Thirty years of blessings

In November 1987 I arrived at the East Woodstock Congregational Church, young and inexperienced, to begin my ministry. The congregation welcomed me with gracious patience as I made (many) mistakes. They offered encouragement as I grew into my role and discovered what it means to be a pastor.

They taught me about thoughtfulness and caring:

  1. Debbie Sherman filled the parsonage refrigerator with milk, butter and eggs. There was bread and cereal on the counter, along with directions to the (distant) grocery store. I knew I had landed among considerate, caring people.
  2. A “Pastor’s welcome basket” was set up during my first month. Every Sunday I discovered practical gifts like a flashlight, light bulbs, dish towels, cookies, and homemade muffins.
  3. Larry Grennan realized my 2-room seminary apartment wouldn’t provide enough furnishings for the rambling parsonage. He scouted furniture that helped turn that big old house into a home.
  4. George Brown fulfilled his promise to paint my office (upstairs in the brick schoolhouse, at the time) any color I chose – a cheerful yellow. George would swing by the church every afternoon “just to check” if anything needed to be adjusted, fixed, or tidied.
  5. John Davis looked at the spindly wooden chair behind my desk and invited me on an office-decorating expedition to Worcester that included reminisces about his family, work and school.
  6. Barbara Brown spent hours teaching me about relations and family connections in our village. Her gentle suggestions (“Susan, you might want to call this person”) as she reminded me about birthdays and anniversaries of happy and sad occasions helped me establish personal connections with my congregation.
  7. Kenny Marvin walked through the church every morning on the way to work to check on fickle furnaces and quirky water pumps. David Cain did endless chores – emptying trash cans, folding bulletins, raking leaves – to serve the church he loved.
  8. Evelyn Eddy dedicated her life to the missions committee, always finding new ways to help others. Barbara Klare held up autumn leaves each fall as a reminder of God’s creative presence in our lives.
  9. Barbara Barrett taught me about organization and attention to detail with her yellow legal pads and endless energy.
  10. Glen Lessig suggested the revolutionary idea of a computer to replace my typewriter and had the foresight to exchange our ancient mimeograph machine with a speedy Risograph.

They know the value of a good celebration:

  1. The noisy exuberance of children at Rally Day, Children’s Day, Christmas Pageant, children’s choir, and Vacation Bible School.
  2. Quiet beauty of our candlelight Christmas Eve service
  3. Joy and creativity of the Holly Fair
  4. Toe-tapping music of Jazz Sunday
  5. Making a joyful noise on Music Appreciation Sunday
  6. The Fourth of July Jamboree. An amazing, enduring effort that welcomes 1000+ people to enjoy old-fashioned, small-town fun.

They know how to share God’s love. These are the people I depend on in times of joy or tragedy. They live their faith by

  1. Creating beautiful Thanksgiving baskets
  2. Keeping a well-stocked food pantry for times of emergency
  3. Hosting beautiful funeral receptions, surrounding families with love
  4. Providing rides, cooking at the Community Kitchen, visiting the homebound
  5. Holding vigils in times of loss and mourning
  6. Walking with one another on life’s journey
  7. Choosing to become an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming all of God’s people

They have made East Woodstock my home. I am grateful for

  1. Celebrating my marriage with a contra dance
  2. Creating a safe and nurturing place for our children while allowing them space to learn and grow without expecting them to be perfect
  3. Supporting my continuing education with sabbatical leave – 3 times
  4. Reading and discussing my research during my Doctor of Ministry studies
  5. Making it possible for my family to travel to Bolivia, birthplace of our oldest son

There are words and experiences that I will always associate with East Woodstock:

  1. Molasses cookies. Cake walk. Basket social. Chicken barbeque. Men’s chorus.

When I step into our sanctuary, I know I am on holy ground.  This is a place where births and baptism are celebrated, couples unite, teenagers are confirmed, and memories are shared to mark a life completed and a soul gone home. There is a cloud of witnesses offering strength and love to the vibrant, active congregation that gathers to worship and serve.

  1. These are not-perfect people led by a not-perfect pastor, but somehow through the grace of God, together we are the church. And I am so grateful.

Thanks be to God.

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.”