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Sunday, February 22, 2009

First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Norwalk, CT

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, with two Boys in Hats concerts, an ongoing adult education program at Trinity United Church in Warren, NJ, and a ski trip. The big news, however, is that yesterday and today were my candidating weekend at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, of Norwalk, CT, and that, after worship this morning, the church called me to be their new senior pastor!!!

I've just gotten home and am exhausted from the weekend's activities, but am thrilled that I have been called by such a wonderful congregation. FCC, Norwalk is a welcoming multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation of 614 members, right in the heart of the city, and they have a long history of being involved in justice work. The plan is that I'll start work there on April 1 and that my family will move there to join me in early May.

I'll blog about all of this in more detail as things unfold. Right now, though, I'm going to take a nap.

Friday, February 13, 2009

More Darwin News!

Yesterday, I wrote about Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, discussing the celebration in terms of the ongoing American kerfuffle about evolution v. creationism/intelligent design.

Today, my high school classmate Tripp Hudgins, who is now a Baptist pastor, posted a fantastic article to his Facebook page that he gleaned from the New Scientist magazine website. It is about the Roman Catholic Church's formal endorsement of evolution: Vatican backs Darwin, dumps creationism. [Go ahead and click link. It is a fantastic article, after all.]

After all I wrote yesterday, I don't feel that I really need to write a whole lot reflecting on it, but I wanted to point you to it.

Oh, and the picture at the top of this post was ripped off from Brandon Keim's blog at Wired Science, which has lots of great links, as well.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It Isn't Every Day that a Man Turns 200 Years Old

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. I recently finished reading his travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle, which I enjoyed immensely. As a consequence of having the book listed in my "What I'm Reading Now" section on this blog, I received an email from Peter McGrath, the director of the HMS Beagle Project. McGrath is working to build a replica of the HMS Beagle, which will "sail the world in Darwin's wake, and will inspire global audiences through unique public engagement and learning programmes, and original scientific research in evolutionary biology, biodiversity and climate change." It seems that, at least on Mr. McGrath's side of the pond, the legacy of Charles Darwin is alive and well in the minds of the general public. Here in the United States, though, the mention of Darwin's name still is cause for agitation among some circles.

I remember back in the 1980s, a family member who loved me very much and didn't want my interest in biology to pave the road to hell gave me two books that proved to be interesting reading. One was "From Goo to You by way of the Zoo" and the other was "The Natural Limits to Biological Change." These two books "explained" why the Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was not only wrong, but how it was dangerous because it led people astray from the "truth" of creation as expressed in the opening chapters of Genesis. (There are, of course, TWO Biblical creation stories in the book of Genesis and they differ significantly, but the authors managed to ignore that fact...)

Out of respect for the giver of these books, I read them but, even as a high school student, found myself shaking my head at the lack of scientific understanding reflected in them. First, they both took the word "theory" and insisted on using it in its colloquial sense, as in when Uncle Ned tells you that he has this theory that the reason gas prices go up and down is because Martians fly their space ships over the gas stations at night and change the numbers when nobody is looking. Of course, in scientific parlance, a theory isn't a bit of random conjecture but, rather, is a well-supported principle that explains observable fact, such as Newton's theory of gravity or Einstein's theory of relativity. In addition to misusing scientific terminology, both books abused the scientific process by beginning with the assertion that the Biblical account of creation was literally true and then arguing that position instead of testing their hypothesis.

In its efforts to appear scientifically sophisticated to non-scientific readers, "The Natural Limits..." even talked about genetic experiments that various people had done with the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, none of which resulted in a new species coming into existence. I had been using D. melanogaster in laboratory experiments because it has a very short reproductive cycle (about 10 days between generations) and because it has several genetic mutations that occur with great regularity, so I was familiar with what the book said about developing populations with one particular genetic trait. What the book didn't discuss, (and in this case an omission is the same thing as a lie) is that none of the of experiments were even attempting to create a new species. The whole tone of the book reminded me of the "scientists" who were employed by tobacco companies to "prove" that smoking is not hazardous to anyone's health.

Now, twenty-some years later and with genetic sequencing as a part of the scientific arsenal, it seems that the Creation Science lobby has realized that Darwin's theory of evolution has become so fully accepted by botanists, zoologists, geneticists, and every other member of the scientific community that they have had to come up with a new way to package their product: Intelligent Design.

In recent years, fundamentalist evangelicals have asserted that I.D. should be taught in public school science classes and states like South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, Florida, Michigan, Kansas and Texas have wrestled with the issue of whether or how to teach the essentially religious doctrine of I.D.. Last year, the state of Louisiana approved having science teachers use "supplemental materials" when teaching about "controversial" scientific issues including evolution and global warming.

Something has gone badly wrong with religion in the United States when we allow religious idealogues to influence the teaching of science. What kind of education will children get if they are taught that "Gee, that question is too hard for me to answer, so I guess God must have done it," is an acceptable answer to a scientific question?

As a pastor, I feel that it is crucial for Christians to understand our faith in light of our understanding of the rest of the world. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used a four-part rubric for understanding theology, which his followers dubbed "the Wesleyan Quadrilateral" and likened to the four legs of a stool. The four legs are:
  1. Scripture - The basis of our faith comes from the revelation of the Bible.
  2. Tradition - The practices of the church guide our interpretation of scripture.
  3. Experience - Each person's individual and communal experience of God help them to find theological truth.
  4. Reason - Rational exploration of the world around us leads us to better understandings of our faith.

When we look at the quadrilateral, we realize that there is a need for each of these four means of revelation. It isn't hard to see how too much reliance on part of the stool can lead to a skewed theology, such as when the church, using scripture and tradition, but not experience or reason, banned Galileo from teaching that the sun was the center of our solar system.

Today, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, a scientist who was also a man of faith. We celebrate his insights and his desire to understand the workings of the universe. We celebrate the new understandings that experience and reason offer to our lives of faith. Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin, we could use a few more like you in our world!

Monday, February 9, 2009

13 Years Later

It’s official. I'm old.

I say this not because of my own advancing years, but because I have reached a secondary milestone in my life. As of today, I am the parent of a (gasp!!) teenager.

It was 13 years ago today that my very roly-poly wife turned to me as I was getting ready to head off to work and told me, "The contractions have started." As we got ready to leave the house, Kimberly informed me that she didn't like my shirt because it wasn't soft enough, so I pulled a flannel shirt out of the basket of clean laundry, got out the iron, set up the ironing board, and ironed that shirt so I could be both snuggly and wrinkle free. (My mother-in-law, the ironing goddess, has often been "blamed" for making me feel as though I needed to take the extra time to iron while my wife was in labor...) I helped Kimberly waddle to our little gray Honda Accord and we roared off in the general direction of the Yale Health building.

When we reached the intersection where we had to turn, there was a police car blocking it, with a police officer directing everyone away from the area. I turned on my turn signal, anyway, and sat there while the cop vigorously motioned me to go the other way. Unfortunately, the streets around the health center are all one-way and are laid out in such a way that there is only one way to get there, the way that the cop was blocking. Just as I was getting ready to get out of the car and explain to the officer why we needed to get through, Kimberly handled the matter in an even more efficient matter, rolling down the car window and shrieking, "Let us through! I'm in labor!!" The cop practically dove under her cruiser as she waved us through the intersection.

When we arrived at the health center, still having had to park the better part of a block away, we found out why the cop had been diverting traffic. Yale's Clerical and Technical Unions were on strike and were picketing the health center. A group of striking workers clogged the sidewalk and several police officers stood nearby to make sure that nothing happened. As Kimberly and I made our way through the picket line, she grabbed onto me and groaned as a strong contraction hit.

"Is she okay," one of the workers asked, and I explained that Kimberly was in labor. Immediately, the strikers' chants changed from "What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!" and became "You go, girl!" The strikers and the police who were there to control them worked together, clearing a path and opening the doors of the center for Kimberly.

After a quick exam, the nurse midwife at the health center cleared Kimberly to go to Yale-New Haven Hospital's maternity unit. I went back out to move the car closer and one of the police officers directed me to the no-parking zone right in front of the health center. Leaving the engine running and the doors open, I left the car in the care of the police and went back inside to get Kimberly. As we came out, there was another round of cheers from the striking workers and the cops, then we raced off to the hospital.

Once Kimberly was admitted to the hospital and taken to a birthing suite, things deteriorated. Kimberly's temperature had spiked and a fetal oxygen monitor showed that our little one was having problems. The doctor and nurse-midwife argued about whether it would be necessary to perform a caesarian, but they finally decided to hold off unless things got worse. Several hours later, with the emergency response team from the newborn special care unit standing by in the room, Ian was born.

He wasn't breathing.

As Kimberly slumped back in the bed, the medical team went to work on Ian, pumping air into his lungs until they started to work, but each of his breaths came with a horrible sounding gurgle. I kissed Kimberly and went with Ian as the nurses wheeled him across the hall, where they put a suction tube into his nose and down into his lungs to clear them of mucous. Kimberly and Ian spent the next three days in the hospital, recovering from infections and gaining strength before finally coming home.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that all of that is 13 years ago. I spent this morning looking through photos and it is hard for me to believe how much Ian has grown. Each picture takes me back to special times: buying Ian his first shoes, making Halloween costumes, going on hikes, playing music together. Like every parent, I remember those times fondly and find myself nostalgic for the little guy that used to be part of my life. Of course, the flip side is that Ian has grown into quite a remarkable young man and I enjoy watching him grow and develop. He's a good musician. He's smart and has a wonderful sense of humor, which even goes as far as asking me to take his picture on kiddie rides. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next few years will bring and watching as he grows into a young adult. Also, I love him a lot and am very proud of him but, since he's a teenager, please don't tell him. He'd think it was "uber-dorky."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Back when I worked at the Congregational Church of Naugatuck, CT, in the 1990s, the music director, several members of the choir and I would regularly make a post-rehearsal pilgrimage to a corner bar in Union City. It was one of those dives with lots of character, a turn-of-the-century building, old and battered, with pressed-tin walls and ceilings and ornate plumbing in the restrooms. There were only a few beers on tap and the food offerings consisted of pickled eggs, pickled sausages and whatever might be in the vending machine.

The church group had a regular table or, more acurately, we had two tables that we would always push together and crowd around. The tables were tall, the perfect height for sitting at a bar stool or standing, but what made it "our" table was that it was right in the corner by the dart board. At first, we would just play a game or two, but it didn't take long for us to get hooked on the game and, soon, we found ourselves saving up quarters all week so we'd be able to keep feeding the scoring machine. Before long, most of us had gone out and bought our own darts so we could have the weight and feel that we liked instead of having to play with the generic darts they had at the bar.

All things come to an end and, when I finished up my interim work at Naugatuck and moved on to the Green's Farms church in Westport, I put my darts in their case and put the case away on a shelf in the basement. Every so often, I'd come across those darts and think wistfully of how my circle of choir friends would get together and play almost every Thursday. Those were good times!

This past Saturday, my son and I went shopping at Sears, looking for something he could buy with a gift certificate he received for Christmas. We wandered through the store looking for something that would appeal to a 13-year old and it didn't take long for us to end up in the sporting goods section, where Ian decided that he'd like to get a dart board.

That afternoon, we hung the board on the basement wall and Ian and I played several games. Later in the evening, as I was preparing my sermon, I listened to a steady thwok-thwok as Ian practiced his dart game, using my old darts instead of the cheap ones that came with the board. After church on Sunday, he and I went hunting for some better quality darts and, when we arrived home, played several more games. When Ian came home from school yesterday, we played a couple games before he started his homework and played a few more games before dinner.

While I had thought that Ian would enjoy playing darts, I find myself to be both pleased and surprised at how much he seems to be getting into it. Even more, I'm really enjoying the time that we're spending together, throwing darts and talking. In fact, I can hardly wait for him to get home from school so we can play a game or two.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Maximizing your Prophets in These Difficult Economic Times

This past Sunday, I was back at Trinity United Church in Warren, NJ, the church where I led an adult education program back in the early fall, From Amistad to Guantanamo: Justice Ministries in the United Church of Christ. This time, I was teaching the first installment of a three-part series about prophets.

On Sunday, we went over what Biblical prophets were and what they weren't. (They were messengers for God, not fortune tellers.) Then, we took time to go discuss several of the Biblical prophets who appear as characters rather than having books that they authored. We discussed Joseph (of Andrew Lloyd Weber fame), Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha.

Next week, we'll tackle the "major prophets": Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Time permitting, we may get started with the "minor prophets." On week three, the plan is to finish up with the prophets of the New Testament and a discussion of how God is still speaking to people today.

In addition to leading the adult education program, I also preached the sermon and shared in the celebration of Holy Communion with the Rev. Elsie Armstrong Rhodes. Trinity keeps a sermon archive, where you can listen to my sermon, "The Demon Within," which reflected on the text from Mark 1:21-28, where Jesus casts a demon out of a man who accosts him in the middle of his sermon at the Capernaum synagogue. Though they haven't posted the sermon as of the time I'm writing this, I'm sure it'll be up very soon.

It was nice to be back with Elsie and with Jared Stephens and Joy Arroyo, the two pastoral assistants who are students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The three of them make a great team and it was particularly nice to hear how well the students led the congregation's prayers. I'm looking forward to being back next week and watching these talented students as they take a larger role in leading worship.