God’s good pleasure

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we hear this text from Luke (Luke 12:22-32), I wonder how in the world humans can actually stop worrying. Perhaps you remember Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” from the late 1980s. I found a music video online featuring McFerrin and Robin Williams, dancing around in funny costumes, both hilarious and poignant. The lyrics still sounded wonderfully encouraging and naïve: “Every life will have some trouble, if you worry you’ll make it double….don’t worry, be happy.” And I still find the song compelling…and darn near impossible to actually do. Simply not to worry and be happy. Was Jesus asking something ridiculous of his disciples? “Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus said to his disciples, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Food and clothes…okay…got that. But is it okay then to worry all the other stuff? Such as, people in my congregation, and the future of this church, racial tension, the spread of ISIS and vitriol in politics, and Zika…and don’t get me started on my two adult children in their early thirties….? What do you mean, “Don’t worry!”

In terms of our evolution as humans, worry seems to have a particular helpful function: If you hear a growl behind those trees, be worried! It may be a tiger sneaking up on you. Worried about making it through a long cold winter? A good incentive to storing up supplies and stockpiling that food. But for most of us, given our privilege of income, housing security, possibly the color of our skin, access to a paying job, most of us don’t have to worry about food and clothing too much. But we still wake up in the middle of the night, anxious and overwhelmed. What do you find that your worry about the most? Your health? Is about people you love? Someone you hate? Will my money run out before I do? Is it about a secret you have hidden? Our worries tell us a lot about who we are and our assumptions about the world. Our brain assumes if it is worrying, at least it is getting something done!

But it never really helps to simply tell someone, or ourselves, “Stop worrying.” I suspect Jesus knew this. Notice how he tells people to consider, to look carefully, at the wild lilies of the field, of which there are about 250 species in the Middle East. Closely examine the birds of the air, like this raven here. Is this just about giving our brain something else to do? Why did he pick something living, not an inanimate object, for us to consider? He didn’t say, consider this rock. Nor, consider this person. No…take a close, careful look at flowers and birds. In other places, Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, about silence, about acknowledging their own powerlessness and affirming God’s power. But here, he says to look at flowers and birds. How did he know that contemplating the forces of nature shifts things in our brain?
A recent study by researchers at Stanford University seems to have proven Jesus’ observation. In this study, subjects took a 90-minute walk out in a forested or grassy setting, and others walked through busy city streets. One would expect that this might affect heart rate and general feeling of well-being, from the quiet alone. But researchers noticed something profound also happened in people’s brains when they walked in a natural setting: “Neural activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.” This is the part of the brain region most active during rumination, or repetitive thought focusing on negative emotions. This worry activity apparently decreases when we are out walking in nature. (http://news.standford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015)

In studies that have been replicated around the world, it appears that time spent in nature, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, actually changes the activity in a region of our brain where we ruminate on ideas that bring up negative emotions—and makes us measurably calmer, happier and even more alert and smarter. Perhaps it is in nature, out in the wild, that we begin to get a sense of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “God’s good pleasure.” It may be something else we are absorbing out in the wild, be it our own backyard, a city park, quiet time on a lake or up in the Boundary Waters. Jesus put it this way: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Kingdom of God: the ancient Hebrew phrase describing the rule of God on earth, characterized by compassion, justice and peace. Humans living out a life of mercy and loving community,

There are other studies that have found that people act more cooperatively, not just in their self-interest, after simply viewing nature videos. A study just out in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, by psychologist John M. Zelenski and several other colleagues from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, tests the idea that there’s a link between actually experiencing the natural world and behaving in a sustainable way. “We hypothesized that participants exposed to nature will make more cooperative, and thus sustainable, choices,” they wrote. And for those participants viewing nature videos, instead of photos of buildings, this was indeed what they found to be true.

“It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said to his closest followers. Jesus was picking up on the prophets’ call for a return to God’s reign, style of ruling, with equity for all. Jesus was not just talking about some interior moral kingdom in our hearts; and this is were we get distracted in our life together as Christians. Paradoxically, he taught that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” an animating force already inside of us. But he also described a world around us in which fairness and justice for everyone must rule. And this world would come about not with violence, like overthrowing Rome’s military might. Its power would come through nonviolence and mutual compassion.

Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” may give us a flavor of what Jesus was getting at:


When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Our poets, and now modern science, agree: We are made more calm, relaxed and cooperative by our time spent considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. By our time spent simply carefully observing, enjoying, the natural world. By absorbing this incredible reality of a web of connection between us and all that is, growing, dying, being reborn, all around us. Perhaps we are actually better able to imagine, welcome, embrace God’s reign among us as we spend time “considering” nature around us, the greenness, the fluffy clouds against blue sky, the sun sparkling on a lake, plump fruit and ripe vegetables. God’s good pleasure: All gifts of deep summer in Minnesota that, when carefully considered, actually heal our brains and calm our worry; God’s good pleasure—gifts that are now, for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

New teaching positions open for children’s faith formation

Applications are now being received for two part-time teaching positions in our children’s faith formation program. Our Executive Board recently approved the job descriptions developed by the Children’s Ministry Team for teachers in our Explorers and Seekers groups (K-5th grade and 5th through 8th grade classes) during First Hour on Sunday mornings. Each position is for three hours per week. Staff positions are open to church members as well as those in the wider community. Job descriptions are available in the church office and posted on one of our lobby bulletin boards. Please spread the word. Contact Carol Meeter for more information, cmeeter@mmm.com.

Gathering of the Waters Sept. 18

As we gather again as a congregation in the fall, we will use the gift of water to symbolize the summer journeys that have refreshed us. Are there special water places that give you rest, adventure, rejuvenation? Save some water (best kept in the freezer until September!) and bring it with you to worship Sept. 18. We will symbolically “gather the waters” into a common bowl during worship and celebrate the names of rivers, lakes, oceans and backyard hoses from far and near!

Open and Affirming educational forum Aug. 7

Our Open and Affirming working group is planning several educational forums to help us move into a more intentional welcome of the LGBT community. The first will be Sunday, Aug. 7, following worship, from 10:45 to 11:30 a.m. in the Gathering Room.

Pastor Anne Swallow Gillis, Dave Hill and Rachel Flaherty will lead a session on “What does the Bible say about LGBT?” What about those Bible verses that seem so anti-gay? Come and equip yourself for those challenging conversations with family or co-workers. Find out what the Bible really has to say about issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Pastoral search expectations: what we’ve said so far

With your help and input during two Guided Conversation Sundays, the Pastoral Search Committee has truly begun the collective work towards finding our new pastor. Thank you to all who participated and have shared your thoughts and opinions. Evidence of this work is on display in the Gathering Room.

What have we said so far about what we expect in a new pastor? On June 26, we talked about expectations regarding theology, beliefs and worship. Here is a summary of the top responses:

  • Preaches a sermon that is biblically based, but relevant to our daily lives, and challenges us to do God’s work.
  • Seeks to appeal to and include all generations in faith formation activities.
  • Motivates us as church members to take a leading role in worship and faith formation activities using our unique talents.
  • Is flexible and dynamic.
  • Has a strong appreciation for music.

On July 24, we discussed our expectations about our pastor’s self-care, continuing education and personal balance. The top responses were:

  • Makes time to sit alone to listen for God’s message.
  • Makes time for study through classes, seminars, and retreats.
  • Seeks social and emotional support outside of the congregation through family, friends, and counseling.
  • Is active in the UCC Conference.
  • Meets regularly with mentors and colleagues.
  • Has excellent delegation and communication skills.
  • Is a good listener.

The third Guided Conversation Sunday on Aug. 21 will focus on what a new pastor can expect from our congregation. Watch for details in upcoming editions of the TAB, and please take a moment to read the Pastoral Search Committee’s full report (PSC update 8-4-16).

Sandwich-making for Simpson House Aug. 11

Our next “300 sandwiches” assembly line is Thursday, Aug. 11, at 6:30 p.m. in the Gathering Room. All ages are welcome to help make sandwiches and pack bag lunches for guests at the Simpson House shelter in Minneapolis. Our first Sunday special offering pays for supplies for this outreach project.

‘Migration for peace’ display of peace cranes this Sunday

Paper peace cranes that have flown in other communities torn by violence will be on display this Sunday only, July 24, in the sanctuary of Peace cranes cropFalcon Heights Church. In a nationwide “migration for peace,” the cranes have traveled to United Church of Christ churches across the country as a gesture of shared grief, love and healing following high-profile shootings and other acts of violence.

The cranes will be here in acknowledgement of the shooting death of Philando Castile on July 6. We received the cranes from Central St. Matthews UCC in New Orleans, where they were displayed following the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. (As that congregation concluded last Sunday’s worship service, they learned of three more shooting deaths, of three police officers in Baton Rouge.) From Falcon Heights, the cranes will be sent to Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, where five police officers were killed.

The peace cranes tradition began in 2011 at Saron UCC in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Other places the cranes have hung include:

  • First Congregational Church of Winter Park UCC in Winter Park, Florida, following the June nightclub attack in Orlando.
  • Circular Congregational UCC in Charleston, South Carolina, near Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine people were killed in 2015.
  • Christ the King UCC in Florissant, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.
  • Old South Church UCC in Boston following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
  • Newtown Congregational UCC, after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

Join second Guided Conversation July 24 on new pastor

Plan to attend the Pastoral Search Committee’s second Guided Conversation Sunday, July 24, on our congregation’s expectations of a new pastor. Please join us and make sure your views are shared! Our worship service will go from 9:30 to 11 a.m. and will include about 45 minutes of small-group guided conversations. Kids’ program and extended childcare will be provided.

These are the questions we’ll discuss July 24:

  • Healthy congregations expect faithful pastors to respect their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. What are your expectations of our future pastor in regards to his/her daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly self-care?
  • Healthy congregations expect faithful pastors to be learning and growing constantly. In what ways do you expect our future pastor to seek inspiration and education?
  • Healthy congregations expect faithful pastors to share a balance of servant and leader. In your opinion, our future pastor and the congregation as a whole need to talk more about . . . .

If you can’t attend, please submit your answers by email to committee co-chairs Jenica Domanico (jenica.e.domanico@gmail.com) or Carol Holm (mamaholm1@comcast.net) or send a written document to the church office. It’s very important that we hear from every member. If you missed the June 26 Guided Conversation, you can also submit your responses to the Guided Conversations #1 questions. You can also add to your responses on the charts in the Gathering Room.

The final Guided Conversation Sunday will be Aug. 21.

Your input needed on new pastor; here’s how to participate

If you missed the first Guided Conversation Sunday with the Pastoral Search Committee on June 26, you can still share your expectations of our next pastor regarding worship, faith formation, and creativity. Hearing from you is important to the journey we are on! It’s possible you will receive an email sometime soon from one of the Pastoral Search Committee members seeking your input. Or you can email your answers to the questions in the document linked below to committee Co-chair Jenica Domanico at jenica.e.domanico@gmail.com. Or you can choose to download and print the attached form, complete it, and leave it in the church office. Your input is valued and necessary to the committee’s work!

Guided Conversations #1 questions

For those who were able to participate in the conversations on that June Sunday, after hearing others’ perspectives, or now that you’ve had time to reflect on the experience, you might have changed your priorities or want to modify what you originally wrote. We welcome you to do that! The large charts are on display in the gathering room, and you can simply add comments directly to the charts.

The Pastoral Search Committee is in the process of compiling the results from the first Guided Conversations. You’ll find an initial summary document on the bulletin board in the foyer to the church. Because we hope to receive additional input from those who were unable to participate in June, this document will be a work in progress.

–Carol Holm, Co-chair, Pastoral Search Committee

Summer Wednesdays with food and fun

Starting June 29, kids and adults of all ages are invited to join us for an early evening of summer food and fun from 6 to 7:15 p.m. We’ll enjoy a sandwich and salad bar supper, indoor and outdoor games for all ages, and a closing song and prayer. We’ll meet every other Wednesday night through Aug. 24. Our Intergenerational Ministry Team will provide supper fixings and a dessert. Bring some friends, and bring a side dish, if you like, or just come! Contact Sue Gramith suegramith@hotmail.com or Rachelle Roecheman rachelle@roeckeman.com for more info or to help.

June 29 – Game Night and Freezies
July 13 – Campfire Night, songs and s’mores
July 27 – Water Games Night and Popsicles
Aug. 10 – Board Games Night and popcorn-with-toppings
Aug. 24 – Campfire Night, songs and ice cream sundaes