Sabbatical time

My congregation and I are about to embark on the very special experience of “sabbatical.” What is sabbatical, you may ask?

            A sabbatical is a time to step back and experience something new. The tradition of sabbatical is grounded in the Bible when God gives these instructions, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 25).

            God was telling Moses that the Promised Land would need a time of rest and renewal – a sabbatical – to ensure its health and productivity. The word “sabbatical” has the same root as “Sabbath.” We are commanded to take a weekly Sabbath; this time of rest and renewal is a gift from God. (This commandment is probably the one that gets broken most often). We live in a society that values staying busy and multi-tasking and being productive. But God knows that we all need time to rest, breathe, take a step back, and get a different perspective. We all need Sabbath time.

A sabbatical is an extended Sabbath. In our congregation, after six years of ministry, the congregation and minister engage in sabbatical time. We will spend time apart from one another; when we come back together we will have new experiences, insights, and learnings to share with each other.

When I look at my calendar for the coming months, much of it is blank. It offers intentionally unplanned and unstructured time to renew my spirit. I imagine days of reading, biking, kayaking, knitting, and simply sitting outside enjoying God’s creation. During my sabbatical I will also have the chance to visit family and friends – something that is especially sweet after our pandemic isolation. Roger and I will also be traveling to Anchorage Alaska where we will spend some weeks volunteering part-time at a homeless shelter.

            It is also sabbatical time for our congregation. They will have the opportunity to learn and grow under the leadership of Danielle Arnett Keller, our substitute minister. Her experience, enthusiasm, and abundant good ideas will provide our congregation new ideas and perspectives.

            Sabbatical – like Sabbath – does not last forever. It is meant to be a transformative experience that helps us return to our schedules and responsibilities with renewed energy, fresh enthusiasm and increased knowledge.

            I won’t be posting in my blog during my sabbatical – taking a break! – but I’ll let you know what I experienced when I return.  

A Psalm for Every Season

We are listening to to the beautiful book of Psalms in worship during the season of Lent. The psalms are a collection of songs used by the people of Israel as they worshiped in the Temple and in their homes. The psalms encouraged them to – as Paul would say centuries later – pray without ceasing. They were encouraged to speak to God no matter what was going on. And since their lives – like our lives – had ups and downs and joys and challenges, it meant that there needed to be a wide variety of psalms.

Life can get messy sometimes. Too often when people hear the word “prayer,” they think that our words need to be sweet and joyful and filled with prayer.  The psalms offer us words for those other times in life. It turns out that there truly is a psalm for every season of our lives.

The psalms can offer us words when we don’t know what to say to God. The psalms encourage us to pray honest, heartfelt prayers.

  • Feeling exhausted? Read Psalm 38 which complains, “My strength has failed me.”
  • Filled with anxiety? Rest a moment with Psalm 131 as you pray, “Help me quiet and calm my soul,” and be comforted by the images of God as a loving mother.
  • Guilt-ridden?  Psalm 51 is for you. We can offer our confession knowing that God is filled with “abundant kindness” and “steadfast love.” God can create in us a clean heart.
  • Sad? Brokenhearted? Don’t hide those emotions away. Pour out your feelings with the psalmist, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” Pray that as long as you need to until you encounter what the psalmist finally found – God’s “unfailing love.”
  • Need a place to rest and hide away? Turn to Psalm 23 and be reminded of God’s quiet pastures and guidance through the dark valleys. Open your heart to God so that God may “restore your soul.”

And that’s just a tiny glimpse of the richness of the Psalms! Whatever we are feeling or experiencing, there is a Psalm for that.

What an amazing gift – God wants our honest prayers. If we only pray “pretty prayers,” that sound good but ignore what is on our hearts, we miss the healing and help that God offers. The Psalms can help us make our way through the joy, confusion, celebration, trials, and beauty of our lives and offer us the reminder that our Good Shepherd (Psalm 23) is with us every step of the way.

Glimpses of Advent

Where do you see God?  Advent tells us we should be looking.

Where do you hear God’s voice? Advent tells us we should be listening.

Where is God breaking through into our ordinary lives? Advents reminds us that is God’s promise.

        My Advent discipline (actually “discipline” is too strong a word.  Maybe “practice” or even “pleasure” is a better fit) is to notice. Notice glimpse of Advent and reminders of God’s presence. Advent invites me to

            Notice things that make me smile like the cat curled up in my nativity scene.

            Notice joy amidst all the sadness.

            Notice light in the middle of darkness.

            Notice music that makes my heart sing.

            Notice ornaments that remind me of loved ones.

Advent is a season to notice the big and small signs of God. Advent promises that God is Emmanuel – always with us. But it’s up to me to notice. So this year, I’m trying to be intentional about looking and noticing.

            It’s waking up after a snowstorm and noticing that my neighbor already plowed out our driveway.

            It’s coming to work and finding a package of chocolates with the note, “These have quinoa in them so I figured they must be health food.  Enjoy!”

            It’s seeing the sunlight glistening on the snow, the stars shining in the cold night sky, and tiny bits of snow clinging onto the branches.

            It’s a family member calling to chat and catch up.

Even in the pandemic, days get busy and time passes in the blur. Unless I really try to notice these gifts, these flashes of grace, these moments of joyful hope – they will pass me by and I will miss them.

            There is an abundance of sorrow and despair in our world. That makes noticing glimpses of Advent even more important. It provides me with reminders that lift my spirits. These glimpses are like a heavenly whisper reminding me, “You are not alone.”

            Advent is a time to take heart and to hold fast to God’s promises of presence and comfort. You can see my daily record of Advent glimpses on my Facebook page. Where will you catch a glimpse of God today?  

Head vs. Heart

During September and October my congregation had eight glorious weeks of outdoor worship on the East Woodstock common. It was the best of both worlds – many people braved the sometimes chilly mornings outside while others enjoyed worshiping with us online. It was delightful each week to receive greetings from across the country and even other parts of the world as we joined our hearts and spirits together to worship and give thanks. We discovered new meaning to Jesus’ promise that, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also.”

            But this is New England and outdoor worship is a time- and weather-limited event. Our church council voted that our worship would continue online only for the winter months. To avoid spreading the virus we will not meet in our sanctuary. In March we will evaluate where the world is in terms of health, safety, and the virus. That will guide our decision about how to go forward.

            This is not an easy decision.  My heart tells me, “I love being together with our congregation!” I also love to sing, hug, shake hands, and pass the communion plates from person to person. But my brain tells me, “Right now that is not safe. Right now we need to protect one another by staying distant from each other.”

            Those tough decisions are often followed by long, heartfelt sighs. The pandemic, to put it mildly, is not easy. It has caused great suffering across our country and around the world. It causes us to make difficult choices. It can feel like our hearts are at odds with our brains which is an exhausting experience and a tiring way to live.

            This is when I turn to my favorite Thanksgiving hymn, “Great is your faithfulness.”  We can sing our praise to God because “morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed your hand has provided, great is your faithfulness, God, unto me!”

            When my heart yearns for blessings of the past or aches for experiences that are now absent, my brain (and my faith) remind me that God’s steadfast love endures forever. God’s faithfulness is indeed great and will see us through this challenging time. While my heart sometimes drifts towards sadness, my head recalls the Good News that we worship the God of resurrection and new life. Despite all the obstacles we are encountering right now we have not reached a dead end. During this journey through the unknown, God invites us to discover new and different blessings along the way.

            My head rejoices that, “You do not change, your compassions they fail  not.” And that makes my heart glad.  

Corona in Seville

Guest Post from the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti

Mary Luti has been in Seville, Spain for several weeks and has been writing daily reports describing life in a country that is shut down.

Spain Lockdown Report, Day #33
The unknown makes us afraid, and fear makes us cruel.

Unclean, unclean
The illness caused by COVID-19 is terrible, and too often lethal, but there are worse ways to be sick. Ask the doctor in Barcelona who went down to the garage to get his car and head to the hospital for another grueling shift, only to find it spray painted with the words, “Infectious Rat!”

There are worse infections than COVID-19. Consider the check-out clerk in Cartagena who came home to find a note tacked to her apartment door that read: “We are your neighbors, and we are asking you, for everybody’s good, that you look for somewhere else to live while this is going on, since we know you work at a supermarket, and a lot of people who live here don’t want to run the extra risk you pose.”

There are worse things to fear than this virus. Ask the nurse in Alcázar de San Juan whose anonymous neighbors posted this request: “Hi, neighbor. We know all about the great work you’re doing in the hospital and we’re grateful for it, but you should also be thinking about your neighbors. There are children and old people living here. There are places on the other side of town where they’re putting up health workers. While this is going on, we ask you to think about going there.”

Or the emergency room physician in A Coruña who smelled bleach as he got off the elevator in his condo building. It got stronger as he got closer to his apartment. A couple of his neighbors were disinfecting the area around his door, just to be sure.

In one small town a local butcher was on the receiving end of several anonymous letters, accusing him of infecting people. When the mayor found out, she started a Facebook campaign to support him. She wrote: “There are many good things that will be remembered with gratitude once this is over. Beautiful things, caring gestures, empathy and support. But this will also be remembered. We can’t forget the pain it caused. It’s awful. We won’t forget it. We need to remember what can happen to us when we are afraid.”

Other people have rallied around, too, especially people living in those buildings where the anonymous signs were posted. Different signs are now appearing in the common areas, like this simple one in Murcia that announces in big red letters, “A hero lives here,” followed by more than 50 signatures.

Another supportive sign says: “We are your neighbors and we want to ask you, for the good of all:

–That you don’t lose heart, because our health, our food, our elders, are in your hands…

–That you don’t forget that you are our pride, that half of us would never have the courage to do what you’re doing every day while the rest of us stay home…

–That you don’t hesitate to ask us for anything you need to lighten your load…

and finally, to everyone who would refuse to share life and space with doctors, nurses, health workers, food preparers, checkout clerks, bus drivers, taxi drivers, firefighters, police, etc., etc., we say: Remember, there is no sickness worse than not having a heart.”

The authorities are investigating to see whether these incidents are prosecutable. “To be sure, they are few and far between,” a spokesperson for a national nursing association said, “but they are reprehensible all the same.”

Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.

“Excitement” – Part One

On Epiphany Sunday I received my star word – “excitement.”  Everyone in our congregation is invited to reflect on one of 150 words. During the coming year we can ponder what God might be saying to us. How will God’s light be reflected through this simple paper star and how will it encourage us to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives?

I have an entire year to consider what the word “excitement” might be inviting me to do, learn, and experience. I have to admit, I was thrilled when I flipped the star over and “excitement” appeared. Even as a pastor in a small town in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut, it seems to me that the possibilities are endless.  I’m being invited to experience excitement! It may not be heart-pounding, dare-devil activities. I’m not sure sky diving is in my immediate future. But I can choose and seek things that make me laugh or bring me joy. I can take time to discover what brings a smile to my face and offers me a sense of satisfaction and that feeling of  “I’m glad I did that.” 

So far I have tried “bumper boats” (if you’ve never heard of it, I recommend it!  I couldn’t stop laughing!), I helped host a benefit concert in our sanctuary, and attended a talk about bald eagles in Connecticut followed by a thrilling walk where an eagle flew right by us! Last weekend my husband and I ventured out for a frosty walk at our local park and watched the ice fishermen bundled up in the cold. I have to admit, my adventurous spirit stopped at the shoreline, so I didn’t join them out on the ice, but I loved walking through the quiet woods and listening to the dramatic cracking and creaking of the ice responding to sunlight and temperature changes.

Since we worship a Creator with unlimited imagination, I’m looking forward to what the year will hold. Here’s to new adventures!

As fun as that is, I’m not sure that God means to be my tour guide through an endless array of new experiences. This word could also be inviting me to explore the excitement of learning new things. I have set myself a goal to learn more about racism – what it is and how it affects people. I think this will be “exciting” because it will expand my mind and introduce new ideas and thoughts. I suspect it will also be challenging because there is much I do not know; I anticipate that it will be humbling and eye-opening. It can be good to learn just how much I have to learn.

I have not accomplished as much in this part of my “excitement.” So far I signed up for a discussion group about the book Waking up White by Debby Irving which promises to be enlightening. I watched the movie “Green Book,” which I highly recommend; it is both entertaining and educational. Once again, I was astounded by how much of our own country’s history I do not know.

I have a whole year to enjoy “excitement” in whatever form it comes to me. I believe God is always inviting us to be more aware – aware of blessings, of God’s presence, of what we have yet to learn.  I’ll let you know how it’s going.

And – if you have a star word, I’d love to hear what it has meant to you so far this year.

If you would like a star word, just let me know and I’ll send you one.

What do you need?

                Our church celebrates Christmas Eve twice – once at 5:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 p.m.  Some ministers resist having two services but I enjoy both because they offer two very different, but entirely accurate versions of Christmas. The early service is crowded, noisy, and exuberant. The sanctuary walls are almost vibrating with energy as over-excited and over-sugared children try to hold it together so they can stay off the “naughty” list. This service represents “joy” to me.

             The late service is entirely different. Quiet, candle-lit, and hushed, our sanctuary glows with Christmas peace. Beautiful music soothes harried seekers who yearn to hear the Good News of a God who wants to be found. This service whispers “hope” to me.

 Although it was way past my bedtime, I shared the following reflection on Christmas Eve before we celebrated communion.

I hope you get everything you want for Christmas. And even more – I hope you get something that you need. That really is the question for Christmas, isn’t it – what do you need? It’s a good question to ask because if we know we need something, we will be ready to receive it.

We might even go looking for it.

Think about that very first Christmas. Who received something?

The shepherds did.  They heard the invitation – they heard angels singing, they heard the announcement of this miraculous birth. And they said to each other – I want that. I need that.  In beautiful Bible language, it sounds like this: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” But what they were saying was, “This is something I need. Here is something I lack. So I will go, I will seek, I will look until I find it. They knew what they needed so they could receive what God was offering.

It was the same for the wise men. They saw the star in the sky. It must have called to them, spoken to their spirit.  It must have awakened a need in them because they followed it across miles and miles. They journeyed a long way to find that young child. Because they knew that they needed what he had to offer.

I’m willing to bet that other people heard the angels’ song.  It wasn’t just the shepherds. And I’m sure that other people saw that star in the sky. But those people didn’t go looking. They aren’t part of the story.

Maybe they stayed home that night because they weren’t able to say that they had an empty spot in their hearts that could only be filled by a baby lying in a manger.

It’s a pretty vulnerable thing to say. To say – I am lacking something. I need something more.

Who knows what the shepherds were looking for?  Maybe it was

  • Love
  • Forgiveness
  • Courage
  • Strength
  • Reassurane

They needed something – and they needed it enough that they were willing to leave everything familiar behind. They wanted and needed something more. And they dared to believe that it was being offered to them.

That is the Good News of Christmas. This gift is being offered to you.

And we can either convince ourselves that we are “just fine” and we don’t need anyone or anything. Or we can take a look at ourselves and realize that we need what God is offering.

There is a saying that you can’t really celebrate Christmas unless you know that you are poor. We’re not talking about money here. We’re talking about what we need, deep inside of us. It’s about being able to say – I need God’s gifts. Sometimes we think we don’t need help. Or we think that we are beyond help. Beyond forgiveness. Beyond love. Beyond repair

We convince ourselves that we are unforgivable or unlovable. Or it’s just too late.

Christmas tells us that isn’t true. Christmas tells us that God wants to give, is waiting to give, is eager to give. Christmas tells us about God who seeks us out in order to be able to give us what we need. Christmas tells us about a God who puts stars in the sky so we will be able to find God. And who sends messengers so we will hear the Good News

Christmas is about the original gift-giver.

Christmas is about God who loves us. The one who knows what we need, even before we say. The one who is waiting for us to say – yes, please. I want this gift. I want the love, the forgiveness, the new life, the hope you are offering.

My reflection was inspired by this quote by Oscar Romero

 “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel, god-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador)

Learning from other traditions

My husband was raised Jewish and celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 14. Although he no longer attends weekly services, the holidays of his youth still echo in his heart. Therefore, in our home, amidst all the Advent candles and early Christmas preparations, we also celebrate Hanukkah.

This was a learning curve for me.When we were first married, I was eager to learn my beloved’s traditions. We started out by buying children’s books to enhance my education about the basics of this beautiful celebration. Just weeks after our wedding, we went to a Hanukkah festival at a nearby synagogue and purchased our first menorah together. Twenty-seven years later, we continue to share the stories and traditions with our adult children.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hanukah-1.jpg

On each of the eight nights, we light candles and recall the ancient miracle of a meager amount of oil that continued to burn brightly as it reflected the faith of the believers. We ponder the significance of God overcoming terrifying circumstances and the ability of a small group of dedicated people to stand up for their beliefs. We celebrate God’s faithfulness and take hope from the growing light shining in the darkness.

We enjoy latkes with applesauce and cherish a bit of family time as we spin the dreidel and play games.  Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, but its light-hearted joy offers vital reminders about standing up against evil and trusting in God.  

It turns out, of course, that it doesn’t have to be my tradition in order to have something to teach me. It doesn’t have to be my heritage in order to reveal more about the God I love.  While celebrating a holiday that is not my own, I have experienced what a wise (Jewish) professor of mine identified as “holy appreciation.” That is, I have the ability to appreciate the holy practices of others and when I do, I can learn about values that we both share.

We are not all meant to be alike.We are not called to all worship the same way. We can, however, learn with and from one another. And then everyone will be stronger.

For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mind, if we

each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some

of the darkness in the world.

  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The March – my experience

My bad feet survived.

My spirit soared.

It was thrilling to gather on the Mall, looking at our Capitol, surrounded by a vast sea of humanity of every age, color, and description.  I was filled with gratitude for our country which allows and guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.

The March was peaceful and it was powerful.

I never got close to the stage.  I couldn’t hear any of the speakers. But I didn’t need inspirational speeches to tell me about the need. I could hear that in the voices of those who surrounded me. Men and women, gay, straight, and trans.

Young and old.

Experienced marchers and novices.

All joined together to sing and chant their belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with dignity.

I read their message in their signs – some poignant, some angry, many humorous – but all advocating human rights for all of God’s people.

march-4march-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What was the point?  The point was to stand together.

march-2

These days it is possible to communicate and cooperate across the globe on-line and through social media. But sometimes we need to get out of our homes – and our comfort zones – and come together.

Sometimes we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with one another.

march-5march-6

I came back inspired and energized.

I came back realizing I am not alone in my concern about healthcare, the environment, the LGBT community, immigrants, and people of color.

I came back wanting to help save our planet from thoughtless abuse.

I came back determined to work hard on behalf of those who have no voice or are afraid.

I came back encouraged.

march-7

I won’t give up.

And when I need to, I will march again.

Even in this circumstance, give thanks

Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.   Psalm 100

“Come you thankful people come,” we sing annually on Thanksgiving Sunday as we gaze at the cornucopia lovingly crafted by our favorite 90-something year old member. Overflowing with fruits and vegetables native to New England, she reminds us this horn-shaped symbol of plenty is “A living symbol of God’ abundant blessings.”

“Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving,” the Psalmist directs us. Admittedly, it is easier to approach those heavenly courts with praise when the sun is shining and all is right in our world.  But what about the other times?

Paul can sound like a grating nag when he urges, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” (1 Thessalonians 5:13). How would you like us to do that, Paul, when our spirits are nearly broken by circumstances that weigh down our souls?

Corrie ten Boon’s memory of leading forbidden worship in a World War II concentration camp might shed some light for us. Almost crushed by the effort of offering praise amidst wretched, flea-infested, frigid surroundings, they worshiped God.  Always fearful of discovery and punishment, they lifted whispered prayers of thanksgiving not only for the beloved community in that unholy place but also for the hardships they helped each other bear.  Months passed as their cherished worship continued uninterrupted by the usually brutal guards, offering encouragement to their battered spirits. Decades later, Corrie encountered a former prison guard who admitted he had never ventured into her barrack because he feared the overwhelming flea infestation. God was indeed in that place, utilizing every means to bless those worshipers.

We give thanks in all circumstances, not for them. Giving thanks for every good thing is easy. Giving thanks while staring down hatred, injustice, poverty or sadness may strain our faithfulness. Discerning God’s love while receiving cancer treatments, caring for a critically ill loved one or agonizing over a wayward child may challenge our belief.

Giving thanks is the beginning of trust. When we dare to pray, “Thank you God for being with me in this circumstance,” we may discover God’s strength and blessing when we need it most.

And may we pray, “Faithful God, may we remember the words of Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer I pray is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough. Thank you. Amen.”