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. 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.

Black Lives Matter

Some people get defensive when they hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It leads to questions like “Don’t all lives matter?” or to signs reading “Blue Lives Matter.” As if it is somehow a competition.

            During this week of turmoil and pain following the murder of George Floyd, I have read explanations regarding the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” One story describes a neighborhood home on fire. When the fire trucks arrive, no one expects them to pour water on all the houses in the neighborhood; they focus on the crisis at hand and tend to the endangered home. “Black Lives Matter” remind us that black lives are in danger and must be consciously protected.

            Another story was inspired by the biblical tale of one wandering sheep who left the flock. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep which leads the remaining sheep to question, “Hey! What about us?  Aren’t you concerned about us?” To which the shepherd replies, “Yes, of course I care about you. But right now, this one is in danger and needs my help.”

            It breaks my heart that it is necessary to say the words, “black lives matter.”  I wish it was obvious that – of course – black lives matter. Of course they have value. Of course they should be treated fairly and with respect. But that is not the case in our country. And so it must be said out loud – Black Lives Matter.

            Jesus led a life that proclaimed, “Your life matters.” No matter who you are, you are precious in God’s sight. No matter what you look like, no matter who you love, no matter what mistakes you have made – you are a reflection of God’s divine image and you matter.

            Jesus lives that message. He seeks out those who have been tossed aside by society. He shares meals with outcasts. He heals people that make the rest of society uncomfortable. He talks with a woman who is about to be put to death and saves her from judgmental wrath that can shun, hurt, and kill.

            Jesus looks at people ignored by others and says to them, “I see you. I know you. I care about you.” 

            What if we believed Jesus’ message? What if we looked in the mirror and said, “Your life matters”?  What if we allowed ourselves the forgiveness and grace that God offers? What if we really believed in new life and resurrection and the Good News that God will help us begin again and again, no matter what mistakes we have made.

What if we looked at one another and proclaimed, “Your life matters. Your life matters because God says it does. Your life matters because you are a beloved child of God. Your life matters because you are filled with the essence of the eternal and everlasting God.”

If we believed that, would we then treat all of God’s children with dignity and respect?

So proud of you!

It’s been a long 10 weeks. Since the pandemic began, our lives have changed dramatically. As things have shifted, we have adjusted to new ways of doing things. We have had a steep learning curve forced upon us. This strange new world demands new skills. Even activities that we have done for years suddenly require new approaches. The whole experience is both exhilarating – we’re learning something new! – and exhausting – we have to ponder every move.

            I want to pause in the midst of this time of learning and adjustment and say – I am proud of you. You are doing it. You have risen to the occasion in so many ways.  Even if these adjustments have come only grudgingly and under duress, you are allowing your creativity to shine. In every renewed effort, in every fledgling attempt to meet the demands, and in every act of caring, I see the new life and new possibilities promised by our resurrection God.

Let’s take a moment and recognize all the effort that has been required in these last months:

  • Parents who are juggling working at home with helping your children with online classes – good for you.
  • Teachers who are skilled and knowledgeable in their classrooms and who suddenly had to engage in an entirely different way of teaching – thank you.
  • Students, young and old, who are missing their friends, yearning for play dates, and craving time to hang out in person – you’re doing great.
  • Nurses, doctors, lab technicians and health aides who are overwhelmed by the enormous increase in life-threatening cases – we are grateful for your efforts.
  • Grocery store clerks, delivery workers, postal employees – all of you who never considered yourselves to be “front line” workers who make our economy run – thank you for keeping us connected.
  • Restaurant owners who never had take-out service before and never considered outdoor seating – we appreciate your ingenuity and creativity.
  • People who hang up hearts along the roadside and in front of their homes as a sign of encouragement and togetherness – thank you for sharing the love.
  • Senior citizens who are venturing into realms of social media and mastering Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom – good for you!
  • High school seniors who are missing class trips, proms, yearbook signings, and graduations – our hearts go out to you.
  • Pastors, rabbis, and imams who have been transformed into videographers and on-camera preachers – thank you for learning new ways to share God’s Word and hope.
  • Neighbors and friends who leave gifts of food, flowers, and kindness on doorsteps to offer encouragement and love – your kindness matters.
  • Creators of cards to be delivered to nursing homes and hospitals – thank you for lifting spirits.
  • Organizers of birthday parades, teacher celebrations, and student celebrations – thank you for sharing joy.

There is much that we are missing as we enter into our third month of pandemic and physical distancing but you have proven your resilience. You have demonstrated your creativity. You have lived your love and shared your empathy.

And I am tremendously proud of you and grateful for your efforts.

Good for you!  Thank you.

Until next year…

It was, on the one hand, a hard decision to make. Who wants to be the one to cancel a beloved event that has taken place on the East Woodstock Common since 1957?  It felt agonizing.

            And yet, on the other hand, it was very clear that it was the only practical and prudent decision that was available.

            Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that a Bible story played into the decision to cancel our Jamboree.

 In Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, there are two brothers, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve.  Both brothers are trying to be faithful followers of God so each of them carries an offering to place on God’s altar. Without explanation, God accepts the gift of Abel but rejects what Cain has to offer. This infuriates Cain. He is filled with anger so he attacks his brother and kills him.

            When God comes looking for the brothers and can only find one, God turns to Cain and wonder about Abel’s whereabouts. Cain doesn’t want this responsibility so he angrily asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

            It is significant that the answer is so obvious that God doesn’t even bother voicing it. Instead, God shows what it means to care and especially to care for those in need. Throughout the rest of the Bible, God shows what compassion and care looks like. God protects the stranger, welcomes the outcast, tends to the sick, and searches for those who are lost. God is our keeper. And we are keepers of one another.

            That’s why we are canceling the Jamboree this year. We are trying to take care of one another. I might not be sick with Covid-19 and you may not be either. But we could easily infect someone else and that person could spread the virus to others. It is an unacceptable risk.

            We are not ending the Jamboree. We are pushing the pause button. We are planning to gather on July 4, 2021 so we can celebrate with renewed gratitude and a whole new appreciation of being together. Until then, we are all called to be each other’s keepers – to visit those who are lonely, to help those who may need a hand, to pick up groceries, to pitch in with chores, to make a phone call or send an email.

            The story of Cain and Abel reminds us that our lives are entwined with one another. We are all in this together. We can care for one another. Together, we will go forward to a brighter future.

            See you next year!

No Going Back

There is a yearning in people’s voices when they ask, “When can we go back to normal? When can we go back to our usual routines? When will things go back to the way they used to be?”

To which I would answer – there’s no going back.

And what’s more, if we really think about it, I don’t think we will want to.

            The experience of the pandemic with its social/physical distancing has changed us. It has shaken us up and taught us a few lessons. Yes, we’ll be glad when we can meet together again. We will rejoice when stores and restaurants are open and we can invite friend over again. But some pandemic experiences might have opened our eyes to changes we want to make in our lives and the life of the church.

Here are some things the pandemic has helped me learn –

  • I actually enjoy sitting on my front steps watching the birds, looking at flowers, and noticing clouds drifting overhead. When I was busy rushing from one event to another, I rarely took time to soak up the beauty around me.
  • Livestreaming our worship service has changed our congregation. It enables people across the country and around the world to join us in prayer and praise. People who have moved away, friends and family across the globe, and those who cannot leave their homes now come together to worship.
  • Zoom Bible study allows equal access to fellowship and learning. Can’t get to East Woodstock?  No problem – call in or turn on your computer and suddenly you are part of a weekly gathering.

Why would I want to “go back” and forget these valuable lessons? Instead of yearning to “go back” to what was, we can consider how to “move forward.” Moving forward, how will I safeguard my calendar so there is still enough time to breathe and enjoy a slower pace?

  Moving forward, how will our church ensure that everyone can access worship on Sunday morning – either in person or from home? Moving forward, how will we reach out to the medically fragile who cannot risk sitting in a crowd? Moving forward, how will we take what we’ve learned about technology and social media and put that to work for our children, young people, and seniors?

            There are parts of the pandemic that we will be eager to leave behind. But let’s move forward with the new skills and insights that we have gained. Church, school, families, businesses, and all of us will need to adapt to our new reality. We can move forward in this new era knowing that God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever journeys with us.