Forced Gaiety

 Even my Kleenex box is insisting that I be happy this time of year.  The “holiday three-pack” that I purchased is inscribed with the words, “Be merry.”  And I know – ‘tis the season.  We’re “supposed” to be merry as we wend our way through Advent on our way to Christmas.  But what if we’re not?  If we can’t manage to utter a “ho, ho, ho” or choose not to put up a tree or skip the decorating and baking altogether, have we somehow failed the annual holiday test?  Will we be called a “Scrooge” if we can’t seem to muster any holiday spirit?

            Let’s talk Advent. Advent is about “not yet.” Advent is about preparing for God’s arrival in the midst of chaos, war, and despair. Advent is about searching for God – who promises to be with us – in the midst of a time when it seems like God is absent.

            If you are not feeling “merry” or “bright,” this might be the year to forego the gaiety that is forced upon us. This may be the time to claim God’s story instead of the commercially produced noise that surrounds us.  Society robs us of the original intent of the Christmas story.  The real story – our story – is not about silver bells and the wreath hanging on your front door. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those things – go ahead and decorate if/when the spirit moves you!)

The real story is about God seeking out the lost and the lonely. Christmas reminds us of God who enters into the sorrow and sadness of God’s people. Christmas celebrates God who recognizes that people are hurting and does not want them to be alone. 

Our story is not a neat and tidy one. It is not about a young woman who has a baby and lives happily ever after. Mary endures a precarious life of poverty. She is a refugee displaced from her hometown during wartime occupation who then flees the country to evade Herod’s threats. She lives long enough to witness her son’s death. Her story reflects the messiness, loss, and hardship of life.  Mary discovers that God is faithful. God is with her throughout her tumultuous life. She experiences a companionship that the world cannot imagine. 

That’s what we are celebrating during Advent and Christmas. The Good News of Christmas is that God seeks us out.  God chooses to be with us. God meets us where we are.  We might be lonely and hardworking on a hillside like the shepherds. We might be on a wandering journey of discovery like the wise men. We might be like Mary and Joseph with lives turned upside down by unexpected events. We may be experiencing circumstances that we never could have imagined.

Christmas does not ask us to be “merry.”  The Christmas story invites us to experience the promise that God is Emmanuel, always with us. We are invited to give thanks that God is faithful and celebrate the God who dwells among us, no matter where we are.

What’s in your wallet?

“What’s in your wallet?” – that’s the tagline of a credit card company trying to convince us that we need their product to successfully navigate the world. With this in your wallet, they proclaim, you can face any challenge.

          But that made me wonder – what else do we carry in our wallets?  What hidden treasures are held within this mundane carrying case?

          It reminds me of a time when I was helping my father-in-law fill out a pile of forms necessary to move into assisted living.  They needed lots of information – his driver’s license number, social security number, health insurance number.  Again and again, he would say, “I have that – it’s in my wallet.”  He handed me his wallet to look through.  As I was searching for the information, a small black and white photo dropped out.  It was a picture of his son,  my husband’s older brother who had passed away 15 years earlier.  My father-in-law grabbed the photo and at first looked almost angry, then maybe embarrassed.  Finally, this quiet and private man said to me, “I always carry him with me.”

          Since that time, whenever I encounter someone, I always wonder, “What’s in their wallet?”  What hurts are they carrying with them? Who are they missing? What is private and precious to them? Who is near and dear to their heart – hidden from view but always close to them?

          I try to let that thought influence my behavior when I encounter someone who is rude or surly, withdrawn or distant.  I try to wonder – what’s in their wallet?  What load might they be bearing? What unspoken truths do they carry with them?

          This is where the “love kindness” part of Micah’s dictate (Micah 6:8) comes in. We are commanded to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Every day we encounter many people.  I suspect all of them are yearning for kindness – or at least decency and respect. Every day we meet people who are carrying some burden with them. Without ever knowing what is in their wallet, we can endeavor to treat them with the kindness they deserve.

Come to church!

The news is in – for the first time in 80 years, fewer than 50% of Americans belong to a church. Church membership has been steadily declining for decades; in 1999 over 70% of our population were members of a congregation; now 47% identify as church members. (Mirror Now Digital, April 18, 2022)

            When I was in seminary one assignment was to define what “church” is.  What is church? Why is it important? And why should someone be involved with a church?

            I described church as being similar to a beating heart. With apologies to those with actual medical knowledge, I imagined the church this way – Blood flows into the heart where it is rejuvenated with oxygen and fortified by the heart’s energetic pumping.  Then the blood goes out to reach the farthest parts of the body, offering much-needed energy and sustenance.  Then the blood circles back to the heart to be reenergized again.  The church is like that.

            On Sunday mornings, I visualize the people of God gathering together, often weary from a long week of bad news and discouraged by events seemingly beyond their control. At church we find something sure and unchanging. Good News of hope and new life is offered. In the midst of our turbulent, chaotic world, we discover again God’s steadfast love that endures forever. Overwhelmed by images of violence, we accept Jesus’ invitation – “Peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  (John 14:27)

            Here we can find hope.

            Here we can celebrate forgiveness and new life.

            Here we can share community.

            Here we can experience welcome.

Church reminds us that we are not alone. We have work to do – to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).  And – what joy! – We do that with God’s help and the support of our congregation.        

            It isn’t that we “have to” go to church. We “get to” go to church to be revitalized by God’s living Spirit. We come into God’s presence together to celebrate that God can make all things new.  It is a message of enduring, undefeatable hope.

            I’ll be at church on Sunday morning.  I hope you will be too.

Why the Jamboree?

In February it can be hard to get excited about the Jamboree.

In February, all we can think about is how many volunteers we need and how much planning goes into making the day go smoothly.

In February, we might be tempted to wonder – is it really worth all the effort?

It can seem like an insurmountable task.

         But then the meetings begin and there is laughter and anticipation and building excitement as we remember cherished aspects of this special day.  Everyone has their favorite part – for some it is the parade, for others it’s all about the food – strawberry shortcake! – or the sound of children running and laughing.  It’s the amazing tag sale, thousands of books, the hay ride through beautiful East Woodstock, an invitation to relax in the shade while listening to music.  And of course, the water polo and cake walk.

After a two year Covid-caused delay, the Jamboree was back!  Throughout the day many people came up to say thank you. “We’ve missed this!”  “I’ve been coming here for years.  It wasn’t the Fourth of July without the Jamboree.”  “This is our first time here.  We’ll definitely be back next year!” There was a sense of gratitude that we were able to share this day together.

Looking across the common, there were people of all ages enjoying the festivities. Children thrilled with the bounce house, balloon animals, and frog jumping contest. Young adults enjoying spontaneous reunions with others who had grown up attending the Jamboree. There were several people who hadn’t missed a single Jamboree in its 66 years. The East Woodstock Common was a sea of red, white, and blue with an abundance of good cheer.

In July we remember why we do this.

In July we celebrate the feeling of community and fellowship.

In July we enjoy the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned holiday.

In July we are thrilled to hear the laughter, share the welcome and hospitality, and celebrate a day together.

I am grateful for the intrepid women who dreamed up the Jamboree in 1957 as an emergency fundraiser for their small, financially strapped country church.  I am grateful for the – literally – thousands of volunteers who have pitched in over the decades to continue this tradition.

Next February be on the lookout for an announcement about a Jamboree organizational meeting. And join us as we share our memories and dream of another chance to celebrate the East Woodstock Fourth of July Jamboree.

How do we respond?

How do we respond?

What worries you the most these days?

Is it

  • Gun violence?
  • The repeal of Roe v. Wade?
  • The ongoing division in our country?
  • Racial injustice?
  • The war in Ukraine?
  • Your own family concerns?
  • Health issues?

 There is an abundance of concerns right now in what feels like an ongoing unsettled time in our country. It’s hard to watch the news but it feels somewhat negligent to simply ignore everything going on. What to do?

I don’t have solutions for these complex, heart-rending problems. But I would like to offer some encouragement about tending to our mental and spiritual health while navigating these emotional challenges. I believe we must take care of ourselves so that we can engage in facing these issues and searching for positive solutions.

Here are some steps that might help.

  • Name your fears. Make a list. Get it out of your head and onto paper (or a screen). Otherwise we keep rehashing the same worries; it’s like riding a never-ending rollercoaster of emptions.
  • Acknowledge your concerns.  They are real and they are valid.  Ignoring the issues or pretending that they are not serious will not help. If part of your acknowledgment includes crying out to God and the universe, do it.  Talking about our concerns opens up space in our spirits so that we can be renewed.
  • Replenish your spirit.  We are not alone. We don’t have to rely solely on our strength or wisdom. God promises never to leave us or abandon us. Seek God’s comfort and strength.
  • Go to the well and drink deeply. God’s love is described as streams of living water (John 7). Our spirits are parched by a parade of bad news and heartbreaking events. Before we can address them, we must replenish our energy with God’s renewing hope.

What will that look like for you? How will you seek God’s love and be reminded of God’s presence?  Will you sit quietly, go for a walk, read the Bible, journal, garden, meet with friends to talk and share?  Try different ways of encountering God.

            The problems of this generation will not improve without our efforts. We can remember a wise Jewish saying, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” With God’s help we will receive the strength and comfort we need to navigate each day filled with the reassurance that God is always with us.

Nothing to say

I have no words.

I have nothing to say after the murders in Uvalde, after the racist killings in Buffalo, in response to the ongoing grief and loss in Ukraine.

There are enough people talking.  A lot of people making noise that sounds like “never again,” but without any accompanying action.

There are many people who say that this is unpreventable, unstoppable, inevitable.

There are some people who are offering profound, heartfelt prayers and tender words to comfort those whose lives have been changed forever.

But I have no words.

I have no original, insightful, wise words that will make this better.

I do believe that we must draw close to God, to the source of life and love, so that our spirits will not be drained by the hate and evil that surround us. Let us fill our souls with the promise that God’s love is stronger than our fear.  Let us remember that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

And armed with those promises and filled with God’s love and new life, let us go into those places of loss and sorrow to offer not words, but a listening ear, a caring heart, and a supporting hand.

Let us embody the love of God, who is always with us.  

Instead of my words, I will share a prayer that speaks to my heart.  This is a “caim” prayer – a  prayer for God’s love and blessing to encircle those in need.  These words can be offered for anyone we carry in our hearts, especially when we have no words.

Circle them, Lord. Keep comfort near and discouragement far.

Keep peace within and turmoil out.

Circle them, Lord. Keep protection near and danger afar.

Circle them, Lord. Keep hope within, keep despair without.

Circle them, Lord. Keep light near and darkness afar.

Circle them, Lord. Keep peace within and anxiety without.

The eternal Creator, Son and Holy Spirit shield them on every side.

Amen.

Caim prayer: (Celtic Daily Prayer, p. 297).

Let us pray

I think we can all agree – we live in overwhelming times. The relentless pursuit of the Corona virus in all of its variations, the ongoing war in Ukraine, climate change and reports of evaporating lakes, wildfires, and warming oceans. There is seemingly endless division and conflict amongst our political leaders that trickles down to infect local and state governments. Prices are up. Shortages are growing. Rents are climbing. Affordable housing is difficult to find. Racist violence is rampant.

            Add to that your own personal worries about loved ones, employment, finances, and health. It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are growing in our country.

            What to do?

            How should we respond?

            What’s the best course of action?

            Let us pray.

            I can almost see you rolling your eyes.  Pray?!?  What good will that do? Why should I waste my time muttering words to God?  If God is all-knowing, God doesn’t need my reminders about today’s dismal state of affairs.  If God is all-caring, God shouldn’t require me to convince him to tend to the sick and the dying. If God is all-powerful, God won’t be helped by my encouragement and entreaties.  

            You’re right.

            So much of prayer is not for God’s benefit, but for our own. It is not to convince a grudging, reluctant God to act. Prayer brings our parched spirits to the ever flowing streams of God’s love and presence. We can find renewal there. We can find hope.

            Here’s the invitation – let us pray. We have started gathering on Fridays at noon for prayer. You are invited to join us – in person in our sanctuary or in spirit wherever you happen to be. You can also send me prayer requests.

 This brief service reminds us of what is true – we are not alone as we face the challenges of this world.

            Prayer is an invitation to listen to God’s life-giving words. If we fill our ears solely with the latest news reports and urgent (and often depressing) text/social media messages, our minds and hearts will be filled with despair. Taking time to pray offers moments of quiet and peace in the presence of love. It is not about denying or running away from the truly awful state of affairs. Instead, prayer feeds our spirits so we can be strengthened to act.  

When I take time to listen, I hear assurances like these:

  • God cares deeply for the stranger, supports the widowed and orphaned, and ruins the schemes of the wicked.  (Psalm 146)
  • You know me, God. You know me. You see me working, you see me resting.

You know what I think about; you know what I do.  

You are everywhere – near and far, and all around me. (Psalm 139)

  • Turn from evil, love what is good, and you will be at peace;

God is a lover of justice who will never abandon the faithful.   (Psalm 37)

We are called to respond to the needs of the world. Let us begin with prayer.

Celebrating Friendship

 My recent trip to Scotland provided gorgeous scenery, unusually sunny weather, moving and thought-provoking worship, an opportunity to live and learn with the Iona Community, and the delights of scones, shortbread, and endless cups of tea.  But even more than that – it allowed me to spend 10 uninterrupted days with my best friend.

            Patti and I grew up within a mile of one another and participated in everything from Brownies to Sunday School to Girl Scout camp, church youth group, and the emotional roller coaster that is high school.  For the last 40+ years we have lived in separate states but have made it a priority to plan at least a quick visit every year so that we could catch up.

            The chance to be together for an extended time was a rare treat.  And the fact that we got to explore a different country and share moments both of laughter and profound spiritual insights was a real gift.

            As little girls we rode bikes and climbed trees together. Now we ruefully acknowledged aging joints and aching knees as we strolled over cobblestone streets and the remote island pathways of Iona. But what a privilege to share all of these years together.

            Some of our conversations looked back. There is an ease talking with someone who shared your childhood. No explanations were necessary as we remembered our parents, meals with each other’s families, building forts in the backyard, dodging my teasing siblings, and sleepless nights during cherished “sleepovers”. There was a lot of laughter and a few poignant moments as we cherished those memories.

            Other times we discussed our children – now adults – as we shared our hopes, worries, and dreams for them in the challenging world they are facing. We acknowledged the challenge of being parents to adults and agreed that it was more fun being the young person embarking on new ventures than being the parent waiting for news.

And then we wondered about “what’s next” in our lives as begin to enter the “senior discount” age bracket. We brainstormed about the future and wondered where our paths would lead us. Wherever that may be, we are sure to offer one another a loving and listening ear and support along the way.  We suspect that many more shared adventures await us!

So today I give thanks for the gift of friendship. In our busy lives it is too easy to lose track of one another or settle for the briefest text to stay in touch. I hope you’ll spend a few moments giving thanks for special friends in your life – and I pray that you’ll be able to call or visit with them soon.

Discovering a “thin place”

         As you read this, I am preparing to travel to the island of Iona in Scotland, which is famously known as a “thin place.”  Thin places have nothing to do with weight loss. A thin place is defined in Celtic Christianity as one of “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses.” In other words, a place where the presence of God is readily experienced or a place where one is more aware that very little separates us from the holy.

       It takes some effort to travel to Iona.  I will fly from Boston to Dublin Ireland and then onto Edinburgh Scotland.  Then I will take a train to the west coast of Scotland and board a ferry for the island of Mull.  From there I will travel by bus or taxi to the other side of the island in order to catch another ferry which will take me to Iona.  When I get off the ferry, it will be time to walk since there are very few cars and no public transit on this tiny island.  My destination will be the Iona Abbey which has a simple guesthouse that welcomes pilgrims from across the globe for weeklong stays. We will experience the hospitality of the Abbey and form a community together as we worship, prepare meals, and share experiences together.

      This journey is the final piece of my sabbatical. The pandemic prevented international travel last year and I am looking forward to the opportunity to have this long-anticipated trip now.  I will be traveling with my lifelong friend Patti.  We have known each other since pre-school and have experienced many retreats and adventures together; this will be our first international trip together and we’re both filled with gratitude at the prospect of sharing this experience.

        As much as I am looking forward to the trip, I realize that one does not need to travel thousands of miles using multiple forms of transportation to experience God’s presence.  Instead of encouraging you to travel to Iona (although, if you get the opportunity – please take it), here is my question for all of us – where is a thin place for you?  Where do you encounter the holy?

       If you can think of a special place or two, when do you go there? Because it does take some intention. We are blessed to live in a beautiful area with rolling green fields, flowering trees, lush woodlands, ponds, and an array of stunning scenery.  We also tend to rush through it or to dwell in it oblivious to the miraculous creation all around us.

        In order to experience the mystery of a thin place, we have to choose to slow down, unplug, and make time to notice that God is in this place.

       When I return I will have stories to tell about my encounters in the thin place of Iona.  I hope you will have experiences to share with me, as well.  Because what we know about our loving God is that God wants to be found by us.  God is not hiding. Rather, we must open our hearts, minds, and spirits to discern the still, small voice of our Creator.

Housing the Holy

We will begin our celebration of Advent on Sunday. In our congregation, uur Advent theme this year is “Housing the Holy.”  Christmas begins with the familiar story of Jesus’ parents searching for a place to stay at this critical moment in their lives. We have only the barest description of their plight; we are told simply that “there was no room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7). We can only imagine the fear, worry, and concern they experienced as they sought for a place for Mary to give birth.

            The “innkeeper,” a popular figure in most church pageants, does not actually appear in Scripture. Our imaginations have ranged between a belligerent gatekeeper who refused entry to the inn and a creative, out-of-the-box thinker who recognized the stable as a worthy substitute for these desperate parents. Whoever directed Mary and Joseph to their hay-filled accommodations changed history forever. Suddenly it became clear that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the long- awaited Messiah, would enter the world humbly. He didn’t need a pristine resting place. Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed the way he would live his life – he surprised the wealthy, powerful king by being born in the simplest surroundings. He was prepared for a life of living amongst the outcasts, the forgotten, and the overlooked.

            Advent, it turns out, is an opportunity to celebrate hospitality.  In these weeks leading up to Christmas, we can wonder how we can make room for God in our lives and how we can house the holy in our lives.  How do we welcome God’s Spirit of new life? Hospitality is all about inviting someone in.  It is about making room in our hearts – and in our overbooked schedules. When we encounter an obstacle (“the inn is full”), do we imagine other ways to accomplish our goal (“the stable could be a birthing place”)? Are we prepared to be surprised by a God who appears in unusual places? 

We live in a world that is often inhospitable and which does not always welcome the outcast or the stranger.  How can we open our doors and our hearts?

The days between now and Christmas often fly by. We can get so busy with activities that we don’t notice the quiet whisperings of God. How can we make room for God who is always seeking us?  Can we pause? Slow down? Listen?

During this special season of Advent, let us make room so that we can house the love, peace, and hope of God in our hearts.  And then let us share those gifts freely with others.