Wednesday, March 14, 2018

At the red light

I've been away for a number of days at meetings in the national setting of the United Church of Christ.

At the Council of Conference Ministers, a cohort of my colleagues from across the church, we took steps toward innovative approaches to ministry that will especially benefit conferences that have only one staff person. Imagine a conference with a geography like ours that has only one staff person! They are out there, and they need help. We hope our actions might provide that help.

At the annual meeting of the United Church of Christ Insurance Association, on whose board I sit, I came away with the old maxim that "property and liability insurance is boring until you need it." That said, I offer a reminder to churches to know what your insurance policy covers and doesn't cover, what the size of your deductible is, and to seek a policy review from the UCC Insurance Board if you haven't done so in the last few years. Maybe you'll want to do this before the upcoming hurricane season. This is important.

Finally, at a meeting of the United Church of Christ Board of Directors, we reviewed past actions and collaborated on steps toward a shared future where the local church remains the primary unit and primary focus of the church's ministry. I left feeling hopeful about this intention of the national church.

I was dearly looking forward to returning to the office today and being with my staff team. That's when it happened. I went to the garage, started the car, and the red light came on. Not the "change oil" light or the "inflate tires" light. The red light. ("Danger Will Robinson" for those old enough to know what that means.) So much for normalcy. Or maybe that is normalcy. We make a plan, and then life happens.

How we respond is how we create a life worth living. I could be angry. I could be frustrated. I could feel put upon. I could feel any number of things. Depending on the "red light" of any given day, I could feel marginalized, ignored, humbled, attacked, disregarded, mistreated, snubbed, neglected, wronged, victimized … . Fill in your emotion here. On any given day, any of these might work.

Today, as I take the car to the dealer service department and miss another half day in the office, I'm going to choose a word that will most likely make for a better day. "Gentle." I'm going to be gentle with myself; I'm going to acknowledge that things happen that I don't need to take personally, and I'm going to do my best to let go of negative emotions and feelings that will only bring me down or hold me back from living the full life God intends for me. Maybe you can do the same when your red light comes on.

"Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace my fears relieved,
How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed."

Be at peace and be in touch, won't you.

Monday, February 12, 2018

It was during my recent work/vacation in Hawaii that I had the opportunity to hike the Ka' Awaloa Trail and visit the Captain Cook monument seaside by a beautiful ocean view.  It’s a two mile hike down the side of a mountain, well described by travel writers as ‘The first mile is brush and tall grass, the second mile is a steep descent over lava and other rock.’  To say it is steep is an understatement.  Going down wasn’t so bad, but climbing back up nearly 1500 feet in two miles of hiking offered me a dose of humility that went down hard.  But enough about that; I want to recount a moment of the hike,

We were leaving the monument site and beginning what we knew was going to be a tough hike out. A younger couple forged out about 100 yards ahead.  We followed them.  Another small group followed us some 100 yards behind.  Already becoming winded, my eyes were on the ground taking one step at a time, not concerned about the heights ahead of me, watching only the next step, and the next one, and the next one, one at a time.  It helped keep my head clear and my breathing more even.

It was going well until that first couple, the one that started out ahead, came toward us and we bumped into them … ‘Were you following us?’ they wanted to know…. ‘This isn’t the trail.’  We had to turn around.  I’m sure, positive, absolutely certain that we added a mile to the hike (but it was probably about a quarter mile at best). Never mind.  This hike was reminding me why life can’t be about Dorito’s and jelly doughnuts.  We turned around and found the trail.  I continued looking down, one step at a time, watching my partner’s feet in front of me, finding footfalls on the loose lava rock and wondering when we’d get to the elevator.  No such luck. I worked hard for the next while and promised myself a return on another day with an appeal for the pride this hike was claiming from my bruised ego. (Stay tuned for a year until I publish my 2020 sabbatical plan.)
At some point, I looked up.  The scenery was incredible.  Written description would come up short.  Suffice it to say, it was at least a little energizing and it felt good to see where I was going instead of just looking down at the next step and the next step as I’d been doing for the last hour.  The Psalms came to mind.  “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?  My help is from God who made the heavens and the earth.” Fast forward to the end of the story and I made it back to the top, climbed into an air conditioned car, and lived to hike another day.  But that’s not my point.

In the aftermath of that day, I began thinking about how we do church and live faith today.  So often, it is with such a narrow vision, like taking one tiny step at a time while looking only at a sliver of the material or spiritual landscape, trusting that we’re on the right path even if we aren’t, going and going all the time without getting anywhere meaningful, all because our eyes are cast downward and can see only what has gone before (as in my partner’s feet in front of me, or as in ‘this is how we’ve always done it’).  As we begin Lent, we are invited to that turn-around moment on the trail, to taking a new path, to lifting up our eyes to the hills and knowing from whence our help comes.  That’s what repentance is,,, turning around and going a new way even though it’s often a hard way, even though it may demand our pride, even though it might remind us of our shortcomings, our lacking, our (dare I say it) limitations.  But look what it got me…..  I’ll see you in two years, Ka' Awaloa Trail, and this time we’ll not do battle but will partner on the journey as you point my eyes to the skies and the One who made you and me, too, in all our grand and adequate beauty.

What would it benefit you, and the church, to turn around this Lenten season, to walk a new way, to lift your eyes to the hills.  Perhaps, just perhaps, we’d gain a broader vision and build a more just world for all.

Be at peace, and be in touch, won’t you.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On a Day After Dreaming

I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in dreams.  Or maybe it’s Freud, or Jung, or chance, or some other aspect of my unexamined unconscious, but for today I am convinced that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in dreams.  This is what I woke up to this morning, lingering in my waking mind:

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NRSV)

You see, I’ve entered upon to a season of meetings.  It happens twice a year, it seems, and this is one of those times.  In the next 8 weeks I will have two meetings with the Directors of the UCC Insurance Board, a meeting of the Council of Conference Ministers, a meeting of the United Church of Christ Board of Directors, the annual meeting of the Retirement Housing Foundation, a meeting of the Florida Conference Committee on Church and Ministry, and a meeting of the Florida Conference Board of Directors and the committees attached to it. I haven’t even looked at my calendar to see if that’s all of them.  It’s a season of meetings, indeed.  I can only hope these gatherings will bear fruit.

Many of our congregations will have annual meetings in the coming few weeks.  I hope they are fruitful, too, and I turn to scripture for instruction on how to make a meeting fruitful.  Let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.  That’s good advice for local ministry settings.  I can only imagine the potential impact on our national discourse if that were the method of choice.    Today, then, I encourage you in your faith community to bring the scripture to life.  I encourage you to be in touch with your legislators, too, asking them to do likewise and to hold one another accountable to truth, to love of neighbor, to the seeking of a just world for all, and to building a country and a culture based on the better angels of our nature.  Turn from hate and toward action.  Turn from throwing your hands up in frustration to raising your hands in praise of the God who gathers us for an improving day and a progressive way.  And while you’re raising your hands raise your voice, too, all the more.  Be the change you hope for at church and in the public square.   

Listen when the Holy Spirit speaks in your dreams, and bring your longing to life. To do less is to neglect God’s call to meeting in a season of coming together.

Be at peace, and be in touch, won’t you.

John Vertigan

Conference Minister

Monday, January 1, 2018

Present to the present

Happy New Year, Florida Conference, and all God’s best to you in this season of hope and possibility wherein we celebrate the light has come into the world in the person Jesus.

Two bits of reading caught my eye today.  First, remember that wonderful old hymn of the church written by Jeremiah Rankin, whose 190th birthday passed on January 2, 2018:

God be with you till we meet again, By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you, God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again, ’Neath His wings securely hide you,
Daily manna still provide you, God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again, When life’s perils thick confound you,
 His arms unfailing round you, God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again, Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Smite death’s threat’ning wave before you, God be with you till we meet again.
Till we meet, till we meet, Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;
Till we meet, till we meet, God be with you till we meet again.
Rankin wrote it as a hymn for the end of worship. He wanted Christians to have a way to say good-bye to each other until they gathered once again for prayer.  In fact, he noted that ‘good-bye’ is an old English way of saying “God be with you” and from this he gained inspiration for the hymn. 
What struck me is that this good-bye song about endings also contains a promise that there will be another time to gather, another time to feed together on God’s love, another time to feel the embrace of loving community, another time to celebrate.  Good-bye, in this song, is just for a time; just for a time until ‘hello’ resounds again.
The other reading that got my attention came from my Enneagram thought for the day and invited me to ‘put the past behind and be present to the present.’ Letting go of the past is tough work, but generative when we can get it done.  The promise of another hello is an invitation to be present to the present, to know we will find true life not in past trials or triumphs, heavenly moments or hardships, but in the opportunities of the present day if we will open our common spirit to the movement of God in our midst.
Allow me, in this first missive of the New Year, to suggest without further comment that being present to the present moment while resting in the promise of another ‘hello’ has broad applicability for individual Christians and for the life of the church.
Be at peace, and be in touch, won’t you.

John Vertigan

Conference Minister

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fueling the Movement!

I was out of state on a short holiday over the Labor Day weekend and someone asked me if there is anything going on in the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ.  I was glad to tell them there is plenty happening in this place we call home. In the last month alone,

  • ·         The Florida Conference awarded a $2500 grant to the United Church of Gainesville as they prepare to open the Gainesville Peer Respite Center that will serve as a short term housing program for individuals experiencing or at risk of experiencing a mental health crisis.  The grant comes from the Church Redevelopment Fund of the Conference in response to our invitation to local settings to do something fresh and new that might bring new life to the church and community.
  • ·         From the same fund, we’ve just completed the paperwork to accept a grant proposal from Miami Lakes Congregational Church.  They will host a comprehensive community health fair for people in the Hialeah/Miami Lakes area.  Partnering with the civic and medical communities, the congregation will help connect service to need by bringing together partners in health care ranging from veterinary pet care to hearing services, Alzheimer’s assistance, glucose testing, and a host of other services. The congregation hopes this grant will create the impetus for future events which they pray will benefit from other funding under the axiom that ‘success begets success.’ We are pleased to partner with them in this new venture and join them in their prayers for success.  The grant given was $2,000.
  • ·         The Jackson Interfaith Fund exists to fund interfaith workshops.  The Union Congregational Church, UCC in West Palm Beach recently received a grant of $750 to plan an Interfaith Peace Concert in the coming year.  The concert will highlight religious diversity and kick off a series of lunch and learn programs and listening sessions for the purpose of building a just peace between religious people from a variety of faith perspectives.

These grant awards, and the funds that make them possible, illustrate the partnership that creates the United Church of Christ movement in Florida.  Local settings take up the mantle of leadership and the Conference is able to provide resources to make innovation possible.  

Today, I invite your participation in this movement.  Consider, first, how your faith community can imagine a new ministry that might bring vitality to your neighborhood and church.  Apply for matching funds and let’s do ministry together.

Second, make a gift to the Florida Conference through our website  that will support our efforts to build upon these early successes in doing ministry together in a new way.  You may designate your gift to support the work of the Florida Conference and your donation will be gratefully received.  If you prefer to give, but not online, you may mail your check to the Florida Conference office at 924 N Magnolia Ave, Orlando, Florida 32803.

Friends, it’s an exciting time to be the UCC in Florida and I am glad you are part of the movement of God’s people in this place.  Be at peace, and be in touch, won’t you.

John Vertigan

Conference Minister

Monday, August 31, 2015

Life in the Slow Lane

It happened again yesterday.  I seem to get stuck in this spot all too often.  There I was, driving down the highway at a goodly clip when, suddenly, I had to brake and ease off because the car in front of me was going so slow.  I figured it was traffic.  I always do.   You know how it goes.  I couldn't see in front of that car so I figured they were going slow because traffic in front of them was going slow. I tried my best to be patient.

It isn't easy.  Pretty soon, I was craning my neck to the left trying to see what was in front of that car that was keeping us so slow in the middle lane.  I couldn't see.  Pretty soon, I was drumming my fingers on the steering wheel while hoping aloud that things would get moving.  C'mon, c'mon, c'mon.  It didn't work. Pretty soon, I eased my car out to the left lane just a little and now I could see what was slowing us down.

It was the car directly in front of me.  As a matter of fact, there was no one in front of him.  There was no one in the middle lane within a quarter mile of that car.  I began to deride myself for sitting behind for so long, then moved out to the left and got back up to speed.  And, as I did, I thought once again, "I seem to get stuck in this spot all too often."

"This spot" comes in a variety of forms in my life, and probably in yours, too.  I want to be more effective at work, but there is something in my way.  I want to be happier in my relationships, but there is something in my way.  I want to get in shape, but ...... I want to have a deeper and more fulfilling spiritual journey, but . ..... this, that or the other thing, but......

What would happen if we dared to peek around what we think is the  obstacle in front of us?  Is there really a good reason to stay stuck where we are, or can we move our life ahead by changing lanes and getting things back up to speed?  Most of the time, I discover that the only thing holding me back is me. The only thing keeping me from my goals is a subconscious fear of what success might look like, how a change in my performance or my relationships or my body type or my spiritual life might cause bigger changes and a dancing into the unknown that  is harder to cope with than the status quo. Sometimes, it's just easier to stay in the slow lane.

But c'mon, c'mon, c'mon.  If the only thing holding you back is you, it's time to get out of your own way and start working toward your wildest hopes and dreams.  There's too much life to live to stay stuck in the slow lane.  Let's get  moving.  Where do you want to go?

Be at peace, and be in touch, won't you.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Ripped from the News

An article on Tuesday mentioned a little boy visiting an art exhibit in Taiwan.  He stumbled.  He tripped.  He lost his balance.  Say it however you want.  He fell.  And when he did, he put his hand out to steady himself and poked a fist-sized hole in a 1.5 million dollar painting. 


You know how it feels, right down in your gut. You made a mistake.  You did something wrong.  You harmed someone or something.  You feel ……… name your word. 

Awful.  Terrible. Horrible.
Regretful.  Remorseful. Sorry.
Pained. Distressed. Worried.
Frightened.  Upset. Anxious.
Embarrassed.  Uncomfortable. Self-Conscious.

The list can go on and on.

Upon learning of the incident, the curator acted counter to how one might have expected.  Rather than exploding in anger, rather than reaching out with irritation or rage or justified ire, the curator reached out with concern, lest the family ‘put too much pressure on themselves.’ He assured them that insurance would cover the cost and they shouldn’t worry.

So here’s my image for the day.  God as Curator. God as Steward of the good.  God as Caretaker of every gift.  God as guardian of life as it is displayed in all its variety, color, and wonder. 

God as Curator. In the Middle English sense, it means pastor. Imagine that.  God is my pastor.  God is my shepherd (I shall not want?)   The list can go on and on.

Shepherd. Counselor. Breath. Wind.
Rock. Protector. Advocate.
Mother. Timeless One. Creator.
Spirit. Wisdom. The All-Compassionate.
The Restorer. The Giver of Life.

When you’re feeling the ‘woops’, remember your Curator, and recall that there’s no need to put too much pressure on yourself.  All will be well with you.  I invite you not to worry.

Be at peace, and be in touch, won’t you.