Jamboree – it’s who we are

It happened again – I was trying to describe where our church is and which of the many Congregational churches in our area is actually East Woodstock. Then the light dawned – “Oh, is your church the Jamboree church?”  Yes, indeed.  That’s who we are.

            It’s a good way to be known. Yes, we’re the church that hosts an enormous party on the Fourth of the July. Yes, we’re the church that offers safe, old-fashioned fun for families. Yes, we’re the church that invites kids to play games, dance to music, and ride their bikes in the parade. Yes, we’re the church that encourages people to spend the day relaxing on the common as they listen to local musicians and enjoy delicious food. Yes, we’re the church that opens our doors and our hearts wide and says, “Come on in.”

            While I’m glad that hundreds of people will find their way here on the Fourth of July, I wish more people could experience the behind-the-scenes activity that makes that special day possible. The small but mighty Jamboree committee begins meeting and dreaming in February.

About 10 days prior to the big celebration, the church starts humming with activity as people stop by with donations of “treasures” and books.  I love listening to the laughter and conversations of volunteers as they sort, clean, and categorize the huge variety of items that will be for sale. It is not unusual to find people standing with bits and pieces in their hands, deep in conversation, as they take the chance to catch up with old friends or meet new ones. Sometimes a guessing game ensues – “What is this thing?” (The answers have been as varied as a cranberry scoop, a candle sharpener, and an apple peeler/corer).  Or reminiscing kicks in – “I remember these!  I used to have one when I was a kid.”  I have heard mini book reviews as people happen upon a favorite book and recount a much-loved story. It is a time of excitement and anticipation.

  Fellowship and community are a big part of the Jamboree and they begin long before the actual day.

The Jamboree started in 1957 when the church was short on funds. While this was not a particularly unusual situation, the solution was. A trio of creative women – Barbara Barrett, Nancy Lyons, and Betty Wells – imagined a one-time event to fill the budget gaps. They invited the community and people responded with enthusiasm. And thus, a tradition was born. This year we’ll celebrate our 63rd Jamboree.

Some things have changed over the decades. We no longer host a ham and bean supper in the evening (those hardy New Englanders!  How did they have the stamina to prepare a meal after a long day on the common?!) and the torch runners now carry flags representing our country, our state, and the thirteen colonies.

But the heart of the Jamboree remains the same. It is an invitation for people from near and far to come together. We celebrate our country and the freedoms we enjoy. We celebrate East Woodstock and give thanks for the church. It is a day filled with festivities and gratitude.

I look forward to celebrating the Fourth of July Jamboree and give thanks for all the volunteers – past and present – who make it possible.

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.

What CAN you do?

A recent foot injury has led to some frustrating restrictions to my mobility. Standing for more than a few minutes is painful. Some of my favorite pastimes have been temporarily eliminated. My morning walks, which feed my spirit and brighten my mood, have been abandoned. Taking care of my flower gardens and communing with the birds as I feed them are put on hold for now.

            As the list of activities that I can’t do seemed to grow longer and longer, I was becoming annoyed and feeling slightly sorry for myself.

            I was lamenting my inability to exercise and enjoy the improving weather when my wise daughter observed, “Well, you could at least lift weights.” And bingo – a new perspective was introduced.  Instead of focusing on the impossible, I was invited to imagine something new.  Given my limitations, what could I do? It was an opportunity to be creative.  I discovered several activities that worked – not only weight-lifting, but also yoga, swimming, biking, kayaking, and stretching. I didn’t need to curl up on the couch in pathetic defeat; I needed to shift my thinking and recognize what I could do.

            Now I’m starting to expand that thinking to other dilemmas and problems. Often when a situation seems overwhelming, I find it easy or tempting to think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.”  Prejudice against the LGBT community?  Can’t solve that. Systemic racism?  Where would I even start? Global warming? Oceans polluted by plastic? Children being separated by their parents on the border? There are any number of issues, from personal to global that feel unsolvable. It’s tempting to sink into inaction.

            And yet – my new thinking reminds me that I don’t have to come up with a complete answer. I don’t have to produce the entire solution.  I just need to do what I can do. Maybe I can’t change society’s thinking about the LGBT community, but I can march in a Pride Parade or invite conversation with a bumper sticker. I doubt I will overcome centuries of racism and discrimination single-handedly, but I can accept the challenge to educate myself about the experiences of people of color and pledge to recognize moments of racism in myself and others.

            What can I do?  Pick up trash on the side of the road? Greet surly clerks with compassion? Send a card or email to a long-lost friend? What small action might be part of a larger answer?

There may not be a neat solution for every problem. But that isn’t an invitation to inaction. It’s a call (to quote John Wesley) to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

     

Bumper Sticker Wisdom

My new bumper sticker reads, “Be careful who you hate. It might be someone you love.”

It is a reminder not to categorize people or to assume that “all” of “those people” are somehow the same. As soon as we try to clump a group of people into a tidy category or description, we will miss someone’s amazing individuality.

“Gay people make me uncomfortable,” we might be tempted to say. Until we realize that our neighbor or neighbor’s beloved child fits that description.

 “I don’t understand transgender people,” we might declare. Until we get to know someone who has fought for their identity and who advocates honesty in self-expression.

 Although my bumper sticker has a rainbow stripe on it, I don’t think the concept is limited to LGBTQ issues. When we start talking about “all” people of color or “all” immigrants or “all” women who have had an abortion, we are missing something crucial. We are overlooking the sacred individuality that exists in each person. We are ignoring their personal stories. We are missing the unique child of God, created in God’s image.

 I believe this bumper sticker invites me to look beyond the “packaging” of a person to see the individual. I believe I am urged to have a holy curiosity about each person so I can resist the temptation to dismiss someone as “one of them.”

             It is easy to hate groups of people. A group is faceless. A group doesn’t have parents who love them or children who need them. A group doesn’t have emotions and lacks feelings that can be bruised or rights that can be trampled.

It’s when we look beyond the faceless crowd that we begin to recognize individuals with stories and backgrounds, journeys and struggles that have brought them to this time and place. Perhaps then I will not be as quick to dismiss “them.”

 Instead of disregard, could I offer respect? Instead of turning away, could I listen? Instead of assuming I know their story and circumstances, could I be willing to wonder and learn?

A bumper sticker is such a simple thing – but it can teach an important lesson.

To be confirmed, or not?

I didn’t want to be confirmed when I was 13. I had endured confirmation class with 20 other teenagers for a year, gathering on Tuesday afternoon with our earnest and well-meaning associate pastor. He was an excellent youth group leader but he struggled (or perhaps it was only my struggle) to make the confirmation curriculum relevant and interesting. Mostly we looked forward to the newly-installed soda machine at our church which allowed us to sip our Cokes as we tried to listen to lessons about the Bible and church history.

            At the end of the year, we went on a “decision-making” retreat where we spent time learning about the significance of church membership, the importance of pledging ourselves to faithful living and the value of endeavoring to serve God with all our hearts, minds, and spirits.

            I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t sure what I believed. I was scared to make a promise to God because what if I couldn’t keep it? 

            But I was 13 and not a rebel. The retreat was billed as “decision-making” but it felt more like “decision-assumption.” It wasn’t explained what would happen if we weren’t confirmed.  Would we be cast into eternal darkness? Or – perhaps even worse for a teenager – excluded, shunned? No longer considered “part of the group”?  It didn’t seem truly up for discussion.   I didn’t hear anyone else voicing any concern or notice anyone hesitating about what seemed to me to be an enormous step.  So I went along.

            Our rather intimidating senior minister performed the confirmation, placing his hand heavily on my head and offering a quick prayer. I didn’t feel any different after the service. For the next three years I was very active in church through youth group and choir, going on retreats and enjoying time with my friends. When I graduated from high school, I considered myself a graduate from church, as well.  It would be a long time before I stepped into a sanctuary again.

            This Sunday our congregation will be celebrating confirmation. The parents of our confirmands understand that while they may have been able to insist that their children attend class (and I’m glad they did), they cannot force their child to be confirmed. It is an individual decision based on personal faith.

            I hope that choice is clear to the 11 teenagers who have experienced our confirmation program. While I hope that it was more riveting and engaging than my memory of confirmation, I can’t promise that. But I am confident that I let them know that they are on a lifelong journey of faith exploration. If they aren’t ready to be confirmed now, they should wait. And in the meantime, they can continue to be a valued part of our church family.

            Very few faith decisions are “once and done.” More often, we need to choose daily – sometimes hourly – how to live our faith and say yes to a loving God who calls us to share hope and new life. We confirm our faith by loving our neighbor and treating one another as we want to be treated.

            Our confirmands are making a public decision on Sunday and then will be asked to live that decision out in their daily lives. 

How do you confirm your faith?

A burning hatred

Images of a burning mosque shocked me. The fact that it was in my own state – Connecticut – in a city near where I grew up – New Haven – made it even worse. Somehow I had categorized hate crimes as something that happened someplace else. I relegated them as events that occur “down South” or “out West” or in another country altogether. But here? In very civilized, very educated, very New England Connecticut?

As a pastor, I can imagine the heartache of a congregation whose sanctuary has been taken away. This beloved gathering place where prayers are lifted and fellowship is shared now lies in ruins. I cannot fathom how fearful these worshipers must be as they contemplate being the object of someone’s hatred.

It hurts my heart to visualize someone planning such violence. I cannot comprehend the logic behind it. How would that conversation go? “We’ll burn down the mosque and then…”  Then what? What will be accomplished? What message will be sent? What misguided notion of achievement will occur?

As I am writing this, reports are coming in about fires being set in Jewish institutions in Needham and Arlington Massachusetts. Another religious community attacked, another community hurt.

It should go without saying that anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence hurts all of society. This is bullying taken to an extreme; everyone suffers. One segment of our society cannot be allowed to terrorize another part.

In these divided times, when an “us vs. them” mentality is often encouraged, God’s people need to insist on a lifestyle of grace and inclusion. People of faith can speak up against messages of superiority and competition – we need to be bigger, better, stronger! – which diminish the value of others. We can refuse to take part in incivility and name-calling.

Instead, we can try to follow the example of Jesus who displayed an astounding willingness to reach across barriers, to seek out the lonely and lost, and to include the outcast. Jesus demonstrated a grace that included all of God’s people.

What if we started by asking one another questions and looking for opportunities to learn about one another? What if we said “yes” to one of the many invitations issued by our Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan to learn about Islam as they break their fast? Would we learn about God’s abundance and expand our understanding on worship and prayer?

In our area, our local synagogue will soon be celebrating their 100th anniversary as a congregation.  What if we joined to wish them well as they begin a second century of worship and caring?

The only way to combat hatred is with love. Hatred destroys, hatred separates people into warring factions, hatred hurts. Love unites, love has the power to bring people together, love heals. We cannot allow the loud, frightening voice of hatred drown out the life-giving power of love. Choose love. Choose compassion. Every day. Even the smallest gestures of compassion and caring can help break down the barriers that divide us. As the old song reminds us, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

To support the New Haven Muslim community as they rebuild, click here

Too young to be heroes

I worry about this generation of children who are experiencing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because they went to school. There have been over 30 school shootings in our country so far this year. While the media focuses on the body count to breathlessly report how many were killed or injured, they overlook the “collateral damage” – children who heard the dreaded announcement “active shooter” and “lockdown” and whose lives were transformed by witnessing violence, terror, and chaos.

 Those who experience life-threatening terror carry that with them forever. Our children have been forced to consider their mortality at too young an age. There are poignant stories of children and teenagers who texted their parents loving messages because they feared it would be their final communication. A young girl used a marker to write her mother’s name on her arm to help authorities identify her body. She survived that day, but carries with her the soul-shaking fear that comes from suddenly confronting death. No adult would choose that experience, yet it has become increasingly commonplace for our children. Every time a school shooting occurs, students across the country wonder – could we be next?  They are understandably afraid.

            Being a teenager in the 21st century is inherently filled with stress and anxiety. There are the normal teenage concerns like juggling overfilled schedules, studying, worrying about college and/or work, discerning one’s identity and sexuality, and sorting through the pressures of social media and online bullying. All of that would be more than enough.

But now teenagers have an additional pressure – the call to be a hero.

            We want to honor young men like Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell who sacrificed their lives so their classmates could escape. But teenagers shouldn’t have to worry about being brave enough to face gunfire in order to attend high school or college. It isn’t their job to be heroes in order to obtain their education.

We adults aren’t doing our job. We should be protecting our children. Instead, we are allowing two complex issues – mental health services and gun control – defeat us.

            If children can be brave enough to go to school despite the real dangers that exist, we adults need to have the courage to make the necessary changes to provide a safer environment in which to grow and learn. We could start by providing every school with more social workers and counselors.  We cannot afford to ignore the urgent mental health needs of our young people.

We could start by banning automatic weapons.  Private citizens don’t need them.

I have no easy answers to offer and no quick-fixes to prescribe. But we cannot afford to be paralyzed into inaction. We need to work together to find solutions.

Our children need us.