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Archive for May 2014


This past Sunday we gathered as usual for prayer and sharing.  This particular week we reflected on the story from the Book of Acts (Acts 17:22-31, to be exact) in which Paul stood before the Greek Council and spoke to them about his experience of faith.  It was a risky thing to do, as even the tolerant Greeks were known to execute folks whose thoughts were deemed threatening to the Republic.  We noticed that he seemed unafraid, however, and began by speaking of the religious traditions he had encountered in his visit to Athens.  He acknowledged with admiration the various religious sites and practices he observed, and spoke with respect about the common ground he shared with the Athenians:  they, like he, sought for deeper meaning and a connection to the divine.  Only after he recognized their spiritual practices with openness and respect did he begin to share his own.

We decided this was a great model for authentically sharing our faith with others.  First, notice and listen to the experience of others, then share our own.  Listen/share, listen/share—and look for the common ground. If we spent more time recognizing the spiritual experiences we have in common with one another right off the bat, we might actually be able to learn from our differences, as well.

One of the UCC Daily Devotions touched on this recently and I’d like to re-print it here.   May it encourage us all to witness in ways that build bridges instead of walls.



Martin B. Copenhaver:


Jesus prayed, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” – John 17:20

Often what stands in the way of religious unity are not great differences, but rather the small differences.

Comedian Emo Phillips tells a story about discovering similarities in religious background with someone he has just met.  “I said, ‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’  He said, ‘Protestant.’  I said, ‘Me too!  What franchise?’  He says, ‘Baptist.’  I said, ‘Me too!  Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?’  He says, ‘Southern Baptist.’  I said, ‘Me too! ‘The two go back and forth in this vein.  Finally, Emo asks, “Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”  The other fellow replies:  “Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”  Then Emo says, “Die, heretic!”

Obviously, this phenomenon is not limited to Baptists.  In the United Church of Christ, we pride ourselves on our openness to faith traditions that are very different from our own.  But at times we can be very critical of that church across town or even the UCC church that is nearby.  We want to distinguish ourselves as different, even if the distinctions are cut very thinly.  Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon, “the narcissism of small differences.”  Interfaith understanding is essential in our time, but it needs to be both far-sighted and near-sighted.  That is, the extent of our understanding needs to reach as far as the tradition that is very different from our own, but our understanding also needs to extend to those who are very near.


God, release me from the pride—or the insecurity or whatever it is—that makes me want to distinguish myself from those who are very near.  Amen

About the Author


Martin B. Copenhaver, former pastor of the Village Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts, will be the president of Andover Newton Theological School, Newton, Massachusetts, beginning June 1.  He is the author of Living Faith While Holding Doubts.



Click 5-28-14 for Today’s Newsletter!

Curriculum of Trust


Light filtered through stained glass as I slid into a pew at Riverside Church last Sunday morning.  I came early so I could catch the feel of this place before worship began, and I sat as people gradually arrived, nearly filling the giant sanctuary.  Ladies with big, fancy hats and men in beautifully tailored suits sat next to people with tennis shoes and water bottles sticking out of their daypacks – regulars and tourists, gathered under one roof.  In that place of worship was a quiet joy and the sense of hospitality that comes from feeling good in your own skin and from a deeply held tradition of openness to others.


Riverside Church, in New York City, is a beloved and beautiful  church, one of the most famous Protestant churches in the world.  Founded and built in 1927 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., in Manhattan’s Morning Side Heights, Riverside is an interdenominational church affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA.  It has been served by some of the most influential clergy in progressive Protestantism, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin Jr. and James Forbes Jr. Leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Kofi Anan have graced the pulpit there, and it continues to be a place that takes seriously its mission to connect faith and action.  (During the announcements, for example, information was given about an upcoming action in Washington, D.C., to advocate for income equality.)


As I waited for the service to begin, I read through the bulletin and found that Rev. James Forbes would be preaching that morning.  Rev. Forbes is one of the best known preachers in the country, and though he retired several years ago, he recently returned to help the congregation as they searched for a new senior minister.  Wearing brightly colored robes and walking with a briskness that belied his age, he took to the pulpit to tell us that the most difficult and important words Jesus ever said were his last ones:  “Into your hands, O God, I commit my spirit.”  Those words, Forbes told us, are about absolute trust in a God who “may not show up when you want Him, but when He does, it’s right on time.”  They are words that get you through the hardest times and help you sleep through the stormiest nights, because they remind us that nothing – no power, no sickness, no grief – is bigger than God.  And God never leaves us alone.  The essence of who we are is always held in God’s hands, and so we can commit our spirits there with confidence, even when we can’t imagine how this could turn out right. Ministry, Rev. Forbes told us, is a “curriculum of trust.”  It’s about learning to let go of the false assertions of our egos and learning to lean into the truth of the Divine Love.  It’s about practicing trust on a daily basis, seeing beyond the little things that consume us, and asking God to help us in everything we do.

It was a fine sermon, a Spirit filled sermon, and Rev. Forbes indeed lived up to his reputation as a premier preacher of the Gospel.  I left Riverside Church hoping and believing that what we do here at First Congregational Church in Redwood City is all about living out that curriculum of trust.  I left with the prayer that we never forget that God has always showed us the way to go, one small step at a time, even when we couldn’t see the path ahead.  Most of all, I left that beautiful and venerable church with a renewed excitement and faith that we, small though we are, are part of something much greater than we can see.  We are a part of a faith community that is universal. We are part of God’s plan to create a more just and loving world.  One day, one step, one decision to trust at a time.

Thanks be to God.  Amen






Click on 5-21-14 for today’s Newsletter


This past Sunday was Mother’s Day.  As we gathered for worship, we lifted up special concerns about the young women and girls who were kidnapped recently in Nigeria.  We prayed for their safe return and for strength for their families.  When I got home after church, I read an article at about the United Church of Christ’s stance on justice for women.  It made me think again that it is not enough to celebrate the mothers we know when there are mothers and daughters around the world suffering from inequality — and worse.  I am reprinting the article here because I believe our legacy as a denomination calls us to think systemically and faithfully about issues that affect women in this country and around the world.  May it encourage us each to think more broadly and care more deeply for women everywhere.

In Jesus’ name.




The United Church of Christ has been a leader among churches on issues of justice related to women.  It’s in our DNA, you might say.

Yes, we were the first Christian denomination to ordain a woman when Antoinette Brown was ordained in 1853. But even before then, women who were members of our congregations lived their faith through advocacy to end the practice of slavery in the United States, to establish homes for poor women, and support educational opportunities for women.  Later, they were active in securing women’s right to vote and to work for fair wages.  From the mid-1900’s to the present day, the UCC has continued this legacy through its advocacy for reproductive justice for all women, its call to end violence against women, its critical work on gender inclusive language as an issue of justice for all humankind, and its insistence on connecting the realities of sexism and racism.  And more. This work is local and global, personal and community-wide.  It comes from a faith which affirms the full personhood of women as created in the image of God and included in the ministry of Jesus as partners, disciples and bearers of the Good News.

International Violence Against Women Act


It is estimated that one out of every three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse during her lifetime, with rates reaching 70 percent in some countries. Such violence includes rape, domestic violence, human trafficking, honor killings, child marriage, and genital mutilation. Girls are denied access to education, the political and economic rights of women and girls are oppressed, and women and girls are used as tools of war. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a human rights violation, a public health epidemic, and a barrier to addressing broader global challenges such as extreme poverty and hunger, HIV/AIDS, and international conflict.  The recent kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria has served as a grave reminder that unfortunately such acts of violence occur on a daily basis all around the world. Our faith compels us to both demand an immediate response as well as seek more holistic and sustained solutions to GBV. Both chambers of Congress have now reintroduced the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), and we must encourage our leaders to cosponsor and support this crucial legislation, which would make ending violence against women and girls a top diplomatic and foreign assistance priority.




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Three to Five Minutes

Three to five minutes is not very long.  That’s the time frame I was given last Friday at the Annual Gathering for the Northern California Nevada UCC to speak about the ways in which our congregation seeks to be a source of living water in our greater community.

If I’d had an hour, I would’ve lifted up the particular partnerships we are creating:  with Rebuilding Together or the Redwood City Educational Fund or The Sequoia YMCA (our most recent community partner!)  I would’ve spoken about the Second Sunday gatherings we have where we get to know more about the good work going on outside our walls and share a meal with speakers who help us connect our faith and our actions.

If I’d had an hour, I would’ve shared the things we have learned about ourselves and God in the process of learning about others.  I might’ve touched on the upcoming move to a new space, where planning is already going on to make sure this building can be used for groups and opportunities beyond our own immediate needs.  And if I had had two hours, I would’ve shared with the gathered folks your legacy of service and the ways it continues to inspire all of us.  I would’ve talked about Casa de Redwood, a gift to the community made in the 1970’s, and the strong relationships that continue to this day.  Or I would’ve told them about Hillcrest, the continued ministry to young incarcerated men that you began decades ago that continues even now– with the addition of a new ministry that provides bibles to any young person who asks.But I had three to five minutes.  So I showed a picture by artist Melanie Weidner.  (See next page.)  It is a painting of a tree stump with a city scape in the background.  What the artist allows us to see, however, is what goes on beyond and beneath the surface.  We see the roots, going deep into the earth.  We see the blue waters of life filling the roots from a deep spring.  And we see a small shoot, off to the side of the stump, where new life is emerging.  That, I said, is First Congregational Church of Redwood City.  We are deeply rooted in our love for God, one another, and Redwood City.  We are fed by a Source that sustains everything we do, and has never let us down.  When we are living water, it is because we are fed by Living Water, and we are grateful.

The painting is called “Resilience.”  I think that fits us pretty well.  As Catherine Lyman said before I stood up to speak, “Make sure you say we may have sold our building but we didn’t sell our church.”  So I said that, and I showed a picture, and for three to five minutes I had the great privilege of sharing your witness of faith and hope with those who were there.  Resilience.  Never doubting that God can bring new life out of seemingly impossible situations.  You have seen it.  You live it.  You share it.


Thanks be to God.




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