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.

Into the Light!

Sandwiched between the busy seasons of Advent and Christmas and the more somber, thought-provoking weeks of Lent comes the quiet elation of Epiphany. This joy-filled season shines long after Christmas decorations have been tucked away and New Year’s resolutions have fallen to the wayside. The star lingers overhead, inviting us to venture into the unknown. Only when we move beyond the familiar will we encounter the new gifts God is offering.

  Epiphany is an often-overlooked but delightful season that offers hope in the midst of despair and light glimmering in the darkness. It reminds us of the journey of the magi, who followed mysterious messages to seek God’s promise. The star’s brilliance cajoles us to leave the safety of our routines behind.  The quiet assurance of a God who yearns to be found and who places directional signals in the sky lures us forward. God invites us to marvel at signs and wonders that point to God’s love and presence.

              Unlike Christmas and New Year, the season of Epiphany is not widely recognized in secular society. January is often regarded with the enthusiasm of a deflated balloon while the aftermath of Christmas is considered a dreary time to be endured. But in the church, Epiphany is a season of discovery, learning, and love.

In these weeks following Christmas, we are invited to bask in the light of the Christmas star. The star reminds us of the wise words that Jesus would grow up to proclaim, “People [do not] light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:15). The light is provided by God who wants to be found by us. The heavenly beacon is not an exclusive signal meant for only a few people. It shines forth beckoning to all of God’s children. Anyone who looks up will see the sign. Anyone who dares to follow will discover the riches that wait underneath.

During Epiphany, dare to ask that star some questions.

  • Where am I being led in this New Year?  Is the star offering some course correction? Should I be like the magi and experiment with a “different road” that will lead me to new experiences?
  • What might I need to leave behind in order to start on this journey? What burdens or expectations can I set aside to lighten the load?
  • As the light shines into my life, what might I discover about myself? What do I value? What new parts of myself do I want to explore?
  • What does the light reveal in our world? What needs or injustices are calling out for compassion and kindness?

The season of Epiphany lasts for eight weeks. Let us celebrate this journey of exploration, knowing we are being led by the Light of Christ.

Jamboree – it’s who we are

It happened again – I was trying to describe where our church is and which of the many Congregational churches in our area is actually East Woodstock. Then the light dawned – “Oh, is your church the Jamboree church?”  Yes, indeed.  That’s who we are.

            It’s a good way to be known. Yes, we’re the church that hosts an enormous party on the Fourth of the July. Yes, we’re the church that offers safe, old-fashioned fun for families. Yes, we’re the church that invites kids to play games, dance to music, and ride their bikes in the parade. Yes, we’re the church that encourages people to spend the day relaxing on the common as they listen to local musicians and enjoy delicious food. Yes, we’re the church that opens our doors and our hearts wide and says, “Come on in.”

            While I’m glad that hundreds of people will find their way here on the Fourth of July, I wish more people could experience the behind-the-scenes activity that makes that special day possible. The small but mighty Jamboree committee begins meeting and dreaming in February.

About 10 days prior to the big celebration, the church starts humming with activity as people stop by with donations of “treasures” and books.  I love listening to the laughter and conversations of volunteers as they sort, clean, and categorize the huge variety of items that will be for sale. It is not unusual to find people standing with bits and pieces in their hands, deep in conversation, as they take the chance to catch up with old friends or meet new ones. Sometimes a guessing game ensues – “What is this thing?” (The answers have been as varied as a cranberry scoop, a candle sharpener, and an apple peeler/corer).  Or reminiscing kicks in – “I remember these!  I used to have one when I was a kid.”  I have heard mini book reviews as people happen upon a favorite book and recount a much-loved story. It is a time of excitement and anticipation.

  Fellowship and community are a big part of the Jamboree and they begin long before the actual day.

The Jamboree started in 1957 when the church was short on funds. While this was not a particularly unusual situation, the solution was. A trio of creative women – Barbara Barrett, Nancy Lyons, and Betty Wells – imagined a one-time event to fill the budget gaps. They invited the community and people responded with enthusiasm. And thus, a tradition was born. This year we’ll celebrate our 63rd Jamboree.

Some things have changed over the decades. We no longer host a ham and bean supper in the evening (those hardy New Englanders!  How did they have the stamina to prepare a meal after a long day on the common?!) and the torch runners now carry flags representing our country, our state, and the thirteen colonies.

But the heart of the Jamboree remains the same. It is an invitation for people from near and far to come together. We celebrate our country and the freedoms we enjoy. We celebrate East Woodstock and give thanks for the church. It is a day filled with festivities and gratitude.

I look forward to celebrating the Fourth of July Jamboree and give thanks for all the volunteers – past and present – who make it possible.

Pause. Breathe. Pray.

Good Friday is a day for prayer and contemplation. Our sanctuary remains open and everyone is invited to stop by to immerse themselves in some moments of silence, rest, prayer, and reflection. It is an opportunity to literally seek sanctuary from the relentless press of schedule, emails, worries, and obligations.

            As you enter the silence, it is clear that this is a reliable place to slow down, breathe deeply, and be aware of God’s presence. Although it can be a thrill to celebrate worship in a packed church on Easter morning, there is something special about being – simply being – in the quiet, simple beauty.

            Most sanctuaries are designed to make mere mortals feel small. Although we are a simple country church and not a grand cathedral, the soaring ceiling and openness of the sanctuary remind us of the majesty and power of our Creator. We bring our hopes, fears, and fervent prayers to One who is greater – bigger – than we are. There is comfort in that.

           On Good Friday in our sanctuary, there will be “prayer stations” which invite participants to spend time in prayer. Since there are many ways to pray and encounter God, each station offers a different way to engage in reflection. Participants can choose to light candles to ask God to shine light in particularly dark circumstances. They might choose to write a confession on dissolving paper and place it in the water of the baptismal font as they remember that God washes away the sins of the world. They can reflect on events of Holy Week by reading Scripture or lift up prayers for their life’s journey by using a finger labyrinth. Each station invites us to offer prayers for ourselves and others as we remember God’s love for the world.

            Prayer and quiet offer a respite. Whether you visit the East Woodstock sanctuary, another church of your choosing, or discover God in another way altogether, it is life-giving to be reminded of who and whose we are. We can then re-enter the world with a renewed spirit and a reminder of God’s promise to be with us always. Revived by God’s love, we can share Good News of hope and new life.

We’d rather be singing

Palm Sunday is filled with music. This Sunday we can look forward to the children singing (so cute!) and our bell choir (beautifully ringing from our balcony). For the 86th time in our history, the men’s chorus will sing “The Palms.” This tradition, started by Vernon Wetherell in 1933, celebrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and is a highlight of this special day.

To top it all off, we will also be celebrating a baptism (congratulations, Mila!).  It promises to be a joyous, uplifting service.

            But. Here’s the thing about Palm Sunday. It’s tricky. Just when you think it’s safe to relax in the joy and praise – Hosanna! – It takes a turn. The service shifts. The music fades away. The lights are dimmed. The flowers and the altar cloths are removed. In the bleak silence we hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, pain, doubt, agony, temptation, and loss.

Palm Sunday invites us to enter Holy Week, the days that will – eventually – lead us to Easter.

            When the going gets tough, we’d rather be singing. Who wouldn’t prefer one more verse of “Glory, Laud, and Honor” rather than thinking about life’s hardships – betrayal, fear, tears, and suffering.

What’s wrong with Christians? Are we masochists? Gluttons for punishment?  Why do we have to consider those elements of human life that we would rather avoid? Why do we listen to the litany of suffering that Jesus endured?

We’d rather be singing.

We listen because it’s part of our Christian story. Even more than that, it is part of our human story. Every life contains twists and turns. Everyone will encounter moments of despair. Every life confronts painful loss and sadness.

Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not alone on that journey. Jesus went before us. He knows the path, he has experienced this a lifetime of heartbreak. When we lift up urgent prayers for ourselves and others, we are speaking to One who knows. Palm Sunday provides profound Good News; even when we are on an unwanted journey or our life has taken an unexpected turn, we have good company along the way.

So this Sunday, if you are filled with joy, go ahead and sing songs of praise. Lift up your voice to celebrate the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Hosanna! Celebrate old traditions and welcome new forms of worship and praise.

If, however, you are not able to muster a song and you can find no reason to be thankful, remember Palm Sunday is for you, as well. Joy and sadness are often intertwined in our complicated human lives. In the quieter moments of Palm Sunday, listen for words of comfort, courage, and hope. Wherever we are on life’s journey – filled with cheer or bent over in grief – God provides the music to guide our paths.

Jamboree 2018

There is no tired like a post-Jamboree tired. After days of preparation, setting up tents, preparing the barbecue pit, sorting thousands of books, cleaning, arranging, and pricing countless “attic treasures,” hauling signs, tables, and chairs from the church basement, and tending to hundreds of other details, our team of volunteers was ready for the Big Day.

It didn’t rain – good!

But it was HOT.  Wow.

But nothing keeps our volunteers down. They did a fabulous job.

If you happened by at 6:00 a.m., you would have found a chatty crew talking and laughing in the church kitchen as they prepared strawberries for the mouth-watering shortcake. The volunteers from the Muddy Brook Fire Department were out back tending the barbecue fire and putting 500 chickens into grilling racks. By 8:00 a.m. volunteers were scattered across the common, setting up signs and creating displays of baked goods, snow-cones, ice cream, jewelry, and soft drinks. The hot dog and hamburger folks were preparing for a long day cooking over the hot grill.

What do people experience when they come to the Jamboree? They discover a welcome that reflects our church and our faith. “Whoever you are,” our sign reads, “and wherever you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here.” That slogan is lived out all day long during the Jamboree.

Welcome

Technology (besides our sound system) really doesn’t play a part on this old-fashioned day. People are welcome to pull up a chair, sit in the shade, and enjoy the music. Some folks bring a book or knitting and settle in for the day. Some families schedule their reunion time to coincide with the chicken barbecue and the upbeat tunes provided by the East Woodstock Cornet Band. Children laugh and giggle in the bouncy house, get their faces painted, and enjoy the bean-bag toss and the giant wooden puzzle of the 50 states.

There’s music – plenty of it. The Jamboree kicks off with the National Anthem. It is almost a sacred moment when hundreds of people stop in their tracks across the common to quietly listen to our country’s song. Throughout the day local musicians share their bountiful talents.

Sarah Jo

During the heat of the day everyone is invited into our 1832 sanctuary for our “pipe organ pops” concert which shows off the extraordinary sounds that those 300 pipes can make. Then there’s the sing-along, joining our voices together to celebrate the day in the relative cool of that peaceful place.

A cake walk (kind of like musical chairs – your chance to win a delicious cake) is filled with laughter and good cheer as beautiful desserts are distributed to lucky winners.

The day ends with “God Bless America,” our prayer for our country.

There were no lessons on “Jamboree” in seminary. It was nothing I ever expected to be part of. But it is a day that reminds me why I love being a pastor. Over 100 people are needed to make this day a success and every year they come together to create a day worth remembering. They offer a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere that invites people in and encourages fellowship and fun.

So yes, we all experienced that post-Jamboree exhaustion. But you know what? Next year we will do it all again.

It’s a tradition that started in 1957 and, God willing, it will continue for decades to come.

Uncle Sam

Quality Treats

Halloween was about quality, not quantity where I grew up. Houses were spread far apart in our rural area, necessitating car-driven trick or treating. Since that was all I ever experienced, it didn’t seem strange to me.  My best friend and I would spend weeks preparing and trying out various costumes until we cobbled together (never bought) some dress-up creation. A hobo, a flapper, a mummy come to mind. One year it was a huge box with head and arm holes that fit over my body; it was spray-painted silver and plastered with dials, a compass, and a thermometer. Suddenly, I was a robot.  Climbing in and out of the car was a challenge, but I felt very futuristic and modern.

Our Halloween visits were eagerly anticipated by our few neighbors. When we arrived, anxious to knock on the door or ring the doorbell, the door would swing open with a hearty, “Come in!” Waiting for us was a bowl filled with Halloween napkins tied with yarn that were stuffed with (full-size) candy bars and candy corn. Often a short visit for the adults would be required, despite our squirmy insistence that we move on to the next stop. We still had a lot of ground to cover that night. Thirteen or fourteen stops later, Halloween was over for another year, but we could go home to count, sort, and treasure our sweet treasures.

There were of course a few “ringers” in the neighborhood. The over-sticky candied apple at the orchard home or the collection of lemon drops and “suckers” from an elderly widow. That’s when the lesson of smiling and saying “Thank you” kicked in. But mostly our reward was a bounty of goodies, generously and gladly given.

What I realize now as an adult is how fortunate I am to have so many happy childhood memories. Much of my listening time as a minister is filled with stories of abuse or drama, angry or hurtful words in turbulent, unhappy homes. The lack of stability in childhood makes it challenging (not impossible, but more difficult) to create a stable adulthood. Many struggle for decades to overcome damage that was done.

I had the privilege of receiving what every child deserves, but does not get. I had parents who were dependable and loving and who created a safe place to grow up.

If you are someone who had a stable (not necessarily rich or luxurious, but safe) upbringing, take a moment to give thanks for those who loved and protected you.

If your memories of growing up are more troubled, know that God’s desire for you is that you know your true identity – you are a beloved child of God, who is loved and lovable. That unshakeable love is the gift, the treat, that each one of us is offered – on Halloween and every day.