Archive for the ‘faith’ Category


”Be Brave“

February 8, 2015

by First Church Emerging Leader Matt Boswell

mattboswell“Be brave!” The words of my 2 1⁄2 year-old concluded my recent sermon. Clara, like Jonah, is on a journey of growing in courage. I believe our health, our happiness and our ability to love and be loved are heavily dependent on the continual deepening of virtues like courage. To what does courage call us as a Christian community?

Courage calls us to humility about what we know and
 can know. Courage is an invitation to mystery, to endure the limits of being a particular human, trapped in one body in one location in one community in one country in one era in one… you get the point. It takes courage to say “I’m in!” and believe in something, even if that mythic “certainty” eludes us. And it takes courage to admit that we have much to learn.

Courage calls us to fight for the good of others. Courage calls us not simply to feel something but to do something, at a potential cost to ourselves. We may show our support for particular causes and resistance to particular injustices, but until we are moved to particular actions, our courage may be incomplete. Where the loving and just treatment of others
is at stake, courage can give us the strength to do something about it.

Courage calls us to risk loss. Standing up for something we believe in brings the risk of losing status, approval, our connection to others. The Church is a living tradition, and things that are alive are constantly changing even while retaining their apparent form. A courageous Christian community can maintain its fidelity to what God seems to care about while courageously letting go of certain approaches, perspectives and practices when it becomes clear they don’t “fit” the spirit of love, justice and care.

Courage might call us to pursue social change more indirectly. I absolutely believe in direct confrontation, explicitly naming what’s broken and calling for our leaders, policymakers and fellow citizens to do something about it. But there’s something to be said for that Gandhian insight — to be the change you want to see in the world. For example, as an “open and affirming” community, maybe courage calls us to enhance our advocacy for marriage equality by pouring energy into our own relationships. This may be the riskier, more terrifying path to persuading people of what marriage is all about — to be an example of that for which we are fighting.


Non-Violence: More Reflections on the General Strike

November 7, 2011

Sam Rennebohm, First Church Seminary Intern, shares his experiences of the march to the Port of Oakland that was part of the General Strike called by the Occupy Oakland movement on Wednesday, November 2.

The march yesterday evening was one of the most amazing demonstrations of people power I have seen—inspiring, non-violent, communal. I remember being on top of the bridge into the port and seeing people stretching for blocks and blocks in either direction. There were people of all ages and races, Berkeley and Oakland teachers, workers representing their unions, babies and toddlers, people on stilts and on bicycles, high schoolers and university students. Rarely do we witness such a true representation of that phrase “all walks of life.”

We marched into the port with such positive and life-affirming energy. As we walked through the port, people broke into celebration. There was dancing and singing and drumming, and people waved flags. There were also powerful conversations happening in small groups, people talking about their ideas and ideals with one another in passionate ways. All the while it was the sheer presence of so many folks that was causing the Port to have to shut down its operations.

At one point in the evening, while we were blocking one of the gates to the port, two or three people got angry with a car that was driving by and started to bang on the windshield. A group of maybe 100 soon gathered around them and started chanting “peaceful, peaceful” with enough force to entirely change the energy. The people who were angry calmed down, and the crowd convinced them to let the vehicle drive away.

It was an amazing indication to me that, even though there is no true center or established leadership here, the overwhelming (literally) majority are committed to non-violent methods.

I left the Port around 9pm, and the energy was still very celebratory and positive. Even as we were piling into the BART, people were giving each-other high-fives and hugs and telling their stories.

Reading the news-reports from the middle of the night, it saddens me to hear of what took place. It also convinces me of the importance of continued involvement in this growing movement – the importance of maintaining strong voices for the methods of non-violence.

More about First Church Berkeley…


Fed by the 3000: An Experience of Occupy Oakland

October 28, 2011

by Phil Porter

I am 58, white, gay, a property owner and resident near downtown Oakland, somewhere in the middle on the income scale (and have more than one job to be in that position), President of the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District Board of Directors, Minister of Art & Communication at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, political and theologically progressive but not radical, inclined toward art rather than politics, co-director of a non-profit organization, grew up in Indiana and claim my Midwest roots, am the adult child of normal parents, am responsible to a fault, a Pisces, an introvert…

Occupy Oakland General AssemblyThis is all to put into some sort of context what I am about to report. You can interpret as you well, but it seemed important to “place” myself a bit before I share what I witnessed.

I went downtown on Wednesday, October 26, the night after the police broke up an Occupy Oakland rally with tear gas, to “check out the scene.” I had heard there was to be a “General Assembly” at 6 pm. I wasn’t sure what that was, but assumed that it had something to do with the way that the movement was being conducted.

What I witnessed was nothing short of incredible. I expected to stay for a half hour but didn’t leave for three hours.

A huge crowd of people gathered in the amphitheater next to City Hall. I’m not good at estimating but some were saying 3000. There were a few “facilitators” with a small microphone system. The meeting began with people having a chance to speak for a minute or two about anything. They shared experiences about the night before and the encampment in general. Some railed against the police’s actions the night before, others claimed the police as part of the “99%”. The crowd was respectful and caring and excited to be back together in force.

And then they began a “resolution” process based on a modified consensus process (they seek 90% agreement.) Although I can’t quite capture the whole process, let me share some of my own experience of it.

The group was using the “human mike” technique where the speaker at the microphone says a few words and then the whole crowd repeats it so that those at the edge of the space can hear what is said. Sometimes it is repeated in two waves. If you haven’t been in a large group doing this, you should try to get a chance to experience it. Besides the amplification of the speech, it takes on the powerful quality of “litany”, of the back and forth of speaking and listening. It was creates engagement and a sense of solidarity with the whole group. At one point those at the microphone asked the people near in to turn around so that they were actually speaking outward in the circle. From where I was sitting on the amphitheater steps, suddenly there were then a whole group of people sitting in the middle of the space facing me, speaking the words coming from the microphone right toward me.

The commitment to inclusion in decision-making was extraordinary. After the first resolution was presented (to call for a General Strike on November 2) and clarifying questions were asked, folks were invited to gather in groups of 20 to discuss the resolution. And we actually did. Mind you, at this point it is dark, with mostly just a few street and building lights, the flash of cameras and the glow of cell phones. The crowd is still huge. We could barely see each other but we gathered and talked. The comments were insightful, considered, serious and thoughtful. I don’t say this to suggest that it was surprising to me, but rather to emphasize that this was the tone I perceived in the whole crowd. Folks may have been impassioned, but they were also calm, considerate and committed to the conversation. And even as the time passed (and I must say, this process is a slow one) people stayed with it and were exceedingly patient. Remember, the crowd has not diminished over the course of the evening, perhaps it has even grown.

The process of discussion and debate put our national political process to shame. They (we) listened to each other, were genuinely committed to finding the right common decision and stayed with the process for a long time, even in this huge crowd in the dark, with relatively little previous “coming together,” even without a direct connection to the folks way on the other side of the crowd or even being able to clearly see who was speaking.

I did finally leave at about 9 pm before this resolution was voted on (I read online that it passed with a 96% vote from almost 2,000 people.) I found myself worrying about how the evening would end when the legal time for gathering would pass, but as I walked home I saw no police presence at all, other than the helicopters that circled overhead. I haven’t heard or read anything about what happened so I assume it ended peacefully.

And this is the another important point: the media will cover the drama and the clashes but they probably won’t report that real news: the 3,000 people gathered in the dark committed to working together to make some decisions for their own good, for the good of others, the country and the world.

I went because it is one of my practices to try to witness first-hand events that I’m not sure I can trust the media to report accurately, especially when it happens in Oakland. Because of who I am in my communities (and some of the qualities I listed at the beginning), I think people will trust what I am reporting, even as my reflections are shaped by my “place” in the world.

I left, though, as something more than an observer. I sat in that crowd for three hours on the cold, hard steps of the amphitheater. I was surrounded by voices chanting back the words of the speakers, I joined in a discussion circle. In the dark, in a crowd that stretched in all directions around me.





Tampering With Dreams

August 30, 2011

In her sermon “Tampering with Dreams”, Senior Minister Patricia de Jong weaves together the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Below are some excerpts from her sermon.

Watch a video of the whole sermon.

Watch Phil Porter’s telling of the story of Moses and the burning bush.

Rev. Patricia de JongWe need, this morning to be awed and yet cautious, just as Moses was when he saw the burning bush. We stand in awe; so much has been pursued in the cause for justice since that day. Following the March on Washington, people got to work and began to carve a way out of no way for American Blacks in the South. The Southern Leadership Conference got busy and so did all the people around Dr King. Racial injustice was challenged at every turn and broken open through the courageous acts of hundreds and thousands of people who refused to tolerate hatred and violence.

Dr. King’ lasting legacy and dream is not only for Americans, but for all people who have had to fight their way out of fear, violence and inequality.  We see his image today in the eyes of those freedom fighters in Egypt, Libya and Syria and in the hearts of people everywhere who understand what it means for the human heart and spirit to be trampled upon and held down because of repressive regimes, hostile dictators, and those who promote hatred instead of love and war instead of peace. And we see him in those who have dedicated their lives to creating justice, compassion and freedom throughout the world.


We as Progressive Christians are called to continue to press for love, justice and compassion in a culture that is threatened at its most vulnerable points. In our times, the burning bush is the call of an awesome and holy God who demands active and lively partners in the quest for a better and more just nation.


Many Americans are out of work and unemployment stands in the double digits. While the weathier are getting wealthier, the poor staying poor, those we are in between are disappearing.  Our prisons are filled with young men who cannot find their way in this society, who end up making a way to prison. Our universities are training people for jobs that may not exist upon graduation for some men and women. We have an African American president, but that does not mean that we have achieved racial equality or that he is free from attacks which have occasionally been about his race rather than his record. We are living in a time when some Americans are less tolerant of the differences between us rather than more tolerant, caring and forgiving.  Someone has been tampering with the dream that all of us in this nation have the chance for a just and equal existence.

Watch a video of the whole sermon.

Watch Phil Porter’s telling of the story of Moses and the burning bush.


The 10th Anniversary of 9/11

August 27, 2011

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, First Church will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 in a variety of ways.

These events have changed the landscape of our country and the world. We stand with those who still grieve their losses, with those who were shocked and traumatized by these events. We also grieve the loss of life and limb that has occurred in the wars that have been fought since then in Iraq and Afghanistan.

9/11 MemorialAs people of peace, we must lift up the futility of war and the seeking of vengeance. We also stand against the demonization of individuals, groups and countries. Even as we claim our loyalty and love for our country, we also claim our global citizenship. All of us are brothers and sisters, even as we sit across the divide of nationality, religion, or conflict.

One of the outcomes of the events of 9/11 and the ensuing political and social turmoil, is that we have reached out hands of friendship to people of other faiths and are richer for these new connections and new understandings.

On this special Sunday, we will commemorate 9/11 in both worships services, welcoming guests from the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, a mass choir will sing Verdi’s Requiem at 3 pm in the Sanctuary, and in the evening we will take part in an Axis of Friendship event at the Oakland Peace Center.

Read more…


Living in Unity Can Be…

August 19, 2011

This is a condensed version of Phil Porter’s sermon “Living in Unity” that he preached on Sunday, August 14 at First Church.

Church groupThe first verse of Psalm 133 says: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” I found this simple declaration powerful and uplifting. I assume the intent of the second verse was to illuminate this idea with a luxurious and sensual metaphor: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.”

And that is just the way I read it the first couple of times through. But then I began to see the image from my own modern (and, yes, somewhat fastidious) point of view. Oil? In your hair? Your beard? Running down onto your clothes?”

And that is when another truth hit me: trying to live in unity can be a sticky mess.

Yes, we know the delights of community: support, connection, continuity, friendship, collaboration, energy, care. But if we approach the task of being together from our “lower selves”—those parts of ourselves that are insecure, needy, self-absorbed, unlovable and unloved, community is a huge challenge. We can be inflexible, unforgiving and intolerant, all qualities that are deadly in community.

Fortunately our spiritual tradition calls us to a bigger vision. It calls forth our “higher selves.” Perhaps it is the larger circle that God draws that can encompass our delightful but sometimes exasperating differences. It is this larger circle of love and acceptance that can fill our hearts and soften the challenge of living together. It is this larger circle that invites forth our openness, our acceptance, our service, our care.

And things become noticeably less sticky!

Get a video sneak peak of Phil’s sermon…

Watch the complete sermon on video…


Walk On Water

August 8, 2011

Here are the words to “Walk on Water” a song by Phil Porter and Elaine Kirkland that was sung during the Sunday service on August 7, 2011. Phil also preached a sermon called “That Sinking Feeling.” You can read a condensed version on this blog or view the video of the service.

Walk on Water
By Phil Porter & Elaine Kirkland

It might be nice to walk on water,
To cross a lake without a boat,
To take a stroll among the otters,
But now I’m lucky just to float.

1. It seems my cares and troubles
might make my life capsize.
I look around for sunshine
But rainclouds fill the skies.

2. My life is topsy-turvy
a boat in heaving seas.
I clutch the oars in panic
And terror clutches me.


3. Just when I think I’m done for,
the waves have reached new highs,
I come to a conclusion
That’s right before my eyes.

4. I’ve navigated solo,
no compass and no crew,
Alone, I’d conquer oceans,
And part the waters, too.


5. But now I see my folly.
I’m trying much too hard.
I wanted to astound folks,
And earn God’s high regard

6. To try to walk on water,
why pick a task so tough?
God knows that sometimes floating
Is miracle enough.


© 1990, Phil Porter & Elaine Kirkland. All rights reserved.


That Sinking Feeling

August 8, 2011

This is a condensed version of a sermon by Phil Porter’s based on the story of Jesus walking on water. You can watch a video of Phil telling the story (beginning at about 23 minutes) and preaching on the text (beginning at about 33 minutes.)

man sinking in waterThe disciples were in the boat and the wind was fierce and the waves were high and they were afraid. And then to their surprise, Jesus walked toward them from across the lake. Peter, eager to believe, begged to be summoned out onto the water. And off he went. But then he got that sinking feeling…

So few things are true for all of us. But I would guess that we have all had that sinking feeling. Worries, doubts, regrets—large and small. The flutter in our gut, a dark cloud obscuring clear thought, a nervous rush that tingles all the way to our fingertips.

Don’t we long for someone or something to reach out and take our hands and pull us out of the murky waters? Jesus did that for Peter. He grabbed Peter’s hand and together they walked back to the boat. The wind ceased and the waves quieted.

Isn’t that part of what community is about? We reach out to each other in times of need. We are pulled back into the boat or help someone else clamber in.

Isn’t that part of what prayer is about? We try to quiet the rampaging worries, we breathe deeply, we look for a deeper truth and a more stable center. We ask for help from a source greater than we can imagine.

Isn’t that what Jesus is about, a man who was of a time and place but also transcends time and place? If Jesus could be there for Peter and the rest of the panicking disciples, could he also be there for me?

Isn’t that what communion is about? We gather around a table and share food like a family. We take sustenance to use when we need it and we almost always need it.

Let’s take hands. Often. That way, even if you don’t know I have that sinking feeling, you may be pulling me out of the troubling waters. Together we will get back in the boat, the winds will cease and the waves will quiet.

More about First Congregational Church of Berkeley.


What Feeds Us?

August 3, 2011

Meredith Jackson used the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 as the basis of her sermon on Sunday, July 31. She asked a few people to share some of the things that fed them personally. This was what Bonnie Hester shared in the service:

 “I am sustained by a deep sense of God’s presence in my life, embodied in ordinary daily interactions I have with people—friends, family and people I don’t know. God is in the experience of a friend calling to check in or a neighbor sharing his freshly baked bread with me. The joy I feel as I see the world through the eyes of my 5-year-old grandson and the twinkle in the eye of his grandfather is sacred. It is even there in the impulse I feel to hold my irritation in check while driving or let someone go before me at Trader Joes. I feel a sacred presence as well as surprise when I am somehow better than myself. Every interaction is an opportunity for me to notice God’s presence. Through countless small nourishing exchanges imbued with holiness, my life is enriched and I am sustained.”