On Valentine’s weekend, I invited our families to brave the slushy outdoor landscape and join me for Muddy Church.
Muddy Church is all about slowing down and noticing God in our environment, paying attention to God among us. With a pack of kids and parents in tow, we followed a path around the church building that directed us for a creative and reflective hour. During this time, we had a few different hands-on activities that required special attention. We were putting puzzles together, wrapping yarn around cardboard hearts, listing things we love through the alphabet, tracing hearts in the snow with our feet, and planting seeds to watch them grow at home. All the while, we were thinking about how God was present in each activity.
Now, in our little group, we had a handful of fourth graders and a handful of four-to-six-year-olds. Our fourth graders were super independent, impressively guiding us through each task. Our four-to-six-year-olds needed a bit more help. With the fourth graders, I could hand them yarn and a cardboard heart and let them have at it. However, the four-to-six-year-olds needed some help getting the yarn wrapped around the cardboard heart once or twice before they could get the hang of it themselves.
Some children needed a little more help than others. Every child had an answer to every question I asked. Every voice, big or small, had something valuable to say. As J.T. preached this weekend, when we meet the needs for the “least of these,” we are serving Christ within them. So, we practice listening to each other - maybe even as if we were listening to Christ himself. God was among us at Muddy Church, and Jesus was working through each of our children as we played and worshiped together.
Brooklyn is Plymouth's Director of Christian Formation for Children & Youth. Brooklyn has served in local church and student ministries for the past several years. A native of northern Colorado, Brooklyn has professional experience leading in worship, youth, and children’s programs. Read her full bio here.
Of the important things I’ve learned about being a white-identified person in the USA, one stands out this month: a focus on racism and the voices and experiences of color is always optional for me. Being white has been and still is a lot like moving with the current of a river, that is, if I don’t actually make an effort to learn, to seek out, and to act to heal racism and to pay attention at that level, I can just drift along unconsciously being white (and male and straight). People of color (or other less centered groups) don’t have that privilege. It’s always there and conscious.
That’s why Black History Month is so important. It is a discipline, a structure that calls the culture back to hearing American history that’s been neglected and hidden. It calls us back to seeing all Americans and to drawing the circle wide. Alban At Duke Divinity School, an educational resource for churches, offers this helpful reminder:
The annual celebration known as Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. Historian Carter G. Woodson picked the timing for this commemorative week to coincide with the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two figures who were greatly respected among African Americans in the early 20th century…
Contemporary conversations about race, justice and equity lack substance when we do
not know and appreciate history. Likewise, our appreciation for the Christian tradition requires us to have a complete vision of our past.
The roots of Black history in Christianity extend well past 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. In Acts 8, Philip evangelized an Ethiopian eunuch, who carried the gospel back to Ethiopia. In Mark 15:21, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene was a city in eastern Libya, in north Africa. Moses’s wife Zipporah, according to Numbers 12, was from Cush, an ancient name for Africa.
These are just a few of the biblical stories that highlight the gift of Black history – and early church historians agree that Augustine and Tertullian were also people of African descent, even though no one knows how they looked.
As we celebrate Black History Month, how might our thinking be informed if our historical narratives – along with the images in our Bibles and in our churches – more accurately reflected the contributions of a multicultural “cloud of witnesses”?
The Rev. JT Smiedendorf has been a UCC minister since 2001, serving churches in Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington. He has a particular passion for reclaiming the earthy, embodied, and experiential aspect of Christian spiritual practice. He and his wife Allison are co-founders of The Sanctuary for Sacred Union, an inter-spiritual initiative, and he is currently earning a postgraduate Certificate in Psychedelic Therapies and Research. Read more about JT here.
I’m listening to Max Richter’s wintery musical riffs on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as I write this update to you. Even though this particular season has been relatively mild, it feels as though we’ve endured a very long winter together during the pandemic. I share your feelings of social dislocation and missing normality…whatever that will be. With improving Covid statistics in Larimer County it is time for a shift!
Last week, Plymouth’s Pandemic Team met again to address when we should reopen our doors and invite people back into in-person worship. Before I tell you the result of our deliberations, I must tell you how magnificent your fellow members serving on this team are. There is much thoughtful discussion, weighing the scientific and the social-scientific dimensions of our common life, all of it undergirded by a sense of what we are doing together as a people called together by our love of God. I give thanks for each of them and for our work together!
We will welcome you back to in-person worship on February 27. (Livestream will of course be available at 9:00 & 11:00, but we’d love to see you in person!) It’s the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany (and the lovely Moravian star will still hang above the organ console). We have a special treat that day: our very own Rev. Laura Nelson will be preaching on this Transfiguration Sunday. (It was great to see so many of you yesterday at our Valentine’s Day drive-thru, and I look forward to seeing many more of you on February 27.)
Here are the guidelines we’ll be following:
Masks are a must for everyone. We will attempt to follow six-foot social distance guidelines, but our fully-vaccinated choir will be able to stand at a three-foot distance, which means more of our beautiful choir will be able to sing! Brava! Bravo!
Communion will be available in the sanctuary every week at 9:00 and the first Sunday of the month at 11:00. We will come forward to receive elements and bring them back to our seats and partake as one body. (People with mobility challenges or who simply prefer to receive communion seated will be accommodated by our deacons with a traveling communion tray.) We think this is even safer than communion served in the West Wing hallway.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 2, and our service (livestreamed and in person) will begin at 7:00 p.m. in the sanctuary with the traditional imposition of ashes. We also are planning a mid-Lent evening service in the style of Taizé…stay tuned for details! As Lent draws near a close on Maundy Thursday, we are planning our service of Tenebrae in person and streaming. (We will re-evaluate the Covid situation to see whether a soup supper is possible!)
I cannot tell you how much your clergy and staff miss seeing you! It will get better as we adapt to living with Covid. Thanks be to God for scientists and medical staff who make vaccines possible and who help our time of trial to become a situation that we live with. Bless you for keeping the faith, proving that church is more than a building, and that together with God, we can make it through the toughest of times.
I leave you with these favorite words from A New Creed from the United Church of Canada:
We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
God bless you all!
P.S. It was great to see so many of you at our Valentine's Day drive-thru yesterday! Special thanks to our Congregational Life Board for their help organizing! If you would like a hard copy of the Lenten Devotional booklet, you may pick one up on February 27 at worship or you may ask Barb Gregory to send you one via US Mail. (Electronic readers: look for a PDF version that Anna Broskie sent late last week!)
I have been asked on occasion over the years what is the appeal of being a conductor or music director. The question would often go something like this: "If an ensemble doesn't play or sing to one's expectations, then everyone may look to you. Isn't it more rewarding then to just take responsibility for your own musical offerings as a soloist instead?" As rewarding as a solo performance can be in any context, my answer comes easy—no. The sense of community one discovers in a choir, a musical ensemble, and especially in congregational singing is vital to our collective musical and worship experience as a church. We are better together.
The pandemic has sent us as worship staff into surreal territories such as prerecording services into bite-size chunks to be reassembled again, livestreaming to empty pews, and on occasion broadcasting from multiple locations via Zoom. Needless to say, community worship required a strong helping of imagination to accompany our best intentions—as a congregation we all chipped in with that!
Music-making for myself became a private endeavor in large part. Plymouth's music ensembles, when they could safely meet, offered modest (yet spirit-filled!) selections as we observed social-distancing protocols and limited the number of participants who could gather at one time. And congregational singing, the heartbeat of the church's collective song, could only be imagined in viewer's homes on the other side of the sanctuary camera lens.
We came back. And we retreated for our own health and for our neighbors. And likely soon, we will return once again to worship— and yes, sing and play!—as a church family and congregation. Choir rehearsals will resume and ringers will reconvene on Wednesday evenings. The joy of preparing our offerings for worship, experiencing and deepening our understanding of the music and its intention, and being with each other as a merry band of music-makers once again will come rushing back in and be welcomed with wide open arms. And in the sanctuary, God's people singing hymns and songs of old and new together as one voice will make a glorious sound. One community in Christ.
I leave you with these uplifting words from the closing paragraph of A Song to Sing, A Life to Live, a fascinating book reflecting on music as spiritual practice by Don and Emily Saliers:
Listen, and sing.
Mark Heiskanen has been Plymouth's Director of Music since September 2017. Originally from Northeast Ohio, Mark has experience and great interest in a diverse range of musical styles including jazz, rock, musical theatre, and gospel. He is thrilled to serve a congregation and staff that values diversity and inclusion in all facets of life. Mark's Music Minute can be read here.
Fear. Why do we feel fear? There is certainly a survival impulse in the base of our brain, the amygdala, that compels us to fight, flight, or freeze. There are times when that response can literally be a lifesaver (like jumping back from a speeding car that nearly clips you) and there are times when that “reptilian” brain response gets in our way. Like when you are having a disagreement with someone, and somehow things escalate and get a bit heated or even out of hand. Yet, we can pause and give our neocortex a chance to kick in. This was explored in the 1940s by Viktor Frankl, who saw the best and worst of human fear and response as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp. He wrote, “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” We truly can use our neocortex to come up with better responses to our fears.
One of the prevalent fears of the pandemic time is the fear of the unknown. None of us knows for sure if we’ll get Covid, if our lives will be changed forever, if we’ll be able to take that big trip this summer, if church will be reasonably the same next year, if our jobs are secure, if climate change will despoil the planet for our children and grandchildren, if American democracy will soon come to an end, and ultimately if we will meet our earthly end as a result of the virus. That’s a lot to feel fearful about. The question is how we use the space between the stimulus (the invitation to fear) and our response.
I’ve experienced plenty of fear and anxiety over the past two years, and I have found an app that helps to “unwind” anxiety and stress through mindfulness-based stress reduction. Instead of spinning into a mental tangle of thinking how to "fix our worries, the course helps us to identify that we’re feeling scared, worried, or anxious about something. To name that event or that pattern and just experience it, to feel it in our bodies, to breathe into it, and to eventually ride it out. That helps to provide the space that Frankl talks about.
When the biblical angel says, “Fear not!” (again and again and again) it might be getting at something: fear is not congruent with faith. That doesn’t mean that we should not experience fear or worry or anxiety, but that we shouldn’t dwell there. We shouldn’t allow fear to dominate our lives because it isn’t life-giving. And sometimes un-dealt-with fear causes us to misidentify problems and to get off track.
Marketing guru Seth Godin recently wrote, “When dealing with someone who’s afraid, when they’re objecting to something that’s important, it’s tempting to imagine that more evidence will make a difference–that it’s the objections that matter. But more studies of efficacy or public health or performance aren’t going to address the real objection. Money (“it’s too expensive”) is a common objection, but it’s often not the real reason. Price is simply a useful way to end the conversation. ‘I’m afraid’ is something we don’t want to say, so we search for an objection instead.”
We don’t need to stay stuck in fear. We have God-with-us in every moment, a God who sees our fear and helps us to acknowledge it and move forward with courage. Wouldn’t the world be different if we all put a bit more trust in God? One of my favorite John Bell short songs for worship goes like this: “Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger…my love is stronger than your fear. Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger, and I have promised to be always near.” (Here is great recording.)
I wish you courage for the journey ahead!
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal here.