Welcome, 2018!

It’s time to put up a new calendar. I always try to buy a calendar that reminds me of adventures from the previous year. The calendar waiting in the wings at our house is filled with pictures of the Rocky Mountains which will bring back memories of snow-capped beauty shared with family and friends.

The “New Year” is a funny thing. For some it is the pinnacle of the holiday season. For others, it’s a “ho-hum” day that slips by without notice. Whatever your attitude about this holiday, it is a moment set aside to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another.

Sometimes people are eager to leave the past behind. If it was a rugged year marred by illness or loss, people can yearn to literally “turn the page” and leave those pain-filled days behind. Some people eagerly anticipate a brand-new year as they bid “good riddance” to days gone by.

The opposite can also be true. For some, these past 12 months hold precious memories they only reluctantly leave behind. Or they are all too aware of experiences that can never be repeated. Perhaps there was a special occasion or a joy-filled celebration shared with precious loved ones that is now slipping into the distant past. Or maybe they said good-bye to someone dear to their hearts and now dread the thought of beginning a new year without that person.

Some people feel December 31st grants permission for a night of excessive partying while those struggling with addiction face the challenge of maintaining their sobriety for another hard-earned 24 hours.

The New Year can be complicated. There is, of course, nothing “magic” about January 1st. The sun will rise as the stars fade into the dawning light, just as they do on 364 other mornings. And yet we have chosen this date to reflect on the passage of time. Perhaps it helps us value the fleeting moments a bit more. Maybe the New Year will help us remember just how precious time is and how swiftly the days – and even the years – go by. Maybe we can be mindful of the people who journey with us and the planet we share.

We can celebrate quietly or don party hats and blow noise-makers. But this humbling fact remains – Human life is brief and fragile. It can change in an instant. That stark fact doesn’t need to be depressing – it just offers an importance awareness that the moments we are given are precious.  However we use them, let’s use them well.

The New Year, with its countdown clock and relentless second hand sweeping toward midnight, reminds me that we worship a timeless God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God offers love and new life every day. No matter what happens, no matter how we arrive at the New Year and no matter what the future may hold, we can be sure that God’s love and strength goes with us.

Wishing you all the best in 2018.

 

 

Praying for tail lights

As my busy family comes and goes, I find myself praying for them…

He inches down our icy driveway while it’s still dark, heading off to work. It’s an hour drive, back roads and highways. Will other drivers be distracted? Has someone been drinking? Will they be careful of the precious (to me) cargo contained in that ancient car? As I see the tail lights pull away, I pray for God’s protection and comfort.

She’s off to her new job, dressed to impress, and eager to make a difference. This baby adult, I’m not sure she realizes just how many dangers are out there. Brimming with confidence, certain she can meet the challenges of the day, she drives off; I watch the tail lights disappear into the dark. Peace, I pray, safety and love travel with her.

I pray for headlights, as well. Waiting for the late-night arrival after a long restaurant shift, never knowing exactly when he will get home. I only half-sleep as I wait for the headlights to flash across the ceiling, announcing his arrival. Will he be tired after work? Will he stay awake as he drives? What about the deer that dart across the road? As I wait to see the headlights, I pray that he be filled with alertness and the reassurance that a warm, loving home is waiting.

headlights

I pray for the headlights that drive across the state as a long school semester ends. A long drive across crowded busy highways, filled with people intent on arriving first and fastest.  I consider all the activities that await his arrival – choosing the Christmas tree, baking cookies, making apple sauce. All of that is on “hold” until the headlights appear, making our family complete again. I look out the window – again – waiting. Send my love to him, I pray, and surround him with your guardian angels.

It’s all we can do, sometimes. Just pray. Wait and watch.

And pray some more.

While they are out of my sight, I entrust them to God’s loving care.

Thirty years of blessings

In November 1987 I arrived at the East Woodstock Congregational Church, young and inexperienced, to begin my ministry. The congregation welcomed me with gracious patience as I made (many) mistakes. They offered encouragement as I grew into my role and discovered what it means to be a pastor.

They taught me about thoughtfulness and caring:

  1. Debbie Sherman filled the parsonage refrigerator with milk, butter and eggs. There was bread and cereal on the counter, along with directions to the (distant) grocery store. I knew I had landed among considerate, caring people.
  2. A “Pastor’s welcome basket” was set up during my first month. Every Sunday I discovered practical gifts like a flashlight, light bulbs, dish towels, cookies, and homemade muffins.
  3. Larry Grennan realized my 2-room seminary apartment wouldn’t provide enough furnishings for the rambling parsonage. He scouted furniture that helped turn that big old house into a home.
  4. George Brown fulfilled his promise to paint my office (upstairs in the brick schoolhouse, at the time) any color I chose – a cheerful yellow. George would swing by the church every afternoon “just to check” if anything needed to be adjusted, fixed, or tidied.
  5. John Davis looked at the spindly wooden chair behind my desk and invited me on an office-decorating expedition to Worcester that included reminisces about his family, work and school.
  6. Barbara Brown spent hours teaching me about relations and family connections in our village. Her gentle suggestions (“Susan, you might want to call this person”) as she reminded me about birthdays and anniversaries of happy and sad occasions helped me establish personal connections with my congregation.
  7. Kenny Marvin walked through the church every morning on the way to work to check on fickle furnaces and quirky water pumps. David Cain did endless chores – emptying trash cans, folding bulletins, raking leaves – to serve the church he loved.
  8. Evelyn Eddy dedicated her life to the missions committee, always finding new ways to help others. Barbara Klare held up autumn leaves each fall as a reminder of God’s creative presence in our lives.
  9. Barbara Barrett taught me about organization and attention to detail with her yellow legal pads and endless energy.
  10. Glen Lessig suggested the revolutionary idea of a computer to replace my typewriter and had the foresight to exchange our ancient mimeograph machine with a speedy Risograph.

They know the value of a good celebration:

  1. The noisy exuberance of children at Rally Day, Children’s Day, Christmas Pageant, children’s choir, and Vacation Bible School.
  2. Quiet beauty of our candlelight Christmas Eve service
  3. Joy and creativity of the Holly Fair
  4. Toe-tapping music of Jazz Sunday
  5. Making a joyful noise on Music Appreciation Sunday
  6. The Fourth of July Jamboree. An amazing, enduring effort that welcomes 1000+ people to enjoy old-fashioned, small-town fun.

They know how to share God’s love. These are the people I depend on in times of joy or tragedy. They live their faith by

  1. Creating beautiful Thanksgiving baskets
  2. Keeping a well-stocked food pantry for times of emergency
  3. Hosting beautiful funeral receptions, surrounding families with love
  4. Providing rides, cooking at the Community Kitchen, visiting the homebound
  5. Holding vigils in times of loss and mourning
  6. Walking with one another on life’s journey
  7. Choosing to become an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming all of God’s people

They have made East Woodstock my home. I am grateful for

  1. Celebrating my marriage with a contra dance
  2. Creating a safe and nurturing place for our children while allowing them space to learn and grow without expecting them to be perfect
  3. Supporting my continuing education with sabbatical leave – 3 times
  4. Reading and discussing my research during my Doctor of Ministry studies
  5. Making it possible for my family to travel to Bolivia, birthplace of our oldest son

There are words and experiences that I will always associate with East Woodstock:

  1. Molasses cookies. Cake walk. Basket social. Chicken barbeque. Men’s chorus.

When I step into our sanctuary, I know I am on holy ground.  This is a place where births and baptism are celebrated, couples unite, teenagers are confirmed, and memories are shared to mark a life completed and a soul gone home. There is a cloud of witnesses offering strength and love to the vibrant, active congregation that gathers to worship and serve.

  1. These are not-perfect people led by a not-perfect pastor, but somehow through the grace of God, together we are the church. And I am so grateful.

Thanks be to God.

Quality Treats

Halloween was about quality, not quantity where I grew up. Houses were spread far apart in our rural area, necessitating car-driven trick or treating. Since that was all I ever experienced, it didn’t seem strange to me.  My best friend and I would spend weeks preparing and trying out various costumes until we cobbled together (never bought) some dress-up creation. A hobo, a flapper, a mummy come to mind. One year it was a huge box with head and arm holes that fit over my body; it was spray-painted silver and plastered with dials, a compass, and a thermometer. Suddenly, I was a robot.  Climbing in and out of the car was a challenge, but I felt very futuristic and modern.

Our Halloween visits were eagerly anticipated by our few neighbors. When we arrived, anxious to knock on the door or ring the doorbell, the door would swing open with a hearty, “Come in!” Waiting for us was a bowl filled with Halloween napkins tied with yarn that were stuffed with (full-size) candy bars and candy corn. Often a short visit for the adults would be required, despite our squirmy insistence that we move on to the next stop. We still had a lot of ground to cover that night. Thirteen or fourteen stops later, Halloween was over for another year, but we could go home to count, sort, and treasure our sweet treasures.

There were of course a few “ringers” in the neighborhood. The over-sticky candied apple at the orchard home or the collection of lemon drops and “suckers” from an elderly widow. That’s when the lesson of smiling and saying “Thank you” kicked in. But mostly our reward was a bounty of goodies, generously and gladly given.

What I realize now as an adult is how fortunate I am to have so many happy childhood memories. Much of my listening time as a minister is filled with stories of abuse or drama, angry or hurtful words in turbulent, unhappy homes. The lack of stability in childhood makes it challenging (not impossible, but more difficult) to create a stable adulthood. Many struggle for decades to overcome damage that was done.

I had the privilege of receiving what every child deserves, but does not get. I had parents who were dependable and loving and who created a safe place to grow up.

If you are someone who had a stable (not necessarily rich or luxurious, but safe) upbringing, take a moment to give thanks for those who loved and protected you.

If your memories of growing up are more troubled, know that God’s desire for you is that you know your true identity – you are a beloved child of God, who is loved and lovable. That unshakeable love is the gift, the treat, that each one of us is offered – on Halloween and every day.

Prayer for Las Vegas

God of peace,

We pray for all affected by the violence in Las Vegas.

We pray

For singing and dancing turned into terror and loss

For joy turned into sorrow

For lives ended too soon.

We pray

For families across the country who are suddenly thrown into grief.

For your healing presence to be with the wounded,

To surround those who have witnessed horror with your compassion.

We ask you to

Bless the first responders: the police, EMT’s, doctors and nurses

who share your love by caring for your people.

Today let us

Treat one another gently.

Speak words of kindness.

Reach out to those in pain.

Let us not be swayed by evil but rather strengthened by your faithfulness.

You who are always with us, hear our prayer.  Amen.

Saying it out loud

OK, honestly, I feel a little silly standing in my garden holding a sign.  The first time I did it, my sign read, “YOU are a blessing, not a burden.”   I would have been glad to give that message to anyone since that has been the core of my ministry for the last 30 years.  People doubt themselves, they don’t recognize their God-given value, they forget (or never heard) that they are beloved children of God. I feel called to remind them who they are in God’s eyes.

That particular sign was aimed specifically at the LGBT community and especially the Trans community who heard our President say that trans people should no longer serve in the military because they are a burden to the system.

Since the suicide rate among trans people is already higher than any other demographic in our country (about 40% have attempted), I don’t want anyone to be tipped into despair or self-loathing by careless or mean-spirited words.

Instead, I would like trans people – and all people – to know

  • YOU are a blessing.
  • YOU are created in the image of God.
  • YOU are loved and lovable.
  • YOU are of great value.
  • The world needs YOU, your gifts, and your outlook.

So I stood in my garden, held my sign, and posted it on social media. My intent was to share this positive message of love and affirmation as widely as possible.  Maybe those simple words gave someone hope or reminded someone of their importance.

On Sunday I received an email with another sign from a military veteran in my congregation. This one states, “I stand with transgender service members.” Approximately 15,000 transgender active, reserve, and Guard troops may be discharged because of an upcoming ban on transgender people serving in the military. This veteran was requesting that everyone spread a message of support for these courageous members who voluntarily serve in our military.

Blessing 2

I printed out that sign, stood with it in my garden and again posted it publically.  I wish the signs weren’t necessary. I wish it was obvious that all of God’s people are of equal and eternal value.

But we are living in a time with an abundance of negativity and hate.

It’s time for more signs.

People of faith need to act. It isn’t enough to simply believe something. We need to speak our faith and then live it. A few weeks ago, I wrote about words that should never be spoken because of the harm they can do.

But the opposite is also true. Some words absolutely need to be said out loud. Words against racism and exclusion.  Words supporting compassion and welcome. We need speak God’s love out loud, with our words and our actions. And if that means I need to stand in my garden holding a sign that proclaims God’s love and my support for all of God’s people, I will do that – over and over again.

I hope my sign and my words will speak to someone who needs to hear they are not alone. I hope they will remind all of us to treat one another with respect and consideration.

Stones with stories

I spend more time in cemeteries than the average person.  Call it an occupational hazard. In all sorts of weather, I have found myself graveside, offering prayers as this bit of earth is consecrated as a final resting place.

People often shudder when I mention my frequent visits to graveyards.  They wonder, “Isn’t it depressing?” as they confess their avoidance of cemeteries. Perhaps it is a ministerial oddity, but I find burying grounds fascinating and often, strangely, comforting. The stones inscribed with names and dates hint at stories of lives gone by. Some are forgotten, others are treasured memories, but all were children of God, beloved and cherished. And now entrusted into God’s eternal care. It is humbling to remember that all lives – those rich, famous, and powerful and those poor, broken, and lonely – will end.  Death is that great equalizer that each of us encounters.

It is said that Protestant reformer Martin Luther kept (1483-1546) kept a human skull on his desk as a reminder of his own mortality and the brevity of human life. Thankfully no skull lingers in my church office but the view from my desk offers a lovely glimpse of our village graveyard. It reminds me of how fleeting life can be and how precious every moment is. It brings to mind the many gatherings I have officiated in cemeteries over the years.

Sometimes those gatherings are filled profound, almost crippling, sadness as we mourn a life cut short by disease or accident. Sometimes we are bombarded with painfully poignant regrets as we say, “I wish it could have been different.” Yearning that circumstances could have been different as we mourn someone overcome by addiction or unable to ask for help or not able to receive forgiveness from self or others.

Sometimes the people huddled by the dirt mound and silent stones experience a sense of relief or rich gratitude that a life well-lived has peacefully come to end, offering a well-deserved rest.

While I am at the cemetery, often before the service begins, I wander between the rows of stones, reading the inscriptions. They hint at lives gone before, some tragically short, others decades long. Most are unknown to me, which makes me wonder about the feelings and experiences, hopes and dreams of those who lie beneath.

So many stones. So many stories.

Rather than being depressing, I find silent stones inspiring. They inspire me to keep things in perspective and to let go of trivial grievances. They inspire to try to make a difference now, today, while I can. And they inspire me to cherish my loved ones and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy.

Those silent stones speak volumes, if I am willing to listen.