Devotions for (May 11 - May 29)
May 9, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Towering above the town of Hana, Maui, is Fagan's Cross, standing about 20 feet tall, made from lava rock in 1960 to honor Paul Fagan. Fagan was able to sustain the economy of Hana beyond the end of sugar cane by starting a cattle operation on no-longer used sugar cane fields, and establishing tourism in that remote location.
I had the privilege of serving as kahu at Wananalua Congregational Church in Hana for three years, and had many opportunities to hike up to the cross on many occasions, since it was just across the street. The half-mile hike up the hill was a great workout, and the view well worth the effort. The view of the ocean is spectacular, and all I can say about participating in Easter Sunrise Services with the other congregations in town is WOW!
But there was one challenge. The pasture below the cross was used to graze cattle, and you had to choose your time wisely to avoid not only to steer clear of bulls but also the steer by-products that dotted the way.
My oldest sister, Carol, came to visit me for two weeks to celebrate her retirement. We decided to hike to Fagan's cross one afternoon. We made it to the cross without incident, and took our time looking out over Hana Bay to the island of Hawaii (a.k.a. the Big Island).
We both felt a call of nature, and turned to walk down the hill. Rounding a curve about halfway down, we discovered that cattle had been let into that pasture. They stood between us the hale kahu (the house of the pastor) and the necessary room. My big sister, the forceful (some might say bossy) sister, who was traumatized by the geckos, centipedes and roaches that went along with living in hale a rain forest, took on her role as the oldest sister and in a very calm but forceful voice, said, "Anne, just keep walking and don't make eye contact".
I have no idea where that came from, but it worked, and we got home safely.
Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." I caught a glimpse of the way through Carol that day.
I give thanks for older sisters and the mother (and father) who raised us,
May 8, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
There is something about bedtime stories that can last a lifetime. It has been almost a lifetime ago since someone told me a bedtime story. But I still remember the sense of safety, of love tucking me into bed even as the covers were tucked around me.
I have a few images of my mom, sitting on the edge of my bed that was in an alcove under one of the dormers in our newly finished attic. The story of my father finishing said attic in time for my arrival is a story for another day.
I always got one story from a book. My favorite was a Little Golden Book edition of Mighty Mouse. In hindsight, that tiny mouse whose song was, "Here I come to save the day! Mighty Mouse is on the way," was the perfect message for me. I was a little peanut of a child, and the message that even small creatures can make a difference has been formative in my life.
After the story, we would say a prayer. And back in that day it was always, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." The implication of the second sentence didn't sink in until years later! Yikes! It was terrifying and hopeful at the same time.
After the prayer, mom would pull up the covers, give me a kiss on the forehead, turn off the bedside lamp, and before going back downstairs, would do two things I always requested. First, I would always ask her to check that there were no monsters in the closet, which she faithfully did. And second, I would ask her to leave the light on in the stairwell, which she also faithfully did. The next thing I'd know, it was evening. Then it was morning.
It was a helpful routine, a good story, a prayer, some love and affection, and support for the fears that were very real in my three-year-old soul. I wonder what Jesus' bedtime routine was. Did Mary tell him stories about his ancestor David, the boy who slayed the giant with a sling shot? Did she tell him about the night he was born? Did she sing some version of a lullaby, perhaps Away in a Manger?
All this reflection about bedtime comes from a YouTube video my best childhood friend told me about a few days ago. If you don't do anything else today, please watch it. It is called The Great Realisation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw5KQMXDiM4. It will warm your heart, give you hope, and perhaps open a door to your own memories as well. If it does, share the link, and one of your stories with someone else, and think about the bedtime story you want to pass on about this season in our lives.
Sleep tight, surrounded by the love of God, tonight.
May 7, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
I don't remember Mom referencing Christine, her friend with 9 lives, when it came to clothing, but I imagine she must have. I do recall my father, saying, "No daughter of mine will walk out of this house dressed like that!" I grew up in the midst of mini skirts and halter tops, so I heard that one a lot.
What I do remember is my mom and sisters telling me a story about the day I was born. This was back in the time when women still wore white gloves and hats to church, or to a doctor's appointment, or any number of events that demanded dressing well. They even got dressed up to fly on airplanes.
My sisters recall waking up on March 9, to find my mother dressed in her go-to-meeting clothes, including stockings and heels, and my father urging her to hurry up. When they asked her why she was so dressed up, she told them that she was going to the hospital to have the baby and that when they got home from school they would know if they had a brother or sister. Imagine putting on all the usual undergarments of the day, which meant a full slip, garter belt, brassiere and stockings, a dress, heels, hat, and gloves, dressing like Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth - while in labor!
If mom knew that under my vestments when I preach these days, that I am wearing jeans, sneakers, and often a rather old blouse, she'd be sorely disappointed. I have fallen greatly in the fashion department, and all the more in this time of social distancing. It has been refreshing to see others falling from grace as well, as we meet via Zoom.
I am actually so tired of dressing down that the last two Friday evenings I've gotten dressed up, a nice dress, jewelry, makeup, shoes other than sneakers, but alas, no stockings. Fifteen years in Hawaii cured me of that habit.
There are all sorts of customs and practices about what we wear based on location, role, geography, and social and cultural expectations. That holds true for worship as well. Even these change over time. I haven't seen women in church with white gloves, or hats with mesh that flowed down over the face in decades (although it might not be a bad idea to resurrect those accessories right now).
But there are some clothing practices that ought not change. Paul puts those practices this way, "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." (Colossians 3:12-14).
Imagine how life might change if that was the universal dress code?
With love for you, chosen ones, holy and beloved (warts and all!),
May 6, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
My parents used the following phrase, "If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?" to help me in decision-making that could be influenced by peer pressure. I suspect that you grew up with that same parental gem.
My mother took it a step further. If she was worried that my sisters or I were feeling tempted by the crowd, or our own impulses, she'd tell us a story about her friend, Christine, who had done the same thing with tragic results. Here's one I heard often. I wanted to learn how to do summersaults, and was caught practicing in the living room. Mom said, "I had a friend, Christine, who was doing a forward roll and broke her neck." Christine, bless her dear heart, must have had more lives than a cat because she suffered mortal injuries or illnesses from choking on nuts, getting kidnapped by a garbage collector, not covering the seat of a public toilet with toilet paper before sitting on it, and dying of Typhoid Fever after drinking water from a spring, to name a few.
I was a bit of a risk-taker, so mom probably had a good reason for wanting me to exercise caution. I clearly remember the time my friends and I experimented with riding a bike that was missing a chain. This was in the age before handbrakes on bikes. The only way to stop was the push down on the pedal to stop the chain from moving. Without a chain, it was pure speed until you hit level ground, or a solid object.
I hopped on and flew down the hill next to our house, thinking I would safely coast to a stop before exiting our back yard. What I hadn't counted on was the speed I'd built up, which carried me through our yard into the neighbor's yard, which also slopped down. I also had not taken into consideration the wire strung between two trees that served as a "run" for their dog. When my chest hit the wire, the bike kept going, but I was stopped in my track.
Back at home, scrubbing my cuts mom alternated between sobbing that I could have died, and scolding me for doing something so foolish. When she'd calmed down, she told me the story about her friend Christine who did something equally dangerous, broke her neck, and died.
As states begin to "reopen" I've been thinking a lot about my parents' warning to not do what everyone else is doing, just because they are doing it. That was, and still is, sound advice. In the 1994 movie of the same name, Forrest Gump put it this way, "Stupid is as stupid does." Please exercise good sense, "Count the cost," as Jesus reminds us in a parable (Luke 14:48).
Stay safe. My mom had a friend named Christine who
May 5, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Happy Cinco de Mayo! Don't worry, this is not going to be about Mexican food, or drink. But it is going to be something really hot. Actually, this is a story about the burning bush. In 2011, I participated in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of 12 women. A few of us signed on for an additional side trip to the Sinai, including an over-night camel trek in the desert, and then traveling to St. Catherine's Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai.
St. Catherine's dates to the 4th century C.E. and has one of the most amazing collection of icons in the world. There is also a burning bush, reputedly dating back to 1300 B.C.E, the time of Moses. It is a gorgeous, lush and green, in the middle of the desert. And just in case it should happen to catch fire again, there is a fire extinguisher next to it. If you look at the photo below, at the bottom left side of the bush, circled in red, the fire extinguisher is visible. Go figure.
It begs the question, why? Why do we feel the need to capture on film, or in a painting, or by putting up a tent (as Peter suggested on the Mount of Transfiguration), or by placing a fire extinguisher near the Burning Bush?
Saturday, I had one of those brief and all-too-quickly passing moments of peace and presence and at-oneness with God. I was walking near my home and crested a hill. I looked up and out, over the valley created by the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, with mountains in the background and a blue sky with lovely white clouds. Everything seemed perfectly clear. It seemed that the rain had washed this little slice of creation clean. Every tree, bush, flower was distinct, beautiful, perfect. I had a sense of peace, as if everything had suddenly come into perfect focus for one moment, and time had stopped.
And then, I thought (and this is the moment the "being" stopped), "I need to take a picture of this." And the moment was gone. But not gone, still lingering in my being, was the sense that a moment like this was pure gift, transcendent, an instant of connection with the One who is. And that might not have been captured with a picture, but it is captured in my being. And that moment was enough.
No fire extinguisher needed.
May 4, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
May the fourth be with you! My spouse asked me if I knew how the phrase became a part of pop culture. Silly me, I thought it came straight from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Rod is one of the people you want on your trivia team, because he quickly enlightened me. Here is the story:
According to StarWars.com, who cite Alan Arnold's 1980 book Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back, "May the 4th be with you" first emerged in the mainstream pop culture on May 4, 1979. On that day, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman Prime Minister of the U.K. after the Conservatives defeated the Labour Party government in a general election. To celebrate, the Tories took out a newspaper ad, which declared, "May The Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations." The Force was indeed with Thatcher, with the day inaugurating the longest Ministry of the 20th century.
George Lucas included the Force, a spiritual phenomenon, something mystical or magic, as a powerful and persistent theme throughout the Star Wars movies. The popularity of the series speaks to the human need for something bigger than us, something that holds all things together, something that gives us strength, that informs us of on a level beyond rational thought, that is with us. In the Star Wars series, the Force seemed to be available only to certain people, and required unlocking deep secret knowledge.
It's an attractive idea, isn't it?
But it isn't just an idea. It's a reality. As followers of Jesus, by virtue of our baptism, the Spirit (our force) is with us.
In the Bible, spirit is the same word as wind, pneuma. Wind is not visible except in its effect. But that effect can create electricity, provide power for sailboats and kites, wear down mountains and raise snow drifts, and cool us in the summer.
Susan Brill shared a quote by Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York. He said, "We are socially distant but spiritually connected." That is what is happening in small and big ways in the midst of this time of staying at home. It happens when we gather virtually. It happens when someone calls or sends a card or email. It happens when we pray for each other. In John's gospel, Jesus calls the Spirit an advocate, a counselor, a comforter, one who teaches and reminds us of God's way, guides us into truth, helps us in our weakness, prayers for us, enables us to bear good fruit.
Thank you for sharing this force with me
May the Spirit be with you!
May 2, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Earlier this week, I posted a meditation that mentioned an El Greco sky. That got one of our members, Alberta, remembering a trip to Spain while she was in high school where she got to visit the Museo de El Greco in Toledo. She recalled seeing his paintings of Christ and the Twelve Apostles, which she recalled as magnificent, even though they were somewhat unfinished.
This is true of other works of art. Painter Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi isn't finished. Charles Dicken's The Mystery of Edwin Drood isn't finished, neither were symphonies by Beethoven, Mahler, and Schubert. The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain, designed by Antonio Gaudi, construction started in 1882, and is not yet completed.
My husband Rod (pictured above in front of the Sagrada Familia, tells me that the poet William Blake said, "the poem is never done, the writer just stops working on it." That is true of every sermon I've written. And Robert Browning, when asked about the meaning of "My Last Dutchess" said, "When I wrote it, God and I knew, and now, only God knows."
So I have to wonder why we think we should have everything together, to be done, to be finished when we cross some arbitrary threshold, like confirmation class, or graduation, or a wedding, or retirement. Alberta reflected, "God is not done with us yet, either." I find that incredibly comforting and freeing. We are people in process, growing, not fixed, throughout the whole of our lives. And that is just the beginning for people of faith. That is the promise of Easter. Let's keep growing, stretching, learning, growing as Gods' people, together.
Half-baked, and that's just fine.
May 1, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
This is a daily meditation I wish didn't need to be written. But written, it must be. I have two older sisters, Carol and Jane. Carol is ten years older than me. I have served as her durable power of attorney for the past three years, when her husband Michael died unexpectedly. Carol lives in an assisted living facility in Ohio. Jane is eight years older than me, long ago divorced, with three great adult children and five amazing grandchildren. Jane lives in the Washington Heights area of New York City with her oldest son. Both of my sisters have Alzheimer's, which is a story for another day. Needless to say, with one of them in assisted living and the other in New York City, I have been concerned about them contracting COVID19.
Monday had been a day of contrasts, from an El Greco dark and threatening sky in the morning to the brilliant blue sky graced with white billowy clouds late in the afternoon. I'd been on a long walk, and as I walked up Jefferson Street, I recall thinking what an amazing day of contrasts it had been. I felt a huge sense of relief that the skunk had been caught. It felt magnificent to be outside, alive and well and doing something as normal as walking my dog on a great spring day before going inside to prepare dinner.
A few minutes after arriving home, I got one of the calls I'd been dreading, this one in the form of a text message. My nephew texted to inform me that he had taken Jane to the ER. She'd had a dramatic decline over the weekend, and after consulting with her physician who thought her symptoms could be caused by anything from a UTI, to a stroke, to COVID19. He'd had symptoms of COVID19 himself, including fever, body aches, headache and fatigue for the past few days, in spite of having been sheltering in place for over 7 weeks, wearing gloves and mask when he made infrequent forays to get groceries, desperately trying to protect his mom from the virus.
Hospitals seem like an alternative universe right now, with armed police and medical personnel screening everyone. He had to leave her in the hands of the emergency room staff as they took her to be worked up. Hear the emphasis on the word leave. There is no waiting in waiting rooms, no staying with your loved one, no visiting them once admitted. All of these precautions are important and necessary, and also heart-wrenching. Unless your loved one is able to communicate on their own without assistance, you will not be able to contact them. This is trust pushed to the breaking point. It is the equivalent of dropping off a child in daycare without having told the staff about all of his or her special traits, likes and dislikes, without even seeing who they are being left with. Simply letting go and trusting.
It took the better part of 24 hours to get all the test results back. Jane tested positive for COVID19, and my nephew is presumed to be positive as well. Jane is being moved to a subacute unit at a nursing home to be monitored and to work on regaining strength. My nephew is home, able to rest and hopefully on the road to recovery.
And me? I had no idea how big the contrasts would be that day. From a sense of dread to the joy of the simple pleasure of taking a walk on a lovely spring day; from panic, helplessness, and grief, to switching into helper mode as I listened to and assisted my nephew from afar; from a restless night of honest prayer with lots of anger, bargaining, and desperation thrown in; to simply letting go and trusting; and back again through the cycle.
Being a Christian certainly doesn't set me apart from life in its fullness - both highs and lows. Yesterday, as next steps were falling into place, I recalled a story about St. Teresa of Avila. She was a bigger-than-life mystic and contemplative who was also very much alive in the real world. One day she was traveling to one of the convents she founded, and got caught in a fierce rainstorm. She slipped off her mount and landed in the mud. She got back up and declared aloud to God, "if this is how you treat your friends it's no wonder you have so few of them." Her prayers weren't false, trying to make nice or be polite, but down to earth and honest. I have entertained similar thoughts, "Why me?" or "Why my loved one?" many times over the years. What comes back every time, is "Why not me?"
Mostly, I am thankful. I am thankful for health care providers who care for loved ones when we can't. I am thankful for family and friends who support and love in the best and worst of times. I am thankful for laughter and tears. I am thankful for each moment of life, for storms and calm. I'm thankful for the gift of all the moments I've had with loved ones. And above all I am thankful for God. I am thankful that the One who leads us beside still waters, is also the One who walks with us through the darkest, deepest valleys, and the One who will welcome us home at the end of this life.
Thankful, in the midst, to be a friend of God,
April 30, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Did you ever notice how you suddenly start seeing something everywhere that you'd never paid attention to before? Perhaps the best example is when you decide it is time to purchase a new car. You decide you want a particular make and model. All of a sudden, you see that car everywhere! Welcome to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, also known as Frequency Bias (or Illusion). It is the phenomenon where something you recently learned suddenly appears 'everywhere'.
I can now safely apply that term to toilet paper. TP has been on my mind for the obvious reason that it has become a precious commodity. Because I've entered toilet paper in my search engine (to find an image of toilet paper to include in a daily meditation - not that those two ideas would ever be used in the same sentence), related things keep popping up, and catching my eye. Either that or Google is way ahead of me!
On Tuesday, I was searching YouTube for appropriate songs for worship for this coming Sunday (another example of two ideas I'd never imagine using in the same sentence - worship music and YouTube). Up popped a teaser for a Carol Burnett Show skit about toilet paper.
It was impossible to not view it. And it is hysterical, especially at this time in our world. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMTSbSrvcRg.
Although we don't have a description of Jesus laughing in the Bible, I find it hard to believe that, he, the fullness of divinity and humanity, didn't laugh often and hard. The surprising and unexpected child of Sarah and Abraham, conceived well beyond childbearing years, was named Isaac, which means "he laughs". The book of Proverbs includes the following advice about being cheerful: A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance. A cheerful heart has a continual feast. And a cheerful heart is good medicine.
According to Help Guide: Your Trusted Guide to Mental Health and Wellness*
Have a hearty laugh today!
April 29, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Score one for the Nuisance Animal Control Guys! They've been on-top-of-the-job, making regular visits to check on the humane skunk traps they placed after our olfactory discovery of Sir Stinks-a-Lot about two weeks ago.
They came again last Saturday to check the traps, and could smell and see evidence of the critter still hanging around our back deck. This time, they upped the ante, adding a heap of cat food to both traps, and creating a dark cavernous tunnel around one of the traps out of a thick plastic garbage bag. Who knew skunks like cat food, and hiding in dark places?
Sunday was wet and rainy, with some steady, heavy downpours around dinner time. With the impeccable timing of children and telemarketers, just after Rod and I sat down to eat dinner, Kiko our dog, needed to go out. I let him out in our fenced-in back yard, thinking he'd be ready to come in quickly since he doesn't like the rain.
About 10 minutes later, I realized he was still out there, so I whistled for him and he didn't come. Donning a jacket, I opened the door, fearful that he'd either escaped the yard, or found the skunk. One whiff, and I knew the latter had happened. I crept towards the plastic-bag-enclosed trap, and there was Kiko, gingerly trying to get at whatever was inside. I caught his attention and I am sure he caught my displeasure. He slinked, tail between his legs, soaking wet into the house. He hadn't been sprayed (thank you, Jesus!), but was a sopping, wet-dog-fur-smelling mess.
There was no way I was going to get any closer to that stinky trap before morning. Monday morning I got about 5 feet from the plastic-bag-entombed-trap and the smell was enough to convince me that our nocturnal friend had either sprayed inside the bag and escaped, or was still inside. I wasn't about to get any closer. I placed a call to my new heroes who are now speed dial. They returned - and praise be to God - found the skunk inside. I trust disposed of him or her humanely.
There are so many ways this meditation could go. I could reflect on sin, or on fear, or on the many wonders of God's creation and my lack of tolerance for an animal whose species inhabited this neck of the woods into which we humans have intruded. But in this season, at this particular point in time, I am reminded of how hard it is to live what feels like a normal life when an unseen, but potent force is right here in my own space. One encounter with the reality of the danger clung to me, something I couldn't see, but could sense and smell. Something to be taken seriously. Something that required the intervention of experts, along with my cooperation with them. Something that took way too long to remedy in my impatience, but which indeed did come to an end. In addition to medical professionals, grocery store employees, truckers, farmers, restaurant workers, postal carriers, there is one more category of front-line workers for whom I thank God. Today I thank God for the guys who trap nuisances.
For all the unseen persons who serve the greater good, I give thanks.
April 28, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
One of my daily practices is to look out of my bedroom window early in the morning to check the weather, and take a moment to breath in the new day. The window looks east, and over the mountains I catch an ever-changing sky depending on the weather, the time of day, and the season.
This morning was pretty glorious, in its own way. Yesterday I couldn't even see the mountains, for the cloud cover and rain. But this morning! How I wish I could take a photo or paint a picture that could come close to duplicating the scene. There were what appeared to be an infinite number of shades of green, from the grass in the lawn across the street, to the different species of trees, some lighter green as their leaves begin to show, to a magnificent pine tree that towers about the others. Further off in the distance, along the mountain side were more patches of green, some muted under the cover of a cloud above, and one section much brighter. A smaller tree across the street was a display of pink blooms, set off above a darker red bush.
As my eye traveled up towards the sky, I could see the stark contrast between the top of the ridge and crowned with bright blue sky. And yet above that, a ribbon of white, fluffy clouds, straining against a cover of dark clouds that reminded me of an El Greco painting. It was almost as if the very sky itself couldn't decide who was going to win, the warming sun of spring, or remnants of winter snow clouds.
I woke up with equally mixed up thoughts and feelings. Will this be a day that holds good news that the days of what feels like our captivity inch closer to ending? Or will it be a stormy day, windy, chilly, wet and wild signaling an extending sentence of stay-at-home orders?
I am reminded of Psalm 121, "I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore."
I wonder how many millions of humans have lifted, are lifting their eyes to the hills, to discover a source of strength and help far beyond our imagining. Lifting my eyes takes me back my 4th grade Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Lambeck, who had us memorize the Psalm, and leads me forward to God, who is our help and our keeper.
Thanks, Mrs. Lambeck, and thanks, God, our help and our keeper!
April 27, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Did you grow up putting toilet paper on the seat when using public restrooms? My mom was famous for that one! I remember so clearly shopping at Joseph Horne's Department Store in downtown Pittsburgh. It was a rare treat to go there, always on the public bus. We'd meet my Aunt Marge, who would treat us to lunch in the Tea Room on the ground floor. Sometimes we even wore white gloves!
After lunch, we'd head to the restroom to "freshen up.". We'd press the button for the elevator, be greeted by the uniformed elevator operator, and hold our breath until we arrived at the second floor where the restrooms were. We'd have to wait in line until the restroom matron let us in.
While waiting, mom would remind us to put toilet paper on the seat before we used it. My sisters and I would roll our eyes, and say, "Yes, mom." Then it was our turn and we'd each take a stall, lock the door and get down to business. And then mom would remind us, loud enough so that everyone could hear, to remember to line the seat with toilet paper. Cleanliness was next to Godliness in our home, so we couldn't get out of the restroom without thoroughly washing our hands.
I've thought about my mom, and toilet paper a lot in this time of COVID19. If we hadn't squandered those precious squares back in the day, like the Prodigal Son squandering away his inheritance, we'd be in good shape right now! There's a lot of other commodities that I've taken for granted that seem pretty precious right now including eggs and hand sanitizer. But the one thing that didn't go to waste was my mom's love. Love, it seems, never fails.
April 25, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Are you having trouble finding the right ingredients for some of your recipes? Perhaps you just picked up your groceries, and in the age of COVID19, think twice about going back before deciding to make-due with what's on hand. That's exactly what happened to me yesterday. It was my first attempt at ordering on-line at Walmart for pick-up. I'd worked on that list for several days, and by the time I put the final touches to it, realized I'd almost doubled the cost. That hurt a little less because I'd have shopped twice in the past, used twice as much gas, and by some unexplained phenomenon items like donuts or a candy bar would have make their sneaky way into my cart. But I digress.
One item I'd ordered, Frigo Shredded Paremesan Cheese, was out of stock. I'd hoped they would substitute another item, but no such luck. I'd planned to use it in meatballs, on spaghetti, and to add last minute to some sliced zucchini I would roast in olive oil and fresh garlic. So I substituted, using mozzarella instead. There is a sort of logic here. Parmesan and mozzarella are both cheese, work with Italian cuisine, both are savory, not sweet, and are the same color. That got me to thinking about my mom, bless her dear heart.
My mother would have been proud of me. I learned substitution cooking from her. But then there was the time she was preparing a dessert that involved Jello, whipped cream, fruit cocktail and Maraschino cherries. She didn't have any of the later on hand, so searched through her pantry for an appropriate substitute. Using the color substitution guideline, she discovered a jar of pimentos, red and already cut into small bites, and threw them in. She served it up hoping it would be wonderful. Instead, it was a fearful combination!
Psalm 139:14 says, "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well." I'm thankful for my mom for so many things, including her sense of freedom to experiment. I am more thankful for God who "knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our condition, and keeps us present before God. That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good." (Romans 8:28, The Message)
Cook up something tasty. Enjoy your weekend!
April 24, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
"Are we almost there yet?" Those were the innocent words from my three-year-old self from the rear seat of our brand-new 1956 Plymouth, 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, PA on a very hot August day as we departed for a trip to visit our cousins in Houston TX. The apple didn't fall far from that tree, because our sons asked that same question more times than I remember, and now their children are doing the same thing! Recently one of my grandchildren lamented to her father, "Daddy, will I ever get to see my friends again?" I guess sometimes it takes a generation to get even.
At this point in the pandemic, I have the inner voice of my three-year-old self still asking the same question, "Are we almost there yet?" Governors, Senators and Representatives, CEO's of large businesses, even the President, wonder the same thing.
The internet is full of absolutely hysterical memes about the difficulties of living so close together, trying to home-school your children while you work from home, and trying to renegotiate roles and boundaries between spouses who have had more together time with each other in the past seven weeks than in all the decades they've been married. They are hysterical because they hit close to home.
Those of us who tend towards the crazy notion that we need to perfectly manage all of the details of all of our roles, all of the time; make sure that our children don't fall behind grade level in our less-than-perfectly staffed home school; that we act like Ozzie and Harriet in our marriages, and never run out of toilet paper or eggs, are running on fumes.
The journey of faith isn't so much about getting everything right, never making any detours, and getting to our destination in record time. It is more like what Eugene Peterson referred to as "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction", in his book by the same name. If we've discovered anything in this particular season in life, it's that the war on the coronavirus, and the angst it has wrought on all of us, is not a sprint, but a what-seems-to-be-a-very-long journey into what will no doubt be a new normal.
I don't remember many details of that trip back in 1956. What I do remember were frequent stops for necessary breaks (fuel and toilets), stops for meals, stops at A&W Drive-Ins to get Root Beer Floats, followed by more necessary breaks (toilets). In between bickering and bemoaning how hot the car was and how long the trip was we played "I Spy", sang songs, and enjoyed the scenery. We simply kept driving on, one tank of gas at a time, mostly taking the next right turn, until we arrived at our destination.
Wendell Berry wrote, "I am not an accredited interpreter of Scripture, but taking thought for the morrow is a waste of time, I believe, because all we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today". Jesus said it this way, "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."
Glad we are on this journey together. Let's enjoy the scenery,
April 23, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Yesterday marked the 50th Earth Day, and here in Woodstock, nature started the celebration about a month early. That seems to be the case all over Virginia, as well as all around the world. Family members from Costa Rica to Manitoba have been posting amazing photos of nature dressed up in all her glory. Facebook has fairly bloomed with nature photos.
Since there won't be proms this year, it seems like nature has put on a spring fashion show by adorning herself with an amazing array of flowers and buds. There was Bradford Pear, in the traditional white, lacy gown. Miss Forsythia glowed with her bright yellow wrap. And daring Redbud with her purple/red hues scattered up hill and down arrived at just the right moment to steal the show.
The atmosphere has taken a cleansing breath as air pollution due to a reduction in airplane and automobile traffic has been reduced. Wild animals have taken to the streets in cities all over the world. Even the water in the canals of Venice are clear, and once again home to fish.
In honor of Earth Day, I had texts from friends who promised to love the earth, planted trees, started gardens, watched birds, celebrated how green things are, and virtually watched the sunrise at the Audubon Sanctuary in the Outer Banks. I went for a long walk, taking time to take photos along the way, enjoying the temperature changes as I walked from direct sunlight through shaded areas. People were outside, mowing grass, working in their gardens, jogging, and riding bikes.
In the midst of pandemic, abundant life goes on. Perhaps because of pandemic, we have more time to pay attention, to stop and notice, to look for signs of life. This "pause" allows for time to reflect on the amazing gift of being alive in this world that God declared as good. And it might be a good day to do one small, but important, thing to participate in the goodness of this world. Plant a tree, commit to recycling, hang out your laundry (Facebook is full of directions about how to revive this ancient custom), savor the sunset. Love this amazing gift as if your very life depended on it - because it does!
"The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it." (Psalm 24)
That includes you and me!
April 21, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
We are all familiar with the idiom, "Don't judge a book by its cover." That is good advice in so many ways. The prophet Samuel thought outward appearance was a good indication of the person God wanted him to anoint as king to replace Saul. That is, until God told him, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:6-7). I'm glad pastors aren't chosen because of their height! And that serving God isn't limited by age or smarts or good looks or gender!
But I learned a lesson recently about book covers - in particular book titles. I worked the night shift for the better part of a year when we lived in Wisconsin. It was grueling, not something I'd care to do again. Around that time, someone gave me a book they'd read, "God Works the Night Shift," probably thinking it would inspire me. Truth be told, I was so tired that I put in on my nightstand and the only time I ever picked it up was when I dusted. When we moved to Hawaii, I gave lots of things away, including that book.
But the title has stuck with me over the years, in part because it is a significant theological statement about God, in part because one of my go-to Bible verses when I have trouble falling asleep is Psalm 4:8, "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety." I've been praying that Psalm a lot in the midst of the pandemic! I lie down, tired and feeling ready for sleep, and that is when the troubling thoughts rise to the surface. There are so many things I can worry about, and I come by worry honestly as the daughter and granddaughter of some great worriers. Somewhere in the midst of the anxious thoughts, Psalm I breathe that prayer in and out and I do sleep in peace, giving those anxieties to God.
I mentioned that book title in passing in a meeting a few months back. It caught someone's attention and that person purchased the book. And here is the kicker. That person mentioned the book title recently as being reassuring to her, and said she'd purchased the book. I asked how it was, and she said, "the title was better than the book." We got a laugh out of that! Carbonated holiness in action.
I am thankful that God can use something as simple as a book title to teach a lesson. And I do hope that what is on our insides is better than the cover and not the other way around.
Lie down in peace this night,
April 22, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Becky Lytton passed on this clipping sent by her sister, Mary Lou Odum:
I read a while back a story of a visiting pastor who attended a men's breakfast in the middle of a rural farming area of the country. The group had asked an old...er farmer decked out in coveralls to say grace for the morning breakfast.
"Lord, I hate buttermilk", the farmer began. The visiting pastor opened one eye to glance at the farmer and wonder where this was going. The farmer loudly proclaimed, "Lord, I hate lard." Now the pastor was growing concerned. Without missing a beat, the farmer continued, "And Lord, you know I don't much care for raw white flour". The pastor once again opened an eye to glance around the room and saw that he wasn't the only one to feel uncomfortable.
Then the farmer added, "But Lord, when you mix them all together and bake them, I do love warm fresh biscuits. So Lord, when things come up that we don't like, when life gets hard, when we don't understand what you're saying to us, help us to just relax and wait until you are done mixing. It will probably be even better than biscuits. Amen"
Within that silly prayer, there is great wisdom for all when it comes to complicated situations like we are experiencing in the world today.
Stay strong my friends because our LORD is mixing several things that we don't really care for, but something even better is going to come when God is done with it.
It strikes me as such a simple, yet profound truth. This is such a confusing and difficult time, with confusing messages from leaders, emerging and continually changing information about when things will get back to normal, and a growing reality that we will live into a new normal. It's almost as if we are still adding ingredients, and mixing vigorously. No wonder we feel shaken to the core. We simply cannot see the end of things while we are in the midst of them. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." We are living forwards, without a clear vision yet of what is at the end of forward.
Eugene Peterson's translation of 1 Corinthians 13:12 - 13 puts it this way, "We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love."
If we understand a loving God as the baker, we can trust that the end result will be love-filled, seasoned with just the right amount of salt, baked in the proving oven of grace, and every bit as good as manna - God's heavenly daily bread that is even better than biscuits fresh out of the oven.
My mouth, and my soul, are watering. I hope yours is too,
April 20, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Yesterday was Holy Humor Sunday, and I need to confess that for most of last week I wondered what in the world I'd gotten myself into. I am a pastor, not a stand-up-comedian. And comedy is participatory, much like a play or a concert. All of these are not complete until there is an audience, which is a much a part of the presentation as the musicians, actors, etc. Telling funny stories without the rapport of those present feels incomplete. It's sort of like preparing a great meal, setting a lovely table, and no one showing up to enjoy it.
But by Friday, I'd received a number of jokes, funny stories, puns, and found things coming together. And there was no turning back, as Sunday was coming at lightning speed. While recording the video of the service, amazing and multi-talented Becky Lytton, when not hanging onto the step ladder that serves as our camera-stand, was having a hard time not laughing. Many thanks to Becky for being a one-person physically present congregation, to those who contributed funny stories, and to you for putting up with a little bit of zaniness in the midst of this difficult season in our lives.
But the best laughs came Sunday morning during the KOLA class, unforced and unexpected. There were 7 participants, who on the screen of my computer looked like a rendition of Hollywood Squares. Something incredible occurred! Joy, tears-running-down-our-faces joy.
When the class was over, my spouse, Rod, who was on the other side of the house, asked me, "What was so funny?" And he could only hear my side of the conversation.
Karl Barth, a heavy-weight theologian wrote, "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God." Anne Lamott, an irreverent and deeply humble Christian put it this way, "Laughter is carbonated holiness." What do you think about those statements? Our faith is serious business, perhaps so serious, that laughter has to be involved.
I doubt that most people would think of a virtual Sunday School class, made up primarily of women who have lived long enough to be considered "vulnerable elderly" as a place of great joy and laughter. But best not to judge a book by its cover. In the midst of talking about really serious things, like death, and experiences of a sense of the presence of Jesus in some of the darkest moments of life, joy simply broke out! We laughed at ourselves, with abandon, with love, with grace. Some of the most joyful, deepest laughs I've had in the past 6 months have come within this class. It is one of the signs of resurrection!
I'm not sure what the other women would say about what happened. As I've thought about how holy, and how funny, this morning was, I think it is about grace and holiness, gifts born in community, as we talk about the intersection of faith and the deep issues in our lives. And that can happen even when we aren't in the same room, even in the midst of the worst crisis we have experienced in our lives, because Jesus is in our midst.
Carolyn Arends, in an article in Christianity Today, wrote, "Laughing is my favorite form of worship." Hallelujah!
Praying with a joyful heart,
April 18, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
I have to confess that the last few days have been hard. Part of it is the let-down after Easter, which is pretty typical for all clergy. I've always referred the first part of Easter week as my Easter hangover. Another part of it is simply adjusting my expectations about when the Stay-at-Home order might end. Sometimes in the middle of a long stretch, when the end isn't yet in sight, the trip seems like it will never end.
When I was in the Philippines in February, all of us boarded a bus in Bacolod to travel to a port to take the ferry to Bantayan Island for the retreat. It felt familiar, like traveling in Hawaii, and I kept expecting that over the ridge of the next mountain we would see the ocean. It took three hours to get to the ocean. I felt like a child wanting to ask, "Are we almost there?"
Another factor is that Rod and I haven't ever spent so much time together in the same house without one or both of us working outside the home. My rough edges are starting to show, and along with that the inner dialogues that do neither of us any good. Sir Stink-a-Lot, the Skunk, was the final straw!
Here are some things that have helped: listening to music; virtual meetings with friends; walks in nature; working in the yard; laughter at the craziest things; being thankful and appreciative for the simple blessings in each day; and prayer, including taking time to sit quietly, simply breathing and waiting with God, and the prayer of Examen at the end of the day.
The prayer of Examen comes out of the Ignatian tradition of prayer, and is simply a way of reviewing the past day through an inner dialogue with God. It is one of the best ways to help me keep perspective, to let go, and prepare for the next day. Below is how it goes:
Give thanks for the shimmering moments.
I begin by giving God thanks for all the things I'm grateful for today. I allow my mind to wander as I reflect on the ways God has blessed me on this particular day. I allow big things and small things to arise-everything from the gift of my faith, to the gift of my family, to the way the pancakes turned out.
Ask for the Spirit to gently guide me to review the moments that did not shine.
Next, I want to look at the moments in my day when I did not act so well. However, before doing so, I ask God to fill me with his Spirit so that the Spirit can lead me through this difficult soul-searching. Otherwise, I'm liable to hide in denial, wallow in self-pity, or seethe in self-loathing. These are what I think of as clouds that blocked the full light.
Review and recognize failures.
I look back at my day and ask the Lord to point out to me the moments when I have failed in big ways or small. I take a sobering look at the mistakes I've made this day.
Ask for forgiveness and healing.
I ask for forgiveness for ways that I moved away from God. I ask for healing of any harm that might have been done. I ask for help to get over it and move on. I also ask for wisdom to discern how I might better handle such tricky moments in the future.
Pray about the next day.
I ask God to show me how tomorrow might go. I imagine the things I'll be doing, the people I'll see, and the decisions I'll be mulling over. I ask for help with any moments I foresee that might be difficult. I especially ask for help in moments when I might be tempted to fail in the way I did today. I close with thanksgiving for this day, in all its fullness, and ask for help in seeing God in big and small ways in the day ahead.
To help me remember, I use the 5-Rs mnemonic:
For the shimmering moments that you have shared with me, I give thanks! Especially for all the jokes and laughs we have shared in preparation for Holy Humor Sunday, which is tomorrow. If you want, take advantage of social isolating and "go to church" in your PJ's. I'm already feeling better, just thinking about that! I might just wear my warm fluffy slippers under my robe when I preach!
April 17, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Yesterday I posted about Easter lilies, and their wonderful fragrance. Today, I bring you more news about scents - this one not so lovely.
We were awakened around 3:30 am by the sound of Kiko, our dog, toenails clicking down the stairs and the horrendous, wretched, nose-hair burning smell of skunk! It was nauseating to me, bothersome to Rod (whose olfactory sensitivity isn't quite up to snuff), and apparently extremely interesting to Kiko.
Dead skunk in the middle of the road is bad, skunk spray, up close and personal, is exponentially worse. This Pepé Le Pew must have gotten beneath the deck, directly under our kitchen window, attacked or frightened by some other critter and set off a nuclear stink bomb of epic proportions.
It wasn't a very pleasant rest of the night. I put on one of my facemasks and tried to get back to sleep. Who knew that the molecules of skunk spray could get through one of those? I lay awake thinking about what that might say about other contagions.
Twenty-four hours later, with two traps set, vinegar heated on the stove, a big pot of homemade chicken noodle soup, and a $30 odor absorbing bag hanging in the kitchen, the smell is more bearable in most of the house. And since garlic is supposed to ward off vampires, I may try frying some up today.
One upside is that bad smells apparently help to reinforce social distancing. I stopped by the office yesterday morning, after taking a shower and washing my hair, and from a safe distance mentioned my ordeal to Becky. She noted that she caught a whiff of the scent in the air. It might have been unpleasant for Becky, but it was a great relief to get out of the house, like a breath of fresh air.
You know what it is like to get the Thanksgiving turkey in the oven, and then go for a long walk? You return home, open the door, and are greeting with a smell that sets your mouth to watering? Don't expect the same after a skunk attack!
All kidding aside, compared to the bigger things happening in the world, this is such a minor issue. But when nerves are frayed, and life as we've come to expect it is suddenly taken down by an unseen virus, and then the place that you are supposed to be "staying-at-home" smells, or your kids are being kids and not the polite students they apparently are in school, or you can't get toilet paper or hand-sanitizer, or you have lost your job, even a smell can put you close to the edge.
What I am saying to myself, and to you, is be gentle with yourself and with others. These are hard times, our fuses are shorter than usual, make space for self-care. Take a walk - the fresh air will do you and those around you much good. Take a few deep breaths. Laugh at yourself. And pray. Psalm 141:2 is a reminder that prayer smells good. "Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."
Keeping my distance for the best of reasons,
April 16, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Easter Lilies are one of the fragrant delights of Easter, and I had the privilege of delivering a few to shut-ins as gifts from St. Paul's UCC on Easter Sunday. To the right is a photo of me getting ready to carry one from the car to a home in the time of COVID19.
I also brought one home that I purchased in memory of my parents, to adorn our sanctuary on Easter morning, and the fragrance brought back a memory of funeral homes, of all things. I was transported back to funeral parlors near Pittsburgh, PA. Back in those days, visiting hours were more like two to three days prior to the burial. In hindsight, that must have been incredibly difficult on grieving families.
That got me to wondering exactly how lilies got associated with Easter, which led me to Google.
After extensive, scholarly research, I learned that there are several theories about their Christian symbolism. Many works of art feature the angel Gabriel handing Mary, the mother of Jesus, white lilies to symbolize her purity. Easter lilies are sometimes referred to as "white robed apostles of hope," since their color symbolizes the purity of Christ, who was free from sin. In this particular time in our world, we need both purity in the form of frequent handwashing as well as hope, not only forgiveness, but also about protection from viruses!
Lilies are mentioned in the Bible, (check out Song of Solomon in chapters 2, 5, and 7; 1 Kings 7:19-22, Hosea 14:5) perhaps most memorably in Jesus' teaching about worry and anxiety, in Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." That's pretty good advice - especially now!
The trumpet shape of the Easter lily might represent a trumpet sounding the message that Jesus has risen. Although that isn't mentioned in the Bible, there is nothing more moving than the sound of trumpets accompanying the hymns of Easter. I think we are all looking forward to the day when our social isolation is over, business and schools reopen, and we can hug our grandchildren! That will feel like resurrection!
If you've ever planted bulbs, you know that many of them are rather ugly. They lie buried in the ground for a period of time (as long as three years for Easter lilies) before they burst forth as beautiful, aromatic flowers. Some things require patience, a good lesson for these days. They are reminders not only of death but also resurrection, right in our gardens.
There is one tradition that white lilies sprouted in the Garden of Eden where Eve's remorseful tears fell to the ground. Another tradition holds that Easter lilies grew where Jesus' blood and tears fell from the cross, and that lilies were found in the Garden of Gethsemane after the crucifixion. I take comfort in imagining that the tears shed during this time, especially for those who have suffered, died, or lost loved ones can lead to healing.
Every time I catch the scent of the Easter lily in our dining room, I am going to breathe in these lessons about forgiveness, purity, hope, and healing. Maybe you can as well.
April 15, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
A number of years ago, I discovered a monthly print newsletter "The Joyfulnoise Letter,", that evolved into a website: http://www.joyfulnoiseletter.com/hhsunday.asp. There I learned about the tradition of celebrating Holy Humor Sunday on the first Sunday after Easter. It comes from a custom initiated by the early Greek Christians. Known as "Bright Sunday", or "Holy Humor Sunday," it came at the end of a week of days of joy and laughter, marked by picnics, and parties, to celebrate Jesus' resurrection.
I love a good laugh, and I imagine Jesus does, too. In my last pastorate in Hawaii, we celebrated Holy Humor Sunday, inviting the congregation to send me clean jokes and funny stories to share during worship. One year we all wore the craziest hats we could find. One couple visited that week for the first time, and decided to become members figuring that any church brave enough to wear crazy hats was the right church for them.
After running the idea past our worship committee, I got the green light to go for it this year, especially in the midst of a pandemic. We all need a good laugh! So please, send me any jokes or stories you have. I'll do my best to incorporate them into worship.
Early this morning I received an email from a friend in Hawaii, who shared the following rift on "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." My apologies if you've already read this. I think it is a great way to get us in the mood.
Twas late in '19 when the virus
began Bringing chaos and fear to all
people, each land. People were sick, hospitals
full, Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.
As winter gave way to the
promise of spring, The virus raged on, touching
peasant and king. People hid in their homes from
the enemy unseen. They YouTubed and Zoomed,
social-distanced, and cleaned. April approached and churches
were closed. "There won't be an Easter," the world
supposed. "There won't be church services,
and egg hunts are out. No reason for new dresses
when we can't go about." Holy Week started, as bleak as
the rest. The world was focused on masks and on
tests. "Easter can't happen this year,"
it proclaimed. "Online and at home, it just won't
be the same." Maundy Thursday, Good Friday,
the days came and went. The virus pressed on; it
just would not relent. The world woke Sunday and
nothing had changed. The virus still menaced, the
people, estranged. "Pooh pooh to the saints," the
world was grumbling. "They're finding out now that
no Easter is coming. "They're just waking up! We know
just what they'll do! Their mouths will hang open a
minute or two, And then all the saints will all cry
boo-hoo. "That noise," said the world,
"will be something to hear." So it paused and the world put a
hand to its ear. And it did hear a sound coming
through all the skies. It started down low, then it
started to rise. But the sound wasn't depressed.
Why, this sound was triumphant! It couldn't be so!
But it grew with abundance! The world stared around, popping
its eyes. Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking
surprise! Every saint in every nation, the
tall and the small, Was celebrating Jesus in spite
of it all! It hadn't stopped Easter from
coming! It came! Somehow or other, it came just the
same! And the world with its life
quite stuck in quarantine Stood puzzling and
puzzling. "Just how can it be?" "It came without bonnets, it
came without bunnies, It came without egg hunts,
cantatas, or money." Then the world thought of
something it hadn't before. "Maybe Easter," it
thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Easter,
perhaps, means a little bit more." And what happened then?
Well....the story's not done. What will YOU do?
Will you share with that one Or two or more people
needing hope in this night? Will you share the
source of your life in this fight? The churches are empty - but so
is the tomb, And Jesus is victor over death, doom,
and gloom. So this year at Easter, let this
be our prayer, As the virus still rages all around,
everywhere. May the world see hope when it
looks at God's people. May the world see the church
is not a building or steeple. May the world find Faith in
Jesus' death and resurrection, May the world find
Joy in a time of dejection. May 2020 be known as the year of
survival, But not only that - Let it start a
Twas late in '19 when the virus began
Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.
People were sick, hospitals full, Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.
As winter gave way to the promise of spring, The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.
People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen. They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.
April approached and churches were closed. "There won't be an Easter," the world supposed.
"There won't be church services, and egg hunts are out. No reason for new dresses when we can't go about."
Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest. The world was focused on masks and on tests.
"Easter can't happen this year," it proclaimed. "Online and at home, it just won't be the same."
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went. The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.
The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed. The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.
"Pooh pooh to the saints," the world was grumbling. "They're finding out now that no Easter is coming.
"They're just waking up! We know just what they'll do! Their mouths will hang open a minute or two, And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.
"That noise," said the world, "will be something to hear."
So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.
And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies. It started down low, then it started to rise.
But the sound wasn't depressed. Why, this sound was triumphant! It couldn't be so! But it grew with abundance!
The world stared around, popping its eyes. Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!
Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small, Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!
It hadn't stopped Easter from coming! It came! Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine Stood puzzling and puzzling. "Just how can it be?"
"It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies, It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money."
Then the world thought of something it hadn't before. "Maybe Easter," it thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more."
And what happened then? Well....the story's not done. What will YOU do? Will you share with that one Or two or more people needing hope in this night? Will you share the source of your life in this fight?
The churches are empty - but so is the tomb, And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.
So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer, As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.
May the world see hope when it looks at God's people. May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.
May the world find Faith in Jesus' death and resurrection, May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.
May 2020 be known as the year of survival, But not only that - Let it start a revival.
April 14, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Did you ever buy a Christmas gift for someone, then put it away, only to find it months after Christmas? Or did you ever misplace a gift you received, only to discover it later? Something like that happened at Easter at my older son, Seth's home.
Easter morning dawned bright, and the girls, Anne-Sophie (6) and Marie-Hélène (3) got dressed in their Easter finest before coming downstairs to hunt for their Easter baskets. Seth had received a package a while back from our younger son, Dan's, family, which he put away. Somehow, said package reappeared as Seth was getting things ready for Easter morning. Thinking it must have been for Easter, he set it out for the girls to open along with the items in their Easter baskets.
This is what they discovered in the package Valentine's Hearts.
Perhaps the heart represents Easter more than jellybeans or chocolate bunnies, or even a cross. For it was love so deep, so compassionate, so eternal, that chose to become one of us, to go the distance as one of us, that defeated death to burst forth from the tomb on Easter. Love that will not let us go, love that meets us on the way, love that was there when we took our first breath and that will be with us in our last, love that will invite us into eternity.
In the love of Jesus,
April 13, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
It seems like we've been waiting for Easter for a long, long time. And just like that, it's time to tear "April 12, 2020" page from our desk calendars. Some folks were worried that "Easter wouldn't happen" this year due to the coronavirus. Perhaps you feel like Easter didn't happen, or like it passed over too quickly, like a Thanksgiving dinner that has taken days to prepare, and then consumed in less than an hour. Our Conference Minister, Rev. Freeman Parker, (Central Atlantic Conference UCC), in his Easter Message noted that Easter is not a day on the calendar but a way of life. This is the way of resurrection.
While we've been waiting for Easter Day to arrive, nature hasn't paid attention to our calendars, and has gone about her merry way, absorbing nutrients and moisture from the soil and reaching against all odds for the light of the sun. We've seen the natural world around us sprouting and growing and blooming, spreading an array of yellows, greens, purples, reds, and pinks along roads, in yards, even reaching up through cracks in sidewalks to enjoy the light. This is the way of resurrection!
We live the way of resurrection through radical acts of love and mercy played out in hospitals and grocery stores and on farms and behind the wheel of semi-trucks and in homes where full-time unexpectedly stay-at-home and-if-they-are-lucky-still-working-virtually-parents (and grandparents) in millions of homes around the world. We live the way of resurrection when, stretched to the breaking point by anxiety and fear, we practice patience, love, grace, kindness, and peace towards those close at hand, and with the stranger. These are the unseen acts of resurrection, happening in private ways, growing towards the light of the world, Jesus, the Christ. These are the sprouts, the blooms, the blossoms of resurrection.
Easter isn't over! Keep living the way of resurrection today!
April 11, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Love reached out to Rod and me in a most unexpected and surprising way earlier this week. We had to make a quick trip to Charlotte in order to take care of some business couldn't put off. Traveling was about the last thing either of us wanted to do, especially at this time. But armed our face masks, gloves, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizer we drove south. We got up early Wednesday morning to head back to Woodstock, and needing both coffee and food, I pulled into a McDonald's drive through before hopping on the interstate.
I placed our order, costing a whopping total of $5.24. Rod got out a ten-dollar bill and 24 cents in coins. I drove up to the window to settle the bill and get our food. The server handed me the bag of food and two drinks, and I handed her the cash. She waved it off, saying that someone else had already paid for our food.
I was momentarily speechless (a miracle). And then I simply said the only thing I could, "please use this to pay for the next person in line." I've had friends pick up my tab before, I've never been the recipient of an anonymous "pay it forward."
Except as I think about this Holy Saturday, a time for a sacred pause, there is an empty cross, calling out to all of us in this incredibly difficult time, opening our hearts to compassion for all who suffer, including ourselves.
Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation on Good Friday said this, "The crucifixion of Jesus is the preeminent example of God's love reaching out to us instead of 'a necessary sacrifice,' the cross was a freely chosen revelation of Total Love, on God's part." Jesus reversed the age-old understanding that the only way to please a demanding and distant God was through blood sacrifices. Rather, on the cross, as Rohr states, "God was spilling blood to reach us."
Receiving unearned grace from the hands of a stranger at the McDonald's Drive-Thru window was a small act that speaks volumes about God's total love, reaching out to Rod and me. It was a sacred moment! I suppose I could have resisted, perhaps even refused to take our breakfast sandwiches and hot drinks. I didn't need to let that love flowing from God to me go one step further by leaving something behind for the next person, damming up the love. I am so glad I didn't!
Pausing right now, aware for a least this moment, of the love of God in this sacred time.
April 10, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Good Friday wasn't so good for the followers of Jesus all those years ago. From the accounts in the gospels, only a few of Jesus' followers were there to the bitter end, when after hours of agony, he took his last breath and died. A few women, and in one gospel, John as well, watched from a safe distance. The ground shook, and the sky was dark from noon to three, like it was here a few years back during the solar eclipse.
Just inside the entrance to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem lies a long, low rock, believed to be the place where Jesus, after being taken down from the cross was placed to prepare his body for burial. It was there that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (the one who visited Jesus under cover of dark) wrapped Jesus' battered and broken body with burial spices in long sheets of linen cloth, and placed it in a tomb that had never before been used.
Judas let his worst day become his last day, and in the depth of despair and remorse, committed suicide. Since Jesus washed his feet, and shared communion with him, I am led to think Jesus' grace extended even to Judas, if only he had realized it.
The other disciples, no doubt also full of self-reproach and grief, did the wiser thing, seeking the solace of connectedness and community as they sheltered-in-place, in fear, in the same room they had shared with Jesus just the evening before.
And then, with the approach of the Sabbath, silence engulfed Jerusalem. I imagine that silence was qualitatively deeper than any silence since before the world began. The tomb was a silent place, a cocoon of darkness, closed off by a huge stone, sheltered within a rock hillside. Even the Roman guards stationed at the tomb grew silent, fell asleep.
Our world - our culture - seems to abhor silence. But, "silence", according to St. John of the Cross, "is the first language of God." We know that "In the beginning, the earth was formless and empty and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters."
Good Friday and Holy Saturday are days for silence, for deep listening, for growing still, for waiting, for feeling the emptiness of the human condition. It is as if the world itself is holding its breath, waiting for what might come next. We know from the Genesis narrative that what comes next. 'Then God said, "Let there be light', and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.'
Out of the silence of these next two days, something good is building, even though we can't yet see it. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, God spoke: Jesus Christ, the Light of the world which the darkness could not extinguish, arose!
Have patience. What we long for, strength for these days and bright hope for tomorrow comes. The silence, the darkness, the waiting isn't the end! The risen Christ is!
Waiting, with hope!
April 9, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
Today is Maundy Thursday. Under normal circumstances we would be sharing a soup supper served by the youth in the fellowship hall followed by a brief worship service recalling Jesus' last supper.
Here's how it goes: Jesus' takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples. Then he takes the cup, blesses it and gives it to his disciples. This is the fundamental pattern of Jesus' life, as well as ours as his followers. We take up our lives, taking responsibility for them. We bless our lives, recognizing them as the sacred gift they are. We are broken, by our own actions, the actions of others, that is the way of life. We give ourselves away, through all of our brokenness, to others. That is life redeemed.
Henri Nouwen in his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, writes, "Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life...all of our life."
This was driven home in my all-time favorite movie, Of Gods and Men (2010). The movie is based on the story of a group of 8 French Cistercian Trappist monks living in harmony with their Muslim neighbors, caught up (and ultimately 7 were martyred) in Algeria in the 1996 civil war between the army and radicalized extremists. Toward the end of the movie, in what ends up being their last supper, they share a wordless meal, listening to the poignant sounds of Swan Lake, eating a simple supper, breaking bread, and drinking wine. They gaze around the table at each other, shedding tears as well as sharing smiles of love. It is one of the most intimate and moving scenes I've ever encountered. Without words, they communicate a depth of emotion and love that I imagine must have transpired during Jesus' last supper.
My prayer for each of us today is that we take time, like the monks in the movie, to savor our dinner today, that we will gaze upon those around us with all the love in our hearts. May we find ways to give of ourselves today, redeeming all the brokenness in ourselves and in our world.
This season of COVID19 is teaching us is that community, especially the community of the church is real, and that each and every moment of life is a sacred gift, a taste of Easter that happens each and every day through our brokenness.
Taken, blessed, broken, given. ~ Pastor Anne
April 8, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
We are at the mid-point of Holy Week, and our Lenten journey will carry us through the most intense days that a person might imagine. Given that Surgeon General Gerome Adams said earlier this week, "This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans' lives, quite frankly. "This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it's not going to be localized. It's going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that."
As followers of Jesus, we have an older narrative, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus' story provides a pattern and a model for how to walk through this hardest time we might imagine. Jesus' story moves us in one week from despair to great shock, great joy, and great hope!
Former Interim Minister, and dear friend Rev. Clara Young, shared the poem below with me two days ago. Sorrow-filled Road summons us to intentionally and faithfully journey through this week in which pandemic and passion are intertwined. I pray that it touches you as much as it did me.
Walking together to a new life!
April 7, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
I haven't had a vegetable garden since 2005, when we lived in Maui. Our yard in Honolulu was tiny, and in a place that received over 150 inches of rain annually...not conducive to tomatoes but the papaya were amazing.
Now that we are settled in Woodstock, I have the space for small vegetable garden. I started some seeds indoors a couple weeks ago and got down to the hard work of digging up grass, turning the soil, laying down weed-block fabric, and imagining where each variety of beans, peas, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, kale, and some decorative blue fescue grass will go. I think of it as my V/2 garden, a sort of victory over virus act of radical hope.
Every day I check on the seeds. The first few days I was mildly disappointed that I could see no evidence of growth. Before long, I became impatient and frustrated, my faith dwindling that anything would grow. I even started to feel afraid that they would never appear, that perhaps I'd messed up somehow. And then, the miracle happened, first with the beans, and then the peas, and now all the carrots, kale, lettuce, and tomatoes are stretching out of the soil towards the sun.
Everything sprouted, that is, except the grass seed. Even though the seed packet said germination in 21 days, I was just about ready to give up on them by day 14. And then, as if they can read and understand English and I can't, tiny little signs of life appeared.
Jesus said much the same during his last supper, "A little while you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me." (John 16:16).
Waiting for the end of this season is like waiting for those seeds to sprout, not seeing Jesus. There is growth, roots moving toward water, tiny sprouts reaching for the sun, we just can't see them yet.
I leave you with these words of Paul, words that always remind me of plants. "I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21)
Hold onto radical hope!
April 6, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
As followers of Jesus, we remember his passion for the remainder of this week. In the midst of pandemic, Holy Week seems almost unbearably poignant. Life is precious, and fragile, and each day is a sacred, holy gift.
In Luke's gospel, as Jesus gathered with his disciples to share the Passover meal, he said, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." As this Holy Week commences, there are so many things I eagerly desire. I desire face-to-face worship; shaking hands and hugging people at church; hugging our children and grandchildren. I even miss meetings! There is a relationship between our mortality and our desires that determines what is sacred to us.
About 25 years ago I made an overnight retreat to reflect on my life's purpose. It was a hot, humid August day, and I'd mowed the lawn and gone for a run (I was younger then!), and consumed a Super Gulp Diet Coke on my way to the retreat location.
First on my agenda was some time at the pool. I lay back in the beach chair, and relaxed before standing up to jump in the pool. As soon as I entered the 5' deep pool, I could feel my blood pressure as I passed out. I came to near the pool's bottom, and my one thought was of my family and loved ones, and regret that they wouldn't know that my last thought was that I loved them.
I guess that was and is my desire. Facing the reality of death sure did clarify my purpose. I suspect that might be true for everyone.
Praying that your holy desires be fulfilled.
April 4, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
Tomorrow is Palm/Passion Sunday, the day that marks the beginning of Holy Week, when day-by-day we remember Jesus' final days, from lauded Son of David, to the host at an intimate, covenant-making last supper with friends, to betrayal by one of them, to the God-awful moments of his trial, torture, cross-bearing, crucifixion, death, and burial.
We wait for what seems like days in absolute desolation fearing not only that Jesus is lost to us, but that we are lost, without hope, without him. Locked behind the closed doors of our own grief and fear, we wait. And then, a rumor of resurrection, a tiny breath of hope, and suddenly, inside our fear and grief-frozen hearts, Jesus, the I Am, is.
Most years, the busyness of everyday, normal life carried us from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunrise with little time to savor all that happened, and is happening, in between.
This year, aside from nature's amazing display of new life, it seems as if we are living in the midst of an entire season of passion weeks. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis' Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, "It is always Lent and never Easter." I don't think there is anyone alive who isn't living with anxiety and fear. In the midst of COVID19 and all the repercussions of pandemic, there is still incredibly good news. "Aslan," the Jesus figure in Lewis' novel, "is one the move!" Jesus walked as a human, lived the whole sum of human experience, and modeled how to walk with eyes open to the sacred in the most difficult of times. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus, Emmanuel, is God with us, right here and right now.
As we live through this next week, it is my prayer that we will be able to journey together with Jesus. Let the words of John Philip Newell's poem, Sounds of the Eternal become a guide as we take a long, loving look at our world, in the presence of Jesus.
A poem by John Philip Newell
Early in the morning I seek your presence, O God,
Keep your eyes open to the mystery of this moment. ~ Pastor Anne
April 3, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
My husband figured out a way to link his photos through Apple TV to our TV screen. They have become our screensaver, moving in into view, lingering long enough for a breath of prayer, then slipping away. There are photos of our immediate family, friends, places we've lived, vacations we've taken, and photo Christmas greeting cards going back decades. And there are photos of our parents and great grandparents, dating back over 100 years.
I sit in my rocker, still, and simply looking, remembering, and feeling all the emotions that come with those memories. I have to force myself to get up and get moving again, from this time of reflection.
I can remember so many of the places where the photos were taken, and each memory brings those places and people back to life. I am curious about those who died before I was born. I grieve for those who had such an impact on my life and are no longer with us except in spirit. I wonder what my grandparents who lived through two world wars, the Spanish Influenza, and the Great Depression might have to say to us today. I almost burst with gratitude for my spouse, for our children and their spouses, for our grandchildren, for every moment and every person I see.
If not for the coronavirus, Rod wouldn't have had the time to create this living, changing album. And perhaps if not for the coronavirus, I would take them for granted. But right here and right now, this is sacred space, a time for prayer, for gratitude, holy seeing that is pure gift.
Thanks be to God for each precious sacred moment! May you find the same today.
April 2, 2020
Dear St. Pauls UCC Church Family,
Sometimes I need to go searching for a picture with which to practice holy looking visio divina. And sometimes they arrive in the most unexpected of moments and ways. My oldest sister Carol lives in an assisted living facility about 5 hours from Woodstock. I am her durable power of attorney, which has been an adjustment for both of us.
Carol, as the oldest, was always the leader, the sister who told my middle sister and me (the youngest) what to do. She felt it her responsibility to correct anything that wasnt up to snuff. Im sure those family dynamics never happened in your family! For example, when I was 29, a few streaks of grey hair mysteriously appeared in my hair. I was instructed, Anne, you need to color that grey! Of course, bossy bumped up again stubborn, and weve continued that discussion to this day.
At this point in our lives, our roles are reversed. When I make suggestions to her, I have been reminded, You are not the boss of me. Blood runs deep, as does love, and it has been difficult when I have not been able to get in touch with her for a few days, or when her voicemail is full and I cant leave a message. I have worried about her health as the COVID19 virus has swept through our country, and I cant visit her due to the restrictions at senior facilities.
There was a period of about a week in which we were not able to connect, and then, I received this photo sent by text message from one of the staff: I see my sister, in her popcorn top with tropical print leggings and am reminded of decades of memories, of the important part she has played in my life, how much I love and miss both my sisters.
What picture speaks to you today?
April 1, 2020
Dear St. Pauls UCC Church Family,
Dont you wish that this morning, someone would say, April Fools! The past few weeks were just a dream. Go back to life before COVID19.? I wouldnt wish pandemic on anyone. And yet one of my favorite memories occurred with my older grandchildren in August, 2011, in the midst of Hurricane Irene. Seriously! I was on a 3-month sabbatical, and before traveling to the Holy Land, I offered to spend a week taking care of Lily (6 at the time) and Ross (3 at the time) while their parents celebrated their anniversary in the Dominican Republic.
In the days up to there departure, there were a number of unusual things that occurred. There was a head-lice scare in my granddaughters preschool class. There was a fire in the Dismal Swamp that spewed smoke and created a dense haze as far north as Mechanicsville, VA. There was a 5.8 earthquake that hit about 38 miles northwest of Mechanicsville. Irene was just a tropical storm, predicted to miss the Dominican Republic and make landfall south and far east of Richmond.
My son and daughter-in-law decided that things looked OK for their long-awaited getaway. They made sure we had lots of batteries and flashlights on-hand in the unlikely event that Irene veered north west, and I dropped them off at the airport feeling confident that all would be well. Thirty-six hours later, things had changed. Irene had developed into a hurricane, predicted to hit us.
Mid-afternoon we hit the grocery store, where things looked much like today in Woodstock, low on toilet paper, milk and all the usual staples. That evening, Hurricane Irene arrived, with heavy rain and high winds, followed by all the power going out. I made the executive order that we were going to bunk down for the night on the living room floor the room furthest away from the tall pines in the yard. The wind was fierce, and we could hear branches falling. Eventually, surrounded by Ross, Lily, and Jackson the dog, we settled on the floor to sleep. As I prayed myself to sleep, in addition to prayers for safety, the thought floated through my mind that if I were going to die, this would be a wonderful final moment.
We awoke to blue skies, and went outside to survey the damage. A 40-foot pine had fallen in the back yard, away from the house and crushing the fence at the edge of the yard. The power was out for three days, and we camped at home for the duration. We had three glorious days without any electronic devices, left to our imaginations to entertain ourselves. Lily, who had studied the pilgrims in school that year, decided we were living just like them, and turned it into a grand adventure.
When I took apart a microwave bag of popcorn and popped it in a pan on the gas stove, Lily was awestruck, Nana, you must be the oldest person alive! You know how to make popcorn without a microwave! Late in the afternoon of the third day, about an hour before the parents returned, there was a sudden blast of noise and light as the TV and lights suddenly turned on. And I cried, not from relief, but from sadness that those precious moments were gone. We still talk about that time.
March 31, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
In the Hawaiian language there are two expressions that are used for the single English word "church". The first is hale pule (literal translation: house of prayer). The second is ekklesia (the congregation). In my husband's Anabaptist heritage, the congregation was called the church, and the building was called the meeting house. We are discovering in this time of COVID19, how very important the ekklesia is, that the church continues to function even when the people aren't able to come together in the hale pule.
Given Governor Northam's announcement Monday afternoon, it is very possible that Becky and I will be moving our essential equipment into our respective houses to continue our work to support each of you - the ministers of the church. For what you do, day and in a day out, is the ministry of the church. Whether you are at home trying hard to teach (and not throttle - just kidding) your children, working from home, risking your life serving in an essential business, serving food, delivering mail, providing front-line medical care to the ill, or praying for others, you are the church.
Take heart that the first ministers of the church had little idea what they were doing, and in the immediate days following the death of Jesus, locked themselves away in an upper room. We, too, are making this up (as best as we can) as we go along. There have been, and will continue to be bumps in the road for each of us. We will make mistakes, have short fuses, be anxious, miss our friends and family, and lose patience more than one. And along the way, we will find moments of joy, and no doubt grieve many losses.
I introduced holy seeing - visio divina - yesterday as a practice you might want to try this week. And I've been thinking about the photo of the owl picture I included. In Hawaiian, the pueo (owl) is mostly white. It is a symbol of divine guidance, and rarely seen. About 14 years ago, I was in the midst of making a significant decision, and one evening, I was driving from Hana to Pukelani along a spectacular portion of the Hana Road, with steep mountains on the left and a breathtakingly beautiful and treacherous cliff dropping straight off into the ocean on right. Suddenly, a pueo flew right in front of my car and literally led me along the road until I passed under a forest of bamboo where it flew away into the twilight. It was a holy moment for me, a sign that God was present and would guide me. I look at the picture of the pueo as the whole world struggles in the war against a virus, and I am reminded that God is present, that God guides and comforts us. I wonder what reminder you and I will see today
Give us eyes to see,
March 30, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
Do you ever take things for granted? I know that I do. During Lent last year, I led and hosted a small group in a weekly gathering to learn about and practice a variety of ways to pray. One week we practiced visio divina (holy seeing), which is a derivative of lectio divina (holy reading - a slow and reflective way to read scripture). I gathered a number of items from my house including some pieces of art, as well as a few rocks I've collected, and a piece of driftwood I've had for over 40 years. I gave some basic instructions, and then invited each person to do the following:
When I called everyone back together for a time of reflection, I was surprised that a few of the participants selected items that I'd never even considered including. They were things I took for granted, hanging on a wall, or sitting on a bookshelf. I had simply never "seen" them, they were just sort of "there", items Rod or I had been given or had found, but never really observed. Jesus had something to say about people having eyes but not seeing, and ears but not hearing.
I tend to fly through my days, always on my way to the next thing on my list. Perhaps you are that way as well. In this crazy time of COVID19, without all the other distractions, I am forced to slow down, to see and hear more.
Take some time to practice holy seeing this day. You never know what beauty you might find.
March 28, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
Sometimes, you just need a laugh. That's what I got when I made a quick dash through Walmart this morning and discovered Peeps Cereal! Peeps were a favorite in my family of origin, and still are for my oldest sister Carol. Thankfully, she in assisted living in Ohio, and her needs, including meals, are well-cared for by the staff. However, she is a life-long persnickety eater whose food choices run to potato chips, ice cream, and all things marshmallow. In a recent phone conversation, she told me she'll be OK, as she still has some bags of potato chips, and a 40-pack box of Rice Krispies Treats.
I used to love Peeps, too, especially the dark-chocolate coated ones. I say used to because one Lenten season in Hawaii, I happened to mention in a sermon that I loved Peeps. From various members of the congregation, either trying to please or kill me, I received well over 2 dozen packages of Peeps. I was permanently Peeped out. It took months of creative baking to use them all up.
I talked with my middle sister, Jane, this afternoon while I was walking. She and I both marvel at Carol's diet, and I told her about Peeps Cereal. That got us laughing and sharing funny memories from childhood. I really needed the laughter! And I imagine you do as well.
As the Coronavirus gets closer to home, some of us are learning of loved ones, or friends of loved ones, who have contracted the virus. These are scary times! I've discovered that joy comes in the most unexpected ways and places. Walmart, a random box of cereal, and some childhood memories, who knew they could lift my spirits? Joy is a gift - and fruit - of the Spirit. Savor each joyful moment!
Thinking of you with a smile on my face!
March 27, 2020
Dear St. Pauls UCC Church Family,
There is a saying credited to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (30 BCE to 90 CE), that goes like this, If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah. Those words ring true 2,000 years later. In this time of pandemic, when we are overwhelmed with reality, and perhaps more overwhelmed by 24-hr news feeds, we hear things that can scare the daylights out of us. It can feel to those of us familiar with the Left Behind series of books, that the end of the world is indeed upon us.
Rabbi Zakkais advice to such news is to stay at what we have started, go about our business, attend to the things that are ours to do, to complete what we have begun.
None of us can know that, this isnt the first time that calamity has fallen upon us, or the first time that the church and Christians have faced dire circumstances. Martin Luther wrote a letter titled, Should a Christian Flee the Plague? from Wittenberg in 1527 as the bubonic plague was decimating that city. Many Christians in the year 999 CE were sure that the Lord would return when 1,000 CE rolled around. We saw the same sort of hysteria in 1999. Jesus words to such rumors was Only the Father knows.
There is something healing, life-giving, in doing the work set before us each day. It takes us away from the 24-hr news cycle, gives us a sense of self-efficacy, reminds us that we have power to act in positive ways, and forces us to focus on, to think about something other than what is out of our control.
So, I am planting a vegetable garden, busying myself with preparing the soil, putting vegetable seeds in pots in a sunny window, and just for the beauty of it have planted flowers and bulbs. Next on my list are trees for the yard. It might not sound like spiritual work, but it is, after all, the first thing that God did after creation. God planted a garden.
What is it that you are planting, if not in a garden, then in other ways? Planting seeds of learning and wisdom in your children? Growing a deep place of refuge in your inner self? Spreading root of connections with your neighbors and family in virtual ways? Sharing some of your abundance with those in need?
Rooted and growing together in Christ,
March 26, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
When I moved to Hawaii, I had to learn all about sharks and the best times and conditions for swimming without them. When I moved to Charlotte, NC, I was clueless about copperheads, and had to learn how to best avoid them. Now I live in bear country, (something that wasn't on St. Paul's UCC church profile by the way). Finding out that bears are in town is another matter altogether. Last week I discovered this sign at the E. Reservoir Rd entrance to Seven Bends State Park:
This is a new normal for me. In much the same way, the time that we are living through is an uncertain time, a time when each day seems to be its own new normal. Perhaps you related to Jehoshaphat's prayer I shared yesterday, a prayer of total dependence on God, "We don't know what to do. So we look to you, our God, for help!" One thing we can do every day is pray, and then make the best choices we can for that day, doing the next right thing and then the next right thing, hour by hour, day by day. Below is a prayer of perspective for each of us:
Prayer for a Pandemic ~ Cameron Bellm (St. Paul's UCC, Nutley)
May we who are merely inconvenienced, remember those whose lives are at stake. May we who have no risk factors remember those most vulnerable. May we who have the luxury of working from home remember those who much choose between preserving their health of making their rent. May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools are closed remember those who have no options. May we who have to cancel our trips remember those who have no safe place to go. May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market remember those who have no margin at all. May we who settle in for quarantine at home remember those who have no home. As fear grips our country, let us choose love. During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors. Amen.
May my words be a loving embrace of God to you today.
March 25, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
I've been trying to figure out what this COVID 19 situation feels like. In one way, it feels familiar, like hunkering down for a hurricane to hit, or hiding in a cellar as tornado sirens go off, or waiting well above sea level as a tsunami is on the way. Perhaps it is what the people in Poland felt like as Hitler's army invaded their beloved country. People prepared as best as they could, they heard reports of the German troops' march west, but life still went on (sort of) as it always did. That is, until the day that their region, or their town suddenly heard the sounds of mortar fire, or saw a neighbor's house go up in flames. It seems that the enemy has arrived close to our county, our home.
Our schools are closed for the rest of the school year, and non-essential businesses are closed as well. The enemy isn't at our door, but that may only a matter of time. In 2 Chronicles 20, a great multitude of enemy forces had surrounded Jerusalem, and Jehoshaphat, King of Israel, gathered the people together to pray. Here is a portion of his prayer, "You are the God in heaven. Trouble may come to us. It may be war, punishment, sickness, or a time of hunger. If it comes we will stand before you. We will cry out to you when we are in trouble. We have no power against this large army that is attacking us. We don't know what to do. So we look to you for help!"
We cry out to you when we are in trouble. We don't know what to do. So we look to you, our God, for help! That's a prayer for our time!
Praying in faith and trust,
PS: One of the ways we can keep our minds and souls on God is to take time each day with God. If you'd like more devotional material, we have Upper Room and These Days booklets available. You can get one from the church office during regular working hours. If you want to have one dropped in your mailbox that can be arranged as well.
March 24, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
Another thing that is going in my "Alleluia" basket is the poem "The Peace of Wild Things," by Wendell Berry, which I rediscovered in an email sent by Bill Dalke. Berry's words are so fitting for this particular moment in time. His response to despair for the world is to "come into the peace of wild things." I've noticed that in most of the conversations I've had with people (virtual and not in person) the one thing that is mentioned over and over again is the peace found in nature and observable all around us.
There is much we can't control right now, and that can feel pretty powerless. But nothing can prevent us from looking out a window, or sitting on the porch, or going for a stroll and opening our senses, and our hearts to the life all around us. We are sheltering down, but life, new life is just outside our doors. Let the Creator God speak of all that is good as you "come into the peace of wild things."
*You can hear Berry reading this poem on one of my favorite podcasts, OnBeing. Here is the link: https://onbeing.org/poetry/the-peace-of-wild-things/
March 23, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC Church Family,
As a congregation, we are building the plane of "church-in-the-season-of-COVID 19" while we are flying it. We've had some bumps as we've worked on finding virtual ways to meet. The clogged sewer line raised a stink for three days. It seems as if each day holds a new normal, with more restrictions and more states ordering sheltering in place. We have a long way to go before life gets back to "normal" and I suspect that will be a new normal.
I don't believe for a moment that God created COVID 19, but I do believe that God can work in the midst of terrible circumstances for good. I've met more neighbors out doing yard work, sitting on their front porches, and walking around the neighborhood in the past week than I have in the past 4 months. While practicing social distancing, we are also introducing ourselves to each other and talking.
Churches all over the globe are utilizing technology to find creative ways to gather together, and to share the good news of Jesus. One church in Nairobi, Kenya, is sending packages including sermons, age appropriate Bible studies, prayer guides, and kids' worksheets and activities. Churches here in Woodstock are doing the same, as well as finding ways to continue to feed the hungry following CDC guidelines.
Families are finding ways to enjoy being together, in the midst of parents trying to be educators. My grandson learned how to use the washing machine, and actually asked to pick up dog poop! There's an alleluia. I saw a great video from one of our members of her children having a water battle - that was fun to watch. Our slowing down has had a positive effect on our planet. Satellite imagery has shown that staying home has given the earth's atmosphere an opportunity to take a sorely needed cleansing breathe.
In the midst of the challenges and fear, we have also responded with humor, for clean, non-sarcastic laughter is good for the soul. Have you heard this one? "Ten months from now there will be a huge uptick in births. Those babies will be called coronials".
This is a hard time, for sure, but it is also a time to create space for us to slow down and develop habits and practices to serve us in the future: to recognize what matters most, to laugh at ourselves and with each other, to be thankful for simple pleasures, to rely on God. For that I give thanks!
From Pastor Anne
March 20, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC family,
My alleluia for the day is technology, specifically technology that enables me to not only speak with, but see on a screen, the faces of people I love. Every evening I spend a few minutes sharing some sort of story with my two youngest granddaughters via WhatsApp. It "does my heart good," as my grandmother would say.
Two days ago, the Woodstock Ministers' Association met via Zoom (an app that enables multiple people to be on a live video call at the same time). We meet about once a month for lunch at hosted by one of our churches, and those have been helpful connections for our mutual ministry. With the onset of COVID 19 and the cancellation of the Woodstock community weekly Lenten Services and Lunch each Tuesday, we decided to meet this past Tuesday on Zoom from 12 - 12:30. I sorely needed to talk with other pastors! To a person, each one of us wants to keep meeting this way at least through Easter. I had no idea how much I missed them!
Last evening, I tried the same thing with Sacred Season (the monthly gathering for women in the second half of life we began in January). In the midst of technological challenges, there was joy in seeing each other face-to-face. One lady mentioned that she'd been looking forward to it all day! What a blessing to see each other face-to-face. When Jacob met his brother Esau after years of separation, he said, "to see your face is like seeing the face of God." (Gen. 33:10)
At the end of our conversation last evening, one of the ladies said, "Let's everyone call one." That was a lightbulb moment! It would do our hearts good, and do the hearts of other good, to call someone different each day, just to check in and touch base. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Heb. 10)
Stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to gather virtually, and don't miss Sunday worship, which will be available on our website this Sunday morning. You can access it anytime.
"Everyone, call one." That's going in my alleluia basket as well as a picture of my cell phone.
Blest be the ties that bind!
March 19, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC family,
On my list of things I am thankful for today is the ability to stay in touch with people through the phone, text messages, email, Facebook, as well as with "virtual" meetings, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger Video. Yesterday I had a WhatsApp live video conversation with two of my granddaughters, a Zoom meeting with some of my clergy colleagues from other Woodstock churches, a brief video via text message from my oldest granddaughter who was practicing field hockey reverse stick shots on goal on an empty field, and more than the usual number of emails. Even our propane gas provider sent me an email alerting me to how they are handling COVID 19! Who knew they were my friends! While I am intentionally cutting back on obsessively checking my news feeds (which only increases my anxiety), I relish the fact that although I can't hug or shake hands, or even visit with friends or family face-to-face, the blessing of all this technology is that we can love on each other from a distance, with our words and gestures.
Second on my list of thanks are plumbers and scented! The sewer line that serves St. Paul's as well as a neighbor got backed up sometime Monday. We could smell trouble brewing on Tuesday. That's where the scented candles come in. I am thankful to Becky for providing them, a sweet offering at this time. I am especially thankful that the plumbers arrived - three trucks in all - to clear things out. Life with all of its challenges - and blessings - continues.
We are reminded over and over again in the Bible to give thanks - not for all things, but in all things. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:15 says, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." God knows how we are made, knows that anxiety and worry are a part of being human, and that turning our focus to things for which we can be thankful, helps in times of difficulty.
With thanks, not for COVID 19, but in this opportunity to slow down and reflect about who and what really matters, including you!
March 18, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC family,
I've had several conversations, texts messages, and emails with concerns about Easter. One person suggested that parents shop now for Easter Baskets and all the items to put into them since they might not be able to find them in the stores. Others have said in worried voices, "what if we can't have Easter?"
Yikes! What if it is always Lent, and never Easter, to steal a phrase from C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? It is common practice with some churches to not use the word, "Alleluia" during Lent, saving that blessed word for Easter morning. In this Lenten season in the year of COVID 19, as we adjust to new limitations almost daily, and live with so many unknowns and anxieties, "alleluia" might not be the first word that comes to mind!
As a follower of Jesus, I am reminded that Easter Sunday happened almost 2000 years ago when Jesus was resurrected, and it continues to happen today and every day. The apostle Paul wrote about the reality of resurrection in 1 Cor. 15. You might want to pull out your Bible and read the whole chapter today, as a reminder that "death has been swallowed up in victory." (1 Cor. 15:55)
This is our first spring in Woodstock, and I see little tiny signs of life springing up from death, of resurrection, everywhere, from the little tiny grape hyacinth that have suddenly appeared in front of the house, to the lone yellow tulip that has sprouted next to the shed.
I think I'm going to dig out a small basket, label it, "Alleluia," and place it on my kitchen counter. I'll put a little note or object in the basket about one of those signs I've noticed each day. I'm going to keep filling it until we can all worship together in person once again! Maybe you will as well. How cool would it be if we offer those "alleluia" baskets on our first Sunday back?
March 17, 2020
Dear St. Paul's UCC family,
A friend shared a quote from CS Lewis in his essay, "Living in an Atomic Age," (1948) that is still relevant today. Try substituting the word COVID 19 for bomb in Lewis' closing paragraph, "This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things-praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts-not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies but they need not dominate our minds."
Playing tennis, and chatting with our friends over a pint aren't wise choices right now, but Lewis' point remains. Many things can break our bodies (and truth be told, we are born with bodies that break down eventually, and unless the Lord returns, our mortal bodies will eventually give out), but we don't need to let fear dominate our minds.
Philippians 4:8 provides wisdom about how to counter fearful thoughts. "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
When Acacia Parks, PhD, the associate editor at Journal of Positive Psychology was asked "If little things are good at making us happy, are big things - like a new car or a raise - better?" She replied, "When it comes to happiness, it's everyday behaviors, such as hearing a song you like or finishing a good book that improve feelings of well-being."
During this time apart from social gatherings, school, or work, devote one day to paying attention to what is true, honorable, just pure, pleasing, commendable. Notice the little things that shine such as clean sheets, the yellow explosion of forsythia in a neighbor's yard, the smile of a child, the moment just before the sun goes down when the sky is aflame with color. At the end of that day, take a few moments to recall those moments, remember them in detail, and close with a simple prayer of thanksgiving.
Let us be found doing sensible and human things,
Here is a link for how to talk with children about the coronavirus you might find helpful: https://childmind.org/article/talking-to-kids-about-the-coronavirus/
Monday, March 16, 2020
I had a conversation with one of my sons last Friday. Our granddaughter's school was closed on Thursday when someone in their school community tested positive for COVID 19. Our son wasn't concerned about the health of his immediate family. The girls are both healthy as are the parents. He said, "I'd really like to come and visit you, but I couldn't live with myself if one of us infected you with the virus, and you ended up in the hospital on a respirator." It was a wake-up call about being "elderly," a member of the vulnerable groups. Go figure! I guess he did the math and realized that if he is 43, I am north of 60. It was also a wake-up call about the very real anxiety and fear that has spread like the virus around the globe. Unless you live under a rock, I imagine you've felt a heightened sense of anxiety and fear as well.
Caution is a good thing. It is why I look both ways before I cross a street. Caution can help us remember to wash our hands frequently for at least 20 second, to cover our faces when we cough or sneeze, and to refrain from shaking hands. Caution is a good thing. But fear can be deadly to our spirits and to our communities. Like the dementors in the Harry Potter novels, fear drains happiness - and hope - from humans, and it imprisons us in a personal Azkaban.
During the Last Supper, Jesus says these words, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." John 14:27.
I invite you to take a few minutes today to meditate on these words. Sit in a comfortable place, and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Imagine that you are sitting with Jesus. Talk with him about all your fears. He is a good listener, so take your time. Then, when you are ready, imagine him saying these words to you, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."
You can practice a "breath" prayer throughout this day to carry your prayer time with you. It is as simple as breathing. Take a deep breath in as you let the word "peace" flow into your body. As you exhale, breath out a sense of "peace" to the world.
May God's love spread through you today,