Avoiding Road Blocks

The pandemic very often feels like running into a brick wall. Endless obstacles seem to have been put in front of us to prevent us from going about our daily routines. We encounter one road block after another. So much that is familiar – school, work, visits with family, church – have been completely changed.  The way we used to do things no longer works. Tasks that used to be easy – grocery shopping, family gatherings, going to worship, quick visits with friends – are now complicated by endless regulations. And some things – like the trip to England and Scotland that was on our family calendar for summer 2020 – have just not been possible at all.

What to do? It is tempting to repeatedly mourn what we have lost and what is no longer possible. Sometimes it feels like we keep slamming our heads against the wall because we are so eager to return to what was familiar and beloved.

And yet. I believe in a God of resurrection. I believe in God who offers new life in the face of death and hope where none is to be seen. I believe in a God of endless possibilities and a faithful God who has seen generations of humans through plague, war, starvation, homelessness, and more

If I can just stop focusing on what I can’t do, perhaps I will discover alternatives that are waiting to be revealed. If I can pull my gaze away from the wall that is blocking my path, maybe I will notice hints of other possibilities.

There is no denying the enormous loss and sadness that the pandemic has brought into millions (billions?) of lives. But this is not the end of our story. There is a way forward – it just is not the way that we expected or even the way that we wanted and planned on.

This Sunday will offer another example of that. Our congregation will gather for worship. We will not follow in the footsteps of our religious ancestors and meet in our beautiful sanctuary in our classic New England church. Covid regulations prohibit large indoor assemblies.

Fortunately, we worship a God who reminds us that it is not a building that brings us together, but rather the Spirit who invites us to worship and give thanks. We will explore new ways to be the people of God. We will discover new power in Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). On Sunday morning you will find us on the East Woodstock common. It will be different – we will wear masks and everyone will bring their own lawn chair. But it will be worship because God is faithful and God will be there.

We don’t want to be so fixated on what isn’t that we miss what can be. When we confront a road block we need to wonder where God is leading us next. If we can’t immediately find the way forward, we need to be open to God’s guidance through those dark valleys to the Promised Land awaiting us. It’s time to search for ways around the walls that are blocking us and discover creative new ways to move forward.

Fan mail for Dr. Fauci

Dear Dr. Fauci,

I am not a fan of the message that you keep giving America. I am, however, in awe of your ability to calmly and consistently deliver factual information that will help all of us get through this troubling, tiring, overwhelming time of pandemic. I admire your ability to seemingly ignore all the critics and nay-sayers as you faithfully adhere to your mission of sharing vital updates in understandable ways.

            I have heard you answer the same question from multiple reporters with unfailing courtesy. I have never heard you mock or belittle even the most inane question. I have a deep respect for your ability to stay focused on providing as much help and encouragement as you can. You consistently treat others with respect which makes you approachable. We can all learn from your wisdom.

            I can only imagine that it is not easy being you. You are under intense media scrutiny every day. Your words are parsed, examined, and quoted. You are criticized for not providing happy news. You are mocked for not grasping the economic impact of a medical crisis even as you explain that you are outlining a public health crisis. You are dismissed for admitting that there is still much that we don’t know and that the scientific community is uncovering new information on a daily and even hourly basis. You are our faithful guide through this complex, ever-changing journey.

You are, if you’ll pardon me mentioning it, old enough to retire. I imagine there might be times when you think, “I don’t need to be doing this. I could be sipping a cool drink in the shade somewhere.” And yet you keep going. You work long hours on behalf of humanity. Your refusal to give up or turn away benefits the entire world. Your courageous dedication shines through. And I am deeply grateful.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for being an inspiration. Thank you for working to save all of humanity.

With gratitude,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

No Going Back

There is a yearning in people’s voices when they ask, “When can we go back to normal? When can we go back to our usual routines? When will things go back to the way they used to be?”

To which I would answer – there’s no going back.

And what’s more, if we really think about it, I don’t think we will want to.

            The experience of the pandemic with its social/physical distancing has changed us. It has shaken us up and taught us a few lessons. Yes, we’ll be glad when we can meet together again. We will rejoice when stores and restaurants are open and we can invite friend over again. But some pandemic experiences might have opened our eyes to changes we want to make in our lives and the life of the church.

Here are some things the pandemic has helped me learn –

  • I actually enjoy sitting on my front steps watching the birds, looking at flowers, and noticing clouds drifting overhead. When I was busy rushing from one event to another, I rarely took time to soak up the beauty around me.
  • Livestreaming our worship service has changed our congregation. It enables people across the country and around the world to join us in prayer and praise. People who have moved away, friends and family across the globe, and those who cannot leave their homes now come together to worship.
  • Zoom Bible study allows equal access to fellowship and learning. Can’t get to East Woodstock?  No problem – call in or turn on your computer and suddenly you are part of a weekly gathering.

Why would I want to “go back” and forget these valuable lessons? Instead of yearning to “go back” to what was, we can consider how to “move forward.” Moving forward, how will I safeguard my calendar so there is still enough time to breathe and enjoy a slower pace?

  Moving forward, how will our church ensure that everyone can access worship on Sunday morning – either in person or from home? Moving forward, how will we reach out to the medically fragile who cannot risk sitting in a crowd? Moving forward, how will we take what we’ve learned about technology and social media and put that to work for our children, young people, and seniors?

            There are parts of the pandemic that we will be eager to leave behind. But let’s move forward with the new skills and insights that we have gained. Church, school, families, businesses, and all of us will need to adapt to our new reality. We can move forward in this new era knowing that God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever journeys with us.

Signs of the times

Have you noticed the signs of these times? I’m not talking about the daily briefings from the White House or the updated lists county by county of illness and mortality rates. There are other signs these days – signs to lift our spirits and signs to remind us we are not alone. Nowadays when we take a rare drive around town, there are signs and symbols everywhere.

            People have stopped by our local park to hang up signs on trees to thank health care workers, offer encouragement, and express appreciation.

Thank you to care workers

            More and more homes (and churches) are displaying teddy bears and other stuffed animals in windows so children can participate in a “bear hunt” as they view furry friends symbolizing solidarity and caring.

            Sometimes “signs” are delivered sight unseen and only discovered later. I was delighted to find a beautifully painted flower pot filled with pansies on my doorstep with a card to lift my spirits. Someone else dropped off an Easter basket with chocolates for my family with the message, “Thank you.”

            Sweet Honeycomb, a wonderful Christian resource company based in Australia is providing free coloring pages with uplifting phrases. People have been decorating them and hanging them in our church windows as a reminder to passers-by, “we are all in this together.” I love the idea that people across the world are sharing these positive messages as a global reminder that we can carry on, one day at a time.

            On the Saturday before Easter, members of our congregation were invited to stop by the church to decorate the front doors of our church with paper hearts. Even while maintaining proper social distancing and never coming in direct contact with one another, our congregation managed to work as a team to produce a bright and power proclamation of God’s love.

One of the front doors of the East Woodstock Congregational Church

            In these days when we are not allowed to gather together but when we all need encouragement more than ever, how will we share hope and Good News? What signs have you seen?  What signs have you shared?  This new era of physical separation calls on our creativity – what new ways can we use to reach out to one another? This is the time to consider who might need a cheery message or a note of caring. This is the moment when, while feeling powerless against an invisible virus, we are empowered to use our imaginations and find ways to help one another with support and encouragement.

Signs of encouragement

      How will you add to the signs of the times?

Corona and Tenebrae (shadows)

“I love the Tenebrae service so much, I would celebrate it even if no one showed up.” That statement will be put the test tomorrow evening as we prepare for Maundy Thursday. When I made that declaration over the years, I was thinking in terms of potential snowstorms that could keep people away or the busy-ness of schedules that interfered with a mid-week evening service. I was asserting that the beauty and solemnity of recounting Jesus’ final hours would compel me to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper and the desertion of his followers.

But let’s be honest. Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) is never a well-attended worship service. Far different than the standing-room-only experience of Easter, the Tenebrae service (of “service of shadows”) is a somber evening gathering attended by a handful of people. Those who do come are always moved by the power of our sacred texts that describe with moving detail Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. We listen to Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden. Our hearts are moved by the deep hurt of betrayal that leads to his arrest followed by the callousness of a sham trial.

It is hard to hear the story relentlessly unfold as it brings us closer and closer to Golgotha and crucifixion. The fear, agony, and loss are palpable. Because it is so powerful, I’ve always wanted more people to experience what is the center, the absolute foundation, of our Christian story. We get to hear about God who loves us so much that God will not avoid the absolute hardest parts of being human. Jesus lives through loss, fear, betrayal, sadness, isolation, and excruciating pain. And he does it for us. When those terrifying experiences enter into our lives, we can turn to Jesus knowing that he walked through that dark valley before us. It is a gut-wrenching and yet life-giving story. It is vital that we hear it.

And thus my commitment to proclaim the story even if no one was there to listen.

So this year on Maundy Thursday I will be in the sanctuary alone with my family and our wonderful pianist Nancy. We will recount the story that has been given to Christians to tell. It is a story of loss and hope, agony and assurance.

I hope you will be with me in Spirit and perhaps also on Facebook Live. You are invited to light a candle – electric or wax – and listen to the story. As the story is read, we will extinguish candles to represent the approaching shadows of loss and death.  You’ll be invited to put out your candle. And then finally to light it again as we cling to the hope of the Christ candle shining in the darkness.

In this time of sickness, loss, uncertainty and death, we need to hear the story of Jesus’ undying love.