Celebrating with our neighbors

Who doesn’t like a party? And the folks from the B’Nai Shalom synagogue had a wonderful reason to celebrate – it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of their congregation.

            People gathered from far and wide to enjoy good food and wonderful fellowship as the congregation reflected on its past and prepared for a bright future. With a tiny Jewish population in northeastern Connecticut, this congregation has a strong tradition of lay leadership. They rely on volunteers to lead worship and community outreach. They enjoy a strong “can-do” spirit which allows them to work and worship together. In recent years, a rabbi comes once per month to lead services, offer education, and encourage them in leading lives of faith.

            It was my pleasure to be a guest at the festivities and have the opportunity to offer greetings from my congregation to theirs. In this angry and contentious era, it is vital to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. Together we can serve a God of love and hospitality as we reach out to God’s people as our neighbors.

            Rabbi Eliana Falk wrote this prayer for the occasion:

Dear God, we are thankful for Your gifts and blessings that help us…

  • To be grateful for the ability to learn and understand, and to grow in wisdom,
  • To respond to Your commandment to pursue justice and mercy.
  • To be ever more humble in our use of the gifts by which our planet sustains us.
  • To be strong as we assist all who are in exile, all who suffer oppression.
  • To be fortified through chesed and tzedakah – loving kindness and justice.
  • To bring healing and comfort to all who are infirm, cast off and alone
  • To be fearless forces for good in a troubled world
  • To embrace our tradition of peace and learning, healing and joy
  • To commit to one another – to all of us who are present – and to all who are not present –
  • Reinforcing the unbreakable bonds we share with one another and the Holy One of Blessing.
  • To acknowledge that all of our blessings are Your gifts, and that the hundreds and thousands of miracles that You offer to us each day are invitations to become awake to the mystery that is beyond our vision, yet understood by our souls.

And so to the congregation B’Nai Shalom, I say a hearty “Mazel tov!” and add my best wishes for many more years of worship and service.  May you go “from strength to strength.”

To be confirmed, or not?

I didn’t want to be confirmed when I was 13. I had endured confirmation class with 20 other teenagers for a year, gathering on Tuesday afternoon with our earnest and well-meaning associate pastor. He was an excellent youth group leader but he struggled (or perhaps it was only my struggle) to make the confirmation curriculum relevant and interesting. Mostly we looked forward to the newly-installed soda machine at our church which allowed us to sip our Cokes as we tried to listen to lessons about the Bible and church history.

            At the end of the year, we went on a “decision-making” retreat where we spent time learning about the significance of church membership, the importance of pledging ourselves to faithful living and the value of endeavoring to serve God with all our hearts, minds, and spirits.

            I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t sure what I believed. I was scared to make a promise to God because what if I couldn’t keep it? 

            But I was 13 and not a rebel. The retreat was billed as “decision-making” but it felt more like “decision-assumption.” It wasn’t explained what would happen if we weren’t confirmed.  Would we be cast into eternal darkness? Or – perhaps even worse for a teenager – excluded, shunned? No longer considered “part of the group”?  It didn’t seem truly up for discussion.   I didn’t hear anyone else voicing any concern or notice anyone hesitating about what seemed to me to be an enormous step.  So I went along.

            Our rather intimidating senior minister performed the confirmation, placing his hand heavily on my head and offering a quick prayer. I didn’t feel any different after the service. For the next three years I was very active in church through youth group and choir, going on retreats and enjoying time with my friends. When I graduated from high school, I considered myself a graduate from church, as well.  It would be a long time before I stepped into a sanctuary again.

            This Sunday our congregation will be celebrating confirmation. The parents of our confirmands understand that while they may have been able to insist that their children attend class (and I’m glad they did), they cannot force their child to be confirmed. It is an individual decision based on personal faith.

            I hope that choice is clear to the 11 teenagers who have experienced our confirmation program. While I hope that it was more riveting and engaging than my memory of confirmation, I can’t promise that. But I am confident that I let them know that they are on a lifelong journey of faith exploration. If they aren’t ready to be confirmed now, they should wait. And in the meantime, they can continue to be a valued part of our church family.

            Very few faith decisions are “once and done.” More often, we need to choose daily – sometimes hourly – how to live our faith and say yes to a loving God who calls us to share hope and new life. We confirm our faith by loving our neighbor and treating one another as we want to be treated.

            Our confirmands are making a public decision on Sunday and then will be asked to live that decision out in their daily lives. 

How do you confirm your faith?

A burning hatred

Images of a burning mosque shocked me. The fact that it was in my own state – Connecticut – in a city near where I grew up – New Haven – made it even worse. Somehow I had categorized hate crimes as something that happened someplace else. I relegated them as events that occur “down South” or “out West” or in another country altogether. But here? In very civilized, very educated, very New England Connecticut?

As a pastor, I can imagine the heartache of a congregation whose sanctuary has been taken away. This beloved gathering place where prayers are lifted and fellowship is shared now lies in ruins. I cannot fathom how fearful these worshipers must be as they contemplate being the object of someone’s hatred.

It hurts my heart to visualize someone planning such violence. I cannot comprehend the logic behind it. How would that conversation go? “We’ll burn down the mosque and then…”  Then what? What will be accomplished? What message will be sent? What misguided notion of achievement will occur?

As I am writing this, reports are coming in about fires being set in Jewish institutions in Needham and Arlington Massachusetts. Another religious community attacked, another community hurt.

It should go without saying that anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence hurts all of society. This is bullying taken to an extreme; everyone suffers. One segment of our society cannot be allowed to terrorize another part.

In these divided times, when an “us vs. them” mentality is often encouraged, God’s people need to insist on a lifestyle of grace and inclusion. People of faith can speak up against messages of superiority and competition – we need to be bigger, better, stronger! – which diminish the value of others. We can refuse to take part in incivility and name-calling.

Instead, we can try to follow the example of Jesus who displayed an astounding willingness to reach across barriers, to seek out the lonely and lost, and to include the outcast. Jesus demonstrated a grace that included all of God’s people.

What if we started by asking one another questions and looking for opportunities to learn about one another? What if we said “yes” to one of the many invitations issued by our Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan to learn about Islam as they break their fast? Would we learn about God’s abundance and expand our understanding on worship and prayer?

In our area, our local synagogue will soon be celebrating their 100th anniversary as a congregation.  What if we joined to wish them well as they begin a second century of worship and caring?

The only way to combat hatred is with love. Hatred destroys, hatred separates people into warring factions, hatred hurts. Love unites, love has the power to bring people together, love heals. We cannot allow the loud, frightening voice of hatred drown out the life-giving power of love. Choose love. Choose compassion. Every day. Even the smallest gestures of compassion and caring can help break down the barriers that divide us. As the old song reminds us, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

To support the New Haven Muslim community as they rebuild, click here

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.

What does the church do?

“What does your church do, anyway?” It wasn’t a snide comment or a rude question, but an honest inquiry from someone who isn’t involved in a faith community and can’t really see any particular reason to bother.

It did make me think.  Especially since this coming Sunday we will be holding our annual congregational meeting, a time when we review not just logistical questions about budget and building upkeep, but take some moments to ponder – what did our congregation do this past year? What have we accomplished? What difference have we made?  Because really – if we can’t answer those questions, then what are we all about?

I tried to frame my answer in a way this person would appreciate. But where to start? Should I describe our showcase event, our Fourth of July Jamboree when hundreds of people gather on our common for music, fellowship, and old-fashioned fun? Or should I describe more serious efforts like supplying food, clothing, toiletries, and gift cards to the homeless and domestic violence shelters as well as to local families.

Should I talk about our public ministries like weekly worship that offers inspiration and fellowship or is our behind-the-scenes work more important? How do we measure the importance of visiting the sick, praying with and for the dying, and offering comfort to the lonely and mourning?

What is it that we do?  Is anyone grading us or keeping track of our actions? If they are, would they like to know about the school backpacks that are filled and delivered in September or presents that are carefully chosen and wrapped at Christmas time or perhaps the Easter baskets that overflow with bounty and compassion? Or would they be more interested in meals and cards delivered to the homebound or the efforts of our children and youth as they rake leaves and help with home repairs.

During the season of Epiphany we are encouraged to take our Christmas gift – the love and compassion of God – and share it with everyone we meet. Don’t, Jesus instructs us, hide your light but let it shine so that God’s glory and love may be experienced and felt. That’s our job. That’s what we are meant to be about.

Do we do it perfectly? No. There is always more to do and there are endless needs that go unmet. But we try to live out God’s commandment to love our neighbor. We endeavor to make a difference in our neighborhood and across the globe.

Perhaps our primary call – the purpose of the church – is to make God’s love visible and to remind people that God is near. “Emmanuel” isn’t just a pretty word for Advent. It means “God with us” and that means in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives. The church – each one of us – is called to echo the joy of the angels who said, “Behold!” Behold – God is with us. Our actions should reflect that good news every day.

Glimpses of God

I saw God today. It was not a dramatic, come-to-Jesus moment. It was just a glimpse, but it was enough to warm my heart and give me hope.

I looked out my window and noticed the sunlight filtering through the trees. As the autumn days get shorter, I am increasingly aware of the beauty of sunshine. So I dropped what I was doing and took these pictures to capture the moment.

These are not stunning vistas. They don’t really highlight spectacular fall colors. But this view spoke to me this morning.

As I took the time to really notice the sunshine hitting the branches and illuminating the few remaining leaves, I could feel my spirit lifting. That simple moment reminded me, oddly enough, that despite everything, the world is still spinning, the sun is still rising, the seasons are still changing. That constancy and dependability comforts me. There is an allure in knowing that God and God’s creation remain unchanging. It reminded me of the psalmist’s assurance, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

Although I would never turn down a dramatic landscape or a trip to a spectacular overlook, what I need is God breaking through in the everyday. I need to be reminded of God in the ordinary. I need to realize that I don’t have to travel someplace different or wait for a picture-perfect moment to find God. God is right here, in the messiness of my life.

It does not remove me from our violent and despairing world. But it reminds me I am not alone.

When I catch glimpses of beauty – in sunlight, twinkling stars, a child’s smile, a friendly greeting – it is an invitation to pause and give thanks. I believe God wants to offer encouragement every day. The only question is whether we notice.

Gratitude 1

Faithful, not successful

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers…”  Matthew 10:8

Jesus gave these instructions to the disciples before he died. He tells them to carry on his ministry by sharing God’s life-changing love. Jesus instructs his followers to offer healing and hope wherever they go.

There is plenty of need. We don’t have to look far to see the pain of this world, filled with brokenness, addiction, division, and loss. Now it’s our turn to be those disciples and put our faith into action. We might be inspired to support refugees, fight food insecurity, or address racism and inequality. We might feel called to love our neighbor in big and small ways.

But then – hesitation sets in. Why bother? Two thousand years after Jesus told his disciples to live their faith, the world is still a mess. For anyone who enjoys problem-solving and the satisfaction of getting things done, this is a discouraging track record. Sometimes it seems there is a distinct lack of tangible results.

But maybe we are expecting more of ourselves than God does. God demands faithfulness, not success.  Not being able to solve a problem or eliminate a challenge does not give us permission to ignore it. We are called to do what we can, help when we are able, and trust that God is at work.

Living faithfully is a marathon. It is the work of a lifetime where results are not always obvious. Sometimes the smallest actions can make a difference. Author Joyce Rupp wisely said, “People gain so much hope when they know they are not experiencing something alone.” It may be impossible to eliminate someone’s pain or transform their circumstances. But faithfulness tells us to show up, acknowledge the need, listen to someone’s story, accompany them in their pain, and offer a meal or a coat or a helping hand or a listening ear.

This quote hangs by my desk and inspires me every day:

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 recognize the great need that is all around us and respond with God’s love and care. We can respond with faith and leave the success up to God.