A burning hatred

Images of a burning mosque shocked me. The fact that it was in my own state – Connecticut – in a city near where I grew up – New Haven – made it even worse. Somehow I had categorized hate crimes as something that happened someplace else. I relegated them as events that occur “down South” or “out West” or in another country altogether. But here? In very civilized, very educated, very New England Connecticut?

As a pastor, I can imagine the heartache of a congregation whose sanctuary has been taken away. This beloved gathering place where prayers are lifted and fellowship is shared now lies in ruins. I cannot fathom how fearful these worshipers must be as they contemplate being the object of someone’s hatred.

It hurts my heart to visualize someone planning such violence. I cannot comprehend the logic behind it. How would that conversation go? “We’ll burn down the mosque and then…”  Then what? What will be accomplished? What message will be sent? What misguided notion of achievement will occur?

As I am writing this, reports are coming in about fires being set in Jewish institutions in Needham and Arlington Massachusetts. Another religious community attacked, another community hurt.

It should go without saying that anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence hurts all of society. This is bullying taken to an extreme; everyone suffers. One segment of our society cannot be allowed to terrorize another part.

In these divided times, when an “us vs. them” mentality is often encouraged, God’s people need to insist on a lifestyle of grace and inclusion. People of faith can speak up against messages of superiority and competition – we need to be bigger, better, stronger! – which diminish the value of others. We can refuse to take part in incivility and name-calling.

Instead, we can try to follow the example of Jesus who displayed an astounding willingness to reach across barriers, to seek out the lonely and lost, and to include the outcast. Jesus demonstrated a grace that included all of God’s people.

What if we started by asking one another questions and looking for opportunities to learn about one another? What if we said “yes” to one of the many invitations issued by our Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan to learn about Islam as they break their fast? Would we learn about God’s abundance and expand our understanding on worship and prayer?

In our area, our local synagogue will soon be celebrating their 100th anniversary as a congregation.  What if we joined to wish them well as they begin a second century of worship and caring?

The only way to combat hatred is with love. Hatred destroys, hatred separates people into warring factions, hatred hurts. Love unites, love has the power to bring people together, love heals. We cannot allow the loud, frightening voice of hatred drown out the life-giving power of love. Choose love. Choose compassion. Every day. Even the smallest gestures of compassion and caring can help break down the barriers that divide us. As the old song reminds us, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

To support the New Haven Muslim community as they rebuild, click here

Too young to be heroes

I worry about this generation of children who are experiencing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because they went to school. There have been over 30 school shootings in our country so far this year. While the media focuses on the body count to breathlessly report how many were killed or injured, they overlook the “collateral damage” – children who heard the dreaded announcement “active shooter” and “lockdown” and whose lives were transformed by witnessing violence, terror, and chaos.

 Those who experience life-threatening terror carry that with them forever. Our children have been forced to consider their mortality at too young an age. There are poignant stories of children and teenagers who texted their parents loving messages because they feared it would be their final communication. A young girl used a marker to write her mother’s name on her arm to help authorities identify her body. She survived that day, but carries with her the soul-shaking fear that comes from suddenly confronting death. No adult would choose that experience, yet it has become increasingly commonplace for our children. Every time a school shooting occurs, students across the country wonder – could we be next?  They are understandably afraid.

            Being a teenager in the 21st century is inherently filled with stress and anxiety. There are the normal teenage concerns like juggling overfilled schedules, studying, worrying about college and/or work, discerning one’s identity and sexuality, and sorting through the pressures of social media and online bullying. All of that would be more than enough.

But now teenagers have an additional pressure – the call to be a hero.

            We want to honor young men like Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell who sacrificed their lives so their classmates could escape. But teenagers shouldn’t have to worry about being brave enough to face gunfire in order to attend high school or college. It isn’t their job to be heroes in order to obtain their education.

We adults aren’t doing our job. We should be protecting our children. Instead, we are allowing two complex issues – mental health services and gun control – defeat us.

            If children can be brave enough to go to school despite the real dangers that exist, we adults need to have the courage to make the necessary changes to provide a safer environment in which to grow and learn. We could start by providing every school with more social workers and counselors.  We cannot afford to ignore the urgent mental health needs of our young people.

We could start by banning automatic weapons.  Private citizens don’t need them.

I have no easy answers to offer and no quick-fixes to prescribe. But we cannot afford to be paralyzed into inaction. We need to work together to find solutions.

Our children need us.

What does church look like?

When you envision “going to church” perhaps you expect a quiet, orderly sanctuary filled with well-dressed people quietly listening to organ music.

That was your grandmother’s church experience.

These days, church means so much more. Yes, we are here faithfully on Sunday mornings (join us! Everyone is welcome!). The dress code has relaxed and rarely includes the suit, tie, dresses, and shined shoes that I remember from my childhood. The music might include the organ but will just as likely feature exuberant children, guitar, ukulele, piano, and bells. We do manage to get to “quiet” but only after the deacon patiently – and sometimes repeatedly – calls the congregation to order. There is a joyful sense of community as people of all ages greet one another. They have gathered for respite, reassurance, learning, fellowship, and the life-giving assurance that they are loved and lovable. Through God’s grace, we are forgiven; we can share that hope with others.

How we live out that hope brings us to other church moments. “Church,” thank God, doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings. Church can be in the orderly chaos of a clothing sale in a huge room filled to overabundance with used clothes. Church means partnering with the high school’s volunteer group FRESH (Family Related Effective Solutions for Humanity) to make a difference in our community. These teenagers are dedicated to combating poverty and hunger in our area and put their ideals to work as they hauled, sorted, and displayed clothes. Residents from local homeless and domestic violence shelters are invited to come for a free “shopping spree.”

“Church” happens in the kitchen when volunteers prepare meals for anyone facing life’s challenges. Church can be delivered in a microwavable container. It can be a warm meal that reminds recipients that they are loved and cared for.

“Church” can take place in our local park when we gather for “Tuesdays at Twilight” for outdoor worship in the beauty of God’s creation. Bike-riding children, parents pushing strollers, fishermen passing by can wander into our circle as we listen to the birds overhead, watch the ducks make a splash-landing on the water, and marvel as the evening sky is reflected in the pond. “Church” happens whenever and however we share God’s love. I believe we are invited to constantly discover new and different ways to be the church in a fractured, busy world. Church might mean Bible study in a classroom and could also be conversations about God, faith, and life at a coffee shop.

How will we do church? We will honor our traditions and we will look for new ways to reach out and connect with God’s people. We will continue to worship together in our sanctuary on Sunday mornings and be open to other times and places where we can learn, grow, rejoice, and serve together.

Church will take many new forms in the 21st century.  Who knows what “church” will look like next!

It’s Easter Season – now what?

We are in that time of year not marked on any calendar and not celebrated in any home – it is the Easter season. We have seven weeks, until the celebration of Pentecost (another holiday not widely observed) in which to ponder what Easter means and the lasting impact Easter has on our lives and our faith.

Celebrating Easter Sunday is a snap. We know just what to do. Sunrise service will happen, rain or shine; this year we took it on the faith that the sun was actually rising as we sang, “Christ the Lord is risen today!” Our Easter service was full and joyfully exuberant. An abundance of flowers surrounded us as we relished music from children, adults, and bells. We declared with enthusiasm that “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”

And then everyone went home.  And the Easter season began.

We’re left with the nagging reminder that Easter is not a fairy tale with a tidy ending. Everyone did not, in fact, live happily ever after.  What happened was a lot grimmer. The hero of the story – Jesus – was killed in about as brutal a fashion as anyone could imagine. There was betrayal and loss, disappointment and disillusionment, mourning and fear.

Even the resurrection doesn’t cancel out the brutality of Jesus’ death. The Apostles’ Creed insists on repeating the harsh reality – Jesus was “crucified, dead, and was buried.  Then he descended into hell.”  He was really, really dead. Hope, in that moment, disappeared.

It is not a pretty story. We have to acknowledge Good Friday’s trauma in order to celebrate Easter and the miracle of life after death.  Jesus lives again but now he is different. Now he lives with scars. He is forever changed by the violence that took his life.

Violence continues to impact lives today. Survivors are forever marked by evil; they carry the scars of sudden, disrupting loss.

To combat the terror and violence that seems to fill our world, we may crave for a superhero to rise up and defeat our enemies. I suspect the popularity of the latest Avengers movie – 1.2 billion dollars earned worldwide in three days – reflects a desire to have extraordinary powers to face overwhelming enemies.

Instead, we have Jesus. Our wounded savior has been hurt, oppressed, attacked, wrongly accused, betrayed, mocked, and unjustly treated.

Despite balloons and bunnies, flowers and songs, Easter does not allow us to ignore life’s hardships. Instead, Easter provides hope that suffering and violence do not – cannot – have the final word. Even as we acknowledge the pain that exists in our world, we declare our faith in God who is greater than any evil. Jesus lives. Love will have the final word.

We celebrate the Easter season by declaring the enduring power of love. Love wins.  

Sharing Easter Joy

Easter was wonderful! We shouted “alleluia!” and celebrated that “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!”

 Now what?  How do we make sure that Easter – with all of its hope and joy – is not just a one-day celebration? How do we share the Good News that God offers new life even amidst despair and sadness?

 We are not Bible-thumpers in East Woodstock. No one expects me to pound the pulpit and dictate what they believe or how they live their faith or even that there is only way to find and worship God. Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is known for welcoming all of God’s people by declaring “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

 So, if we aren’t telling people what they have to believe, how are we sharing the Good News? What I love about my congregation is their creativity. They have discovered many ways to share God’s hope and new life.

Some people knit prayer shawls and offer these gifts as a reminder of God’s encircling love.

 Some folks paint rocks and place them in parks or other public places or give them as gifts (thanks, Laurie!).  The painter rarely sees the reaction of the recipient, but occasionally powerful stories filter back to us about someone who discovered a message rock and rejoiced in its comfort and hope.  

 Some people write letters to the editor to encourage good stewardship of the earth or combat racism.

 There are the “behind the scenes” folks who sort clothes for the upcoming clothing sale, tidy up the sanctuary in preparation for Sunday, or tend our church garden so it presents a welcoming array of colors to everyone who stops by.

 Some people volunteer at the local community kitchen or spend hours helping out at community closet and food pantry. People send cards, deliver meals, and offer rides to the doctor.

It turns out there are endless ways to share God’s love. It does take intention. It isn’t enough to say, “I’ll just be a good person today.” That’s nice, but the world – and the people who live in it – need more than just “nice.”

I read recently that Benjamin Franklin began each day asking, “What good can I do today?” and concluded the day by wondering, “What good did I do today?” What stranger did we greet with kindness, what comfort did we offer to those in despair, how did we treat our neighbor? With our different gifts and varying interests, we can choose to offer hope and spread encouragement.

And the hope of Easter will live on.

Pause. Breathe. Pray.

Good Friday is a day for prayer and contemplation. Our sanctuary remains open and everyone is invited to stop by to immerse themselves in some moments of silence, rest, prayer, and reflection. It is an opportunity to literally seek sanctuary from the relentless press of schedule, emails, worries, and obligations.

            As you enter the silence, it is clear that this is a reliable place to slow down, breathe deeply, and be aware of God’s presence. Although it can be a thrill to celebrate worship in a packed church on Easter morning, there is something special about being – simply being – in the quiet, simple beauty.

            Most sanctuaries are designed to make mere mortals feel small. Although we are a simple country church and not a grand cathedral, the soaring ceiling and openness of the sanctuary remind us of the majesty and power of our Creator. We bring our hopes, fears, and fervent prayers to One who is greater – bigger – than we are. There is comfort in that.

           On Good Friday in our sanctuary, there will be “prayer stations” which invite participants to spend time in prayer. Since there are many ways to pray and encounter God, each station offers a different way to engage in reflection. Participants can choose to light candles to ask God to shine light in particularly dark circumstances. They might choose to write a confession on dissolving paper and place it in the water of the baptismal font as they remember that God washes away the sins of the world. They can reflect on events of Holy Week by reading Scripture or lift up prayers for their life’s journey by using a finger labyrinth. Each station invites us to offer prayers for ourselves and others as we remember God’s love for the world.

            Prayer and quiet offer a respite. Whether you visit the East Woodstock sanctuary, another church of your choosing, or discover God in another way altogether, it is life-giving to be reminded of who and whose we are. We can then re-enter the world with a renewed spirit and a reminder of God’s promise to be with us always. Revived by God’s love, we can share Good News of hope and new life.

We’d rather be singing

Palm Sunday is filled with music. This Sunday we can look forward to the children singing (so cute!) and our bell choir (beautifully ringing from our balcony). For the 86th time in our history, the men’s chorus will sing “The Palms.” This tradition, started by Vernon Wetherell in 1933, celebrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and is a highlight of this special day.

To top it all off, we will also be celebrating a baptism (congratulations, Mila!).  It promises to be a joyous, uplifting service.

            But. Here’s the thing about Palm Sunday. It’s tricky. Just when you think it’s safe to relax in the joy and praise – Hosanna! – It takes a turn. The service shifts. The music fades away. The lights are dimmed. The flowers and the altar cloths are removed. In the bleak silence we hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, pain, doubt, agony, temptation, and loss.

Palm Sunday invites us to enter Holy Week, the days that will – eventually – lead us to Easter.

            When the going gets tough, we’d rather be singing. Who wouldn’t prefer one more verse of “Glory, Laud, and Honor” rather than thinking about life’s hardships – betrayal, fear, tears, and suffering.

What’s wrong with Christians? Are we masochists? Gluttons for punishment?  Why do we have to consider those elements of human life that we would rather avoid? Why do we listen to the litany of suffering that Jesus endured?

We’d rather be singing.

We listen because it’s part of our Christian story. Even more than that, it is part of our human story. Every life contains twists and turns. Everyone will encounter moments of despair. Every life confronts painful loss and sadness.

Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not alone on that journey. Jesus went before us. He knows the path, he has experienced this a lifetime of heartbreak. When we lift up urgent prayers for ourselves and others, we are speaking to One who knows. Palm Sunday provides profound Good News; even when we are on an unwanted journey or our life has taken an unexpected turn, we have good company along the way.

So this Sunday, if you are filled with joy, go ahead and sing songs of praise. Lift up your voice to celebrate the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Hosanna! Celebrate old traditions and welcome new forms of worship and praise.

If, however, you are not able to muster a song and you can find no reason to be thankful, remember Palm Sunday is for you, as well. Joy and sadness are often intertwined in our complicated human lives. In the quieter moments of Palm Sunday, listen for words of comfort, courage, and hope. Wherever we are on life’s journey – filled with cheer or bent over in grief – God provides the music to guide our paths.