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.

Do that small thing

“Thanks. That’s the nicest thing that’s happened to me today.” The woman in the “12 items or less” line smiled briefly at me as I took her grocery basket to tuck away on the pile. I wondered what kind of day she must be having when such casual gesture was a highlight.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We never know what kind of day another person is having and we might never realize how even the smallest kindness can transform a moment. So – go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a noisy world filled with video clips of grand gestures and dramatic moments. We can view elaborately staged proposals (even “promposals”), heart-rending reunions, and over-the-top surprises. It might make our everyday actions – a welcoming smile or a door held open or a steadying hand – seem unimportant in comparison. But don’t believe that. Go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a world with crushing needs. I wish I could go to Pittsburgh and put my arm around the grieving mother whose teenage son was shot. I wish I could travel to Texas and comfort crying children separated from their parents. I wish I could help that homeless person I saw in New York, instead of just stepping over him on the sidewalk. I can’t do those things.

But we can endeavor to do what we can. As a first step, ignore that doubting voice of cynicism that mocks small gestures of kindness or caring as futile when compared to the world of anger and hurt. Make that call, send that email, smile at the cashier, greet a stranger, do that volunteer work.  Whatever it is – go ahead and do that small thing.

As the Rev. John Wesley wisely said,

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Go ahead and do that small thing. All those “small things” add up. And they may make a world of difference.

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.