Monday, July 4, 2011

Let's give a hand to prayer

Riverton Church is embarking on a new emphasize upon regular, daily individual prayer and devotion as a way of strengthening our church. We are making copies of the Daily Bread available for free in the Narthex, and encouraging those who prefer to get devotional meditations electronically to sign up for the Stillspeaking Daily Devotional. Prayer journals have been distributed to help us track what/for whom we are praying on a regular basis. (It is also possible to create an online prayer journal and of course there is at least one website dedicated to this.)
In order to guide our prayer life I'm encouraging folks to practice the five-finger method as a memory aid. If you've never done it, it's easy to learn and remember. It goes like this:
First finger (pinkie or thumb): Prayers for the world (things like world peace, natural disasters around the world, international crises, the environment)
Second finger: Prayers for our nation (Our government and leaders, disasters/issues in our own nation, concerns we hear on the national news, etc.)
Third finger: Prayers for our community: (Prayers for our local town and church community, acquaintances, friends we don't see as often as we would like, friends of friends, etc.)
Fourth finger: Prayers for those close to us: (Prayers for family and close friends, people we see regularly and situations close at hand.)
Fifth finger: Prayers for ourselves: (Relief of stress, finding balance, health concerns, etc.)
As we continue on this journey I am hoping members will share some of their prayer concerns and experiences with praying in worship each week.
What are you praying for? How is it going?

Dancing for Jesus

The high school youth in our congregation just returned from Synod (the UCC biennial meeting) where they participated in service projects, worship, and a flash mob. They had a great time and the flash mob was definitely a highlight for both of them! This isn't your grandmother's evangelism, but it is evangelism nevertheless. I'm grateful to be part of a church that encourages our young people to dance, tweet, text and Facebook their faith.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chimes of Freedom

"Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze"
--From Chimes of Freedom by Bob Dylan

I'm not sure when it started, but the tradition of ringing the church bell starting at around 11:30 on July Third was firmly established when I arrived as pastor at Riverton Church in 2002. I'm told that back when the Episcopal Church was still functioning as a church (there's a glass-blowing factory in the building now), the two churches would hold dueling bell-ringing competitions, to see who could last the longest, and that the ringing might go on 'til 3 a.m. or so.

Nowadays, folks start lining up to ring the bell at around 11:30 p.m. or so. We normally get in the range of 20 people who take turns ringing. Ringing the bell at Riverton Church is tricky. Because of the placement of the bell rope, ringers have to lean over the stairway that leads to the basement, being careful not to lean too far lest they pitch head-first down the stairs. So far, nobody has been injured in this way, but it does require one to call on one's balancing skills. Bell-ringing is a vigorous aerobic activity--after a minute or two, ringers take a break and give the next person a chance. In most cases, they get back in line.

Bell-ringing for the Fourth of July is not just celebrated in Riverton. There is a national bell-ringing celebration organization; it is possible to register local events at their website:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Math and God in Three Persons

This coming Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, is known as Trinity Sunday. The Christian understanding of God is that God expresses Godself in three persons--the Father (Creator), the son (Redeemer) and the Holy Spirit (Comforter.) These three aspects of God appear in the Bible, but the word we use for the concept that describes it--Trinity--does not. While churches in the Congregational tradition tend not to push rigid understandings of doctrines like the Concept of the Holy Trinity among their members, it is also not fair to call members of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, by the commonly-hurled insult "Unitarians Considering Christ."
The simple fact is that the Trinity is a mystery. Anyone who claims to understand the concept of the Trinity is denying the very nature of the Trinity, which is mystery. Mysteries cannot be explained but they can be embraced.

Another thing I don't fully understand is higher math, but I think that if I did understand it, the math concept called the Trefoil knot would help me to get a greater handle on the mystery of the Trinity. According to Wikipedia, "The trefoil can be obtained by joining together the two loose ends of a common overhand knot, resulting in a knotted loop. As the simplest knot, the trefoil is fundamental to the study of mathematical knot theory, which has diverse applications in topology, geometry, physics and chemistry." The knot, by appearance, has three separate loops, but when you look closely you see that it is one whole, connected.

For the children's sermon on Trinity Sunday I usually take a little strip of paper, knot it, connect the loops and tape them together--Voila, the Trefoil knot. So simple, and yet so fascinating, like the mystery that is the Trinity. And what do I say? Sometimes in church I think we worry too much about explaining everything, rather than helping our children be drawn into the mystery, which is compelling. I remember as a child when I discovered the mobius, a similar mathematical twist, how I obsessed over it. Why not just let the children make their own trefoils and ponder them, each in their individual ways?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Displaying Summer's Bounty

Red velvet cakes and cupcakes have become popular treats to serve on Pentecost Sunday. This year I decided to try a new way to display our red velvet cupcakes--a cupcake tower. I saw some photos of floral cupcake towers and decided to attempt to build one myself. It turned out to be surprisingly easy.

If you want to build one yourself, you will need:
  • Corrugated cardboard rounds (2 rounds for each tier; I used 12", 10", 8" and 6" to display 24 cupcakes.)
  • Plastic glasses or tumblers at least 5" high to separate tiers (one fewer than the number of tiers)
  • Ribbon or strips of paper long enough and wide enough to cover edges of of the cardboard rounds (1/4 inch wide ribbon is probably adequate)
  • Glue (I used 100% silicone adhesive to glue the cups to the cardboard rounds and hot glue to attach the ribbon. Other types of glue would work as well.)
  • Greens and/or flowers. I placed the greens and flowers between each cupcake and covered most of the top with greens and flowers but you can use fewer greens and flowers if you prefer. (I used mint, herbs and roses from my garden. Be careful to choose edible varieties. I don't use store-bought flowers on or near food, as growing standards for flowers are not the same for food and bacteria or pesticides on the flowers might be harmful to people. I also did not put the flowers directly on the cupcakes, except for one rose on the top cupcake. Store bought herbs are a great choice. Silk flowers are another possible choice.)
  • Cupcakes (here's the recipe I used, except I omitted the vinegar and used canola oil in place of the olive oil.) It made 24 regular-sized cupcakes and about the right amount of frosting.
  1. Bake and frost desired number of cupcakes.
  2. Glue each set of cardboard rounds together to form tiers. For maximum strength, glue them so the corrugation lines in each round runs perpendicular to the round to which it is being glued.
  3. Glue ribbon on the edges of the tiers.
  4. Center the tumblers upside-down on each tier and glue (for best results start with the bottom tiers first and allow to dry before adding tiers.) Allow glue to dry completely before adding cupcakes.
  5. Arrange the cupcakes on tiers.
  6. Arrange the greens and flowers on tiers around cupcakes as desired. This is best done about an hour or two before the cupcakes will be served. Allow yourself plenty of time and be sure to keep a pair of clippers or scissors handy to trim greens to desired length. If the display will be up for a long time before serving you might want to place the greens and flowers in floral tubes, or choose varieties that are less likely to wilt.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Art and Music

I was honored to help plan and lead the worship at a recent regional event called Partnering with a Green God at Camp Silver Lake in Sharon. The centerpiece of the worship service was a blessing of the four directions and the four cardinal elements associated with them, a practice that has deep roots within our Christian Tradition, according to Christine Valters Paintner in her new book Water, Wind, Earth and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements. I devised a liturgy based on excerpts from this book and then created an altar using ordinary household items and things I picked up on the grounds of Silver Lake to represent the various elements. I don't have any sort of training in doing this; I just allow the elements to speak to me and arranging them becomes a sort of meditation.

I received many compliments on my liturgy, but what really made it special was the accompaniment provided by Chorical, a group composed of cello and harp.

Not many of us have harpists and cellists at our disposal, but I have done similar liturgies with guitar, piano and other instrumental accompaniment and have received compliments on those as well.
Note: Photo of Jim Deming by Eric Anderson

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thursday Night and Friday Morning

Scripture: John 18:1-19:42
So they took Jesus;and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.
Yesterday was Thursday; our congregation broke bread together and celebrated what has become known as communion in the context of a meal, just as the scripture tells us Jesus celebrated the very first communion with his disciples on the evening before the day he died. Today's long scripture lesson tells the story of what happens after dinner; how Jesus goes to a garden to pray, accompanied by his disciples, how there is is taken into custody, how the next day he is given a show trial and sentenced to die, a sentence that is carried out immediately; and how he dies on the cross and is buried according to Jewish custom.
The story is a sad one for Christians, but for over a thousand years the Friday on which Jesus died has been observed as a Feast Day. Why is this? For Christians, Christ's Death and Ressurection are forever linked and form one single event. They are like two sides of the same coin. Sadly, this way of thinking is not as widely taught as it perhaps once was. I'm not sure why; maybe because it is kind of hard to wrap our minds around at first, and yet if you think about it, it does make sense--without death there can be no resurrection. Without the seeming defeat of crucifixion on Good Friday there can be no exultation on Easter Sunday. It is for this reason that the Friday of Holy Week has become known as Good Friday. As you go about your business today, coloring Easter eggs or shopping for a new outfit, may you be reminded of what it means to be Easter people, to believe that when all seems lost that victory is at hand.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Scripture: John 13: 21-32
Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me."
Few things sting like a betrayal. Betrayal drives the events of Holy Week and is also at the heart of many literary tragedies, including William Shakespeare's "Othello." Othello's evil frenemy Iago tricks Othello into believing that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him, and he kills her in a jealous rage. Though most of us have not experienced life and death betrayals such as Iago's betrayal of Othello or Judas's betrayal of Jesus, at one time or another someone we trusted has proved unworthy of our trust, and that creates a pain like no other.
Did Judas's betrayal hurt Jesus's feelings, or was he so spiritually mature that he forgave Judas even before Judas carried out the betrayal? The Bible doesn't go into Jesus's feelings in this instance, but we know that Jesus does experience the full range of human emotions, as he is moved to tears at the death of his friend Lazurus. We do know that on the cross Jesus forgives those responsible for his execution, saying, "They know not what they do." Presumably this forgiveness extends to Judas as well.
Are you harboring a grudge against someone who has betrayed you? What would it cost to forgive that person? Often people hang onto a grudge after a betrayal because it prevents them from drawing close to the person again and experiencing yet another betrayal. And yet it is possible to let go of a grudge without opening yourself up to a situation in which you will be betrayed again.
Even if you are not ready to forgive and move on, you can take steps to move towards forgiveness. You can pray to God to give you the strength to forgive eventually.
When I talk about forgiveness of betrayal, the most honest response I get is, "But they don't deserve it." Of course someone who betrays doesn't deserve to be forgiven. Nobody believes that Judas deserves to be forgiven, and yet Jesus forgives him. Forgiveness isn't about giving someone what they deserve. Forgiveness is about bringing grace and healing into a situation that is poisoned with hurt feelings.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Scripture: John 12: 20-36 Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.
Holy Week coincides with school vacation for my children this year, so we are taking a "working vacation" at a relative's place in the woods. Though we live in the same town, we live very close to the downtown, and so streetlights normally prevent us from every experiencing complete darkness at night. In the woods, though, it's a different story.
There are advantages to streetlights. Even if we forget to turn on the porchlight, at home we don't have to fumble blindly with our keys to get back into the house after an evening out. In the woods, however, there seems to be thousands more stars, and the moon shines more brightly than in our everyday world.
Of course, when Jesus tells us to walk in the light, he isn't talking about starlight or streetlights. Like everything else in the gospel of John, the light is a metaphor for following Christ's way, the way of goodness, truth and trusting in God.
Sometimes the streetlight distorts our view. It casts strange shadows and washes out colors. And yet, our eyes quickly become accustomed to the darkness of the streetlight and this faded reality seems normal. In fact, it can seem comforting, the way the view of the world on the streets at night is less complicated by the details we notice in the daytime. "Bring on the night," says one of my favorite songs. "I couldn't stand another hour of daylight." The clear light that shines out from Jesus illuminates our human failings like nothing else, yet if we stay in the light long enough, it enters into us, so that the light itself shines through us.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Reading from Scripture: John 12: 1-11 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Last week I received my first pedicure, and it was wonderful. My seventeen-year-old daughter gave me one. First she filled a bowl with warm water and scented bath salts, and invited me to soak my feet, which seem to be sore and tired more of the time as each year passes. Then she lovingly rubbed off the callouses and applied lotion. Finally she filed and polished my toenails, and placed my newly prettied feet into a pair of soft slippers. The whole time she was working on my feet, I kept thinking about the scriptures in Holy Week that deal with caring for feet. On Monday of Holy Week we hear about how Mary, the sister of Lazarus who was raised from the dead, perfumes his feet and wipes them clean with her own hair. On Thursday of Holy Week, we hear about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Because Jesus and his followers live in a dry climate and walk everywhere they go wearing sandals, foot care is hard work--considered both menial and unpleasant--yet Mary seems thrilled to be able to anoint Jesus' feet. We often say it is better to give than receive, but sometimes we fall into relationship patterns in which one person does most of the giving while someone else does most of the receiving. This is a normal pattern for some relationships--parents, for example, must do most of the giving in relation to young children--but everyone should be given the chance to experience the joy of giving regularly. If you are better at giving than receiving, ask someone you love to bring you a cup of tea or to run an errand for you. If you tend to be on the recieving end of kindness more than someone you love, do an unexpected kindness today, and experience the blessing that comes from generosity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spirituality for Lent

A common practice during the season of Lent (which runs this year from March 9 through April 23) is to give up some luxury or indulgence (such as video games or chocolate) in order to deepen spirituality. This year I am encouraging Riverton Church to go in a different direction during Lent--instead of just giving something up, consider taking on a spiritual challenge.
Most of the members of the congregation are opting to take on the challenge of donating more frequently to our food pantry. A number of us are adding an item to our food collection each day, and as we do so praying about our ministry to the food pantry--perhaps by giving thanks for our own blessings, or praying for those who will eventually receive the food, or even praying for those around the world who produce our food.
In the first week our food pantry collection has increased by a factor of at least ten. Let's keep it going! It's good for our spiritual life and good for our community as well!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

God is Still Snowing

Last Sunday I invited the congregation to think of themselves as Imagineers and Evangelists, coming up with new ideas to share the Good News of the gospel and to help us live out our faith in exciting new ways. One of our members, Hazel Ransom, came up with the idea of snow painting, and so was born the idea of God is Still Snowing Sunday. Our congregation is a Still Speaking church, a congregation that welcomes people regardless of who they are or where they are on life's journey. We believe that people should not place a period where God has placed a comma--in other words, that human beings are continuing to reach fresh insights about the God we meet through Jesus Christ. It was in that spirit that we choose to take a fresh look at snow, with a snow-related sermon and snow-themed refreshments. After church the young and young-at-heart members went outside to sculpt and paint the snow.
We can't stop the snow but we can enjoy it!

Imagineers and Evangelists

On Sunday, January 31, I challenged the congregation to be Imagineers and Evangelists. The term Imagineering was coined in the 1940s by Alcoa to describe its blending of imagination and engineering. Anyone can be an Imagineer, coming up with fresh ideas and new ways to reach out to others. Evangelists are those who share the Good News of the gospel of Christ. During the month of February I will be spending one half of a workday each week doing work related to Imagineering and Evangelism.

During the first week of February, I spent my Imagineering time learning about the demographics of the area our church served through the website The Connecticut Conference of the UCC graciously paid for each member congregation to receive reports about our area. We will be better prepared to serve the needs of our area because of our information about who lives here and what values they embrace.