Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Come thou fount....

I have a piece of artwork on the wall opposite my desk in Orlando.  On it are the opening words to my favorite hymn:  “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.” I’ve been thinking this morning about hearts that are out of tune.  For the musically inclined, a heart can be found to be sharp or flat.

Sharp?  Yes; so passionate for a cause, so zealous for a purpose, so longing for a relationship that it can lose objectivity, lose focus, lose a sense of good health, get out of tune to what is going on and forget for a time that most of the people we meet are doing the best they can with what they have on any given day. Having a sharp focus that narrows in on a particular topic or moment or temporary feeling has the potential to become exclusive of other realities, to pull the heart out of tune and make it harder to be a witness to grace.

Flat, too?  Sure. As in a lost capacity for feeling, a detachment from the world around us, a numbness to our own emotional  needs, a sense of emptiness that distances us from the possibilities of love, of hope, of joy, of peace that passes all understanding and instead becomes enveloped in depression and fear, confusion and despair.  Having a flat heart has the potential to become mired in darkness, to pull the heart out of tune and make it harder to be an empathic witness for grace.  

So what does a heart look like when it’s in tune?  I wondered how I would answer this query and it didn’t take me long to find those June-wedding words so popular as to lose some of their power but so true as to define heart health. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.” (From 1 Corinthians 13) 

Let me suggest today, as delegates gather for the 32nd General Synod of the United Church of Christ, that the health of the church begins with the health of your heart.  My heart.  The health of all our relationships, the power of all our witnessing, the potential of all of our advocacy, depends on our individual hearts and the collective heart of the church.  Even as the most intimate of our relationships will struggle when they get out of tune, so the church is only at its best when we are intentional about our heart health.

Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount; I'm fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love

Here’s to the health of your heart and your relationships, to the church and all it seeks to be, to the ever-present possibility of becoming more richly attuned to the needs of the neighbor and the world and to the melodious sonnet of God’s grace that makes it all possible.

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


Thursday, March 21, 2019

when i find myself in times of trouble ....

These are troubling days in the earth.  I needn’t recite a litany of all the problems we are facing on the global stage.  There’s no need for me to opine on our national troubles …just read the papers or watch the news or listen to the radio. Some of you even stay caught up on current events via podcast.  I invite you to it, and I invite you to prayer and action where you can be impactful in your daily living.  Raise your voice to speak out; raise your hand to volunteer where you can be called to new usefulness.  Raise a stink where you think it will help and raise praise and thanksgiving with every breath God gives every day of every life. 

Face it, there are troubles to be shared in our local communities, too, and in our faith settings across the state.  This Lenten time of introspection only magnifies our accepting of the daily realities we face in cities, towns, and villages in Florida.  This period of spiritual reflection increases our sensitivity to our own problems and invites us into communion with others on the journey as a means of gaining strength, perspective, and hope that one day soon things will be better (Easter is coming!)  It’s a great time to be the church and I pray each and every one of us will find a community of grace in which to worship, do spiritual work, and make ready for God’s revelation of new life in Jesus Christ.

In the meantime, we’ve a ways to go before the lilies bloom and the stone is rolled away.  I shared a prayer in our Florida Conference staff meeting last week that has stayed with me and has the power, I think, to help me through my own days of trouble. Perhaps it can be of use to you, as well.  It comes from 1876 and an author named George Dawson about whom I can find no other information.  It uses nineteenth century language that I will repeat though some might find it less helpful than poetic.  I hope you’ll look past that and let the spirit of the prayer be for you, as the old hymn says, ‘a guard while troubles last’ until your cup is filled with peace overflowing.  Here is the prayer:

“Almighty God, we bless and praise Thee that we have wakened to the light of another day; and now we will think of what a day should be. Our days are Thine, let them be spent for Thee. Our days are few; let them be spent with care. There are dark days behind us; forgive their sinfulness; there may be dark days before us, strengthen us for their trials.  We pray Thee to shine on this day, the day which we may call our own. Lord, we go about our daily work; help us to take pleasure therein. Show us clearly what our duty is; help us to be faithful in doing it. Let all we do be well done, fit for Thine eye to see. Give us strength to do, patience to bear, let our courage never fail. When we cannot love our work, let us think of it as Thy task, and by our true love to Thee make unlovely things shine in the light of Thy great love, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

May the troubles of the day be eased in prayer.  Be at peace, and be in touch, won’t you.

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.