So proud of you!

It’s been a long 10 weeks. Since the pandemic began, our lives have changed dramatically. As things have shifted, we have adjusted to new ways of doing things. We have had a steep learning curve forced upon us. This strange new world demands new skills. Even activities that we have done for years suddenly require new approaches. The whole experience is both exhilarating – we’re learning something new! – and exhausting – we have to ponder every move.

            I want to pause in the midst of this time of learning and adjustment and say – I am proud of you. You are doing it. You have risen to the occasion in so many ways.  Even if these adjustments have come only grudgingly and under duress, you are allowing your creativity to shine. In every renewed effort, in every fledgling attempt to meet the demands, and in every act of caring, I see the new life and new possibilities promised by our resurrection God.

Let’s take a moment and recognize all the effort that has been required in these last months:

  • Parents who are juggling working at home with helping your children with online classes – good for you.
  • Teachers who are skilled and knowledgeable in their classrooms and who suddenly had to engage in an entirely different way of teaching – thank you.
  • Students, young and old, who are missing their friends, yearning for play dates, and craving time to hang out in person – you’re doing great.
  • Nurses, doctors, lab technicians and health aides who are overwhelmed by the enormous increase in life-threatening cases – we are grateful for your efforts.
  • Grocery store clerks, delivery workers, postal employees – all of you who never considered yourselves to be “front line” workers who make our economy run – thank you for keeping us connected.
  • Restaurant owners who never had take-out service before and never considered outdoor seating – we appreciate your ingenuity and creativity.
  • People who hang up hearts along the roadside and in front of their homes as a sign of encouragement and togetherness – thank you for sharing the love.
  • Senior citizens who are venturing into realms of social media and mastering Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom – good for you!
  • High school seniors who are missing class trips, proms, yearbook signings, and graduations – our hearts go out to you.
  • Pastors, rabbis, and imams who have been transformed into videographers and on-camera preachers – thank you for learning new ways to share God’s Word and hope.
  • Neighbors and friends who leave gifts of food, flowers, and kindness on doorsteps to offer encouragement and love – your kindness matters.
  • Creators of cards to be delivered to nursing homes and hospitals – thank you for lifting spirits.
  • Organizers of birthday parades, teacher celebrations, and student celebrations – thank you for sharing joy.

There is much that we are missing as we enter into our third month of pandemic and physical distancing but you have proven your resilience. You have demonstrated your creativity. You have lived your love and shared your empathy.

And I am tremendously proud of you and grateful for your efforts.

Good for you!  Thank you.

No Going Back

There is a yearning in people’s voices when they ask, “When can we go back to normal? When can we go back to our usual routines? When will things go back to the way they used to be?”

To which I would answer – there’s no going back.

And what’s more, if we really think about it, I don’t think we will want to.

            The experience of the pandemic with its social/physical distancing has changed us. It has shaken us up and taught us a few lessons. Yes, we’ll be glad when we can meet together again. We will rejoice when stores and restaurants are open and we can invite friend over again. But some pandemic experiences might have opened our eyes to changes we want to make in our lives and the life of the church.

Here are some things the pandemic has helped me learn –

  • I actually enjoy sitting on my front steps watching the birds, looking at flowers, and noticing clouds drifting overhead. When I was busy rushing from one event to another, I rarely took time to soak up the beauty around me.
  • Livestreaming our worship service has changed our congregation. It enables people across the country and around the world to join us in prayer and praise. People who have moved away, friends and family across the globe, and those who cannot leave their homes now come together to worship.
  • Zoom Bible study allows equal access to fellowship and learning. Can’t get to East Woodstock?  No problem – call in or turn on your computer and suddenly you are part of a weekly gathering.

Why would I want to “go back” and forget these valuable lessons? Instead of yearning to “go back” to what was, we can consider how to “move forward.” Moving forward, how will I safeguard my calendar so there is still enough time to breathe and enjoy a slower pace?

  Moving forward, how will our church ensure that everyone can access worship on Sunday morning – either in person or from home? Moving forward, how will we reach out to the medically fragile who cannot risk sitting in a crowd? Moving forward, how will we take what we’ve learned about technology and social media and put that to work for our children, young people, and seniors?

            There are parts of the pandemic that we will be eager to leave behind. But let’s move forward with the new skills and insights that we have gained. Church, school, families, businesses, and all of us will need to adapt to our new reality. We can move forward in this new era knowing that God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever journeys with us.

Refuge

One of the sorrows in my life is that I can’t draw.

One of the joys in my life is that I married a man who can.

            Often I will describe an image to him – something that came to me in a dream or after praying or during a journaling moment. I wish I could just pick up a pen or paintbrush and transform my thoughts into a picture. Somehow my brain and my hand do not communicate that way.

            So I share the picture in my head with him through words. “It looks like this,” I say earnestly. And he listens. He asks questions. And then he draws. It is a marvel to me that the image in my mind and the description of my words can come to life on a page.

            This image is called “Refuge.” I imagined a small boat protected from a raging storm. The wind and sea are wild and fierce, yet this tiny vessel has found a place of safety and protection.

            Throughout the pandemic thus far, the verse “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46) has stayed with me. The word “refuge” has taken on new meaning to me. A refuge is not a place to live or even necessarily a place to hide. A refuge is a shelter. It offers protection. And protection might bring about renewal. Refuge provides a moment of calm in a storm. It is an opportunity to catch your breath until you are strong enough to go out to face whatever challenges are waiting.

            I have a sign in our home that reads, “Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms the child.”  Remembering that God is here and receiving God’s calming love – that is refuge for me.

 This picture reminds me to search for God’s refuge. I might find it at the dinner table with my family or in the garden filled with flowers. Watching the birds at the feeder or listening to music can provide moments of refuge.

            A refuge is not a permanent dwelling place, but it does provide soothing comfort and a reminder that I am not alone.

            This picture reminds me of the renewing power of refuge. 

            Thank you, Roger.

Signs of the times

Have you noticed the signs of these times? I’m not talking about the daily briefings from the White House or the updated lists county by county of illness and mortality rates. There are other signs these days – signs to lift our spirits and signs to remind us we are not alone. Nowadays when we take a rare drive around town, there are signs and symbols everywhere.

            People have stopped by our local park to hang up signs on trees to thank health care workers, offer encouragement, and express appreciation.

Thank you to care workers

            More and more homes (and churches) are displaying teddy bears and other stuffed animals in windows so children can participate in a “bear hunt” as they view furry friends symbolizing solidarity and caring.

            Sometimes “signs” are delivered sight unseen and only discovered later. I was delighted to find a beautifully painted flower pot filled with pansies on my doorstep with a card to lift my spirits. Someone else dropped off an Easter basket with chocolates for my family with the message, “Thank you.”

            Sweet Honeycomb, a wonderful Christian resource company based in Australia is providing free coloring pages with uplifting phrases. People have been decorating them and hanging them in our church windows as a reminder to passers-by, “we are all in this together.” I love the idea that people across the world are sharing these positive messages as a global reminder that we can carry on, one day at a time.

            On the Saturday before Easter, members of our congregation were invited to stop by the church to decorate the front doors of our church with paper hearts. Even while maintaining proper social distancing and never coming in direct contact with one another, our congregation managed to work as a team to produce a bright and power proclamation of God’s love.

One of the front doors of the East Woodstock Congregational Church

            In these days when we are not allowed to gather together but when we all need encouragement more than ever, how will we share hope and Good News? What signs have you seen?  What signs have you shared?  This new era of physical separation calls on our creativity – what new ways can we use to reach out to one another? This is the time to consider who might need a cheery message or a note of caring. This is the moment when, while feeling powerless against an invisible virus, we are empowered to use our imaginations and find ways to help one another with support and encouragement.

Signs of encouragement

      How will you add to the signs of the times?

Corona and Self-Care

It’s been a long week, hasn’t it?  It seems hard to believe that just seven days ago, I was agonizing over the decision about whether to hold worship in our sanctuary. Now the idea of groups coming together is horrifying. As a result, online gatherings are springing up everywhere. Classes, youth groups, Bible study, yoga, “zoom”ba (love the name – exercise via Zoom meeting!). Even online pottery classes and art lessons. We are discovering a whole new way of connecting with each other.

            But it is a steep learning curve for many of us. Throughout the week, I found myself shaking my head and muttering, “They didn’t teach me this in seminary.” Of course, when I first arrived at the East Woodstock Congregational Church in 1987, the church still had a mimeograph machine, a rotary dial telephone, and was proud of its up-to-date electric typewriter. Fast forward to 2020 when I spent this week learning how to hold online meetings and discovered the advantages of establishing the church’s own YouTube channel. Whew.

            Whether your routine has been disrupted by working at home, homeschooling your children, adjusting to extended periods of alone time, missing loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, yearning for social interaction, or being deprived of opportunities to shop, eat, and gather together – this has been a big adjustment.

It’s time to take care of ourselves.

Being tough and determined is fine, but it is also all right to also acknowledge that this isn’t easy. It is hard to completely change our way of life in a matter of days.

Now it’s time to think about what would feed your spirit, what will calm your anxiety, and what will help you get through one more day at a time. Maybe the first thing is to turn off the news and step away from the computer for a while.

 We can listen to the wisdom that mothers and grandmothers have been offering for generations – get some fresh air, exercise, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, and drink plenty of water. Be gentle with yourself. None of us have done this before. We don’t have to be good at this right away. Very few of us are natural isolationists.

 Find words of Scripture, poetry, or music that comfort your heart. Search for hope and encouragement. And then share that with others – in the midst of our own challenges, we need to remember those who were already struggling before all of this started.

And through it all, God will be with us.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4: 4-7)

Corona and Community

The world seems to be divided into two distinct groups – huggers and non-huggers. Some people announce their preference during introductions.  “I’m a hugger,” a new acquaintance informed me. “Do you mind? It’s so good to meet you.” At the other end of the spectrum are folks like my uncle (a confirmed non-hugger) who insists that a “hearty handshake” is sufficient to convey good wishes and affection.

Nowadays, neither form of expression is acceptable or encouraged.

The Coronavirus has reestablished societal rules that would warm a Puritan’s heart.

“No touching” is the recommendation of the Center for Disease Control.

“Stand at least three feet apart,” advise many doctors.

“Don’t get too friendly,” seems to be the general advice.

            A large part of gathering together as the people of God is the act of caring for one another. Whether we assemble for worship or fellowship or a shared meal, there are always extended periods of hugs, handshakes, and hearty pats on the back. The warm, caring congregation I serve often expresses their concern and compassion with these personal, physical forms of affection. They are treasured by the vast majority of our congregation and particularly by those who live alone or are mourning or lonely or seeking the warmth and reassurance of human touch.

            So we enter a new era – hopefully a temporary one – where we must discover new ways to greet and honor one another. We decided against eliminating our post-worship receiving line where huggers and non-huggers greet me and engage in conversation. Those encounters are priceless. Ministry is, at its heart, all about relationships and the bond we share. In those precious moments I can ask about someone’s health, check in about children or parents, or hear a brief recap of a trip. Now we need to learn to do that without physical contact.

            We are experimenting with creative alternatives. Some people offer a “Namaste” with prayer hands in front of their chests while others fold their fingers into a heart shape to express their affection. Some people have tried tapping feet but many of our older folks envision themselves toppling over and opt to keep their feet firmly planted on the floor. The Vulcan hand signal, arms crossed over the chest in a symbol of an ancient cross, and simply bowing to one another are all options.

            We are dipping our toes into the beauty of American Sign Language. Last Sunday a teacher of the Deaf taught us the symbol for “peace be with you.” Dabbling with a new language reminds us that God speaks in many ways. As we learn new expressions, perhaps we will become more attuned to the nuances and needs of others.

            None of us asked for this era of fear and concern that the Coronavirus has thrust upon us. But God is good. There are many ways to be in community with one another. Whether online or in person, whether in close contact or maintaining “social distancing,” we can honor the most important elements of community – listening, loving, caring, and accompanying one another on the journey.

What is mercy?

My star gift this year is “mercy.”  What comes to mind when you hear that word?  My initial thought was that “mercy” is given to a prisoner by a captor. That goes along with the dictionary definition: Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” After reading that I felt slightly guilty since it made me wonder what I had done that deserved punishment or harm. How bad was I that I required mercy?

On further reflection, I realized that every month I drive to the Mercy Center in Madison CT, a beautiful retreat center on the Long Island Sound that is run by the Sisters of Mercy. They are renowned for offering hospitality and welcome. The Mercy Center is a place of rest and renewal. That definition of “mercy” appeals to me. Who doesn’t need a safe, comforting spot where one will be loved and accepted? It sounds like healing and new life.

In order to learn about mercy, I’ve started a collection of quotes. Maybe you’ll be able to add to them – I have, after all, a whole year to immerse myself in the study of mercy. Here are some quotes that speak to my heart about mercy:

  • “Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer.”
  • “It is mercy not justice or courage or even heroism that alone can defeat evil.”
  • “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Matthew 9:13).

I’ve also been listening to songs with the word “mercy” in them.  This one is my favorite so far – it’s called “God of mercy (Prayer song)” by Lou Fellingham. Do you know any songs about mercy?  I would be glad if you could add to my collection. 

There is something both powerful and humbling about realizing that God gives to us what we need, not what we deserve. God offers forgiveness, love, new beginnings, and – mercy. We don’t have to earn those gifts. They are provided because without them we would be bereft. What if we could be so generous with others? What if we were that generous with ourselves?

If you have a star gift, I hope you are enjoying it. (And if you would like me to mail you one, you can message me your address).  I would be interested to hear what you have learned so far, what questions you still have, and where you are being led to explore. I will continue to immerse myself in learning about mercy and I will share what I learn with you.

In the meantime, be merciful with yourself and others.

The Caring Corner

What do we do about problems with no easy solutions? Every city and town confronts challenges and it is often unclear how to make a difference. During a recent visit to the small city of Newark Ohio (population: 48,000), I was impressed with a group of volunteers concerned about homelessness and addiction. What impressed me the most was their ability to identify not simply a problem to be solved but also recognize people who need help.  

If you go to Newark on a Saturday morning all year long, you’ll see a white pop-up tent on a corner vacant lot across the street from the county jail and the sheriff’s office. Rickety folding tables hold cases of water bottles, sandwiches in plastic bags, and a few grocery items. An assortment of colorful plastic coolers surrounds the table. A few feet away a metal clothes rack displays shirts, sweaters, and jackets gently swaying in the breeze.

Volunteers greet people as they wander by. Some cluster in the shade, eager to get out of the blazing sunlight. Others straddle their bikes, rocking back and forth as they chat and stock up on supplies. Some sprawl out on the grass, grateful for a cold drink of water on a hot day.

This is the Caring Corner, a place where anyone can come to receive food or drink. My friend delivers a blue plastic cooler filled with frozen plastic water bottles. The arrival of this bounty causes some excitement among those gathered around the tables. They are anticipating just how good that cold bottle will feel pressed against their foreheads or necks. One of the challenges of living outside is the searing, oppressive heat. The ice will provide a brief respite and then offer cool water to these thirsty souls.

One of the offerings at the Caring Corner is fentanyl testing strips.  This was so far outside of my experience or knowledge base that it had to be explained to me.  Many (perhaps most) of the visitors to Caring Corner are heroin addicts. Street heroin is often mixed with the much stronger drug fentanyl. The testing strip allows the user to gauge how much they can inject to reduce the risk of an overdose.

My immediate reaction was – can’t we cure them? Help them conquer their addiction? The Caring Corner meets these mostly young men and women where they are and addresses their immediate needs. They are addicted, hungry, and thirsty. While I might wish to solve all of their challenges, they just want to stay alive today.

Sometimes we are able to provide a solution. Sometimes we are just helpers along someone’s path. I believe God calls us to meet people wherever they are on their journey and offer whatever help and support we can.

Lights for Liberty

I had planned to go to a lovely outdoor concert last Friday. I was looking forward to sitting with friends, enjoying a precious summer evening, relaxing under the trees as we listened to toe-tapping music.

But then I heard about the Lights for Liberty vigil.

 Gatherings were being held across the country on July 12th to raise awareness of the horrible conditions endured by refugees in detention camps in our country. Inspired by the light held by the Statue of Liberty, we are called into action by the poem inscribed on the monument’s base.  “The New Colossus” by  Emma Lazarus issues a moving invitation.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

            I felt compelled to give up my concert plans so I could heed the call of these inspiring words. I wanted to stand in solidarity with hundreds of families who are waiting at our border to apply for asylum. It is not illegal to ask for help. They are simply waiting to be heard. Parents and children are trying to escape violence, terror, and hunger. They are drawn by Lady Liberty’s light of freedom and the promise of this country founded by immigrants. Yet these tired, poor homeless masses are being treated like criminals.

 So I joined dozens of others in a park in Manchester CT to listen to first-hand accounts of recently-arrived immigrants expressing their gratitude for a fresh start. I heard a speaker compare World War II era Japanese internment camps to the refugee holding areas on our border. I joined in the song “This Land is My Land” that celebrates our country that was “made for you and me.”  

And we lit candles. As dusk fell, people of all ages, faces glowing in the flickering light, promised to carry the beacons of hope and determination into our towns, states, and country. I went to the vigil because I believe that is where Jesus would stand – with the outcast, with the suffering, with those on the margins.

There will be another pleasant outdoor concert to enjoy. But the refugees need us now. I was glad to be surrounded by the compassion and strength of those who gathered to celebrate Lights for Liberty. Now I will continue to do what I can to spread the message of justice and liberty for all.

Worrying about the children

I can’t get the children out of my mind. Refugee children in detention centers without soap or toothbrushes and sometimes without beds. Children who have been separated from their parents and who barely have enough to eat. Children forbidden to go outside to exercise or play.

            We didn’t invite them here. These children did not ask to be caught up in this violent and dangerous situation. Many do not want them here (I would urge the wealthiest country in the world to consider its obligation to help those less fortunate but that is an argument for another day). The fact remains – the children are here.  They are in our country. What will we do? The way we respond to the weak and desperate defines who we are as a nation. The world is watching. How will we react?

            When I think about the children in the migration centers, I think of my own children at that young age. I remember vividly how vulnerable they were when they were frightened or lonely or sick. When I think of these migrant children who are alone, cold, and afraid, I imagine them crying without comfort or care being provided.  It breaks my heart and makes me furious in equal measure.

            The argument has turned petty. Withholding toothbrushes? Refusing to allow them to shower or bathe? Rationing soap and confiscating blankets? Some would argue that harsh treatment will discourage additional refugees from entering our country. The idea that people are risking their lives in order to be treated inhumanely in detention centers defies logic. No one is crossing the border to get a clean toothbrush. Desperate parents are trying to save their lives and protect their children. They are risking everything in search of safety, security, and a chance for a new life.   

            Responding to thousands of refugees fleeing from countries filled with violence and danger is a huge challenge. Fear is driving them to our border. Our country needs to take action in this very human crisis. We don’t have to agree on immigration policy before we recognize our obligation to provide basic care for these homeless, hurting children.

Our country was founded by immigrants. We are known as a generous, caring country who rushes to the aid of people across the globe. Now those people are on our doorstep. We may not be able to find homes for all of them, but we can treat them with the dignity that all human beings deserve. If Congress cannot find a way to provide toiletries for children, the government should turn to faith communities and other non-profits. Provide 2000 toothbrushes?  We can do that in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, if you, like me, are looking for a concrete way to respond, you may choose to donate to agencies that are aiding refugees. Here are some:

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  

KIND: Kids in Need of Defense  

UCC Refugee Relief 

            I will pray that we will learn how to put “love your neighbor” into action.