Stones with stories

I spend more time in cemeteries than the average person.  Call it an occupational hazard. In all sorts of weather, I have found myself graveside, offering prayers as this bit of earth is consecrated as a final resting place.

People often shudder when I mention my frequent visits to graveyards.  They wonder, “Isn’t it depressing?” as they confess their avoidance of cemeteries. Perhaps it is a ministerial oddity, but I find burying grounds fascinating and often, strangely, comforting. The stones inscribed with names and dates hint at stories of lives gone by. Some are forgotten, others are treasured memories, but all were children of God, beloved and cherished. And now entrusted into God’s eternal care. It is humbling to remember that all lives – those rich, famous, and powerful and those poor, broken, and lonely – will end.  Death is that great equalizer that each of us encounters.

It is said that Protestant reformer Martin Luther kept (1483-1546) kept a human skull on his desk as a reminder of his own mortality and the brevity of human life. Thankfully no skull lingers in my church office but the view from my desk offers a lovely glimpse of our village graveyard. It reminds me of how fleeting life can be and how precious every moment is. It brings to mind the many gatherings I have officiated in cemeteries over the years.

Sometimes those gatherings are filled profound, almost crippling, sadness as we mourn a life cut short by disease or accident. Sometimes we are bombarded with painfully poignant regrets as we say, “I wish it could have been different.” Yearning that circumstances could have been different as we mourn someone overcome by addiction or unable to ask for help or not able to receive forgiveness from self or others.

Sometimes the people huddled by the dirt mound and silent stones experience a sense of relief or rich gratitude that a life well-lived has peacefully come to end, offering a well-deserved rest.

While I am at the cemetery, often before the service begins, I wander between the rows of stones, reading the inscriptions. They hint at lives gone before, some tragically short, others decades long. Most are unknown to me, which makes me wonder about the feelings and experiences, hopes and dreams of those who lie beneath.

So many stones. So many stories.

Rather than being depressing, I find silent stones inspiring. They inspire me to keep things in perspective and to let go of trivial grievances. They inspire to try to make a difference now, today, while I can. And they inspire me to cherish my loved ones and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy.

Those silent stones speak volumes, if I am willing to listen.

How does God speak to you?

We will be celebrating Star Gift Sunday on January 8th.  This celebration of Epiphany, which marks the day the wise men arrived to worship Jesus, reminds us of the Light shining in the darkness, long after the excitement of Christmas has grown dim. The eight-week season of Epiphany encourages us to wonder

  • Where is God’s Light shining?
  • Where do you encounter God?
  • How –and where – does God speak to you?
  • Are we, like the ancient Magi, actively seeking the Light that is promised to us?

During worship, everyone will receive a paper star imprinted with one of about 200 words. Worshipers are encouraged to reflect on that word, that “star gift,” throughout the coming year.  People use many creative methods to ensure they encounter their star word several times each day. The paper stars get hung on computers, mirrors, refrigerators or are transformed into digital “wallpaper” on phones and computers.  Each glimpse of star gift reminds us that God is in that place, that somehow God is, as the United Church of Christ motto assures us, still speaking to God’s people. We are meant to be listening.

Google informs me that 7012 languages are spoken across the globe. Given that diversity, I am confident that God has a great variety of ways to speak to us.  I am wary of people who insist that there is only one way to discern God’s presence or a single path to the Creator of the universe. Instead, as a child of God filled with God’s Spirit, each of us can listen for the innumerable ways God speaks to us. I have met people who encounter God in

  • A cardinal in the snow
  • A stranger’s kindness
  • A child’s smile
  • The beauty of a sunset
  • The expanse of stars and planets, reminding us of God’s grandeur
  • The certainty of the sunrise, no matter how late or how dim that light may be

I know a young widow who discovers “hearts from heaven” in nature which remind her that love is stronger even than death.

The important thing is to listen, with ears and spirit open to the possibility of God breaking through our everyday lives to speak to our hearts.
In these frightening political times, during tense family encounters, in post-holiday let down, during the bleak mid-winter, at moments or days when you are not sure you can go on – what if we listen? What if we look? What if we notice?

What is God whispering to your spirit today? I won’t presume to tell you. But I do know this:

– The message God has for you is one of love.

– God’s voice is filled with forgiveness.

– God promises faithfulness.  God will never leave or abandon us.

God will love us when no one else does. Even when we don’t love ourselves.

I hope you can join us on Star Gift Sunday. Or send me your address and I will mail you a star.
But even more important –

  • Listen
  • Look
  • Be aware

God is speaking to you today.

star-gift-love

 

Searching for resurrection

Now that Easter is over, where should we look for resurrection?

On Easter Sunday, new life was everywhere – it was so easy to see.  Our 6: 30 a.m. sunrise service was cloudy and we didn’t actually see the sun rise, but there was a hearty group of people gathered to sing in the new day. It was a good celebration.

Later on that morning, our sanctuary was filled to overflowing as people squeezed into the pews and lined the back wall. The purple drape on the Cross was replaced with fresh flowers. Easter lilies crowded the window sills. The pulpit was surrounded by tulips and daffodils. Our plain, simple, somewhat stark Congregational meeting house was suddenly blooming with color. And then there was that wonderful moment when hundreds of people lifted up their voices to sing, “Christ the Lord is risen today!”  Our shouts of “alleluia!” bounced off the walls.  There was no doubt – even a newcomer or a stranger walking in off the street would have known – this was a day of celebration.

But what about now?  The crowds went home. A freak storm erased every sign of spring as the daffodils and crocuses were buried under wet, heavy snow. My phone started ringing early on the Sunday after Easter. “Is church cancelled today? Should we try to come in through all this snow?”

Just a week after Easter, signs of resurrection were hard to come by. Worship attendance was sparse on that Sunday after Easter. The leftover flowers looked a little worse for wear. The volume of the hymns – still songs of resurrection during this Easter season – were notably quieter.

Sometimes it’s easy to see Easter.

Sometimes – not so much.

Sometimes there are visible, obvious signs of new life.

Sometimes we have to really search to find some Good News to celebrate.

Where do you see signs of resurrection these days?  How do you discover the hope of Easter?

The disciples had the same challenge 2000 years ago.

Mary stared the risen Christ in the face and still didn’t see the hope standing in front of her. Resurrection was unrecognizable in the middle of death, surrounded by grave sites, and steeped in silence.

It’s so easy to believe in failure. We can be overwhelmed by death and desolation, violence and defeat.

Resurrection, though, is trickier.  It’s often subtle; we have to search it out.  It was wise Mr. Rogers who famously said, “Whenever there is a tragedy, look for the helpers.” That is where we will see God. After the bomb blast, in the midst of a storm, during a crisis – look for those who are rushing in to help.  That’s resurrection. There is hope even in the midst of despair.

The Good News was announced at the tomb, “He is not here, he is risen.” The women ran to tell the others.  And that is how rebirth and new life is shared.

Where will we recognize God at work?  And how will we spread that Good News?

Daffodil in snow2

The Church: A Hive of Activity

My husband is a beekeeper. He puts on the bee suit, dons the veil, and lights the smoker to keep the bees at bay. I watch from inside the house.

Nevertheless, I am learning that bees are fascinating creatures. Would it surprise you to learn that the “hive culture” of these tiny insects somehow reminds me of the complex workings of a congregation? It doesn’t matter which denomination or even what faith you belong to, let’s face it – life with a diverse group of people can be challenging. Getting anything done can be a herculean tasks. Congregational life can feel like living with an oversized, slightly dysfunctional family as we attempt to live our faith, care for others, mediate discussions, set visionary goals or simply make the simplest decisions or reach any kind of consensus.       Bee quote 2

What is the bees’ secret?  Over 10,000 of them are crammed into that tiny hive. Yet somehow they manage not only to care for each other and build intricate honeycomb, but also produce delicious honey. Part of their success may be the many different jobs each worker bee holds over the course of its lifetime.  No one gets stuck doing the same task without reprieve.

What if congregations encouraged our members to explore new ways to be a vibrant part of this living, breathing community we call church?  Every job is important – everyone makes a difference.

Think about the folks in your congregation. Then picture the bees, doing whatever is necessary to make the hive work. They are

  • Nurse Bees. These nurturers care for the developing eggs, watching over the vulnerable larvae until they hatch. Who takes care of the weak and helpless in your congregation? Does their hard work and vital contributions get recognized?
  • House bees. These industrious workers make the honeycomb and care for the hive to ensure it is a clean and healthy environment for the whole swarm. Picture the folks in your congregation – usually behind the scenes, often unheralded – who simply want to roll up their sleeves and live their faith by doing. We need to celebrate that.
  • “Guard bees” sound ominous until you recognize their determination to ensure the safety of the hive. Imagine previous generations of faithful members who weathered threats like economic strain, deficit budgets, weather catastrophes, and fires. They persevered. They did what needed to be done. Their efforts make today’s congregation possible.
  • Field bees venture out of the hive to search for pollen and nectar which will feed the rest of the hive. These are the hardworking folks who give heart and soul because they care so much.

Scientists are fascinated by bees because of what is known as “hive mentality.” The bees are completely focused on the hive. The tremendous energy they expend creating the honeycomb, storing up honey, tending the larvae and searching out pollen – it’s all to benefit the hive.  “All for one and one for all” is more than a motto – it’s the way they live. Even harsh winter weather can’t defeat them. When the temperature dips below freezing the bees cluster together so the inside temperature remains a toasty 90 degrees inside the hive.

What if congregations banded together like bees? What if we overlooked our differences and ignored petty annoyances and instead pledged to work together as a unit? What if we celebrated our vast variety of gifts and used them to take care of one another and to interact with the needy world around us?

The bees would warn us – loners, those hearty individualists, will suffer and die without the support of a committed community.

The bees are onto something. The church – the Body of Christ made up of unique children of God – can be inspired by their devotion and hard work.

Bee quote

What kind of Christian?

I believe

Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Matthew 22: 36-39

There have been a multitude of people who say they are motivated by their faith to engage in actions I often find incomprehensible.  Donald Trump states that he reflects a deep Presbyterian faith. Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses because she is “obeying God’s law.” And then there is the outrageous Westboro “church” that protests at funerals, targeting broken-hearted people with their venom and scorn.

Such claims to Christianity make me cringe. I shake my head and say, “That isn’t what I believe.  I’m not that kind of Christian.”  On the other hand, I refuse to describe myself with a negative or by saying what I am not. Instead I want to consider what I do believe. What kind of Christian am I?

This reminds me of the final paper I had to complete in seminary so many years ago. As a prerequisite to graduation, each of us was required to write our personal “credo” as we attempted to describe and define what we believe.

No matter what faith (or other) tradition you follow, this is a good exercise. It can be helpful to try to articulate what is most important to you – what are your values? What core beliefs define your life? What guides your actions?

So here is my working list.  While God may stay the same yesterday, today, and forever,   my understanding of God changes and evolves as I wend my way through life (I’m avoiding the phrases “grow older” or “age”).  Based on what I know and have experienced up to this point, this is the kind of Christian I yearn and endeavor to be every day.

I am a Christian who…

  • Believes it is all about love. God loves us – all of us, always, unconditionally, with forgiveness and mercy and the opportunity for new life. We are asked to share that love with others.
  • Thinks there is more than one way to know God. I recently saw a bumper sticker that declares, “Prays well with others.” If we could do that, it would solve a lot of problems.
  • Believes God is the God of second chances. God is always ready to forgive, help dust us off, get us back on our feet, and encourage us to try again.
  • Believes we break God’s heart regularly – when we exclude people, when we judge others based on their skin color, when we dismiss people of other cultures, traditions, and religions. I believe God loves us anyway and continually offers us opportunities to learn, grow, and change.
  • Discovers God while I write in my journal, when I go on walks, when I listen to others ponder their faith, when I take time to read and reflect. God is always there and it is my loss when I feel too busy to notice.
  • Is wary of anyone who claims to absolutely know the will of God. People who think they have all the answers make me nervous. If anyone can clearly describe God without doubt or reservation, I suspect that is not God.
  • Believes in prayer, even when I don’t completely understand it. I don’t know why some prayers seem to go unanswered or why the answer is no. But I have witnessed the power of prayer and believe that praying for one another is one of the greatest gifts we can offer.
  • Still has a lot of questions. I don’t know why heartbreakingly bad things happen to perfectly nice people. I am humbled by the grief I have encountered in people’s lives and also in awe by the acts of kindness, love, and compassion I have witnessed.

In the end, I rely on the words of Jesus

  • Love God
  • Love your neighbor
  • Love yourself

Simple words that take a lifetime (and more) to live.

What do you believe?

Windjammer retreat: a time to renew my spirit

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Mark 1:35

Where do you go for quiet time?  What do you do when you need to “recharge your batteries”?  Where do you find God?

It’s important to make time for yourself, to slow down the busy pace of your life, and take some time away from all the electronic distractions of our lives. During the last few summers, I have been fortunate to lead a retreat aboard the windjammer schooner Lewis R. French. I would like to invite you to join me on July 10-14, 2016. It is a unique way to follow the commandment to take a time of Sabbath. Sailing along the coast of Maine provides a wonderful opportunity to enjoy good fellowship, delicious home cooked meals (including a lobster bake on the beach!), and the glory of God’s creation.

Each year I join with 20 other people to rejuvenate our spirits as we relax on board this beautifully restored 1871 schooner. We start each morning with worship and reflection as we gaze out on Penobscot Bay. We are well cared-for each day as we feast on home-cooked meals brought up on deck from the galley below.

The time slips by; days are filled with reading, knitting, chatting or simply watching the stunning scenery as we catch glimpses of Maine wildlife. There is even the option of trying your hand on deck if you want to hoist the sails, furl the jib or take a hand at the helm.

Each day includes optional “shore leave” when (depending on the setting) there might be a chance to shop, hike, or sit on the beach. In the quiet of the evening, you can lie back and be amazed at the spectacular array of stars as you enjoy the sound of waves splashing against the boat.

I would love to share this experience with you – please be in touch with me if you’d like more information.  In the meantime, enjoy the changing seasons and be on the look-out for ways to feed your spirit and nourish your soul.

Living in the land of “we’ll see”

Fork in road

The congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness…” (Exodus 16)

  • Do you ever feel like you don’t know what tomorrow will bring?
  • Are you in a time of transition and it isn’t clear what direction you’re heading?
  • Is the future unclear or perhaps a bit daunting and frightening?

In our house we call those in-between times of life “the land of ‘we’ll see’.”  We end a lot of conversations with “we’ll see” because we simply don’t know what is going to happen next or how it will all turn out.

  • My parents are moving into assisted living. Will they be happy?  Will they enjoy their new circumstances?  We’ll see
  • Two of our children are graduating from college this year. What will they do next? Will they find jobs?  How will they live on their own?  We’ll see
  • Winter is coming – what will it be like? Will we experience as much cold and snow as last year? We can’t know that yet. So – we’ll see

What transitions are you experiencing?  Maybe you are caring for a loved one who is sick. Maybe you are changing jobs. Life brings us a variety of changing circumstances.  Children grow up, jobs change, friendships shift, parents grow older, illnesses come and go, our own abilities alter – nothing stays the same.  Any of these events can bring us into the land of “we’ll see.”

It is not an entirely comfortable place to be. It is never easy to have more questions than answers. It is human nature to want to plan and count on something. We like to know what we’re dealing with and how things will turn out. The hard truth is that certainty is simply not always available.

The land of “we’ll see” is like the wilderness described in Exodus. The people of Israel escaped their captivity by crossing through the Red Sea. Suddenly they found themselves facing a daunting wasteland with no clear direction and no end in sight. They were entering into the land of “we’ll see” as they searched for a new identity and got accustomed to their new reality.  The way forward was not clear.

Here’s the Good News – God is in the wilderness with us. God lives in the land of “we’ll see.” God reassures us that we are not alone in those troubled, turbulent times of our lives. Day by day and moment by moment, God journeys with us, surrounding us with the strength, compassion and courage we need.

We may not have a lot of answers.  But we are assured of God’s love and presence.

Blessings on your journey.