I was happy and pleasantly surprised when I received an email a few weeks ago from Distinguished Concerts International New York inquiring if I and the Chancel Choir wished to take part in a choral concert at the Lincoln Center in New York City next spring.
What had happened is this production company saw our YouTube video of us singing The Ground by Ola Gjeilo from early last year (scroll to the end of this post to view), and enjoyed the musicality and passion in our rendering. As they are assembling a choir of 150-200 singers nationwide to take part in an Ola Gjeilo concert on March 16, 2020 in Alice Tully Hall, they hoped we would decide to join them. And, of course, we said yes! We have about 20 singers currently signed up for the trip, which will be from March 13-17 and include time to enjoy the city but also stringent rehearsals over the weekend. It is especially pleasing that the composer himself will be present and will be featured on the piano.
While this is just fantastic news and an honor to be selected for and to be a part of, I can't help but to muse on how this reflects on what is happening at Plymouth in general. What I see in the church is grand plans. The scope has always impressed me: vision without overreaching. Growth can be measured in terms of numbers and is the most obvious manner to do so. But creative vision within our means, in my view, even more so. And if the path is not available at the time, have the courage to create one.
For the music program, I see this manifest in several ways. I aspire to provide creative programming ever mindful to the volunteers who graciously give of their time and talents. We currently have one staff singer to support our choral sound and inspire our singers, as well as to be a resource for professional performance. The Plymouth Brass is a professional brass ensemble we are blessed to hear in worship several times each year. The 6pm service offers an evening prayer worship experience with music varied from Celtic and traditional to jazz and gospel. All in all, while our music program will always be supported by the backbone of our wonderful volunteers, there is a professional mindset that propels our offerings, whether it be by professional or experienced participants in our midst, or simply the vision of bringing musical excellence to all the worship services. And always with the intention of service.
So yes, we're going to the Lincoln Center and will have an amazing musical experience in one of the premiere concert venues in the world. But this opportunity is a sign of good things afoot here at Plymouth and I'm glad to be able to mix myself into it.
Director of Music/Organist
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. Read his mostly-weekly Music Minute here.
“The greatest risk in life is not taking one!” -Anonymous
Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”
Matthew 14: 29 “He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.”
For those of us who sometimes struggle with the title and history of the name “Christian,” I might suggest that the coolest rebranding we could do as an institution would be to call ourselves Water Walkers! Can you imagine the logos we could develop?
In all seriousness, Scripture is all about risk-taking and learning to reinvent ourselves. From Genesis to Proverbs to Matthew, we find sayings and stories that remind us that life changes, God is with us, and we have to take risks to make a difference. Life is about learning to walk on the water… and learning to swim with joy when it just doesn’t work out the first time.
At my recent younger clergy leadership cohort (The Next Generation Leadership Initiative) last week, we focused on the idea of adaptive challenge and adaptive leadership. One of the first lessons The Pension Boards wanted to relate to us before we could get into case studies was the difference between Authority and Leadership.
One of my cohort colleagues, The Rev. Kit Novotny, from First Congregational in Berkeley summarized our learnings this way at the end of the week: “Authority is about stabilizing, protecting the purpose of an organization/group, holding together. but LEADERSHIP is about opening up! De-stabilizing, disorienting. Creating disequilibrium. Expanding. Adaptive work is the problem for which we don’t have the solution. Instead, we ourselves have to change. We have to learn our way to the solution.”
In your life, in your relationships, in your spirituality…are you currently trying to be a leader or an authority? What are the things you are learning through? What experiments are you running to try to come to new solutions or ways of being?
Our religion is built on a tradition of stories about radical, adaptive experiments like walking on water. We have nothing to fear. We certainly should be hard to embarrass given the funny stories in our tradition and Scripture! We are the water walkers… and sometimes jubilant swimmers. It is Christianity that should inspire us to take risks rather than inspiring us to worry and stress.
I pray for all of us, with or without New Year’s Resolutions, that we all resolve to be leaders throughout our different contexts in these times of the unknown, unprecedented, and yet still emerging change.
Turns out, the greatest risk is forgetting that risk is our religion.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph (or just Jake)
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
I confess that each morning one of the first things I do is look at the News app on my phone to see what is happening. Yesterday the most useful and uplifting thing I found was a new recipe for dinner. The news which is dominating the headlines is about governmental discord and the mistreatment of American people, as well as those waiting at our border, by the officials who are supposed to be serving the people. It’s discouraging and overwhelming, isn’t it? Should I just ignore the news for my own peace of mind? That doesn’t seem to be right. Where is the wisdom I need to read the news with any kind of equilibrium?
The definition of “wisdom” from the online etymological dictionary is: "knowledge, learning, experience.” The word descends from Old English, German and Norse. The Greek word for wisdom, “sophia,” is a bit broader in meaning: "skill, knowledge of, acquaintance with; sound judgment, practical wisdom; cunning, shrewdness; philosophy." When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek early in Christian history, “sophia” became the word for wisdom as it was personified in a female form in the book of Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom.
Where in these definitions do we find the “wisdom” to look at our world, our country, in these times? We can be well-informed with knowledge about events. We can learn about policies and points of view we do not understand. We can consider this information with shrewdness, sound judgment, practical sense, philosophical reasoning and maybe, even some cunning. We can measure all this against our own experiences. And still we can be overwhelmed by all that is happening!
I need more solid ground. The female form of wisdom in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, “Sophia,” became synonymous with “divine or holy wisdom.” Is there a clue here? Is wisdom truly found when we include a spiritual component to our search?
In her book, Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and Its Meaning for You, Joan Chittester investigates the five major faith traditions of the world to discover the meaning of wisdom in a sacred and holy context. She asks the question of what it means to be a “holy person” and concludes that the essence of holiness and maturity lies in the cultivation of spiritual consciousness. Holy people throughout the ages in all faiths “sought to grow beyond the husk to the core of life, beyond the manuals of spiritual life to the essence of the spiritual life.”[i] Chittester relates a story from the Islamic Sufi tradition to illustrate this.
“’Tell us what you got from enlightenment,’ the seeker said. ‘Did you become divine?’
‘No, not divine,’ the holy one said.
‘Did you become a saint?’
‘Oh, dear, no,’ the holy one said.
‘Then what did your become?’, the seeker asked.
And the holy one answered, “I became awake.’”[ii]
This is my prayer for myself and for Plymouth this year as we continue in all of our ministries of worship, study, learning, outreach, social justice and fellowship. May we become awake in ways we have yet to experience to the Divine presence within us, shaping us, nurturing and challenging us! May we become awake as we seek to respond in love to our overwhelming times rather than react in fear or anger! May we become awake to life moment by moment as we breathe in the joy of creation, as we love even our enemies, as we seek circles of community rather than levels of rigid hierarchy! May we become awake to the life of Jesus that lives in each of us!
Blessings and prayers,
[i]Chittester, Joan, Welcome to the Wisdom of the Word and Its Meaning for You; Universal Spiritual Insights Distilled From Five Religious Traditions, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 2007), xiv).
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
I know that, at first glance, all seems to be going really well at Plymouth: we have a beautiful facility, three Sunday services, ample clergy and program staff, a great music program, dramatic outreach into the community, our denomination, and the wider world. (Can you believe our folks gave over $9,000 to the UCC Christmas Fund and over $15,000 to Neighbor to Neighbor?) And together we are doing great things! Thank you for that commitment!
Having been in both a Budget & Finance meeting and a Nominating Committee meeting yesterday afternoon and evening, I am aware that we need to make our mission and ministry at Plymouth more sustainable.
To make up the $88,000 gap between pledges and budget requests for 2019, we are freezing all programmatic spending at 2018 actual levels and rolling back other expenditures on things like staff computers. Payroll is our biggest expense (in part because we have a newer building and hard-working trustees that result in low facility costs), and we reduced the cost-of-living adjustment for staff; no merit or range increases were included this year. We also took some designated funds out of reserves to help pay for the new bookkeeper, and we are going to recommend at the Congregational Meeting in January that we fold the overage from our Capital Campaign to help fund the 2019 budget.
We have a situation at Plymouth where some folks seem to think that “other people” will fund the budget and take leadership positions or that staff will get things done. The problem is that we often do! Our current lay leaders, volunteers, and staff make it look like everything is just fine. We may seem to glide gracefully on calm surface of Plymouth’s waters, but scores of little webbed duck feet are paddling like fury just to keep us where we are. And that is not sustainable.
I see some utterly exhausted volunteers. Why? Because too many folks are doing little besides keeping a pew warm on Sunday morning. We need every person at Plymouth to help pull together so that we aren’t burning our volunteers out.
In order to get things done, we are professionalizing things that volunteers used to do at Plymouth, like providing childcare. Sometimes that makes sense, like recognizing the need to hire a half-time bookkeeper. The rub comes when we have to pay our staff. And if we aren’t doing the work or paying for someone else to do it, it isn’t sustainable.
As I looked around our Budget & Finance Committee last night, I saw some of our most engaged lay leaders – people who offer their time and their expertise willingly to Plymouth. And you might think these folks would say, “I’ve done my bit through my hours of service…let someone else pledge.” But that isn’t how it works out. The people in that room are some of the most generous financial givers as well.
Why are the people who give of their time often the people who also pledge most generously? I think the answer is deceptively simple. It’s faithfulness and commitment. Madison Avenue would have a hard time selling that concept to consumers, but the church is not trying to sell anything…we’re trying to change lives and bring in the kingdom of God.
One of our members has a nickname for me. She always greets me with “How’s it going, Coach?” And that’s often how I think of my role at Plymouth. You all are the players who comprise the team. And sometimes coaches tell players things they’d rather not hear…that’s part of the job. And I hope you will hear this in that spirit…as words from a coach whose job is to encourage the team. Some of our members need to get off the bench and get into the game. We need you to play with the rest of the team by generously offering your money and your time and expertise. Take a leap of faith and stretch yourself!
This church is the greatest team in the league, and if you team members want to keep it that way, you need to step up your game. It’s not up to the coach…it’s up to you. With God’s help, we can make Plymouth more sustainable, but you, as part of this amazing congregation, are going to have to make some changes if that is going to happen.
We can do this together, but it means making some tough choices and even some sacrifices on the part of every one of our members. So, let’s get in the game and do it!
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.
Happy New Year! Today is a day full of hope. The trail through 2018 is behind us, with all its ambiguities, things joyful and terrible, and now 2019 lays before us. It is full of potential, pristine as a meadow of untrampled fresh snowfall. Yes, there may be some shadows from the edges of the forest, but there is so much possibility: you can ski this way or that, build a snow fort, make snow angels, even have a snowball fight with your kids. Or simply admire the way the sunlight glistens off the crystals, a million diamonds spread as far as you can see. Fresh, new, renewal beckons us in body and spirit.
Christian Formation is breaking fresh ground; you enjoyed the Thrive programs offered in November. Now, starting this month, we will again go off the familiar path, court adventure, try some different things, even be a bit crazy as we seek to experience God. Isn’t that an important part of the spiritual journey? We are going to use the West Forum/Choir Room on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. for this experiment, at least through the spring. For many years, our Forum program has focused on lectures and presentations, which we have listened to eagerly, and asked great questions. Lectures are a great method of learning for some people and generations, but as education in general has moved away from “the sage on the stage” to the “guide by the side,” we want to expand our learning styles. Spiritual formation indeed involves the head but includes also “heart and hands and voices.”
While we will certainly still have traditional presentations by outside groups, and events like Candidate Forums, we want to explore some new ways. We will continue to preserve elements we have valued from our past approach:
We want to build on the past, but increase our focus on fresh aspects:
The Formation Board realized that the Spirit was leading us in new directions, and has assembled an excited Revisioning Team, still open to new people, to imagine our use of the West Room. The Forum Planning Ministry Team had worked hard for many years developing the Forums, for which I am grateful, and I am thrilled at the energy the Revisioning Team is bringing to the table. (See me if you’d like to participate!) The Board realized the West Room is the largest educational space in our building, one of the best equipped, and amazingly flexible. We can set up with chairs for lectures or circles for intimate discussions, with tables for theology café or crafts, we can clear the floor for an indoor labyrinth, Spirit Yoga, meditation or dance. We can cover the whiteboard with insights and the walls with newsprint sheets of prayers. We can show film clips or listen to podcasts. The piano lets us explore song and music. Such an amazing space, a wonderful tool our congregants past and present have created!
January 13 and 20, we will be introducing the as-yet-unnamed program and providing different ways for you to give your input to our work. Among other things, we will identify the spiritual “itches” that we have, those growing edges that sometimes annoy us, those places where the Spirit is disturbing our souls, those things that we know we need to work on in the safe space of life together with other people following God. On the 27th, we will try out dramatic improv as a way to get into the itches we identify in an embodied and full voiced way, to try on different solutions for size, and see what we discover we know deep in our being. In February, we will dig into Brené Brown’s ideas around empathy, through film, discussion and crafting. In March… Oh, I guess the Spirit hasn’t carried the team that far. What do you think would be good?
This New Year, I invite you into this Christian Formation construction zone (look for the yellow tape!). Experiment with us; some things will be great, others may well flop -- and that’s OK. Roll up your sleeves, put on some googles (and maybe a helmet) since you never know what God might do when God’s people open to new moves of the Spirit.
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Director of Christian Formation (Adults)
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Read more about Mark.