How do we respond?

How do we respond?

What worries you the most these days?

Is it

  • Gun violence?
  • The repeal of Roe v. Wade?
  • The ongoing division in our country?
  • Racial injustice?
  • The war in Ukraine?
  • Your own family concerns?
  • Health issues?

 There is an abundance of concerns right now in what feels like an ongoing unsettled time in our country. It’s hard to watch the news but it feels somewhat negligent to simply ignore everything going on. What to do?

I don’t have solutions for these complex, heart-rending problems. But I would like to offer some encouragement about tending to our mental and spiritual health while navigating these emotional challenges. I believe we must take care of ourselves so that we can engage in facing these issues and searching for positive solutions.

Here are some steps that might help.

  • Name your fears. Make a list. Get it out of your head and onto paper (or a screen). Otherwise we keep rehashing the same worries; it’s like riding a never-ending rollercoaster of emptions.
  • Acknowledge your concerns.  They are real and they are valid.  Ignoring the issues or pretending that they are not serious will not help. If part of your acknowledgment includes crying out to God and the universe, do it.  Talking about our concerns opens up space in our spirits so that we can be renewed.
  • Replenish your spirit.  We are not alone. We don’t have to rely solely on our strength or wisdom. God promises never to leave us or abandon us. Seek God’s comfort and strength.
  • Go to the well and drink deeply. God’s love is described as streams of living water (John 7). Our spirits are parched by a parade of bad news and heartbreaking events. Before we can address them, we must replenish our energy with God’s renewing hope.

What will that look like for you? How will you seek God’s love and be reminded of God’s presence?  Will you sit quietly, go for a walk, read the Bible, journal, garden, meet with friends to talk and share?  Try different ways of encountering God.

            The problems of this generation will not improve without our efforts. We can remember a wise Jewish saying, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” With God’s help we will receive the strength and comfort we need to navigate each day filled with the reassurance that God is always with us.

Let us pray

I think we can all agree – we live in overwhelming times. The relentless pursuit of the Corona virus in all of its variations, the ongoing war in Ukraine, climate change and reports of evaporating lakes, wildfires, and warming oceans. There is seemingly endless division and conflict amongst our political leaders that trickles down to infect local and state governments. Prices are up. Shortages are growing. Rents are climbing. Affordable housing is difficult to find. Racist violence is rampant.

            Add to that your own personal worries about loved ones, employment, finances, and health. It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are growing in our country.

            What to do?

            How should we respond?

            What’s the best course of action?

            Let us pray.

            I can almost see you rolling your eyes.  Pray?!?  What good will that do? Why should I waste my time muttering words to God?  If God is all-knowing, God doesn’t need my reminders about today’s dismal state of affairs.  If God is all-caring, God shouldn’t require me to convince him to tend to the sick and the dying. If God is all-powerful, God won’t be helped by my encouragement and entreaties.  

            You’re right.

            So much of prayer is not for God’s benefit, but for our own. It is not to convince a grudging, reluctant God to act. Prayer brings our parched spirits to the ever flowing streams of God’s love and presence. We can find renewal there. We can find hope.

            Here’s the invitation – let us pray. We have started gathering on Fridays at noon for prayer. You are invited to join us – in person in our sanctuary or in spirit wherever you happen to be. You can also send me prayer requests.

 This brief service reminds us of what is true – we are not alone as we face the challenges of this world.

            Prayer is an invitation to listen to God’s life-giving words. If we fill our ears solely with the latest news reports and urgent (and often depressing) text/social media messages, our minds and hearts will be filled with despair. Taking time to pray offers moments of quiet and peace in the presence of love. It is not about denying or running away from the truly awful state of affairs. Instead, prayer feeds our spirits so we can be strengthened to act.  

When I take time to listen, I hear assurances like these:

  • God cares deeply for the stranger, supports the widowed and orphaned, and ruins the schemes of the wicked.  (Psalm 146)
  • You know me, God. You know me. You see me working, you see me resting.

You know what I think about; you know what I do.  

You are everywhere – near and far, and all around me. (Psalm 139)

  • Turn from evil, love what is good, and you will be at peace;

God is a lover of justice who will never abandon the faithful.   (Psalm 37)

We are called to respond to the needs of the world. Let us begin with prayer.

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.  

Be a mustard seed

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

 Do you ever feel overwhelmed these days? The problems facing us are overwhelming. The wildfires out West. The ongoing pandemic. Systemic racism. Political turmoil. An angry and divided country. Not to mention your own personal challenges, worries, and struggles.

            What can we do? It is easy to feel helpless or powerless against such powerful forces. We might convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do. We might convince ourselves that our small effort or our tiny voice will have no impact against such crushing, frightening opposition.

            When the news is unrelentingly bad, we can remember Jesus’ description of a mustard seed. That tiny kernel holds tremendous promise.

Be the mustard seed.

In the face of incivility, name-calling, and callousness, be a mustard seed of kindness and courtesy.

In response to anger and impatience, be a mustard seed of empathy.

When rudeness seems to prevail, be a mustard seed of calm.

When prejudice and fear seem to rule, offer a mustard seed of justice and fairness.

It may not seem like much.  That is the point of Jesus’ message. Our offering doesn’t have to look impressive or showy. God promises to use our gifts, no matter how big or little. And if we have only the smallest particle of faith to offer, go ahead and give that to God. God will do the rest.

            Our only mistake would be to give up. The size of our faith doesn’t matter. We are asked to trust that God will take the tiniest amount of love, hope, faith, mercy, compassion, and good will and bless that. God promises to take our meager offerings and multiply them.

            It may seem like we are tossing a tiny pebble of love into a swirling ocean of hate and turmoil but God says – go ahead! God will use what we offer.

            Go ahead and be that mustard seed of love, listening, and caring. We are encouraged to do what we can and trust that God will bless that effort. And just like in a garden, the results may not be immediately apparent. There may be some waiting involved. We are asked to keep planting, keep working, and keep trusting.  God is at work.

            The only mustard seed that is wasted is the one that is never planted. So go ahead – be a mustard seed. Offer your love, show your compassion, and share your kindness. We are invited to speak, listen, pray, care, and act – and then trust that God will cause those offerings to grow and multiply.

Worrying about the children

I can’t get the children out of my mind. Refugee children in detention centers without soap or toothbrushes and sometimes without beds. Children who have been separated from their parents and who barely have enough to eat. Children forbidden to go outside to exercise or play.

            We didn’t invite them here. These children did not ask to be caught up in this violent and dangerous situation. Many do not want them here (I would urge the wealthiest country in the world to consider its obligation to help those less fortunate but that is an argument for another day). The fact remains – the children are here.  They are in our country. What will we do? The way we respond to the weak and desperate defines who we are as a nation. The world is watching. How will we react?

            When I think about the children in the migration centers, I think of my own children at that young age. I remember vividly how vulnerable they were when they were frightened or lonely or sick. When I think of these migrant children who are alone, cold, and afraid, I imagine them crying without comfort or care being provided.  It breaks my heart and makes me furious in equal measure.

            The argument has turned petty. Withholding toothbrushes? Refusing to allow them to shower or bathe? Rationing soap and confiscating blankets? Some would argue that harsh treatment will discourage additional refugees from entering our country. The idea that people are risking their lives in order to be treated inhumanely in detention centers defies logic. No one is crossing the border to get a clean toothbrush. Desperate parents are trying to save their lives and protect their children. They are risking everything in search of safety, security, and a chance for a new life.   

            Responding to thousands of refugees fleeing from countries filled with violence and danger is a huge challenge. Fear is driving them to our border. Our country needs to take action in this very human crisis. We don’t have to agree on immigration policy before we recognize our obligation to provide basic care for these homeless, hurting children.

Our country was founded by immigrants. We are known as a generous, caring country who rushes to the aid of people across the globe. Now those people are on our doorstep. We may not be able to find homes for all of them, but we can treat them with the dignity that all human beings deserve. If Congress cannot find a way to provide toiletries for children, the government should turn to faith communities and other non-profits. Provide 2000 toothbrushes?  We can do that in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, if you, like me, are looking for a concrete way to respond, you may choose to donate to agencies that are aiding refugees. Here are some:

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  

KIND: Kids in Need of Defense  

UCC Refugee Relief 

            I will pray that we will learn how to put “love your neighbor” into action.

What CAN you do?

A recent foot injury has led to some frustrating restrictions to my mobility. Standing for more than a few minutes is painful. Some of my favorite pastimes have been temporarily eliminated. My morning walks, which feed my spirit and brighten my mood, have been abandoned. Taking care of my flower gardens and communing with the birds as I feed them are put on hold for now.

            As the list of activities that I can’t do seemed to grow longer and longer, I was becoming annoyed and feeling slightly sorry for myself.

            I was lamenting my inability to exercise and enjoy the improving weather when my wise daughter observed, “Well, you could at least lift weights.” And bingo – a new perspective was introduced.  Instead of focusing on the impossible, I was invited to imagine something new.  Given my limitations, what could I do? It was an opportunity to be creative.  I discovered several activities that worked – not only weight-lifting, but also yoga, swimming, biking, kayaking, and stretching. I didn’t need to curl up on the couch in pathetic defeat; I needed to shift my thinking and recognize what I could do.

            Now I’m starting to expand that thinking to other dilemmas and problems. Often when a situation seems overwhelming, I find it easy or tempting to think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.”  Prejudice against the LGBT community?  Can’t solve that. Systemic racism?  Where would I even start? Global warming? Oceans polluted by plastic? Children being separated by their parents on the border? There are any number of issues, from personal to global that feel unsolvable. It’s tempting to sink into inaction.

            And yet – my new thinking reminds me that I don’t have to come up with a complete answer. I don’t have to produce the entire solution.  I just need to do what I can do. Maybe I can’t change society’s thinking about the LGBT community, but I can march in a Pride Parade or invite conversation with a bumper sticker. I doubt I will overcome centuries of racism and discrimination single-handedly, but I can accept the challenge to educate myself about the experiences of people of color and pledge to recognize moments of racism in myself and others.

            What can I do?  Pick up trash on the side of the road? Greet surly clerks with compassion? Send a card or email to a long-lost friend? What small action might be part of a larger answer?

There may not be a neat solution for every problem. But that isn’t an invitation to inaction. It’s a call (to quote John Wesley) to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

     

Sharing Easter Joy

Easter was wonderful! We shouted “alleluia!” and celebrated that “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!”

 Now what?  How do we make sure that Easter – with all of its hope and joy – is not just a one-day celebration? How do we share the Good News that God offers new life even amidst despair and sadness?

 We are not Bible-thumpers in East Woodstock. No one expects me to pound the pulpit and dictate what they believe or how they live their faith or even that there is only way to find and worship God. Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is known for welcoming all of God’s people by declaring “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

 So, if we aren’t telling people what they have to believe, how are we sharing the Good News? What I love about my congregation is their creativity. They have discovered many ways to share God’s hope and new life.

Some people knit prayer shawls and offer these gifts as a reminder of God’s encircling love.

 Some folks paint rocks and place them in parks or other public places or give them as gifts (thanks, Laurie!).  The painter rarely sees the reaction of the recipient, but occasionally powerful stories filter back to us about someone who discovered a message rock and rejoiced in its comfort and hope.  

 Some people write letters to the editor to encourage good stewardship of the earth or combat racism.

 There are the “behind the scenes” folks who sort clothes for the upcoming clothing sale, tidy up the sanctuary in preparation for Sunday, or tend our church garden so it presents a welcoming array of colors to everyone who stops by.

 Some people volunteer at the local community kitchen or spend hours helping out at community closet and food pantry. People send cards, deliver meals, and offer rides to the doctor.

It turns out there are endless ways to share God’s love. It does take intention. It isn’t enough to say, “I’ll just be a good person today.” That’s nice, but the world – and the people who live in it – need more than just “nice.”

I read recently that Benjamin Franklin began each day asking, “What good can I do today?” and concluded the day by wondering, “What good did I do today?” What stranger did we greet with kindness, what comfort did we offer to those in despair, how did we treat our neighbor? With our different gifts and varying interests, we can choose to offer hope and spread encouragement.

And the hope of Easter will live on.

Puerto Rico – my experience

My first impression as we approached San Juan for a week-long mission trip with its brightly-lit skyline and bustling airport was, “Maybe they don’t need us after all.” But, as is often the case, the first impression didn’t tell the whole story. Beneath the glittering exterior, signs of damage and lingering pain were everywhere. Once our group started looking even slightly under the surface, we witnessed the devastating impact of Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that enveloped the island in 2017.

We saw the lovely sandy beach dotted with cabanas in tatters. The lighthouse overlooking the bay welcomed visitors but barred entry to the roof and second floor because of extensive rain and wind damage. The homes we visited were occupied but covered with thick layers of mud and mold. The long driveway leading to the church camp where we stayed was lined with electrical wires and fallen trees; the camp itself was still powered by generator. The enormous welcome sign at the camp’s entry was standing but was illegible because so many letters had been blown off by high winds. The impact of the storm was everywhere.

When we visited the beautiful national forest, we enjoyed panoramic views of the lush rain forest. Eighteen months after the storm, the visitor center remains closed and the majority of walking trails are impassible. It made me hope that this national treasure is on some government “to-do” list somewhere.

Our first work day was spent power washing the flat roofs of homes. The volunteer coordinators in northeastern Puerto Rico are valiantly working through a list that still contains over 200 people who are patiently waiting for much-needed help. Our plans to coat the roofs with sealer and paint were foiled by near-constant rain, so we turned our attention instead to the church camp.

Fortunately many members of our 15-person group had more abundant carpentry and construction skills than I do. We divided into smaller teams to address the needs of the camp – a foot bridge that had been swept away by the rains, a pavilion roof crushed by a fallen coconut tree, and an outdoor chapel with an unsafe walkway and railings. I discovered that every good work crew can use a willing “go-fer” and someone who can fetch tools, jot down measurements, provide a bit of muscle, and offer much-needed water in the steamy climate.

We worked hard in our short time there and accomplished a lot. And yet… there is so much left to do.  We were reminded that we were just one small piece in a much larger effort.  We carried on work that was started before us; after us another group will push it forward.

It seems to me that so much of faith is like this – we may not see the end result of our efforts, but we trust that God is at work in ways that we cannot always understand. Let us lift up prayers for the people of Puerto Rico and for people across the globe who struggle against odds larger than themselves. Let us follow John Wesley’s encouragement to “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.”

Gary O: Voice of Putnam

            If you want to meet someone who loves their job, talk with Gary Osbrey. “Gary O,” as he has been known since high school, is co-owner (with his wife Karen) of WINY, the radio station in the heart of Putnam. On the morning I spoke with him, Gary was brimming with excitement. “I just flipped the switch,” he said excitedly, “We’re now broadcasting on FM as well!”  It was fabulous news for this hard working disc jockey who had always dreamed of owning a radio station.

            The pieces of Gary’s life seemed to have come together to lead him to this time and place. Growing up in Coventry RI meant that he was able to attend the only high school in the state with a student-run radio station. Getting a job at WINY (which he imagined would be a short-term experience) introduced him to the attractive station secretary, Karen. They married in 1987. All along, his goal was to own a radio station before he turned forty. On May 31, 2001, just months before that milestone birthday, that dream became a reality.

When Gary reflects on the path that led him here, he shakes his head in wonder at what he describes as the blessings of his life. 

            “I never have to hit the snooze button,” Gary confided, “I’m always glad to come to work.” He’s at his desk by 5:15 a.m. every morning, ready to greet early-morning listeners with a full range of news, sports, and updates on local events. The purpose of a local radio station, Gary says, is to provide news and information and to promote and celebrate the community.

Gary accomplishes that with his enthusiasm and welcoming spirit. His morning talk show is always booked with people eager to share their news. On any given morning, a listener can tune in to high school students describing sports, music, and arts, representatives from the hospital talking about health campaigns, religious communities sharing upcoming events, or politicians outlining legislation that will impact northeastern Connecticut. Life moves at a breathtaking pace as WINY fosters a sense of community in the Quiet Corner.

Gary’s influence and enthusiasm doesn’t stop at his office door. He is a visionary who can help others imagine the possibilities of new ideas. Not everyone who visits Disney World immediately thinks of Putnam CT, but Gary did. Disney’s Light Parade inspired Gary to introduce the idea of the Dazzle Light Parade to his small town. Now seemingly an institution in Putnam on the weekend following Thanksgiving, the idea was initially met with skepticism. Who would want a parade in chilly November? Gary’s perseverance led to the first parade in 2002, when 65 groups and organizations lit up the streets as they walked by appreciative crowds. In 2018 there were 145 entries in what is now a cherished holiday tradition.

That same ability to envision something new led to Gary’s suggestion of the Putnam River Fires. Some folks might have been discouraged when that idea was tabled year after year by town leaders. Not Gary. Finally, as part of Putnam’s 150th anniversary in 2005, the first River Fire glowed on the Quinebaug and drew crowds to the river for music and entertainment. Another beloved tradition was born.

When someone tries to compliment Gary on his accomplishments, he brushes that off saying, “You think I’m busy?  You ought to see my wife!” And it’s true – Karen is involved in multiple community organizations and events, determined to improve the lives of people in Putnam and the surrounding area. Among her many responsibilities, she is the president of the Putnam Arts Council, a member of the Quinebaug Valley Community College Foundation, and president of the Putnam Building Committee which will oversee the construction of the new town hall and library.

This hard-working, dedicated couple recognizes the need to also take care of themselves. Sunday evening dinners are a priority as they carve out time in their busy schedules to reconnect and plan for the upcoming week. An annual “winter hibernation” getaway weekend provides much-needed down time as they unplug and unwind. They seem to realize that the only way they can keep doing the work they love is if they take care of themselves and each other.

“All I want is to live a purposeful life,” Gary explains. This includes quieter activities that also offer a profound impact. Look for him at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings at the Main Street Grill for Bible study and reflection. This group, which is open to anyone who wants to show up, asks the question, “Where have you seen and experienced God this week?” Together they marvel at how God’s love and guidance weaves in and through their lives.

Through his faith, hard work, and dedication, Gary Osbrey enriches the lives of people in northeastern Connecticut.

You can listen to WINY at 1350 AM and 97.1 FM.

What does the church do?

“What does your church do, anyway?” It wasn’t a snide comment or a rude question, but an honest inquiry from someone who isn’t involved in a faith community and can’t really see any particular reason to bother.

It did make me think.  Especially since this coming Sunday we will be holding our annual congregational meeting, a time when we review not just logistical questions about budget and building upkeep, but take some moments to ponder – what did our congregation do this past year? What have we accomplished? What difference have we made?  Because really – if we can’t answer those questions, then what are we all about?

I tried to frame my answer in a way this person would appreciate. But where to start? Should I describe our showcase event, our Fourth of July Jamboree when hundreds of people gather on our common for music, fellowship, and old-fashioned fun? Or should I describe more serious efforts like supplying food, clothing, toiletries, and gift cards to the homeless and domestic violence shelters as well as to local families.

Should I talk about our public ministries like weekly worship that offers inspiration and fellowship or is our behind-the-scenes work more important? How do we measure the importance of visiting the sick, praying with and for the dying, and offering comfort to the lonely and mourning?

What is it that we do?  Is anyone grading us or keeping track of our actions? If they are, would they like to know about the school backpacks that are filled and delivered in September or presents that are carefully chosen and wrapped at Christmas time or perhaps the Easter baskets that overflow with bounty and compassion? Or would they be more interested in meals and cards delivered to the homebound or the efforts of our children and youth as they rake leaves and help with home repairs.

During the season of Epiphany we are encouraged to take our Christmas gift – the love and compassion of God – and share it with everyone we meet. Don’t, Jesus instructs us, hide your light but let it shine so that God’s glory and love may be experienced and felt. That’s our job. That’s what we are meant to be about.

Do we do it perfectly? No. There is always more to do and there are endless needs that go unmet. But we try to live out God’s commandment to love our neighbor. We endeavor to make a difference in our neighborhood and across the globe.

Perhaps our primary call – the purpose of the church – is to make God’s love visible and to remind people that God is near. “Emmanuel” isn’t just a pretty word for Advent. It means “God with us” and that means in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives. The church – each one of us – is called to echo the joy of the angels who said, “Behold!” Behold – God is with us. Our actions should reflect that good news every day.