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.

How does the church work?

As a small-town pastor, I marvel every day about our church – this unlikely collection of volunteers who allow the love of God to shine through them. Our church looks something like this –  When I arrive early on a Sunday morning, the building is empty, locked and dark.  I begin the weekly process of resuscitation by opening the shutters and unlocking the doors. The real vibrancy arrives as people drift in. There’s the guy who makes coffee each week, here are a couple of people who baked cookies and cut up fruit for fellowship time following worship.  The choir, those impossibly busy people who somehow squeeze in weekly rehearsal time, clamber into the choir loft, eagerly anticipating their anthem.

Dedicated parents and grandparents are organizing paper, scissors, and glue sticks, anxious to share Bible lessons and crafts. The sanctuary hums to life as someone flips on the sound system, another carefully places flowers on our communion table, and some friendly volunteers welcome visitors and regulars alike.  The building is brimming with activity now, as neighbors greet one another and weary young mothers grab precious moments with a kindred spirit. Gray-headed seniors lean in for conversation as teenagers casually compare phones and screens.

Before entering the sanctuary, the deacon questions her ability to draw the attention of this noisy, somewhat unruly crowd to the still, small voice of God.  There is Good News to share – God has promised to show up, right here, in our little corner of CT, because we are gathered in God’s name.

Good morning! The deacon asserts boldly.

Good morning!  The congregation booms in reply.

Peace, one might even say the Spirit, descends upon those gathered, not at all distracted by wriggly babies or bored teenagers. Somehow God meets each one of us, exactly where we are this morning. God is in this place and suddenly – we become the church.  We are the people of God, flawed, imperfect, falling very short of the glory of God, yet blessed and renewed by God’s love which welcomes every single one of us. And because God names us the church, the Body of Christ, we can claim that title as well. Together we can endeavor to serve God by sharing God’s love.

That’s church on a Sunday morning.

How does it work on the other days?

  • Someone drops by to donate skeins of yarn she found on sale. Less than an hour later an older woman stops by to ask for prayer shawl materials. She leaves, eager to knit and pray for some yet unknown recipient who will receive a reminder of God’s encircling love. The church works when we share.
  • Two $50 Visa gift cards arrive in the mail. An out-of-state daughter wants to honor her parent’s anniversary by passing along the love and compassion she inherited from their relationship. Later that same day a young woman was weeping in my office, devastated by the husband who abandoned her and their two-year-old child. $50 wasn’t going to solve her problems, but it heartened her to know someone cared. The church works when we celebrate love.
  • One of our snowbirds returned from Florida, bubbling with excitement. “I discovered Tai Chi,” she exclaimed, “and I want to share it with others.” Her enthusiasm draws in 15-18 people, members and visitors to our church, twice weekly as they share fellowship and gentle exercise. The church works when people follow their enthusiasm.
  • “Art makes people feel good,” a gifted woman in our congregation told me. She has the ability to transform paints, fabrics, or flowers into beautiful creations. “More people should be exposed to art,” she declared. Her invitation inspired 20 artists to gather for a show and sale, transforming our fellowship hall into a combination art gallery and cool craft store.  Visitors receive a transfusion of color and creativity on a cold winter morning. Church works when we share our passion and abilities.
  • Meals shared, prayers offered, cards sent, clothes distributed, hugs given, a listening ear offered.

Seminary professors call this “incarnational theology; the Word made flesh.”

I call it making God visible to the world.  That’s church.

 

*Oil painting by Karen McFarlin:  kmcf3470@gmail.com

 

 

 

What aquacise teaches me about church

Sometimes I learn about faith and the church in the oddest places.  Several times each week I attend a water aerobics, or aquacise, class.  I have always loved swimming so this form of exercise never feels like “I have to” but instead like “I get to” work out.

Lately as I engage in “deep water runs” or endless rounds of “water crunches, it occurs to me that my fellow classmates form a community much like the best aspects of a congregation.

There is great diversity in the aquacize participants. We come to class, all of us – the lame and that biblical description, the “halt” (defined in my dictionary as “one who limps”), the old and the young, men and women of every size and description.  Some people walk briskly from the locker room to the pool; for others, it is more challenging.

  • One woman rolls to the water’s edge in a wheelchair, her bright pink hair and cheery smile drawing attention away from her legs that struggle to support her and which barely move enough to allow her to get to the stairs into the water.
  • There is a man who calls himself “One-legged Dave,” who arrives promptly each morning. “I lost the leg below the knee to cancer, but that’s all that sucker got – the rest of me is still here!” He sits on a bench to remove his prosthetic leg with the molded plastic foot and replaces it with a rubber flipper. “I’ll be the fastest one in class – the only problem is, I’ll go in circles!”
  • An older woman wears thick black gloves in the water. I thought this was very odd until someone explained that she had been in a serious car accident. She was severely burned, leaving her skin sensitive to the pool chemicals.

I am in awe of the courage on display here. It would be easier for each one of them to stay home. They choose to come because they find something there that nourishes their spirits. I hope the same can be said for the church.

When this unlikely collection of people is brought together on land, one can hardly imagine that they could ever comprise an exercise group.  But then – they enter the water.

In that moment, they are transformed. All the differences and physical challenges disappear in the water.  Water, it turns out, is a great equalizer.  Suddenly everyone is the same height; all we can see of one another is our heads bobbing out of the water.  Creaky knees relax as they are lifted by the forgiving buoyancy, aching muscles ease as they are massaged by the gentle warmth that surrounds us.  People who can barely walk on land suddenly experience the freedom of graceful movement in the water.

The pool provides a release that we share with joy.  In my mind’s eye, I imagine the Holy Spirit moving in and through our class, anointing each of these individuals and binding us together as a group.

I hope people experience that kind of delight when they come to church. I hope the sanctuary is a place where all kinds of people can come together and experience renewed hope and welcome. People who are weighed down by challenges in life and those who are confronted with numerous limitations in other venues can hear the Good News – you belong here. The problems that we carry with us may not be forgotten but they will not be allowed to define us.

The pool –and the church – can be a place of encouragement where members are invited to stretch their wings and find a new definition for themselves.

Everyone, of course, has a story to tell and a reason why they show up for an 8:15 a.m. aquacise class. Some people arrive yearning for some serious exercise and look forward to the workout. Others clearly come primarily for fellowship, barely pausing in their conversations to listen to our enthusiastic instructor, who guides and encourages us with great patience and creativity.

People come to worship for lots of different reasons, as well. I hope the church makes them feel as welcome as the pool does. Church can be – should be – that place where all of God’s people are on equal footing, where all of us are enveloped by the loving grace of God’s Holy Spirit.  Church can be – should be – a place where we discover new possibilities, where we are told not what we can’t do, but instead are encouraged to be amazed by what God can do in and through us.

If you see me in class, you might think I am only trying to increase my core muscle strength, but in reality, I am learning again about how God teaches me about grace and welcome and the church in very surprising places.

 

A meeting like no other – the annual meeting of the church

 Luke 4: 21-30 (NRSV)

Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ‘ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The annual meeting is an important Congregational tradition.  However, I hope our annual meeting (coming up this Sunday) will not resemble Jesus’ experience preaching in the temple. What a testy, ornery lot his congregation was that day!

Even assuming that you never had the experience of an angry mob to toss you over a cliff after your sermon, it can nevertheless be challenging to encourage a congregation with words of renewal and hope. Sometimes our congregations seem content to wax poetic about the way things “used to be,” without any vision about new possibilities if we dared to imagine beyond the box, the usual, or the ordinary.

The multitude threatened to kill Jesus that day. They crowded around him to block any possibility of escape. Yet Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way (v. 30).” So my prayer for our annual meetings and for the year to come is this:

PRAYER

God of our congregations, large and tiny, urban and out in the sticks, vibrant and near-comatose…

May we overcome obstacles that hinder our path to faithfulness.
May we be willing to listen to surprising voices and attentive to those who say the unexpected.
May we have eyes that allow us to take a second look at those whom we are too eager to dismiss or ignore.
May we be open to the surprising direction in which the Spirit may be leading us. Let us not be too hasty to “recalculate” to the overly-familiar or revert to the too well-known. Instead help us dare to strike out in a new, perhaps untried, ventures.
May we do more than talk about what we “wish” our church would do and instead dare to act, in faith, and break through apparent boundaries and restrictions.
May we, like Jesus, speak words of new life that celebrate Good News for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and sight for the blind.

Please bless our congregation (and congregations across the globe) today and in the future. Amen