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.”

More than a living corpse

“Whatever you do,” my wise New Testament professor lectured many years ago, “Don’t describe Easter as the resuscitation of a corpse.”  It was a startling statement.  We are, after all, talking about the fact that Jesus was dead and then alive again.

Easter is about that – and so much more.

If Easter was simply the annual celebration of a 2000 year old historical event it wouldn’t be very much. Who wants Easter to become of weary recounting of a long-ago occurrence?

Easter is not so much “ancient history” as it is “current events.” Easter is not only about what God did in the past, but about what God is doing right now.

  • When someone encounters hope in the midst of despair, that’s Easter.
  • When someone discerns some comfort even while dwelling in the shadow of death, that’s Easter.

Every time we encounter the absolute edge of our abilities and realize that we don’t have the strength to go on alone, we can pray Jesus’ prayer – not my will, but thine be done. Finding God in that place?  That’s Easter.

Easter happens when

  • We’ve come to “the end” – the end of a job, a relationship, our finances, our health – and then discover God is in that frightening, overwhelming place.
  • We have experienced loss or betrayal. When our spirits are as bleak as the night, when our phones are as silent as the grave, when it seems that all of our friends are sleeping or have disappeared. That’s when we should start looking for the promised light in the darkness.

Easter can be the over-the-top joy of trumpets and the Hallelujah chorus. The experience of hope and new life can fill our hearts until they are bursting with love.

Easter can also be a quiet encounter in a place of death and despair where we hear a whispered voice saying, “I know you. And I care.” Easter can be the pure, simple grace of discovering we are loved.

Amazingly, the Bible describes this life-changing, history-altering moment as a quiet one. The angels share this Good News with the women at the tomb. Just like when Jesus was born, these heavenly messengers are there to reassure, “Do not be afraid.” Just because nothing is as you imagined, simply because you are experiencing something you never dreamed possible – that is not a reason to be afraid.  There is joy to be shared. He is not dead, but alive.

The news gets passed along, one person at a time. Mary tells Peter.  Peter tells John. Jesus speaks a single word to Mary and her life is filled with hope.

When Jesus saw Mary by the tomb, there wasn’t an explosion of exuberant celebration – no parades of balloons and flowers. Jesus simply spoke her name, “Mary.” In that moment, God was saying, “I know where you are and what you are experiencing. I am with you.”  That’s Easter.

Coveting my neighbor’s religion

We know we are not supposed to covet – yearn to possess or have – other people’s belongings.  But what about coveting other people’s faith? Or their faith practices?

I have been a Congregationalist all my life, but I am inspired by the experiences and practices of other traditions and faiths.  I have to admit to a bit of “religious envy” when I think of observances not included in my own.

It isn’t that I want to convert to another faith.

I just want to learn from and maybe occasionally borrow some of the religious practices of others.

Here are some traditions that inspire me:

Namaste – when I go to my yoga practice, we begin and end by greeting one another and honoring the holy within.  We Christians have gotten away from recognizing the Christ, the divine, the Spirit that dwells in each one of us.  When we “pass the peace of Christ” on a Sunday morning, it is an attempt to share the holy with each other, but somehow it not as deeply satisfying as clasping my hands at my heart space, looking into another’s eyes to say “Namaste,” the holy in my greets the holy in you.

Crossing oneself. The Catholics do it. So do Episcopalians. It is a small gesture that somehow offers both a punctuation to prayer and a physical reminder of God’s presence. I find myself doing this at home sometimes when I yearn for a literal “hands on” expression of God’s presence.

Mezuzah – We have a mezuzah on our doorway, a small wooden box containing a tiny scroll with the Shema prayer: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.   Mezuzah

The mezuzah honors my husband’s Jewish upbringing but also reminds me that God’s presence goes with me as I enter into the world in the morning and arrive back home at night.  I  love the idea of praying as I go out and as I come in, that physical reminder that God goes with me

 Praying five times/day.  If you take the time to listen to the haunting and beautiful call to Muslim prayer  you will hear the words,

  • “God is the greatest,” sings the imman,
  • “I bear witness that there is no other deity beside God.”
  • “Make haste toward prayer.”

I love the idea of interrupting my busy day with the reminder of God’s presence and the invitation to pause and receive the refreshing Spirit of God.  It is too easy to allow an entire day – or even days – go by, filled with tasks and to-do lists, but not with the awareness of God.  If listening to a call to prayer from a minaret is not part of my Christian tradition, what method can I use to remind myself to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)?

Shabbat at home – another powerful Jewish practice, bringing our faith into the home with prayers, lighting candles, songs, and sharing.  What a powerful way to share faith and to pass along traditions, values, and learning to our children.

The season of Lent invites us to develop and deepen our spiritual practices by celebrating our own while also honoring others. I can learn from others even as I honor my own Christian tradition.

What spiritual practices will you incorporate into your life to remind yourself of God’s presence with you, every day?

Lent

 

 

Thanksgiving Fest Reflections of Gratitude: Day 8

Come; let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.

 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.   Psalm 95

Music has always been part of my life.  Pity my fourth grade teacher, who had to listen as our entire class learned to read music while blowing enthusiastically on our plastic recorders. My deep gratitude and admiration goes to countless saintly music teachers and directors who stood bravely in front of squirmy, energetic children and valiantly encouraged us to work as a group – listen to each other!  Together you can make beautiful sounds!

I did it all – junior choir at church, elementary mixed chorus, band (I played the flute!), girl’s glee club, and then on to high school marching band, select chorus, musical theater.  I have known the thrill of singing with a powerful chorus of over 100 voices and the joy of having my voice weave and flow with one or two others.

Music – it comes in so many forms and variations.  And it brings me great joy.

I give thanks for music.  Here is one of my favorite Thanksgiving hymns.

What are you thankful for today?

music

Proactively Welcoming the LGBTQ+ Community into our Faith Communities

Jesus didn't reject people. Neither do we. United Church of Christ.
Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we. United Church of Christ.

On November 2, 2015 I led a workshop at Hartford Seminary entitled “Proactively Welcoming the LGBTQ+ Community into our Faith Communities.”  With about 20 people in attendance, we had energetic conversation about how to widen our welcome to include all of God’s people.  Below are some of the good ideas and resources that were collected during our time together:

DVD

Eric Elnes  Darkwood Brew   DVD about LGBT issues

www.darkwoodbrew.org

  • Fish out of water Vanderbilt University.  “A spirited documentary that explores the seven Bible passages notoriously used to condemn homosexuality and justify marriage discrimination.”
  • For the Bible tells me so. “A compassionate and insightful documentary about the contemporary face of an old conflict between Christian fundamentalists and gay and lesbian people.”  Among the interviewees is Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
  • Bridegroom. “On May 7th, 2011 a young man named Shane Bitney Crone tragically lost the love of his life, Tom, to an accident. Because they weren’t married or prepared for the unexpected, Shane lost all legal claim to Tom after he died.” Struggles of a same-sex couple living in California during Prop 8 (which banned same-sex marriage).
  • Out Late. This featurefilm looks at five individuals who made a decisive change later in life-to come out as lesbian, gay, or transgender, after the age of 55.
  • Milk. Depicts life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.
  • Before Stonewall. The history of the gay and lesbian community before the Stonewall riots.
  • After Stonewall. Historical retrospective of the Gay Rights movement from the 1969 Stonewall riots.

safespace

Websites:

Denominational resources:

Local resources:

  • Find a PFLAG meeting near you. Look at their  website
  • The Loft (Fairfield CT). Associate Pastor of First Church Congregational, the Reverend Jennifer Campbell and her colleague, Dr. Liane Nelson facilitate a youth group called The Loft for lgtbq teens (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) and their friends every Friday from 4-5:30 at The Community House of First Church, 148 Beach Road.   More information about   First Church Fairfield

If/when a congregation is feeling “stuck” – they don’t know how to revitalize their Open and Affirming welcome or perhaps haven’t even begun the conversation about formally declaring their welcome, that church needs to

  • Talk with other ONA churches
  • Listen to the stories of the LGBT community and remember why this welcome is so important

The feeling of being “stuck” is often related to fear – fear of losing members, fear of offending someone, fear of losing money or pledges.  Take the time to name the fear – by unmasking the fear we can take away some of its power.

Books

  • Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Berube

Other:

Example of Morning Welcome in Worship; this can be crafted to fit any week and church season and can be adjusted to include a variety of descriptions:

Although the temperature may not feel like it, the spirit around town these days feels like Fall is here. Welcome to you if you have been away for the summer and now are coming back; we hope your summer had some Sabbath moments in it. Welcome to you if you are new to town, or just decided to visit us for the first time; we are glad you are here and look forward to getting to know you, and to you getting to know us. We actually mean it when we say everyone is welcome here, because we represent a wide variety of folk of different races and ethnicities, gender and sexual orientation, age and marital status. A few of us have lived in greater New Haven all our lives, but most of us are from somewhere else originally. Many of us live in New Haven now, but we also live in Hamden, North Haven, Cheshire, Cromwell, Bethany, Milford, Wallingford, Durham and East Haven! We vary from one another in sports teams we support, musical tastes, favorite movies or books. We also differ in theological views and in religious backgrounds or lack thereof. So we hope you will stick around after worship for some iced coffee and lemonade. Wherever you are on your life and faith journey, you are welcome here.

(written by the Rev. Dr. Rochelle Stackhouse, Church of the Redeemer, New Haven CT).

church with banners

Please share your ideas and resources in the comments!

Thanksgiving Fest Reflections of Gratitude: Day 3

A&PEnter his gates with thanksgiving,and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.    Psalm 100

I am thankful for my parents. I am aware that not everyone wins the lottery in the parent department. It’s something we have no control over and which can have an enormous impact on our lives. I have always felt a sense of gratitude for the parents I was given.

I grew up with a sense of stability, traditions that fed my spirit, unwavering support, much laughter, a work ethic, and boundless love. Even today, at ages 85 and 88, my parents continue to inspire me.

I give thanks for my parents.

What are you thankful for today?

Thanksgiving Fest Reflections of Gratitude: Day 2

EWCC fall

I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.  Psalm 122

I am thankful for my church.  The “church” is not the building, beautiful and well-maintained as it is. The people – our congregation – are the heart of this church.  People who care, pray, visit, cook meals, teach, listen, send cards, provide transportation, rake leaves, sing, and serve in hundreds of ways. This congregation knows they have been called to be Christ’s hands and heart in this hurting world.

I give thanks for my church.

What are you thankful for today?

Thanksgiving Fest Reflections of Gratitude: Day 1

Cornucopia

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 136

There is – a directive, an order, a commandment, to give thanks to God.  November offers us an official holiday to do just that. On Thanksgiving Day we are invited to pause, consider our blessings, and give thanks to God.

And yet – the Bible reminds us that one day each year is simply not enough. We need to give thanks and offer our gratitude to God every day.

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

Scripture doesn’t offer the instruction to “give thanks” lightly. Developing an awareness of gratitude is not casually mentioned. We are given this directive multiple times.  I remember the wise words that one of my Bible professors taught in seminary – if a command is in the Bible once, we certainly need to pay attention.  If this command is in the Bible more than once, we really need to sit up and take notice.

So consider this. The words

  • Rejoice in the Lord
  • Give thanks to God
  • Praise the Lord

appear in the Bible over 300 times.

This is something important.

This is something we need to do.

We need to be intentional about giving thanks to God.  Not just being grateful for possessing a lot of things or even for having a family or friends who love us. We need to give thanks for the faithfulness and the presence of God who is with us in all circumstances – even (and maybe especially) when those circumstances are difficult or challenging. We need to cultivate an awareness that even when everything seems to be falling apart, God is still there.

This month, let’s practice the art of giving thanks.  I am inviting you to a “Thanksgivingfest.” The purpose will be to intentionally give thanks to God every single day during November. I would encourage you to make a list that you can add to every day. How and where you make your list is up to you – you can type your list on your computer or tack a piece of paper up on the refrigerator or make notes on your phone. The important thing is to take on the discipline of giving thanks every single day.  Morning or evening, it doesn’t matter – just set a few moments aside each day to consider the question, “What am I thankful for today?”

You are invited to be on this journey with me as we practice the discipline of daily giving thanks.  Feel free to record your blessings there, as well – wouldn’t it be wonderful to fill cyberspace with words of praise, gratitude and thanksgiving!

Come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!   Psalm 95

You’re still the one

Sue and Roger with Bubbe. October 20, 1991
Sue and Roger with Bubbe. October 20, 1991

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.   Song of Solomon 6:3

An open letter to my husband on our anniversary.

Dear Roger,

24 years!  On this our anniversary day, I’m looking back on some of my favorite memories.

  • I remember meeting you at a contra dance at a church in Worcester. My two friends ditched me at the last minute, so I decided to go by myself. I was so glad when you asked me to dance; the song was (appropriately enough) “Swing my Susie.” During a lemonade break in the church kitchen, you mentioned that you would need to sit out the next dance because you didn’t know how to waltz. I knew you were someone special when you were willing to practice waltzing amidst the oversized pots and pans, laughing as we avoided stacks of dishes and random piles of vases.  My journal entry from that night reads, “Met a cute guy with a nice smile and dark, sparkling eyes.”
  • I admired your courage when you told me on our second date (cross-country skiing in the sleet and rain, remember?) that you were Jewish. You assumed it would be a deal-breaker for me, this minister you had just met. When you told me that a message of compassion and caring was important to you but that you didn’t care if the messenger was Jesus, Moses, or Buddha, I knew we could make this work.
  • And five weeks later, we were engaged.

We got married on a Sunday. Very early that morning you came to the parsonage to wake me up.  We walked to the church together just as the sun was rising, shining on the autumn leaves. The empty sanctuary was filled with a golden light as we said our wedding vows to each other.  We considered ourselves married at that moment – which was good, because when we gathered that afternoon with our family and friends, I couldn’t remember my vows at all!

One of your promises was to make me laugh every day – and you have been true to your word.

I celebrate some of our “firsts”

  • Our first restaurant together: Friendly’s, for a cup of coffee after the contra dance.
  • Our first date: Thai food, followed by the play “Driving Miss Daisy”
  • Our first fight: When you ate the chocolate chips I had set aside for baking.
  • Our first holiday together: Easter (which you didn’t even celebrate!), getting ready for my whole family to come for Sunday dinner after worship.
  • Our first hot air balloon ride: over the Berkshires, on our honeymoon.

During our first December together, we bought a menorah so we could celebrate Hanukah. At Christmas a few weeks later you gave me a quote by Katharine Hepburn: “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expecting to vie – which is everything. What you will receive in return varies. But it really has no connection with what you give. You give because you love and cannot help giving. If you are very lucky, you may be loved back.”  We’ve both been very lucky.

In February 1993 I went on a week-long silent retreat.  I told you that we could have no contact with each other; the only reason you could call was if you heard any news about our much-anticipated adoption.  You called with joy in your voice,“Our son was born!” So our parenting adventure began; I am blessed to have such a good partner who is also an excellent father.

Mostly I don’t have the words to describe how grateful I am for our love.  That’s why I like the quote by Brian Andreas that hangs in our bedroom: “I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand and the Eskimos had one hundred words for snow. I wish I had a thousand words for love, but all that comes to mind is the way you move against me while you sleep – and there are no words for that.”

24 years!  And hoping for at least 24 more.

You’re still the one. And we’re still having fun.

Happy Anniversary, sweetie.

And here’s our song.

The Joy of a “comfort book”

Illuminated Life by Joan Chittister
Illuminated Life by Joan Chittister

Comfort, yes, comfort my people, says your God.”  (Isaiah 40:1)

What do you do when you need comfort? Where you turn when you feel stressed or overwhelmed?

  • Some people go for a walk or do some gardening.
  • Others turn to “comfort foods” (think M&M’s, for me…).
  • There might be the temptation to self-medicate with pills or alcohol (I don’t recommend this – it ends up hurting too many people).
  • I once heard an actor talk about the “comfort movies;” he watches films he knows will reliably lift his spirits or make him laugh.

When I am searching for a “no calorie” way to calm my mind, restore my soul, and feed my spirit, I often turn to a “comfort book.”  I am basically too cheap to actually buy books but I am fortunate enough to serve a church that sits across the town common from our public library. Usually I simply borrow any book I wish to read.

But there are certain books – those comfort books – which I have purchased over the years because I know I will turn to them again and again. My stash of comfort books are in the bookcase by my bed – they are within easy reach so I can grab one and let it fall open anywhere. Most of the books are so familiar that I don’t need to read them cover to cover any more. There is an eclectic mixture of devotionals, a few novels, and even some children’s books – there is nothing like a chapter of Winnie the Pooh to bring me straight back to my safety and security of my childhood when things are spiraling out of control.

One book that reliably offers me inspiration and remind me of God’s presence is Joan Chittister’s Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light. Sister Joan is a Benedictine nun who shares her insights and wisdom on-line (http://joanchittister.org ) and through her writing.  Illuminated Life offers 26 reflections (one for each letter of the alphabet) which encourage readers to intentionally seek God in every circumstance.  This book is just right for me – each reading is long enough to provide some food for thought, but short enough to fit into my time-crunched day. I love the reminders like…

  • A = Awareness, to “see everything in life as sacred” (23).
  • G = Growth, because “union with God is not a static thing” (50).
  • S = Silence, which is a “lost art in a society made of noise” (106).
  • Z = Zeal, which brings us to God, “the energy that drives us” (136).

This book encourages me to be “contemplative” in the midst of a busy life.  Being contemplative has nothing to do with a somber, dour life filled with silence and ritualized prayers. Instead, it is an active, joy-filled invitation to search for God now, in the middle of whatever chaos you may be experiencing, because surely God is there.

Life can be overwhelming, tiring, and discouraging. This book is a celebration of God’s faithfulness. It reminds me that God wants to be found/discovered/experienced by us every day.

And that offers me great comfort.