Priest, poet and scholar John O’Donohue, begins his poem “For a New Beginning” writing: “In out-of-the-way places of the heart,/Where your thoughts never think to wander,/This beginning has been quietly forming,/Waiting until you were ready to emerge.”

These words aptly describe a part of the process this congregation is experiencing. Though each of you has a unique experience of this church and the pastors you have known, you are once again stepping into a new reality and your thoughts are venturing in so many directions. There is a new beginning forming. What you want to be in the future will be shaped by the questions YOU ask and the answers YOU provide. You will invite others to lead you – both from within and outside the congregation. Your truest answers will come from within the congregation.

We outsiders who seek to provide leadership have hints, 3 point plans, suggestions and stories from former experiences. All of those will be helpful, none of them will be “the solution” for this congregation. Again O’Donohue speaks to this: “Though your destination is not yet clear/You can trust the promise of this opening;/Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning/That is at one with your life’s desire.”

In much harsher terms, our lectionary reading from Malachi 3 speaks to this as well: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Living God of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Living God in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Living God as in the days of old and as in former years.”

I hesitated to include the last verse because there is a great deal of magical thinking within this congregation that it can return to its “glory days” of a filled sanctuary populated by community leaders. Those days are long gone for ALL churches. From our Catholic to our most Evangelical congregations, worship attendance is down from its high water marks in the 90’s and before. Gallup polls show that in 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. In 2023 those numbers continue to decline with poll after poll reporting that Americans are leaving Christianity to become atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

This congregation needs the refining fires of the Living God. To thrive it is essential to face the stark realities of being the body of Christ in a culture that does not necessarily elevate the words of Jesus above the words of Buddha. What is the refinement this congregation needs? This is yours to answer. My hope and prayer is that you rely heavily on the words of our Living Christ to set your path ahead.

What you need to accomplish this is already present. You have the answers within your midst. Listening to one another, to the soft voices as well as the strident ones, to the new voices as well as the established ones, will help you establish the values you truly hold, not just the ones you think you cherish. As O’Donohue concludes: “Awaken your spirit to adventure;/Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;/Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,/For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

The world awaits the gifts of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. May you hold nothing back as you allow a new rhythm of God’s spirit to lead you forward in love.

Blessings on the journey, Pastor Nancy