Jamboree 2018

There is no tired like a post-Jamboree tired. After days of preparation, setting up tents, preparing the barbecue pit, sorting thousands of books, cleaning, arranging, and pricing countless “attic treasures,” hauling signs, tables, and chairs from the church basement, and tending to hundreds of other details, our team of volunteers was ready for the Big Day.

It didn’t rain – good!

But it was HOT.  Wow.

But nothing keeps our volunteers down. They did a fabulous job.

If you happened by at 6:00 a.m., you would have found a chatty crew talking and laughing in the church kitchen as they prepared strawberries for the mouth-watering shortcake. The volunteers from the Muddy Brook Fire Department were out back tending the barbecue fire and putting 500 chickens into grilling racks. By 8:00 a.m. volunteers were scattered across the common, setting up signs and creating displays of baked goods, snow-cones, ice cream, jewelry, and soft drinks. The hot dog and hamburger folks were preparing for a long day cooking over the hot grill.

What do people experience when they come to the Jamboree? They discover a welcome that reflects our church and our faith. “Whoever you are,” our sign reads, “and wherever you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here.” That slogan is lived out all day long during the Jamboree.

Welcome

Technology (besides our sound system) really doesn’t play a part on this old-fashioned day. People are welcome to pull up a chair, sit in the shade, and enjoy the music. Some folks bring a book or knitting and settle in for the day. Some families schedule their reunion time to coincide with the chicken barbecue and the upbeat tunes provided by the East Woodstock Cornet Band. Children laugh and giggle in the bouncy house, get their faces painted, and enjoy the bean-bag toss and the giant wooden puzzle of the 50 states.

There’s music – plenty of it. The Jamboree kicks off with the National Anthem. It is almost a sacred moment when hundreds of people stop in their tracks across the common to quietly listen to our country’s song. Throughout the day local musicians share their bountiful talents.

Sarah Jo

During the heat of the day everyone is invited into our 1832 sanctuary for our “pipe organ pops” concert which shows off the extraordinary sounds that those 300 pipes can make. Then there’s the sing-along, joining our voices together to celebrate the day in the relative cool of that peaceful place.

A cake walk (kind of like musical chairs – your chance to win a delicious cake) is filled with laughter and good cheer as beautiful desserts are distributed to lucky winners.

The day ends with “God Bless America,” our prayer for our country.

There were no lessons on “Jamboree” in seminary. It was nothing I ever expected to be part of. But it is a day that reminds me why I love being a pastor. Over 100 people are needed to make this day a success and every year they come together to create a day worth remembering. They offer a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere that invites people in and encourages fellowship and fun.

So yes, we all experienced that post-Jamboree exhaustion. But you know what? Next year we will do it all again.

It’s a tradition that started in 1957 and, God willing, it will continue for decades to come.

Uncle Sam

Do that small thing

“Thanks. That’s the nicest thing that’s happened to me today.” The woman in the “12 items or less” line smiled briefly at me as I took her grocery basket to tuck away on the pile. I wondered what kind of day she must be having when such casual gesture was a highlight.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We never know what kind of day another person is having and we might never realize how even the smallest kindness can transform a moment. So – go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a noisy world filled with video clips of grand gestures and dramatic moments. We can view elaborately staged proposals (even “promposals”), heart-rending reunions, and over-the-top surprises. It might make our everyday actions – a welcoming smile or a door held open or a steadying hand – seem unimportant in comparison. But don’t believe that. Go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a world with crushing needs. I wish I could go to Pittsburgh and put my arm around the grieving mother whose teenage son was shot. I wish I could travel to Texas and comfort crying children separated from their parents. I wish I could help that homeless person I saw in New York, instead of just stepping over him on the sidewalk. I can’t do those things.

But we can endeavor to do what we can. As a first step, ignore that doubting voice of cynicism that mocks small gestures of kindness or caring as futile when compared to the world of anger and hurt. Make that call, send that email, smile at the cashier, greet a stranger, do that volunteer work.  Whatever it is – go ahead and do that small thing.

As the Rev. John Wesley wisely said,

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Go ahead and do that small thing. All those “small things” add up. And they may make a world of difference.

Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You are a lawyer. I am a minister. Can we agree that I won’t attempt to sway your opinion by citing legal precedents if you won’t (mis)quote Scripture to support your claims?

My training tells me to be wary of anyone who selectively chooses verses out of context to prove a point. Our country has a sad history of misusing Scripture to promote abhorrent practices such as slavery, subjugation of women, and child abuse. That trend cannot continue.

Instead, let’s celebrate overriding themes that exist throughout the entire Bible. These include

  • Instructions to care for the “aliens and strangers” among us. That is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” One way to demonstrate love for God is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There are lots more. There are stories about Jesus disregarding laws that caused God’s people to suffer and Jesus breaking every social code to include the outcast, the forgotten, and the unloved. There are stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness and being dependent on the kindness and mercy of others in order to survive.

I don’t have to be a lawyer to know that we need laws to govern our land. But you don’t need to be a minister to know that those laws must be compassionate, just, and fairly executed.

Mr. Sessions, we could work together on this. You and I don’t need to share a faith. Our country is not ruled by religious law; we are not a theocracy. But basic human decency should inform us that children need their families. We should not inflict fear and suffering on the most vulnerable.

Terror, loss, and violence are driving desperate people to our borders. Let’s meet them with compassion and work to find a just, humane solution.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Welcome – everyone!

This sign, spotted on the restroom door in a Portsmouth NH restaurant this week,  made me smile. The message of inclusion was clear. Female, male, transgender, bisexual folks, wheelchair users, and yes, even aliens are welcome there.

There is something very simple and heartening about a sign that wants to include everyone. It is the opposite of the hateful messages that appeared in stores and restaurants in the not-so-distant past in our country. Signs that announced “Help wanted. Whites only,” or “No Irish served here.”  Signs that designated particular water fountains, restrooms, or waiting rooms for particular races.

In contrast, this cheery green and black message defines the only threat that we all must combat. That would be germs – no matter how you identify, germs are an equal-opportunity menace. So please – wash your hands. Once that is done, we can stand united (even hand in hand), confident that our shared humanity is more important than any outward distinctions.

What you look like, who you love, how you define yourself – those are all details compared to our shared identity. Child of God, created in God’s image.

We live in a funny world when a sign on a bathroom door can teach a lesson about how to treat one another. Let’s take the hint and offer one another the respect, welcome, and dignity that all of God’s people deserve.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Genesis 1: 26-27

Go ahead and judge

“Do not judge,” Jesus wisely said, “so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). But that statement – so often quoted, so often misunderstood – isn’t telling us to park our brains at the curb and blindly ignore behavior or speech or actions that are just plain wrong.

For a country that knows little about the Bible, this particular passage is often quoted. Otherwise intelligent people use it as a cop-out when facing uncomfortable disagreements with others. “I don’t think their actions are good or right but, you know, the Bible said not to judge.”

Recently I have heard extreme examples of this passage being trotted out at exactly the wrong time. I actually heard people say, “The Bible tells me not to judge” in response to these situations:

  • A self-professed child molester running for office in Virginia.
  • A renowned racist encouraging people to vote him into office in Washington.
  • Parents in California torturing their 13 children for decades.

No. This is not what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge.” Jesus was more than ready to point out bad behavior and name it for what it was. Jesus judged all the time. When greedy tax collectors and unethical leaders were spreading lies and rumors, Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus’ fury echoed through the temple when he flipped over tables of the money-changers and chased merchants and sellers away from this holy spot (Matthew 21:12). Jesus spoke up against evil. His words and actions clearly defined what was not acceptable to God.

That is the hard work of faith. That racist comment you just heard? Don’t allow it to slide by. That gathering that excludes others based on their gender or orientation? Feel free to walk away. That neighborhood that excludes based on ethnicity or religion? Don’t live there. That business that refuses to serve all of God’s people?  Don’t give them another nickel.

Go ahead and judge. Make a decision about words being spoken, actions being taken, kindness (or lack thereof) being shared, opinions being voiced. Does it look like something Jesus would do? Does it echo the compassion and loving welcome of God? Does it reflect the forgiveness and new life of Jesus’ ministry?

If not, choose not to be part of that. Go ahead and judge – judge what is the best way for you to make a difference. Judge how you can reach out to those who feel forgotten. Judge how you can listen to those usually pushed to the margins.

We are asked to be bold enough to speak up against sin and courageous enough to point out words and actions that do not reflect our faith.

God calls us to make a difference right where we live and work. How can we do that?

Judge for yourself.

No coffee today

Over 8000 Starbucks shops will be closed today. Water will cool, grounds will sit in the filters, creamers and flavors will remain in their bottles, and the mangled and misspelled names will not be written on cups. It is estimated that $12 million in sales will be lost.

Today is a day to learn about racial bias.

Before we jump on the cynical bandwagon to label this as a publicity ploy or as “too little, too late,” let’s congratulate Starbucks on doing something. Too many people and too many organizations – businesses, schools, churches – persist in ignoring rather than engaging the difficult and overwhelming topic of racism.

We came to this place because on May 2, 2018 two African-American men entered a Starbucks and sat down to wait for a friend to discuss a real estate deal. The white manger asked them to leave. When they refused (after sitting for a total of two minutes in a coffee shop where patrons are known to spend hours sitting, reading, conversing, and staring at their computers), the manager 911 as if some kind of emergency was taking place. When the men refused the cops’ request to leave the building, they were arrested.

Starbucks Corporation responded immediately.  The manager was fired, a public apology was given (a real apology, where guilt was admitted and responsibility taken), a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs was funded, and this day of racial sensitivity training was established.

Is it enough? Of course not. I know that because in the weeks since the Starbucks arrest, there have been several other incidences where people of color have been harassed, challenged, or even arrested while engaging in everyday activities.

  • A white woman called police to report an African American family having a barbeque at a public beach.
  • Three African-American artists being reported while renting an Air B and B in a predominately white neighborhood.
  • The black Yale student taking a nap in a public area of her dorm awoke to find campus police staring down at her after receiving reports of an “intruder”.

It isn’t enough, but it’s something. It’s one step on a very long journey towards awareness and the recognition of a serious, deep-seated problem.

If you don’t happen to be a Starbucks employee, how can you engage in racial sensitivity training? Seek out stories from those who have experienced racial bias. It isn’t hard. The stories are everywhere – read, listen, watch.

If the experiences you hear about are not your experiences – wonder about that. I have never been asked to leave a restaurant, never been pulled over by a police officer for no reason, and never been told that I don’t “fit in” because of my skin color. No one is scared of me or intimidated by me because of how I look.

In order to correct these injustices, I first have to be aware that they exist. I can learn and I can respond. All of these small steps – like an afternoon of racial sensitivity training – can add up to make a difference so that all of God’s children are treated with dignity and respect. Let us begin.

Learning about church at the Apple store

Our 180-year-old iconic Congregational church building is nothing like the sleek, white-with-stainless-steel box that is the Apple store. Yet there amidst the array of phones and monitors, I discovered inspiration for the church in the 21st century.

My husband and I entered the store early on a Saturday morning, just minutes after it opened. The place was buzzing – there were people everywhere. The ten employees I counted were busy talking with customers, offering demonstrations, and enthusiastically showing the capabilities of their products. When was the last time any church was crowded with twenty- and thirty-somethings?  Or crowded at all?

We were directed to a woman holding an I-pad (of course) who took our name and promised to quickly find us some help. As we waited, I scanned the staff. I’m willing to bet that few congregations mirror that scene. Young. Multi-cultural. Equal numbers of men and women. People with varying physical abilities. All brimming with enthusiasm about what they had to offer with the conviction that life is better because of it.

When a cheery young man approached my husband to talk computers, I drifted away to glance the displays. It was the church equivalent of someone looking at bulletin boards during coffee hour. Surrounded by people, I didn’t know anyone. I was a bit bored, felt a little out of place, and had no one to talk to. But unlike the experience of many church visitors, I was swiftly approached by a pleasant young woman. She welcomed me and invited me to sit on in a class being held in the center of the store.

As I pulled up a stool, trying to slip into the small group unnoticed, the man leading the class stopped his conversation. Long dreadlocks swung around his face as he flashed a bright smile. “Hi! Welcome. My name is Rashid. What’s yours?” When I answered quietly, a bit embarrassed that I had interrupted the session, he told me he was glad I was there and assured me that I could ask any questions I might have. How many times do folks visit our churches without ever being approached and welcomed?

Rashid returned his attention to the other women sitting at the table, patiently answering questions while detailing basic knowledge about the world of Apple. This was information he must have shared hundreds of times before, yet he spoke with a passion about how these tools benefit his life. His compelling first-hand account made me wonder how many church members have that same enthusiasm when asked, “What does the church do for you?”

Throughout the store, millennials engaged older generations on their technology journey. Many were hesitant, even afraid, to dive into this foreign world of apps and home buttons. Voices of resistance – “I’m not sure I can learn something new,” were met with calm encouragement. “No worries,” the wheelchair-bound employee said, “we’ll take it step by step.” What wisdom does the younger generation have for the church? Are many churches lacking anyone under the age of 40 because we aren’t listening to the knowledge they have to offer? What if the church wondered about new ways to approach old problems?

I love my centuries-old church with its traditional beauty and treasured traditions. This is not an “either-or” scenario. It’s a question of making room for something new and trusting that God can breathe new life into the Body of Christ. We just need to be open to a new vision of what the church can be – and be willing to learn about that in unusual places.