Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Redemption in a dark time

The action calendar on my office desk suggests today is a good day to learn a new song and when I read that invitation two things came immediately to mind.  One was easy to find:

Psalm 96 begins and ends with these words:

 O sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth. 
2 Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name;
   tell of God’s salvation from day to day. 
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 
12   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 
13   before the Lord; for God is coming,
   for God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with God’s truth.

The second thing took a little more work and a long distance phone call (do we even call them ‘long distance’ anymore?) to a former colleague and friend in Illinois.   She pointed me to the folk music group Over the Rhine that comes out of the Cincinnati, Ohio area and whose 2006 tune ‘A New Redemption Song’ has stayed with me for years since I first learned it.  The lyric is simple:

Lord we need a new redemption song
Lord we’ve tried, It just seems to come out wrong
Won’t you help us please, Help us just to sing along
A new redemption song

Lord we need a new redemption day
All our worries keep getting in the way
Won’t you help us please, help us find the words to pray
To bring redemption day

The Psalm promises the presence of God in a new day.  The song offers a plaintive prayer for that presence to happen right now, right here in the midst of all ours worries and fears, doubts and despairs, longings and needs.  Lord, we need a new redemption day.  Yes, we do.

Just look around.  One need only cast a quick glance to confirm the earth is crying rather than rejoicing, the seas are roaring a dirge as plastics pollute, glaciers melt, marine mammals perish; the fields and the farmers who care for them groan under unfair labor practices and tariffs that are putting family owned farms out of business. The forests lament (does anyone hear the trees crying?) the destruction of our ecosystem for the sake of fossil fuels, paper production and rampant development. 

Sing to the Lord a new song? Perhaps confession is in order. For God is coming to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with God’s truth.  Lord, we need a new redemption song.  Won’t you help us please, help us find the words to pray to bring redemption day.

Please go to our Facebook page at

and tell your wider church community how you are bringing your prayers to life with meaningful actions in these uncertain times.  Join your partners across the UCC in Florida in raising up a prayer for the redemption of the earth and all that is in it, for in so doing you might just turn a lament into a song of praise.

I look forward to your postings.  Be at peace, and keep in touch, won’t you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Our work is just the beginning

My plane descended into the Syracuse airport last Saturday just as winter storm Harper was making it’s 
descent onto Central New York weather.  I was thinking of Robert Frost ‘stopping by a wood on a snowy 
evening’ and the joy I anticipated in what would be a walk in the snowfall later that evening.  It didn’t happen 
that way. It turned cold.  And windy. And snowy. Staying indoors was the best of all possible options.  My 
disappointment was tempered by the company I was keeping and we watched it snow from within the warm
confines of home.  

I awoke the next morning to more than a foot of snow on the ground.  A county-wide travel ban was in effect, 
many church services were cancelled and, by Monday, the kitchen pipes were frozen.  But I get ahead of myself.   
The part of the story I really mean to tell involves shoveling that fourteen inches of snow while a remnant wind 
blew around  and through me.  It started with twenty five feet of sidewalk that took me to the foot of the driveway 
and to the edge of my desire for shoveling.  I stood there, catching my breath, and as I did I heard the 
familiar-from-childhood rumble of the municipal snow plow coming up the street.  The rumbling sound turned 
to a scraping sound and the plow deposited an additional foot of snow very nearly at my feet.  
And that’s the moment I want to reflect on today with the church.

It was a “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment.  I’d worked hard, cleared a path,
gotten things into good shape and now was being dumped on.  It’s easy to feel like
that in the church of the 21st century.  We see challenges in front of us related to
justice-doing, peace-making, faith-forming, and even institutional surviving. We make
plans, we work hard, we clear a path toward a better time with the surety of people
who have heard God say, “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” We meet, we program,
we budget, we pray, we hope, we study, we learn, we craft new visions of how to be
church for a new generation of people who might or might not be seeking  what we
will illuminate.  And then, all too often, just as we think we have things figured out,
the plow comes and dumps another foot of snow at our feet.  You’ve got to be kidding me.

This is how I responded:  I put my shovel away and went inside.  You might say I retreated.  I took some time 
away from thinking about what lay ahead and instead took some time to celebrate what already is.  The next day, 
I went  back outside and finished the job more sure than ever that there will be more snow, there will be more 
plows, more piles, more shoveling (of course, I’m writing this on an airplane as I return to the warmth of Florida’s 
sun! But someone will have to shovel.) And I suppose that’s my point, Florida Conference.  We begin a great work 
each time we greet that beguiling moment of unrest and plan a faithful response.  And then we do it again, 
and again, and again, until finally we don’t.  But someone else does, and someone else will. Ours is not to finish 
the work that is before us but to do what we can; there will always be more to do.  Even Jesus said, controversially, 
that ‘the poor you will have with you always.’

Take heart.  Fear not. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed.  There is a pressing need to be engaged.  
And then to retreat for our own well-being, and then to engage again.  In creating a cycle such as this 
we will model Jesus’ own ministry style while keeping ourselves strong for all the storms to come.  And they will. 
And we will respond, I pray, with grace and courage, hope and outreach, love and mutuality, justice and 
compassion in the season for each that arises.  That’s how I hope we’ll be church together in the year ahead 
and beyond.  No kidding.

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

John Vertigan

Monday, January 14, 2019

Hurry up ....and wait!

I left the house at my usual time this morning.  It was after I’d read for an hour, enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee and a warm breakfast. It was after I’d watered the plants and folded a load of laundry and begun to pack for the retreat I’ll be enjoying this week with staff colleagues in the Florida Conference.  It was setting up well to be a productive morning at work.

I stopped at the first signal I came to.  I think it knows when I’m coming. This first light on my way to work seems always to be red and I stare east into the rising sun to check for oncoming traffic just in case I might be able to turn right without waiting and waiting.  I stopped at the second light, too.  And the third.  Next I stopped for a bus while it loaded its group of learners on their way to school (it’s the law, you know, to stop for school buses.  I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t!)  By the time I reached the fifth red light of my short trip to the office, I remember thinking there was an energy in the universe that just didn’t want me to get to work.  I pursed my lips. I think I gritted my teeth, I know I drummed on the center console impatiently waiting for the light to turn green.

At the seventh light, I had an epiphany. Perhaps, just perhaps, this universal energy was not slowing me down to keep me from work but rather to offer a moment of rest, a slower start, a minute for meditation and the chance to take a deep breath before the busy-ness of the day came upon me.  I decided to enjoy it and began praying for red lights.  Slowing down, even stopping on occasion, is an invitation from the Spirit to refocus ourselves for the day or the times; it is an instant during which all we have to do it be still and wait; Be still; wait.  Breathe.  What a gift to those who will receive it.

This is why the Florida Conference, thanks to the generosity of a very kind donor, has purchased six canvas labyrinths to be deployed across our vast geography. In the coming weeks, these tools for your spiritual walk will be placed in local churches where they can be borrowed for use in your setting when you want to invite people to slow down, to be still, to wait.  The labyrinths are 20’ x 20’ and are intended for indoor use in a space you will provide and you are responsible for its pickup, return, and care while in your possession. 

When completed in the coming weeks, labyrinths will be stored at:

·         Union Congregational Church. West Palm Beach
·         St. Andrew UCC, Sarasota
·         The United Church of Gainesville
·         The Conference office in Orlando
·         The Community Church of Pensacola Beach
·         The office of Neal Watkins in Vero Beach (and to travel with  him as he programs our life together)

I am hopeful these will find broad application in the spiritual life of your community.  For more information you can reach out to me at jvertigan@uccfla.org and we’ll work together to meet the needs of your local setting.  In the meantime,

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

John Vertigan

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Exercising Our Hope (A New Year's Resolution)

My Morning Prayer book called me to quiet with words from Psalm 55:

‘I will call upon God and God will deliver me. 
In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, 
I will complain and lament
God will bring me back, 
God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me.’

In writing on this Psalm, Reformation theologian John Calvin said, “The Psalmist does not refer to something already done, but rather excites himself to the duty of prayer, and to the exercise of hope and confidence.”

I appreciate those words today during this second week of the US Government shutdown (during which I somehow still managed to get a letter from the IRS.)  The physical mess being described relative to our national parks stands as metaphor for the very real mess we are in as a civil society at the beginning of this year.   Our national parks are meant to be a source of pride; our government has for generations been a symbol of hope to many in the world.  CNN reports relative to Joshua Tree national park, "In addition to human waste in public areas, driving off-road and other infractions that damage the resource are becoming a problem." The National Park Service also said the shutdown prevented it from making staff available to "provide guidance, assistance, maintenance, or emergency response." "Any entry onto NPS property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor's sole risk," the park service said this week. Trash collection has stopped along with road and walkway maintenance. (CNN.com)

In other words, things are a mess and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around to help clean it up at Joshua Tree or in Washington.  That means now is the time for us in the United Church of Christ to make our voices heard. We can make our voices heard as we raise prayers to God who will hear us and we can make our voices heard as we raise witness in Washington and beyond to God who demands justice for the oppressed, inclusion for the marginalized, and welcome to strangers as they seek a homeland. 

Like Calvin with his notes on prayer in the Psalm, we note that the work of justice, inclusion, and welcome is not done but we might be excited to the duty of hope and confidence in proclaiming a new way while mired in the current government standoff.  May each of us choose to be a guide along The Way, an assistant on the journey, for those who would truly bring in something new in this New Year.  

My best to each of you as we begin again with freshened resolve.

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


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