Category Archives: Newsletter

From the Newsletter: Easter is for non-believers, too.


Dear Friends of Second Church,

Holy Week and Easter are a little more than two weeks away — and some of the church’s most powerful services are just ahead. Some are somber and thought-provoking; others are joyful and celebratory; each is distinctive and beautiful.

In particular, Palm Sunday and Easter are often inscribed in people’s memories from childhood, whether they worshipped in impressive city churches with organs three stories tall, small country churches where the flowers came from someone’s garden, or something in between.

Many in our pews for those Sundays remember family gatherings with cherished family members now many years gone,  with church-going serving as just one part of an extended lesson in what it was to belong—to a community and to a family, as well as to God. For some, Easter began weeks ahead of time, when they went downtown to get a new suit or hat, and Easter only ended when the last car pulled out of the driveway, the dishes were put away, and the extra leaves of the dining room table were safely back in their corner of the pantry.

In fact, we know that many who will be with us in the next few weeks may come as very temporary, even one-time-only visitors, coming not so much to “encounter Jesus” or “celebrate the resurrection,” per se, but rather to remember what it felt like to sit next to their beloved grandmother, amid an atmosphere heavy with the scent of lilies and “Shalimar,” and who are joining us now all these years later simply to sing the hymns their grandmother knew and loved.

God bless them. Welcome.

Many of you will also be inviting family to join you who aren’t really sure how they feel about church, or what they might be seen as tacitly endorsing by being there.

Of course, we don’t want it to be that complicated, and we aren’t a “hard sell” kind of place. But that’s easy for us to say. If all they wish to do is come and sit and let their minds wander, God bless them. Welcome.

(And grace and peace to all those who decide, in the end, to stay home.)

Sometimes I worry that we who love churches see our great festivals as a chance for visitors to “get the message” instead of simply feel the love in, among, and through us.

Instead of celebrating God’s love, we’re more concerned with lifting up our own version of churchiness.

Along those lines, we Christians need to do a better job at showing that Worship isn’t something that we have to do (whether in general or according to some particular way) — it’s something that we get to do, and do according to however the Spirit may lead.

It’s not something any of us are born knowing how to do in any particular way. It’s something we come to do, mostly, just by doing it.

But we keep on doing it every week because, in some mysterious way, in doing it we are reminded of what is to belong to someone besides ourselves—most of all, to God.

So is it wrong for us to sit in the pews and remember our grandmother rather than Jesus?

In many ways, it’s a false choice.

Because as Jesus clearly understood, what belonging means for us and asks of us are important to decide. Their are implications — even consequences — to belonging. That is as it should be.

These are the weeks when God showed us most clearly that even death could not stop the power of love, and that in God, there is more than enough love for all of us.

These are the weeks when God showed most clearly that we all belong to Him, no matter what.

Sometimes we find our way to those lessons in a straightforward way, by hearing the Word, singing the old hymns, and praying with especially purposeful focus.

Sometimes it’s by remembering the lives of the saints we have known, who did those things so faithfully that their example still moves us, even in the midst of very different lives.

And so whatever it is that blossoms in someone’s heart and memory at Easter, or whatever it is that tells a passerby to turn the car into the parking lot and come to church, God bless it.

Come. You’re where you belong.


See you in church

From the Newsletter: “A Reformation Faith”


Dear Friends of Second Church,

This coming Sunday, we will mark Reformation Sunday at our 10:30 Worship Service — which will include a musical celebration with harpsichord, brass, strings, a boy soloist…in short, the works.

It is sure to be a great tribute on a day close to the 500th anniversary of when it is said that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Saxony (the actual day is October 31st).

There are those who wonder if it happened exactly that way, with all the drama of Spielberg movie, and I admit that I don’t know.

But it’s clear that a very different way of “being the Church” emerged as a result.

Luther focused and then broadened a conversation about how we encounter God, how we understand God’s will for us, and what the world should look like in light of our faith.

Over the last 500 years, that conversation has continued, and what’s proven to be its most enduring feature are its perennial questions, rather than many of its specific answers. Those often turn out to be the testimonies of a particular place and time, with much to teach us, but also much we must respectfully, but courageously reinterpret.

To do as Luther did has proven more important for us than to think precisely as Luther thought.

The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not guarding the ashes, but fanning the flames.”

Along those lines, the thing about a Reformation faith is that each generation — and in a very real sense each person — is challenged to remake it anew. We have to fan those flames once again. We have to look for God in our midst and ask what God is doing now, in this place.

What are the urgent concerns of this moment, and how is it that the light of the Gospel and the love of God in Jesus Christ can transform them? What does God need the Church to see, which the world, in its brokenness, cannot? And what does that ask of us in the Church, and of all of us as the Church?

There is not one simple answer. How could there be?

Truly, it is no surprise that passionate debate has always been a part of Reformation faith.

Yet clearly, it’s not a passive way of being faithful. It never has been.

Moreover, it must not be.

That’s one of the Reformation’s most important and enduring insights.

Passivity creeps in all too easily.

The great sociologist Max Weber talked about “the routinization of charisma,” his phrase for how the great energy and insight of a movement’s founder gets translated into (and slowly depleted by) the often mundane work of maintaining an institution.

Even the Church.  Even the Reformers’ churches.

The Reformers and those who came afterwards loved building institutions.

Indeed, those institutions have given us a lot to be thankful for.

The challenge of wrestling with God’s Word demanded that the first Reformers push for Bibles that people could read in their own languages. Then they saw the need to push for the broad, basic literacy that ensured the people could read for themselves. In this country, you can trace the migration of the Puritans and their descendants by following the founding of colleges across the American West.

But at a deeper level, those achievements came back to that fundamental commitment to wrestling.

Much has changed over the last 500 years. Some even say that we are at the very beginning of the next Great Reformation in Christian history, as the institution of the Church changes yet again to meet life circumstances and new social expectations that have shifted dramatically, especially in the last 50 years.

That commitment to wrestling has not changed.

From where I sit, the most vibrantly faithful, joyful, and committed of our own members today are those who live out that commitment, and the people who visit us and end up staying are those who are seeking a nurturing place to do that, too.

This tells me that, whatever the next 500 years will bring, the women and men whose lives are shaped by a Reformation faith across the generations will always share something much more fundamental than anything that might divide them.

I hope you’ll join us this Sunday to celebrate the last 500 years, and the next 500 years, and to engage for yourself in the deep wrestling that is the enduring heart of our faith.


See you in church,

From the Newsletter: “#MeToo and our Faithful Response”

For the last week or so, my Facebook feed has offered testimony after testimony from women under the hashtag #metoo, sharing their experiences of unwanted sexual advances from men with positions of power in their lives — elite music camp “star teachers,” coaches, dissertation advisors, bosses, pastors — men of all kinds, sometimes drawing on even the slenderest forms of “leverage” to coerce women into doing what they wanted.

For the first couple of days, I was truly shocked.

Then I got embarrassed that I was so shocked.

In so many cases, the stories were not accounts of a single time, or a single creep.

They were matter-of-fact lists of men named only by role, encountered through the years and in many different places.

Part of the point is that the details of any given one scarcely matter, because in some sense, of course, they are all the same story, told over and over again by women of all backgrounds, and often multiple times within the life of even one woman.

The details don’t matter because we might be too easily tempted to use them as a way to parse these stories, to identify some sort of behavior in the teller, some sort of mixed signal, some part of the context that meant that it was “all an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

We’d like so much to think so.

There are mixed signals and unfortunate misunderstandings, to be sure.

We can always look for those if we so choose.

Or we can seek to learn from the vast experience of all those for whom these are not isolated incidents, but rather all-too-predictable patterns of living and working alongside men.

Maybe an isolated story has the power to shock us.

But a fact of life that stands in plain view, testified to by countless family members, friends and coworkers, can only reveal how willful our blindness and astonishment truly are.

That should embarrass us — and challenge us, too.

The Church at its best has always been grounded in the understanding that all people are created in the image of God, and are precious to God.

That means they are never to be seen as objects for someone’s particular use or purposes, or as the means to an end. All are worthy in themselves, and always to be seen in light of the fact that God did not consider Creation complete without each of us — and not for some to serve as “helpmeets” for others, but for all to serve together as coworkers in the vineyard.

This is never to be taken lightly. Particularly by those in a position to give particular help or hindrance, to do good or harm, to enact justice or injustice for others, or to act on behalf of neighbor or of self.

Sin should not shock us. But it must motivate us.

Jesus believed there was joy to be found in working together in service to the Kingdom.

May we work for a day when it is the stories of such joy that speak of our common lot, and not the heartbreak and shame of bearing someone else’s inhumanity.


See you in church,

From the Newsletter: “Wildfire and Memory”


Dear Friends at Second Church,

The wildfires ranging through Napa and Sonoma counties in California became more personal for me yesterday, as I saw pictures of a community being evacuated where my great-uncle David has a home.

As it happened, a little later I got an email from a vineyard where I once ordered wine for Christmas, letting me know that they were safe, at least for now, and even though I haven’t purchased anything from them in years, I was glad to know they were still there.

They’re in my prayers now, for sure.

Then this morning, I saw a picture posted by a clergy colleague who has retired to a farm near Santa Rosa, that showed firemen resting for a few minutes on their firetrucks, which were temporarily parked in my friend’s front yard.

What days these are.

Another friend who lives in Florida commented, “When the hurricane came, we had three days to get ready. With the wildfires, you get a call to evacuate within the next twenty minutes.”

It’s an awful thought.

Of course, that doesn’t make a wildfire somehow “worse” than a hurricane. We should resist the impulse to compare worry and suffering. So many places are hurting — and so many are still drying out, digging out, and trying to salvage what remains, which is such melancholy work.

Loss is loss — parsing it is beside the point.

But I do wonder about what I’d carry if I only had twenty minutes to pull it together.

It’s remarkably easy to picture how our girls would be pleading for every beloved stuffed animal while Liz and I were taking down pictures of our grandparents from the downstairs hallway. How the church’s Senior Deacon and I would be frantically over here at the church, too, trying to get the fireproof safe open to stash in a few more things.

How long would I let myself wonder if it made sense to take my diplomas or the hard copies of my sermons?

If you only have twenty minutes, how much of your time do you spend gathering the tools you’ll need for the coming days — the clothes, medicines, contact lens solution, dog food, phones, laptops, etc. — and how much time do you use for securing the irreplaceable items of your own history?

It’s hard to say for certain, of course, and yet I know that my own instincts would lean toward securing the history.

The most precious things are often the least valuable to anyone else — I probably wouldn’t even think to grab the jewelry (a lapse for which my grandmother would never forgive me), but would have the full run of Grace and Emily’s pre-school art work. Does a smurf matter more than a set of china? Who can say? And yet if you had to say, what would you?

Maybe the deeper lesson is not to underestimate how important such things actually are for the future.

Without a sense of where we’ve been, we struggle that much harder to remember who we are.  As we face a future that remains as yet unwritten, we find strength in those reminders of the road we’ve been traveling. The blessings we’ve encountered along the way remind us that there will be other blessings yet to come. We also learn that in so many ways, and even without knowing it, we have even been preparing for this current moment, whatever it may hold.

I concede that this might be a lot to ask of a childhood smurf, grabbed off the shelf before I flee with my family from a wildfire.

Yet the Lord works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

Faith teaches us that our history fits within a larger story of God’s love for the world, and of God’s calling a people into being for love and service. We are those people. That is our story. This is our moment.

Whatever we need to keep close by in order to remember who we are in God and what God calls us to be, may we keep it close, indeed.


See you in church,

From the Newsletter: “Thoughts and Prayers”


Dear Friends of Second Church,

The reports out of Las Vegas earlier this week have sent us reeling once again, the most recent heartbreak in a long season of devastation.

I’m sure you’ve also seen the pushback against one traditional form of public condolence, the promise that the victims and their families “are in our thoughts and prayers.”

I can understand the pushback — condolences are easily spoken, but not necessarily deeply felt. Pious assurances of sadness and good will, all by themselves, fall well short of God’s call to bring healing to a broken world in the name of Jesus, which is the clear mandate of all Christians.

But I’m also convinced that prayer does matter — it matters deeply.

It matters in large part because, when prayers are deeply felt, they quickly express themselves in actions, like the many citizens of Las Vegas who stood in line for hours to donate blood just hours after the shooting, to name just one obvious example.

For some of us, such gestures are almost instinctive—maybe even more so than kneeling or lifting our hands or speaking particular words to God.  For some of us, the gesture is the prayer.

Either way, prayer is our reminder in word and practice that we are connected to God and neighbor in ways beyond distance, difference, and even time itself.

Eternity is alive in prayer.

In part this means that prayer expresses itself in other concrete steps to offer comfort or, at a more official level, to learn lessons from tragedy, as we seek to show that we are engaged beyond the moment—to live out the truth that we are, in the end, one.

It is in such moments that the full power of human creativity and generosity, both central gifts from God and vital channels of divine grace, start getting to work.

When that happens, I start to feel a little more hopeful about humanity’s chances, despite the many challenges that we face—so many of them, sadly, challenges we have brought upon ourselves.

So I am not one to say that the time for “thoughts and prayers” is over.

I think the world is aching for it begin.


See you in church,

Lent…that all shall be well…


Dear Friends of Second Church,
I hope you are continuing courageously on your Lenten journey.

To be honest, my own remains challenging, a combination of giving things up and taking others on this year.

I am trying to start some new habits around diet and exercise, and, wow…it is not easy. Those of you who love the feel of a good workout—bless you. But I am not there yet.

Maybe it seems strange to see “wellness” as a spiritual challenge, appropriate for Lent, but that’s how I’m finding it. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for wellness. But it’s challenging to admit that wellness doesn’t come in the terms I prefer, that life doesn’t necessarily respond to my gestures of bargain (“Isn’t it enough just to skip sour cream on the burrito?” being one of them), that progress is so very gradual.

Really, can’t I just read a few books about healthy lifestyles and be done with it? How do you say “wellness” in Greek?

That’s why Lent is so important—it reminds us that, for all our gifts, for all the freedom we have to shape so much about our worlds, there are still terms within which we must live, and which we do not decide. Lent shows our us our bargains, and our shortcuts, and our great need to seek courage for the task of living from something greater than ourselves and our own willpower. It asks us to name not only our creature comforts and petty indulgences, but also our false gods, who let us pretend we can have life on terms that require less of us.

Lent points to God as something more than a fine idea to be mulled over — that God is a living force who loves us far too much to leave us where we are, and who will push us to move forward, even if we don’t much feel like going.

Where is it that you are having trouble going? The gym? The office? The doctor? Or to some particular emotional or spiritual place within?

This Lent, if you listen, perhaps you’ll hear God calling you to start moving in that direction. My hope is that as I do, I will find Him there….and that you will, too.

See you in church,

“The Grace of Last Minute Shopping”

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Hard to believe that we’re one week away from Christmas Eve. Time to start my shopping.

I know, I know.

Some of you have been done for weeks. Months. You’re feeling anxious because you think some of your wrapped presents might look even better with different colored bows on them.

I admire you.

As someone who has had to wrap presents in the old newspaper next to the fireplace, using duct tape, because the more customary supplies had not lasted, I admire you.

I love your careful systems, and the time and effort you have dedicated to finding the perfect gift and presenting it in the perfect way.

But that’s not for me.

You may disagree, but by starting my shopping so close to Christmas, I like to think that I have allowed more room for the Holy Spirit in my own gift-giving.

It’s also true that, now, with every store’s supplies depleted, the “obvious gifts” have all been taken.

Yes, I suppose I could just go “expensive” and be done. Instead, I look upon all of the picked-through and passed-over things with eyes of love, trying to discern which ones among them will speak to someone’s heart, maybe starting out by eliciting compassion, but in time become things loved for their own sake.

O.k., so there was the year I got my mother a “Salad Shooter” for the second year in a row.

That wasn’t so great then. But isn’t the story priceless now? Isn’t that really the reason for the season?

Permit me to suggest that the suffering you endured by going to the mall at noon on a weekend in December seems more like an Easter thing than a Christmas one.

Even worse, I know someone whose mother, years ago, nearly got into a fistfight with a tough little grandmother at the “Toys R Us” in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in over a Cabbage Patch doll.

By contrast, when you start your shopping on Christmas Eve, there is always room at the inn–friends, the mall is your oyster.

Better yet, there is the deep camaraderie of other shoppers on which to rely. All ages and conditions of men are as one at Crabtree and Evelyn on Christmas Eve: “Hey, what’s ‘verbena’? Is she gonna want that?” “Is scented talcum a thing?”

In its own way, it is a foretaste of the Kingdom.

Theologically, let us allow that my approach is arguably more in the Spirit of Protestantism itself.

After all, whose Christmas shopping is a thing of “works-righteousness,” designed to make some claim on holiness, some human-based righteousness, and whose shopping can be said to rely solely on the Providence of God?

Ahem. That’s what I thought.

Finally, you cannot know what is in my heart as late afternoon becomes evening on Christmas Eve, and the lights and noise of the world diminish, and I drive home quietly with such as I have to offer those who love me, thinking of them and of these days, and with my heart full.

No gift could ever repay, nor words express the depth of my gratitude that God has chosen them to journey with me, and it is only with His help that I find ways to live out that gratitude.

Whatever else Christmas is or isn’t, and whatever else I plan for well-ahead or do only at the last minute, I always discover that gratitude anew. And I rejoice.

For those who journey elsewhere this week, Godspeed. For those who remain, hope to see you Christmas Eve.
See you in church,

Crafting Something Deeper at Christmas

craft fair

Yesterday afternoon, I was trying to get Grace to her guitar lesson, which happens to be held at another church nearby. To avoid the pouring rain, we detoured through a long hallway connecting the sanctuary to the Parish Hall.

Big mistake.

It was a whirlwind of tables, tupperware crates, and talking on cell phones — as an army of vendors was frantically setting up for a Christmas Craft Bazaar, due to start in 90 minutes. They eyed us warily at first as we moved through, as if they wondered if we were early-birds who had somehow snuck in, two experienced craft-show-goers looking to close a few quick deals before the hapless vendors were really ready for wheeling and dealing. I tried to hold the guitar a little higher, as a token of our purposes, but it was hard to notice–maybe it was just too out of context for them to offer any helpful explanation.

It made me grateful for the relative civility and easy passage through the halls here at our own Craft Fair last month.

But I was also reminded of some of the perennial hazards of the Christmas season. Because like those vendors, at Christmas, we often end up doing so much rushing around, don’t we? Busy as we are, sometimes we become blind to the true purposes of others we encounter–that shopper in the parking lot who finds a spot in the nanosecond before we see it, that grandparent who calls to discuss “The Plan” before we’re quite ready with the details they’re seeking, the coworker who lost her mother last summer and is inconveniently needy and not-together, even though she is not talking about her grief.

It’s a sad irony that during a season in which we are called to notice one another with particular diligence and affection, we can become too busy to see one another clearly, much less warmly. The context of our own rushing can give us tunnel vision for everything and everyone else.

I hope that in the next few weeks, you’ll seek out moments where you can for slowing down and asking God who it is you need to be noticing, and where it is you need to be looking. And I hope you’ll feel the delight of being seen…and maybe even found, too.

Newsletter: Thanksgiving and the blinking light


Dear Friends of Second Church,

If your house is anything like ours this week, you’re probably sneaking a peek at your email between a long list of tasks.

“Would you go to the basement and bring up the extra chairs?”
“Did all those coats get put away yet?”
“What is the soap situation in the downstairs bathroom?”
“Before I start the washing machine, did you check all your pockets for crayons?”
“Whoops, I forgot parsnips! Would you go get some?…Please take at least one of the children with you.”

It’s a week when there’s so much to do, and there are so many directions in which we’ll all need to be running, cleaning this and ironing that, going to the grocery store and zooming home to get cooking, only to realize that you need to go straight back because in your haste to start preparing for Thanksgiving, you didn’t get anything for dinner tonight.  On top of that, Liz and I are learning that, as parents with young kids, Thanksgiving is about planning the activities of a four-day weekend as much as it is about preparing a grand feast–wonderful as it is, that’s a whole extra level of “prep” to do.

It can be overwhelming.

And if I’m honest, it’s one of those weeks when that little blinking light on my cell phone can look like a beacon of freedom–an invitation to step back into a world where the tasks and “the heavy-lifting” are so very different, and frankly, so much easier for me. I’m better at remembering the details in that world. I love the challenges of that world. I love the role I’m asked to play in that world.  And love it or not, I’m trying to keep the trains running in that world, and if I just answer a couple of emails now, on Monday morning that will be a whole lot easier to get back into.

Waiting on line all over again at Stop and Shop because I forgot the heavy cream? I don’t love that.

But there’s a temptation lurking there.

Because it’s not only that our work life is so much more interesting than waiting on line, or going up and down the basement stairs.

It’s tempting to answer that blinking light because, when push comes to shove, we think of our work life as the “real” one.

By contrast, the world of rest and family togetherness, the many steps of throwing a big, fancy meal, or piling everyone in the car for an excursion because you can only watch “Frozen” so many times in one day, can all seem like a break from reality, and a vaguely self-indulgent one at that.

And that’s incorrect.

The tradition of Sabbath has always been a way to preserve time and attention for what matters most: to connect with God and reconnect with those we love.

Our challenge is to find fulfillment in the everyday, not despite it. 

In that spirit, the tasks of getting ready for Thanksgiving may be small and many, but learning to practice gratitude is one of the most important jobs we have.

See you in church,

Landing on the Comet


This morning, after a ten year voyage through space, the Philae lander touched down on Comet 67P, a staggering 317 million miles away.

It’s a triumph of human ingenuity.

After all, it was just a few years ago that Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis made a movie about landing on an asteroid in a desperate attempt to save the Earth, and while many people liked the movie, nobody considered it particularly real.

Maybe today it looks a little more so.

“Space” is a relatively recent term for “interstellar depths,” and ironically, it first appeared in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a deeply religious poem about Adam and Eve, the snake, and the Garden of Eden. (Here is where I also mention that John Milton, the poet, was an English Congregationalist.)

The irony of it is that, so often, we think of science and religion as being deeply opposed to one another, somehow, rather than as distinct but compatible ways of imagining and understanding Creation.

After Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from orbiting the Earth, Nikita Kruschev crowed that “Gagarin flew into space, but he didn’t see any God there.”

But surely astronomers and astronauts can mostly share the wonder of the Psalmist, who writes, “…for as I look up to the heavens thy fingers made, the moon and the stars that thou hast shaped, I ask, ‘And what is man, that thou should’st think of him? What is a mortal man, that shoud’st heed him? Yet thou hast made him little less than divine, thou hast crowned him with majesty and honor…’.” (Psalm 8: 3-5)

To me, it is how we human beings express our capacity for wonder, and also where curiosity takes us, that honor or dishonor God, far more than whether we use an explicitly religious vocabulary.

So I thank God for the ingenuity of the women and men who put the Philae on Comet 67P, and for everything we yet stand to learn about Creation.

For all the uncertainties and worries of our times, these are still such amazing days in which to be alive.   Look up at the night sky and see if you don’t agree.

See you in church