When Pigs Fly by Bryan Given

  • July 17, 2019

Good morning everyone. I’m Bryan. Thanks for allowing me to share my testimony today. I’m excited and a little nervous. I grew up here in Concord but I live in Burlington now. I’ve been part of Sunday Fellowship for about three years. I’m also Catholic. So in addition to West Concord Union Church, I often worship at Holy Family in Concord or St. Bridget’s in Maynard. I’ve wanted to share my journey for a while but it’s been hard for me to find the words. The story we just acted out is been helpful because I think I’m a little like Saul, not that I’ve ever tried to put anyone in jail or anything like that. I’m like him in a way because God usually comes to me through voices or in my dreams. And like Saul, I’ve heard God speak in broad daylight before!

There are a lot of stories about people hearing God’s voice or dreaming about God besides the one we shared today but for some reason, people don’t seem to talk about that stuff very much anymore. I guess it can be risky to say you hear voices depending on who you’re with. What do you think would have happened if Saul had been living in a group home like I do? House staff get worried very quickly when someone refuses to eat or drink. Or what if Saul had to tell his children his eyesight was bad? I don’t think he would have been able to travel so much or taken so many risks to spread the Gospel. Saul probably would have been dependent on other people for rides just like most of us are when we get older or when we live in a group home. [PAUSE]

When I was growing up, my grandmother was very important to me. I called her “Nana” and she was my mom’s mother. Nana was so nice to me. She was fun and caring and she liked to cook a lot of good food especially strawberry soup. It’s cold but it’s a really good! We used to go on the rides at Old Orchard Beach together- the Ferris wheel and the log flume. She took me everywhere I wanted to go.

Nana died when I was in high school but she was sick with dementia and Alzheimer’s for a long time before that. She had to live in a nursing home at the end of her life. I wanted to visit her but things got worse and before that she lived with my sister and everything got worse there too. Nana couldn’t remember things and she didn’t recognize me. I tried bringing pictures of me and her from the lake house to help her remember. I would show her the picture and say, “Nana, do you remember me? And she would say, “No.” That was really hard. I prayed hard that Jesus would heal her but it didn’t happen that way.

I was really upset when Nana passed away. Even though I knew she was in a better place, I’ve never stopped missing her. I wish I could have had more time with her. Have you ever felt like that after someone passed away? It has always bothered me that Jesus didn’t stay with Mary and the disciples after he rose from the dead. I used to wonder how Mary and the disciples felt after the first Easter and Jesus went back up to heaven. Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to be with them after he left never seemed like a very good deal. But at least they had fifty days of little visits with Jesus before they had to say “goodbye” to him all over again. For a long time, I wished Nana could somehow come down for a visit with me like Jesus did or that I could go visit her in heaven. But she’s up there and I’m down here.

Then, one Sunday in June, I was praying in the Sacristy where I sometimes hang out before church and the pastor doesn’t mind. I was praying for Nana and thinking about all of the great times we had together and just feeling kind of sad and lonely. That night, I had an amazing dream! Nana and I were driving in her silver car along the coast of Maine. We were listening to Johnny Cash on the radio just like we used to and talking about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to eat and everything. I dreamed we were going to a famous bakery called When Pigs Fly where we always used to go for good bread. The dream was so real it was like my prayers were answered and I got a real Easter visit with her! I had always thought of her whenever I heard Johnny Cash or tasted her strawberry soup. But this time, I could hear Nana’s voice saying, “Hey, what’s good to do around here anyway?”

My dream reminded me Nana and God are always going to be with me, especially when I feel sad and lonely. It’s normal to want more time when someone dies, but love is stronger than death or sin. I think it’s awesome that God used Nana’s voice to remind me of that. It’s taken a while but I think Nana and God are helping me bounce back when I go through a tough time. For example, I was sad when my mom didn’t make it to our housewarming party but I got over it quickly. Listening to jazz in my room and reading my worship book helped me calm down. I think my dream about Nana has somehow helped me trust God in a deeper way. I can trust in Jesus because he’s special to me and I know he’s in heaven. I can feel close him when I’m with other set grandparents because they like him too. Sometimes we read the scriptures like the one Father Silva talked about from John 16, “I have much more to tell you but you cannot bear it now. When he comes the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all the truth.”

Many of you probably know the priest who served at Holy Family for a long time, Father Fleming. He retired from Holy Family in May and now we have two new pastors. But Father Fleming was my parish priest since I was five. He led Nana’s funeral when she died and he came to my house when my mom was wicked sick. It was hard for me to say goodbye to him when he retired but I don’t feel as lonely as I thought I would. I want to end my talk with a great song Father Fleming used to sing called “Give Me Jesus.” He sang it on his last Sunday at Holy Family and it starts like this:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus.
Give me Je-sus.
You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.

Raise your hand if you know this song? This song always gives me a feeling of safety and home. My mom loves listening it too. So maybe the song reminds me of being at home with her. Or maybe it just reminds me that I never have to say goodbye to Jesus if I don’t want to. He can stay with me wherever I go.

My mom is here today and so are a few other family members and some of my staff. I really appreciate you guys coming to hear me speak today and I want you to know that I’ve started to get that homey feeling more often—like on Father’s Day when my family was all together eating goulash and watching the Red Sox. That tells me God is my home and even though God has come to me in unexpected ways over the years, God has always found a way to speak to me in a way I could hear. So don’t worry if God has or hasn’t spoken to you in a particular way. God can come in bright lights and dramatic transformations or in familiar voices and songs that simply remind us of something we already kind of knew: we are all loved. And as Saul of Tarsus who later became known as the Apostle Paul wrote:

“I am sure that nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us or nothing below us—nothing in the whole created world—will ever be able to separate us from the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If I had written that I would have added: Nope, not even when pigs fly! Amen! Will you please join me in singing “Give Me Jesus?” The words are printed in the bulletin.

Bryan Given

Solomon’s Request

1 Kings 3:5-28

This summer we are exploring dreams and visions of the bible. Last week we spent some time with Jacob, who had a dream of God’s abundant blessing as he set out on the trip of a lifetime. Today it is Solomon who receives an extraordinary message from God in a dream.

You may remember Solomon as the third king of Israel, the son of the great king David.  Solomon is not David’s oldest son, and yet he receives David’s blessing to succeed him on the throne. David says to Solomon: ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s statutes… so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.”  After a brief succession dispute, Solomon takes over David’s reign. Then he makes a thousand burnt offerings to God at the altar at Gideon.

It is at Gideon that God appears to Solomon in a dream, saying, “Ask what I should give you.” God is offering to give Solomon anything!  I wonder what each of us would ask for. Solomon responds very carefully, very diplomatically. He praises God’s steadfast love and proclaims his own humility before finally saying: “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

It takes a lot to impress God; but Solomon does it. When he could ask for anything, Solomon asks for wisdom! God promises to delivery not only the wisdom Solomon has asked for, but also wealth and honor and a long life.

We could have ended the reading there.  But I could not resist continuing to the next part of the story, where we get to observe Solomon’s newfound wisdom in action. This part of the story has become famous, though I had forgotten some of the details.

Two women come to Solomon with a terrible situation. Both gave birth to a child, and one of the children has died. Now both claim that the living child belongs to them. How could even a wise King decide who is right? All Solomon has to go on is the witness of two people who disagree.

Solomon gets creative. He calls for a sword and declares that they will divide the living child in half to solve the argument. We have to hope, here, that Solomon is bluffing. Thankfully, his threat works. One of the women protests, saying she would rather have the other woman take the child, than see him perish.  That woman who protests, Solomon says, is the true mother of the child: the one who could not bear to see him harmed. And the people stood in awe of Solomon, the scriptures say: “because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.”

In the past few weeks the attention of our country has turned again to the plight of people seeking refuge within our borders.  Leaders in our government – many of them claiming a Christian faith – have failed to show compassion for those who travel here.  Security is being tightened against people who are desperate for bread or safety. Water is being denied to people who are thirsty in the desert; providing water has even become a crime.  Medical care is being withheld from people in need of it. Children are being separated from their parents. People of all ages are being detained, imprisoned, held in inhumane conditions.

How would an understanding mind govern such a situation?  How would a discerning heart measure the good and evil at work? What might the wisdom of God lead us to, in this instance?

In some cases, it is difficult to find guidance on modern issues in our ancient scriptures. This is not one of those cases.  I have mentioned before the unequivocal biblical witness on this issue: how Moses and Jesus speak with one voice about our responsibility to those who are travelers, strangers, refugees. And these teachings are simply an expansion of the most central guidelines of our faith: to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.

What’s more, how can we, as a people, as a nation, take any child that is not ours, and then offer them callous disregard; emotional and physical abuse? Children belong where and with whom they will be cherished. Children of God of all ages must have at least their basic needs met, if we desire to honor God and one another.

Most of us have not been promised a special gift of wisdom from the Holy One, as Solomon was. But all of us have the capacity to seek God’s wisdom: from the scriptures, from discernment in faithful community, from searching deep inside ourselves.  Unfortunately, this discernment is not always a top priority.

It is so much easier and more socially acceptable to ask what is expedient, what is pleasurable, what is profitable, what protects us, what brings us power.  And yet, for big decisions: personal and political: perhaps the first question we should always ask is: What would God’s wisdom be about this?  When we ask this question, we may not come up with a clear answer, or with God’s answer; our discernment is imperfect. Still, just asking the question can change everything.

I am deeply grateful for all the faithful and skilled people already doing their very best for those children of God on our borders, and within our facilities. If you feel moved to offer support, there are many avenues for that, including donations for bail money or humanitarian relief, local demonstrations at detainment facilities, volunteering with the Metrowest Immigrant Solidarity Network, or contacting your elected officials.  I have a handout here this morning with some resources and ideas of how we can support and amplify what is already in process.

For now, please pray with me: Holy God, you have shown steadfast love to our ancestors, and to us. In the face of our weighty responsibilities, and our complicated world, we still often feel that we are like small children, uncertain how to go out or come in. Grant us, your servants, the humility to ask in all difficulties what you would desire; what you would do; how you would decide. May a sense of your wisdom guide us, and all your people, that your justice may be done in our nation, and throughout creation. Amen.

Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-22

This summer we’re exploring dreams and visions in the Bible. There are a lot of them! Some are so familiar to us that they may no longer seem remarkable, like when an angel comes to Joseph to tell him to go ahead and become Mary’s husband. Others are more unfamiliar, like the story of Balaam and the donkey that many folks heard for the very first time this past Advent. Some are quite fantastic, like the strange visions from the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.

Of the 21 dreams in the bible, 10 of them happen in the book of Genesis. Joseph, the one with the special coat, has 6 of these dreams, the most on record. Jacob, who we hear about today, has two, along with several other close encounters with God.

In the story today, Jacob has recently cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Now he needs to get out of town for a while, at least until Esau’s anger has cooled.  So, Jacob’s mother Rebecca comes up with a plan to send him off to find a wife. Jacob’s father Isaac agrees, and tells Jacob to trace back the path that Abraham took, and to find a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, in Haran. Isaac says to Jacob: “May God bless you and make you fruitful and numerous; may Laban give the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring.”

While he is on the road, on the run from his brother, Jacob stops for the night in the middle of nowhere. He is all alone, with only a stone on which to lay his head.  Still, he falls asleep. And then, in that place of desolation, Jacob has an amazing dream. He dreams that there is a ladder stretching next to him from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. And God themselves stands beside Jacob and speaks words of promise similar to those offered to Abraham: promises of land, and offspring that will fill the earth, and bless it. And God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

What an incredible dream. What an amazing promise. But Jacob isn’t sure what to do with it. Why would God send angels to him, and come to be by his side? Why would God promise land, descendants, and companionship, to someone like him, who has stolen most of what he has? Why would God offer anything to anyone, for nothing in return?

Jacob is afraid. He blesses the place, and makes a vow: “God, if you will be with me, keep me safe and well until I reach home again, then you will be my God, and this will be your house, and I will give one tenth of all I have to you.”  You made me an offer, God, Jacob says. But surely you forgot to lay out all of the terms.  Here’s what I’ll do, if you follow through.

As it turns out, Jacob’s trip isn’t a short one, as he and his mother hoped. He ends up staying away from home for 20 years, serving his uncle Laban and acquiring wives and children and livestock. It’s a fascinating story; open up your bible at home and take a look. It’s on the way back homewards, twenty years later, that Jacob famously wrestles with an angel. It’s twenty years later that Jacob finally makes peace with his brother Esau.  And, as it turns out, during the incredible length of Jacob’s journey, God keeps their promise to him.

Last week, Louise shared her personal story with us so beautifully: a story of receiving holy messages. Most of us are more hesitant to share stories about our closest encounters with God. My guess is that many of us here have seen visions, dreamed dreams, heard voices from deep within, met one of God’s unexpected messengers, or simply felt overcome by awe or love or joy or comfort. Some powerful experience has compelled us to gather around the word of God, to worship, to join in sacred community, to seek God in and with one another here.

But it’s easy to think that we may be somehow mistaken in what we experienced, as Jacob does.  Surely God wouldn’t come to us in such strange, unexpected ways. Surely God wouldn’t come to us, faulty as we are. Surely God wouldn’t share love so generously with us, without expecting something in return.  Maybe we misunderstood what really happened. Maybe it was all some outlandish delusion.

And yet, this is what our holy texts teach us: God comes to us in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways. God comes to deeply flawed people. God comes with a generosity that we often find hard to fathom. God comes to us, and stays with us, and loves us abundantly. And if we allow it, God’s generosity can change us.

Jacob changed. At least a little. When he finally nears home, fearing his reunion with Esau, Jacob says:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Genesis 32:9-12).

Instead of fear in God, Jacob has moved to humility and gratitude. Instead of bargaining with God, Jacob is trying to trust. Maybe there is hope for the rest of us, too.

O God, who are we, that we should witness your glory, or receive your love? Still you come to us, in dreams and visions, in messages and messengers, in Christ and in one another. Wherever we are in out journey, whatever desolate places we lay our head, may we open our hearts to receive you, and may we be changed by your generous grace. Amen.

Pentecost, teachers, graduates, and ICE CREAM!

  • June 13, 2019

On an absolutely gorgeous first Sunday of Pentecost, we celebrated our graduating seniors, thanked our talented teaching staff and Children’s Ministries members moving onto different roles, welcomed the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal as our guest preacher calling us to action on climate change, had a ridiculously fun time playing games in Sunday school, and enjoyed the sunshine outside with watermelon and ice cream. Such a perfect way to end our programming year at WCUC. Enjoy the pics!

Celebrating Children’s Ministries Sunday

  • June 6, 2019

Enjoy the wonderful photos capturing our very special Children’s Ministries service last Sunday, featuring our children leading all aspects of worship. An interactive drama (complete with a holy prison escape!), very special songs, and a fun sermon with streamers helped to create an energetic – and adorable – experience for all.

From Longing to Belonging Part 2: Parables in Wayzata, MN

  • June 5, 2019

This is the second of two blog posts about my recent professional development trip.

The photos below are from my visit with “Parables”, a ministry for people of all abilities at Wayzata Community Church in Wayzata, MN. Rev. Leslie Neugent created Parables six years ago after a child with a disability started singing “Jesus Loves Me” during the sermon and was taken out of worship. As the parent of a child with a disability, Leslie wanted there to be a place where people of all abilities felt free to be themselves during worship. Today, Parables is fondly known as a “no-shushing zone” and “a place for the little red fish in all of us.”

The Most Inclusive Table in the World
Getting ready for communion.

As you can see, there are similarities and differences between Parables and Sunday Fellowship. Both are known for holy moments as well as moments of holy chaos! Both provide leadership opportunities for adults with disabilities. But there are some important differences. Parables primarily serves school-aged children and their families whereas Sunday Fellowship has always focused on adults. Sunday Fellowship has never incorporated therapy dogs into worship the way Parables does. Another difference between Parables and Sunday Fellowship is the role communion plays. Parables celebrates communion at every worship service whereas Sunday Fellowship does not.

What’s clear is that the deep faith, the joy and the strong sense of community people experience at Parables and Sunday Fellowship is very much the same. Communities like Parables and Sunday Fellowship are supremely gifted at embodying God’s unconditional love and they are on the rise. See below for links to multiple churches that are now using the Parables model as well as communities that have developed their own way of doing things. Be sure to check out Benjamin’s Hope which houses a church, a farm, a therapeutic riding program, day/employment programs and intentional communities.

Whatever our ages or abilities at this moment in time, let our prayer be that the little red fish in each of us can always find a place where it feels free to swim in the direction God is leading it.

http://www.benjaminshope.net/http://www.chelseafcc.com/parables.htmlhttps://www.westernsem.edu/welcome-friendship-house/ https://wayzatacommunitychurch.org/ministries/parables-worship/parables-inspiring-love-through-our-vision/ http://www.chelseafcc.com/parables.html

http://www.chelseafcc.com/parables.html

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

  • June 3, 2019

Fun times with the Miracle League of Massachusetts baseball organization! Spirits were high, smiles were plentiful, and the sun was shining brightly on this fabulous afternoon. Not sure who had more fun…the players or the youth group buddies? We are so thankful for this opportunity which has now become a favorite youth group tradition!

From Longing to Belonging

  • May 30, 2019

(This is the first of two posts I’ll be sharing about my recent professional development trip.)

2019 Summer Institute of Theology and Disability in Holland, MI

Last week, thanks to the support of the Dennis Lin Fund, I had the privilege of attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, an initiative by the Collaborative on Faith and Disability. Now in its tenth year, the Summer Institute is considered one of the premier conferences in the field of disability and faith, drawing religious leaders and scholars from all over the world. I was one of over 150 professionals who spent four days discussing the best ways of ensuring people with disabilities experience a true sense of Belonging whenever we participate in religious practice and community, not just access.

The highlight of the conference for me was the amazing people I met. At the Institute, people with disabilities are not just a topic of discussion, we are also the planners, the presenters, and the attendees. That’s not to say ableism was absent. I saw plenty of instances when ableism reared its head. No doubt there were others I missed due to my unconscious bias. But the level of awareness and the number of accommodations put in place to serve a wide variety of abilities made it clear that the desire for full inclusion was also present.

I could go on and on about the myriad of resources I have returned with but I won’t do that here. Suffice it to say that my suitcase was five pounds heavier than when I left (see photo evidence). I look forward to sharing them with you in the days and months ahead and God-willing some of my new friends will visit us at WCUC.

Living the Questions

  • May 30, 2019

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

With these words in mind, the youth recently ventured into the woods to listen for God’s wisdom in nature and to ponder the questions on our hearts. Witness what WCUC Youth are thinking about these days…

“What does it mean to be a Christian?”

“Why did God create people who are homophobic or racist?”

“What is the difference between God and Jesus?”

“What does God have control over?”

“What happens to us when we die?”

“What is heaven like?”

“Is there only one right religion?”

“Does God love people who don’t believe in him/her?”

“If Jesus is still with us, why doesn’t he preach like he used to?”

“Why do people believe in that which isn’t supported by scientific evidence?”

“Why do bad things sometimes happen to good people?”

“Does anyone deserve bad things?”

“When did life begin?”

“How can we help educate Christians who don’t believe in science?”

“How can God be real if his so-called ‘followers’ go against his teachings?”