What does love look like?

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Valentine’s Day. While some people revel in the opportunity to share cards, chocolates, and messages of love, others have only scorn for this made-up holiday that benefits Hallmark, florists, and restaurants. Some would rather avoid the day altogether rather than face a bitter reminder of what has been lost or is missing from their lives.

            Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about love. But it doesn’t have to be about hearts, flowers, and grand romantic gestures. Love comes in many forms. It would be too bad if we missed love simply because it arrives in unexpected ways.  It might be a good time to ask – what does love look like?

I think love looks like

  • My husband checking the tire pressure on my car in the cold and dark before he heads off to work.
  • My parents calling me on January 17th to sing “happy ordination day” (to the tune of “Happy Birthday”). They remember every year.
  • Receiving a card from my mother. Her formerly lovely handwriting has turned into a barely legible scrawl, a combined result of near-blindness and severe arthritis. The card tells me of the time and effort it took to complete that task and I feel loved, even before I open it.
  • A text from a friend or family member with a simple heart.
  • A friend, upon leaving a meeting to discover a blinding snow squall, who insists on driving in front of me (nervous snow driver) all the way to my home to be sure I am safe.
  • Finding a note on my desk, “This place is a true blessing. My heart is filled with love.”
  • Discovering a drawing pushed under my door with the words, “Paster Sue, your the best.” Spelling doesn’t count in love notes.

What does love look like in your life? Is it a phone call? Chores done without reminders? Taking out the trash or scraping your windshield or sharing a cup of coffee? Maybe it’s the person who welcomes you with a smile or moves over so you can join the conversation.

            It may not immediately shout “love” to you. But it’s all about recognizing gifts we are offered in so many ways.

Let’s not miss love when it arrives without a bow or a heart. Let’s be open to the many ways that love can be passed on, revealed, and celebrated.

How will you share love today?

Quality Treats

Halloween was about quality, not quantity where I grew up. Houses were spread far apart in our rural area, necessitating car-driven trick or treating. Since that was all I ever experienced, it didn’t seem strange to me.  My best friend and I would spend weeks preparing and trying out various costumes until we cobbled together (never bought) some dress-up creation. A hobo, a flapper, a mummy come to mind. One year it was a huge box with head and arm holes that fit over my body; it was spray-painted silver and plastered with dials, a compass, and a thermometer. Suddenly, I was a robot.  Climbing in and out of the car was a challenge, but I felt very futuristic and modern.

Our Halloween visits were eagerly anticipated by our few neighbors. When we arrived, anxious to knock on the door or ring the doorbell, the door would swing open with a hearty, “Come in!” Waiting for us was a bowl filled with Halloween napkins tied with yarn that were stuffed with (full-size) candy bars and candy corn. Often a short visit for the adults would be required, despite our squirmy insistence that we move on to the next stop. We still had a lot of ground to cover that night. Thirteen or fourteen stops later, Halloween was over for another year, but we could go home to count, sort, and treasure our sweet treasures.

There were of course a few “ringers” in the neighborhood. The over-sticky candied apple at the orchard home or the collection of lemon drops and “suckers” from an elderly widow. That’s when the lesson of smiling and saying “Thank you” kicked in. But mostly our reward was a bounty of goodies, generously and gladly given.

What I realize now as an adult is how fortunate I am to have so many happy childhood memories. Much of my listening time as a minister is filled with stories of abuse or drama, angry or hurtful words in turbulent, unhappy homes. The lack of stability in childhood makes it challenging (not impossible, but more difficult) to create a stable adulthood. Many struggle for decades to overcome damage that was done.

I had the privilege of receiving what every child deserves, but does not get. I had parents who were dependable and loving and who created a safe place to grow up.

If you are someone who had a stable (not necessarily rich or luxurious, but safe) upbringing, take a moment to give thanks for those who loved and protected you.

If your memories of growing up are more troubled, know that God’s desire for you is that you know your true identity – you are a beloved child of God, who is loved and lovable. That unshakeable love is the gift, the treat, that each one of us is offered – on Halloween and every day.

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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Wrapped in God’s Love

Why does our congregation give away prayer shawls?  This simple knitted or crocheted creations stand out as one of our favorite forms of outreach.  These beautiful shawls are often created in the privacy of one’s home so this is often referred to as a “behind the scenes” ministry.  It is not unusual for me to arrive at my office to find a bag containing a carefully crafted shawl. I often don’t know who stitched a particular prayer shawl and the crafter rarely meets the recipient, but it is nonetheless a personal, hands-on ministry and a testament to caring and compassion.

Every prayer shawl is unique. They come in a variety of shades, sizes, and patterns, reflecting the individuality of the person who took the time to knit or crochet it. Somehow this wide variety matches the needs of the people searching for a shawl for a loved one. When someone arrives at my office, yearning for a way to put their caring and concern into action, they are delighted by the warm colors and soft textures. They often touch the yarn, rubbing it between their fingers, until they say with conviction, “This one. This will be just right.”

We keep a supply of shawls on hand at the church because we never know who will want a shawl and when the need might arise. It might be a joyous occasion like the birth of a baby; we can offer that happy yet tired mother a virtual hug and some comforting reassurance as the shawl drapes around her shoulders.

Just as likely the shawl will go to someone who is enduring a difficult time filled with grief or pain or worry. We enclose a card with the shawl with a quote from Julian of Norwich: “May God’s love wrap and enfold you, embrace you and guide you, and bring you comfort.”

Prayer shawl 3
Cards by Anne

We often cannot solve the problems of others, but we can remind them that they are not alone.

On March 13th part of our worship service will be dedicated to blessing our prayer shawls. In these somewhat dreary pre-spring days, it is a delight to be surrounded by the bursts of colors that the prayer shawls offer as they are ensconced in the windowsills of our sanctuary.

The shawls will be distributed throughout the congregation, allowing our congregation to participate in the gift of laying on hands and offering prayers. We will call upon God with names like Gentle Spirit, Encircling God, Loving One. We will depend on God’s healing presence and nurturing Spirit to fill these lovingly made shawls with blessing and strength. We will sing the refrain to Rosemary Crow’s gentle song Weave: “Weave, weave, weave us together. Weave us together in unity and love. Weave, weave, weave us together, together in love.”

Sometimes we are called to witness to God’s presence in loud, dramatic ways. Other times, a reminder that we are surrounded by God’s grace and wrapped in God’s love is blessing is enough.

Prayer shawl 1


Advent Joy

“I am bringing you good news of great joy” (Luke 2: 9)

“Joy” is not the same as “happiness.”  The angels spoke about joy a lot. But those heavenly messengers weren’t there to promise “happily ever after.”

  • Zechariah and Elizabeth heard the astounding news that they would soon be parents
  • Gabriel spoke to Mary, delivering life-changing news
  • The angel army (heavenly host) broadcast the Good News with songs of praise

They were all announcing joy – but not necessarily “happiness.”

Reality has a habit of getting in the way. Think of the shepherds and the magi. They briefly worshiped this new-born king, but then had to return to their daily obligations. Christmas joy does not guarantee a worry-free life or a dreamy existence of luxury.

Somehow the angels failed to mention that. They also didn’t say anything about the horror that was awaiting the little town of Bethlehem, so peaceful on that silent night, but which would soon witness the carnage of every toddler in the county.

The angels, I suspect, could see beyond the events of Christmas night. They must have known that

  • John the Baptist would endure a life of deprivation and hardship
  • John would spend extensive time in Herod’s prison
  • John’s life would end brutally with his beheading

Surely those angels realized that

  • Jesus, this beloved child, would be deserted by those who loved him
  • Jesus would be betrayed
  • Jesus would be crucified

Yet the angels sang of joy on that starry night.

Advent joy 3

When people are disappointed by Christmas or feel somehow that this over-hyped holiday doesn’t (can’t) meet their expectations, it’s because too often they think “Christmas” is about being “happy.”

We were not promised that we would be “happy.”  Christmas was never meant to be trite.

The gift is joy.

  • Joy is strength that meets the pain and anguish of this world head-on.
  • Joy says that God sees the darkness and offers light.
  • Joy breaks through sorrow and sadness to remind us we are not alone.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!”

God is Emmanuel, always with us.

And that can bring us joy.

Advent joy


Advent Love

In our church we celebrate the Advent gift of Love today.

There has been a distinct lack of love in the rhetoric we’ve heard this week.

  • Stopping people at our border and preventing 25% of the world’s population from entering our country does not seem a reasonable way to promote world peace or enhance greater understanding among God’s people.
  • Amidst reports of a Muslim women in Florida being shot at following worship and another being nearly run off the road, it must be terrifying to be a Muslim in our country these days – despite our promise to provide freedom of religion for everyone.
  • The harsh words and threatening stances promoted by too many politicians cause more division among people. This is not a pathway to love.

Not much has changed in 2000 years.

Mary and Joseph were forced from their home so they could be counted, set aside, isolated.

Today our Sunday School children will perform the annual Christmas pageant. It is always a moment of merriment when door after door gets slammed in the face of the wandering couple. “No room!” one pajama-robed innkeeper after another bellows, relishing the fact that they can finally yell in church.

Parents and audience members chuckle at their enthusiasm, but I wonder if this year those harsh words may seem a bit more poignant. Here is a young refugee couple desperately seeking shelter yet finding no compassion.

How can we celebrate God’s message of love and assurance in the midst of the world’s terror and violence?

How can we not?

We need the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid” now more than ever.

They are words spoken to those who need it most – the rejected, those pushed to the margins, the ones who are quietly trying to live out their faith and follow this mysterious God.

People may justifiably wonder, “Where is God?”

The answer is the same as it always has been.

God is

  • in the stable.
  • in the cold and dark.
  • among the outcast.
  • sending angels with words of hope and invitation.
  • inviting us to seek out the miracles that are too easy to overlook.

God is always where there is the greatest need.

Love is not always found in the safest places.

Love weaves its way in where it is needed most.

This is not hearts and flowers, mushy, all-sweetness-and light love.

This is God’s love

  • strong
  • tenacious
  • offered to all of God’s people

God is love. Where there is love, new life emerges and hope is born.

That is what we celebrate today.

Advent love

You’re still the one

Sue and Roger with Bubbe. October 20, 1991
Sue and Roger with Bubbe. October 20, 1991

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.   Song of Solomon 6:3

An open letter to my husband on our anniversary.

Dear Roger,

24 years!  On this our anniversary day, I’m looking back on some of my favorite memories.

  • I remember meeting you at a contra dance at a church in Worcester. My two friends ditched me at the last minute, so I decided to go by myself. I was so glad when you asked me to dance; the song was (appropriately enough) “Swing my Susie.” During a lemonade break in the church kitchen, you mentioned that you would need to sit out the next dance because you didn’t know how to waltz. I knew you were someone special when you were willing to practice waltzing amidst the oversized pots and pans, laughing as we avoided stacks of dishes and random piles of vases.  My journal entry from that night reads, “Met a cute guy with a nice smile and dark, sparkling eyes.”
  • I admired your courage when you told me on our second date (cross-country skiing in the sleet and rain, remember?) that you were Jewish. You assumed it would be a deal-breaker for me, this minister you had just met. When you told me that a message of compassion and caring was important to you but that you didn’t care if the messenger was Jesus, Moses, or Buddha, I knew we could make this work.
  • And five weeks later, we were engaged.

We got married on a Sunday. Very early that morning you came to the parsonage to wake me up.  We walked to the church together just as the sun was rising, shining on the autumn leaves. The empty sanctuary was filled with a golden light as we said our wedding vows to each other.  We considered ourselves married at that moment – which was good, because when we gathered that afternoon with our family and friends, I couldn’t remember my vows at all!

One of your promises was to make me laugh every day – and you have been true to your word.

I celebrate some of our “firsts”

  • Our first restaurant together: Friendly’s, for a cup of coffee after the contra dance.
  • Our first date: Thai food, followed by the play “Driving Miss Daisy”
  • Our first fight: When you ate the chocolate chips I had set aside for baking.
  • Our first holiday together: Easter (which you didn’t even celebrate!), getting ready for my whole family to come for Sunday dinner after worship.
  • Our first hot air balloon ride: over the Berkshires, on our honeymoon.

During our first December together, we bought a menorah so we could celebrate Hanukah. At Christmas a few weeks later you gave me a quote by Katharine Hepburn: “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expecting to vie – which is everything. What you will receive in return varies. But it really has no connection with what you give. You give because you love and cannot help giving. If you are very lucky, you may be loved back.”  We’ve both been very lucky.

In February 1993 I went on a week-long silent retreat.  I told you that we could have no contact with each other; the only reason you could call was if you heard any news about our much-anticipated adoption.  You called with joy in your voice,“Our son was born!” So our parenting adventure began; I am blessed to have such a good partner who is also an excellent father.

Mostly I don’t have the words to describe how grateful I am for our love.  That’s why I like the quote by Brian Andreas that hangs in our bedroom: “I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand and the Eskimos had one hundred words for snow. I wish I had a thousand words for love, but all that comes to mind is the way you move against me while you sleep – and there are no words for that.”

24 years!  And hoping for at least 24 more.

You’re still the one. And we’re still having fun.

Happy Anniversary, sweetie.

And here’s our song.

My Parents: A Love Story

September 9, 1950
September 9, 1950

A&P walking

At 8:00 p.m. on September 9, 1950 my parents were married at Saint Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland Oregon.  Every anniversary they take the opportunity to review the past year and spend some moments to dream about the future.  They also jokingly (I think it’s a joke) decide whether they should “re-up” for another year of marriage and keep this partnership going. And so far, they have agreed to stay together. As my mother says, it looks like this relationship is going to stick.

Sixty-five years. It’s a daunting number.  Their partnership has spanned decades that have brought social, technological, and political changes that were unimaginable in those early post-war years. Side by side they have weathered a lifetime of events – personally and globally – from sad and tragic to joyous and glorious.

As a pastor, I engage in pre-marital counseling with couples preparing for marriage.  I encourage them to consider which marriages they admire and which relationships they might want to emulate. One of the great blessings of my life is that I experienced first-hand my role models for marriage.  Over the years I have observed my parents intentionally nurture their relationship as it continues to evolve as an active, thriving, and love-filled union.

Here is some of what I have learned from their love story:

  • Be willing to take a risk. My mom lived in Oregon, my dad was from CT; they met when my mother’s brother married an East Coast girl. Over the course of three years, my parents saw each other only four times before their wedding day. They trusted their gut feeling that this was a relationship worth working for.
  • Dare to reveal who you are. Hundreds of letters helped them bridge the 3000 mile gap between them. Each note offered glimpses of their hopes, dreams, disappointments, feelings, and questions. These shared imaginings and stories formed the foundation of their relationship.
  • Learn new things. My mother was a 20 year old city girl who moved to rural Connecticut surrounded by dairy farms and apple orchards. When my father left for work (they only had one car), she was left on her own to meet the neighbors and discover the mysteries of gardening, preserving, and canning.  She is one of the bravest people I know – she dove into this new lifestyle wholeheartedly, determined to make this challenging situation work.
  • Cocktail hour is important. It isn’t about the drinking (sherry for my mom, Scotch for my dad), but about the listening.  Every evening this was their precious time to sit down together, talk about their day, and catch up with one another.  It taught me the value of taking (and making) time for my partner.
  • Say thank you. My parents thank each other for big and little things – thank you for taking out the trash, for cooking supper, for changing the lightbulb, for being there when I need you. They taught me the value of appreciation.
  • Notice at the sunset. Our tiny house on top of a big hill faced west. Almost every evening my parents would call my brothers and me together to admire the changing colors and growing dusk as the sun sank behind the hills. Even something that happens every single day can be precious.
  • Invite your friends over. My parents hosted cocktail parties, bridge gatherings, and countless holidays for an eclectic band of relatives and friends. They encouraged us to do the same – cast parties, birthday celebrations, Easter morning sunrise service for the youth group – everyone was welcome.  My appreciation for hospitality began in that small cottage that always had room for everyone.
  • Make the best of any situation. A broken down car was an opportunity to walk home and get some exercise, the electricity going out was a chance to eat by candlelight, a sudden change in the plans was an invitation to try something new. My parents never dwelled in disappointment but instead discovered the unexpected that was offeredWhen two people get married, no one can know what the future will hold. I was blessed to grow up with two people filled with love, integrity, creativity, strength and courage.  That is something worth celebrating.
  • Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.
  • A&P dancing
  • (My parents dancing at my niece’s wedding, August 2015)