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.

Corona and Gratitude

This week I enjoyed a coloring page (not something I ordinarily do but I find it quiets my spirit in these troubled times) that reads, “This the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118).

            It is not easy to rejoice these days. Every newscast is grim and images of overfilled hospitals are horrifying. Across the globe, people are sick and dying. There is great suffering everywhere. How does one rejoice on a day filled with sadness?  

            These days I am discovering that very familiar Scripture passages suddenly sound brand new. Or at least they are offering me a new insight. In the midst of a pandemic the refrain “Rejoice and be glad,” has a different ring to it. It has nothing to do with happy feelings, calm meditations or even joyous events. Instead, I hear an invitation to look for signs of God who created this day. If God created this day, where can I discover God? Where can I find reasons to give thanks and – perhaps – even rejoice?  

            I’ve decided to intentionally count my blessings. Today I am filled with gratitude for the many ways our congregation is stepping up to meet the challenge of the coronavirus and the very human need that illness brings with it. I give thanks for our outstanding staff who are learning new skills in order to minister to our congregation. Our office manager Heidi Tucker has transformed the church’s online presence by updating and improving our website and creating a YouTube channel with recordings of worship, Bible study, reflections, and music.

I give thanks for Anne Sorensen and Tom Converse who now meet with our youth group online. The kids love the opportunity to see one another and then respond to questions like “How has this week been for you? Where have you experienced God this week? What was hard about these last few days? What did you enjoy?” I give thanks for Louise Labbe-Fahy who sends notes and coloring pages to our Sunday School children and is discovering ways to offer Bible stories and activities for them online.

            My heart is filled with gratitude for the many people who are enriching the lives of our congregation – let us rejoice in musicians like Nancy Ducharme, Ben Gould, Jeff Wong, and Sarah Jo Burke who lift our spirits with their musical talents. There are many volunteers who are sending cards and making phone calls while we are physically apart from one another. Clever crafters are creating much-needed facemasks and isolation gowns for local hospitals and nursing homes. Food that you donated to our church pantry is being given to “Caitlyn’s Cupboard” at Day Kimball Hospital to help oncology patients during a time when the need is high but donations are low.

 Your compassion and caring fill my heart with hope. That enables me to rejoice in this day because I see signs of God’s love and new life in and around us.

            Today – look for signs of God’s hope.  Let us rejoice because God is in this day.

            Today – be a sign of God’s hope for someone else. Help someone else have a reason to rejoice.

Virus and Bias

When things go wrong – and let’s face it, things have gone really wrong lately – our first impulse is to find the cause. We would like a logical explanation followed by an outline on how to fix it and make it better.

            Unfortunately, bad things happen to good (and not-so-good) people all the time. Frustratingly, there isn’t always a clear reason. One of my new favorite books is called Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved) by Kate Bowler. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35, her personal suffering led her to explore the notion that all of life’s challenges are somehow a test of character. Her conclusion? There is no logical pattern – sometimes bad things just happen.

            That brings us to today. We are all being affected by events beyond our control. It is scary and unnerving. The coronavirus is changing life as we know it. There will be a solution and a cure someday but not before thousands of people have died. None of us have experienced a pandemic like this before.

            Fear of the unknown and the yearning to identify a “reason” for our distress can lead people down the path of racism and finger-pointing. My cousin adopted two toddlers from China; these lovely young women are now in their early twenties. Both of them have reported a disturbing increase in hurtful and racist comments. One described driving to a convenience store to pick up milk when a stranger threw pebbles at her car and told her to “go back where she came from.” She skipped her errands and went home that day. But sometimes they need to go out and too often they are met by people who roll their eyes or make an exaggeratedly wide berth around them. Others are more direct: “Go back to Wuhan!” or “Aren’t you glad your people brought this disease here!”

            Angry and frightened people say thoughtless and foolish things. Now is time to speak up. This is not the “Chinese flu.” This is a virus with a scientific name – Covid-19. It doesn’t have a nationality. It is no one’s “fault.” It is an equal-opportunity disease searching for a host – humans – across the globe. To state the obvious – people of Chinese descent are not more likely to carry the illness or pass it on.

Instead of fighting one another, let’s work together to make an overwhelming situation more bearable. We can correct misconceptions that seek to blame one group and speak for those who are targeted by ignorance. Let’s recognize that people of every race, age, and culture will be affected by this crisis. We need to support and help one another in order to survive. People across the globe will always be stronger when we look past our differences and recognize our shared humanity. Together we will get through this so we can look forward to better days ahead.

Corona and Self-Care

It’s been a long week, hasn’t it?  It seems hard to believe that just seven days ago, I was agonizing over the decision about whether to hold worship in our sanctuary. Now the idea of groups coming together is horrifying. As a result, online gatherings are springing up everywhere. Classes, youth groups, Bible study, yoga, “zoom”ba (love the name – exercise via Zoom meeting!). Even online pottery classes and art lessons. We are discovering a whole new way of connecting with each other.

            But it is a steep learning curve for many of us. Throughout the week, I found myself shaking my head and muttering, “They didn’t teach me this in seminary.” Of course, when I first arrived at the East Woodstock Congregational Church in 1987, the church still had a mimeograph machine, a rotary dial telephone, and was proud of its up-to-date electric typewriter. Fast forward to 2020 when I spent this week learning how to hold online meetings and discovered the advantages of establishing the church’s own YouTube channel. Whew.

            Whether your routine has been disrupted by working at home, homeschooling your children, adjusting to extended periods of alone time, missing loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, yearning for social interaction, or being deprived of opportunities to shop, eat, and gather together – this has been a big adjustment.

It’s time to take care of ourselves.

Being tough and determined is fine, but it is also all right to also acknowledge that this isn’t easy. It is hard to completely change our way of life in a matter of days.

Now it’s time to think about what would feed your spirit, what will calm your anxiety, and what will help you get through one more day at a time. Maybe the first thing is to turn off the news and step away from the computer for a while.

 We can listen to the wisdom that mothers and grandmothers have been offering for generations – get some fresh air, exercise, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, and drink plenty of water. Be gentle with yourself. None of us have done this before. We don’t have to be good at this right away. Very few of us are natural isolationists.

 Find words of Scripture, poetry, or music that comfort your heart. Search for hope and encouragement. And then share that with others – in the midst of our own challenges, we need to remember those who were already struggling before all of this started.

And through it all, God will be with us.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4: 4-7)

Fill-in-the-blank Prayers

It is not always easy to pray, even when we really want to. Even when we need it most. When we are stressed or anxious, prayer can be even more challenging.

So here are some “fill in the blank” prayers for you to try. Think of them as “prayer prompts” – you can fill in the blanks and personalize them with whatever is on your heart and mind today. Use the ones that speak to you, skip the ones that don’t.

            Your prayers may change day by day or even moment by moment, so fill in the blanks as often as necessary.

Loving and holy God, thank you for your promise to be with us always. Today I am finding that very __________ to believe. Thank you for loving me just as I am.

Compassionate God, you meet us wherever we are.

Holy God, today I am feeling ______________.

I’m alone in my house and I feel ___________.

I’m usually alone in my house but now it’s full of people not in school or at work. That makes me feel _____________.

Creator God, thank you for the glory of this earth and the mystery and miracle of spring. Today when I look outside, I see you in ________________.

Generous God, thank you for the gift of music, art, and poetry that comfort my spirit. Thank you for artists of all kinds. Today I rejoice in this song/image/expression: ____________.

Thank you for the helpers in the world. Please bless first responders, doctors, nurses, and health care workers who are facing extra challenges. Give them strength and resilience. Today I especially pray for _______.

God of all people, across the globe, everyone is impacted by this virus, no matter their culture, language, sexual orientation, economic status, or beliefs. Surround all of us with your healing presence. Please bless _______.

Loving God, you care about our worries big and small. So many people are affected by workplace closing and loss of income. I lift up prayers for _____.

Even before the pandemic began, many already had concerns and worries. Help us not forget those who are mourning, sick, or struggling. God of compassion, I ask you especially to be with _________.

You told us to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. Knowing that you love me today and always, I lift up a prayer for myself. You who created me in your holy image and you call me your beloved child, I ask you to be with me. Please help me ________________.

And God who knows my heart, I add these prayers: _________.

To you be the honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Virtual Church

Earlier this week my science professor brother called to urge me to cancel worship because of the coronavirus threat. I wasn’t ready to make that decision yet. “So many people look forward to Sunday morning,” I protested. “Shouldn’t we offer people the opportunity to hear some Good News amidst all the doom and gloom? And besides, for some folks, this is their one opportunity to get out of the house, be with others, and enjoy some fellowship. And we’ve got a great group of kids who love Sunday School!”

Later in the week the leadership of the Southern New England Conference recommended that all churches in the United Church of Christ close their doors for two weeks. I still hesitated. “But what about the wonderful anthem our three choirs have been rehearsing? How about the nine new members we are planning to welcome? And the youth group’s potato bar fundraiser?” We’re a busy church – so many events were scheduled for Sunday. How could we change that?

I dragged my heels and was very resistant to the idea of not meeting on Sunday. As I reflected on my reluctance, I realized what is true about me – I love worship. I love when our sanctuary comes alive with people of all ages. I love squirmy children and gurgling babies. I love the joyous energy of conversation and laughter that fills the air before worship. I love sharing joys and concerns and I love that this diverse group of people comes together to be a family to care about one another. I love lifting up our voices together to praise God. I love the quietness of gathering together in prayer.  

The sanctuary is a building. The people are the church. I love being the church with them. How could we not come together?  

And yet. We have an obligation to keep everyone safe. We don’t want people to come to worship who should stay home. We don’t want to expose anyone to infection. We don’t want to spread this virus.

We will worship online this Sunday. Our service will be recorded live on Facebook. People can watch our worship on our Facebook page. Our sanctuary will be empty but many of us will still be together in spirit. It is not the same but I give thanks for this technology.

God is good. God, Creator of all we see, will lead us through these new circumstances. We will discover new ways to be the church and new ways to share God’s love. We will continue to celebrate God’s hope and enduring presence.

This is a new era for all of us. None of us have ever lived through a pandemic before. But take heart – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46). And that is true no matter where we are.