Avoiding Road Blocks

The pandemic very often feels like running into a brick wall. Endless obstacles seem to have been put in front of us to prevent us from going about our daily routines. We encounter one road block after another. So much that is familiar – school, work, visits with family, church – have been completely changed.  The way we used to do things no longer works. Tasks that used to be easy – grocery shopping, family gatherings, going to worship, quick visits with friends – are now complicated by endless regulations. And some things – like the trip to England and Scotland that was on our family calendar for summer 2020 – have just not been possible at all.

What to do? It is tempting to repeatedly mourn what we have lost and what is no longer possible. Sometimes it feels like we keep slamming our heads against the wall because we are so eager to return to what was familiar and beloved.

And yet. I believe in a God of resurrection. I believe in God who offers new life in the face of death and hope where none is to be seen. I believe in a God of endless possibilities and a faithful God who has seen generations of humans through plague, war, starvation, homelessness, and more

If I can just stop focusing on what I can’t do, perhaps I will discover alternatives that are waiting to be revealed. If I can pull my gaze away from the wall that is blocking my path, maybe I will notice hints of other possibilities.

There is no denying the enormous loss and sadness that the pandemic has brought into millions (billions?) of lives. But this is not the end of our story. There is a way forward – it just is not the way that we expected or even the way that we wanted and planned on.

This Sunday will offer another example of that. Our congregation will gather for worship. We will not follow in the footsteps of our religious ancestors and meet in our beautiful sanctuary in our classic New England church. Covid regulations prohibit large indoor assemblies.

Fortunately, we worship a God who reminds us that it is not a building that brings us together, but rather the Spirit who invites us to worship and give thanks. We will explore new ways to be the people of God. We will discover new power in Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). On Sunday morning you will find us on the East Woodstock common. It will be different – we will wear masks and everyone will bring their own lawn chair. But it will be worship because God is faithful and God will be there.

We don’t want to be so fixated on what isn’t that we miss what can be. When we confront a road block we need to wonder where God is leading us next. If we can’t immediately find the way forward, we need to be open to God’s guidance through those dark valleys to the Promised Land awaiting us. It’s time to search for ways around the walls that are blocking us and discover creative new ways to move forward.

Fan mail for Dr. Fauci

Dear Dr. Fauci,

I am not a fan of the message that you keep giving America. I am, however, in awe of your ability to calmly and consistently deliver factual information that will help all of us get through this troubling, tiring, overwhelming time of pandemic. I admire your ability to seemingly ignore all the critics and nay-sayers as you faithfully adhere to your mission of sharing vital updates in understandable ways.

            I have heard you answer the same question from multiple reporters with unfailing courtesy. I have never heard you mock or belittle even the most inane question. I have a deep respect for your ability to stay focused on providing as much help and encouragement as you can. You consistently treat others with respect which makes you approachable. We can all learn from your wisdom.

            I can only imagine that it is not easy being you. You are under intense media scrutiny every day. Your words are parsed, examined, and quoted. You are criticized for not providing happy news. You are mocked for not grasping the economic impact of a medical crisis even as you explain that you are outlining a public health crisis. You are dismissed for admitting that there is still much that we don’t know and that the scientific community is uncovering new information on a daily and even hourly basis. You are our faithful guide through this complex, ever-changing journey.

You are, if you’ll pardon me mentioning it, old enough to retire. I imagine there might be times when you think, “I don’t need to be doing this. I could be sipping a cool drink in the shade somewhere.” And yet you keep going. You work long hours on behalf of humanity. Your refusal to give up or turn away benefits the entire world. Your courageous dedication shines through. And I am deeply grateful.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for being an inspiration. Thank you for working to save all of humanity.

With gratitude,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Open Letter to Betsy DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

            Threats are not helpful. Informing schools that they must fully open in person or risk losing their federal funding does nothing to solve a problem that is affecting every family in our country.

            I wonder if you have taken the time to really listen to those involved in the question of how best to educate our children in the midst of a pandemic. Parents, teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers are just some of the people who are agonizing over the best way to provide a safe and productive school year.

Certainly everyone wants the very best for our children. We want them to get an education, socialize with their peers, profit from group activities, be challenged and inspired by conversations with classmates, gain independence by negotiating the structure and discipline of the school day, and benefit from the caring wisdom of teachers and aides.

            But.

            Have you heard the concerns of teachers who already work in over-crowded classrooms? Have you imagined children jostling one another in hallways and playgrounds? Have you wondered how teachers will enforce any rules about masks or social distancing while trying to teach?

            Anguished conversations are taking place in homes across the country. Parents want to get this decision right. They simply cannot be certain. None of us have experienced a pandemic before. The amount of conflicting and confusion information is overwhelming.

Parents have been valiantly juggling their work and parenting responsibilities. It would be easier to simply send the children to school. Most children are yearning to be with their friends again. But the tough job of being a parent is making hard – and sometimes unpopular – decisions. The stakes are very high.

That’s why simply threatening school systems with a lack of funding is ineffective. This is a time for compassionate leadership. It is time to recognize that compromises may be necessary. It is time to understand that one size does not fit all and that creative solutions will be necessary.  

Parents and teachers don’t need threats. They whole-heartedly want to find a good, safe solution for their children. They need someone to acknowledge the challenges and to work alongside them.  They need someone to listen to their concerns and to help discover new ways to meet this unprecedented challenge.

It may be that the answer to this dilemma is a moving target. The solution that works in the fall may not be practical in the winter. We are all going to need someone who has the flexibility to respond to this evolving crisis. My hope is that you, Secretary DeVos, can express your concern for our country’s children by offering that kind of leadership.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

So proud of you!

It’s been a long 10 weeks. Since the pandemic began, our lives have changed dramatically. As things have shifted, we have adjusted to new ways of doing things. We have had a steep learning curve forced upon us. This strange new world demands new skills. Even activities that we have done for years suddenly require new approaches. The whole experience is both exhilarating – we’re learning something new! – and exhausting – we have to ponder every move.

            I want to pause in the midst of this time of learning and adjustment and say – I am proud of you. You are doing it. You have risen to the occasion in so many ways.  Even if these adjustments have come only grudgingly and under duress, you are allowing your creativity to shine. In every renewed effort, in every fledgling attempt to meet the demands, and in every act of caring, I see the new life and new possibilities promised by our resurrection God.

Let’s take a moment and recognize all the effort that has been required in these last months:

  • Parents who are juggling working at home with helping your children with online classes – good for you.
  • Teachers who are skilled and knowledgeable in their classrooms and who suddenly had to engage in an entirely different way of teaching – thank you.
  • Students, young and old, who are missing their friends, yearning for play dates, and craving time to hang out in person – you’re doing great.
  • Nurses, doctors, lab technicians and health aides who are overwhelmed by the enormous increase in life-threatening cases – we are grateful for your efforts.
  • Grocery store clerks, delivery workers, postal employees – all of you who never considered yourselves to be “front line” workers who make our economy run – thank you for keeping us connected.
  • Restaurant owners who never had take-out service before and never considered outdoor seating – we appreciate your ingenuity and creativity.
  • People who hang up hearts along the roadside and in front of their homes as a sign of encouragement and togetherness – thank you for sharing the love.
  • Senior citizens who are venturing into realms of social media and mastering Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom – good for you!
  • High school seniors who are missing class trips, proms, yearbook signings, and graduations – our hearts go out to you.
  • Pastors, rabbis, and imams who have been transformed into videographers and on-camera preachers – thank you for learning new ways to share God’s Word and hope.
  • Neighbors and friends who leave gifts of food, flowers, and kindness on doorsteps to offer encouragement and love – your kindness matters.
  • Creators of cards to be delivered to nursing homes and hospitals – thank you for lifting spirits.
  • Organizers of birthday parades, teacher celebrations, and student celebrations – thank you for sharing joy.

There is much that we are missing as we enter into our third month of pandemic and physical distancing but you have proven your resilience. You have demonstrated your creativity. You have lived your love and shared your empathy.

And I am tremendously proud of you and grateful for your efforts.

Good for you!  Thank you.

No Going Back

There is a yearning in people’s voices when they ask, “When can we go back to normal? When can we go back to our usual routines? When will things go back to the way they used to be?”

To which I would answer – there’s no going back.

And what’s more, if we really think about it, I don’t think we will want to.

            The experience of the pandemic with its social/physical distancing has changed us. It has shaken us up and taught us a few lessons. Yes, we’ll be glad when we can meet together again. We will rejoice when stores and restaurants are open and we can invite friend over again. But some pandemic experiences might have opened our eyes to changes we want to make in our lives and the life of the church.

Here are some things the pandemic has helped me learn –

  • I actually enjoy sitting on my front steps watching the birds, looking at flowers, and noticing clouds drifting overhead. When I was busy rushing from one event to another, I rarely took time to soak up the beauty around me.
  • Livestreaming our worship service has changed our congregation. It enables people across the country and around the world to join us in prayer and praise. People who have moved away, friends and family across the globe, and those who cannot leave their homes now come together to worship.
  • Zoom Bible study allows equal access to fellowship and learning. Can’t get to East Woodstock?  No problem – call in or turn on your computer and suddenly you are part of a weekly gathering.

Why would I want to “go back” and forget these valuable lessons? Instead of yearning to “go back” to what was, we can consider how to “move forward.” Moving forward, how will I safeguard my calendar so there is still enough time to breathe and enjoy a slower pace?

  Moving forward, how will our church ensure that everyone can access worship on Sunday morning – either in person or from home? Moving forward, how will we reach out to the medically fragile who cannot risk sitting in a crowd? Moving forward, how will we take what we’ve learned about technology and social media and put that to work for our children, young people, and seniors?

            There are parts of the pandemic that we will be eager to leave behind. But let’s move forward with the new skills and insights that we have gained. Church, school, families, businesses, and all of us will need to adapt to our new reality. We can move forward in this new era knowing that God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever journeys with us.

Refuge

One of the sorrows in my life is that I can’t draw.

One of the joys in my life is that I married a man who can.

            Often I will describe an image to him – something that came to me in a dream or after praying or during a journaling moment. I wish I could just pick up a pen or paintbrush and transform my thoughts into a picture. Somehow my brain and my hand do not communicate that way.

            So I share the picture in my head with him through words. “It looks like this,” I say earnestly. And he listens. He asks questions. And then he draws. It is a marvel to me that the image in my mind and the description of my words can come to life on a page.

            This image is called “Refuge.” I imagined a small boat protected from a raging storm. The wind and sea are wild and fierce, yet this tiny vessel has found a place of safety and protection.

            Throughout the pandemic thus far, the verse “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46) has stayed with me. The word “refuge” has taken on new meaning to me. A refuge is not a place to live or even necessarily a place to hide. A refuge is a shelter. It offers protection. And protection might bring about renewal. Refuge provides a moment of calm in a storm. It is an opportunity to catch your breath until you are strong enough to go out to face whatever challenges are waiting.

            I have a sign in our home that reads, “Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms the child.”  Remembering that God is here and receiving God’s calming love – that is refuge for me.

 This picture reminds me to search for God’s refuge. I might find it at the dinner table with my family or in the garden filled with flowers. Watching the birds at the feeder or listening to music can provide moments of refuge.

            A refuge is not a permanent dwelling place, but it does provide soothing comfort and a reminder that I am not alone.

            This picture reminds me of the renewing power of refuge. 

            Thank you, Roger.

Signs of the times

Have you noticed the signs of these times? I’m not talking about the daily briefings from the White House or the updated lists county by county of illness and mortality rates. There are other signs these days – signs to lift our spirits and signs to remind us we are not alone. Nowadays when we take a rare drive around town, there are signs and symbols everywhere.

            People have stopped by our local park to hang up signs on trees to thank health care workers, offer encouragement, and express appreciation.

Thank you to care workers

            More and more homes (and churches) are displaying teddy bears and other stuffed animals in windows so children can participate in a “bear hunt” as they view furry friends symbolizing solidarity and caring.

            Sometimes “signs” are delivered sight unseen and only discovered later. I was delighted to find a beautifully painted flower pot filled with pansies on my doorstep with a card to lift my spirits. Someone else dropped off an Easter basket with chocolates for my family with the message, “Thank you.”

            Sweet Honeycomb, a wonderful Christian resource company based in Australia is providing free coloring pages with uplifting phrases. People have been decorating them and hanging them in our church windows as a reminder to passers-by, “we are all in this together.” I love the idea that people across the world are sharing these positive messages as a global reminder that we can carry on, one day at a time.

            On the Saturday before Easter, members of our congregation were invited to stop by the church to decorate the front doors of our church with paper hearts. Even while maintaining proper social distancing and never coming in direct contact with one another, our congregation managed to work as a team to produce a bright and power proclamation of God’s love.

One of the front doors of the East Woodstock Congregational Church

            In these days when we are not allowed to gather together but when we all need encouragement more than ever, how will we share hope and Good News? What signs have you seen?  What signs have you shared?  This new era of physical separation calls on our creativity – what new ways can we use to reach out to one another? This is the time to consider who might need a cheery message or a note of caring. This is the moment when, while feeling powerless against an invisible virus, we are empowered to use our imaginations and find ways to help one another with support and encouragement.

Signs of encouragement

      How will you add to the signs of the times?

Virtual Church

Earlier this week my science professor brother called to urge me to cancel worship because of the coronavirus threat. I wasn’t ready to make that decision yet. “So many people look forward to Sunday morning,” I protested. “Shouldn’t we offer people the opportunity to hear some Good News amidst all the doom and gloom? And besides, for some folks, this is their one opportunity to get out of the house, be with others, and enjoy some fellowship. And we’ve got a great group of kids who love Sunday School!”

Later in the week the leadership of the Southern New England Conference recommended that all churches in the United Church of Christ close their doors for two weeks. I still hesitated. “But what about the wonderful anthem our three choirs have been rehearsing? How about the nine new members we are planning to welcome? And the youth group’s potato bar fundraiser?” We’re a busy church – so many events were scheduled for Sunday. How could we change that?

I dragged my heels and was very resistant to the idea of not meeting on Sunday. As I reflected on my reluctance, I realized what is true about me – I love worship. I love when our sanctuary comes alive with people of all ages. I love squirmy children and gurgling babies. I love the joyous energy of conversation and laughter that fills the air before worship. I love sharing joys and concerns and I love that this diverse group of people comes together to be a family to care about one another. I love lifting up our voices together to praise God. I love the quietness of gathering together in prayer.  

The sanctuary is a building. The people are the church. I love being the church with them. How could we not come together?  

And yet. We have an obligation to keep everyone safe. We don’t want people to come to worship who should stay home. We don’t want to expose anyone to infection. We don’t want to spread this virus.

We will worship online this Sunday. Our service will be recorded live on Facebook. People can watch our worship on our Facebook page. Our sanctuary will be empty but many of us will still be together in spirit. It is not the same but I give thanks for this technology.

God is good. God, Creator of all we see, will lead us through these new circumstances. We will discover new ways to be the church and new ways to share God’s love. We will continue to celebrate God’s hope and enduring presence.

This is a new era for all of us. None of us have ever lived through a pandemic before. But take heart – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46). And that is true no matter where we are.