Holy Week: Tuesday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him, and Lazarus was one of those at table. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. – John 12:1-3 (NRSV)

        Actions really do speak louder than words. Mary never says a thing but Jesus recognizes her love and acknowledges the beauty of her tribute even while others criticize. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says, “She bought [the oil] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Mary demonstrates her devotion and sorrow as she anoints Jesus.

        Anointing was a common display of hospitality in that time. Under normal circumstances, it might seem to be an ordinary, small, insignificant act. Just days before Jesus’ arrest, it took on new significance as Mary shared her concern for her holy guest.

We may never know the impact of a caring act; we may not be aware of the difference we are making. What seems ordinary to us may have a profound effect on someone else. How often do we hesitate to act? How often do we talk ourselves out of reaching out?

Mary might be surprised to know that her gesture has been remembered for over 2000 years. It stands as a testament to the power of compassion and caring. Let us be inspired to (in John Wesley’s words) “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.”

Who do you know that needs some love or thoughtfulness or encouragement today? Who might feel overwhelmed or scared or alone right now? What can we do to share the love that is given to us every day by God?

Holy Week: Monday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

        On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

      The money changers and merchants weren’t actually the problem; they always set up shop within the temple walls.  But over time their business had expanded and took up increasingly more space until there literally wasn’t room for anyone else. Instead of offering a “house of prayer for all nations,” worshipers were squeezed out and had no place to pray.

       Without diving into a well of guilt and remorse and self-recrimination, let’s dare to ask the question – What might be taking up too much room in our lives?  What tables might Jesus want to tip over today? What would he like to throw out? What is demanding too much space and attention?

      If Jesus could enter into our “temple gates” or our homes or our lives, what would he see?  If he gazed into our eyes (or maybe into our souls), what would he point out as if to say– this just isn’t good for you. This is separating you from God.  This is distracting you from what is really important.

      What do we need to get rid of in order to make more room for Jesus?

Unrecognizable

When Jesus emerged from the tomb, no one recognized him. Mary mistook him for the gardener. The disciples drew back in fear thinking he was a ghost. The believers fleeing Jerusalem spent a long, dusty day with Jesus walking toward Emmaus but it never occurred to them that they were speaking with their Savior.

            Resurrection will do that. New beginnings can be like that. Sometimes that fresh start is so new, so different that there is little resemblance to what was.

            Jesus made several resurrection appearances – outside the tomb, on the road, in the disciples’ locked room, by the lake. He spoke to believers and people who knew him best. And yet every single time people wondered, “Is this the Lord?” Understandable, you may say, because they all witnessed his gruesome death on the Cross. And yet it was more than simply questioning the facts. They were not prepared for this turn of events. This new reality – a living, breathing, resurrected Christ – would challenge their assumptions and overturn their expectations. This post-Easter Jesus was inviting them on a new path of discovery and revelation.

            It makes me wonder about our post-pandemic experience. What will be new and different? What old patterns have been upset? What will we need to leave behind? What has been taken away and what have we gained?

            Just like the disciples, our lives have been disrupted by a life-changing event. Just like the disciples, we were sad, we were scared, we were uncertain. And just like the disciples, we did not always behave in honorable or rational ways. A crisis rarely brings out the best in everyone.

As we emerge from the pandemic we recognize that our lives are different. We are different.

While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it does demand that we open our eyes and spirits so we don’t miss what is new. We don’t want to overlook those resurrection appearances and the invitations to new life and hope.

Our pre-pandemic lives and our “business as usual” lifestyles are in the past. Now might be a good time to wonder and ask questions.

What new things is God doing?

What new direction might God be leading us?

How will we be surprised by where God is appearing?

Will we recognize God?

  God was not on “hold” while we endured the pandemic. Instead, the God of resurrection journeyed with us to make all things new – including us.

Our new circumstances and new attitudes and new experiences may be initially unrecognizable.  But we can be certain – God is in that place.

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.

My Covid Experience

            As Christmas approached, I realized it had been 9 long months since I had been wearing a mask. I hadn’t eaten inside a restaurant, our adult children braved the grocery store, we stopped visiting friends. We sacrificed family holiday gatherings for safety. We were toeing the “stay home, stay safe” line.

            And yet – I still got Covid-19.  My first reaction was guilt – what did I do wrong? But this is the nature of an airborne virus that doctors describe as “efficient,” meaning that it is easily transmitted.  It is virtually everywhere in our everyday environment and now it had entered my home and my family. 

            Each of us had a different experience with the disease. Our 24-year old son got a sore throat and felt a bit tired. My husband experienced three days of fever, achiness, and a lingering cough. I grew increasingly exhausted and napped for hours every day.  My doctor advised me to measure my oxygen level; when our drug store oximeter measured a concerningly low level, she directed me to the emergency room.

            The sun was just rising as we drove to UMass. I looked forward to relief from the tiredness and the constant pressure in my chest. I envisioned a warm welcome by worried caregivers who would tuck me into bed for evaluation and treatment.

            The reality of an over-busy emergency department was much different. The harried receptionist barely took my name before directing me to the “dirty room.” That description did nothing to raise my spirits. This waiting room looked like something out of a horror film with visibly ill patients slouching in a sea of uncomfortable chairs.

            Hours went by. My vital signs were checked and I was sent back to the waiting room. Having a chest x-ray raised my hopes that I might soon be seen by a doctor but again, back to the waiting room.  By 5:00 pm I was ready to give up.  My husband, who sat outside in the car all day, texted with me about the advisability of returning the following day to try again.

            Just as I stood up to go home, my name was called. That long-awaited bed was provided as they determined I needed treatment. I was transferred to the field hospital at the DCU center which was a marvel of engineering; that vast space had been converted into rows of patient rooms divided by curtains and surrounded by temporary nurses’ stations filled with computers and diagnostic equipment. It was surprisingly quiet and felt like a place of healing.

            I received extraordinary care there. Nurses, aides, therapists, and doctors checked on me constantly. Mostly what I needed were steroids to strengthen my tired lungs and time – time to rest, sleep, and recover.

            When they sent me home after five days, they offered this daunting prediction – “you will feel crummy for two more weeks.” Bedrest was recommended.

            Medicine healed my body. But prayer, compassion, love, and thoughtfulness healed my spirit. Kindness poured into my home as people prayed, sent cards, provided meals, emailed soothing music, ran errands, and delivered flowers. I heard from friends and relatives across the country who were wishing me well.

My congregation embodied graciousness and compassion by giving me the necessary, invaluable gift of time. They assured me that they would carry on the work of the church.  And they did. They continued to care for one another and for the people in our community.  They organized worship and even completed onerous tasks like annual reports and a balanced church budget.

          I am filled with gratitude – both for my healing and for the generous help that made it possible. Never underestimate the power of that prayer, card, text, or email. The caring and compassion of family and friends were powerful agents in my recuperation.

         With renewed appreciation for my health and for the power of the people of God, I belatedly enter into this new year confident that God will see us through and provide us the necessary strength and courage. May God bless us as we endeavor to share God’s hope, peace, and healing love.

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?  

Savor the Season of Advent

And just like that – it’s Advent!  The season of Advent sounds like a wish list of everything we can dream about. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love – who doesn’t need those gifts?

Advent comes every year and yet somehow this year it seems especially important.  Perhaps it is the non-stop litany of worrisome headlines. There is plenty of bad news out there. Maybe it’s the isolation and the “don’t have family gatherings” thing.

Whatever the reason, the promises of Advent seem to take on new meaning:

  • The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light  (Isaiah 9:2)
  • Comfort, comfort my people (Isaiah 40:1)
  • God is Emmanuel, always with us (Matthew 1: 21-23)
  • Do not be afraid (Luke 2:10)
  • I bring you good news of great joy (Luke 2:10)
  • Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

       Here is my advice about Advent – cherish these precious four weeks. Don’t let this short, powerful season slip by. Give yourself the gift of Advent this year. We need that sense of anticipation and promise and hope. We need the comfort and assurance. We need the reminder that God shows up where God is most needed.

It’s easy to forget those things.

So – this year, be intentional about celebrating Advent.

There are so many ways you can do that. Find one (or more) that work for you:

  • Light a candle and recall God’s promise to be with us – always.
  • Notice something beautiful every day. A sunrise, a bird, a friend, whatever – just notice. Then take a moment and describe it.
  • Be a bearer of light – make a phone call, send an email, write a card, bake cookies, send flowers – share some of God’s love.
  • Say one of the Scripture promises out loud every day.
  • Think of three things you are thankful for.  Say them out loud and give thanks for those blessings.
  • Join us for worship each Sunday at 10:00 a.m. on Facebook Live – or watch the recording on our YouTube channel.
  • Join our weekly Advent vesper services on Wednesdays at 7:00 pm for a brief time of prayer, music, and reflection.  Contact the church for the Zoom link.

  Advent is a love story about God’s love for each one of us. To know that you are loved and cherished is a gift. Take the time to savor the comfort of Advent blessings.

What we can become

I dream that the end of the pandemic will look like those old pictures of V-E Day when the end of World War II was announced. In my imagination, I can see people pouring into the streets as they hear the welcome news, “You can all come out now!  Go ahead – you can sing! Hug! Gather together!” And there will be shouting in the streets as people laugh and shake hands and throw their masks in the air like graduation caps.

Will it really be like that?  Probably not. But whenever the pandemic ends and however gradual that end might come, I think we will discover just how much we have changed through this experience. We are living through an era of history that will be taught to generations to come. Children will learn about this time when the world slowed down, even stopped sometimes, in an effort to keep ourselves healthy and safe.

It may take years for us to fully understand how the pandemic has changed us. We have lost and given up a lot during these long months. Much has been taken away. Many have lost loved ones. Students and teachers mourn the lack of “ordinary” events like gathering in classrooms for learning, conversation, and exploration.  Parents yearn for a day without juggling work and online school. Churches stand empty and congregations yearn for shared worship and fellowship. Visits with friends, family, and neighbors are put off “until it is safe.” Beloved events and traditions have been put until – we hope – next year. Holidays are being scaled back or cancelled altogether.

Yet we are not without hope. My faith reminds me of the promise of resurrection and new life. And already – in the midst of this pandemic – we see signs of creativity and renewal. People have refused to simply give up despite the necessary restrictions placed on our behavior.

So I celebrate every ounce of innovation that has blossomed during this challenging time. Cheers for restaurants who have created outdoor dining areas, kudos to schools who have developed new ways to teach, congratulations to neighbors who visit in their yards, and blessings on congregations everywhere who have discovered new meaning in the words, “where two or three are gathered in my name.”  

We are changing, we are growing, we are learning. Some activities we will gladly leave behind in the Covid era. But other new ideas will strengthen us in the days to come. We can’t fast forward through this experience. But we can trust that we will emerge stronger and with a greater appreciation of what we are missing now. New possibilities await.

Art/Line Drawing: Radici Studios. www.radicistudios.com

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.  

Stand Down

Stand down, hate groups. Stand down, right-wing extremists. There is no place in our country and no place in our lives for hate and violence.

I hope I am preaching to the choir with this statement, but just to be very clear – I denounce and condemn white supremacy and white supremacy groups and all groups that promote discrimination and violence.

It is too bad that this has to be said out loud in our country in 2020 but clearly that is the case. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament tell us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That includes all of my neighbors including every religion (and no religion), every skin tone, and every cultural background.

I serve a church that is Open and Affirming. Our Welcome Statement declares, “As a church, we welcome and affirm all persons of every race, age, gender, family structure, physical or mental ability, economic status, faith back-ground, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity into the full life and ministry of this community of faith, including membership and leadership. “

When we do that, we not only learn more about one another, we also learn more about God. We are told that every one of us is created in the image of God. When I limit myself to knowing only people who look, act, or think like I do, I limit what I can learn about the nature of God. If I close myself off from others, I am the one who loses; my life will not be enriched by their presence.

Racism – stand down. Messages of hate and violence hurt all of us. Instead, let us widen our circle so that we can welcome and learn from all of God’s children.