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.

Refuge

One of the sorrows in my life is that I can’t draw.

One of the joys in my life is that I married a man who can.

            Often I will describe an image to him – something that came to me in a dream or after praying or during a journaling moment. I wish I could just pick up a pen or paintbrush and transform my thoughts into a picture. Somehow my brain and my hand do not communicate that way.

            So I share the picture in my head with him through words. “It looks like this,” I say earnestly. And he listens. He asks questions. And then he draws. It is a marvel to me that the image in my mind and the description of my words can come to life on a page.

            This image is called “Refuge.” I imagined a small boat protected from a raging storm. The wind and sea are wild and fierce, yet this tiny vessel has found a place of safety and protection.

            Throughout the pandemic thus far, the verse “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46) has stayed with me. The word “refuge” has taken on new meaning to me. A refuge is not a place to live or even necessarily a place to hide. A refuge is a shelter. It offers protection. And protection might bring about renewal. Refuge provides a moment of calm in a storm. It is an opportunity to catch your breath until you are strong enough to go out to face whatever challenges are waiting.

            I have a sign in our home that reads, “Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms the child.”  Remembering that God is here and receiving God’s calming love – that is refuge for me.

 This picture reminds me to search for God’s refuge. I might find it at the dinner table with my family or in the garden filled with flowers. Watching the birds at the feeder or listening to music can provide moments of refuge.

            A refuge is not a permanent dwelling place, but it does provide soothing comfort and a reminder that I am not alone.

            This picture reminds me of the renewing power of refuge. 

            Thank you, Roger.

Corona in Seville

Guest Post from the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti

Mary Luti has been in Seville, Spain for several weeks and has been writing daily reports describing life in a country that is shut down.

Spain Lockdown Report, Day #33
The unknown makes us afraid, and fear makes us cruel.

Unclean, unclean
The illness caused by COVID-19 is terrible, and too often lethal, but there are worse ways to be sick. Ask the doctor in Barcelona who went down to the garage to get his car and head to the hospital for another grueling shift, only to find it spray painted with the words, “Infectious Rat!”

There are worse infections than COVID-19. Consider the check-out clerk in Cartagena who came home to find a note tacked to her apartment door that read: “We are your neighbors, and we are asking you, for everybody’s good, that you look for somewhere else to live while this is going on, since we know you work at a supermarket, and a lot of people who live here don’t want to run the extra risk you pose.”

There are worse things to fear than this virus. Ask the nurse in Alcázar de San Juan whose anonymous neighbors posted this request: “Hi, neighbor. We know all about the great work you’re doing in the hospital and we’re grateful for it, but you should also be thinking about your neighbors. There are children and old people living here. There are places on the other side of town where they’re putting up health workers. While this is going on, we ask you to think about going there.”

Or the emergency room physician in A Coruña who smelled bleach as he got off the elevator in his condo building. It got stronger as he got closer to his apartment. A couple of his neighbors were disinfecting the area around his door, just to be sure.

In one small town a local butcher was on the receiving end of several anonymous letters, accusing him of infecting people. When the mayor found out, she started a Facebook campaign to support him. She wrote: “There are many good things that will be remembered with gratitude once this is over. Beautiful things, caring gestures, empathy and support. But this will also be remembered. We can’t forget the pain it caused. It’s awful. We won’t forget it. We need to remember what can happen to us when we are afraid.”

Other people have rallied around, too, especially people living in those buildings where the anonymous signs were posted. Different signs are now appearing in the common areas, like this simple one in Murcia that announces in big red letters, “A hero lives here,” followed by more than 50 signatures.

Another supportive sign says: “We are your neighbors and we want to ask you, for the good of all:

–That you don’t lose heart, because our health, our food, our elders, are in your hands…

–That you don’t forget that you are our pride, that half of us would never have the courage to do what you’re doing every day while the rest of us stay home…

–That you don’t hesitate to ask us for anything you need to lighten your load…

and finally, to everyone who would refuse to share life and space with doctors, nurses, health workers, food preparers, checkout clerks, bus drivers, taxi drivers, firefighters, police, etc., etc., we say: Remember, there is no sickness worse than not having a heart.”

The authorities are investigating to see whether these incidents are prosecutable. “To be sure, they are few and far between,” a spokesperson for a national nursing association said, “but they are reprehensible all the same.”

Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.

Signs of the times

Have you noticed the signs of these times? I’m not talking about the daily briefings from the White House or the updated lists county by county of illness and mortality rates. There are other signs these days – signs to lift our spirits and signs to remind us we are not alone. Nowadays when we take a rare drive around town, there are signs and symbols everywhere.

            People have stopped by our local park to hang up signs on trees to thank health care workers, offer encouragement, and express appreciation.

Thank you to care workers

            More and more homes (and churches) are displaying teddy bears and other stuffed animals in windows so children can participate in a “bear hunt” as they view furry friends symbolizing solidarity and caring.

            Sometimes “signs” are delivered sight unseen and only discovered later. I was delighted to find a beautifully painted flower pot filled with pansies on my doorstep with a card to lift my spirits. Someone else dropped off an Easter basket with chocolates for my family with the message, “Thank you.”

            Sweet Honeycomb, a wonderful Christian resource company based in Australia is providing free coloring pages with uplifting phrases. People have been decorating them and hanging them in our church windows as a reminder to passers-by, “we are all in this together.” I love the idea that people across the world are sharing these positive messages as a global reminder that we can carry on, one day at a time.

            On the Saturday before Easter, members of our congregation were invited to stop by the church to decorate the front doors of our church with paper hearts. Even while maintaining proper social distancing and never coming in direct contact with one another, our congregation managed to work as a team to produce a bright and power proclamation of God’s love.

One of the front doors of the East Woodstock Congregational Church

            In these days when we are not allowed to gather together but when we all need encouragement more than ever, how will we share hope and Good News? What signs have you seen?  What signs have you shared?  This new era of physical separation calls on our creativity – what new ways can we use to reach out to one another? This is the time to consider who might need a cheery message or a note of caring. This is the moment when, while feeling powerless against an invisible virus, we are empowered to use our imaginations and find ways to help one another with support and encouragement.

Signs of encouragement

      How will you add to the signs of the times?

Corona and Tenebrae (shadows)

“I love the Tenebrae service so much, I would celebrate it even if no one showed up.” That statement will be put the test tomorrow evening as we prepare for Maundy Thursday. When I made that declaration over the years, I was thinking in terms of potential snowstorms that could keep people away or the busy-ness of schedules that interfered with a mid-week evening service. I was asserting that the beauty and solemnity of recounting Jesus’ final hours would compel me to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper and the desertion of his followers.

But let’s be honest. Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) is never a well-attended worship service. Far different than the standing-room-only experience of Easter, the Tenebrae service (of “service of shadows”) is a somber evening gathering attended by a handful of people. Those who do come are always moved by the power of our sacred texts that describe with moving detail Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. We listen to Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden. Our hearts are moved by the deep hurt of betrayal that leads to his arrest followed by the callousness of a sham trial.

It is hard to hear the story relentlessly unfold as it brings us closer and closer to Golgotha and crucifixion. The fear, agony, and loss are palpable. Because it is so powerful, I’ve always wanted more people to experience what is the center, the absolute foundation, of our Christian story. We get to hear about God who loves us so much that God will not avoid the absolute hardest parts of being human. Jesus lives through loss, fear, betrayal, sadness, isolation, and excruciating pain. And he does it for us. When those terrifying experiences enter into our lives, we can turn to Jesus knowing that he walked through that dark valley before us. It is a gut-wrenching and yet life-giving story. It is vital that we hear it.

And thus my commitment to proclaim the story even if no one was there to listen.

So this year on Maundy Thursday I will be in the sanctuary alone with my family and our wonderful pianist Nancy. We will recount the story that has been given to Christians to tell. It is a story of loss and hope, agony and assurance.

I hope you will be with me in Spirit and perhaps also on Facebook Live. You are invited to light a candle – electric or wax – and listen to the story. As the story is read, we will extinguish candles to represent the approaching shadows of loss and death.  You’ll be invited to put out your candle. And then finally to light it again as we cling to the hope of the Christ candle shining in the darkness.

In this time of sickness, loss, uncertainty and death, we need to hear the story of Jesus’ undying love.

Corona and Communion

“Take and eat. This is the Body of Christ broken for you.” I say these words every time we celebrate communion during worship, which in our tradition is the first Sunday of the month. I utter them when I share communion with individuals at home or in the hospital. I have never said them to an empty church. 

April 5th is Palm Sunday. It’s Communion Sunday. And we are in the midst of forced separation.

Communion is all about community. But our community is scattered right now. We cannot come together. We cannot sing the invitation to Christ’s table. We cannot serve one another the bread and cup. And we certainly cannot offer one another the right hand of fellowship or give a hearty hug as we share Christ’s peace.

How will we celebrate communion while we are absent one from another?

My first thought was that we would skip serving Eucharist until we can do it as we always have done – together, in the sanctuary, passing the communion cups and trays that have been used for generations. But then I realized that nothing is the same and we don’t know when it will be again so it’s time to adapt. It’s time to make room in my heart for the new things God can do in these entirely different circumstances.

            I remember growing up in a large Congregational church in Wallingford CT. The deacons asked if they could place some of the communion elements in the balcony to facilitate serving those who sat upstairs during worship. The minister refused because he said the bread and cups had to be on the altar in order to be consecrated (blessed through prayer). This raised a lot of questions in my mind as a child. I remember wondering if God was so weak or feeble-minded that God could not bless the elements on the altar AND in the balcony at the same time. Did we have to make it easy for God and place the communion plates in an obvious location? Would God not be able to find them otherwise? Was the minister’s prayer of blessing not strong enough to reach the top of the balcony? It seemed to me that if we were asking God to bless the bread we were about to receive, God could find the bread wherever it was and fill it with God’s grace.

            I’m relying on that ability this week. Everyone will be invited to prepare their own communion in their own homes. Communion in your house might be a bit of bread and some juice. Or it could be a cracker, an English muffin, or even a bagel. Perhaps you will have water or tea to go with it. In our tradition, communion is a symbol of God’s presence, forgiveness, and love. The materials – bread and juice – are not as important as the message – that we are all welcome in God’s presence and that God wishes to feed our spirits.

            On this communion Sunday, we will be physically separate, but united by God’s Spirit of love.