This is an exciting time in the life of our church, and for the whole United Church of Christ of which we are a part. One of our own, Chris Williams, has become a Member in Discernment (MID)! Now, you may find yourself asking, “What is a Member in Discernment?,” but I think an even more pressing question we should be asking is, “What is Discernment?” 

One of the key pieces of our identity and tradition in the United Church of Christ, and the historic Congregationalist Churches from which we come, is our conviction and embrace of the Priesthood of All Believers. Whenever someone joins our church through Baptism or by remembering and affirming their baptism, we remember and affirm that every one of us gathered together in the church is called to ministry. We are all called to live faithfully, resist evil and oppression, and to work towards a just world for all of Creation. We all have our own pieces of this work that go with us into every part of our lives, and which also come together in the ministry of the church. We all have our own functions as members of the body of Christ and we are all called to minister to others, but some are called to ordained positions, in which we serve specific functions of the church. Some of these functions include supporting and nourishing the community by leading worship and administering the Sacraments, preaching, teaching, pastoral care, leadership and administration within church community, and leading the church to be a prophetic witness among the larger community. 

In the UCC, when someone begins to sense that they are called to this work, and wish to pursue it further, they enter a process with the support of the local church and its conference (for us, the Northern California Nevada Conference of the UCC), and become a Member in Discernment. This can be just a little misleading, because they are never alone in this time and work of discernment. In fact, discernment is communal in its very nature, and is impossible to practice as an individual in isolation. 

Discernment is an important, yet often overlooked spiritual practice and discipline. When we neglect it, which is all too often, we neglect an essential question: What is God doing in this present moment? We have the library of sacred stories held in our Bible where we see some of the ways God has moved among our forebears in faith. We also have the traditions handed down through the history of the church to develop and train our capacity for opening ourselves to God’s presence. Sometimes we get distracted and turn these stories and traditions into their own ends and goals, and try to capture something we think we have lost. But what we think we have lost is actually waiting for us in the present moment. These histories, stories, teachings, and traditions are not ends in themselves, but rather are gifts from those who came before, from those who witnessed God’s presence and redemptive action in their own times, given to us so that we might take their wisdom and knowledge and join for ourselves into the presence and action of God in our present moment. 

Discernment is only possible in community. It is never an individual act, conviction, or revelation. We are community-dependent created by a God who is the very nature of connection and community, so it only makes sense that we most clearly discern the ongoing creative and wholeness-making work of God when we do so as a community. Discernment requires a lot of us. It requires individuals and the groups they discern with to have imaginations shaped by the stories of Scripture and trained by tradition, to be prayerfully attentive to the present moment, to be intimately aware of and willing to suspend their personal wills, desires, motives, and certainty of what is and is not possible, and to be open, patiently listening and watching for the movement of God, where-and- who-ever it may come from. 

A new Member in Discernment in our church is an exciting time, not just for the individual, but for the whole church that is a part of the journey. This is especially true for us, as Chris Williams has become our second member in the MID process. Our own Kim Williams (yes, relation) is also a MID. This is an exciting time, not just for their own emerging ministries and understandings of their callings, and our pride in claiming them as our own, but also because they are providing us with opportunities to practice the discipline of discernment for every other occasion, decision, challenge, and invitation to meet God in the present moment that we encounter. 

To get to this point, Chris had many discussions with his family and with me, he presented a narrative of his spiritual journey and understanding of calling to ordained ministry to our Church Council, who voted to recommend him to the conference Committee on Ministry, who, after receiving a lot of information and meeting with Chris themselves, voted enthusiastically to grant him the status of Member in Discernment. Next, he will be forming a Local Church Discernment Committee with a few members of our church to support and journey closely with him through this work of discernment, beginning seminary classes at the Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley, and further exploring opportunities in the church to begin getting a clearer sense of his gifts, interests, passions, and areas for growth and development for ministry. Please join me in congratulating Chris, in praying for him and his journey of discernment, and in keeping our eyes open for where God is moving, speaking, restoring, and creating next. 

Pastor Raygan

Hard Questions Happy Hour

Church Family, 

We need to talk. 

Is it just me, or does it seem like the line between reality and satire is getting blurrier? The other day I came across a social media post that said something to the effect of, “Future historians will have to specify which month of 2020 they specialize in.” While this was probably meant as a joke, I think the humor in it comes from the possibility that it may very well be true one day. So many significant yet unpredictable things seem to be happening in out world at the same time, that it is difficult to discern how we as individuals and as the church are being called to respond. 

One of the questions that has been rolling around my mind for the past few months has been, “What does it mean for us to be the church when we are not able to be at the church?” Or, related, yet slightly different, “What does it mean to be this church in this place in this moment?” This moment may feel chaotic for us, but that doesn’t have to deter our working ministry. 

On the first Sunday in June, our text in worship was the seven day creation story in Genesis 1. Our God creates and has always created out of chaos (the literal meaning of the word usually translated “void”). God creates, by God’s own initiative, but God also gives us authority and responsibility to care for, be fruitful with, and multiply God’s creative work. What might God be creating in this moment, and how is God calling us to participate in it? As a global pandemic has disrupted almost every area of our lives, and as tensions rise over what life amid a pandemic should look like, what new and renewing ways of life are becoming possible? As conversations about race and white privilege become more common, open, and cautiously optimistic in the wake of new and centuries-old grief, what do wholeness, healing, harmonious living, and shalom look like? If things that were once unimaginable are now our reality, or what once would have been considered an exceptionally big news day is now just an average Tuesday, what good things might be worth doing and trying, that were once thought unimaginable? 

These are hard questions that have no easy answers. However, I think one of the most important things we can be doing right now is wrestling with the hard questions that come up from the world around us, and discerning what they mean for us and how we as the church are called to respond. 

These are not just big, difficult questions, I believe they are also especially exciting questions that have the potential to lead to wonder-filled conversations. I also think that we can have a lot of fun along the way. To that end, let’s get together for Hard Questions Happy Hour, Wednesdays in July from 5-6pm on Zoom. Bring your own beverage (with or without alcohol), questions, and imaginations. Everyone is welcome, and whoever shows up are the right people for the conversation. If you don’t have the right equipment for Zoom video meetings, you can also call in by phone. 

Zoom Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83224125795 

Meeting ID: 832 2412 5795

One tap mobile


Dial from any phone:

        +1 669 900 9128 (will need Meeting ID: 832 2412 5795)

See you there, 


What is a “Synod?”

By Pastor Raygan

From June 20th-26th, I will be attending The General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (as will Kim!), which, for those who aren’t church-nerds yet, begs the question, “What is a Synod?” “Synod,” most simply, is a gathering of church representatives to conduct church business, and in the United Church of Christ, it is a very special gathering. The less official definition of Synod in the UCC is, “two-steps-and-a-hug,” because it feels like a giant family reunion.

Every two years, about 700 pastors and lay members of UCC churches and conferences from all over the country gather in rotating host cities to celebrate and support our relationships with our national and international partners in ministry, to learn and gain resources to support the work of our churches, and to make decisions on behalf of the national church. In the UCC, we insist on and celebrate the autonomy of every individual church, and enter into covenantal relationships with other churches, conferences, and the national setting of the church to do more together than we could do alone. So, when we have to make decisions as a whole denomination, our decisions aren’t handed down and doctrines aren’t proscribed, but passionate debates and faithful conversations are held, and when needed, votes are taken in an effort to reach consensus. We take care of the basic business like our national officers, board of directors, budget, but then we get to the good stuff.

A lot of time at Synod is spent discerning, considering, and voting on “Resolutions of Witness” that have been brought by local churches and conferences; which speak to matters of public life that need to be spoken into by the voice of faith, and when possible, have resources and efforts organized towards just outcomes. For example, this year the Synod will be considering resolutions pertaining to climate change, worldwide immigration crises, private prisons, opioid addiction, interfaith dialogue, and much more.

Additionally, because a gathering like this is an opportunity to learn together as a national church, we will hear from Matthew Desmond, this Synod’s keynote speaker. Desmond is the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In preparation for his address, all of us attending Synod are reading his book in advance, as he has promised to build on the work of his Pulitzer Prize winning book. I am excited to learn what resources and ideas we can bring back, as we know that poverty is a particularly poignant issue in Fresno and the Central Valley. If you haven’t read it already, make room for it on your summer reading list, so we can continue the conversation and important work well beyond Synod. Will you join me?

Pastor Raygan

We Can’t Afford not to Talk About Money

(Pun Intended)

By Pastor Raygan

I have long believed that the things we don’t, can’t, or are scared to talk about shape and steer our conversations as much as (or more than) what we do say. I think this matters with social justice issues, where there may be
consequences for speaking boldly, proudly, and progressively when the dignity and rights of marginalized communities are threatened. But I think it’s also important with other topics that could be uncomfortable, or that we have been told are not for polite conversation; like money. It robs us of something to not be able to talk about it (pun intended again).

It’s not just that the church needs money in order to live into our calling (though we do), it’s also that money is an important reality in our lives, whether we like or not, and whether we have it, or not. Money matters. Jesus’ stories, parables, and teachings dealt more with money than any other single topic. In fact, in the Gospels, about one out of every ten verses deals directly with money. Money is a powerful force in our lives and culture that gives shape to the ways we engage each other and participate in the world.

I’m not here to tell you that money is a bad thing, or that the only way to justify having it is to give it away, especially to the church. If money is bad, we don’t want it. However, how we earn and use our money does help define us, our values, and the kind of world we want to live in. So, we need to be intentional in how we talk about, and embrace our roles as stewards of our money, and all our resources. How we earn, spend, save, and give our money ties our careers and life’s work into issues of vocation, justice, the economy, and the ongoing work of God in the world.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I don’t have any problem talking about money, or asking for it for the church, because I’m excited about what we can do with it. As we look forward to ending 2018 strong (and catching up on our current pledges), and for casting a bold, proud, and progressive budget and set of ministry goals for 2019, let’s reject the fear of talking about money, and every other gift that we bring to this important work.

Pastor Raygan

Beating the Bounds

By Pastor Raygan

Of the many ways I could jump into this work at Big Red, I want to start with relationships. All of the work of the church is grounded in relationships. In many English, Irish, and Scottish parishes, there is an annual tradition known as “Beating the Bounds,” though it has other names as well. In this centuries-old custom, on “Beating the Bounds” Sunday, the minister and congregation walk the boundaries of the Parish. Walking the boundaries helped them reinforce the boundaries of the parish, even if they had to walk through people’s yards and farms, and wade through rivers and other obstacles to do so. One church in Oxford still carries on this practice today, even though they have to go through restaurant kitchens, department store shoe displays, and several locked gates and people’s private property in order to do so. This odd practice helped the church pass down their knowledge and traditions to younger generations, and reminded them of the specific set of space that they were called to serve.

I am excited to finally be here at First Congregational, and to join you in the work of doing creative and transformative ministry in our community, but I’m also aware I’m starting 135 years into the Big Red Church’s story. So, I have a bit of getting up to speed to do; much like merging onto a freeway where traffic is already moving a bit above the speed limit.

Now, at Big Red, our boundaries aren’t so neatly defined, which has its benefits and complexities, but that doesn’t make the work of becoming acquainted with our community any less important. Rather than parish boundaries, we have people. So as I get started and get up to speed with you all, a better way of showing me the community we’ve all been called to serve will be actually meeting with as many of you as possible. I know I will gradually get to know many of you through the many ways you are involved at Big Red, but I’d also like the chance to get to know you at an individual or small group level, too. I want to meet with all of you; longtime members, new members, associate members, visitors, friends, and whatever other categories of involvement you may have with Big Red. I could not be more excited to be here because I see great potential and many exciting things in the Big Red Church, and I want the work we do to be grounded in our connections with each other.

To schedule these meetings and gatherings in a way that simplifies the logistics for me, I’ve set up this online schedule with the times I am making myself available over the next couple of months, and where you can sign up: http://bit.ly/meetraygan

If none of the available or proposed times work for you, or you prefer not to use the computer or Internet, we can find something that will work if you call me at the church office.

I’m looking forward to meeting, working, and serving with you all.

Pastor Raygan

Into Our Own Hands

From Rev. Ara Guekguezian

When will Jesus come again? It has been too long. I/we are tired of waiting. 2000 years is enough patience. There are moments when I think a part of the church is holding a gun to its head and threatening God, “If the trumpet does not sound in the next month, I’m pulling the trigger.”

This is the Judas experience—cornering Jesus that he may act and bring about the new age where the proper order is restored. Independence for God’s people and the removal of the Roman authorities from the land with the concurrent reform of the religious institutions. Judas would then be appointed the Secretary of the Treasury. Life would be right.

The plan did not work too well. Judas’ vision was restored to a degree. He became painfully aware of his great sin. He not only did not trust Jesus, but took Jesus’s place at the center of his life. Judas chose death over life.

Peter denied and was forgiven and restored. Thomas doubted and was forgiven and restored. Judas betrayed and could not/would not get out of his own way to receive forgiveness/grace to be restored.

Don’t be Judas. Trust in the Lord with all of your being. Even after Easter there is time to work on the disciples of patience, praying God’s will (that my/our will be in line with God’s will) and receiving the unbounded love of God in Jesus.


Pastor Ara

A Healthy Relationship Honors God

From Rev. Ara Guekguezian
Interim Pastor

For the next six Sundays, the theme of the proclamation (the sermon) will be all about the relationship. We will hear from the Gospels, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Poets. The theme runs through our sacred text from the beginning to the end. It is a powerful stream and oft neglected as we focus on the rules: ‘What must I do to get to heaven?’

Sunday, January 28th, shook me up and strengthened my resolve in focusing on the Bible’s guidance on creating and sustaining healthy relationships. I usually don’t watch the Grammys, but I needed to see Kesha perform. For she is one who has suffered from the abuse of power in her life, both personal and professional. Although born in LA, she is not Hollywood. Hollywood has its own very serious issues in sustaining healthy relationships, as does the church. But a song, music, has a power unlike any other form of expression.

I don’t cry when I watch television, even on the big TV in my cave. As I have gotten older I do cry on occasion at the movies, as I am drawn into the world within the big screen. On Sunday night, I was sobbing as I watched Kesha sing. I am not a big fan of hers or of her genre. But I know her story under the thumb of Dr. Luke. It reflects the story of so many artists and their management team. Kesha was spitting out the words of ‘Praying’ with such ferocity. It was beautiful and powerful. It was built on the core of pain, abuse, and brokenness. I thank God for her strength and intelligence and her spirit. It moved me to feel the shame of being part of a world that tolerates such appalling action from one human to another. How often the contract allows for abuse, because the differential in the power dynamic is unaccounted when the terms are applied.

I am grateful that we are a nation of laws. But I am more grateful that because of the stability the nation of laws provides, I can live fully as a human being, seeking out relationship and working tirelessly to keep them healthy. And upon the inevitable failure of health to seek and grant forgiveness, as a child of the most gracious God and a disciple of Christ.

I hope and pray that we will be as encouraged and as challenged as I have been in hearing God’s word to me, and over the next six Sundays to us. If not, listen to Kesha sing ‘Praying’ at the Grammys on YouTube. Then do all that you are able to never inspire anyone to express themselves that way again. Again, I thank God for Kesha, for I experienced the sadness, the brokenness, the pain, vicariously.

Peace, not as the world gives,
but of Christ be with you,

Pastor Ara


Happy New Year! I don’t think so.

From Rev. Ara Guekguezian

The Grinch in me rears its ugly head as the celebration pick ups as the end of one leg ends and a new leg is about to commence. All things new? No, not true. The pains of abuse and neglect from 2017 do not just magically disappear on January 1st of 2018. The last month of 2017 was very painful for me. To hear the voice of our national leadership say unequivocally that some matter more than others — because that is what budgets say, — these are our priorities. The statement was coming from the same mouths that make verbal statements about a Christian nation. And it makes me ill. Leave Christ out of your mouth, as you have out of the federal budget.

We at First Congregational have budget decisions to make and they must reflect the light of Christ. There will be a lot of energy expended in setting the course for the way our tithes and offerings will be used to make peace and establish justice, and to extend the love of God.

As I was in my angry mood, I thought that we should take a moment each week to try and understand what God does indeed desire of God’s people. The noise from our culture tends to focus on personal piety and purity in body. My understanding of scripture as it bears witness to the Word (Jesus), is that it starts with God and God’s love for creation and its creatures, including — especially — we humans. God desires and demands right relationship. The implications of this is made clear in the what is heard over and over and over again in the word of the prophets and in the word of Jesus.

So beginning in mid-January, on the 17th we will resume Sacred Pursuits on Wednesday evenings at 6 p.m. in the Heritage room for 50 minutes. We will begin with a study of the Minor Prophets. These short pieces will have much broader implications as we determine historical context, form and mindset, and do some translating work to our age and worldview.

The study of the Biblical witness keeps me on task and hopeful. I do not get to wallow in my anger. Nor do I succumb to hopelessness. I am also reminded that it is not our world or my world. This century does not belong to the Chinese or the West or the U.S.A. It does not belong to a dictator or the one with the biggest gun or the biggest bankroll. It is God’s universe.

And it is good to hear God’s desire for the universe and us on a regular basis.


Pastor Ara


In the Beginning…

From Pastor Ara Guekguezian

…of the summer of 2017, I began preparing for a series of sermons on Genesis, particularly considering three of the most interesting and instructive people in our scripture: Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel, and Joseph.

My endeavor led to a study of Genesis by a couple of folks at Big Red. We still have not moved past the first eleven chapters of the Beginning. After every hour, the comments invariably include ‘we are still not finished with the discussion of (a very particular issue).’ And I smile and thank God for such people in my life. We ‘get’ each other. Not every question gets a final answer. Life is not a bigger or realer version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Genesis is a particular community’s response to a universe full of hardship, challenge, and pleasure. God’s people, the Hebrews, thoughtfully and intelligently propose a way to live, a particular perspective that in the right hands, continues to work today.

The task of translating a word from 4000 years ago to be understood today is the most exciting and engaging challenge. And this brings me to the three aforementioned heroes of the Bible. I have moments of identification with Abraham and Jacob. I struggle to embrace God’s call to me on a daily, even hourly, basis. There are many moments of a conflicted response to God’s call to me and my understanding as shepherd as God’s call to my people.

But Joseph is a superior human. Read his story from Genesis 37–50 during the month of August. Take time to imagine and reflect upon your response to the external circumstances of his young life. Joseph not only endures but flourishes in horrible circumstance, beginning with the betrayal by his brothers. How? That is the easiest of the questions to answer. Joseph was convinced that everything that happens in his life is part of God’s grand plan for his life. This conviction gives him the strength, the focus, to endure. I have found Joseph to be most instructive for my life and life of the congregations I have served.

We at the Big Red Church have had a long life, full of challenges, hardships, and great joys. We have enjoyed seasons of abundance and seasons of drought. Here we are. How? God has a particular call to us. In this season of a renewed emphasis on the tribe, we continue to bear witness to God’s call of welcome to all. Come in as you are: broken, heavy laden with burdens of the day. We will welcome one another. We will not take the burden away, but we will share it. We will exhibit the kindness, the compassion, the strength, the endurance to walk together under God’s love as long as we have breath.

Aspiring to emulate Joseph as a community, I pray and hope.


Pastor Ara


Just A Man Crossing The Street

From Rev. Ara Guekguezian, Interim Pastor

It was a beautiful and relatively cool Wednesday
morning. I was running errands downtown traveling north on O street, approaching Tulare. The signal was green! A rare occurrence, so I accelerated a bit in my excitement at my good fortune. The brake lights of the car just before me lit up. Argh! As we stopped, he in the intersection, I in the crosswalk, I could see and understand. There was a walker crossing against the light, earbuds in both ears, seemingly engrossed in the screen of his phone. Not an unusual moment these days. BUT THAT IS NOT ALL, FOLKS. He stopped, bent down and picked something up from the street. All while the light is red and that little man in the box is red and cars are screeching to a halt and Pastor Ara, a person with a life, is resigning himself to two minutes of waiting through another long cycle— per usual on O at Tulare. Thanks be to God, the man got up, got to the curb, and we slammed on the gas and made it through before the signal bled red.

Driving away, the thought flashed through my head: if this criminal/scofflaw (the nicer descriptives used by my brain in this brief instant) was hit by a motor vehicle and seriously injured, he would have arrived in his own little heaven. Lying in a bed for an extended period of time, maybe for the rest of his life, earbuds in his ears and VR goggles on, not having to move while virtually living, without having to cross streets anymore.

I arrived at the pastor’s office/study, and I was grateful that I still have a life where I want to be fully engaged.

The screens of my life are a nice addition. The phone and the tablet provide certain efficiencies, but my work, my purpose, insists that I remain alert to the other and engage with the other and endeavor to make the other and me, us. Virtual Reality is here in a rudimentary form at present. In a few years, VR and reality may be indistinguishable for some. We have glimpses of it: listening to recorded music, watching worship on TV or the iPad, buying an exercise video (previewing, but never actually responding to the direction of the peppy, bouncing person exhorting to one more rep).

The man in the crosswalk reminded me that Christian community life is still very much a human exercise. The early Church disputes were focused on the nature of the Christ and the constant affirmation of the full humanity of the Word. Jesus saw, spoke, felt, touched, tasted, and heard. Jesus charged us to follow and do likewise. Feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner in SimCity is not the full expression of faithfulness. Doing it: teaching, leading, singing, feeding, listening, giving, walking with even against the don’t walk signal is.

Grateful to be fully engaged with you as work out whom we are as God’s faith folk in and amongst many who as slowly disengaging from the mess, the joy filled mess, that is this life. 


Pastor Ara.