Pastor’s Word

A Time to Remember…and Move Forward

A Time to Remember…and Move Forward

She was sitting alone on the grass, kneeling by the white flag placed along the walkway to the State House. A few tears gently rolled down her cheeks. It was a bit of a miracle. The flag before her was just one of 3609 white flags placed along the walk. It was her husband’s flag. The day before some of his coworkers from the DOT came to the memorial, decorated a flag especially for their fallen friend, and replaced one of the plain white flags, with the one the made honoring him. Among the sea of flags, she found the one. It was a chance for her to grieve, to say goodbye to her husband whom she lost during the years we’ve been fighting COVID.

Some of us know all too well the stories of the families that have been unable to grieve in the usual ways during the pandemic. Funerals were not allowed, or only held outside, or restricted to 5, or 10, or 15 people. Many were unable to be with their loved ones when they passed and could only stand outside a nursing home window, waving to or praying for their loved one. Like so many other aspects of life during the pandemic, dying has been different. This week, the state Council of Churches provided an opportunity for Rhode Islanders to grieve publicly for their loss.

What also made the story of this particular woman so powerful, was that the minister who approached the young widow happened to be the same minister who spoke with her late husband’s coworkers when they stopped by. She was able to hear their stories and then pass them along to her. A blessing many fold.

The blessing for me is that I was able to be a part of it, to witness it, to see God working in these mysterious and amazing ways. Just by being present at the memorial as a chaplain, I was able to affirm that her husband mattered, that someone (many someone’s, actually) was willing to take the time to honor and remember him, even if we never knew him. And by meeting her, and sharing in this act of remembrance, I was able to honor both him and the love they shared together.

3609 flags.

This woman’s story is just one of thousands from our state and over a million in our country. In many ways most of us have moved past Covid. Life, although not the same as it was, has returned to something that resembles “normal.” We anticipate that this trend will continue. But some things will never return to the way they were. We are different. The world is different. How Covid has impacted us and our culture is yet to be fully realized. The same way that the Great Depression or World War II changed those who lived through them, this has changed us.

An interesting reality is that we may have some say on how this happens, on what changes are carried on going forward. If you could choose how you would like the world to be different “post-pandemic” what would you decide?  How would you change things? What would you like to be different? And then, an interesting follow-up question is, “What are you doing now to help make that so?” We are not just victims being tossed around by the winds of change. We have agency to impact those winds and enact change.

A few weeks ago I chose to participate in the Rhode Island State Council of Church’s Covid Memorial. I chose to go this week and be present. And in doing so, I impacted at least one woman’s journey, one woman’s experience of grief and love. And I impacted myself as well. What can you do today to make this new reality we are living into a better reality than the one that came before?

I Want Wellness

I Want Wellness

by Rev. Racquel Ray, Assoc. Minister (Acting)

 

A few weeks ago, I stepped on the scale and realized that my weight was heading in the wrong direction. Pandemic isolation, stress, and compounding grief has caused us all to face changes in our routines. For me, I let go of regular physical exams and dental care. I have an excellent primary care doctor. She is very patient with me and encourages me toward wellness. But, through the pandemic, many of our providers’ offices were closed. And I did not want to risk exposure to other ‘pods’ than my work and home social circles. So, I neglected my basic healthcare over the past two years.

I have talked to enough colleagues and congregation members about this to know I am not alone. We often neglect our physical health when we are in times of high stress. Often, the body is neglected when we face hardships. Why is it that on our hardest days we often forget to eat or hydrate? On the most stressful days we forget to rest (or struggle to do so). During the times when we most need to be nurtured, human nature is to do the opposite. Why do we treat ourselves worse on the days when we need the most care?!

Over the past few months, I have been returning to routine care. Like many of us, that initial primary care appointment was stressful and led to an avalanche of follow-up appointments. Annual screenings, a trip to the dermatologist where I was diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells and have several spots treated with liquid nitrogen, and a new physical therapy routine for elbow tendonitis. I am still facing dental anxiety after experiencing dental nerve damage last summer which led to months of speech therapy for a slur (that is now hard to detect). I want wellness.

This is ‘too much information’ for a pastor to share with the congregation. Normally, we don’t disclose our personal stories or struggles so much. But, in this season as we try to redevelop ourselves as a community it is important to see that we have all been deeply affected by the past two years. We have faced tremendous loss and grief. We have lost loved ones. We have lost our jobs or transitioned jobs. We have watched our children regress academically. And we have all endured a cultural trauma which has left many of us disoriented and yearning for normal routines.

Our bodies hold this trauma. We hold the visceral stress of the past within our bodies; the aches and pains, the inflammation, the muscles memories become compartmentalized and parked within our physical beings. Wellness requires us to let it out. Wellness requires awareness, sharing, and seeking support. Wellness requires action!

Wellness is about finding equilibrium between all of our aspects of being physical, financial, relational, and Spiritual. Physical health is about a healthy balance of rest and activity, nutrition and hydration, work and play. Financial health is about finding a balance between security and enjoyment. Relational health is about finding a balance between ourselves and others. Spiritual health is about finding a balance between ourselves and the Divine. Wellness is a balance between our own individual being and our place within our communities; being fully present in ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.

Our bodies are Divinely created in the character and image of God. Our bodies are therefore sacred. Our body is the physical manifestation of the Divine within us. It is how we interact with the world around us. It is how we join the congregation as the larger ‘body of Christ’. In the Communion feast, it is our body that abides with the Body of Christ the broken bread and the spilled cup. Our bodies are the sacred vessels that hold the Body of Christ. And it is our bodies that carry the sacred flame of the Holy Spirit within.

God became flesh in the body of Jesus of Nazareth. God cared for the body of Elijah ensuring he was fed by ravens and the widow. The Israelites were fed in the wilderness by bread from Heaven. Mary gave of her body as a vessel to the Holy. Jesus used his body in ministry to touch the leper and the blind for healing. It is clear in the scriptures that the human body matters. It was the body of Jesus that was broken, abused, and sacrificed – and resurrected.

The Apostle Paul writes in the first letter to the church in Corinth, “All things are lawful for me, but not everything is beneficial to me. Everything is lawful but not everything is edifying” (1COR 10:23). I’m reminded that though we are able, as Christians, to eat what we like and use our bodies as we wish, we must also be mindful of what benefits us. What serves our bodies well and what does not? Wellness is about knowing what is beneficial.

I really appreciate the United Church of Christ’s covenant of care with its ministers. In the ministerial code, ministers are encouraged to care for all creation including ourselves. We must maintain a basic understanding of mental health and wellness, practice self-care and life balance among other wellness examples. My colleagues and I will often encourage each other to wellness, “How are you taking care of yourself this week?” or “I’m glad you’re taking some vacation time.”

I wonder how this collaboration toward wellness can blossom in our congregation. I want a Wellness Ministry. I would love a community where we encourage each other toward health, balance, vibrance, and wellness. As part of our care of creation we ought to care for each other and our wellness as individuals and as a community. Can we have Wellness Wednesdays? Can we have a walking group? Can we host a Yoga Class? Can we create a swim club at the YMCA? We are known as the ‘rainbow doors church’. Some call us the ‘happy church’. Can we also be the ‘healthy church’?

 

I want a potluck supper

I want a potluck supper

by Rev. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

I’ve spent much of the afternoon today wrestling with what to write for this week’s blog. One thought that gained prominence was “Keep hope alive!” I couldn’t initially place the origins of this quote, but it resonated with me. It seems an appropriate response given the state of our world and nation. There are definitely days I feel hopeless, or at the very least, hope deprived. But that sounded a bit too down for today. Digging a little deeper into the origins of that quote brought me to Jesse Jackson and his failed second bid for the US presidency in 1988. Yeah, I am not going there today.

A bit later, after discounting a few other potential blog themes, my mind was pierced with an odd realization: I want a potluck supper. I want a potluck supper? What is that all about? Do I really want a potluck supper or a church dinner? I was immediately brought back to memories of church dinners at BCCUCC before the pandemic, back when we would gather in fellowship hall with 100-200 people and have a wonderful pasta (or some other comfort-food) dinner. (Recollections of the “community plant-based dinner” don’t bring to light such warm feelings, though.)

I wasn’t quite sure why this thought was coming to me today. Do I even like potluck meals or church dinners? My introverted side has always railed against the idea of getting up and going out to join folks at church for a meal. Can’t I just stay home and sit by myself or enjoy a calm quiet meal with my family?

Yet, thumbing its nose at this introverted reaction is the other part of me that recalls enjoying the company of “strangers”, of sitting around a table with folks I rarely, if ever, eat with and sharing in conversation on topics I otherwise would likely never engage. There was something about being “community”, about “belonging”, about learning something more about my church family that brought out the warm fuzzy feelings in me.

Some nostalgic part of me is missing that experience. That’s part of the reason I jumped on the chance with Andrea and Racquel to hold a picnic after church on Jubilation Sunday. But that one experience, that one Sunday late morning after church, didn’t cut it. Apparently, I’m still craving something that a potluck supper represents.

That’s when I realized that this idea of a potluck supper must be something more for me. I can remember being a small child and visiting my grandparents in Nova Scotia. One of my grandfather’s favorite pastimes was attending church socials, church dinners. It didn’t matter where the dinner was or what church was hosting it, it seemed that he always packed us all into the old Lincoln Continental and drove for hours just to find the perfect strawberry shortcake dinner held by some church. This really must have messed with my introverted side as I truly was eating with countless strangers (in a foreign country no less)! I do have to admit, though, that we had some pretty good strawberry shortcake!

I think part of the lure of the vaunted potluck or church supper is the nostalgic value. It reminds me of simpler times. It reminds of the church pre-pandemic. It reminds me of my early days in ministry where I, as the new young minister, would move from table to table greeting guests and sitting down for a brief chat and welcome strangers to our church. It reminds of bringing Seth (now 23) as a toddler to the “ladies’ luncheon” where everyone was his grandmother and told him he didn’t need to eat his vegetables before starting into dessert. And he was so innocent and cute…and I wasn’t so far off myself.

Right now, after 30 years in the pulpit, church seems so complicated. Church is about budgets, and meetings, and policies. We worry about active shooters and livestreaming and safe church policies and social justice issues. I miss the “romanticized” old days when church was seemingly about community and connection.

But I cannot pretend that everything was easier or better in the “old days.” In my last church we had years where the treasurer would email me every Monday with the offering numbers from the Sunday before and, together, we would decide which bills would get paid and which we would allow to go to collection. Again, just a few years out of seminary, my closest classmate ran off with his organist while his wife was expecting their 3rd child. He was defrocked (and rightly so). And later, one of the local colleagues who I worked very closely with, took his own life after he was confronted by the state police with accusations of sexual misconduct with minors. The “old days” were not necessarily better days.

But saying that, I’m still longing for a potluck supper. I think I’m longing for connection. I’m longing to sit down with you, members of my flock (I hope that isn’t too pretentious), and share in a common meal. To break bread together. And laugh together. And cry together. And reminisce together. And dream together. And be the church together.

Do you miss that? Are you looking for that? If so, perhaps we can schedule a potluck supper sometime soon? Maybe in late June or July? I’d really like some deviled eggs or a nice casserole. But what I’d really like is your company and your connection. What do you think? Shall we do it? Let me know…

Celebrate Our Blessings

Celebrate Our Blessings

by Rev. Racquel Ray,  Assoc. Minister (Acting).

There are moments in our lives when we just have to STOP and PRAISE GOD for all of our  blessings! May has been full of those moments for me.

We have all been through trials over the past few years. The struggles have been real. And we have had to find ways to cope. We have had to grasp for routines, pray for peace, beg for healing, and actively seek joy. The current cognitive disassociation of finding joy while others are suffering is an ongoing challenge. And yet, we must count our blessings, give thanks, and praise God when we do.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “…since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks to God for you. I always remember you in my prayers, asking the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, to give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you will know him better. I pray also that you will have greater understanding in you so you will know the hope to which he has called us and that you will know how rich and glorious are the blessings God has promised his holy people.”

Glorious are the blessings God has promised. Glorious, yes. Easy, no. Some are a surprise gift. Some are hard won. And sometimes, the blessings we have received are not obvious in the moment. There are times when hindsight reveals our blessings from the past.

In Hospice care, I often heard stories from the families of the dying. They related how grateful they were that they were able to gather while their loved one was still healthy enough to participate. They shared stories of that last seventy-fifth wedding anniversary, that birthday, or that family reunion. The events that were challenging to plan and execute, that were difficult to do, became the last time their family was able to gather before their loved one died. The blessings of their last family gathering, and the memories held in photos and heart’s memories were glorious. Easy, no. Worth it, yes.

As I sat with the dying throughout the pandemic, I learned the sacredness of life. Life, which can be difficult, or joy filled, is precious. I heard stories of Veterans, families, marriages, and lives well lived. I heard stories of war, the Great Depression, loss, grief, and pain. The heaviness of life and death was Holy. As I accompanied nursing home residents through their final breaths, I appreciated the life and vitality of my own family. On my commute home my mantra became, “time to turn to the living…”

In order to process the heaviness of grief, I needed to embrace the joy of living as a counterbalance. The beauty of a sunny day, the sparkling laughter of a child, the silliness of a puppy, the taste of favorite foods, the smells of good coffee, and the satisfaction of rest all became vital to my wellness. They all became glorious blessings.

Finding our blessings is not always easy. It is so easy and our human nature to focus on the negative – of which there is plenty! The pandemic death toll in the country has passed the million mark, there is war in Europe, multiple mass shootings, divisive news media can all keep us spiraling into negativity.

Yet, if we sit and feel our present moment, we sense our blessings. In my office I hear the sound of children’s laughter and learning in the T.O.T.s preschool. I smell the essential oil diffusing. I see the gentle rain sprinkling on greening grass and flowing river. I feel the hope of a growing and vibrant congregation. I taste fresh coffee from my favorite shop. God is here in this place!

When we are able to sense the present, we are aware of the ‘now’ and we can celebrate in it. It is one level of awareness to sense one’s blessings. And, it is another level of awareness to celebrate them!

My Ordination service on May 1st was a celebration! It was the culmination of twenty-five years of ministry, ten years of school, hundreds of books read, thousands of pages written, many beloved ‘villages’ supporting, and the love to which God has called us all. It was the evidence of the joy I share for this work and for my family. It was a celebration of strong and kind ministers that have supported my journey. Easy, no. Worth it, yes.

A week ago, I was in New Haven for the delayed from 2020 Yale University Commencement. My classmates and I left campus without goodbyes or ritual in March of 2020. This past weekend, Yale brought us back and threw us a party! Sure, it would have been easier to skip it; to continue normal routines of home and church. But, I’m so glad I went! The celebration and reunion, the worship and closure was a blessing! Easy, no. Worth it, yes.

I offer this as our congregation navigates the balance between celebrations and safety. When we gather as communities, we are exposed to the risk of covid. And we are all struggling with decision fatigue of whether to stay home or join community. We want to be safe. We also need community. It is a continuing risk vs. reward journey. And there are blessings and benefits to both options of staying in or going out.

I concur with Paul and “I pray also that you will have greater understanding in you so you will know the hope to which he has called us and that you will know how rich and glorious are the blessings God has promised his holy people.” I pray that God will “…give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you will know God better” in the present blessed moments. And I pray that you will find many ways to safely celebrate the sacred moments fully aware of God’s rich and glorious blessings in your lives.

 

Moments of Joy

Moments of Joy

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

 

Sitting down to write my blog this week, I realize that I often write and preach about the challenges we face and not so much about the joys we experience. Yes, when discussing our challenges I generally do try to place a positive spin on them or be sure to bring faith into the discussion. But still, the general point is one of challenge and overcoming struggle. So, this week I have decided to write my blog about joy.

The reality is that I have many moments of joy that fill my days and weeks. I just don’t always give them the importance I ought. Sometimes these moments are profound experiences of recognition. But, more often they are subtle pauses of realization that things are “good.”

I would like to pay more attention to these moments and be sure to share them with others. It is far too easy to get bogged down in all that may be wrong with the world; like that is the way we are wired. Is there a way to change our wiring? I think there is. And that is by drawing specific attention to joy we feel when we feel it, and recall such feelings when we don’t.

One of the most regular times I experience joy is at the end of worship. It can happen during worship, but it comes more often in the moments that follow. One could say this is simply the relief of “making it through” what amounts to a very stressful time. (Yes, for those who lead worship it can be very stressful and anxiety provoking. Even after 30 years!) No doubt there is some sense of relief each week, but there is also often something more. There is a feeling of joy that comes from gathering as community, sharing a common experience, and uniting with one another and God. There is something deeply moving for me about coming together for an hour (or so) and being of one mind and one spirit. It is beautiful and joyous.

Another time I feel great joy is while stepping out into the sunshine. Granted this doesn’t happen in August when it is 93 degrees out, but just about the entire rest of the year these moments are a blessing that I recognize and celebrate. There is something that overcomes me when I step out of the house or office into the glorious sunshine of a warm morning or afternoon. If you are fortunate, you can sometimes catch me just walking around with my arms outstretched and my head inclined to the sky absorbing all the vitamin D I can get. It may be simple. It may seem foolish. But it is a joy that comes over me and I want to take it all in!

I also feel joy at the successful completion of a project well done. This can be designing a newsletter for a club or group I am involved with, finishing a repair on the Jeep, or even raking the yard like I did this past weekend. (Although, to be honest, yardwork seldom brings me this level of joy!) This experience of joy seems related to that which I mentioned above at the conclusion of worship. But this experience seems directly connected to a release of creativity. There is a problem that needs to be addressed. There are challenges that must be overcome. And creative solutions are used to achieve a desired result. This experience of creativity and success brings me joy.

I can think of other examples too, like reconnecting with family or friends, seeing my sports teams triumph, or even hearing the laughter of a small child. The examples can probably go on and on.

What brings you joy? Take a moment and really think about it. It’s easy to say we don’t feel joy or to come up with some basic platitudes. But instead, take some time and think of a few concrete examples of when you have found joy. Go way back if you need to. Because once you know what brings you joy, then you can either celebrate it or work to incorporate more of it into your life. That’s what I’m doing. That’s why I’m writing this blog now. Because I want to feel the joy I am writing about. Knowing what brings me joy and writing about it is actually bringing me joy. That’s awesome!

So, try not to get too bogged down in all that brings you down. God wants you to be aware of the suffering and hurt in the world. But God also wants you to partake of the joy and love present as well. It is one reason why we were created!

The Triduum

The Triduum

by Racquel Ray, Assoc. Minister (Acting)

 

The Triduum, Three Holy Days, are for me the most sacred days of the liturgical year. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are considered one continuous liturgy in remembrance of the Passion of Jesus.

Each Christian denomination has their own tradition around Holy Week which consists of the days from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The traditions mark Jesus’ return to Jerusalem wherein the crowd lays branches and cloaks along the road Jesus travels on a donkey; the remembrance of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple; the chief priest and scribes questioning Jesus’ authority and conspiring against him; the anointing of Jesus’ feet by a woman unnamed in two of the Gospels, a sinner in another Gospel, and Mary of Bethany according to John’s Gospel; the institution of the Communion meal as Jesus shared the Passover supper with his disciples; the watch and prayer in the Garden; Jesus’ arrest and trial; Jesus’ torture, crucifixion, death, and burial; the silence of Holy Saturday; and the Easter Morning earthquake at sunrise, the stone rolling away, and the empty tomb. The Triduum specifically recalls the Three Days from Thursday to Saturday of Holy Week.

Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday remember Jesus’ commencement of the Communion, the night of Jesus’ washing the Disciples’ feet, and Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane while the Disciples tried to keep watch. Jesus’ violent ambush and arrest narrative are part of the lectionary. Some traditions will add a community foot washing to the worship service on the Thursday of Holy Week. In past ministry contexts, I have washed the feet of nearly 100 youth, recently diagnosed cancer patients, or washed the hands of seniors and healthcare workers in the nursing home during the pandemic.

Holy Friday or Good Friday recall the events of Jesus’ trial before the crowd, the chief priests and the elders, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilot, and the Jewish King Herod. The crowds asked for the release of Barabbas not Jesus and calling for Jesus to be crucified. Jesus receiving a scarlet robe and crown of thorns from the Roman soldiers who taunted, “Hail, King of the Judeans!” Jesus’ carrying of the cross being offered assistance from Simon of Cyrene. Some traditions will observe the events with a Way of the Cross service or Stations of the Cross following Biblical and extrabiblical traditions of Jesus journey from Jerusalem to Golgotha.

Holy Saturday or Easter Saturday is a day of emptiness. The one day of the liturgical year when Jesus is no longer with us. As Traci Blackmon said, “Jesus has left the building.” The loneliness of Holy Saturday is palpable. After having journeyed through the active six weeks of Lent; the Sunday morning worship services conscientiously curated with colorful thought-provoking themes, to contemplative Tuesday and Thursday morning Peaceful Pause and Prayer, to full-sensory Lent in the Labyrinth prayer walks, and awareness raising Bible Studies, Holy Saturday leaves a hollow and holy stillness. “He is not here.”

The Triduum holds sacred significance for me personally and has greatly enriched my ministerial role. I was confirmed on Maundy Thursday in 1978. I remember the red carpet and dark wood of Church of our Saviour, the smell of frankincense, and the anointing oil of the Bishop as he made the mark of the cross on my forehead and laid hands on my head. I recall years of kneeling on the various shades of church carpets (usually either dark red or light blue), adding drops of lavender oil to the warm water (always make sure the water is warm), checking the stacks of clean towels. I can hear the music of Taize hymns and see the tears of congregation members as they overcome their insecurities to bare one or two feet, sharing in this sacred and intimate ritual with their ministers.

I recall years of Good Friday Stations of the Cross and Way of the Cross services. I remember ecumenical services where several Pastors and Priests shared the readings at each station, the quiet self-guided stations, the small group noon day services with a few devoted worshippers, the huge Youth Group stations productions with dozens of youth acting out the fourteen stations and running behind the scenes. I remember the hallways and closets filled with the rich smells of the Easter Sunday flowers hidden and ready for arrangement in a day. I remember years of banning television in our home on Good Friday. And, I recall the lost Good Friday – the service I had planned at seminary my senior year that was cancelled due to covid in March 2020 – a walking Stations of the Cross through the quad of the Divinity School.

And Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the theological place where Chaplains abide. The sacred space between what was and what is yet to be. This is the realm of the Chaplain’s ministry of accompaniment. Author Shelly Rambo writes in Spirit and Trauma; A Theology of Remaining that new life arises from death. The Holy Saturday moment of remaining, of being present in the space between death of Good Friday and the new life of Easter reminds us of our need to be there for each other. Chaplains are particularly and sacredly skilled in remaining in this sacred place with others and building the spiritual bridges others need to traverse the emptiness of Saturday times.

As Christians we do ourselves a disservice when we jump too quickly to resurrection. Though we love the Good News of New Life, we do need the walk of darkness to see the light sometimes. It is not to say that we must suffer to be Holy. It is to say that the deeper we walk in the biblical remembrances of Holy Week the more we understand and appreciate Jesus’ words, “It is finished.” And the more we understand Jesus work the more we can rejoice with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who told all the apostles, “He is Risen”.

 

 

Water in the Wilderness

Water in the Wilderness

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

 

Israel wandered in the wilderness.

The Biblical story of “the Exodus” tells of how the Israelites escaped bondage in Egypt only to find themselves wandering through the desert, the wilderness, for an entire generation. They were seeking their “promised land.” But this journey wasn’t easy.

They grumbled.

A lot.

It was hot and dangerous. They were hungry and thirsty. This situation wasn’t what they thought they were getting when they fled and all they really wanted was to find a place to settle and call home. To be at peace. To be content and well.

Early in their journey, shortly after they crossed the Red Sea, they realized they had no food or water. They were starving. They complained to God that even though they were now free, they were dying. “Life was better to live as a slave, than to die free,” they complained. So Moses prayed to God, and God answered their prayers. God instructed Moses to go and strike a rock with his staff. And when he did so, water gushed forth from the rock, sustaining the people, and strengthening them for the journey.

Today I am walking in my own wilderness.

Today is one of those days where everything is a challenge and nothing goes right. In fact, it’s worse than that. Today is one of those days where I am miserable and everything feels like it’s going wrong.

This morning I watched a wonderful video on YouTube about an abandoned medieval village in Italy. In the comments of the video, the content creators (of German nationality) shared prayers for Ukraine, and encouraged people to donate to relief efforts to support the millions of displaced Ukrainians. They also criticized Putin for this “unnecessary” war of “greed and aggression.”

113 people responded to this plea and I foolishly decided to cycle through the comments to gauge the audience’s reaction. I was astounded that the vast majority of responses all hailed Putin as the fighter of righteousness against the “deep state” and western aggression. Many also celebrated Donald Trump as the answer needed to expose the corruption of NATO and Europe and bring stability to the world. These voices all claimed to be proud patriotic Americans. I would have just chalked it up as Russian “bots” spamming fake news and fake opinions, but I know that it could just as easily be real people. I’ve met many like them.

After this, (and apparently seeking more punishment) I decided to go to foxnews.com to see how they are reporting on the war and our nation’s role in defending Ukraine. Surely, I thought, there would be at least an ounce of sanity in their reporting. I mean, they had to be more rational than the comments I saw on YouTube…but sadly, I was wrong. What I saw didn’t resemble the reality I see elsewhere. It is incredible that we have two separate realities (or perceptions of reality) fighting for our consciousness, around the world and in our own country.

Frankly, it devastated me today. This realization is nothing new, of course, but it hit me really hard today.

And I found myself wandering in an emotional wilderness.

What is this country we now find ourselves living in?

I felt lost, hurt, and in many ways betrayed by my country. I was raised in an America where I was told “all men are created equal,” where I was taught everybody has an equal opportunity to succeed, and where I truly believed that we, as a people, stood in unity against oppression and evil. These days, I feel like every day exposes these beliefs as lies these are. We live in a country of selfishness, me first, and “anything I can do to better myself and my standing is acceptable.” And I don’t want to live in that land. It is a foreign wilderness to me.

I want my “promised land,” the one that I thought I was born into. The one I thought we all believed in. But recent years have taught me this is just a fairytale we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night in faux peace and comfort.

Can you feel my pain? You may not agree with me or even understand where I am coming from, but perhaps you are walking through your own wilderness. Perhaps you are wrestling with your own sense of loss and grief. Most of us are!

However, I write about this today because I may have found an answer. I may have found hope.

This morning at Peaceful Pause & Prayer, before I even watched the video of the abandoned Italian town or went down this rabbit hole, I read from Isaiah 43:15-21. And in that passage Isaiah, speaking for God, says in part,

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,

During every session of Peaceful Pause & Prayer I ask people to listen for a word or phrase from the passage that stands out for them, that speaks to them. These were the words that stood out to me today, that spoke to me:

…I give water in the wilderness

 

The simple message to me in these words is that despite the wilderness I find myself in this day, God sustains me. Despite the fact I feel lost in the desert and far from my promised land, the make-believe land I grew up in and believed in and hopefully may one day experience for real, God is with me. I can make it one more day because God provides me with what I need right now. God gives me what I need to make it through this moment, so I can get to the next, where God will once again provide me with the strength and sustenance I will need to make it to the next.

I may not have a map out of this wilderness, know where I am going, or how I will get there. But I know what God wants from me. Do the best I can right here and right now to live into the world, the country, I once thought I lived in. A country where people are respected, and loved, and valued, and supported by those around them. A country where we believe in truth, and right and wrong, and we don’t sacrifice our values in order to get ahead or put others down. That isn’t our world, but it can be my world, if I make it so. If I do what I can and trust in God to do the rest.

Today, I am in the wilderness. At times I am hungry and thirsty. And I grumble. A lot. But God sustains me. God gives me hope and glimpses of what the world could be, what it should be, and what God promises it one day WILL be. Until that comes, I will cherish my water in the wilderness.

Walking the Labyrinth of Life

Walking the Labyrinth of Life

by Racquel Ray, Assoc. Minister (Acting)

 

As I approached the labyrinth in the churchyard my mind was racing with the list of things I still had to do. The weather certainly was not cooperating, a misty dreary day had turned into an icy, snowy night. Visibility was low, my glasses were foggy and covered with cold droplets as I gathered my basket filled with battery operated candles, incense, and a sage smudge. Bundled against the cold and damp night, I wore my heaviest parka; glad I was finally able to afford such a luxury. I gave thanks for my warm coat, waterproof boots, and insulated gloves recalling so many similar nights without such provisions against the weather; how many days I waited at the bus stop or walked to meet my children from school while bitter cold dampness soaked my layers of inadequate clothes.

I removed a glove to ‘light’ the candles and with my remote could change them to any color. I chose a rainbow of color and set the candles around the turning points of the labyrinth. It was dark but the snow had coated the grass walkways with an icy fur that crunched underfoot. The brick edges of the walkways were clear having been warmed earlier in the day with rain. They perfectly outlined the white snow-covered paths. ‘Paths’ I though as I crunched and stooped. I circled the maze with incense, my lighter starting to struggle against the elements. Crunch. Stoop. Paths. I made my way to the center. Why I felt the need to follow the path rather than just hop to the center I don’t know. I lit the sage smudge and waved it frantically to keep it burning despite soaking snowfall. The cloud of smoke filled the circle. Crunch. Stoop.

Paths. As I waited for visitors to join the circle of prayer, I walked it for myself. How long have I been on this path?! Since 1996. Remember that quote from Isaiah? “Whether you turn to the left or to the right, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’” Oh, yes, I remember. And I waited for years for a human teacher to point me in the right direction; left or right. Crunch. And I listened and waited for a path. Crunch. And I walked in it. Crunch.

As my hair began to freeze to my coat, I felt throbbing pain in my hand. It’s cold. I still had my glove off from lighting candles and incense. But now my wet, numb hand wouldn’t slide back into my wet glove. Remember. The prayers and process. The struggles. Crunch. I shoved my hand into the glove as well as I could. The process. Lord, the process. The yes and no. The open doors and closed doors. The discerning, listening, waiting. Remember. Remember that quote from Psalms echoed in Hebrews, “God has sworn and will not relent. You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”? “Melchizedek?” you asked the wisest professor. “Having no heritage; no lineage; no mother and father” he said. God will not relent. Crunch. Listen.

My hands were numb. My feet were on their way to numb. The snow had pasted my hair to my coat, my hat to my hair. My glasses were starting to freeze where droplets had stuck. Crunch. Listen. Remember. Remember that quote from Isaiah and Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach the good news.” Crunch. “To proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Crunch. The preaching; friends, colleagues, collaborations. Remember the first time preaching. The power of the preaching classmates. Gratitude. Growth. Good news. Liberation.

For this moment, the snowflakes on the tip of my nose, cheeks frozen, hands throbbing, toes numb. All of that preparation. The path. Crunch. Left. Right. School. Scholarship. Study. Oh, my God. So many pages, so many papers. So many hoops to jump through. Crunch. To stay on the path. Whether you turn to the left or to the right the voice behind you is the voice within.

Within. God, you’ve been here the whole time. Crunch. Sob. Frozen tears. Headlights flashed across the church yard as our first guest to the circle of prayer pulled up. “Is that sage I smell?” Yes. Come into the circle. Crunch. Listen. Left. Right. Sob.

This is why. This is why the trajectory from so long ago led me to this moment. To co-create a circle for others. To walk. To listen. To breathe. To sob. Crunch. Remember the quote from Acts, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” The path. Crunch. Listen. Left. Right…the voice is within.

Amen.

 

The 5 Most Asked Questions Upon My Return

The 5 Most Asked Questions Upon My Return

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

 

I thought it would be fun to highlight and address the top 5 questions I have been asked since returning from my sabbatical. So without further ado, here they are:

  1. Was it all you hoped it would be?
  2. Did you get out of it what you expected?
  3. Did you do everything on your list?
  4. Are you glad to be back?
  5. Did you find a new job while you were away?

 

And for those who don’t want to read the whole blog, here’s the short version of the answers:

  1. Absolutely!
  2. More or less…
  3. Heck no!
  4. Yes!
  5. LOL! No.

Was it all I hoped it would be?

Absolutely! I went into my sabbatical without major expectations and without a ton of planning. As you all know, it came about relatively quickly (more quickly than I expected) and therefore I did not enter my sabbatical time hoping to fulfill a lifelong dream or goal. Saying that, I was hoping to make the trip to Utah in Jonathan and take a week away with Elizabeth. It was too bad that I was not able to spend more of my time away with Elizabeth, but her job just doesn’t allow her any length of time away (more than a week at a time).

The trip to Utah for the Winter 4×4 Jamboree was an adventure! Wheeling in Utah is quite different that wheeling here in New England. Both areas have exciting placed to offroad, but in New England it is on private land riding through the woods and nonstop rock-gardens. In Utah it was wide open spaces and rock-crawling. I would also say that I expected more problems with Jonathan. Jonathan is a 13 year old Jeep with 120,000 miles on it and I was driving nearly 6000 miles in two weeks. I expected something to break. Nothing did! Wohoo!

The camping trip to South Carolina was wonderful. We stayed at the Huntington Beach State Park which is right on the coast just south of Myrtle Beach. The park had miles of beautiful beaches, nature trails, and a bird sanctuary. We spent our time going for walks (lots of walks!) and sitting around the campfire. The first few days were 55 and quite windy, not perfect, but much nicer than the weather you all were getting up here! The last two days were 65 and 73 and quite beautiful (before the rain came). We had a wonderful time. My one disappointment was that I didn’t get to see an alligator. Oh, well.

Did I get out of it what I expected?

More or less…As I said above, I didn’t take too many expectations into my sabbatical. My biggest expectation was to have some time away to rejuvenate my mind and soul. That happened. So I really did get out of it what I expected. However, I didn’t come away with any big epiphany or self-realization. But I did grow. I have gained a number of smaller self-realizations that ought to be beneficial in surviving (and perhaps thriving in) daily life. I’ve learned a little bit about what brings me joy and happiness. I’ve learned a bit about what sets me off and really brings me down. (Yes, I do get down quite a bit!) I see these learnings as stepping stones of which I can build on and grow from. Life is a process after all, isn’t it? So I expected to have a respite, take a break from non-stop COVID decision-making, and spend some time taking care of myself. I accomplished all of that. Thank you.

Did I do everything that was on my list?

Heck no! I knew going in that my list was long and jam packed. It was really just a list of all my options that I could choose from, kind of like a buffet. And let’s just say it was a delightful buffet. I had a smorgasbord of options and ended up choosing a lot of dessert and comfort food. That means I did a lot of wheeling (here and in Utah), working on Jonathan, exercising, growing a beard, spending time with family, shaving my beard, and resting.

I did not get to worship at Temple Habonim. This was a bit of a disappointment, but the timing often didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. I did touch base with Rabbi Howard and I also hope that our two faith communities can do some join programs again now that we believe COVID is winding down. I also did not do any real writing or woodworking. Instead, I spent a lot of time on the floor of the garage, or outside, working on the Jeep. There is something very special about creating something (writing or woodworking) or fixing something (working on Jonathan). Working with my hands while developing skills and knowledge is always deeply rewarding to me. THAT I was able to accomplish!

Am I glad to be back?

Yes! I wasn’t sure about what to expect when coming back. In fact, the last few weeks of my sabbatical I was fully accepting that coming back would be a major challenge. Most of us know that returning from any vacation takes a lot of effort in catching up and digging out from under the pile of work you missed. Add to that the unexpected and returning from three months away sounded like a potential nightmare. I am thrilled to say it hasn’t been so at all. In fact, it has been quite smooth! That alone tells me my sabbatical was worth it and brought me to a better place. It also tells me how excellent is the leadership we have at the church.

Racquel, the lay leadership, and the staff must have done a wonderful job. Thank you to each of you who chipped in and kept the church going. Of course the church IS the people, each and every one of the members. But often churches rely very heavily on pastoral leadership. Thank you Racquel for carrying that mantle. But while churches need, or at least benefit from pastoral leadership, their greatest asset is the willingness of the membership to take on the responsibilities of being the church and doing the ministry. You all did that, with a  special shout out to the Deacons, the Church Council, and all our ministry teams. Add to that the wonderful support of our staff and we have all the ingredients for a healthy, effective, and faithful community.

Lastly I’ll share that I missed you. It was great to get away for an extended time, but I also missed our community. I was thrilled to sneak in for the Christmas Story Stroll on Christmas Eve, but outside that, I didn’t see or hear from any of you. It was great, but long. The last few weeks while I was partially dreading my return, I was also excited to join with you in worship and ministry again. It is great to be connected in common work and to share so much together. It’s good to be back!

And lastly, did I find a new job while I was away?

LOL, no. I’ve been surprised how many people have asked me this or shared this anxiety in different ways. The short answer is, “No, I did not find another job while away.” As many people know, it is standard for the sabbatical clause in pastoral contracts to make it clear that sabbaticals are offered with the caveat that one commits to a full year of ministry following a sabbatical to prevent just this from happening. However, although that is spelled out in black and white, I know that there are always examples of clergy who have violated that commitment. And yes, it happened here not too long ago. Even if we didn’t have that history here, the anxiety of it happening is real. We all have moments of concern that someone will feel the grass is greener somewhere else. I honor that. I can assure you that I did not spend any time on my sabbatical looking for work or interviewing at other churches. I honor my commitment and the institution of a sabbatical too much to have considered it. How could I have been taking care of myself and readying myself for the next chapter of our ministry if I was looking for the exit. Take a deep breath. We’re good. We’ll walk this next stretch together.

Thank you.

In closing, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to get away and take care of myself. Thank you for taking such good care of our church and each other. Thank you for caring for our community and the broader world. And thank you for being you.

Superheroes

Superheroes

by Racquel Ray, Assoc. Minister (Acting)

 

Over the past few years, the word ‘hero’ has been used often. Military service members are sometimes referred to as heroes. Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Emergency Medical Personnel are often called heroes. But, over the past few years this appellation has been transferred to healthcare workers, teachers, chaplains, and other ‘frontline’ workers. The favorite heroes at my house have become our online shopping delivery driver that my kids refer to as our ‘Amazon Friend’ and our local pizza delivery person.

In her book Superheroes Are Everywhere, author and Vice-President Kamala Harris writes, “Superheroes always make the world better, no matter what goes wrong. Whenever there’s trouble, superheroes show up just in time. When I was a kid, I was sure superheroes were everywhere, blending in with regular people, ready to do good at a moment’s notice.” We have so many people around us who are ready to do good at a moment’s notice – even when there’s trouble – just in time. So, if what the Vice-President says is true then those around us who show up just at the right time to do good are superheroes.

I began ministry here at Barrington Congregational Church in September 2021. I was watching the BCCUCC Sunday worship service with my senior living residents at the nursing home via Zoom in our chapel. This became a weekly worship option for vulnerable residents throughout the pandemic shut down. I offered a Baptist and a UCC service via zoom on Sunday mornings and an in-person Communion service on Sunday afternoons. Residents loved the hymns and baby Baptisms which were not available in person to seniors. When I watched the announcement of Rev. Linda Hartley’s leave-taking, I felt God’s call to ask Dale “How can I help?” I know how hard the search for a new minister can be. I know how hard changing ministries and ministers can be. And I know the current shortage of ministers makes that process more difficult. I didn’t want my home church, BCCUCC, to be facing that struggle knowing that I was qualified to help.

Dale and I did not know then that “How can I help?” would lead to a full-time job change for me and sabbatical for him. But, we did know that God was calling us to this work of ministry and that God has big plans for BCCUCC.

As Dale’s sabbatical approached and discussions around how to find coverage evolved, I met our Deacons: Amy Barkat, Jeff Stumpff, Carol Strakosch, Nancy Arena, Pat Stoddard, Steve Fodor, Lory Snady McCoy, and Jane Tonn. After observing the Laity Sunday service, it was clear to me that this team of dedicated church members were talented. They have the skills and dedication to provide pastoral coverage in Dale’s absence. I know it was not the easy thing to do. But, it was possible. They cared so much about the welfare of this church that they 1) want to see their Pastor stay well and 2) are willing to try. They were ‘regular people, willing to do good, at a moment’s notice’. Superheroes.

We journeyed through Thanksgiving and Advent together as a congregation and community. And on Christmas Eve, we tried something new. Something big and different. We met and planned, accounting for every covid safety precaution. We wanted Christmas Eve services that were safe yet Spiritually nourishing. On Christmas Eve, members of the congregation, all ages, all committees, families, and friends joined together to create a service so unique, so meaningful, and so successful that plans are in the works for Christmas 2022. I am grateful to Tom Colby (Kate, Kim, and Amanda), Erik Ela, Pat Stoddard and Paul Dennis who came to church two hours early to help with last minute set-up. And as the minutes ticked by, more than 30 volunteers continued to make their way to BCCUCC to help. They were ‘regular people, willing to do good, at moment’s notice’. Superheroes.

In January our congregation needed to pivot in response to current covid safety precautions. We needed to shift our worship protocols and gathering with children and youth protocols. As covid rates climbed in the town’s elementary, middle, and high schools our church leadership decided to update safety measures. BCCUCC’s Tech Team: Erik Ela, Tom Colby, Kim Colby, Jeff Stumpff, and Laurie Dubel made the immediate shift mid-week. They, along with Marina, created the safest musical additions possible to the service using the virtual choir library of music. The library contains dozens of pre-recorded hymns and anthems created by the choir and the Tech Team throughout the pandemic. It reflects hundreds of hours of work by our Tech Team and Virtual Choir volunteers. At a moment’s notice, the Tech Team showed up just in time willing to ‘do good’. Superheroes.

Through all of these transitions, our church staff: Christine, Pat, Andrea, Jay, and John have continued to maintain a steady course. They have adjusted throughout the pandemic; filling in for custodians, reworking in-person to virtual worship and back again, supporting the various shifting covid protocols, the ministry staff transitions, fluidity between work from home and work in person, and maintained the BCCUCC traditions we hold dear. They kept Open Doors Sunday, record keeping, calendars, eBridge, the Pastor’s Blog, Church School, Children’s programming, weddings, baptisms, and funerals going while keeping the physical buildings safe and in good working order. Superheroes.

The Book of Acts describes the fullness of community of the church as The Fellowship of the Believers, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

This congregation is full of superheroes. We are a community of people, a fellowship of believers, who try to ‘always make the world better, no matter what goes wrong.’ We try, ‘whenever there’s trouble, to show up just in time ready to do good at a moment’s notice’.

For this community, for this fellowship of believers, for its superheroes, I am grateful. Thanks be to God for your efforts! And, as we prepare to shift again to Dale’s return, I thank you all for your support and dedication over the past three months. You have ALL been amazing!! Superheroes!

 

1 (Harris, 2019)