A Pastoral Response to Fear and Ebola

20120421SayLLOpen-205-300x199When I was young, a distant cousin was convinced that Skylab, falling out of orbit, would fall on her home and kill her. The threat was not real, but her fear was. It changed her behavior for several weeks, making her world a small and threatening place.

On 9/11, I walked from lower Manhattan, back to my home in Queens, crossing with thousands the Queensboro Bridge. Exhausted, anxious, at the bottom of the bridge I discovered merchants from that neighborhood handing bottles of water to anyone who would take them. Ironically, most of these merchants were Pakistani, and would find themselves anxious and afraid in the coming weeks as violence against Sikhs and Muslims spread throughout the country. I would succumb to fear as well, experiencing panic attacks when I was in high profile sites listed as potential targets by law enforcement and the news media.

Fear is a powerful thing, a weapon that is used all too often, to drive up ratings, to incite violence, to gain political advantage.

Ebola is a terrible disease. It has been around for years, and has reached epidemic proportions in West Africa, a region with repeated civil wars and ethnic conflict, with distrust of government, and with health systems that are primitive by Western standards.

There have been two cases of Ebola transmission in the US. Both cases involved nurses who had direct contact with the bodily fluids of a patient who contracted the disease in West Africa. There has been no casual transmission of the disease in the US. And, so far, the other cases treated here, those originating in West Africa and the two domestic cases, have not proved fatal. The first two patients have recovered, and one has contributed to the care of others.

Reputable news outlets have played a contradictory game with this crisis. I regularly watch ABC News, where they tease the great disaster one moment, only to have their in-house expert, a former Acting Director of the Center for Disease Control, play down those fears the next. Less reputable news outlets have manipulated the situation to further their extremist agenda.

Have you wondered why Ebola is the focus, and not Enterovirus 68, which is actually spreading throughout the United States, killing and crippling children? Could it be because Ebola originates in Africa, playing into the racist fears flamed by extremists in recent years? Is this one more case of “fear of the black man,” no different than the false charges that our current president takes too many vacations, a charge meant to invoke the “lazy black man” trope of the Jim Crow South? (When in fact, he takes fewer vacations days out of the White House than his predecessor.)

There are enough things to make us anxious without being lead into fear by those with an agenda, whether it be profit or politics. And fear changes us. We are less ourselves. A society gripped in fear turns violent, seeks scapegoats, from Kristallnacht to the murder of Sikhs after 9/11.

Be informed. Use common sense, both is responding to health concerns, and in choosing your exposure to the poison of fear-mongering. And remember, if we trust in our God and in the promises of Jesus, then we can choose to live into his instruction to those who would follow him. “Be not afraid.”

Pastor Gary


A Labor Day Message from the Pastor

The summer, at least the no-school go-to-the-beach part of it, is drawing to a close, with one last hurrah of barbeques and parties. The forecast is looking good, and I expect to see many of you out and about during the long weekend, not to mention on Sunday morning, where we will bring our four-week series on the Book of Ruth to a close.

The following week we will kick-off our program year with our fourth annual Community Worship on the Common Ground. That will also mark the start of the lectionary year, as we tell the story of salvation and our relationship with that Divine Mystery we name as God across the coming months, beginning in Genesis and ending with the early Christian church. Your Chancel Decorating Team is working with the theme “Picture Yourself in Our Story,” as we seek to place the stories in scripture and the stories of our culture and our lives into the context of God’s great work.

384px-Escaping_criticism-by_pere_borrel_del_casoStories are a funny thing. We choose what to put into them. Imagine how many would follow if the story of Jesus was only of a man who rebuked his followers, bickered with the Pharisees, and waged a violent protest against the money-changers in the Temple. Yet, this is one version of the story. It misses the miracles, the teaching, the forgiveness, the sacrifice.

Your deacons are calling us to live into a new story, a positive story, one that trusts in the goodness of God and is filled with hope. A story where we remain committed to issues of justice and equality that have been so central to the congregation’s identity, even as we reconnect in a deep and meaningful way with the families in our local community. We are taking bold risks to be true to our heritage and to live into Christ’s mission for his church. We will need every single one of you.

What story will you tell of the last three years? What story will you choose to live into in the next three? Will you choose to dwell on mistakes (for there were some) or areas for growth (plenty of those too)? Or will you choose to live in our successes? The restoration of our historic facilities even as we, like our predecessors, adapt to current needs. The recovery of a lost mission partnership with the preschool we founded decades ago. The rediscovery of our public identity in the wider community, so that we are seen not as the “gay” church or the “angry” church, but as Christ’s church where all are welcome.

In the Book of Ruth, the eponymous heroine takes risks, picks up scraps, even engages in seduction. She does the work necessary to become part of a bigger story, part of God’s story of salvation. And she does become part of that story, this Moabite immigrant who becomes the great-grandmother of Israel’s king, a great mother who number among her descendents a baby born in a stable, that slept in a manger. Are you ready to picture yourself in our story?

In times Such As This: A Message from the Pastor

Another week, another mass shooting. In a country where it is extremely difficult to get mental health care, but relatively easy to obtain a weapon of mass murder, we should not be surprised. We grieve for those lost this morning at the Washington Navy Yard, even as we continue to pray for a sane solution to this epidemic of violence.
We have had other sad news in recent days. Last week, before we gathered for our community’s  9/11 Memorial Service, we learned of the death of Bill Lindsay. Bill represented many of us in the Suffolk County Legislature, and was that body’s longest serving presiding officer. Bill was a true friend to Sayville, and touched many lives.
Like Bill, Noel Ruiz was not a member of our church, but was dear to many in our community. Noel was the founder and heart of Creative Ministries Performing Arts Center. He died unexpectedly yesterday. Countless adults and young people were touched by Noel and the ministry he founded. We pray for his family, his theater family, and the local community.
We pray also for those impacted by the devastating floods in Colorado. The full extent of the loss is still unknown.
Even when we grieve, we cling to the promises of Jesus, that there is a place in God’s house for those who believe.
In times such as this, it is more important than ever that we come together as Christ’s church, to grow and to serve. Our covenant community has been so blessed in recent months, with dynamic new members, a renewed spirit, and a sense of purpose. We may be a messy mix of saints and sinners, of dreamers and pragmatists, but we’ll be okay, as long as we are God’s.
Pastor Gary

A Note from the Pastor

I had two calls between the gate and baggage claim yesterday. The first was Josh letting me know that Tony was rushing to Iowa. The second was my mother, letting me know of the terrorist attack in Boston. As you may remember, I attended divinity school in the area, and have many friends still living, working and running in the city. Fortunately, my friends are all okay. Others were not so lucky.

It is easy to wring our hands, to think that our time is uniquely dangerous. It is true that attacks have become stunningly lethal as technology advances. But the use of terror attacks on civilian populations is as old as civilization itself, is even present throughout American history. We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by such incidents. During this Eastertide, we remember that Jesus continued to preach the good news of God’s just and caring realm in the face of brutal violence, even forgiving those who tortured and executed him. Our response to terror must be to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God. We must reject calls to hatred and violence and dream our way into the kingdom through prayer and through action.

Please know that you can speak with me directly as needed in times such as these, and that I will continue to preach salvation and hope to a world in need.

9/11 Memorial

Last night I was honored to open our community’s service of remembrance on the Common Ground. Thinking of the Hebrew tradition’s use of numbers, I delivered this prayer:

A Prayer of Numbers


One idea formed in hatred

Nineteen men who boarded planes on a September morning

Four acts of unspeakable violence

Flung like stones into a pond

Ripple upon ripple swelling and spreading


Two thousand nine hundred and seventy seven

Mostly innocent imperfect amazing lives



And countless loved ones left behind

Responders and rescuers dying of grief

and of cancer


Six thousand Seven hundred and fifty

American service women and men dead

in two wars

And still counting

Limbs lost, brains damaged

Suicides day after day


Millions of others

Coalition troops

Opposition forces

And innocents

Children, grieving parents

Afghan and Iraqi Civilians



One morning in an amazing creation

When the bravest and finest ran into the flames

When one nation was once again, for a moment, united


One day in an amazing creation

That you called forth

Shaped with sculptors hands

Filled with your Spirit


You are Divine Mystery

You are God beyond all of our numbers

and beyond our immeasurable pain

Number us among your people

Fill us with your love


Call us to courage

to humility

to remembrance

to service


Call us

one by one

to you.



A Note from the Pastor

Pastor GaryIt has been a stunningly busy summer, as one opportunity after another presented itself to our church leadership. As much as we’ve gotten done, there is more to come. In the coming weeks you will receive an online survey to help us identify small groups for our Fall program as well as an online Readiness 360 survey that is part of our transformation coaching program. You’ll receive info about our September 9th service on the Sayville Common Ground, be invited to a “Writing the Sacred” workshop with Canadian author Ray McGinnis, and learn about our new Family Nights, when families with children will be invited to the Parsonage for dinner and Bible Stories. Not to mention programs in adult faith development and opportunities to serve in mission and in our covenant community.

In anticipation of a high-paced few months, I will be taking several vacation days next week. I look forward to working with your Board of Deacons in the Fall, and to welcoming new leaders into our ministry.

Summertime, and the livin’s easy

We live in a culture that promotes a self-centered attitude, a consumer mentality in which even our relationships are measured by “what’s in it for me?” This “anything goes” message can be seen in last year’s film “Hall Pass,” in which men in struggling marriages are given permission to break covenant, to cheat on their wives. Do what you want, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about others.

Fortunately, we have chosen a faith that rejects this values system. We believe in the value of covenant, and strive to keep covenant even at some cost to ourselves, just as our Creator has kept covenant with us.

This summer, many faithful members of this congregation will keep covenant. They will attend worship every Sunday they are in town. They will continue to keep their financial promises. Most of your lay leaders will keep covenant, continuing their passionate work to sustain and grow our congregation. They will give countless hours maintaining our facility, planning worship, providing care, and planning for our future. I will keep covenant, preparing sermons of the same quality in July as I do in October. And I will be here when you call in need of pastoral services. Together, faithful members, lay leaders and I will work to insure that come September, there is still a church to attend.

The notion of a “summer off” from church is foreign to our faith, foreign to our covenant with our God, and is unheard of in almost all congregations. Of course, many travel during the summer, and are simply away. Others have seasonal jobs that kick into high gear during the summer months. But others just opt out of their relationship with this community for a quarter of the year. As we approach the summer months, I’d ask you to prayerfully consider staying connected with our community. Wear shorts, relax, have some fun. But do it with the community that is walking with you on the Way of Jesus. Our summer series, “In this house,” looks to be a powerful exploration of who we can be as church. And no doubt, like last year, there will be cucumbers to spare…

The Lord’s Prayer

Did you know:

~that there are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The Matthew version (6:9-13) is most frequently used, though many scholars believe the text in Luke (11:2-4) to be more authentic?


~that many suspect Jesus was bilingual, but that we have no texts preserving the language he would have spoken with the disciples, Aramaic?


~that there is no word in English that accurately captures the meaning of the Greek word translated as “debts,” “trespasses,” or “sins”? It is most frequently used in scripture to mean “to be under a moral or social obligation,” though it is used a handful of times to mean “to be indebted in a financial sense.” It is also used twice in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to mean “have to” or “ought.”


~that in a congregation and denomination formed from diverse traditions, we have congregants who are most comfortable with varying translations?

Moving the Furniture

In the United Church of Christ tradition, we place an emphasis on the table fellowship, radically welcoming and transforming. This is very different from some traditions which emphasize sacrifice. Therefore, we have a communion table rather than an altar, even if some of us (including me!) often slip into old vocabulary.


Some have asked why the table has moved several times recently, up to the Chancel, down to the floor, and even to the back of the Sanctuary. You’d be amazed how mundane the answer actually is! When we celebrate communion by intinction, we have discovered that there is simply not enough room for the table and six servers in the small area in front of the first pew. This is especially problematic for congregants who need extra space, time, or mobility devices. Moving the table up to the chancel provides sufficient room. On Sundays when we have a Children’s Sermon, it is important that the table not separate the children from the rest of the community. In both cases, moving the table is a practical matter, not a theological one.


In many traditions that hold to a high “clericalism,” the elevation of the communion table or altar is visual evidence of the exalted status of the clergy. This is not at all the case in our tradition. In fact, during my ministry here you have heard the Words of Institution (“This is my body,” etc.) spoken by lay leaders and by the people responsively. This is unheard of in almost every Christian tradition, borders on heretical to many, yet serves us as a profound affirmation that the church is the gathered community, not the hierarchy or authority of an institution.


Ultimately we are working in tension with a beautiful historic space that sometimes limits what we can do. The elevation of the Chancel creates an atmosphere of performance and separation. This makes it all the more crucial that the members of your leadership ministry team and I work to move worship down to the people wherever possible.



Pastor Gary

On being 2/3 Universalist

NorbertIt is not uncommon for folks, on learning that I am a Christian minister, to say to me something like this: “Well, all paths lead to the same place.” I usually politely nod, move on to other topics. But I don’t really believe it.

As we begin our three week sermon series on “Lessons Learned from Other Religions,” I thought it might be helpful to clarify how we use the term “universalist,” and why I am specifically a Christian.

Meaning #1: Our own Calvinist heritage, following the logic of predestination, came to believe that God had preselected an “elect” that were destined for salvation, with everyone else called into being predestined to fail. Christian Universalists rejected this notion, believing that if God offered salvation through Christ, then it must be universally available. In this way, I am a Universalist. Today’s Unitarian Universalists spring, in part, from the Christian Universalist heritage, though that movement has moved away from a specifically Christian understanding of the divine.

Meaning #2: Last summer’s controversy over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins centered on this meaning of universalism. Many Christians believe that everyone who does not believe in Jesus in a specific way (sometimes even saying a specific prayer!) is destined for the pits of hell. Now, ignoring debates about the existence or character of hell, or who specifically gets to decide what form of belief in Jesus qualifies, we face a larger question about the kind of God we worship. Could a loving God send advocates for peace and justice, compassionate and self-sacrificing individuals who happen to have been born into non-Christian cultures, to hell? I couldn’t worship a God that I thought could send the Dalai Lama to the pit. In this way, I am a Universalist.

Meaning #3: Despite being a Universalist in the two prior senses of the word, I do not actually believe that all religions are equally “true,” which would be the case if I was the kind of Universalist meant in the third definition. Some religious systems are hard-wired from their founding to treat women as second-class humans and seem unable to evolve from this primitive belief. They’re wrong. Some religious systems claim that a single tribe or race has a preferred status with the divine. They are wrong. At least one highly public religion in the US is marked by violence and slavery if countless reports are to be believed. It is wrong.

Since the various religions make mutually exclusive truth claims, they cannot all be true. That is simple logic. Now, the same logic says they could all be wrong. I just don’t happen to agree. I believe there is some truth in any religion that moves humans toward compassion, selflessness and creativity, that is, in any religion that helps us transcend our baser fear-driven instincts. And I believe that the truth of compassion, selflessness and creativity was embodied in Jesus, the man from Nazareth, who was the Divine Mystery we name God in a way beyond our understanding.

Like other traditions, the Christian heritage is filled with humans, a messy unruly species! Our own history includes episodes of violence, the oppression of women, seriously wrong-headed thinking. Yet, despite it all, the message of the Hebrew prophets and the teachings and example of Jesus refuse to fit into our easy categories. They call us beyond ourselves just as they did 2000+ years ago. I may learn from other religions, but I believe in Christ.

During the next three Sundays we will respectfully engage three other religions, learning what we can that might help us on our Christian path. This week we look at Islam. I look forward to seeing you.

Pastor Gary

A Monday Update

GavelNancy continues on Grand Jury duty this week… thanks to Fran, Gail and Sue for volunteering to provide office coverage! There was a special request that I get the New Year’s Day homily online. That as well as yesterday’s sermon, are now online at my blog… link at the bottom of the Home page…

The Spirit was with us yesterday… a worship that was well attended and transformative… and then there was that birthday (how old again?) and Connie’s virtuosa performance during fellowship time!

Children’s Sunday School began a unit on food issues. Liz and Randolf are a tough act to follow (!), but the Adult Sunday School got a good start on our 7-week “Living the Questions” unit. Next week we will have a powerful session on taking the Bible seriously but not literally. This will be especially helpful to Christians coming from other traditions!

I’ll be heading into the city to meet our Conference Minister (our equivalent of a bishop) on Thursday, then I hope to finally see ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” the film adaptation of one of the best books I’ve read in years.

Have a blessed week!
Pastor Gary