choosing a spouse or finding a place to live should hinge on the power of dreams?  Are we so confident that God speaks to us in our dreams that we’d like to encourage our kids to find God’s word for them there . . . and to act accordingly? Unwed Motherhood Most parents feel tremendous ambivalence about dealing with children’s questions about sex and reproduction.  Although we want them to have adequate and reliable information, we usually try not to give them more information than they’re able to handle.  We usually want to instill in them at an early age the idea that babies are the result of the wonderful love that two committed (i.e. married) people have for each other (. . . and then hope they won’t ask too many more questions about the process by which that happens!) But both Matthew and Luke’s gospels indicate that Mary was pregnant before she was married.  Not only that, but they go on to assure us that it’s not only OK, but something to be happy about!  Obviously, the Nativity stories don’t intend to advocate unwed motherhood, but if we expose our children to this story, are they going to know how to draw the line between when it’s OK and when it isn’t?  Are you willing to take that chance?  Are you ready to explain how to draw that line if your children ask? Homelessness, Refugees, and Immigrants Luke’s gospel states that Jesus’ first shelter was in a dirty, lowly stable, and that his first bed was an animal’s feeding trough, because there wasn’t any room at the local inn.   In other words, on the night of Jesus’ birth, his parents were homeless “street people.”  From the moment of his birth, he had more in common with transients and vagrants than he did with middle- or upper-class families who give birth in sanitary hospitals or lovely mansions.  Luke seems to be going out of his way to remind readers that the world is a place where even the most wonderful, beautiful, and innocent children aren’t always welcomed or appreciated.  Instead, they’re rejected and dismissed as unimportant and without value, having to settle for the most primitive accommodations just to survive. Are we sure we want to introduce that serious and frightening truth to our young ones?  Aren’t we worried that they’ll be traumatized by grim realities of homelessness?  Don’t we worry that they will use their active imaginations to vividly identify with the emotions and dangers that afflict the lives of the homeless?  Or are we willing to encourage them to go prowling the streets of our modern cities in order to see for themselves the Christ Child who may be being born today? Furthermore, how will this story influence our children’s attitudes toward strangers and foreigners?  We usually teach our children to be wary of strangers, and to be careful about associating with the “wrong” kind of people.  In our post-911 world, we may be particularly concerned about undocumented aliens, immigrants, and refugees from other lands.  Aren’t we worried that the Nativity story will lead our children to have a more hospitable, welcoming attitude toward such people than we as parents might feel is warranted? Politics Politics is a subject that we don’t like to talk about much in church.  But both Nativity stories liberally uses words like “Son of David,” “Savior,” Son of the Most High,” “Christ/Messiah,” “King of the Jews” to describe Jesus.  These are all highly political references.  All the kings and emperors of the time used those titles to describe themselves.  (Many of them also claimed to have had births accompanied by supernatural phenomena.)  No early reader of the Nativity stories would have missed the point that the gospel writers were saying: “This poor, insignificant child born in such obscure and scandalous circumstances is the TRUE leader of our people, and NOT the ones who currently sit in the chambers of political power.”  These titles are political dynamite!  They make claims that political leaders of the day could only hear as revolutionary and seditious.  That’s why Matthew tells us that Herod wanted to kill the child.  The message here is that not only is Jesus’ own life in constant danger from the political rulers of his day, but that those who acclaim him as “Christ” are also in danger of from those who would challenge Jesus’ right to have supreme control over our lives. But are we willing to introduce our children to the fact that there’s an element of political disloyalty to current governmental officials that’s inherent in the Nativity story?  Do we really want to expose our children to the idea that in Jesus we have someone with a higher claim to authority than presidents, congressmen, policemen, military personnel . . . or even their own parents? Responsible Behavior Luke tells us that shepherds were working in nearby fields when Jesus was born, and that they were visited by angels who told them the good news of the Savior’s birth.  After the angels left, the shepherds decided to leave their appointed tasks and go see for themselves whether this was all true.  So off they went, and sure enough, they found the child just as they were told they would, and they all ended up amazed and delighted by the whole experience. But are we comfortable exposing our children to a story that might encourage them to walk off from their assigned responsibilities to investigate current rumors?  “Angel” means “messenger,” and there’s nothing about the word that implies wings or white robes or halos.  So how are our kids going to distinguish the “angels” from the other “messengers” they encounter who may offer them news about things they may be tempted to walk off and check out for themselves?  If the owner of the sheep had come and found that his hired help had gone AWOL and left his sheep unprotected, he probably wouldn’t be very happy about it.  Neither would we, as parents, be very happy to find that our kids had wandered off somewhere and hadn’t stayed in the place we left them.  (Interestingly, herding sheep in ancient times was often a job relegated to young children.)  So what will our kids take from this story about what constitutes “responsible” behavior?  Will they continue to listen to us, or will they listen to “angels?” Conclusion As you can see from the discussion above, the Nativity story is filled with potential land mines for the unsuspecting parent.  Should we even expose our children to such volatile material?  How can we let them hear this story without being afraid that it will give them nightmares . . . or worse, lead them into behavior that we may not approve?  If we “censor” or “sanitize” the story from all these disturbing elements, then what do we have left? There’s no getting around the fact that the Nativity story is not designed to lull our children to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.  It’s not really a children’s story at all, but a story written for adults – adults who know the brutal and coarse ways of the world; who understand the heartbreak of a lover who feels betrayed; who understand the dilemma of an unwed mother; who know the bitter reality of homelessness and life on the streets; and who know that walking off a job usually has serious consequences.  It is for such people that the story is written, and it is written in such a way as to jolt, shock, and dazzle them with the utter unlikelihood that such a series of difficult situations and circumstances could possibly contain a revelation of God’s ultimate act of love for the world. No, the Nativity story is not for kids, but for adults who have adult experiences and face adult problems.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us have thought about it before.  Against the background of our culture, with its Santa Clauses, Christmas trees, and flying reindeer, it strikes us as a violation – an unwanted intrusion – into the comfortable familiarity of our holiday traditions.   Like Jesus adult ministry, it challenges us to embrace something radically new and different that God is bringing into our experience.  But in order to embrace that new reality, it requires us to abandon some of the ideas, traditions, and behaviors that are no longer relevant to the new situation in which we find ourselves.  And just as Jesus’ ministry was met with resistance and hostility, so do we sometimes feel ourselves angrily resisting a Christmas message that turns out to be much different than we had expected. Perhaps the following questions will help us to figure out how we should deal with the Nativity story in the year ahead:
  • What is the essence of the Christmas message for you?   Where is that essential element found in the birth narratives?
  • In light of the discussion above, what is the most important element of the Nativity story that we would like to emphasize to our children?   How much of the Nativity story would have to be ignored or downplayed to do that?
  • The birth of Jesus (as well as his life, death and resurrection) challenges the status quo of his day – religiously, socially, politically, and economically.  How can we celebrate Christmas in such a way that allows it to challenge our lifestyles, but still be a joyful experience?
  • What aspects of our Christmas traditions should be maintained at all costs, and which should be abandoned or reinvented?  Why?
  • Should the Christmas story always make us happy, or are there aspects of the story that should make us uncomfortable?  What is the basis of our joy at Christmas?  What about it should cause us some discomfort?

Pastor’s Pen for November, 2011

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  - Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus makes it very clear that the essence of Life is to be found in loving God and loving others.  It is an incredibly simple concept, but one that experience teaches us is much more difficult to live out.  For one thing, when Jesus uses the word “love,” he’s talking about actions, and not about feelings.  It’s not about what we think or feel about God or the people around us, but about what our behavior expresses about our level of concern.  Many people say they believe in God, but those beliefs don’t always reflect much love for God - they don’t pray; they don’t spend time immersing themselves in scripture; they don’t attend worship; they don’t talk about God’s presence in their lives.  They may be good, moral, socially-responsible citizens who work tirelessly for worthwhile causes, but nothing about their behavior points to any sort of relationship to God.  On the other hand, there are also those who spend so much time in prayer, bible study, and cultivating their inner spiritual life that they never get around to serving anyone else.  They may have a rich personal prayer life, but keep it carefully hidden behind closed doors.  Their love for God is never in doubt, but their love for others may not be evident.  In fact, they can sometimes come across as so self-righteous, judgmental, and holier-than-thou that they drive others away!  Depending on our past experiences and current circumstances, most of us probably tend to lean toward one extreme or the other.  We see the dangers of both, and choose to embrace whichever seems to be the lesser of two evils.  As a result, we find ourselves with churches that cultivate piety without social responsibility, or churches who cultivate social engagement without any spiritual witness. But Jesus doesn’t settle for an either/or approach - he wants our faith to be a both/and experience.  He calls us to cultivate a spiritual life that connects us simultaneously to God and to others (both friends and strangers alike).  He doesn’t call us to love God and then love others, or love others and then love God, but to show our love for God as we show our love others.  For churches like ours, this means learning to dissolve the artificial line between Christian education and mission.  It means integrating service with spiritual development, and making our witness to Jesus an integral part of our effort to alleviate injustice and relieve human suffering.  Strengthening our faith and offering practical assistance to others should be two sides of the same coin.  When people get involved in our church’s life (whether they’re members yet or not), they should be able to find immediate opportunities to deepen their relationship to God even as they roll up their sleeves to help others. The Church is not a social-service agency.  Our job is not primarily to solve social problems, but to introduce people to a Higher Power that is at work in us and in the world, healing the brokenness of our lives and relationships, and empowering us to accomplish more than we ever thought possible.  We can only do that effectively when our love for God and love for others are both visible simultaneously.  Jesus’ life showed us how our humanity and God’s divinity can be indistinguishable.  Our ministry as a church should be that way too.  - Duane

Thank you!

THANK YOU, ONE AND ALL!!! As we get ready to enter the Thanksgiving season, I want to say a special word of thanks to everyone who participated in any way in the series of “Pasta with the Pastor” dinners.  Every meal was magnificent, and the fellowship we shared around the table each week was even more nourishing and enjoyable.  Thanks to the organizers, the chefs, and the attendees for not only making this a wonderful opportunity for Amy and me to get to know people.  Thanks also for providing an opportunity for great conversations and aLOT of laughter.  I hope that every gathering we have in the future will always be characterized by that same life-giving spirit! Blessings to all. Duane

Pastor’s Pen for October, 2011

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27) It’s common nowadays to hear people say that they’re “spiritual, but not religious.” I’m never sure what that really means beyond the fact that they don’t attend worship or participate in church-related activities. In most cases, the people who describe themselves this way are pleasant, kind, civic-minded individuals of good moral character. They are good neighbors, give their time and money to worthwhile charitable causes, and seem to enjoy the lives they’re living. In many ways, they embody the qualities of life to which Christians aspire. They just don’t feel any drawn to participate in the life of the church. They feel no need to sit in pews reciting words they don’t understand, to sing hymns whose words and melodies reflect a by-gone era, or to spend endless hours in meetings that ultimately seem to accomplish little of lasting significance. So are these people missing anything by their lack of involvement in the church? Perhaps it depends on how they answer questions such as these: • Do their lives have a meaning that’s larger than their own private dreams? • When they face a challenge they cannot overcome, do they have a Higher Power that they can turn to and rely on? • When they fail to achieve a cherished goal, do they have someone to turn to that can reassure them that their lives still have value? • When their health or physical abilities begin to decline, do they know where to find a sense of wholeness, peace, and joy that can never be lost? • When a person (or a relationship) dies, do they know how to find Someone who will never abandon them? • When tragedy or injustice overwhelms them, do they know how to keep their bitterness and pain from poisoning their souls? • When their lives hit a dead end, do they know where to find a New Beginning? • When they feel helpless and trapped, do they know where to turn to find true freedom? • When enemies appear, can they find the power to love and forgive them? The religious life is not a matter of archaic rites and rituals. It’s not a matter of buildings, budgets, or institutional maintenance. It’s not a matter of beliefs, concepts, and ideas. It’s a matter of grappling with the complexities of life together in a community that draws its purpose and energy from the presence of God at work in its midst. For all its imperfections, the church continues offer us an opportunity to be (or become) such a community. Each of us is on a unique spiritual journey. The church is there to remind us that it is a journey that we are meant to take that journey together, not alone. Duane

Note from Marjorie

My thanks to all who attended and contributed to my flood-delayed "goodbye" potluck party at Steele Chapel on Tuesday evening, September 6th on Pastor Duane's "watch" and with Duane and Amy in attendance. I SO appreciated that the choir asked us to gather that evening in the sanctuary before dinner so that they could sing the lovely piece which they had planned for me on the Sunday of the hurricane (my last Sunday) when we had to cancel worship due to the weather. I was pleased that Lynn Bujnak, our Vermont UCC Conference Minister was able to attend that evening and that my partner Carol was able to accompany me. There was great food to share, a beautifully decorated cake, much laughter, terrific spirit, and such very thoughtful gifts including the lovely quilt, a book I'd been wanting to read (ironically about the 1927 flood and how Vermont recovered from it which was chosen for me before "Irene" arrived) and a generous "purse" of money with which to purchase art supplies to use in my retirement. THANK YOU ALL very much. We did good "interim work" together to help you prepare for your next chapter in ministry and I am honored and grateful to have been a part of it. Blessings and gratitude, Marjorie MacNeill

Sharon Food Shelf Hurricane Irene Relief Efforts

September 5, 2011 In response to the request for help from the town of Sharon, the food shelf has been the receiving center for food donations and distribution of emergency supplies for all who express their need for such items. It has been astounding how much support we have received here at the Sharon Food Shelf.  As supplies of food, hygiene items, cleaning solutions and local garden produce has come to our door, a volunteer staff of local town and regular food shelf volunteers have responded offering help to unload and shelf item for those people to access. We have been open since 12:00 noon on 9/1/11 with a roadside stand of garden produce for anyone who wished to stop by and also offered emergency supplies such as clean up kits, hygiene items, groceries and meats when these items were needed. The following large organizations and churches gave their support: Strafford Emergency Response Committee (MRE food and water supplies) Hartford, Athletic Department (football game collection of food/money. Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (clean up kits, family food boxes) Tom-Tom Industries (2 truck loads of food) Woodstock Food Shelf – giving items that were in excess of their needs VT-Can Spray/Neuter Clinic (Dog and Cat Food- 300 lbs Sharon Boy Scouts #205 – Garden Produce pickup items Plus: 35 local people just stopping by with bag after bag of groceries. This made a---------- GRAND TOTAL OF 3,000 POUNDS OF FOOD VALUED AT $2,800.00 Many telephone calls were answered. People from afar were offering financial support.  Our prayers were answered by these generous individuals.  On the first three days 10 volunteers served 30 clients (90 individuals) We are ready to serve all who request help in the weeks to come.

Letter from Marjorie

Dear Members and Friends of Sharon Congregational Church,  As I write this note for the September newsletter on Labor Day Monday - publication delayed a bit because of the storm/power outages - I am at home in Shelburne VT listening to the rain and hoping that no more flooding of rivers and streams create difficulty for so many of you as you continue to recover from the powerful and heartbreaking effects of Hurricane Irene in the White River Valley. I am saddened by what I've both seen and heard of what you and your family/friends/neighbors are dealing with in Sharon and surrounding villages/back roads. Carole and I are keeping your congregation and community in our thoughts and prayers.  I am also, tonight, looking forward to gathering with some of you tomorrow (Sept.6th) for my "goodbye" potluck/party, which we also needed to postpone along with calling off worship on my "last Sunday" with you due to the storm. By now you have already offered a warm welcome to Rev. Dr. Duane Brown, your new pastor, and I believe that you will continue to join in partnership with him to do the church's mission in Sharon VT as God has called you and as Jesus has given you an example. The Spirit is truly with you at Sharon Congregational UCC.  As I retire from interim ministry (for awhile, at least) I am grateful for the many ways in which we have worked together these past two years to prepare for this new chapter in the life of your congregation - and for the times that you have let me know that my ministry among you was helpful. That was my hope and my dream for us during this in-between time. You've been receptive, supportive, and welcoming. We've laughed a lot, shared deeply, learned much - and I will treasure my memories of the time we have spent together while turning over now the joys and responsibilities of being your pastor to Rev. Duane Brown.  Many blessings, Marjorie MacNeill

Pastor’s Pen for September, 2011

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5.16) As I sit writing this message on Labor Day, the word “labor” has a very special meaning for us this year.  Despite its roots in the organized labor movement of the 19th Century, it is hard to use the word “labor” these days here inVermont without thinking of the efforts being made to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene.  While Labor Day usually is focused on the work that people do for pay, this year, the focus should be on the army of volunteers who have labored tirelessly to help their struggling neighbors.  Federal, state, and local officials all deserve recognition for their efforts to cope with the damages, but it is those countless volunteers that deserve comment.  In a day when so many people live with only minimal contact with their neighbors, this crisis has brought forth an outpouring of energy, generosity and compassion that is so rare. Some people (and insurance policies) refer to natural disasters like this as “acts of God.”  In my opinion, that description badly distorts the truth.  I do not see signs of God’s presence in the raging waters that wreaked such havoc near and far, but in the heart-felt responses of the volunteers who were inspired to reach out to those in need.  Even those who have no religious background and claim no religious affiliation have felt an irresistible force at work within them, calling them to reach beyond themselves - a force that more spiritual folks would identify as the Spirit of God.  That is where I see God’s activity most clearly.  The flood waters may have inflicted many losses, washing away property, roads and bridges.  But God has acted even more powerfully to provide us with something even more precious and enduring: the love and compassion of our neighbors; the material gifts that meet our daily needs, and the relational bridges that turn strangers into friends.  In the days ahead, when people remember the floods of 2011, I pray that they will not think first of the waters that washed so many things away, but of the kindness and caring that flowed into their lives in even greater waves.  Those are the waters of love that flow directly from God, and those waters will always be more powerful than any storm!                                                                          – Duane

A Message from our Interim Pastor, Marjorie MacNeill

Dear Members and Friends of Sharon Congregational Church UCC, Frequently one of my many friends on Facebook will remark something like, "Well, I had the day off, so I cleaned my whole house from top to bottom, did all my laundry, and cleaned my closets too". Doesn't sound like much of a day off to me, but I do note a certain satisfaction in their "status reports" about what they've been able to accomplish. Many of you are the sort of housekeeper, I think, who keeps up - or at least wants to keep up - with a long list of household responsibilities (weeding, dusting, canning, raking leaves, shoveling snow, mopping the kitchen floor) daily, weekly, or seasonally. I, on the other hand and like many of you, tend to get going on such tasks when company is coming. Yup. So, as much as we keep up with many tasks at the church on a regular basis, this summer the congregation is alive with activity as many groups of parishioners have come together to get the "house" ready for your new pastor. The fellowship while working together has actually been a lot of fun and it's been a pleasure to watch/take part as your outgoing interim pastor. 🙂 There'll be no easing of last-minute preparations for the arrival of Pastor Duane and Amy during August and you're all invited to join in - as well as join us for worship each Sunday morning. My gratitude for the on-going work of the Trustees, Deacons, Council, as well as the Mission Committee/Food Shelf folks and the Christian Ed Committee. The Search Committee has stayed involved.  Patty substituted for Alice in the office during July. Alice is back to work now. The Choir has continued to sing weekly. A new Fund Raising Committee has been organized and co-ordinated by Pam Brackett. Stewardship efforts will emerge during the fall/winter. Small groups have worked on church history displays, bulletin boards, library books (including those for children), filing, and infant KITS for Church World Service. We blessed some more prayer shawls, which involved some last-minute knitting and crocheting. Leon and his friends are doing many projects around the building. People in the community have noticed that Sharon Congregational is a lively - and alive - place this summer. More projects are planned for these last few weeks of summer/my interim ministry with you - all inspired by the Spirit which is calling Sharon Congregational into a brand new chapter of ministry and mission. Thanks be to God - and to all who are making this church community so faithful and hopeful these days. Do join us for worship especially on Sunday, August 14th, which will be Church History Sunday, for my last Sunday on August 28th (with refreshments afterwards and a chance to say "goodbye"), and for Pastor Duane's first Sunday on September 4th - and special events on the following September Sundays to welcome him and his wife Amy. Do keep us all in your prayers during this time of transition. Many blessings as always, Pastor Marjorie

A Message from our new Pastor, Duane Brown

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11.1)   As I write this, Amy and I are up to our ears in boxes and trash bags. We’re in the midst of the chaos of downsizing and packing for our move to Vermont.  It’s a moment in which we find ourselves both energized  by the promise of the future that lies before of us, and bogged down by the details and drudgery that we have to wade through to get there . . . sort of like going for a walk in woods on a beautiful day in mud season!  Needless to say, we are eager to be resettled and have the hard work of moving behind us.  We long for the future, but are temporarily stuck in the muck of the moment. But our present circumstances hints at something of deeper significance - something wonderful, inspiring, and reassuring.  As the writer of Hebrews states in the passage above, our lives are constantly being drawn toward an ever-more-satisfying experience of God’s love for the world, even though it always seems just beyond the horizon of the present moment.  Therefore, we lean into God’s future, letting go of anything that threatens to hold us back from the blessings that lie ahead. I feel very blessed by your Call to be your Pastor, and am humbled by the confidence you have placed in me to help the Sharon Congregational Church to fulfill it’s God-given mission.  I am deeply grateful for the work that the Search Committee has done (and continues to do!) to pave the way for a smooth transition of pastoral leadership.  I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to get to know Pastor Marjorie, and to appreciate the wonderful ministry she has performed among you.  And, most of all, I look forward to getting to know all the rest of you who, in ways both large and small, contribute to the rich, multi-faceted life of this church. May the peace and joy of God’s love be with you, now and always. – Duane