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.

Organizing your life and other summer dreams

Have you heard of a “bullet journal”?  The 20-somethings who share our home assure me this is the latest thing to help organize your life and prioritize your activities.  I have kept a journal – just a journal, no “bullets” involved – since I was 13. I write in my daily to review my yesterday, pray for my today, and jot down hopes, dreams and some worries for the future.

But I was intrigued that my app-addicted young adults could be inspired by something as low-tech as a notebook and a pen.  I did some research, on-line of course, and discovered www.bulletjournal.com .  A four-minute video explains how a bullet journal can “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future.”

Sounds good, right? In many ways, the bullet journal is a glorified “to do” list, with “bullet points” to check off when an action is accomplished. It promises a quieter mind and a calmer spirit as users “focus on things that are really worth your time.”

What is worth our time? It’s something to ponder before these precious summer days slip away. What activities and experiences feed your spirit and nourish your soul? What is really worth doing? Perhaps just as important – what is not worth our time? What dreary, tiresome behaviors can we eliminate from our daily routines so we make room to expand our hearts and listen for God’s Spirit?

“Seek the Lord,” the Bible tells us, “and you will find him” (Deuteronomy). The wise teacher in Proverbs assures us if we “seek diligently” we will discover God. And Jesus encourages us to “seek and you will find.”

That’s worth doing. This summer we can intentionally make time to seek God and be aware of God’s presence.  Where will you encounter God in the coming weeks? Will you listen for God’s voice as waves break against the coast or as water gently ripples upon a lakeshore? Will you look for God in the early-morning light or in the dimming of these longer days? Perhaps the flickering light of fireflies and stars will remind you of light shining in the darkness, of God’s promise to be with us always. The joyful exuberance of festivals or outdoor concerts might move you to sing praises to God. Loving moments with family and friends could reassure you that where there is love, there is God.

Notice. Be aware. Pause. The bullet journal’s popularity comes from its encouragement of intentional living.

Starting today, take five minutes at the beginning or end of each day to review your blessings and notice where you encounter God. An awareness of the divine weaving its way in and through our lives can change our outlook on life. God promises to “be with us always, now until the end of the age.”  Let’s take time to notice.

What happens in baptism?

On Sunday we will baptize four children, ages 4-13.  Our congregation will sing David Haas’ refrain, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name” as we prepare for this joyous celebration.  Times four?  Even better.

Why do we baptize? What happens in that moment when water meets forehead?

It isn’t magic.  I hasten to remind parents that their child will not suddenly sleep through the night, become better behaved, or start cleaning their room.

Another kind of transformation takes place, one that is unseen and mostly has to do with our hearts. It can happen at any age (the oldest person I baptized was an 87 year old man preparing for his death) or any place (the beauty of our sanctuary is lovely, but dipping my trembling fingers into a flimsy paper cup by a hospital bedside works too).

In that moment, God speaks to our spirits, that divine essence in each one of us, and declares what is true about us.  During baptism, I always ask, “By what name shall this child be baptized?” It is not that I forgot the person’s name. It is an opportunity to remember with awe that God knows each of us by name. In baptism, God tells us who we are and reminds us of an identity that can’t be taken away from us.

During our lifetime, many people tell us lies about who we are. We are told that we are too fat or too skinny, not smart or cool enough, or that we just don’t fit in. We hear messages about our value and worth and how we don’t measure up to some impossible standard. The world is all too glad to push soul-crushing labels and demeaning false names upon us. Those lies can lead to heartache and crippling self-doubt.

Baptism destroys those lies. God tells us who we really are – a beloved child of God’s, named by God as precious in God’s sight. No one can take that identity away.  Baptism cannot be reversed or negated. No matter how anyone else defines us, God’s name for us endures. Wherever our path leads us – what  we do, who we love, what mistakes we make, false starts we engage in, dead ends we encounter – we will remain God’s beloved child, always welcome in God’s sight.

At baptism we humbly celebrate God the name-giver who claims us with an unshakeable love.

That’s what we will celebrate on Sunday. Baptism is a gift to children who don’t know enough to even ask for this grace and a reminder to all who witness it. In baptism we say ‘yes’ to God who said ‘yes’ to us long before we knew it, or requested it. It is a gift to the children being baptized and a reminder to all the witnesses. God names us so we can spend our lives discovering how to live into that God-given identity.

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Some words shouldn’t be spoken

Ten students had their coveted Harvard admissions letter rescinded.  Why? They posted obscene, racist, misogynist memes on-line. People have been debating whether a college has the right to limit public expression, no matter how distasteful.

But some words shouldn’t be spoken.

A young woman is on trial in Boston right now for involuntary manslaughter. She allegedly coerced her boyfriend into committing suicide. She was not with him at the time. But she sent a series of messages and texts encouraging him to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.  “Get back in the truck,” she urged him, “finish what you started.”  She never touched him, but her words compelled him.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken.

The Bible contains dozens of warnings about the power of our words. James marvels, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (3:5).  One cruel or thoughtless comment has the ability to ruin a day or crumble faltering confidence. We have all been on the receiving end of cutting remarks or demeaning comments. That pain stays with us.  We have all uttered words we desperately wished to take back. That regret lingers.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken.

What about free speech? The First Amendment is not a “get out of jail” card; it does not pardon all language. The old saying reminds us – your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose. In other words, freedom is not permission to hurt someone. We should not cause harm.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken.

Words have great power. They can be used to proclaim truth, soothe feelings, and extend encouragement. What if we offered our words as a gift to one another? Paul reminds us, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”(Ephesians 4:29). What a different world it would be.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken. Instead, let us share words that give hope, lift one another up, and nurture broken spirits. When correction or instruction is necessary, let us offer it in ways that can be received instead each other with a barrage of belittling comments.

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Let us take the Psalmist’s prayer to heart: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God” (Psalm 19).

Celebrating Confirmation

This Sunday we will celebrate the confirmation of eleven of our teenagers.  Most of these fourteen and fifteen year-olds – “confirmands,” as they have been known for more than a year – were baptized when they were infants.  Their parents took vows on their behalf and promised they would model a faith of forgiveness, love and justice. Now these teenagers wish to “confirm” their faith for themselves.

Although we recognize that they are still very young and have much to learn in life, the church considers them mature enough to declare their own belief.  Among other promises, they will vow

  • “By the grace of God to follow in the way of our Savior”
  • “To resist oppression and evil and to show love and justice, according to the grace given to you.”

Every time vows are taken in church – whether it is for baptism, confirmation, or a wedding – people make promises that they will only gradually understand. A young couple who vows to love one another in “sickness and in health” may not understand the overwhelming nature of that promise for many years to come.

We do not expect our confirmands (much to their relief) to “know it all,” to have a comprehensive understanding of the Bible or to be unquestioning in their faith. We make that clear when they answer what I consider to the most important question, “Do you promise, according to the grace given to you, to grow in the Christian faith.” They will give the hopeful, affirmative reply, “I promise, with the help of God.” They are promising to grow, ask questions, and continue to learn.

It’s a big promise.

What I love about their vows is the presence, over and over again, of words like “grace” and “the help of God.” The church is reminding them they are not alone. God never simply pushes us out of the nest or into our future with a hearty, “Good luck with that!” Instead, God promises to journey with us, supplying us with much-needed support and help.

There is an understanding, even an expectation, that we will make mistakes. Our confirmands – like many of us – more questions than answers, more doubt than faith, more uncertainty than conviction.

But they want to be on this journey of faith. They want to find out more. They want to discover who God is and the impact their faith can have. They want to make a difference in this world that needs the love, hospitality, and welcome of a forgiving and renewing God.

This is not the beginning of their faith journey; rather it is one step along an evolving path.  We will surround them with our prayers and be reminded that all of us need to continue to search for God in our everyday lives.

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Feeding our spirits

I’m just back from the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio. It was, without question, a minister nerd-fest. Who else would have a “festival” about “homiletics,” which is just a fancy name for preaching.  And yet there we were – 1800 ministers from many denominations across the country, ready for four and a half days of worship, sermons, and lectures.  It truly was an event that perhaps only a preacher could love. And it was fabulous a time for learning, inspiration, and renewal.

Let me tell you why worship-leaders enjoy going to worship –

  • Someone else chooses the hymns. And if people don’t like them, it isn’t my fault.
  • Someone else prepared the bulletin. And if there are mistakes, it wasn’t me.
  • Someone else wrote all the litanies, responses, and prayers. All I had to do was show up and soak it all in.
  • Someone else preached. I happen to love to preach, but it is a delight to cherish some moments when I’m not responsible for reading the text, grappling with the meaning, studying commentaries, finding instructive illustrations, or coming up with compelling stories.

And perhaps the best thing of all – if something goes wrong (which it did), I can simply sit in my seat and wait for someone else to resolve the issue. So, when all 1800 ministers were eagerly anticipating a PowerPoint presentation and suddenly the screen went black, I could laugh. I could be confident that the team of tech people would rally to rectify the situation – which they did – or that someone else would have to come up with a “Plan B.” There was something very relaxing and gratifying about sitting in the pews and being invited to simply listen and learn.

The conference provided much food for thought. I was immersed in new worship ideas, introduced to new hymns (I think) our congregation will enjoy, heard inspiring sermons, and was challenged to stretch my theology as we wrestled with our ancient texts providing insights for a very modern world. It was a wonderful, educational, inspiring week.

And yet – there was something humbling about listening to one gifted, talented, inspiring preacher after another. It is not easy to hold over 1000 people spellbound, yet I witnessed a number of preachers and professors who managed to do just that. Many of them were available afterwards to sign copies of their recent books.  These were teachers and preachers who travel the globe delivering their messages and then return to their mega-churches and over-subscribed classes.

A gnawing, unwanted doubt began to seep in to the congregation primarily made up of small town preachers and pastors shepherding struggling congregations.  How, we wondered, could we ever measure up to such greatness?

There is great danger in comparing yourself to anyone else. We tend to romanticize the other’s success and popularity as we diminish our own abilities and service. We mistakenly believe that they “have it all” while we struggle to accomplish anything.

Here’s the conclusion that many of us reached during this conference – God does not call any of us to be famous, popular, or successful. God calls each one of us to be faithful. God calls us to receive and then to share a message of love, forgiveness, and the ability to start over – again and again. And that’s true whether you are a minister, a teacher, an auto-mechanic, stay-at-home parent, or rocket scientist.

We all need an opportunity for a spiritual “tune-up,” a time to be renewed and refreshed. My prayer for each one of us is that we can find ways to feed our spirits – whether it’s at a conference or gazing out of the beauty of God’s creation – and discover again that loving voice that invites us to simply receive God’s love, and then to share it any way we can.

 

Love shouldn’t hurt

Domestic violence was the topic in worship last Sunday. Our Lenten celebration of kindness and loving our neighbor was punctuated by the reminder that love shouldn’t hurt.

Now, that may seem obvious to you. Yet Patty Sue Brown, an advocate for our local domestic violence shelter, shared startling statistics with us. They are eye-opening.

  • 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
  • Domestic violence is the 3rd leading cause of homelessness.
  • Women ages 18-34 are at the greatest risk of being victims of domestic violence.
  • Every 9 seconds a woman in the United States is a victim of domestic violence (the rate is even higher in other countries).

It was difficult to hear about pain happening all around us. Some folks wondered if this was a proper topic for a Sunday morning sermon. There were, after all, children and young people present. But this is a message for all ages and a topic we can’t ignore.

We learned that February is designated as “Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.” It gives one pause to realize that such an awareness campaign is necessary. We want to encourage people of all ages to recognize the warnings signs. The power wheel illustrates that violence is not limited to physically hitting or grabbing someone.  Controlling behavior, causing another person to feel isolated or devalued, and words that belittle or shame are all on the violence spectrum.

Domestic violence 2As beloved children of God, each of us deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. We need to care for ourselves and be mindful of the needs of our neighbor.

During that same worship service, we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, that unlikely hero who sees a person in need and responds with kindness and compassion. The story reminds us to actually see one another and recognize signs of distress and hurt. The Samaritan’s willingness to reach out to a stranger saved that person’s life.

The leaf added to our Kindness Tree this week was “helpful.” We offer ourselves as the hands of Christ, reaching out to all of God’s people.

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