Pastor’s Word

A Morning (not?) Like Any Other

A Morning (not?) Like Any Other

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

It was a morning like many others, and everything was going wrong. I arrived at church 30 minutes early so I could print out the bulletins and set up the sound system before people arrived. I had mistakenly decided NOT to come in on Saturday to print the bulletins knowing they would “only take me a couple minutes, anyway.” Of course, when I turned on my computer that morning Windows needed to finish rebooting due to an update. Fortunately, it was only one of those 15-minute updates and not one of the hour-and-half ones. As the update painstakingly moved its progress bar from 49% to 50% to 51%, I finally got up and realized I couldn’t find the bulletin paper I wanted. Where was the canary yellow? After a few minutes of frustration, I settled on a funny shade of orange that would have to suffice as a “bright spring color.”

Finally, after 15 minutes of rebooting I entered Word only to find that my files hadn’t synced because the computer needed a reboot. Since I hadn’t been in the office in while (thanks COVID) things were taking a lot longer than the “couple of minutes” I had counted on. My files eventually synced and I could access the bulletin and start it printing. Happily, Linda showed up just in time to start collating the bulletins from the copier. (Thanks Linda!) I then turned my attention to sound system awaiting me outside. While I was grumbling at Windows and the missing canary paper a beautiful elf had come and moved all the electrical equipment to the playground. (Thanks Elizabeth!). However, it was then that I realized the batteries in the microphones were dead due to lack of use (Thanks again, COVID!).

By this time people were showing up and were greeting one another with physically distanced “Good morning”s and “Happy Easter”s. The sun had not yet peeked over the horizon, but the dawn was brightening with morning light and could see. I went about hooking up the equipment and pondering what to do about the mics. Thankfully, one of them had just enough juice that I thought it might allow us to limp through the service. By this time, everyone was there and being relatively patient. (Thanks everyone!) And we were only 2-3 minutes past our anticipated start time. That’s when Linda took the microphone and called out, “Rejoice people of God!  Christ, our Lord, is risen!”

It was Easter Sunrise Service, our first in-person worship service in over a year!

When Linda concluded the Call to Worship the acapella voices of The Martins began the opening Alleluias of their rendition of Christ, the Lord, Is Risen Today, and our service was underway. As the Martins sang out, those present joined in singing. Although it was against our worship code (thanks for the third time COVID), we didn’t shush them. They were quiet, masked, and (more or less) six feet apart. It is hard not to sing of Christ’s resurrection after all we have been through this past year.

We had 45 people gather behind the education building overlooking the beautiful Barrington River. We prayed. We sang. We listened to music. We heard scripture. And just as Linda was halfway through her message sun crept up over the trees above Hampden Meadows.

The familiar refrain of Morning Has Broken, again acapella, this time by the recording artist, Jody, drew our service toward its conclusion. And with the sharing of the benediction, all those present were invited to select a carnation and bring it down to the river. Each carnation represented a prayer, either a prayer uttered over the past year or a prayer for the coming spring, and they were laid in water to carry our thoughts downstream. A few stragglers stuck around to clean up (Thanks Seder’s!) and others waved talked and reconnected as they returned to the parking lot. It was a lovely morning and beautiful gathering of our community.

Perhaps not everything had gone wrong.

Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

* This was on outdoor service. As we discuss and prepare for a return to in-person worship in the sanctuary (and we ARE preparing for it) we hope to hold more of these simple outdoor services when time and the weather permits. Keep your eyes peeled. We hope to see you there.

Easter Celebration and the Continuing Story

Easter Celebration and the Continuing Story

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister

“He is not here. He is risen.”

These are the words the holy messenger speaks to the women when they come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body on the third day after his crucifixion. Depending on your translation and which Gospel you’re reading, the specific words may change. But in each, God’s holy messengers deliver a similar statement of fact: “He is not here. He is risen.”

Seven simple words. Every time I read them, or hear them read, I feel a sense of awe and wonder. And yet, even as I hear the words in this way, they are not delivered in that way. They are delivered in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner like we might state “the sun has come up,” or “it’s raining outside.” There’s no dramatic flourish, just a simple statement –“He is not here.” And as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and the other women can plainly see, Jesus is not there. That part they can see with their eyes. And that alone raises enough questions for them. Questions about what happened to his body, and who might have taken it. Questions that express our very human comprehension of death.

Of course, as they’re still grappling with these questions, they are also trying to take in the rest of the messenger’s statement – “He is risen.” This now requires a shift in comprehension. This now asks them to move beyond what they “know.” This asks them to set aside what they “know” so they might see what their faith tells them is true. I wonder if, in that moment, the women could take in all that those three words meant. Even after they had witnessed Jesus’ healings, heard his teachings, and felt the promise of God’s kingdom coming into the world, could they really take in all that those words held within them? Could the depth of their grief turn around that quickly that they could wrap their heads and hearts around the joyful implications of that statement?

Perhaps this is why Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb with “fear and great joy.” Mark tells us that the women left with “terror and amazement.” No matter the words, both writers are clear that living within our human experience as we do, we have a difficult time wrapping our heads around all that God can do. This is the wonder and the joy of Easter – God’s promise that no matter how many times, and in how many ways, the world says “No,” God has the final word, and it is “Yes! – “Yes, My love is greater than anything the world can dish out. Yes, My love for you endures forever… and Yes, My love for you is stronger even than death.”

And so, we celebrate on Easter morn with the joyful remembrance of the resurrected Christ. We sing our Alleluias. We sing that Christ the Lord is risen today. Easter truly is the ultimate Day of New Beginnings because in the words of that hymn, “Christ goes before us to show and share what love can do.”  We rejoice that no matter what we are experiencing, we share the hope and the faith that “our God is making all things new.” In many ways, we too stand with the women at the tomb urging our hearts and our minds to comprehend all that those words hold within them – “He is risen.” And we too rejoice.

We will rejoice this Easter in ways both familiar and different from Easters past. We will join together online for our Easter worship service with beautiful music from our choir, and a bell solo, as well as a musical gift from the Hallelujah Chorus composed of choir members from churches in the Rhode Island Association of the UCC.  We will celebrate the many generations within our faith community with contributions from our children and elders, including a joy-filled Easter Hat parade. We hope you will join us on Facebook or our website to sing out our Alleluias loud and strong for “He is risen indeed.”

Of course, the story does not end there on that glorious morning. In many ways, that day truly was just the starting point of a new beginning. Through the work of Jesus’ disciples – now apostles – the story continued. Through their work, the message of Jesus Christ spread into new communities around the Mediterranean and grew to include more diverse populations. A new movement was born, a movement that required a lot from Jesus’ followers as they too experienced times of  “fear and great joy.” It’s a story of successes and challenges, of camaraderie and divisions. It’s a story of the Christian church, and it is our story.

In the weeks after Easter, Dale and I will be offering a sermon series on this part of the story and looking at what this story says to us today. We hope you will join us in the coming weeks as we explore issues of evangelism, inclusion, and diversity in the early church and how these inform who we are today and the community of faith that we strive to become. Join us as we explore what it means to be “Easter people.”

Easter Is Full of Surprises!

Easter Is Full of Surprises!

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

Your leadership at BCCUCC is working hard to find creative ways to make Holy Week and Easter special this year. Like everything during the pandemic, they are going to be different. But that doesn’t mean they cannot be especially meaningful. I am excited to share with you our plans and hope you will choose to participate as much as possible.

Easter Hats – This CEYM event is happening THIS Saturday (March 20). Andrea has invited all of our church school families to join her for an Easter Hat making workshop and parade. This outdoor, physically distanced activity should be fun and help prepare our young families for Easter. More information is found in last week’s eBridge newsletter. And don’t worry if you’re too old to participate, video footage of this event will be incorporated into our Easter morning worship!

Palms – Did you miss your palms last Palm Sunday? I did! This year we have once again ordered palms with the plan on having them available for pickup for everyone who wants one (or a few!). We will then be incorporating these palms into our Palm Sunday All-Ages Worship service (see below). From March 26-28 we will have a tub located outside the Education Building in front of the Rainbow doors, for anyone to come by and pick up your palms. We will have both eco-palms and traditional straight palms available. We will also advertise later how to keep your palms alive and fresh for the big day!

Palm Sunday – March 28 is Palm Sunday. Do you remember our virtual Palm Sunday celebration last year? It was the first service we included families and children to participate virtually. We will be doing it again this year and anticipating that things will go even more smoothly than last year! We have a great service planned and will even be teaching everyone how to make palm crosses out of the palms you can pick up at church. (Psst…you need the traditional straight palms for this!)

Peaceful Pause & Prayer – Our semi-weekly morning meditation series will shift to EVERY DAY during Holy Week. Monday through Friday at 8:00am I will host a half hour meditation focused on the themes of Holy Week. This series can be viewed live or anytime after it airs, both on our website and on Facebook Live.

Tenebrae – We certainly missed hosting our Tenebrae service last year. This year, the deacons did not want to pass up this opportunity. They are currently busy working with the Worship Tech Team to put together a virtual Tenebrae service on Holy Thursday, April 1st, at 7pm. Parts of this service will be done live and other parts prerecorded. There are some great plans coming together. If you hope to attend, don’t forget to bring your communion elements as Linda and I will be offering communion as a part of the service.

Sunrise Service – We are going to do it! We are offering a brief in-person outdoor sunrise service on Easter morning, Sunday, April 4th. The service is going to be held at 6:15am at the church on the back terrace overlooking the Barrington River. We are not advertising this service in town or partnering with other faith communities to make it happen. We will be keeping this service small as to stay within RI COVID-19 guidelines.

All attendees must:

  • Pre-register – We need to know how many and who is coming so we can be prepared and have proper contract tracing should we need it. Register via this Signup Genius link, or by contacting the church office.
  • Stay physically distanced – All families must remain 6 feet away from all others at all times.
  • Wear masks – Even if you have been vaccinated, EVERYONE must wear a mask.
  • Not sing – Sadly, there will be no singing. However, humming is allowed :).
  • Not socialize – Of course you can say “hello” and such, but no shaking of hands, hugging, or even lingering around too long after the service will be a problem. We are still in a pandemic with people getting sick and dying every day.

This service is acting as a test on how we might handle in-person services in the future. Attendees will need to follow these guidelines. If we cannot, it hinders our ability to offer in-person worship in the future as the pandemic continues.

Online Easter Morning – Have no fear if you are not comfortable attending our in-person sunrise service or just don’t want to get up that early. Linda and I are going to be hosting our regular online 10:00 service on Easter too. We have some fun things planned for this service including videos of some of our children’s activities and even some sharing from some of our seniors. We hope you can join us for this service even if you wake up for sunrise!

Loss and Hope

Loss and Hope

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)

We have recently reached the one-year mark of our collective experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. And while this past year has affected each of us in different ways, we also share a common grief over what has transpired these past twelve months. Recently, we passed a very sad milestone in the U.S. with more than 500,000 Covid-related deaths. Additionally, more than 28 million people have been infected in this country alone. In Rhode Island more than 126,00 people have been infected, and to date over 2,500 people have died from Covid-19 – this in a state with just over one million residents.

While statistics tell part of the story, we know that these numbers represent individuals whose deaths have affected families and communities. Many of us know someone who has died from Covid, or we know a family who has lost a loved one to Covid. Many of us know someone who has been ill with Covid and recovered, some of us have been ill ourselves with Covid and recovered. We may also know individuals who have recovered from the initial illness only to be struggling with the after-effects of the disease. And beyond this loss of life and health are those individuals who have lost jobs, and families who have lost financial security. We also know that the pandemic has taken a toll on our emotional and mental health as we have dealt with the strain of isolation. After a year of navigating all we’ve had to deal with, many of us have found that “pandemic fatigue” is a very real experience that affects our daily functioning.

How this pandemic and the losses associated with it will affect us individually and as a country in the years ahead has yet to be seen. And while we welcome the good news of effective vaccines and look forward to the day when things get back to “normal,” we are still living with so many unknowns. For many of us, this land of “unknowing” is a rather uncomfortable place to be. It can feel like we’ve traveled to a place where we don’t understand the customs very well, and the language is confusing. We may have finally navigated how to wear a face mask without having our glasses fog up, but now find that navigating websites for vaccination appointments is a whole new dilemma. And while we live with the hope of getting back together with family and friends, we may be feeling some degree of anxiety about being in large groups of people once again.

So you may be asking, “where is hope in this?” As people of faith, we have hope. We hold on to God’s promises that our future is one with hope – that this is what God wants for us, that this is what God is holding out to us. And yet this year, we have shed so may tears. We may feel at a loss about how to find and hold onto our hope in a new day, in a day of rebirth. We may be finding it difficult to see this new day through eyes blurred with tears.

Several years ago, during a time when I was dealing with a very sad situation in my life, a minister shared with me a beautiful image. As I was trying hard not to tear up after a worship service, he cupped his hands together in front of him and offered me these words: “I believe God gathers up our tears and uses them to make a garden bloom for us.”

In his words I saw the first new shoots of hope taking root in my heart. I had the first realization that what I was feeling then was not the end of the story. Just as the early spring rains water the flowers and plants that will bloom and thrive in the summer, so too my own season of sadness would pass, and a new season of renewal would come. I could trust that God was preparing the ground for this new season, holding the seeds of growth until I was ready to till that soil and see the promises of God come into bloom.

For those of you who are ardent gardeners, you are probably starting to look through the seed and garden catalogues that arrive in the mail this time of year. In the waning days of winter, we look forward with anticipation of new plantings and new flowers which will thrive in the warm sunshine of the season to come. There is an optimism to gardening, a faith that with good seed, good rains, good sun, and our own good efforts, we will enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature. It is an optimism borne of experience and faith. We may not see it in terms of what we might refer to as religious faith, but it is faith, nonetheless. And it is an apt metaphor for our hope as we emerge from this past year with faith in a brighter season to come.

Gardening, or agricultural, metaphors are abundant in the Bible as a means of expressing hopefulness and faith. We recall Jesus’ words that if we have faith only the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains (Matt. 17:20). If that feels daunting to you right now, consider the words of Psalm 126, written as a prayer of encouragement to a people still living in captivity in Babylon. It’s a prayer that anticipates the day they will be able to return to Jerusalem, the day when their tears will turn into thanksgiving. The Psalm reads in part:

     May those who sow in tears
     reap with shouts of joy.
     Those who go out weeping,
     bearing the seed for sowing,
     Shall come home with shouts of joy,
     carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:5-6 NRSV)

Much as the words my minister spoke to me, the psalmist anticipates the day that the people’s tears will water the seeds of hope that they still hold onto so tightly, and that these seeds will not just grow, but will produce an abundant harvest – the sheaves of wheat – that will feed them, that they may flourish. Just like us in this in-between time, as we await the day when enough of us are vaccinated that we can venture out again in safety, so too the people of Israel were awaiting the day that they could return. As we await that day, and remember all we have experienced this past year, may we too do so with faith that our tears have not been in vain, but are being held by our God for the day when we will see the beautiful garden God is preparing for us even now. It will be a new garden grown from the seeds of hope and faith we hold now, and watered by our communal experience. As with all gardeners, we do not know now exactly what it will look like, but what we do know is that our God will be with us still, helping us to see the new sprouts taking hold and flourishing.

Welcome to Lent!

Welcome to Lent!

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

Today is the first day of Lent. That is, the day I am writing this is Ash Wednesday. Unless you broke into my house and computer before this is published, you will be reading this sometime later. But, likely it is still early in the season of Lent.

Why do we have liturgical seasons? We already have a calendar that we follow for life and work. Why do we need one for church? You’d think that when the western world switched from following the Christian calendar to the Gregorian calendar (that’s the one that marks this year as 2021, by the way), we would have left the old calendar behind. Why bother following a calendar that no one uses for anything other than marking religious seasonal changes?

To be honest, this is a fair question. Is today, the first day of Lent for me, any different than yesterday, the last day in the Season After Epiphany? (Couldn’t they have come up with a better name for that one?) The truth is other than it being 24 hours later, there is little else that’s different in this season vs last. At least in the Gregorian Calendar the season are marked by changes in weather. Not so with the Christian Calendar. It was cold yesterday and it will be cold today too.

But there is an important reason to hold onto the liturgical seasons. It is to encourage and mark the movement of our spiritual lives. If we abandoned the Christian seasons, when would we take time to grow and develop our faith? How would we set time aside for repentance, for celebration, for remembrance? It is true that we can do this ANY day and at ANY time. We can confess our sins on the 3rd of December or the 11th of July just as easily as we can on any day through Lent. We can also celebrate resurrection in August, January, or May, just as readily as March and April. But would we? If we left the liturgical seasons behind, would we remember to enact the various traditions that help us mature and grow in faith? Or would we let every day run into the next as we tend to do in our secular lives.

On one hand it seems arbitrary to set seven weeks aside in late winter and early spring to repent. Why then? But I have to ask, if not then, when? Why not set this time of year aside as a time to reflect on our lives and how we could be living differently, more holy, more healthily? Holding onto the liturgical seasons is a way of reminding ourselves that life is an ongoing process of growth, change, and maturation. Not only in body, but in spirit, too.

As much as many folks may feel that Lent is a downer season (confession and repentance aren’t typically uplifting themes), it can be a powerful season to experience. Letting go of the past, particularly parts of the past we are not proud of, can be deeply moving and freeing. That is why Lent is immediately followed up with Easter, the celebration of resurrection and new life. It can free us up to live a new future, a better future.

So acknowledging that, what are you doing this Lent to make it memorable? To make it meaningful? Of course the tradition has been to “give something up” during Lent (like meat, or chocolate, or swearing). More recently, a tradition has grown to “take something on” during Lent (like a Bible study, personal prayer time, or act of charity). These disciplines help mark this season as different, and open the door for introspection and growth.

Perhaps you would like to do something this Lent to mark the season? We are offering a number of programs or suggestions to help you get started. Here is a representative, but not exhaustive, list:

  • Worship. Yes, regular attendance at worship can be a special way of marking Lent. Especially if you have found yourself slipping away recently. Any regular spiritual discipline, worship included, can be helpful. This Lent Linda and I are leading a sermon series on Forgiveness, focusing on themes of seeking forgiveness, forgiving others, forgiving God, and forgiving ourselves. Come and join us online. You might find yourself strangely moved.
  • Peaceful Pause & Prayer. This semiweekly meditation series, led by Dale, takes place at 8:00 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, although you can watch or listen any time as the videos stay available on Facebook and the webpage indefinitely. Each session is a 20-25 minute time for guided reflection based on scripture. These meditations will also ramp up to every day (M-F) during Holy Week.
  • Climate Church. On a slightly different note is our Lenten book study and Adult Faith Formation class. This class, being run by Dale, takes place over five Monday evenings throughout Lent. We will be reading Jim Antal’s book, Climate Church, Climate World, and discussing his findings each week. Contact Dale if you are interested.
  • The traditional. Of course you can always give something up or take something on as I suggested above. Fasting during daylight hours (or just for lunch), giving up something important to you, or engaging in a new ministry are all ways of engaging in spiritual disciplines. The idea is that by doing any of these you become more mindful of God in your daily life. This mindfulness leads to reflection and connection with oneself and God.

So what are you doing to set this season apart from your regular daily routine? If you aren’t doing anything, would it be helpful if you did? Might it make these days more meaningful? Might it lead to new insights or growth that might manifest themselves in a new direction in life come Easter? If you could change anything, what would you change? And what small steps could you take in this season to facilitate this change? Think about it…

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)

We are certainly in the midst of winter these days. The temperature has dropped thanks to the polar vortex and we have “snow on snow on snow.” If you’re a winter person, you’re probably enjoying this change from the relatively mild winter we had last year. You may be taking advantage of the opportunities for skiing, making snow people (yes, snow people), sledding, and taking the dog for a romp in the snow. But if you’re not a winter sport enthusiast, or if you used to be but aren’t any more, then February can feel like it’s much longer than its twenty-eight days. It can feel like we are in the midst of “the bleak midwinter.”

You may recognize this as the title to a hymn we sing sometimes at Christmastime. I have always loved this hymn for its evocative winter imagery. I have a version of the song on a CD of Christmas music by James Taylor and I always stop and listen to the words: “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…snow on snow on snow.” If you want to check out the hymn version of this piece, it’s hymn #128 in The New Century Hymnal, and the same number in the Pilgrim Hymnal. You can also find James Taylor’s rendition of this song on YouTube.

I am in awe of the poetry in this hymn, which was originally written as a poem by Christina Rossetti entitled “A Christmas Carol.” It was published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1872 and then set to music in 1906 by none other than Gustav Holst, the well-known composer of the orchestral suite, “The Planets,” among other works. Holst’s composition for this poem, entitled “Cranham,” is the tune to which we still sing Rossetti’s words from our hymnals. The musical lineage of this beloved Christmas hymn is truly something special. But for me, it’s the words that I cherish.

Rossetti wrote the poem to express how Christmastime looked and felt in her native England – snowy, grey, and cold. This is often how Christmas looks and feels here in the states as well, so the words feel very familiar to me, even welcome. It’s interesting that we welcome the “snow on snow on snow” in December (even “dream” of it, as the Irving Berlin song says) but wish for its demise by February. Maybe someone could write a sequel to Berlin’s song – something like, “I’m dreaming of a balmy February, just like the ones in Brazil.” At any rate, with the holidays behind us, the continuing snow can seem unnecessary, even wearying.

This is another reason I love this hymn so much. Rossetti doesn’t leave us with the bleak winter imagery. Into this cold landscape she weaves the optimism of the Christmas story. She offers us images of angels and archangels gathering together in song, images of cherubim and seraphim filling the night sky, and a mother’s love expressed as Mary kisses her newborn son. All images of the Christmas story to be sure, but more than this. Rossetti’s words remind me that even in times when I grow weary of the bleakness around me, God is at work doing something amazing. Even in a bleak landscape, God’s work is going on – work which is transforming what is and what will be. It may not be as obvious as angels singing on high, or cherubim filling the night sky, but it is happening. Sometimes, it looks a lot like resting or waiting.

Some years ago, I came across a liturgy for winter solstice which emphasized the blessing of winter as a time for things to rest. The author noted that just as nature needs winter to rest from the exertion of summer and to store the energy needed for spring, so too we may have things we’re concerned about that will benefit from some rest, some time when we set them aside, when we release our pointed focus on them. Doing this doesn’t mean we give up. It means giving them over to God to see what God may be doing that we just don’t see when we’re so focused on our concerns.

Of course, there are some things that do require our immediate attention and times when it is clear how we need to take action. But there are also times when we aren’t sure what to do or how to proceed. These are the times when it may be more helpful to soften our focus, to let things rest for a little while. As this particular liturgy noted, we may see more clearly how to proceed when there is more light – as in the spring, or when we gain the insight that God can provide to us when we let go. Releasing our tight grip may help us to see the angels singing around us or to feel God’s motherly kiss reassuring us that we’re not alone. And it may help us see more clearly how to proceed.

The concluding verse of Rossetti’s poem offers us some guidance in this as well. She notes that when we don’t know what to do, we actually can do something of great importance. In relation to the Christmas story, Rossetti notes that the shepherds knew exactly what to bring the baby Jesus; they brought a lamb. The Magi also knew exactly what to bring; they brought their exquisite gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What can others offer who aren’t shepherds or wise men? What can we offer?

Rossetti provides us with a simple yet profound answer, “I can give my heart.” There really is nothing greater we can give. With our heart, we give our hopes and our fears, our joys and our concerns knowing that we can trust God to hold these tenderly. We can release our grip on these and let them rest in God’s care. During this bleak midwinter, as the earth in the Northern Hemisphere rests up for the coming spring, we may find that it’s a time for us to rest as well. A time for us to give our heart in trust to the One who knows us the best, the One whose wisdom and guidance far outshines our own, in the assurance that with more light we will know how to move forward.

Our Work Remains

Our Work Remains

By Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

We have a new president.
We have a new tone.
We have a new national agenda.

Our work remains.

I suspect that for most Americans yesterday, inauguration day, was a refreshing ray of hope amid the ongoing challenges we face. I found it uplifting to hear a president speak with rationality, compassion, honesty, sincerity, unity, and civility. It stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric we have been hearing on many fronts for far too long. And I hope it becomes the prevailing tone throughout our nation’s leaders and the general population. As we all know, there are many challenges that we face right now and bitter division among us will not provide the focus we need to move forward.

I especially found Tuesday night’s service of mourning at the Washington Mall moving. I hadn’t planned on watching it (and didn’t even know it was happening) but stumbled across it when I turned on the news while washing the dishes. It was beautiful. To have our national leadership recognize the loss and grief we have experienced during the pandemic was powerful.

For many of us, all of this is a welcome change.

However, while this may change may be refreshing and point in a new hope-filled direction, it doesn’t significantly alter OUR purpose to worship God, embrace all people, minister to one another, work for justice and peace, and render loving service to God’s world.” Whether these ideals are the focus of our national agenda, or the antithesis of it, they remain our call from God. The question remains, “How do we live out this mission?”

There are two main ways we can embody this call from God: communally and personally. Communally refers to the work we do together as the church. Personally, as it implies, is the work we do individually in our own lives. As a member, or participant, of BCCUCC you accept the challenge to live out our mission in both realms. How are you doing that?

To be honest, the pandemic raises significant obstacles to this. It is not easy, or even possible, to engage in our regular activities while following the necessary pandemic precautions. Yet that does not mean we cannot succeed at finding new ways of worshipping God, embracing all people, caring for one another, working for justice and peace, and rendering loving service to God’s world. It only means we may need to be more creative in our approaches.

For instance, caring for one another may simply mean picking up the phone and giving a call to someone from the church you haven’t seen in a while. Say “hello.” Ask how they are doing. Tell them you miss them. This may not be all that creative, but it takes a step beyond just turning to them during in-person worship, shaking their hand, and saying hello during the passing of the peace. It takes effort as well as creativity to minister during a global crisis.

What about rendering loving service? Have you reached out to your neighbors, coworkers, or acquaintances to see if they need anything? We may not be able to do a Loaves and Fishes run, but we can collect blankets for TAPIN, buy groceries for our neighbor, or write a card to a relative we haven’t seen in a while. There are so many ways to simply say, “I love you,” without words that can express God’s love for others in our lives.

Are you interested in working for justice and peace? Take a look at the eBridge each time it comes out. Our Mission and Justice Team always has a list of links to events, programs, and projects you can learn from or participate in. Check it out.

Worshipping God and embracing all people, likewise, can be experienced in multiple ways. Yes, we have virtual worship, and that may or may not be your cup of tea, but you can worship God in so many other ways; with acts of kindness, through reading scripture, by starting a personal prayer routine. And embracing all people should start in your own life. Who are those you struggle most to understand or accept? What can you do to change the way you look at them? How can you better accept them, as different as they may be, as beloved children of God? There are so many different and unique ways to be in ministry and to grow in faith. Which are you choosing?

Last month, I asked to “Turn the Page” on 2020. We have, thank God. But what are we going to do with the blank slate that is before us? How are you going to support global, national, and local initiatives that run parallel to our shared mission? How are you going live out this same mission in your own life, and in your own immediate surroundings? Each of us, no matter how restricted or confined, are capable of this is on some scale. Think about how you can do it.

So, welcome to our new administration. Welcome, to our new national priorities. And welcome to a renewed commitment to our ongoing mission from God. May we remain faithful to our call.

A Change of Perspective

A Change of Perspective

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)

It’s a New Year! No matter that we’re only a few days past 2020, it does feel like a fresh start. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions this year? (Is anyone doing that this year?) If you did, have you kept them? Or are you finding them already broken? If you have made resolutions and are finding it hard to keep them, I hope you’re allowing yourself some grace. While the desire to make changes that will enhance our lives is worthwhile, studies show that change doesn’t happen overnight – it certainly doesn’t happen simply because the calendar changes. True change often takes time and continued rededication.

This year, I’ve heard friends speak about setting “intentions” instead of resolutions for the new year – what they want to work toward. It still involves setting some goals, but perhaps with a gentler and more measured approach. One thing a new year does offer us is a starting point, a place to begin. The clean slate of a new year offers us a fresh canvas upon which we can paint new possibilities. If you don’t paint or draw, you may get the same feeling from looking out the window of an airplane, or standing on top of a mountain looking out on the landscape spreading before you. Either way, we may find ourselves awed by the openness and vastness.

If you are a hiker (or have been a hiker), you’ve probably experienced this yourself. Although I would never characterize myself as a hiker, I learned to appreciate this from a hike I went on with my dad when I was little. My dad was someone who loved the outdoors. He grew up on a farm in Illinois and his idea of relaxation almost always involved being in nature. We spent several summer vacations touring national parks out West where he would take day hikes into the woods or to the top of a peak to see the promised vista.

When I was about seven, we went to Glacier National Park in Montana. We stayed in a cabin, which was fun by itself, and enjoyed being deep in the woods. Mostly I stayed with my mom, who wasn’t interested in hiking at all. But, one morning, my dad took me with him on a short hike to a scenic overlook. Now given my age, it was probably a small mountain (or a big hill) that we hiked that day. But as we hiked, it started to feel like a very big mountain to my legs and feet. About half way up, I got tired and didn’t want to go on. But he was insistent that I could make it all the way to the top, so I trudged on. When we reached the scenic overlook, I had to admit that the view of the valley from that perspective was beautiful. And it changed my perspective about the energy exerted to get there.

Many things can cause us to change our perspective. It can be accomplishing something we didn’t know we could do, like hiking up a mountain. It can be new information that changes how we understand something about ourselves or our world. It can be a supportive comment from a friend that help us see ourselves differently. It can be an answer to prayer that helps us see a challenge in a new light. A shift in perspective doesn’t have to be earth shattering to have an impact on us. The author Anne Lamott, the novelist who has also written several books about her own faith journey, notes that a shift of only eight degrees can help us see things very differently (Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, p. 40).

Only eight degrees! I find that comforting. Meaningful change doesn’t require us to do a 180. Even a change of eight degrees in our perspective can lead to change. Only eight. If you think about it, with a shift of eight degrees in your focus, you may see the dust bunny in that corner that you hadn’t noticed before. Or you may notice the beauty of that lone leaf holding on to the bare tree branch against all odds. Or you may see the book on the shelf that you thought you’d lost. Maybe a shift in perspective of only eight degrees can help you see the way God is guiding you out of a situation you’ve been struggling with. Or help you see the way God is with you, even now, even while you’re waiting for guidance.

For those of us who look to the biblical record for guidance, it’s often helpful to look at the familiar stories from a new perspective. It can help us see aspects of the stories that we may have overlooked. Starting this coming Sunday, Dale and I will be exploring some familiar parables from a new perspective. With the help of a book by biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, we will be looking at these familiar “short stories” from the perspective of Jesus’ Jewish audience and seeing how they would have received them. How would they have understood the grain of mustard seed, the yeast in three measures of flour, the pearl of great price, or the lost coin? We know that Jesus used parables to challenge his audience to see the familiar from a new perspective. Looking at them from a first century Jewish perspective offers us the possibility of gaining new insights into their meaning. We invite you to join us for this journey exploring the parables in a new light.

This is what a new year offers us – the opportunity to expand our sights beyond the familiar, and perhaps to set intentions that will shape our actions for the next year and beyond. And, as Anne Lamott notes, even if your perspective shifts by just eight degrees, it’s enough to create meaningful change.

Turn the page…

Turn the page…

By Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

Every year around this time all the TV stations usually come out with their “The Year in Review” shows that highlight all the major events of the past year. I seldom watch them because I lived through the year and feel I can probably remember the key moments most of the time. This year I haven’t seen any of those retrospectives advertised. This could be because I watch so little live television these days. Nearly everything I watch is either sports (yes, they’re live), online, or streamed from one of the major streaming networks. The other reason could be that networks are afraid people are feeling a lot like me this year. I really don’t want to watch a “greatest hits” of 2020. 2020 hit too hard. I’m hurting and in pain, and I don’t want to relive any of that! I say, “turn the page and move on.”

Are you ready to be done with 2020? Even if you are, the reality is that this transition to a new year is just a made-up division. Our calendar is created to help us keep track of time and events, but bears little difference beyond that. In all likelihood the world will not change significantly from December 31, 2020 to January 1, 2021. However, for me this year’s change over brings with it a lot more promise.

Normally I only look forward to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with mild interest. This could be because when Elizabeth and I were dating as teenagers (yes, it’s been that long!) we always seemed to get into a fight on New Year’s Eve. But more likely it is because I am always a little sad to see the past year go. No matter what year I’m saying goodbye to, there were important happenings and milestones that took place. I’m always a little sad to see them move along and be placed in the “remember when” bucket. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good things I’m looking forward to in the year ahead, only that I’m mildly saddened to say goodbye some years.

2020 is different. There were undoubtedly good times and milestones that took place this year, but I am more than ready to move on. Everything this year has been overshadowed by the pandemic and the dramatic changes it has had on our lives. Not to mention the more than 300,000 people who have died as a direct result of Covid-19 in the US, or 1.7 million around the world. That’s a lot of grieving. That’s a lot of loss.

The strange thing is that Covid-19 and the pandemic measures are going to be with us well into 2021. The most recent news that I heard is that most people won’t be receiving vaccines until summer or even into the fall. That isn’t definite for it was only a few weeks ago I was thinking I might be in line for a vaccine by early spring. Who knows? What we do know is that life for most of 2021 may look a lot like life for most of 2020.

So why am I optimistic? The short answer is because of hope. I hope that 2021 will see the end of this. I hope that at some point in 2021 we will be able to worship in person. And not just gather as few of us in the building, but perhaps have everyone present AND be able to sing together, shake hands, and greet each other without masks. Wouldn’t that be special? Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

This hope brings with it a whole lot of questions. Like, what will our membership look like when we return? Will we lose members? Will we gain members? What will the needs of the community be at that time? How will things have changed? Will we be comfortable touching each other? Hugging? Singing? How long will it take for us to once again feel relaxed in a room with a large number of people? What challenges will these changes bring up? How will we handle things financially? Emotionally? Spiritually? Will we need to do ice-breakers at worship so we can remember who everyone else is?

A few things are certain. One is that God is with us now and will be with us then. This pandemic tests each of us continually. Yet we are not alone in this struggle. We have each other and we have God. It is a comfort to me knowing that the church (and the people that make it up) has been through trying times and survived. We will too. God will see us through this and all that is to come. This is the second certainty. We will get through this. We may not know how things will be different on “the other side”. But we will get through and have the assurance that we can handle whatever awaits us. I truly believe that.

The last certainty is this: I’m ready. I’m done. 2020 can move along. It’s time to turn the page and see what the future holds.

Christmas Miracles

Christmas Miracles

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister (Designated Term)

During the Christmas season, I gravitate toward books that have uplifting messages of love and hope. For my personal reading, I also tend to choose books with a Christmas theme or books set during the Christmas season. This year, I’ve been reading a series of books by Debbie Macomber featuring a character by the name of Emily Miracle, also known as Mrs. Miracle. You may be familiar with Debbie Macomber’s books or the made-for-TV movies (on the Hallmark Channel) based on some of her books. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her works, Debbie Macomber’s stories typically feature likeable characters for whom faith is either central to them or at least a part of their lives.

Mrs. Miracle is certainly a likeable character with a lot of faith. She shows up in people’s lives when they need a little help, a little miracle. You might say she’s an angel, albeit an angel that looks like everyone else. The only truly miraculous thing about her is that somehow she knows things about people that they haven’t shared with her. She seems to always know what people really need, even before they’ve realized this. Emily Miracle is a comforting figure, rather like the wonderful grandmother you either had as a child, or wish you had had as a child.

As I’ve been enjoying these stories this year, I’ve been struck by something – the primary role of Mrs. Miracle is to bring people together. She has a “knack” for bringing individuals together who have the ability to help each other. When Mrs. Miracle brings people together, they find what they need, be it love, companionship, comfort, hope, joy. Of course, there may be a little “magic” involved in getting these people together, but the real magic happens after people get together. And that is something people create themselves. Ultimately, then, the real miracles in these stories are the miracles individuals create for each other through acts of kindness, through caring, and through love.

We often say that Christmas is a season of miracles. We have a sense that anything can happen. After all, we’re celebrating the miraculous birth of the baby Jesus and the hope which Jesus’ life brought into our world. In our own lives, this may be a season when we look a little more intently for miracles, especially when things are difficult. It’s a season when we look forward with the hope that things will get better, that we will find what we need to feel the comfort and joy that the story of Christmas promises to us. Sometimes we find these miracles in some rather astounding ways that we just can’t explain. And that’s wonderful. But more often than not, I would guess that we find these miracles within the relationships we have with each other – through people reaching out in little (and not so little) ways to offer support, and care, and love. You might say that the miracles of the season are found in each other.

Many years ago, I found myself on a cross-country train at Christmas. I was going from upstate New York to California to see my mom, who wasn’t doing well. It was a sudden change of plans from a large family gathering on the East Coast to my solo trip across the country. And as I boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I wasn’t exactly in the Christmas spirit. I was still feeling more than a little glum that evening as I went to the dining car for Christmas Eve dinner. And then, everything changed.

When I reached the dining car, I was met by members of the crew wearing headbands of reindeer antlers, some with green and red bells hanging off the antlers, jingling merrily as they walked the aisle between tables. I had to smile at that. Then, I was seated with an older couple from Michigan who were traveling to Denver to see their daughter and son-in-law, and brand new baby grandchild. And we had the nicest conversation. To top it off, the dinner was delicious.

That year, all of us on the train were away from home for Christmas Eve. The crew members were working their jobs. The passengers were in route somewhere. Not one of us had a Christmas tree that night, or church services, or brightly wrapped packages waiting for us the next morning. And yet, it truly felt like Christmas as we shared in the seasonal silliness and companionable conversation. We became a patchwork family that night, sharing of our selves. The warmth of the Christmas spirit that enveloped me that evening lifted my gloom, and renewed my sense of hope. For me, that was more than a small miracle and it sustained me as I continued on to my destination.

Now, I didn’t meet anyone named Mrs. Miracle on that trip, but I did meet several individuals who helped me see the miracles around me. I definitely felt God with me, guiding me to meet the people whose presence and conversation would sustain me and strengthen me. But, just as with Mrs. Miracle’s “knack” for bringing people together, ultimately it was up to us to extend to each other the care and compassion we needed. That Christmas showed me that such miracles are all around us just waiting for us to see them. This year, when so much is different, may we each find the miracles we need to feel the hope, peace, joy, and love of this blessed Christmas Season. Merry Christmas!