Why I’m going to Puerto Rico

I’m going to Puerto Rico on a mission trip because I am tired of yelling at the radio. Daily news reports pour in that break my heart and add to my despair. A feeling of helplessness creeps over me as I wonder what I can do about the deplorable conditions that God’s children dwell in, near and far. Rage fills me as I hear politicians ignore issues like climate change and gun violence. My heart breaks when I hear stories of children separated from their parents and reports describing the impossibility of reuniting families again. I am brought to tears when I try to imagine never seeing my children again and I wonder at the resilience of these families who desperately seek safety and security. Our church has a fund to help refugees but it sits idle as our country has drastically reduced the number of people who can seek asylum here in the richest country on earth.

There seems to be two options – give up or roll up my sleeves. Why bother to fight when it seems clear that my tiny efforts will have little effect on misguided leaders who have both power and an apparently endless platform with which to share their hate-filled views.

But I believe in a God of hope. I believe in resurrection. I have spent my ministry proclaiming new life that appears in the most unlikely places. So despair really isn’t an option. I believe that the God who created the universe takes even the smallest offerings and magnifies them with the power of renewal.

So I’m going to Puerto Rico to help re-build homes destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2018. I was appalled by our government’s apparent nonchalance and lack of compassion in the wake of such devastating loss. Lives and property were ruined. Together with my husband and daughter, I will be joining a group from North Dakota to participate in UCC Disaster Relief efforts.

I would be the first to admit that my house-building skills are limited at best. Carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing are not listed on my resume. But I believe that showing up makes a difference. Offering our hands and our hearts to people who feel forgotten and overlooked matters. Plus, I can clean, shovel, and rake with the best of them.

Puerto Rico isn’t the only place that needs a helping hand, of course. You don’t need to leave your hometown in order to make a difference. Do what you can, where you can. Do that small thing. Be kind. Pay it forward. Make a phone call, send a text, pay a visit. Get involved. Contact any church or non-profit and they will be thrilled to have another set of helping hands.

Yelling at the radio, I have learned from experience, doesn’t benefit me or anybody else. Getting involved does.  Actions combined with prayer will counteract the damage being done by so many. I trust that God’s love will prevail.

Gary O: Voice of Putnam

            If you want to meet someone who loves their job, talk with Gary Osbrey. “Gary O,” as he has been known since high school, is co-owner (with his wife Karen) of WINY, the radio station in the heart of Putnam. On the morning I spoke with him, Gary was brimming with excitement. “I just flipped the switch,” he said excitedly, “We’re now broadcasting on FM as well!”  It was fabulous news for this hard working disc jockey who had always dreamed of owning a radio station.

            The pieces of Gary’s life seemed to have come together to lead him to this time and place. Growing up in Coventry RI meant that he was able to attend the only high school in the state with a student-run radio station. Getting a job at WINY (which he imagined would be a short-term experience) introduced him to the attractive station secretary, Karen. They married in 1987. All along, his goal was to own a radio station before he turned forty. On May 31, 2001, just months before that milestone birthday, that dream became a reality.

When Gary reflects on the path that led him here, he shakes his head in wonder at what he describes as the blessings of his life. 

            “I never have to hit the snooze button,” Gary confided, “I’m always glad to come to work.” He’s at his desk by 5:15 a.m. every morning, ready to greet early-morning listeners with a full range of news, sports, and updates on local events. The purpose of a local radio station, Gary says, is to provide news and information and to promote and celebrate the community.

Gary accomplishes that with his enthusiasm and welcoming spirit. His morning talk show is always booked with people eager to share their news. On any given morning, a listener can tune in to high school students describing sports, music, and arts, representatives from the hospital talking about health campaigns, religious communities sharing upcoming events, or politicians outlining legislation that will impact northeastern Connecticut. Life moves at a breathtaking pace as WINY fosters a sense of community in the Quiet Corner.

Gary’s influence and enthusiasm doesn’t stop at his office door. He is a visionary who can help others imagine the possibilities of new ideas. Not everyone who visits Disney World immediately thinks of Putnam CT, but Gary did. Disney’s Light Parade inspired Gary to introduce the idea of the Dazzle Light Parade to his small town. Now seemingly an institution in Putnam on the weekend following Thanksgiving, the idea was initially met with skepticism. Who would want a parade in chilly November? Gary’s perseverance led to the first parade in 2002, when 65 groups and organizations lit up the streets as they walked by appreciative crowds. In 2018 there were 145 entries in what is now a cherished holiday tradition.

That same ability to envision something new led to Gary’s suggestion of the Putnam River Fires. Some folks might have been discouraged when that idea was tabled year after year by town leaders. Not Gary. Finally, as part of Putnam’s 150th anniversary in 2005, the first River Fire glowed on the Quinebaug and drew crowds to the river for music and entertainment. Another beloved tradition was born.

When someone tries to compliment Gary on his accomplishments, he brushes that off saying, “You think I’m busy?  You ought to see my wife!” And it’s true – Karen is involved in multiple community organizations and events, determined to improve the lives of people in Putnam and the surrounding area. Among her many responsibilities, she is the president of the Putnam Arts Council, a member of the Quinebaug Valley Community College Foundation, and president of the Putnam Building Committee which will oversee the construction of the new town hall and library.

This hard-working, dedicated couple recognizes the need to also take care of themselves. Sunday evening dinners are a priority as they carve out time in their busy schedules to reconnect and plan for the upcoming week. An annual “winter hibernation” getaway weekend provides much-needed down time as they unplug and unwind. They seem to realize that the only way they can keep doing the work they love is if they take care of themselves and each other.

“All I want is to live a purposeful life,” Gary explains. This includes quieter activities that also offer a profound impact. Look for him at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings at the Main Street Grill for Bible study and reflection. This group, which is open to anyone who wants to show up, asks the question, “Where have you seen and experienced God this week?” Together they marvel at how God’s love and guidance weaves in and through their lives.

Through his faith, hard work, and dedication, Gary Osbrey enriches the lives of people in northeastern Connecticut.

You can listen to WINY at 1350 AM and 97.1 FM.

Creator of the Stars of Night

Advent getting you down?

Can’t listen to another Christmas song?

Too much to do and not enough time?

Do you need some inspiration for the final stretch before Christmas?

Look up.

Or, if it’s too cold for star-gazing, click here.  NASA has compiled a beauty Advent calendar of photographs taken by the Hubble telescope. Each day a breath-taking new photo of a distant galaxy or star formation is revealed. These photos offer a glimpse of worlds far beyond the one we know.

            Our Advent worship services start with the song “Creator of the Stars of Night” which begins,

Creator of the stars of night,
your people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, great friend to each and all,
we beg you, hear us when we call.

The haunting tune invites us to consider God’s eternal creativity and far-reaching love and power. A miracle of Christmas is that the creator of all we see – and beyond – chooses to come to mere Earth-bound mortals like us.

As healer from the heavens forth
you came in earth’s despairing hour,
appearing in a mother’s womb,
all dispossessed of wealth and power.

Viewing the magnificent drama of far-flung galaxies may offer some perspective on our lives. These photos may not minimize our problems, but they offer a reminder of the enormity of the God who loves us.

You grieved for human sin and woe,
the anguish of our wayward race —
and death itself for us you braved
to give us life by loving grace.

We can gaze at these creations of light and color and be amazed that this creative God reaches out to each one of us with comfort, strength and hope.

O Christ, who suffered all our pain,
receive your people who adore
your holy name and, in your joy,
bind us in friendship evermore.

The gift of Light is given so we may share it with others. As we approach Christmas may we look for that light that shines in the darkness and remember that even the darkest moments cannot overcome it (John 1).  

Make us bright bearers of your light
In word and deed, and for your sake,
that creatures all might live in peace
and mercy all the world remake.

Look at the night sky.

Look at the pictures.

Soak in the wonder, the splendor of it all.

And then go out into the world and share some of that Light.

(Lyrics adapted by the Rev. Mary Luti)

The Face of America

The American women’s gymnastics team won first place in the World Gymnastics championships last week in Qatar. These fabulous young women vaulted, tumbled, leaped, and braved death-defying moves to outshine competitors from across the globe. While I often feel like I should raise my arms in victory any Sunday I manage the three steps up to the pulpit without tripping – yes! She stuck the landing! – they perform gravity-defying moves daily.  And they smile while doing it.

Their faces are captivating

When I watch this group of accomplished, determined, strong young women, I feel a sense of hope.

Their gymnastic ability is unparalleled.

They are world champions.

And they are the face of America.

Gymnastics 5

This team with skin tones of varying hues, with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds – this is America. The true face of America is a collection of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who come together for a common cause. Our country has never been “white”. When the first immigrants arrived on these shores, they discovered native people who did not look like them.  And that was the beginning – for better or worse – of a new America.  Perhaps America was once racially pure – but that was long before European settlers came to this land.

Our country has a complicated history with race – the displacement and slaughter of Native inhabitants, the brutality and horror of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the ongoing racism against people of color. Our country continues to struggle with race.

But our gymnastics team demonstrates what is possible. They remind us that people from different backgrounds can work together to make a difference. They set an example of building bridges, of being united, and of finding (or creating) common ground.

Most of us will never cartwheel on a balance beam or fly between uneven bars. But all of us can be inspired by the determination and hard work of this young team and vow to represent our country with the same grace and unity.

Carefully choosing our mentors

Who is someone you admire? Who is someone you have learned from? Our congregation enjoys a mentorship program with the 9th and 10th graders in our confirmation class. Adults meet monthly with the teens to wrestle with the concept of living a faithful life in a sometimes chaotic world. They talk about Scripture, current events, and the joys and challenges of listening for God’s voice. These different generations listen and learn from one another.

I was blessed with a wonderful mentor as I prepared for ministry. The Rev. Dr. Bruce Bunker was the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Wallingford CT. When I was a young seminarian, he recommended thought-provoking books and essays and made time to listen to my questions and doubts. He welcomed me to the pulpit of our large downtown church so I could offer my first faltering attempts at preaching and then would diplomatically review the results. He arranged for speech lessons so my high-pitched, nervous squeak could evolve into a lower range that could convey authority and confidence. In an age when women clergy were still relatively rare, he encouraged me to pursue a solo pastorate. He believed in my call to ministry and that helped me believe it, too. His encouragement and faith in me was life-changing. His ministry was an inspiration to my own and I am forever grateful.

I wish everyone could have a mentor like that. Sadly, these days there are few public leaders I would wish to emulate or that I would recommend as a role model. If we believed the mocking tones of so many politicians, one might be tempted to believe that it is acceptable to callously ignore the feelings and worth of others.

This is a time to choose our mentors carefully. The loudest or most powerful person may not be the wisest choice. Dangerous, uncaring messages and hate-filled rhetoric fill the news. We are being asked to believe that callous indifference is the “new normal.” We may be tempted to think that our small efforts can have no impact on the growing tide of anger and division. But that is not true.

Instead, look for the behind-the-scenes workers – the ones who are feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, and caring about the forgotten. Notice the people whose smile or kind words lift someone’s spirit. Those mentors are all around us – people making a difference despite the increasing odds against them. Look for those who faithfully live lives of compassion – not for recognition or glory, but because they feel called to care for God’s people.

Many people in positions that were traditionally revered as positive role models simply do not deserve that title. Let us not be discouraged by the multiple examples of indifference. Instead, let us be inspired by those who are acting in life-giving, hope-providing, difference-making ways. Let us choose our mentors wisely and be courageous enough to pass on a legacy of caring.

Time for compassion

Just for a moment, let’s leave politics out of it.  It’s been a long, trying, emotional couple of weeks as we have testimony from Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.

I believe Dr. Blasey Ford, but even if you don’t, it is time to look at the women and girls around us with compassion.  Saint Paul talks about putting on an “armor of faith” (Ephesians 6). He describes it as including a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation and a sword of the Spirit.

Right now I would settle for a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our armor down and instead experience vulnerability of listening to one another. Let’s stop drawing battle lines based on which testimony we believe. Instead, take a moment to recognize the millions of women and girls who are suffering flashbacks to their moments of powerlessness, their experiences with violence, and their journeys into shame and degradation. Forget about arming ourselves for further arguments and division. Let’s hear those who are saying #metoo.

I have heard from many women who were either unable to listen to Dr. Blasey Ford’s description of attempted rape because of the painful memories it recalled or who found themselves riveted as they heard someone else describe the terror they thought only they knew about.

You can discount Dr. Blasey Ford’s words if you wish. But you can’t ignore the legions of women who have experienced violence and who remained silent because of fear or humiliation.

If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, “I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.”

In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart.  We assure women and girls who have not been heard or believed that we are now listening. And we remind them that they are beloved children of God – strong, valuable, lovable, and deserving of dignity.

That’s the world I want to live in.  We create that world every time one of us opens our hearts to compassion and caring.

You have 30 seconds

A car horn blared behind me, seeming to make my whole car shake and causing me to clench the steering wheel even tighter. The large black truck had been following me very closely for the last mile; only our narrow, windy country roads prevented him from passing me. Now that we had reached an intersection, he was clearly fed up with my speed-limit driving. He wanted me out of his way – fast. The fact that two cars were approaching, making it impossible for me to cross the busy street made no difference to him. He expressed his frustration with his loud horn as he rolled down and shouted words I won’t repeat.

When it was safe, I drove across the street, still shaken by the anger that followed me. There on the other side of the intersection, sitting in his truck, was a young man from our congregation.  He also rolled down the window. His interaction with me was entirely different. He gave me a big smile and leaned out to wave his hand. We didn’t speak, but my spirits were lifted by his cheery greeting and obvious goodwill.

Each encounter lasted no more than 30 seconds but the impact was powerful. It helped me realize what a difference our words and actions can have. Never underestimate your ability to influence the mood or even the entire day of another human being. Every day – and several times in each day – we have a choice of how we will live, speak, and interact with one another. Whether the person we encounter is a stranger or friend, we have a choice about what impression we will make and how we will leave that person after we part. Will that person be better off, lifted up, or encouraged? Or will our words and actions leave that person hurt, angry, or afraid? The choice is ours.

In the story of the Exodus, Moses tells the people of Israel that they are responsible for their actions. Moses describes the choice that they have; “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30).

Choose life. Choose kindness, every time. Choose civility, choose respect, choose patience. Choose to treat the other person as you would wish to be treated. Don’t overlook those 30 second encounters. They might make all the difference.

You have 30 seconds to make a difference – now go out and share God’s love.