Pause. Breathe. Pray.

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

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

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

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

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

We’d rather be singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’d rather be singing.

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

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

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

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

Huh – I didn’t know that.

What have you learned lately?  Have you heard a piece of trivia that surprised you? Did something in the news catch your attention?  Was there some snippet of information that made you shake your head and say, “Huh – I didn’t know that.” 

            There is information that ranges from fascinating to useless. Did you know that the pattern on the inside of a the eight of diamonds forms the number eight? Did you realize that many staplers contain a storage area for extra staples?  Had you heard that fingernails grow at three times the rate as toenails? No? Well, we learn something new every day.

            Much of what we know and learn is based on our own experience, interest, and perspective. My beekeeper husband regularly offers me tidbits about the care and feeding of bees. Did you know that bees need to be fed sugar water this time of year because there are not yet enough flowers to provide nectar? Or that hives require a “mouse guard” during winter months to prevent tiny rodents from invading and setting up housekeeping in the cozy hive?

            What we know – and don’t know – alters how we think about something. Right now, I am reading a book called Waking up White by Debby Irving. Over and over again I find myself saying, “Huh – I didn’t know that.” Did you know that when the Homestead act offered early settlers 160 acres of farmland in exchange for working the land for five years the opportunity was not extended to recently freed slaves? That ensured that newcomers to the midwestern territories were primarily white and European. Did you know that when returning servicemen were offered the G.I. Bill to help with education and housing costs it did not include veterans of color? Suburbs turned into white neighborhoods and advanced schooling was curtailed for African Americans.  When I read (and fact-checked) that, I had to say, “Huh – I didn’t know that.”

            As God’s people we are called to care about our neighbors. That requires learning about their lives, experiences, and perspectives. We can start by asking questions. Do you know what it’s like to be autistic and struggle to communicate? Or to be a six-year-old and practice an active shooter drill in school? Or to be elderly and experience limited hearing and curtailed mobility? Neither do I, but I believe we are called to wonder about one another. I have never been followed by suspicious clerks when I enter a store, but that is not an uncommon experience for a person of color. Most women are familiar with being careful where they walk at night, strategically parking in lighted areas and grasping keys in their fingers for protection whereas these precautions may be foreign to men.

When we are told “judge not,” it is often because we do not know – and do not have the information or experience – to understand another person’s story. We are called to listen and learn so that we can say, “Huh – I didn’t know that” and perhaps change our perspective. This is another form of hospitality; it is welcoming new ideas and perspectives so all of God’s people can live and work together.

Who is your family?

“Family” will be the topic of the worship service led by our confirmation class in May. What comes to your mind when you think about family? The class has discovered great variety among their families; among these 10 students they have same-gender parents, divorced parents, heterosexual parents, step-parents, step-siblings, half-siblings, families formed through adoption, family members who are transgender or gender non-conforming, and families filled with friends, pets, and neighbors who enrich their lives.

There is no such thing as a “simple” family.

In preparation for our conversations, I have enjoyed reading a variety of books about families. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung describes the author’s experience of being an adopted Korean child raised by white parents. Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love centers on author Dani Shapiro’s shock at discovering that her recently deceased father had no biological connection to her. A simple DNA test uncovered both secrets and a biological family that threw her understanding of herself into turmoil. Nishta J. Mehra explores definitions of “family” in her book Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion as she describes the many ways her family, with same-sex parents and an adopted child of a different race, challenges our society’s “norm” of white, straight, biological families.

              Families come in every shape and size and can be created in many ways.

The confirmation class has looked at biblical families like Abraham and Sarah’s, which is large, sprawling, and filled with such complex connections that a written family tree is the only way to sort out who is who and how each person is related to the other. I was reminded of this when I visited a parishioner who introduced her guest as her third cousin; they cheerfully outlined their family history that reached back through a complicated mix of grandparents, cousins, and marriages.

The class read about dysfunctional families; the first book of the Bible contains both the murderous Cain and Joseph’s treacherous brothers who abused and rejected him. The lack of caring and compassion is breath-taking. (Ultimately there is healing and forgiveness, but it’s a long time coming). When our family of origin fails us, it can be wise to create a chosen family who will offer the love and support we deserve. Often the strongest family systems are created by choice or circumstance; we can be inspired by the biblical examples of Ruth and Naomi, Jonathan and David, or Jesus and his disciples.

Who is family to you? How do you stay in touch with those who love and support you?  In our busy lives, we often need to be intentional about making time to talk, visit, and catch up with one another.

Big or small, biological or chosen – family is a gift. How will you tell your family how much they mean to you today?

*If you’d like to read about some families in the Bible:

  • Cain and Abel: Genesis 4
  • Abraham and Sarah: Genesis 17
  • Joseph and his brothers: Genesis 37 and 45
  • Ruth and Naomi: Ruth 1
  • Jonathan and David: 1 Samuel 20
  • Jesus and his disciples: Matthew 4

It’s hard to wait

Waiting is hard. When I look at our snow-covered yard, I yearn for spring. The daffodils I planted last fall are nowhere in sight. Dirty piles of old snow, mud, and messy puddles seem determined to stay and my desire for spring is not making it arrive any quicker.  We are in that in-between time that only maple syrup producers can love. It’s not quite winter, but it is not yet spring. It is hard to wait.

            So much of life is like that. We want answers, results, clarity. The chemo patient wants to know now if treatments are working. The expectant mother wants assurance that her baby will be healthy and strong. Awkward adolescents want to fast forward to a time when they will fit in. The addict wants proof that rehab will bring health and wholeness.

            Life, unfortunately, looks more like my yard these days – messy and unfinished – rather than a tidy, neatly defined happy ending.

Life is what happens while we’re waiting for results and yearning for completion. The “highlights” of life – graduation, awards, achievement – are just a fraction of our experience. Most of life is lived in the “in-between” times. It’s in the struggle, the waiting, and the effort. While every athlete dreams of crossing the finish line with arms upraised in victory, most of their time is spent in training. Every gardener rejoices in healthy vegetables and blooming flowers, but a lot of weeding and fertilizing came before that glorious result.

While God is certainly present in crowning achievements, I think God lives in the uncertainty of our lives. God is in the waiting room, in the dreary loneliness of grief, in the struggle for another hour of sobriety, in the grinding worry for a loved one, and in the endless tasks of a caregiver.

It’s hard to wait.  We want to get “there.” If we think we will only discover God when we reach the Promised Land of completion, we will miss the God of the journey. We will overlook the one who travels with us not just to green pastures but also through all the dark valleys along the way.

It’s hard to wait.  But we worship a patient God and God will wait with us.

Intentionally Welcoming

“Why do you always say ‘Everyone is welcome’?  It’s everywhere – on your website, on the Facebook page, in the bulletin.  Isn’t that a bit overkill?”

 The answer is simple – we say “Everyone is welcome” because not every church does. When the United Methodist Church voted to ban openly gay clergy and to refuse same-sex marriage, a clear message was sent. Everyone is, actually, not welcome there.

So we’ll say it with symbols – the rainbow wreath on our front door, the rainbow stripe on our church sign out front, and posters throughout our church – and we’ll say it with our actions.

 We need to say out loud what we wish was simply true everywhere. “Everyone is welcome” ranks right up there with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in terms of expressing important truths.

Yes, we wish it wasn’t necessary to say that “everyone” is welcome, but lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and queer folk hear people debating their worth and value every day.

Yes, we wish it was clear that “all lives” matter, but too many people of color have been wounded by unequal treatment and by obstacles in housing, education, and employment.

Our congregation is called to proclaim that everyone is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, and cherished by God. Every day we need to wonder – What if we treated everyone with grace and forgiveness? What if we took Jesus’ words to heart and really loved our neighbors?

We’re not perfect as a church. We don’t always get it right and there is still much we need to learn and do. But our intention is to be welcoming. Our mission is to learn from those on the margins and to listen to those who often feel overlooked or unheard.

This is not a time to declare our church or denomination “better” or more open than another. It is simply time to redouble our efforts to be even more intentional and more extravagant in our welcome.

May we take these words to heart, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”

Puerto Rico – my experience

My first impression as we approached San Juan for a week-long mission trip with its brightly-lit skyline and bustling airport was, “Maybe they don’t need us after all.” But, as is often the case, the first impression didn’t tell the whole story. Beneath the glittering exterior, signs of damage and lingering pain were everywhere. Once our group started looking even slightly under the surface, we witnessed the devastating impact of Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that enveloped the island in 2017.

We saw the lovely sandy beach dotted with cabanas in tatters. The lighthouse overlooking the bay welcomed visitors but barred entry to the roof and second floor because of extensive rain and wind damage. The homes we visited were occupied but covered with thick layers of mud and mold. The long driveway leading to the church camp where we stayed was lined with electrical wires and fallen trees; the camp itself was still powered by generator. The enormous welcome sign at the camp’s entry was standing but was illegible because so many letters had been blown off by high winds. The impact of the storm was everywhere.

When we visited the beautiful national forest, we enjoyed panoramic views of the lush rain forest. Eighteen months after the storm, the visitor center remains closed and the majority of walking trails are impassible. It made me hope that this national treasure is on some government “to-do” list somewhere.

Our first work day was spent power washing the flat roofs of homes. The volunteer coordinators in northeastern Puerto Rico are valiantly working through a list that still contains over 200 people who are patiently waiting for much-needed help. Our plans to coat the roofs with sealer and paint were foiled by near-constant rain, so we turned our attention instead to the church camp.

Fortunately many members of our 15-person group had more abundant carpentry and construction skills than I do. We divided into smaller teams to address the needs of the camp – a foot bridge that had been swept away by the rains, a pavilion roof crushed by a fallen coconut tree, and an outdoor chapel with an unsafe walkway and railings. I discovered that every good work crew can use a willing “go-fer” and someone who can fetch tools, jot down measurements, provide a bit of muscle, and offer much-needed water in the steamy climate.

We worked hard in our short time there and accomplished a lot. And yet… there is so much left to do.  We were reminded that we were just one small piece in a much larger effort.  We carried on work that was started before us; after us another group will push it forward.

It seems to me that so much of faith is like this – we may not see the end result of our efforts, but we trust that God is at work in ways that we cannot always understand. Let us lift up prayers for the people of Puerto Rico and for people across the globe who struggle against odds larger than themselves. Let us follow John Wesley’s encouragement to “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.”