Carefully choosing our mentors

Who is someone you admire? Who is someone you have learned from? Our congregation enjoys a mentorship program with the 9th and 10th graders in our confirmation class. Adults meet monthly with the teens to wrestle with the concept of living a faithful life in a sometimes chaotic world. They talk about Scripture, current events, and the joys and challenges of listening for God’s voice. These different generations listen and learn from one another.

I was blessed with a wonderful mentor as I prepared for ministry. The Rev. Dr. Bruce Bunker was the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Wallingford CT. When I was a young seminarian, he recommended thought-provoking books and essays and made time to listen to my questions and doubts. He welcomed me to the pulpit of our large downtown church so I could offer my first faltering attempts at preaching and then would diplomatically review the results. He arranged for speech lessons so my high-pitched, nervous squeak could evolve into a lower range that could convey authority and confidence. In an age when women clergy were still relatively rare, he encouraged me to pursue a solo pastorate. He believed in my call to ministry and that helped me believe it, too. His encouragement and faith in me was life-changing. His ministry was an inspiration to my own and I am forever grateful.

I wish everyone could have a mentor like that. Sadly, these days there are few public leaders I would wish to emulate or that I would recommend as a role model. If we believed the mocking tones of so many politicians, one might be tempted to believe that it is acceptable to callously ignore the feelings and worth of others.

This is a time to choose our mentors carefully. The loudest or most powerful person may not be the wisest choice. Dangerous, uncaring messages and hate-filled rhetoric fill the news. We are being asked to believe that callous indifference is the “new normal.” We may be tempted to think that our small efforts can have no impact on the growing tide of anger and division. But that is not true.

Instead, look for the behind-the-scenes workers – the ones who are feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, and caring about the forgotten. Notice the people whose smile or kind words lift someone’s spirit. Those mentors are all around us – people making a difference despite the increasing odds against them. Look for those who faithfully live lives of compassion – not for recognition or glory, but because they feel called to care for God’s people.

Many people in positions that were traditionally revered as positive role models simply do not deserve that title. Let us not be discouraged by the multiple examples of indifference. Instead, let us be inspired by those who are acting in life-giving, hope-providing, difference-making ways. Let us choose our mentors wisely and be courageous enough to pass on a legacy of caring.

Time for compassion

Just for a moment, let’s leave politics out of it.  It’s been a long, trying, emotional couple of weeks as we have testimony from Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.

I believe Dr. Blasey Ford, but even if you don’t, it is time to look at the women and girls around us with compassion.  Saint Paul talks about putting on an “armor of faith” (Ephesians 6). He describes it as including a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation and a sword of the Spirit.

Right now I would settle for a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our armor down and instead experience vulnerability of listening to one another. Let’s stop drawing battle lines based on which testimony we believe. Instead, take a moment to recognize the millions of women and girls who are suffering flashbacks to their moments of powerlessness, their experiences with violence, and their journeys into shame and degradation. Forget about arming ourselves for further arguments and division. Let’s hear those who are saying #metoo.

I have heard from many women who were either unable to listen to Dr. Blasey Ford’s description of attempted rape because of the painful memories it recalled or who found themselves riveted as they heard someone else describe the terror they thought only they knew about.

You can discount Dr. Blasey Ford’s words if you wish. But you can’t ignore the legions of women who have experienced violence and who remained silent because of fear or humiliation.

If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, “I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.”

In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart.  We assure women and girls who have not been heard or believed that we are now listening. And we remind them that they are beloved children of God – strong, valuable, lovable, and deserving of dignity.

That’s the world I want to live in.  We create that world every time one of us opens our hearts to compassion and caring.

You have 30 seconds

A car horn blared behind me, seeming to make my whole car shake and causing me to clench the steering wheel even tighter. The large black truck had been following me very closely for the last mile; only our narrow, windy country roads prevented him from passing me. Now that we had reached an intersection, he was clearly fed up with my speed-limit driving. He wanted me out of his way – fast. The fact that two cars were approaching, making it impossible for me to cross the busy street made no difference to him. He expressed his frustration with his loud horn as he rolled down and shouted words I won’t repeat.

When it was safe, I drove across the street, still shaken by the anger that followed me. There on the other side of the intersection, sitting in his truck, was a young man from our congregation.  He also rolled down the window. His interaction with me was entirely different. He gave me a big smile and leaned out to wave his hand. We didn’t speak, but my spirits were lifted by his cheery greeting and obvious goodwill.

Each encounter lasted no more than 30 seconds but the impact was powerful. It helped me realize what a difference our words and actions can have. Never underestimate your ability to influence the mood or even the entire day of another human being. Every day – and several times in each day – we have a choice of how we will live, speak, and interact with one another. Whether the person we encounter is a stranger or friend, we have a choice about what impression we will make and how we will leave that person after we part. Will that person be better off, lifted up, or encouraged? Or will our words and actions leave that person hurt, angry, or afraid? The choice is ours.

In the story of the Exodus, Moses tells the people of Israel that they are responsible for their actions. Moses describes the choice that they have; “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30).

Choose life. Choose kindness, every time. Choose civility, choose respect, choose patience. Choose to treat the other person as you would wish to be treated. Don’t overlook those 30 second encounters. They might make all the difference.

You have 30 seconds to make a difference – now go out and share God’s love.

Faithful, not successful

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers…”  Matthew 10:8

Jesus gave these instructions to the disciples before he died. He tells them to carry on his ministry by sharing God’s life-changing love. Jesus instructs his followers to offer healing and hope wherever they go.

There is plenty of need. We don’t have to look far to see the pain of this world, filled with brokenness, addiction, division, and loss. Now it’s our turn to be those disciples and put our faith into action. We might be inspired to support refugees, fight food insecurity, or address racism and inequality. We might feel called to love our neighbor in big and small ways.

But then – hesitation sets in. Why bother? Two thousand years after Jesus told his disciples to live their faith, the world is still a mess. For anyone who enjoys problem-solving and the satisfaction of getting things done, this is a discouraging track record. Sometimes it seems there is a distinct lack of tangible results.

But maybe we are expecting more of ourselves than God does. God demands faithfulness, not success.  Not being able to solve a problem or eliminate a challenge does not give us permission to ignore it. We are called to do what we can, help when we are able, and trust that God is at work.

Living faithfully is a marathon. It is the work of a lifetime where results are not always obvious. Sometimes the smallest actions can make a difference. Author Joyce Rupp wisely said, “People gain so much hope when they know they are not experiencing something alone.” It may be impossible to eliminate someone’s pain or transform their circumstances. But faithfulness tells us to show up, acknowledge the need, listen to someone’s story, accompany them in their pain, and offer a meal or a coat or a helping hand or a listening ear.

This quote hangs by my desk and inspires me every day:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly now.

Love mercy now.

Walk humbly now.

You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.

Let’s recognize the great need that is all around us and respond with God’s love and care. We can respond with faith and leave the success up to God.

Joyfully adequate

Our local agricultural extravaganza, the Woodstock Fair, opens on Friday. Thousands of people will flock to view horse and cattle shows and gaze with admiration at the delicious pies and cakes, stunning photos, and astounding crafts on display. Ribbons will be awarded proudly proclaiming, “Best of Show.” I have great admiration for those who have worked hard toward earning those accolades.

But today I want to celebrate those of us who will never win first prize, those of us who, despite our best efforts, will never make it to the winners’ circle. By definition, there can only be a limited number of “winners” in the traditional sense. Today I would like to honor those who participate in a hobby, join a team, or experiment with a new activity not because they will ever be the “best” but simply because it brings them joy.

I want to celebrate the ability to be gloriously, joyfully adequate.

I play the piano. You will never hear me play because I am really bad. But it brings me joy and provides me a few moments to separate myself from daily worries as I focus on reading notes to create a simple melody. No one would want to listen, but it amuses me. I am a joyfully adequate piano player.

The same thing is true with my yoga practice, where I inhabit the “beginners” class even after ten years of faithful attendance. I suspect I have found my niche.  I may not get “better,” but I like how I feel when I participate.  I am a joyfully adequate yogi.

Knitting falls in the same category. One might think that after two decades of knitting, I would be creating intricate designs and deftly folding cable knits into cardigans. The reality is that my knitting is limited to the simplest patterns. But my basic knitting creates prayer shawls and prayer shawls can remind recipients that they are surrounded by God’s love. My knitting is joyfully adequate and yet it can provide hope and comfort.

There is a lot of pressure on children (and adults) to be “the best.”  Of course everyone should strive to produce their own best effort. But there is also great power in pursuing an activity not because we are “the best” but simply because it allows our spirits to soar. We may not be proficient but we may encounter the joy of being immersed in an activity that lifts our spirits or calms our busy minds. That’s a blessing.

I attended a workshop years ago entitled, “What makes your heart sing?” The presenter encouraged participants to explore a wide variety of activities without the burden of comparing the outcome to everyone else.  What joy! I don’t have to be the “best.” If this activity – music, hiking, cooking, art, writing, whatever it is – feeds my spirit, that is what I can do.

I may not win a ribbon and my name may not be recorded in the winner’s circle, but I can celebrate the joy of being gloriously adequate.

Do that small thing

“Thanks. That’s the nicest thing that’s happened to me today.” The woman in the “12 items or less” line smiled briefly at me as I took her grocery basket to tuck away on the pile. I wondered what kind of day she must be having when such casual gesture was a highlight.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We never know what kind of day another person is having and we might never realize how even the smallest kindness can transform a moment. So – go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a noisy world filled with video clips of grand gestures and dramatic moments. We can view elaborately staged proposals (even “promposals”), heart-rending reunions, and over-the-top surprises. It might make our everyday actions – a welcoming smile or a door held open or a steadying hand – seem unimportant in comparison. But don’t believe that. Go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a world with crushing needs. I wish I could go to Pittsburgh and put my arm around the grieving mother whose teenage son was shot. I wish I could travel to Texas and comfort crying children separated from their parents. I wish I could help that homeless person I saw in New York, instead of just stepping over him on the sidewalk. I can’t do those things.

But we can endeavor to do what we can. As a first step, ignore that doubting voice of cynicism that mocks small gestures of kindness or caring as futile when compared to the world of anger and hurt. Make that call, send that email, smile at the cashier, greet a stranger, do that volunteer work.  Whatever it is – go ahead and do that small thing.

As the Rev. John Wesley wisely said,

“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.”

Go ahead and do that small thing. All those “small things” add up. And they may make a world of difference.

Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You are a lawyer. I am a minister. Can we agree that I won’t attempt to sway your opinion by citing legal precedents if you won’t (mis)quote Scripture to support your claims?

My training tells me to be wary of anyone who selectively chooses verses out of context to prove a point. Our country has a sad history of misusing Scripture to promote abhorrent practices such as slavery, subjugation of women, and child abuse. That trend cannot continue.

Instead, let’s celebrate overriding themes that exist throughout the entire Bible. These include

  • Instructions to care for the “aliens and strangers” among us. That is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” One way to demonstrate love for God is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There are lots more. There are stories about Jesus disregarding laws that caused God’s people to suffer and Jesus breaking every social code to include the outcast, the forgotten, and the unloved. There are stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness and being dependent on the kindness and mercy of others in order to survive.

I don’t have to be a lawyer to know that we need laws to govern our land. But you don’t need to be a minister to know that those laws must be compassionate, just, and fairly executed.

Mr. Sessions, we could work together on this. You and I don’t need to share a faith. Our country is not ruled by religious law; we are not a theocracy. But basic human decency should inform us that children need their families. We should not inflict fear and suffering on the most vulnerable.

Terror, loss, and violence are driving desperate people to our borders. Let’s meet them with compassion and work to find a just, humane solution.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Go ahead and judge

“Do not judge,” Jesus wisely said, “so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). But that statement – so often quoted, so often misunderstood – isn’t telling us to park our brains at the curb and blindly ignore behavior or speech or actions that are just plain wrong.

For a country that knows little about the Bible, this particular passage is often quoted. Otherwise intelligent people use it as a cop-out when facing uncomfortable disagreements with others. “I don’t think their actions are good or right but, you know, the Bible said not to judge.”

Recently I have heard extreme examples of this passage being trotted out at exactly the wrong time. I actually heard people say, “The Bible tells me not to judge” in response to these situations:

  • A self-professed child molester running for office in Virginia.
  • A renowned racist encouraging people to vote him into office in Washington.
  • Parents in California torturing their 13 children for decades.

No. This is not what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge.” Jesus was more than ready to point out bad behavior and name it for what it was. Jesus judged all the time. When greedy tax collectors and unethical leaders were spreading lies and rumors, Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus’ fury echoed through the temple when he flipped over tables of the money-changers and chased merchants and sellers away from this holy spot (Matthew 21:12). Jesus spoke up against evil. His words and actions clearly defined what was not acceptable to God.

That is the hard work of faith. That racist comment you just heard? Don’t allow it to slide by. That gathering that excludes others based on their gender or orientation? Feel free to walk away. That neighborhood that excludes based on ethnicity or religion? Don’t live there. That business that refuses to serve all of God’s people?  Don’t give them another nickel.

Go ahead and judge. Make a decision about words being spoken, actions being taken, kindness (or lack thereof) being shared, opinions being voiced. Does it look like something Jesus would do? Does it echo the compassion and loving welcome of God? Does it reflect the forgiveness and new life of Jesus’ ministry?

If not, choose not to be part of that. Go ahead and judge – judge what is the best way for you to make a difference. Judge how you can reach out to those who feel forgotten. Judge how you can listen to those usually pushed to the margins.

We are asked to be bold enough to speak up against sin and courageous enough to point out words and actions that do not reflect our faith.

God calls us to make a difference right where we live and work. How can we do that?

Judge for yourself.

No coffee today

Over 8000 Starbucks shops will be closed today. Water will cool, grounds will sit in the filters, creamers and flavors will remain in their bottles, and the mangled and misspelled names will not be written on cups. It is estimated that $12 million in sales will be lost.

Today is a day to learn about racial bias.

Before we jump on the cynical bandwagon to label this as a publicity ploy or as “too little, too late,” let’s congratulate Starbucks on doing something. Too many people and too many organizations – businesses, schools, churches – persist in ignoring rather than engaging the difficult and overwhelming topic of racism.

We came to this place because on May 2, 2018 two African-American men entered a Starbucks and sat down to wait for a friend to discuss a real estate deal. The white manger asked them to leave. When they refused (after sitting for a total of two minutes in a coffee shop where patrons are known to spend hours sitting, reading, conversing, and staring at their computers), the manager 911 as if some kind of emergency was taking place. When the men refused the cops’ request to leave the building, they were arrested.

Starbucks Corporation responded immediately.  The manager was fired, a public apology was given (a real apology, where guilt was admitted and responsibility taken), a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs was funded, and this day of racial sensitivity training was established.

Is it enough? Of course not. I know that because in the weeks since the Starbucks arrest, there have been several other incidences where people of color have been harassed, challenged, or even arrested while engaging in everyday activities.

  • A white woman called police to report an African American family having a barbeque at a public beach.
  • Three African-American artists being reported while renting an Air B and B in a predominately white neighborhood.
  • The black Yale student taking a nap in a public area of her dorm awoke to find campus police staring down at her after receiving reports of an “intruder”.

It isn’t enough, but it’s something. It’s one step on a very long journey towards awareness and the recognition of a serious, deep-seated problem.

If you don’t happen to be a Starbucks employee, how can you engage in racial sensitivity training? Seek out stories from those who have experienced racial bias. It isn’t hard. The stories are everywhere – read, listen, watch.

If the experiences you hear about are not your experiences – wonder about that. I have never been asked to leave a restaurant, never been pulled over by a police officer for no reason, and never been told that I don’t “fit in” because of my skin color. No one is scared of me or intimidated by me because of how I look.

In order to correct these injustices, I first have to be aware that they exist. I can learn and I can respond. All of these small steps – like an afternoon of racial sensitivity training – can add up to make a difference so that all of God’s children are treated with dignity and respect. Let us begin.

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.