18 September, 2023

 Every morning a parade passes under my office window. This is the tenth year I've watched it change, grow, and recreate itself.  Young voices, nervous in the first days and coached by adults in the do's and don'ts of the parade.  By the third week, the adults have dropped back and children walk hand in hand with backpacks and, occasionally, musical instruments.  There is giggling.  There is drama.  There is joy. There is dread.   But what I will miss most about this parade in the years to come is watching young people grow, mature, and change each new school year.  

#LastYearInOffice #retirementlooms

28 July, 2023

When Change Hurts

This post is personal and does not relate to my role as a pastor. 

I'm sitting here feeling angry, betrayed, and fearful. There is a big change coming, and I can do nothing about it.  I would really like to talk to everyone involved. But I cannot.  The situation is out of my hands. And yet, I wring my hands anyway.  

A part of my brain wants to create a giant backstory about why changes are happening.  Like a twist in the plot of a good novel, suddenly something unknown comes to light and it illuminates the present situation.  It changes the picture. It explains the change. This makes the change more bearable.  But the creative side of my brain cannot convince the evidence-based, rational side of the truth of such imaginative alternatives. 

A part of me wants to put on my "super woman" cape and fly in and "fix" the situation, stop the train before it hits the helpless innocents stalled on the tracks ahead of it and about to be irreparably broken. I want to shield everyone from the impending pain, confusion, chaos.  But I cannot; I am helpless to do so.  All I can do is sit and watch and worry while the security and certainty of the world implodes around us all.  

I am helpless in the face of change. I am in pain, and sick with worry.  And I feel completely ill-prepared to face this hurt.  

  • I could curl up in a ball and sleep.  But the pain would haunt my dreams. 
  • I could exercise fiercely. But the hurt will be as flames through my very sinews. 
  • I could drink or drug myself into oblivion. But the pain will still be there buried under the stupor. 
  • I could put on a strong face and pretend none of this is actually happening. But the train would still barrell down the tracks. 
  • I could stomp my feet and throw a temper tantrum. But that would change nothing. 
I am out of options but one. I can only wait this out, watch from afar, and be there to help pick up the pieces and bury the dead if I live to see the other side. 

08 March, 2023

Ask The Question Again.... what is the most current change or improvement for "how we do church"?


We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on February 19. Here are responses to those questions.  Red questions were submitted on line.  Blue questions were hand written submissions from Sunday.

A quick reminder that these are my opinions. They do not represent any "official" position of First Congregational Church of La Grange, or of the United Church of Christ. 

  • Beside the doxology, what is the most current change or improvement for "how we do church"?
First, I want to be clear that when we talk about "How We Do Church," we're not talking about ONLY worship.  The more profound changes have to do with how we see our role in the world around us, how we go about approaching our call to "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself," how we utilize our assets to do the greatest good, and how we involve members in making change in our community, the region, and indeed the world. These changes will deeply affect how we organize ourselves, how we chose leadership and staff, and how we interact with one another.  This is much deeper than just our weekly gathering. This is about our very identity.

The most significant thing we are doing is reimagining our future. Beginning with the Futures Lab and continuing with the work of the Futures Team, we are listening, discerning, and imagining what the next 142 years of FCCLG will be. 

In terms of worship, a lot has changed.  
  • We are making use of the wide variety of music available to us by not limiting ourselves to what is in the 1989 hymnals. We are instead printing music in the bulletins.
  • We are encouraging more congregational participation in the leadership of worship.
  • We have made a commitment to creating multisensory experiences happen in worship
  • We are reaching out to different styles of worship; Messy Church on the fifth Sundays is one example. 
  • We are encouraging the use of electronic bulletins so that we use less paper. 
  • We are intentionally designing worship with the remote participants in mind, making use of on screen supplements and graphics. 
These, however, are only a miniscule part of "how we do church" because "doing church" involves a lot more than just Sunday Morning.  

Stay tuned for reports of the findings of the Futures Team.  From them you will hear recommendations about 
  • Involving all ages and stages in mission work
  • Innovative ways to involve all ages in faith development
  • Ideas about our on-line presence and engagement of off-site participants
  • The needs of our community that we might engage
  • Partnering with other agencies and organizations to make a difference in the community and the world
  • New Concepts about how we organize ourselves
  • And a whole lot more

07 March, 2023

Carly's Retiring? What?

We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on February 19. Here are responses to those questions.  Red questions were submitted on line.  Blue questions were hand written submissions from Sunday.

A quick reminder that these are my opinions. They do not represent any "official" position of First Congregational Church of La Grange, or of the United Church of Christ. 

A Guest Post from Church Moderator Jean O'Brien to respond to the question: 

  • What is the church leadership doing to prepare for the transitions of Rev. Carly's retirement in 2024?

As you likely have heard, Carly is planning on retiring in a little more than a year at the end of May 2024.  Thankfully, there are processes in place to help us as we shift from her leadership to the next phase in our congregation's life.  In addition to the formal processes, leadership has made other important plans to assist in a smooth transition.

Mechanically, it will look something like this:  Our Call Agreement with Carly requires her to give the church 90 days' notice of her intent to leave.  The council will then contact the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ to request assistance in finding an interim pastor.  Like most churches, our plan is to get an interim pastor to bridge the gap between permanent pastors.  Interims serve congregations as agents of change and help us be ready to find a fitting permanent leader to take us forward.  Ideally, we will have an interim pastor in place immediately following Carly's departure.  

In addition to the interim pastor and this traditional process, Carly has inspired the Council to start up the Futuring (Futures?) Team as a means of beginning to think about the church independent of Carly or, really, any of us!  The process involves 

1. Envisioning our hopes and dreams for the distant future
2. Planning our near future
3. Restructuring our perception of HOW and WHY we do church

All of these ideas come together to help us define who we are now and who we want to be in the future.  How we think about these concepts will assist us as we go about searching for the spiritual guide who will help us walk that road.    When we are closer to the end of Carly's ministry with us, we will receive guidance from one of the Associate Conference Ministers on how to proceed through this process. 

The book A Sure Foundation  provides Carly and the leadership team a timeline and guide to follow for the retirement of our pastor and our steps forward.  Our immediate future should be a period of discernment, reflection and wild dreaming!  All are invited to walk this journey!

21 February, 2023

Ask the Question 3: More to come....

There are still a number of questions to which I have not yet time to  respond.  The responses to the following questions will appear here as I am able to make time:

  • Why don't we share prayer concerns in worship?  Would this help with helping people feel connected?    See the post on Worship.
  • How often do we change the outside banners and who decides what goes there?
  • Beside the doxology, what is the most current change or improvement for "how we do church"?    See the March 8 Post
  • What is the church leadership doing to prepare for the transitions of Rev. Carly's retirement in 2024?  --See the Guest Post by the Church Moderator
  • The "revival at Asbury College makes me wonder what is the congregational stance on revivals?
  • Can we stream/broadcast the coffee hour, or put up a zoom coffee hour for online participants?
  • I have my beliefs that have sheltered, encouraged, and nourished me, but seeing how many people so openly "use" God as a weapon.  Are there that many or are they more vocal?
  • There are 4 Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But why isn't there a Gospel written according to Jesus?  Why didn't Jesus leave us something written my him, instead of leaving it to others to write various and at times conflicting versions of the Gospel?   See the post about the Bible.
  • What is the difference between Lutheran, Presbyterian, and us regarding theology

  We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on February 19. Here are responses to those questions.  Red questions were submitted on line.  Blue questions were hand written submissions from Sunday.

A quick reminder that these are my opinions. They do not represent any "official" position of First Congregational Church of La Grange, or of the United Church of Christ. 

Ask The Question 3: Worship Questions

  We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on February 19. Here are responses to those questions.  Red questions were submitted on line.  Blue questions were hand written submissions from Sunday.

A quick reminder that these are my opinions. They do not represent any "official" position of First Congregational Church of La Grange, or of the United Church of Christ. 

Will we bring back the [Passing of the] Peace during the service?

The Short answer:  I don't know.  I have two reservations about this. The first is sanitary, the second and more profound question is theological.

Health:  So long as COVID and the Flu persist and continue to evolve, I am uncomfortable asking people to shake hands and give one another hugs.  When worship becomes a super-spreader opportunity, we stop being a safe place for everyone -- particularly those of us with compromised health and/or immune systems. 

Theological:  The passing of the peace entered worship as a direct response to the saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:21-24

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
The intention of the passing of the peace is to do exactly this: Following the prayer of confession and as a response to receiving the assurance of your own forgiveness,  we are to approach the person with whom we have a broken relationship and work out reconciliation with them before giving your gifts and before sharing the bread and cup of communion.  This is a difficult and perhaps impossible thing to achieve in 5 minutes of the worship hour. It really requires much more time, effort, and frankly, vulnerability, than most of us are comfortable with.

What has evolved over the course of time, then, is the exact opposite of the original intent. So often this ritual has abandoned goal of community strength to instead being a social moment in the middle of worship where we can greet our old friends, ignore the newcomers (or worse, put them on the spot), and pass on a little bit of gossip. It suffices for social contact for those who lack the time to go to coffee hour, and it interrupts the flow of an otherwise worshipful experience. 

Will we bring it back? I'm not sure we ever had a true passing of the peace. I believe that what we had was a mockery of a sacred part of worship.  Again, this is my opinion, blunt as that may be.

Why did the doxology change?
I responded to this question on Sunday, but I'd like to add a few things to what I said then.  

First, worship is not a static event. It is as dynamic as the wind and weather and changes every week so as to meet the needs of the community.  There is nothing sacred about any one liturgy (in my opinion INCLUDING the Jesus Prayer) that it cannot be adapted with fresh language and more meaningful metaphors and images. This is true of all language based traditions. For example:
  • My mother once said aloud the following and no one took any offense: "I have quite the gay life."  I'm quite sure that phrase no longer means today what my mother was expressing nearly 90 years ago.
  • In the 1950's in response to the "Red Scare", the words "one nation under God" were added to the pledge of allegiance. 
  • The words "In God We Trust" have been added and removed from the US Currency multiple times in our history. 
  • Each edition of your favorite cookbook updates methodology and language for the current era.  Compare the language of the original Betty Crocker Cookbook published in 1950 to the last printed edition of 2016 to the electronic version now available on the Betty Crocker webpage, and notice how the language changed over the years, how the pictures have changed, how the very method of delivery has changed. 
Language is a living and dynamic means of expressing ourselves.  It changes with every generation, every culture, and every translation or experience.   

If in worship, our language never changes, we are not only not in touch with the world around us, we become irrelevant.  Language and faith are dynamic. The language of faith cannot be static.

Why don't we share prayer concerns in worship?  Would this help with helping people feel connected?
For some people, knowing what to pray about for others is a means of connection.  For others, it is a violation of their privacy.  Let me explain.

On several occasions, we have asked for prayer concerns before the morning prayers. Other times, we've lifted up the concerns people have brought to me before worship either through a written note, a phone or text message, or by speaking to me.  

Sharing prayer concerns is perfectly fine if the request comes from the person for whom the prayer is being requested. We can be sure that the person feels comfortable with sharing if they've requested that we pray for them.  

However, before we start naming people and their concerns, it is important to remember that our services are broadcast.  So, when naming names and stating concerns we are effectively broadcasting to the world information that the person may not want broadcast far and wide.  

This came home to me when recently a member of the congregation asked that we put their parent on the published prayer list in the bulletin, and that we lift them in prayer on Sunday morning.  We did as that person asked. On Monday morning, I received a call from a very angry member of the congregation who was not comfortable with their name being broadcast let alone that they were concerned about health issues.  To the individual, this was a very private matter. The their adult child, it was a community prayer issue.  The parent was quite hurt by this breach of privacy.  The adult child had no idea their parent felt this way.

As a pastor ordained in the United Church of Christ, I am held to a code of ethics that states that I will not breach the confidentiality of church members.  In this day of hot tempers, identity theft, and litigation, I find myself amazed that I have had to consider asking people to sign a "Prayer Sharing Permission Form."  And yet that is exactly what some clergy are now asking of church members.  I cannot bring myself to that level.  But I do wish there was a way to share without people feeling we've risked their sense of security and privacy. 

20 February, 2023

Ask the Question 3: The Bible


 We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on February 19. Here are responses to those questions.  Red questions were submitted on line.  Blue questions were hand written submissions from Sunday.

A quick reminder that these are my opinions. They do not represent any "official" position of First Congregational Church of La Grange, or of the United Church of Christ. 

Three questions came in about the content and permanence of the content of the Bible. 

  • Why haven't new books been added? Dinosaurs, and the Holocaust all existed/happened.
  • The Bible has evolved over time. Should the Bible continue to be changed, or is consistency more important?
  • The Old Testament is full of the worst aspects of humanity and few mentions of love.  It is superseded by the New Covenant.  I understand the Old Testament's value as a historical record, by why are we taught to revere it? 
What we call "scripture" has indeed evolved over millennia.  As is true of other faith's sacred writings, our Bible is a compilation of many writers representing communities of faith. Most of these writings were oral traditions before they were committed to ink and parchment. And, many of these oral traditions were appropriated from the cultures, religions, mythologies, and narratives of the people with whom the faith community interacted.  These texts, once committed to parchment, were then edited, tweaked, intertwined, and subjected to community scrutiny before being deemed "sacred."

To save time and space, I recommend you see this video about how the Bible came to be.  

I view the Bible as a library of narratives that reflect human experience with God over time.  I don't believe that any portion of the Bible should be "revered." Please save your reverence for God and God alone.  The Bible simply recounts what some in history have experienced.  When these ancient texts were written -- particularly the Old Testament -- there was not a sense of "history" as we understand it today.  The narrative was not written as a history text book. It was not intended to be a fact based or official account of any kind.  It was shared as an old family story is shared.  Picture a conversation a traveling band of wayfarers is having around a campfire at night: 

Kid: Ms Elder, can you tell us again the story of how the world was created? 


Elderly member of the tribe: Children, gather around and let me tell you the story my elders told me about how Job suffered (or Jonah was swallowed by a whale). 


Jesus, tell us again about how to pray.

The Bible did indeed evolve over a long period of time.  There was a long debate in the early centuries of Christianity about what should be and what shouldn't be included in this collection.  And like all things involving humans, that debate was more than a little political.  It was influenced by the involvement of the Holy Roman Emperor, Constantine, who used the new division of Judaism as a tool to consolidate the empire.  Read that again.  A political figure -- an imperialist, colonizing, emperor -- played a key part in what became the sacred text for that developing faith.  That text then became the supporting documentation for the crusades, the pogrom's, and the forced conversions of other cultures.  

Is this a book that should remain unchanged? The Bible has been used to justify the holocaust, slavery, the slaughter of Armenians and so many other cultures, the forced removal of indigenous children from their communities, and, frankly, so much other evil. 

Personally, I believe that we have replaced the intent of the narratives -- to express a community's experiences of the holy -- with worship of the narratives. I don't believe we should eliminate any parts of this collection; but it might be wise to ADD to this other writings.  Why not consider the writings of Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa?  What about those writings that were NOT included by the third and seventh century councils such as the Gospel of Thomas, or of Mary, or of Judas? 

As for dinosaurs and the holocaust, yes they did indeed exist and happen.  One happened because someone insisted that their beliefs were right and all others are wrong -- as if the truth is binary. 

The truth is that nothing in any of life is binary; there are as many points of view as there are people witness the experience. Until we accept this diversity, we have missed the point of (name the religions)'s sacred texts. 

There are 4 Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But why isn't there a Gospel written according to Jesus?  Why didn't Jesus leave us something written my him, instead of leaving it to others to write various and at times conflicting versions of the Gospel?

Well, since we can't ask Jesus why, I can only speculate.  Here are some of my thoughts about this. 
  • Jesus did not consider himself to be all that extraordinary.  He was just a local rabbi (like I'm a local pastor) who taught what he had been taught by those who went before him.  Most of what is in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and credited to Jesus' teachings originates in the Jewish writings -- the Talmud, Mishnah, and the writings of the rabbis.  Jesus was a conveyor of traditional faith teachings who had the chutzpah to confront the religious leaders with their hypocrisy and name their political motives.  Why write down what is common knowledge?
  • Did Jesus know how to write?  While we have one account of him sitting with the teachers in the temple when he was 12, we have no record of him attending any formal education -- and most people did not in that time.  Only the wealthy were educated.  We have a narrative of Jesus reading the passage from Isaiah when he was in the synagogue at Nazareth (ref Luke 4:16ff) but was he reading or reciting what he memorized for his bar mitzvah? Or, since this story is not in the other gospels, is it an account that historically happened, or is Luke making a point about a prophet not being accepted in their hometown?  We don't have a record of him writing words on a page or in the dirt, and we never see a reference to him reading anything outside of that one scripture. 
  • Did maybe Jesus write something and it got lost?  Or, the early church fathers rejected it as authentic? 
  • It was not until long after Jesus' death that anyone wrote any of his teachings.  Mark wrote the earliest version about 40 years -- a full generation or two -- after Jesus' death.  There were likely other writings that were earlier, but we only know of them what is copied into the Synoptic Gospels. Paul wrote about the movement that became of Jesus' teachings around 65 or 70 AD, but again, Paul never encountered Jesus in the flesh. Even the writings that were not included in the canon were written by people who likely never sat at the feet of Jesus.  You've likely played telephone with a circle of friends.  One starts a short narrative whispered into the ear of the person sitting next to them.  The narrative then gets passed from person to person in the circle until it returns to the one who originated the story. Then it is repeated aloud.  It is rarely the same story that comes back after generations of retelling it.  

19 February, 2023

Ask the Question 3: Book Study, Forgiveness

 We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on February 19. Here are responses to those questions.  Red questions were submitted on line.  Blue questions were hand written submissions from Sunday.

A quick reminder that these are my opinions. They do not represent any "official" position of First Congregational Church of La Grange, or of the United Church of Christ. 

How do I reserve for the Lent Book Study on Jesus and John Wayne?

Ah, that's easy!  Contact Adrienne in the church office at Mainoffice @ FCCLG . org  (Spaces omitted) and ask for the link to join the class.  

Can you speak on forgiveness? of Ourselves and to others?

(See also this blog post from a lot of years ago, and/or this one from more recently)

We tend to think that we forgive someone for their sake. The opposite is true.  Forgiveness letting go so that the hurt will no longer carry its power over you, releasing the experience from those things that weigh down your very being, changing your relationship with the anger, regret, vengeance, pain, and  even guilt that an experience has dealt you.  

The line in the Jesus Prayer (AKA The Lord's Prayer) says, "Forgive us our debts [sins] as [in proportion to how] we forgive our debtors [sins against us].  The translation of the Greek words as "debts" and "debtors" is unfortunate.  If someone's debt is forgiven, we tend to think they did not rightly keep their promise to pay back what was taken.  (Reference the argument about forgiving Student College Debt.)  This is transactional, measureable, and fact based.  Jesus was not transactional; Jesus was about extravagant grace, unwavering love. He also set firm boundaries around these values.

Humans are not transactional or measureable, and we each have a different concept of what is the truth or fact. We are feeling, emotional, intuitive beings.  When we have been hurt, when we have been wronged, we carry the pain, anger, disappointment, and desire to make right the situation in our hearts -- and in our heads. We rationalize why and how the source of that pain, disappointment, and anger should be treated to make the situation right.  This is the basis of our justice system's use of the death penalty. Yet, killing the convicted murderer does not bring back the dead. The pain, loss, anger, and changed future still remain after the convicted one is dead.

Forgiveness has nothing to do with the repentance of another person even if they are the perpetrator of your pain. Forgiveness is not about the relationship between two people.  Forgiveness is about the role of the power of the shadow of an experience plays in your day to day living.  

So, how do we resolve that pain, loss, anger, and disappointment?  By transforming those feelings so that they do not shade how we function, how we see the world, and how we live our lives. This is hard work and possibly will require reaching out for assistance, especially if the "wrong" was traumatic, physical, or psychological in nature. But it can be -- and must be -- done if we are going to be free of the burden. 

18 December, 2022

Has AI Gone Too Far?

I often use NPR as "background noise" through the night. It successfully masks the sound of the busy street in front of the manse, and the steady lull of the voices act as an "adult lullaby" so long as the volume is low enough to not articulate the words.  And yes, I contribute to a number of NPR all-talk stations to help pay for this very important service. 

The downside of having NPR One play all night long is that sometimes these stories find their way into my nocturnal brain-weavings: Dreams.  Last night I was sure it was merely a dream.  I made use of an online AI tool o write my annual pastor's report for the church's annual report. 

Upon reflection this morning, I realized that something in the news must have spurned this dream. So after worship this morning, I looked around on the NPR site and found this article.  Clicking through the links, I happened upon the source site.  The AI software is called ChapGPI. Curious, I entered these words in the chat box:   Write a 250 word end of the year report for a pastor.

 Here is the result:

It has been an eventful and challenging year for our church community, but I am grateful for the ways in which God has sustained and blessed us.

As we reflect on the past year, one of the highlights has been the opportunity to connect with our members through online services and small group meetings. While we have missed the in-person fellowship and worship, we have been able to stay connected and support one another through these virtual platforms.

Another highlight has been the growth and development of our youth ministry. We have seen an increase in attendance and involvement from our young people, and it has been a joy to watch them grow in their faith and serve in various roles within the church.

We have also been able to reach out to our community through various service projects and outreach events. This year, we were able to partner with a local food bank and collect donations for families in need. We also held a community-wide Easter egg hunt and a Thanksgiving dinner for those who were alone or in need of a warm meal.

As we look ahead to the new year, we are prayerfully considering how we can continue to minister to our church and community in meaningful ways. We are grateful for the support and partnership of our members, and we are looking forward to all that God has in store for us in the coming year.

I am thankful for the privilege of serving as your pastor, and I am grateful for the ways in which you have supported and encouraged me in my role. May God bless you and your families as we close out this year and look forward to all that he has in store for us in the future. In His Service, [Your Name]

While the level of vocabulary and the style of writing are elementary, I am impressed at the scope of this Chatbot's ability.  

But I thought I'd challenge it further.  So I wrote this in the request box: Write a 250 word Feminist Theological reflection on the Magnificat.

And here is the response. 

The Magnificat, also known as the Song of Mary, is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving found in the Gospel of Luke. In this song, Mary, the mother of Jesus, declares that God has done great things for her and has lifted her up from her humble state. She sings, "He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53).

As a feminist theologian, I am struck by the way in which Mary's song challenges the systems of power and oppression that have historically marginalized and oppressed women. Mary's words speak to the reality that God is a God of justice and righteousness, and that he favors the poor and marginalized over the rich and powerful. This message is particularly relevant in a world where women, especially women of color and those living in poverty, often face discrimination and injustice.

Furthermore, Mary's song affirms the value and dignity of all people, regardless of their social status or circumstances. She declares that God has "looked on the humble estate of his servant" and has "exalted those of humble estate" (Luke 1:48). This message challenges the societal norms and cultural expectations that often place value on wealth, power, and status.

In a world that often tells us that we are not enough or that our worth is determined by our achievements or material possessions, Mary's song reminds us that our worth and value come from God, who loves and cherishes us just as we are. As we reflect on the Magnificat, let us be inspired by Mary's example of humility, faith, and trust in God, and let us stand with her in declaring that God is a God of justice and mercy for all people.

By now I had a tingling running up my spine and down to my gut.  This is AI doing my job -- and it's not half bad at it.  Is my role becoming obsolete?  It would seem that Artificial Intelligence has come a long way toward making that so. 

But can it be pastoral?  Can it respond with comfort and hope?  The short answer is no.  While AI can produce combinations of words that are appropriate, it cannot produce the vocal intonations, it cannot reach out with gentle touch or a hug.  AI cannot be present with one in joy, pain, or uncertainty.  

27 October, 2022

It's All About Love.

To the person(s) who taped with packaging tape this laminated notice on every door of First Congregational Church of La Grange sometime after nightfall on October 15, as well as to doors of several other churches in the area:  

Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the name of the One who is, who was, and who shall always be.

I'm taking a moment from my labors as a child of God to address your visit by darkness to the building of First Congregational Church of La Grange last night, and to your urgent message to the leaders and members of the congregation. 

While you posted this at night so as to be anonymous, we have your actions on multiple security cameras feeds.  It was lovely to discover who you really are.  I'm very  sorry you didn't choose to come in the day light to experience our radical hospitality, good coffee, and open minds.

This community of faith respects both the freedom of religion and the freedom FROM religion as provided for in the US Constitution.  You are free to believe and practice faith as you would like to do so.  We are also free to believe and practice faith as we choose to do so.   If you do not agree with our values and practices, you are still welcome here.  Alternatively, there are plenty of other faith communities with whom you can affiliate; perhaps there is a congregation that reflects your beliefs.  I believe that your freedom of religion ends with you; and I believe that no one can tell another what to believe.

My understanding of the Bible is based upon two commandments: 

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’" This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”     (Matthew 22:37-40)  

These are the words of Jesus, the foundation and source of our faith.  The writer of the Epistle  of John states the same thing in a different phrase:

 "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." (1John 4:8)

Prejudice molds our view of the Bible.  My prejudice is to err on the side of love, kindness, mercy, and grace.  Your life is not up for me to judge.  God tells us to love everyone. No exceptions.

As the pastor and leader of First Congregational Church of La Grange, I stand behind our Open and Affirming position, I stand beside all of God's children regardless of any construed separation others may place upon humanity,  and I stand against all forms of injustice, prejudice, hatred, inequity, and oppression.  These beliefs are based upon my understanding of the Jesus of scripture being a teacher of love, peace, healing, mercy, and  kindness.

I am confident that all of those who affiliate with this congregation are children of God who are fully loved, embraced, and encouraged by the Divine in their life journeys by One who practices radical hospitality.

In all these things you are welcome to disagree.  We live in a country where diversity is celebrated, and where ideas are the basis of our democracy.  I encouraged you to come by in the light of day, worship with us, experience our radical hospitality over a cup of coffee after worship, and get to know us.  You are always welcome here. 

Rev. Carly Stucklen Sather
Pastor and Teacher
First Congregational Church of La Grange Illinois.


15 September, 2022

The Church Community: Pregnancy and Birth

Yesterday, I made the difficult decision to postpone the long-planned futuring event we had planned after worship this Sunday. It had been advertised and promoted since mid-June. The goal is to explore what the "future church" will be.

The final clue that we needed to postpone is that of those who had made a reservation (needed because it involved serving a catered lunch AND a children's program happening simultaneously to keep the wee ones engaged elsewhere in the building), only 3 households represented were under the age of 65. This is NOT representative of the group that affiliates with the congregation. We have families with young children. But our efforts to engage those households in this process clearly failed.
I've been meeting on and off with younger families (that's a loose term when used by a pastor in her sixth decade of life) about living in this Post-Covid world. It hit me last evening that I'm straddling a huge wall, two different world views.

The Church as institution with committees/teams/boards/structure and formal worship through which relationships, connections, and growth are fostered, and stone walls that set the boundaries. This institution is accustomed to long range planning with goals and objectives, and measurable outcomes. The Church recognizes that things have changed and there is no going back to "the way it used to be," but also is yearning for the stability of the past; change is instability and The Church needs the change to be done so things can feel stable again.
The Community where "pods" and "circles" foster connection, relationships, and growth. The Community looks for an unfolding, organic future. The Community wants space and will make do minimal supports in place, space where community can be real and authentic, not just a dream or vision. The Community is longing for what can be. Further, in the Community, there is great resistance to all things institutional and structured.

The part of me standing in "the Church" understands that this institution needs a chaplain.... someone to attend to the anxiety of impending change. "The Church" part of me needs the assurance that there IS a future and struggles to admit (let go of control by admitting) I don't know how to create it. And so, this part of me is also struggles with how to interact with "the Community" and gain the insights so desperately needed to set the direction of what "The Church" will become: dead or reinvented. ((The control freak in me grabs for 3 more Prozac.))

The part of me standing in"The Community" struggles with the idea of maintaining"the institution" but wants an alternative to be evident; This part of me needs an entrepreneurial "church planter" to innovate and energetically explore new possibilities. This part of me desperately needs to get out of the structures and methodologies of the past because they mean nothing to me.

I am straddling both worlds and feeling schizoid. I just don't know HOW to be both a chaplain AND a church planter. I am torn, trying to do both, and exhausting myself in the attempt.

So being blunt (beyond direct), The Church side of me laid out this quandary to The Community side of me and asked how to move forward with re-creating/re-inventing this community/church post covid. There was no response.

And the Community side of turned to the Church side of me and asked why such structure and stability are necessary. And there was no response.

Maybe I am just too old to be doing this.

The morning after cancelling the long-planned futuring event, I awakened in the wee hours with a vivid dream. The big stone church building had morphed into a person in labor. There was panting and screaming, and the stones were crumbling around them as they breathed through transition and moved into the Push stage of labor. I woke up from this dream screaming, "Breathe! Let it out slowly! Push!" I could not see what was being born.

As anyone who has given birth can tell you, labor and birth are not fun. They are painful, messy, scary, and uncontrollable experiences. The Church and the Community are gestating a new life, a new being for a new age. The gestation could be several human generations long. It could be shorter. We just don't know. And we don't know what to expect, how to plan for. We certainly cannot force the labor and birth. Yes, the stones are falling around us. Yes, the change cannot happen quickly enough. But each of us is both coach and expectant parent. All we can do is breath through the contractions, the pain, the mess and await the birth of God's new incarnation.

"Behold I do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?"

gracias por escuchando/leyendo.

14 March, 2022


 Sometimes children’s stories offer the most profound of thoughts.  Dr. Suess, Judy Bloom, Roald Dahl, and Maurice Sendak are among my favorites.  I recently read The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Despereaux is a mouse who from birth was different from other mice.  He was born with his eyes open and he thrives on interaction with humans, particularly the Kings daughter.  The nemesis in the story is Roscuro, a rat who is a misfit among the rats because he loves light.  The story begins with the inscription, 

The world is dark and the light is precious.  

Come closer, dear reader. 

You must trust me. 

I am telling you a story.

As I write these words, Russia is marching toward Kyiv, the evidence of climate change is all around me as this region of Costa Rica is experiencing the hottest February-March in history, and people all over the world are suffering from needless hunger, war, and as a result of the greed of the few.  

The world is indeed dark, and light is so very precious. 

In these horrifying days, these words have brought me much hope, light, and faith.  

Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell … a story. Make some light.

I have read 8 books so far in 2022.  This one is of the “distraction” genre on my list to be read this year.  This is, of course, my own category; I have divided my list into three categories; political stories, and church renewal are the other two.  As I start my 6th week of sabbatical, I am still drawn to the first category because they offer light.  I can identify with the Roscuro the rat:

He was always, in the darkness of the dungeon, on the lookout for light, the smallest glimmer, the tiniest shimmer. His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it to be had. 

The world feels do dark.  There seems to be so little light, so little hope.  The stories offer an alternative reality, a distraction from the news; from the horror of injustice and war; from angry, hateful people; from the consumer-driven economy and its resulting selfishness. 

I intentionally did not say “escape” from these things.  I don’t believe that we can escape, nor should we.  As a person of faith, I cannot ignore the realities of this world nor turn my back on the needs of others. I must listen and learn, seek understanding of what is happening and listen to discern means to counter the ill-effects of these evils.  That said, however, my own well being and mental health are necessary if I am to offer hope, work for justice.  These books allow me to be distracted, to be refueled for the journey ahead.  

The Tale of Despereaux 

(C) 2003 by Kate DiCamillo. 

Kindle version (c) 2009.

Published by Candlestick Press

99 Dover Street

Somerville, Massachusetts 02144 

07 March, 2022

Lecciones Privadas

One activity I have not signed up for in Samara is surfing class.  The sun, the numbers of people in the space, the embarrassment of being in a bathing suit….. no. Just no.  But I’ve been watching the classes being taught…. Often.  Over this past weekend, the tides were right to surf in the late afternoon before and immediately after high tide.  I watched one student in particular who was about my age (and much braver than me) as she waited for a wave, paddled hard and knelt on the board as the wave broke under the board.  And then she stood on the board.  The wave foamed under the board as she struggled to maintain her balance.  She held her stand for about 10 seconds before the current under the board moved and destabilized the board and her balance. As she went down, she turned and dove into the water.  She surfaced, grabbed the board and returned to the deeper water for the next opportunity.  That was one gutsy woman!

This week, I’ve changed my schedule from the original plan.  My first 4 weeks in Costa Rica, I participated in half day Spanish lessons in groups, plus 5 hours of private lessons each week with just an instructor and me.  My original thought when planning this in 2019 was that I would get technical learning in the classroom and conversational learning in the private lessons.  It was a fair assumption. But it did not turn out as I’d expected. 

My first week of group classes, there were 4 students in the class.  None of us had formally studied Spanish, but we had the grammatical knowledge to start at level 2 (of ??).  However, there was nothing offered in that class that I had not already learned.  I was grateful for the conversations. I learned to listen differently to the language. And I appreciated the laughter we shared.  Academically, however, it felt like a waste of time.  

My second week of group classes (6 students) was difficult.  And there was a lot of stress around my homestay location (see the previous blog post).  I arose, left the house, walked 5 - 10 kilometers on the beach each day and still arrived at the school by 7 a.m. And I stayed until after 9 p.m. at night to avoid the stress at the homestay.  I worked hard on new material, but the group class did not cover everything we needed to cover; all but one person in the class failed the exam and so I had to spend the third week with the same material. 

I moved to a new homestay that weekend. With that stressor removed, things were ridiculously easy again.  The third week of group class (5 students) was a complete review of the second and I easily passed that exam on Friday.  

Last week I was in a group class (of 7 students) to complete the 100 level term.  While there was a lot of review, I skipped ahead with YouTube (Butterfly Spanish) and Duolingo and picked up the simple future, future, and gerund tenses quickly.   However, the group class was so very slow.  The profesora was patient with all the students, I was ready to move much faster than the rest of the class.  And at the end of the week, I passed the final with flying colors.  

Mid week, I mentioned to my private class instructor that the group classes moved so very slowly and she responded, “Why don’t you ask the office if you can take the next week in private classes?”  Can I do that?  “Por supressa— of course, as long as there is an instructor available.”  She assisted me in making that happen. 

This week, and I hope next week, I will only have private lessons; they will be three hours on Monday and Wednesday, and two hours on Tuesday and Thursday.  I would really like to get as far as possible in Intermediate Spanish (the 200 level) before I leave Samara on March 19. And if I can’t get as far ahead as I “scheduled” for myself… oh well.  

On the Meyer Briggs, I am a very strong J (of course if you know me you knew that without me telling you!).  I planned the minute details of this sabbatical well before I bought tickets or registered for classes, and certainly before I had a grant to pay for it all.  Esto fue totalmente loco.  Planning is more than a time management tool for me.  It is a means of control.  When I arrived in Costa Rica, I was sure I had control of this experience.  But the experience is teaching me that I don’t need to have control, I don’t have control, and that I just need to ride the wave wherever it takes me.  It’s okay if I crash…. I just need to dive into it because there’s plenty of water under me and another wave is another opportunity.  Because I’m not gutsy enough to get on a surf board, but I am enjoying the surf anyway.  

26 February, 2022

First Tuesday Reflections

  Navigating a new culture without language skills is an interesting challenge.  Adjusting to a very hot and humid climate in addition to these adds spice to the chili.  I’m finding myself so very exhausted at the end of the day that I eat a quick supper with my host “mama” (I’m 20 years older than she is!), quickly shower (sans hot water) and take care of all the bedtime routine, and then collapse into the bed with no ability to further any communication or thinking.  If I’m able, I get up before the sun so I can walk the length of the beach and watch the sun rise.

My first Tuesday in Samara, I was soundly asleep by 8 pm.  I intended to leave the house when I awoke at 4:30.  Intentions are half the battle.  The body has to be willing.  A moment after I awoke, I heard the tap, tap, tap of my host’s tiny hand on the door.  Her voice showed concern.  “Cah lee, Cah lee, tu tiene que estar a clase en cienta minutos.”

Clearly I’d dreamed that I had already gotten up.  It was 7:45 and I had class at 8.  

I hurriedly dressed and put in my contacts, grabbed my morning meds and threw on some shoes.  My host had breakfast on the table, tea poured, my oat milk from the refrigerator, and was seated at the table waiting for me to join her.  I nearly inhaled the scrambled egg on a tortilla and fruit that awaited me.  I gulped my morning meds with the tea, found my swim suit and towel on the line and stuffed them into my back pack, and I all but ran the 1000’ to the campus.  

As soon I sat in the air conditioned classroom, I noticed it, again.  I had a new cluster of bug bites all over my legs and feet.  How does this happen, I wondered. 

Bugs are an inevitable part of life in tropical climates.  And biting bugs have always had an affinity for me — as though they seek me out.  Deet is my friend (yes, I know that it’s really not good stuff, but we’ll save that conversation for another day). There is an ant here in Costa Rica that bites and those bites can turn into welts larger than a half dollar coin in about 15 minutes on my skin.  These ants are everywhere.  Since my host family has poured concrete floors, they come up from the cracks in the concrete.  

I discovered the full extent of this reality when I got out of bed in the middle of the night and needed to refill my water bottle (even at night it is well above my comfort level for heat).  As I entered, my flashlight scanned the floor and counter of the outdoor kitchen.  Silently, the counters changed color as the areas outside of the glow of my light appeared to be moving.  I tried to make myself believe that I was somewhat dreaming things.  But when I put my large (2 quart) water bottle in the sink and it was met with the same effect, I physically jumped.  I left my bottle unfilled as I sprayed the water around the sink to rid it of its night time occupants.  

The “food truck”

In the morning, I respectfully asked my host to not prepare breakfast or dinner for me, that I would eat at the school.  She was surprised but accepted the news.  And the moment the office at the school opened, I queried the staff about the “normality” of the situation.  They were sympathetic and explained that my original host had a last minute family emergency and I was staying in a home rarely chosen for exactly these reasons.  However, because they had record numbers of students enrolled for the next two weeks, there was no place available for me to move.  They did assure me that they would move me as soon as another place was available.  

And, I made due.  I used my “jungle level bug spray for clothing” to spray the bed and the cracks in the bedroom floor.  I always filled my water bottle at the school as soon as I arrived and before I left.  I purchased a large portion of lunch from the “food truck” that sits outside the school’s gate at noon each day, and I skipped dinner.  And I stayed at the school and studied late into the night (if 9 pm is late).  On the weekend, I arranged to take excursions out of town with my classmates.


And then, last weekend, I left all my belongings that I would not need for the excursion in a locker at the school.  When I returned on Sunday afternoon, my new host met me and brought me to their lovely, spacious, clean, and light-filled home which they share with up to 5 students at a time.  My lovely host had made up a small room where I will stay without a roommate for the last 4 weeks of my stay.  Here, the floors are tiled, the walls are drywalled, and ceilings are high and topped with ceiling fans, the glass windows open and close, and have high quality tightly-meshed screens.  The indoor kitchen has almost all the amenities of my kitchen in the states, and the “summer” kitchen is also enclosed.  The only thing missing is, of course, hot water which is not considered necessary in most parts of Guanacaste Provence. 

And I’ve not had more than 3 ant bites since…. And all of them originated from the beach after I’d been swimming.  

It is now 3 weeks since I met my first host, and 20 days since that Tuesday morning encounter with reality.   As I think back about that experience, I have a lot of mixed feelings.  I am immensely grateful that she was open to share her home with a white-privileged anglo American.  I feel guilty — nay, ashamed — that I found her living conditions “not up to my standards” while she considers herself lucky to have a home with a roof and indoor plumbing.  And I feel great relief that I no longer am staying in that home.  

On my 15 minute walk from the school to my new hosts’ home, I saw my first host walking toward me on the dusty, pothole ridden road.  When she recognized me, she displayed a huge smile and ran (in 100 degree heat) to greet me.  She asked about my well being. She laughed as her dog expressed how much she missed me by jumping into my arms and licking my face.  And she asked if I needed anything from the store because she was on her way to buy groceries for her sister who lived in this neighborhood.  And I was humbled by her continued hospitality.  

Navigating a new culture — with or without language skills —is an interesting challenge. It is also an enlightening experience.  Things that I take for granted cannot be taken for granted by so many people of this world.  Things that I assume to be universal are indeed privileges.  And normal is only a setting on some washing machines.

06 February, 2022

Domingo Uno

 El Primer Domingo

I have played with words most of my life.  I love words.  Palabras. Worter. .ֿמילים.  Λογια.  Mots. Word games, word puzzles.

So I’ve been dabbling with Spanglish.  Using an game-like app to fool my brain into learning new vocabulary, phonics, grammar, declensions, conjugations.  And it’s been 2 years of fun. I have learned a lot.  But…

Friday began a new journey.  Immersing myself in an immersion, Spanish-only program for 6 weeks is a huge step.  In the household where I am staying, my host and her (large) extended family are instructed to hablar solo Español.  This is the real deal.  My brain is spinning as I exchange my local phone number (which I don’t know) with my host, as she gives me the password to her wifi.  As we try to create contacts in our Whatsapp apps — the primary way Ticos are communicating in this area.  This is washing machine spinning, not a merry-go-round ride.   

Children understand words before they can say them.  And they can learn to say over 1000 words before age 4.  A 4 year old can assemble words into phrases.  

I’m a 4 year old Spanish speaker.  My vocabulary for the written words is around 1500 words.  Listening and understanding those words spoken by a native es muy dificil.  In this environment, I understand why children get frustrated when they cannot comprehend what is being said.  Smiles, hand gestures, and tone of voice go a long way in helping convey meaning, but words tumbling out of someone’s mouth can feel like Niagara Falls pouring into my ears.  Auditory drowning.  

Yesterday, I attended mass at the local Catholic church with my host’s sister Sara.  I’m familiar with the mass in English.  Many parts of it I know by heart.  I sat in that space, where the sound was a musician’s dream, and heard all the words as they were spoken.  In my mind, I could discern where I was in the mass, but I could not make sense of any of it.  The rote English version did not help my understanding of the Spanish.  Reciting the Apostle’s Creed in English while being recited around me, it dawned on me that the rhythm and pattern of the phrases matched. The melody was similar (all plainsong).  The meaning behind the words remained the same. But the words meant nothing to me. 

The actions of the people were indeed very familiar.  I understood the reading was from Isaiah (Santo, santo santo)…. And when everyone stood, I recognized that the priest was about to read the Gospel and from his repeated use of “Simon” and “pescado”, and from my knowledge of the lectionary, I guessed he was reading the familiar story about Jesus preaching off the shore of Lake Genesaret from Luke.  But his words did not connect into ideas for me.  And when two children walked the aisles with baskets at the end of long poles, I knew what was expected even though I did not understand the lector’s words.  

I recognized the actions of the priest over the altar; through rote, I offer similar concepts over bread and a cup so often.  He lifted the bread and broke it, and then lifted the cup all the while speaking words, and I knew what those words meant but I did not understand a single one of them.  At the end of the service he lifted his right hand over the heads of those gathered and said words, and I knew what those words meant. But I did not recognize any of those either.  

And so the guitar strummed melodies I do not know (no se), singers intoned words I could not understand, and for the first time in my life I felt totally out of place in worship.  I could name each station of the cross that adorned the walls — in English — but I could not be at home with the words used.  I know the architectural names for the various parts of the space, and a part of me critiqued the quality of the sound due to the nature of the materials used to build the space. But I could not relate to what was being spoken. 

And that feeling of being out of place slapped my face.  Of all the places I should feel at home, it should be the church.  Nothing this particular church did showed any sign of my not being welcome — they indeed did welcome me.  People’s eyes smiled from behind their masks.  People bumped elbows in greeting.  

I’m still processing this feeling of not being at home, of being out of place.  Part of me says if I knew the language I would feel more a part of what’s going on.  Part of me said that I wished it were in English (and then a mentally slapped myself for the Anglo-privilege that through stood upon) so I could be included.  

And yet another part of me felt sorry for all those people who walk into a church for the first time and have no idea what is going on. People who have never been to church.  People who do not know the language used by the “Church.” People who have no experience with communal singing, sharing communion, or being blessed by the last words of the priest.  

And part of me wished I knew how to include people through action, through being church instead of wording church. How to share and involve people in caring for others, working to benefit others, and changing systems of injustice.  Worship is positively the worst way to try to introduce what the faith is about.  Worship is illusive. Worship is verbal. Worship is etherial.  

Worship is not illustrative.  Worship is the high school level of vocabulary in a world of people with a 4 year old’s faith vocabulary.   

How do we BE the Church so others can learn.  What are the necessary changes that I need to make in how I lead in order to walk the path with people instead of leading them by a leash, or from behind them with a stick?  How do we involve people in the faith instead of introducing them to it? 

This is the task at hand.  This concrete and tangible challenge is what I need to be about.  No. What we all need to be working on together.  Because this is not a word game.  This is not a puzzle that is solved once and for all.  It is an ongoing journey that we must embark upon if we are to be faithful to what we’ve said we believe. 

So, these are my deep thoughts for a Sunday morning.  I’ve swum. I’ve eaten. I’ve read. And now I’ve written.  My day must be complete now!  Oh, wait.  It’s only 11 a.m.