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.

Faithful, not successful

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers…”  Matthew 10:8

Jesus gave these instructions to the disciples before he died. He tells them to carry on his ministry by sharing God’s life-changing love. Jesus instructs his followers to offer healing and hope wherever they go.

There is plenty of need. We don’t have to look far to see the pain of this world, filled with brokenness, addiction, division, and loss. Now it’s our turn to be those disciples and put our faith into action. We might be inspired to support refugees, fight food insecurity, or address racism and inequality. We might feel called to love our neighbor in big and small ways.

But then – hesitation sets in. Why bother? Two thousand years after Jesus told his disciples to live their faith, the world is still a mess. For anyone who enjoys problem-solving and the satisfaction of getting things done, this is a discouraging track record. Sometimes it seems there is a distinct lack of tangible results.

But maybe we are expecting more of ourselves than God does. God demands faithfulness, not success.  Not being able to solve a problem or eliminate a challenge does not give us permission to ignore it. We are called to do what we can, help when we are able, and trust that God is at work.

Living faithfully is a marathon. It is the work of a lifetime where results are not always obvious. Sometimes the smallest actions can make a difference. Author Joyce Rupp wisely said, “People gain so much hope when they know they are not experiencing something alone.” It may be impossible to eliminate someone’s pain or transform their circumstances. But faithfulness tells us to show up, acknowledge the need, listen to someone’s story, accompany them in their pain, and offer a meal or a coat or a helping hand or a listening ear.

This quote hangs by my desk and inspires me every day:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly now.

Love mercy now.

Walk humbly now.

You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.

Let’s recognize the great need that is all around us and respond with God’s love and care. We can respond with faith and leave the success up to God.

Joyfully adequate

Our local agricultural extravaganza, the Woodstock Fair, opens on Friday. Thousands of people will flock to view horse and cattle shows and gaze with admiration at the delicious pies and cakes, stunning photos, and astounding crafts on display. Ribbons will be awarded proudly proclaiming, “Best of Show.” I have great admiration for those who have worked hard toward earning those accolades.

But today I want to celebrate those of us who will never win first prize, those of us who, despite our best efforts, will never make it to the winners’ circle. By definition, there can only be a limited number of “winners” in the traditional sense. Today I would like to honor those who participate in a hobby, join a team, or experiment with a new activity not because they will ever be the “best” but simply because it brings them joy.

I want to celebrate the ability to be gloriously, joyfully adequate.

I play the piano. You will never hear me play because I am really bad. But it brings me joy and provides me a few moments to separate myself from daily worries as I focus on reading notes to create a simple melody. No one would want to listen, but it amuses me. I am a joyfully adequate piano player.

The same thing is true with my yoga practice, where I inhabit the “beginners” class even after ten years of faithful attendance. I suspect I have found my niche.  I may not get “better,” but I like how I feel when I participate.  I am a joyfully adequate yogi.

Knitting falls in the same category. One might think that after two decades of knitting, I would be creating intricate designs and deftly folding cable knits into cardigans. The reality is that my knitting is limited to the simplest patterns. But my basic knitting creates prayer shawls and prayer shawls can remind recipients that they are surrounded by God’s love. My knitting is joyfully adequate and yet it can provide hope and comfort.

There is a lot of pressure on children (and adults) to be “the best.”  Of course everyone should strive to produce their own best effort. But there is also great power in pursuing an activity not because we are “the best” but simply because it allows our spirits to soar. We may not be proficient but we may encounter the joy of being immersed in an activity that lifts our spirits or calms our busy minds. That’s a blessing.

I attended a workshop years ago entitled, “What makes your heart sing?” The presenter encouraged participants to explore a wide variety of activities without the burden of comparing the outcome to everyone else.  What joy! I don’t have to be the “best.” If this activity – music, hiking, cooking, art, writing, whatever it is – feeds my spirit, that is what I can do.

I may not win a ribbon and my name may not be recorded in the winner’s circle, but I can celebrate the joy of being gloriously adequate.

Hope – the church’s job

Here is one of the most hopeful phrases in the Bible: “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).

Think about it. Noah was in an ark surrounded by water. He and his family members were trapped in very cramped quarters with an abundance of animals. This had been going on for months. There was no way out.

There were no signs of relief. As far as he could see, there was water. Just water. No mountains, no trees, no break in the desolation. At some point, Noah must have felt alone, overwhelmed, and forgotten. It seemed like a hopeless situation.

But then – “God remembered Noah.” Noah was not, in fact, alone. He had not been, in fact, forgotten. Yes, the circumstances were dire. Yes, the outlook was grim. But Noah could be heartened by realizing that he did not have to face this desperate, gut-wrenching situation by himself.

One of our jobs as the church is to remind God’s people about hope.  This is not about ignoring painful realities or pretending that everything is “just fine.” In fact, it is just the opposite. We are called to recognize the challenging situations where people find themselves. We can identify those times of grief and loss, loneliness and isolation that can cause people to despair. Those are real.

We dare to enter into and share one another’s pain because of that short Scripture verse. We can proclaim what is true. God remembers us. God will not abandon us. In the midst of our struggles and in the middle of our doubt, God remembers us.

The church’s job is to celebrate this Good News and offer hope. When we come together as the people of God – flawed and frail as we may be – we are embodying this message of hope. We promise to walk with one another through those challenging times. We will steady one another as we experience emotional rollercoasters. We may not be strong enough on our own, but we don’t have to be. We can offer to one another God’s love, compassion, and caring.

We can promise to remember one another so that no one has to go on this journey alone.

No church is perfect, but every church is called to share the Good News of God’s enduring hope.

 

Jamboree 2018

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

It didn’t rain – good!

But it was HOT.  Wow.

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

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

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

Welcome

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

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

Sarah Jo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Sam

Do that small thing

“Thanks. That’s the nicest thing that’s happened to me today.” The woman in the “12 items or less” line smiled briefly at me as I took her grocery basket to tuck away on the pile. I wondered what kind of day she must be having when such casual gesture was a highlight.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We never know what kind of day another person is having and we might never realize how even the smallest kindness can transform a moment. So – go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a noisy world filled with video clips of grand gestures and dramatic moments. We can view elaborately staged proposals (even “promposals”), heart-rending reunions, and over-the-top surprises. It might make our everyday actions – a welcoming smile or a door held open or a steadying hand – seem unimportant in comparison. But don’t believe that. Go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a world with crushing needs. I wish I could go to Pittsburgh and put my arm around the grieving mother whose teenage son was shot. I wish I could travel to Texas and comfort crying children separated from their parents. I wish I could help that homeless person I saw in New York, instead of just stepping over him on the sidewalk. I can’t do those things.

But we can endeavor to do what we can. As a first step, ignore that doubting voice of cynicism that mocks small gestures of kindness or caring as futile when compared to the world of anger and hurt. Make that call, send that email, smile at the cashier, greet a stranger, do that volunteer work.  Whatever it is – go ahead and do that small thing.

As the Rev. John Wesley wisely said,

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Go ahead and do that small thing. All those “small things” add up. And they may make a world of difference.

Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You are a lawyer. I am a minister. Can we agree that I won’t attempt to sway your opinion by citing legal precedents if you won’t (mis)quote Scripture to support your claims?

My training tells me to be wary of anyone who selectively chooses verses out of context to prove a point. Our country has a sad history of misusing Scripture to promote abhorrent practices such as slavery, subjugation of women, and child abuse. That trend cannot continue.

Instead, let’s celebrate overriding themes that exist throughout the entire Bible. These include

  • Instructions to care for the “aliens and strangers” among us. That is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” One way to demonstrate love for God is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There are lots more. There are stories about Jesus disregarding laws that caused God’s people to suffer and Jesus breaking every social code to include the outcast, the forgotten, and the unloved. There are stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness and being dependent on the kindness and mercy of others in order to survive.

I don’t have to be a lawyer to know that we need laws to govern our land. But you don’t need to be a minister to know that those laws must be compassionate, just, and fairly executed.

Mr. Sessions, we could work together on this. You and I don’t need to share a faith. Our country is not ruled by religious law; we are not a theocracy. But basic human decency should inform us that children need their families. We should not inflict fear and suffering on the most vulnerable.

Terror, loss, and violence are driving desperate people to our borders. Let’s meet them with compassion and work to find a just, humane solution.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster