Saturday, December 6, 2014

Stones (or AdVent)

Before you demand that young man
puts down that stone or
puts down those matches
let me suggest that you first know
why he
up and


(pray, maybe)


If you would speak to
this way.

Yes, I mean Jesus that
young man of color
born in an occupied state; that
Child of God;
that son of Mary;
Got so angry he
turned over tables at the temple
while God was whispering

Ask him why he did this,
Even in the face of overwhelming force.
Ask him why he would do this thing that would do nothing
to advance his agenda and could, likely,
Ask him.

And, then, ask that young man you see with a stone
That young man you see with matches
why they picked these things up

Hear what you hear
as an act of devotion, of faith, of prayer and
no matter what they may say or
yell or
shout or
how they deafen you with silence



Then, pick up your own matches.
Light your advent wreath for Jesus that
young man of color
born in an occupied state; that
Child of God;
that son of Mary;
Yes, that Prince of Peace…

Then, set that candle of Joy aside,
and replace it

with a stone.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 11/18/14: Matthew 25 Call to Worship

Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46

One: Jesus, we hear you::
Left side of congregation: I was hungry...
Right side of congregation: And you gave me food.  I was thirsty...
Left: And you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger…
Right: And you welcomed me. I was naked...
Left: And you gave me clothing. I was sick...
Right: And you took care of me. I was in prison...
Left: And you visited me.
One: Jesus, we hear you:
All: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
One: We hear you.  
Right: This is what we want to hear.  
Left: This is what we long to hear.
One: And this is what makes it so hard to hear you when you say:
All: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
All: (Silence)
One: Forgive us.
Left: Forgive us.
Right: Forgive us.
All: Forgive us.
All: (Silence)
One: We know you love us.  We know you do.
All: Help us embrace it.
One: We want to know your presence here.  Help us remember that the best way to do so is make every meal a communion and every table Christ’s table...
Left: And that the meal is not whole until the Hungry Christ is fed.
One: Help us remember that every cup is a communion cup…
Right: And that our dry souls will find life when the Thirsty Christ drinks.
One: Help us remember that when we welcome in the Stranger Christ…
All: It is we who are less lonely.
One: Help us remember that we must clothe the Naked Christ…
Left: Before we can dress our altars with integrity.
One:  Help us remember that by caring for the Sick Christ…
Right: We are healed.
One: Help remember that by accompanying the Imprisoned Christ…
One: We are set free.
Left: We are set free.
Right: We are set free.
All: We are set free.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Thursday Essay 10/9/14 Ordination Exam: Question #1

I was ordained on September 19th, 1999.  The day was hot and the service was really long but filled with good soul friends and families and church members and supporters…  The memories of that day are still a well that I draw from on those days that are hardest.  

In my current role as a Conference Minister, I have the honor of officiating at these service and every single service - every single one - is a portal to the day when I responded to the same words I ask ordinands to respond to.  I might be the one saying the words of the ordination examination out loud but my heart whispers the response along with the ordinand.  The weight of these words is different on different days.

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to try something; an occasional Thursday reflection on the different questions that are a part of the ordination exam.  These aren’t “right” answers per se or the answers a candidate should give if asked to interpret them.  These will be heavily contextualized within my own experience of ministry.


“Michael, before God and this congregation we ask you:
Are you persuaded that God has called you to be an ordained minister of the church of Jesus Christ, and are you ready with the help of God to enter this ministry and to serve faithfully in it?

I am.”

I love the fact that the word “persuaded” is in this question.  Its not “Have you decided…” or “Are you certain…” but “Are you persuaded…”

Its not an unusual story to hear from a clergy person a pretty intense resistance to the idea of becoming a minister.  Some tell stories of being hounded by family, friends or church members to become a minister.  They tried to ignore or evade this call for years until, finally, they relented.  For some, something in their life breaks or a way is made where there wasn’t a way before.  For others, ministry was a clear vocational option that they’d explored openly and simply made sense in their life.  There are a few that had a particular spiritual experience - like a conversion moment - when all of the sudden the call to ministry became real.

Even though I come from generations of ministers, I never really remember feeling pressured to become one.  I remember getting tired of the question from members of the churches my Dad served and saying a few pretty snarky things to try and discourage what had become a boring question, but I don’t remember ever really taking the idea itself personally.  

For me, it became clear when I was 19 and helping lead a youth retreat.  They used a Tony Campolo video as one of the conversations starters and in it he was talking about hypocrisy in the church.  I was right there both reflecting on what I’d see in church and seen in my own life.  Church was not feeling like a great fit.  Then Tony said something along the lines of “When you walk in to a hospital, you don’t ask ‘What are all these sick people doing in here?’ Why are we so surprised to find hypocrites in the church?” It felt like a door gently opened and I was able to walk through it saying, “I’m going to be a minister.”  It took me almost 10 years to get to a point where ordination seemed like a fit but, somewhere along the way, that outward and inward persuasions met and I was formed in to a minister.  That’s not to say I feel like one every day or am always thankful I am one.  There are days I want to be doing anything else but, almost always, a door gently opens and I walk through it once more.


This is an ordination to Christian ministry.  The church we’re called to serve is Christ’s.  In addition to these questions being part of the ordination exam, they’re also a profession of faith.  We are “The United Church of Christ.”

As a denomination, we don’t have a test of faith you have to pass to become part of the UCC.  A local church might but, as a denomination, there is no set of beliefs that our national offices determine you need to be a member of one of our churches.  This is part of what attracted me to the UCC.  Faith moves, evolves, changes, grows and really shouldn’t be the same year to year if we’re faithful and paying attention.  Faith-wise, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  Its up to a local church to really determine whether or not to determine if membership requires a certain set of beliefs or any belief at all.  I love this about us.  It doesn’t always make our life together easier but I do think it makes our life together better.

Here’s the thing though; I don’t think this is true for those of us who are ordained into the UCC.  The ordination exam is a test of faith asking us, in this question, to be faithful but to also to affirm that we’re serving the church of Jesus Christ; that we’re willing to lean on God; and that we’re willing to have our service connected to our faith.  In other of the examination questions, we’re asked to promise to take the Bible seriously, to pray, to hold on to the gospel and to show Christian love.  This is a covenant we make with our church and these are the things the church promises to support us to do.  Sure, there’s still a lot of breadth of interpretation with all of these ideas but being true to this covenant is part of what forms us as a UCC pastor.

You’ve probably heard this before but some suggest that UCC actually stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.”  Its said jokingly, sometimes lovingly and sometimes mockingly.  Personally, it just makes me sad.  The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a great one and there are a lot of values we share.  Although there are some Unitarians that self define as Christian, the UUA is not a Christian religious body as a whole.  I’m thankful for the presence of the UUA and happy we can be partners in so much good work.

That said, I’m not a “Unitarian Considering Christ.”  I’m  a Christian in a relationship with Christ.  Sure, like any relationship, its not consistent.  It moves, flows, changes and is more difficult sometimes than others but its a real, vital and key part of my life.  No, to be a member of a church in the United Church of Christ, this isn’t required.  However, as a UCC clergy person - if we are to take our covenants honestly and seriously - I think it is.  

Although local churches have autonomy within our covenants and local church members have little accountability, this is not true for those of who are ordained.  The responsibilities of being ordained have been determined to be so important that no one person can carry these responsibilities alone.  We trade the autonomy of a local church member for increased accountability to the wider church and the promise to remain faithful in carrying particular responsibilities. Sharing the gospel is one.  If this isn’t something we can do, we shouldn’t say yes to the ordination exam questions.  If this are promises we can no longer whisper along with the ordinand, I think we need to begin asking ourselves hard questions about whether we can continue as a United Church of Christ pastor with integrity.

I know that last statement, in particular, is not an easy one to swallow and challenges some of our UCC cultural expectations.  However, finding myself welcome in the church does not mean I should be welcome in to every role or persuaded to consider it.  I don’t have what it takes to be a church organist.  You wouldn’t want me as your treasurer.  I was a church custodian and I wasn’t great at it.  I was only an OK youth director.  A church not welcoming or persuading me to do these things does not mean that the church is somehow unwelcoming or cruel.  It doesn’t mean that I’m deficient because I wouldn’t be good in these roles.  It doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for me in the UCC. It does mean that I can't serve in every role in the UCC, nor should I. Knowing that is both humbling and freeing.


That’s enough for this first essay.  If you got this far, thanks for sticking with it.  Peace.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 10/7/14: Wholiness

Dear God:
I get confused.
There are days I am sure my heart is in your heart and
Those days are good ones.
There is rest there and
fullness there and
purpose there
That is

Except on those days when its not.
On those days, it is like a churning sea

I seek out the little gods swept up in the waters and
I just want something to hold on to and
I reach and grasp that thing that seems as though it
float and
fit in
Somedays that is my hand
reaching for my wallet and
Somedays that is my hand
reaching for a doctrine and
Somedays that is my hand
reaching for a rule and
Somedays that is my hand
reaching for anything that floats.
It may be flotsam and jetsam,
(mere pieces of larger things
that have fallen apart for others)
at that moment,
it is mine.  For at least a moment
it feels whole.

These little gods
buzz around my head
to sting so,
avoid them.  At first, a step away
seems like enough but then
I cross to the other side of the street but then
take another street but then
I go miles in the other direction just to avoid the THREAT
of a sting and then
am surprised when
I find
I am
off the path
and those
little gods that buzzed around my head have
are harassing

These little gods... They call out through
a beep, a chime,
a light vibration
(that I react to like a thunder bolt).
I give their nagging
give them this moment.
This one.
This one.
This one.
Each one like a heartbeat that is lost
Given away as I reach into my pocket
Hold their temple in my folded hands
Bow my head
And then,
they prey.

These false gods I
give my life
to in
pieces until, some days, most of me is gone.

Help me find what is
(and to trust it when I find it is you).


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 9/16/14: Enough (Part 2)

Inspired by Exodus 16:2-15

Dear God;

So, um, thanks for answering my prayer
(I think)
but, uh, why did you answer it with this?

I was thinking of something more than this


I have enough
I have enough

I called out
I complained
I pleaded

but apparently I wasn't clear.

I wanted certainty,
and security

is bland and
smaller than I expected and
more fragile than I wanted and
does not solve all my problems.



Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 9/2/14: No Wonder

Inspired by Exodus 3:1-15

Dear God;

So, let me get this right...

The bush was burning but not burning.

You called to Moses to come towards the bush but to stay right where he was.

Once Moses found out who was calling, he didn't want to look.

This is the problem with these stories.

This is the problem:

We see bush and tree and prairie grass burning - actually burning - as the planet we're trying to kill dries up and catches fire.  The air smells like smoke.  We barely pay attention.

We hear gods, all these little gods, calling from our headsets, TV sets and billboards and we twist and turn and shift and pivot.  We run towards them.  We stay, no where.

And, looking at you?  We know everything. We are not impressed by "mystery."  Google it.  We will stare you in the eye until



(or fade


These stories...

Pay attention?


Hold on to a mystery?

This is what leads to liberation?

Pay attention?


Hold on to a mystery?

Tell the truth?

Talk about consequences?

Trust some sort of lurching, holy process?

Wander your way home?

No wonder, God.

No wonder.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 8/19/14: What We Pick Up

inspired by Ferguson and Exodus 1:8-2:10

Dear God:

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.

Paying attention is a daily exercise of joy.  There are new wonders every day.  Healing heals hopelessness.  Beauty and awe calm fear.  Love blooms in fields of apathy.  There is so much to dance about.  We could dance ourselves right in to exhaustion.

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.

Paying attention is a daily exercise of heartbreak.  We find new ways to hurt each other every day.  Fear laughs in our face.  Our strident of "Never Again!" becomes a broken, mumbled "Not again..."  We figure out a new way to cause pain or to ignore it.  We spin and pivot towards all the pain that needs attention without taking a step towards any of it.  We could spin and pivot ourselves right in to exhaustion.

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.

Help us take a moment to take a deep breath (take a deep breath);
Help us take a moment to let our heartbeat slow (let your heartbeat slow);
Help us take a moment to be aware of where we are (be aware of where you are)
Help us take a moment to close our eyes (close your eyes).

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.

What do you hear?  What do you see?  Might that be your call?

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.

Do you hear the music of creation that calls you to dance and to rest?  Do the words of a poem begin to unfold like a painting?  Does a painting unfold like a poem?  Do you find yourself smiling?

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.

Do you see a person dying in the street?  Can you hear the earth being torn?  Can you hear explosions and weeping?  Is there a baby floating in a basket among the bullrushes?

Help us choose; help us know; help us hear; help us act.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Idol Worship

Lauren's family has an old farmhouse her grandparents bought a little more than 50 years ago in the North Country of New Hampshire.  Out the front windows you can see a beautiful pasture ringed by trees with rolling mountains not so far in the distance.  We can watch weather roll in when the sun's up and watch fireflies compete with stars at night.  Leo gets to run down paths mowed through the tall grass to the pond where he wanders around in the water; a little deeper every day.  There are far off highway sounds, an airplane flies overhead once in a while, an occasional car passes on the dirt road but, overall, its quiet here.

The farmhouse itself is old, well loved and maintained just enough.  The floors are crooked.  Some of the windows rattle a bit when the wind blows.  There are post-it notes to remind you of all the little quirks that are part of staying here.  The wallpaper is old and, in some places, there are a few visible places where its peeling or the wall is cracked a bit.  

These walls hold within them a collection of varied furniture that does the job; books that are functional or left behind for vacation reading; pictures of people I have never had the pleasure of meeting and others long before I met them.  There are board games in the cupboards and varieties of different sized plates to choose from, too.  There is a small piece of wood on a shelf with a bit of old fungus on it that sits next to a wild turkey feather.  There are empty blue vases on the window sill.  These are the little things that might be discarded other places but are treasurers here.  This place is filled with these little signs of awe.

This is an imperfect place and that's one of the things that makes it so perfect.  I walk in and I melt a little bit as I'm greeted with the faint smell of mothballs that, here, are a kind of incense.  My vacation beard starts to grow.  I'm not as worried if the shirt I grab in the morning is the clean one as much as the closest one.  I smell more like a human being and less like what we wash with.  There is no internet and whether or not you get any phone signal at all really seems to depend on the weather.  I pray for weather here that makes life difficult for everything that beeps, rings or electronically chimes.

The time here helps give perspective on perfection; that false god that so many of us are seduced into worshipping and have become so increasingly tired of trying to serve or resist.  This is the god that demands more and more of us; that god that critiques and critiques.  This is the god that feeds off of insomnia, tight shoulders and nauseous stomachs.  This is the god that mocks us as we buy more, try to be more and fit more than is possible in to a day.  This is the god that laughs when we fight with each other over scraps of impossible goals.  This is the god that takes the most beautiful pillow you have ever seen and slowly presses is down harder and harder over the face of that which is beautiful and true in all of us.  Perfection is, ultimately, an evil god.

I pray most days and on many of those days some sort of confession is a part of my prayer; not all but many.  On the worst days, I feel as though I am just rocking back and forth with my confession; my body wracked with sobs.  Other times I'm bragging to God and then it turns in to an "Oh shit" as I realize what I thought I did so well might have been coming from the wrong place and actually been the wrong thing.  Many days, its just trying to cope with that underlying feeling of not being enough or really being any good to anyone.  On days I feel God's presence, the response my heart sees is remarkably similar.  God rocks and nods with God's whole body.  God empathetically grimaces.  Then God pause, slowly nods and says, "I know.  Its OK."  There's no shame, just the gentle recognition of reality also known as forgiveness.  It doesn't take all of what I feel away but helps move a little bit of the rubble out of the way forward; a path that is meandering, odd, imperfect and just beautiful enough. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 8/12/14:

Dear God:

Help me to be honest with my forgiveness
and my asking for it.

I used to think we were
with oil and things that came to us

We are

with tar.

Everything that touches us sticks.
Everything takes time, recognition and intention to remove.
Everything has a residue.

Forgiveness, true forgiveness, recognizes what remains and
stains and
scars and
changes and

trusts love

to do

what love

must do.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 5/27/14: Us

Dear God:

It is hard to wake up in the morning 
so much 
has been left 
to us.

Remind us, 
throughout this day,
that it is “us”
Not “me.”


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 4/15/14: Complicit

"There must be something you want.
Everybody wants something."

I had a list in my head but I wasn't going to share it.

"Just tell me what you want."

But I didn't want to tell him.

"No strings attached.  Honest.  Just take what you need."

I was pretty sure I knew where the money had come from.

"This money is mine, free and clear.  I just want to get rid of it.
Take. Some."

And a little extra would help.
Some of those things I want...
They would be helpful.
They'd save me time so I could spend more with
I could help people.
I could share these things like he was sharing.

"Tell you what.  You can just take what you need.
DON'T tell me what its for just
Take. Some."

But what if others knew?
What if they knew I took this money?
I knew where it had come from.
This money
As if reading my mind he said,

"Tell you what.  No one has to know.
Would this help?
If anyone finds out it'll be because you told them.
Use it for a good purpose.  I know you will.
And he held it out to me

And I took a piece of silver
From Judas's hand.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tuesday Prayer for 4-8-14 MONEY

Inspired by Matthew 26:14-27:66 and
The Church Building and Loan Fund Visioning Retreat

Dear God:

Bless those who handle the money.
Help us know what money is.

As we move in to this week - this holy and horrible week - we are so aware of
the moneychangers' tables that

We are aware of the 30 pieces of silver that felt heavier
and heavier
in Judas' hands and turned
a kiss
We are aware of those ways in which fear of financial realities
make us afraid to be faithful.

Bless those who handle the money.
Help us know what money is.

We are aware that sometimes we hold on to a penny
so tightly
that the edges cut us like a knife's blade.
We are aware that we use our paper
like a shield.
We are aware of we do not feel like

Bless those who handle the money.
Help us know what money is.

We are aware of these things.

Bless us.
Help us.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

April '14 Monthly Letter

The closing of the Alban Institute ( has shaken me up a bit.  I don't ever remember a time in my church involvement (I was born in '68 and they were born in '74) when they weren't referred to or talked about at some point.  When many of you contacted me to provide a resource for your local church about things related to governance, personnel, evaluations or conflict it wasn't at all unusual that I'd pass an Alban resource your way.  Their work was - at least - always a firm place to begin with good experience, research and a calm voice to back it up.  One of their consultants in particular - Roy Oswald - helped make topics like conflict, clergy burnout, and self-care so gently real that they were almost boringly normative.  I learned just as much from what they wrote as I learned about how they wrote.  It can be cliche to say something like "I don't know what I'll do without them" but, in this case, its true.

That doesn't mean there aren't other good - or even some better - resources for the the local church.  The UCC helped start The Center for Progressive Renewal (CPR) in 2010 and they're one of the best church consulting organizations around.  Their list of consultants and resources are growing every day (if you haven't done so already, its worth taking some time to check out their website:  Although no one knows, for sure, what the next Church will look like CPR is helping lead the conversation and the movement in that direction.  They've pulled together an amazingly smart group of insightful leaders who know how to talk about what they do and think.  The work they do challenges me...

...and I don't always like that.  Part of the reason I had such a warm place in my heart for Alban was that they helped give meaning and value to the mainline church experience in a way that was comforting.  It reassured the mainline church sensibilities than ran deep in me.  The traditional, mainline church bored me when I was growing up but gave me comfort as an adult.  For awhile, I walked away from the church and questioned everything it did.  I, like so many others in my late teens and early twenties, looked for more of a mystical relationship with the Holy that I really didn't find in the churches in which I grew up where it felt as though things were done more by rote than with meaning.  Along the way, I found the Quakers and was sure that was going to be my path.  They sat and listened and left room for the Spirit in a way I had not previously experienced.

However, it was in attending a church service where the pastor gave a controversial sermon that I found myself moved in a way that I thought was impossible.  Some of those who walked out during the sermon came back for communion and shared from the same loaf and the same cup.  Instead of this feeling hypocritical, it felt like a deeply honest expression of brokenness and hope.  I had seen conflict and disagreement in churches and witnessed some of the awful ways people had fought with each other...  but here was the loaf and the cup.  I had felt the unfair expectations that some in the church put on others.... but here was the loaf and the cup.  I had been part of debates advocating for social justice that became personal and toxic... but here was the loaf and the cup.  When, during the postlude, the organist played some of those deep notes that feel like butterflies in your stomach it was as though I heard the organ played for the very first time.  I almost felt like some sort of prodigal son who had found his way home.  I still ended up moving from the denomination I grew up in to another denomination but that switch felt more like moving out of my parents house to another place on the same block.  It was, essentially, moving from one comfortable place to a more comfortable place.

Comfort, however, can cause one to settle and cause one to judge success based on the degree of comfort.  I think that, to some degree, the level of comfort provided has been the mainline church's definition of success.  The problem is that, when I read the Gospels, Jesus' call is to love and, although loving can include giving comfort, love is much bigger than just that.  It is a call and challenge to live in to the fullness of being what God believes we can be.  Its not simply trying to confirm what we would like to always be true and what we hope would never change.

The closure of Alban makes me uncomfortable.  The work of CPR frequently challenges me.  Both of these organizations are expressions of love, faith and integrity.  The learnings of Alban continue and add to the separate momentum of CPR's work.  Together, they teach me lessons about letting go and stepping out.  Together, they teach me lessons about the honesty of endings, the danger in simply continuing, and the necessity of prying ourselves away from the comfort of familiarity.

May our mourning and discomfort be overwhelmed with gratitude and hope for a Church that isn't dying but - maybe, just maybe - remembering what it means to live.