What we can become

I dream that the end of the pandemic will look like those old pictures of V-E Day when the end of World War II was announced. In my imagination, I can see people pouring into the streets as they hear the welcome news, “You can all come out now!  Go ahead – you can sing! Hug! Gather together!” And there will be shouting in the streets as people laugh and shake hands and throw their masks in the air like graduation caps.

Will it really be like that?  Probably not. But whenever the pandemic ends and however gradual that end might come, I think we will discover just how much we have changed through this experience. We are living through an era of history that will be taught to generations to come. Children will learn about this time when the world slowed down, even stopped sometimes, in an effort to keep ourselves healthy and safe.

It may take years for us to fully understand how the pandemic has changed us. We have lost and given up a lot during these long months. Much has been taken away. Many have lost loved ones. Students and teachers mourn the lack of “ordinary” events like gathering in classrooms for learning, conversation, and exploration.  Parents yearn for a day without juggling work and online school. Churches stand empty and congregations yearn for shared worship and fellowship. Visits with friends, family, and neighbors are put off “until it is safe.” Beloved events and traditions have been put until – we hope – next year. Holidays are being scaled back or cancelled altogether.

Yet we are not without hope. My faith reminds me of the promise of resurrection and new life. And already – in the midst of this pandemic – we see signs of creativity and renewal. People have refused to simply give up despite the necessary restrictions placed on our behavior.

So I celebrate every ounce of innovation that has blossomed during this challenging time. Cheers for restaurants who have created outdoor dining areas, kudos to schools who have developed new ways to teach, congratulations to neighbors who visit in their yards, and blessings on congregations everywhere who have discovered new meaning in the words, “where two or three are gathered in my name.”  

We are changing, we are growing, we are learning. Some activities we will gladly leave behind in the Covid era. But other new ideas will strengthen us in the days to come. We can’t fast forward through this experience. But we can trust that we will emerge stronger and with a greater appreciation of what we are missing now. New possibilities await.

Art/Line Drawing: Radici Studios. www.radicistudios.com

Head vs. Heart

During September and October my congregation had eight glorious weeks of outdoor worship on the East Woodstock common. It was the best of both worlds – many people braved the sometimes chilly mornings outside while others enjoyed worshiping with us online. It was delightful each week to receive greetings from across the country and even other parts of the world as we joined our hearts and spirits together to worship and give thanks. We discovered new meaning to Jesus’ promise that, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also.”

            But this is New England and outdoor worship is a time- and weather-limited event. Our church council voted that our worship would continue online only for the winter months. To avoid spreading the virus we will not meet in our sanctuary. In March we will evaluate where the world is in terms of health, safety, and the virus. That will guide our decision about how to go forward.

            This is not an easy decision.  My heart tells me, “I love being together with our congregation!” I also love to sing, hug, shake hands, and pass the communion plates from person to person. But my brain tells me, “Right now that is not safe. Right now we need to protect one another by staying distant from each other.”

            Those tough decisions are often followed by long, heartfelt sighs. The pandemic, to put it mildly, is not easy. It has caused great suffering across our country and around the world. It causes us to make difficult choices. It can feel like our hearts are at odds with our brains which is an exhausting experience and a tiring way to live.

            This is when I turn to my favorite Thanksgiving hymn, “Great is your faithfulness.”  We can sing our praise to God because “morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed your hand has provided, great is your faithfulness, God, unto me!”

            When my heart yearns for blessings of the past or aches for experiences that are now absent, my brain (and my faith) remind me that God’s steadfast love endures forever. God’s faithfulness is indeed great and will see us through this challenging time. While my heart sometimes drifts towards sadness, my head recalls the Good News that we worship the God of resurrection and new life. Despite all the obstacles we are encountering right now we have not reached a dead end. During this journey through the unknown, God invites us to discover new and different blessings along the way.

            My head rejoices that, “You do not change, your compassions they fail  not.” And that makes my heart glad.  

Stand Down

Stand down, hate groups. Stand down, right-wing extremists. There is no place in our country and no place in our lives for hate and violence.

I hope I am preaching to the choir with this statement, but just to be very clear – I denounce and condemn white supremacy and white supremacy groups and all groups that promote discrimination and violence.

It is too bad that this has to be said out loud in our country in 2020 but clearly that is the case. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament tell us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That includes all of my neighbors including every religion (and no religion), every skin tone, and every cultural background.

I serve a church that is Open and Affirming. Our Welcome Statement declares, “As a church, we welcome and affirm all persons of every race, age, gender, family structure, physical or mental ability, economic status, faith back-ground, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity into the full life and ministry of this community of faith, including membership and leadership. “

When we do that, we not only learn more about one another, we also learn more about God. We are told that every one of us is created in the image of God. When I limit myself to knowing only people who look, act, or think like I do, I limit what I can learn about the nature of God. If I close myself off from others, I am the one who loses; my life will not be enriched by their presence.

Racism – stand down. Messages of hate and violence hurt all of us. Instead, let us widen our circle so that we can welcome and learn from all of God’s children.

Be a mustard seed

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

 Do you ever feel overwhelmed these days? The problems facing us are overwhelming. The wildfires out West. The ongoing pandemic. Systemic racism. Political turmoil. An angry and divided country. Not to mention your own personal challenges, worries, and struggles.

            What can we do? It is easy to feel helpless or powerless against such powerful forces. We might convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do. We might convince ourselves that our small effort or our tiny voice will have no impact against such crushing, frightening opposition.

            When the news is unrelentingly bad, we can remember Jesus’ description of a mustard seed. That tiny kernel holds tremendous promise.

Be the mustard seed.

In the face of incivility, name-calling, and callousness, be a mustard seed of kindness and courtesy.

In response to anger and impatience, be a mustard seed of empathy.

When rudeness seems to prevail, be a mustard seed of calm.

When prejudice and fear seem to rule, offer a mustard seed of justice and fairness.

It may not seem like much.  That is the point of Jesus’ message. Our offering doesn’t have to look impressive or showy. God promises to use our gifts, no matter how big or little. And if we have only the smallest particle of faith to offer, go ahead and give that to God. God will do the rest.

            Our only mistake would be to give up. The size of our faith doesn’t matter. We are asked to trust that God will take the tiniest amount of love, hope, faith, mercy, compassion, and good will and bless that. God promises to take our meager offerings and multiply them.

            It may seem like we are tossing a tiny pebble of love into a swirling ocean of hate and turmoil but God says – go ahead! God will use what we offer.

            Go ahead and be that mustard seed of love, listening, and caring. We are encouraged to do what we can and trust that God will bless that effort. And just like in a garden, the results may not be immediately apparent. There may be some waiting involved. We are asked to keep planting, keep working, and keep trusting.  God is at work.

            The only mustard seed that is wasted is the one that is never planted. So go ahead – be a mustard seed. Offer your love, show your compassion, and share your kindness. We are invited to speak, listen, pray, care, and act – and then trust that God will cause those offerings to grow and multiply.

What does prayer do?

Who do you pray for? Who do you think about and ask God to bless, lead, guide, strengthen, or nurture?

Someone called me this week to ask me if it was all right to pray for me. She said she felt led to lift me up in her prayers.

            My reaction was one of gratitude.  “Thank you,” I said, “I need all the prayers I can get.” And then, more seriously, I told her that I appreciated her concern and that I am thankful for her prayers. In this time of isolation, caution, and distancing, I love to think of someone remembering me in their prayers. It means so much to know that love, concern, and care are being offered on my behalf.

            What happens when someone prays for you? I don’t know. I don’t have concrete results or any tangible proof to offer. I’m not sure I write better sermons or lead more interesting Bible stories because of someone’s prayers. But their prayers hearten me. They lift my spirits. And in this discouraging, overwhelming time we are living in, that is a powerful gift. Those prayers make me feel like I am receiving encouragement, compassion, and caring. We live in a world where those qualities are often lacking. It is a humbling and wonderful thing to know that someone is thinking about me and asking God to surround me with blessings and strength.  

            My best advice would be – do not underestimate the power of prayer. We don’t have to understand it to participate in it. We don’t have to scientifically prove its effectiveness to trust it. During this pandemic, which has left so many of us feeling isolated, tired, and helpless, here is something we can do.

We can pray.

            Pray for people you know. Go ahead and pour out your love and concern, your worry and your gratitude, your hopes and your fears. Dare to pray your wildest dreams and deepest desires for them. Trust that God loves those people you keep in your heart even more than you do.

Pray for people you don’t know but you hear about in the news. People whose lives have been torn apart by the virus or by wildfires. Pray for the helpers – doctors, nurses, firefighters, paramedics. Pray for our schools and for the vast web of people connected to them – teachers, administrators, students, parents, and grandparents.  Pray for those who are belittled or put down every day because of their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. If you’re not sure what to pray, just ask God to be with them.  Prayer isn’t about giving God directions – we can trust that God knows what God’s beloved people need.

I believe prayer changes things. I believe it helps the “pray-er” and the “pray-ee.” Even if I can’t explain it, it’s one of those things I have experienced and now take on faith.               And let us promise to pray for one another.  Amen.

Avoiding Road Blocks

The pandemic very often feels like running into a brick wall. Endless obstacles seem to have been put in front of us to prevent us from going about our daily routines. We encounter one road block after another. So much that is familiar – school, work, visits with family, church – have been completely changed.  The way we used to do things no longer works. Tasks that used to be easy – grocery shopping, family gatherings, going to worship, quick visits with friends – are now complicated by endless regulations. And some things – like the trip to England and Scotland that was on our family calendar for summer 2020 – have just not been possible at all.

What to do? It is tempting to repeatedly mourn what we have lost and what is no longer possible. Sometimes it feels like we keep slamming our heads against the wall because we are so eager to return to what was familiar and beloved.

And yet. I believe in a God of resurrection. I believe in God who offers new life in the face of death and hope where none is to be seen. I believe in a God of endless possibilities and a faithful God who has seen generations of humans through plague, war, starvation, homelessness, and more

If I can just stop focusing on what I can’t do, perhaps I will discover alternatives that are waiting to be revealed. If I can pull my gaze away from the wall that is blocking my path, maybe I will notice hints of other possibilities.

There is no denying the enormous loss and sadness that the pandemic has brought into millions (billions?) of lives. But this is not the end of our story. There is a way forward – it just is not the way that we expected or even the way that we wanted and planned on.

This Sunday will offer another example of that. Our congregation will gather for worship. We will not follow in the footsteps of our religious ancestors and meet in our beautiful sanctuary in our classic New England church. Covid regulations prohibit large indoor assemblies.

Fortunately, we worship a God who reminds us that it is not a building that brings us together, but rather the Spirit who invites us to worship and give thanks. We will explore new ways to be the people of God. We will discover new power in Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). On Sunday morning you will find us on the East Woodstock common. It will be different – we will wear masks and everyone will bring their own lawn chair. But it will be worship because God is faithful and God will be there.

We don’t want to be so fixated on what isn’t that we miss what can be. When we confront a road block we need to wonder where God is leading us next. If we can’t immediately find the way forward, we need to be open to God’s guidance through those dark valleys to the Promised Land awaiting us. It’s time to search for ways around the walls that are blocking us and discover creative new ways to move forward.

Fan mail for Dr. Fauci

Dear Dr. Fauci,

I am not a fan of the message that you keep giving America – those cold, hard facts about the pandemic. I am, however, in awe of your ability to calmly and consistently deliver factual information that will help all of us get through this troubling, tiring, overwhelming time of pandemic. I admire your ability to seemingly ignore all the critics and nay-sayers as you faithfully adhere to your mission of sharing vital updates in understandable ways.

            I have heard you answer the same question from multiple reporters with unfailing courtesy. I have never heard you mock or belittle even the most inane question. I have a deep respect for your ability to stay focused on providing as much help and encouragement as you can. You consistently treat others with respect which makes you approachable. We can all learn from your wisdom.

            I can only imagine that it is not easy being you. You are under intense media scrutiny every day. Your words are parsed, examined, and quoted. You are criticized for not providing happy news. You are mocked for not grasping the economic impact of a medical crisis even as you explain that you are outlining a public health crisis. You are dismissed for admitting that there is still much that we don’t know and that the scientific community is uncovering new information on a daily and even hourly basis. You are our faithful guide through this complex, ever-changing journey.

You are, if you’ll pardon me mentioning it, old enough to retire. I imagine there might be times when you think, “I don’t need to be doing this. I could be sipping a cool drink in the shade somewhere.” And yet you keep going. You work long hours on behalf of humanity. Your refusal to give up or turn away benefits the entire world. Your courageous dedication shines through. And I am deeply grateful.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for being an inspiration. Thank you for working to save all of humanity.

With gratitude,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Open Letter to Betsy DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

            Threats are not helpful. Informing schools that they must fully open in person or risk losing their federal funding does nothing to solve a problem that is affecting every family in our country.

            I wonder if you have taken the time to really listen to those involved in the question of how best to educate our children in the midst of a pandemic. Parents, teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers are just some of the people who are agonizing over the best way to provide a safe and productive school year.

Certainly everyone wants the very best for our children. We want them to get an education, socialize with their peers, profit from group activities, be challenged and inspired by conversations with classmates, gain independence by negotiating the structure and discipline of the school day, and benefit from the caring wisdom of teachers and aides.

            But.

            Have you heard the concerns of teachers who already work in over-crowded classrooms? Have you imagined children jostling one another in hallways and playgrounds? Have you wondered how teachers will enforce any rules about masks or social distancing while trying to teach?

            Anguished conversations are taking place in homes across the country. Parents want to get this decision right. They simply cannot be certain. None of us have experienced a pandemic before. The amount of conflicting and confusion information is overwhelming.

Parents have been valiantly juggling their work and parenting responsibilities. It would be easier to simply send the children to school. Most children are yearning to be with their friends again. But the tough job of being a parent is making hard – and sometimes unpopular – decisions. The stakes are very high.

That’s why simply threatening school systems with a lack of funding is ineffective. This is a time for compassionate leadership. It is time to recognize that compromises may be necessary. It is time to understand that one size does not fit all and that creative solutions will be necessary.  

Parents and teachers don’t need threats. They whole-heartedly want to find a good, safe solution for their children. They need someone to acknowledge the challenges and to work alongside them.  They need someone to listen to their concerns and to help discover new ways to meet this unprecedented challenge.

It may be that the answer to this dilemma is a moving target. The solution that works in the fall may not be practical in the winter. We are all going to need someone who has the flexibility to respond to this evolving crisis. My hope is that you, Secretary DeVos, can express your concern for our country’s children by offering that kind of leadership.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Labels Matter

I was ordained into Christian ministry on January 15, 1988. The next day an article appeared in the local newspaper to announce, “Woman ordained.”  My name was not in the headline and the denomination (United Church of Christ) was not mentioned. No one spoke to me prior to the publication so no personal information was included. The article didn’t mention that I had been called to serve a church in northeastern Connecticut, that I had graduated second in my class, or that I had a passion for biblical storytelling and writing.

Clearly the only newsworthy item was “woman.”  I felt as if only a small part of me was seen or recognized – and that many essential aspects were overlooked or ignored. I wanted to write to the newspaper and tell them that there was a lot more to me than they could see at first glance.

That experience has been on my mind as our country grapples with racial stereotypes and logos. A lot has been written and discussed about removing the image of “Aunt Jemima” from the syrup bottle and suggestions have been made that “Uncle Ben” could be the next figure to go. Why does it matter? There are more important steps to take in the battle against racism. I don’t imagine anyone’s life will instantly improve because a caricature has disappeared.

And yet – labels matter. Pictures and images shape our impression of a person and even of a race. When people of Color are widely depicted in advertising as subservient or passive that leaves a false and lasting impression.

No one wants to be judged by our looks or outward abilities. All of us are complex, multi-faceted, miraculous creations formed in the image of God. We do one another a disservice when we only look on the surface and assume that we know or understand that person.

Especially now there is an urgency to listen to one another’s stories and to be curious about the experiences of others. Before we are attempt to fit someone into a neat category, let’s pause and wonder – what else could I know about this person? All of us have stories, experiences, and histories that make us who we are. Let’s take the time to marvel at the diversity of our sisters and brothers.

Even in this time of social distancing, we can discover ways to interact with each other. When we are not content with just a surface understanding of one another, we will be on the path to forging deeper connections.

Starting at the Beginning

When I married Roger, I was determined to learn more about his Jewish heritage and increase my understanding of Jewish holidays so that we would be able to pass that along to our hoped-for children.  Soon after our wedding we went to a pre-Hanukah festival at a synagogue where we bought a menorah and several children’s books.  I immersed myself in the stories, figuring that I might as well start at the very beginning and establish a foundation to build upon.

Now I am doing something similar as I explore Black history in our country. I am discovering that there are vast quantities that I have not heard before. Fortunately, I have discovered a fabulous resource – The Black Lives Matter Instructional Library .

This interactive website offers dozens of children’s books – just click on a title and the story will be read aloud to you. For someone who likes to learn and who loves a good story, this is a perfect fit and an ideal way to learn.  During my lunch hours, I have been swept away by stories of people and events in our country that are all new to me. So far I have traveled to New York to discover the National African Bookstore in Harlem (The Book Itch), tapped my toes with jazz musician John Coltrane (Before John was a Jazz Giant), and discovered new horizons with Mae Jamison, the first Black woman to travel into space (Mae Among the Stars).

The news reports of disturbing violence, racial tensions, and ongoing protests and demonstrations remind me of the many complex issues we face as a nation. There is great need for change. I don’t have solutions. It is hard to imagine that my efforts will have an impact on nationwide, centuries-old, ingrained biases. But giving up is also not an option. So I will listen and I will learn. I am amazed (and a little embarrassed) at how much I don’t know.  But it is never too late to learn. I rely on the wisdom of the Talmud that reminds me

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly now.

Love mercy now.

Walk humbly now.

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Let’s share information and resources – Tell me what you are listening to, what you are reading, and what you are learning. Listening and learning together are vital steps on the path toward change.