Pastor’s Word

My Brain is Mush

My Brain is Mush

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

I think the heat has melted my brain.

Either that, or it is the pandemic.

I sit here today having spent the last half hour pretty much starring at this screen. I’m writing a blog. Actually, I haven’t been writing a blog, I’ve been staring at the screen trying to decide what to write about. I’m tired of writing about, talking about, and thinking about the pandemic and what it means to be “coming out of it.” I think you are tired of reading about it, or hearing about it, too.

I want to write about something else.

I thought about writing about a recent political issue, but after the last four years, I’m tired of politics.

Faith? Eh, I preach on that every week.

Relationships? That brings me back to the pandemic.

Community? The same.

So that’s it. My brain is mush.

My uncle was a big fan of porridge. He would cook oatmeal for breakfast, but it wasn’t your typical oatmeal. He cooked it for so long the spoon had to stand up straight in it. It couldn’t lean or move. It had to stand there, perfect forever.

That’s my brain, a big bowl of porridge with a spoon stuck in it.

Perhaps it is good that Elizabeth and I are taking some time off next week. I hope it provides me an opportunity to relax. To stop thinking for a little while. And to stop making decisions. I’m tired of making decisions about what we can do, how we can do it, and when it can happen. See, there I go again with the pandemic talk.

I don’t bring this up so you can feel sorry for me. You can if you want, but it likely won’t change anything. I bring it up so you can look in the mirror. Are you experiencing something similar? Are you exhausted? Burned out? Tired? Worn out?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to suggest you take on any self-care techniques. I’m tired of all that too. Deciding if I’m going to go for a run today, or practice yoga, or eat healthy are all some of those decisions I’m tired of making.

How about you? How are you holding up these days? Are you living large, enjoying life, and feeling finally free following 16 months of pandemic life? Or are you feeling it too? Are you finding that making decisions is still hard, you still feel lonely, you’re still tired of adjusting to another new way of doing things?

If that’s you, where do you find peace and comfort? Where are you finding support? Where are you going to “get away” from it all?

I realized recently (not for the first time) that one of the areas I’m finding peace is in my morning “Peaceful Pause & Prayer.” There’s currently only a handful of us who participate and, under that measurement, it may not be considered “worth my time”. But I know how much I get out of it. Just taking 30 minutes twice a week to relax, read a brief scripture passage, sit in silence with it, and reflect does wonders for me. It doesn’t cure everything – case in point being my mushed brain right now – but it does seem to help me find focus and “get away”.

I also have enjoyed taking the dog for a walk, by myself or with Elizabeth. That is until this heat wave. Now, it’s just miserable. But last week I found myself getting out from behind my desk (and this screen) and taking a short stroll around the neighborhood before coming back for more work. How beautiful those afternoon walks were?

And then there is “veg time”. It’s probably aptly named because it does turn me into a bit of a vegetable. This is when I’m watching TV, reading, or playing computer games. Yup, it’s all pretty mindless, but we need to take some time off and escape from time to time. I’ve come to realize that I like these activities because I feel like I accomplish something with them. The worlds of TV, books, and computer games, fictional as they are, are made better through the actions of the protagonist or me. I don’t always get that feeling in the real world, especially during the pandemic. It often feels like we do a lot of work, and nothing ever changes. That’s wearing. It’s also probably not true. Lots of things change, just perhaps on a smaller scale that I may like! (Think of the story of the starfishes on the beach.)

So, what are you doing? How are you coping with your brain mush these days? Does it help to know you are not alone? Have you found ways to welcome peace, get away, or make a difference? Or is there something else you are holding onto as your anchor? I pray that you find some way of touching God’s blessings and peace for you. You need it. Like me.

And now I’m going to go eat some porridge! (not really, it’s too darn hot!)

New Beginnings

New Beginnings

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister

Spring is such a hopeful time of year. The trees are now out in full leaf. Annuals and perennials are blooming. Garden centers are filled with plants that promise bountiful baskets of tomatoes, peppers, beans, and strawberries come the warmer days of summer. Even those of us who lack a true “green thumb” share in the optimism that our efforts will amply be rewarded come August.

Spring is also a hopeful time of year because of all the high school and college graduations. It’s time to celebrate, especially after almost two full academic years affected by the pandemic. Graduation is a significant milestone in life and one that we remember for a lifetime. At BCCUCC, we’re looking forward to celebrating our high school graduates during our June 6th Baccalaureate worship service when we can extend our heartfelt congratulations to all who are graduating this year and moving on to college or new jobs.

This Spring once again, is a time of looking forward to all the new beginnings that lay before us – whether we are graduating, or tending our gardens, or starting to think about delayed vacations. It’s a time of renewed hope that is particularly welcome this year.

We are excited for the new. And yet, we may also be feeling some sense of trepidation because, by its very nature, “the new” contains within it the unknown. For our high school graduates going on to college, there may be questions about what it will be like as they meet new people, navigate dorm life, or find the financial resources to make all of this possible. For graduates entering the job market, there may be questions about navigating the search process, and/or finding an affordable place to live. And it seems like all transitions such as these involve concerns about meeting new expectations and getting along with people we’ve never met before.

I don’t want to overemphasize the sense of trepidation or anxiety we may feel during times of transition because these are also times when we have opportunities to grow. We have opportunities to learn more about who we are and what we’re capable of doing. Stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zones can be both enriching and rewarding as we develop new skills and see more clearly our strengths and abilities. During such times of transition, we may also be more aware of the ways that God is working in us and with us to help us grow. We may become more aware of the ways that God is supporting us as we navigate “the new.”

Scripture writers often used the image of God as a parent bird, even an eagle to convey this assurance, such as in Psalm 91 where we find the promise that “God will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Ps. 91:4). And we have the image of God providing us with the strength of eagles in Isaiah, where we are assured that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Is 40:31). And in the book of Exodus, we have the following image of God as a strong protector as God directs Moses to reassure the people who have just crossed the Red Sea: “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex. 19:3-4).

When I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor was talking one day about this last passage, and to elucidate the text she described how eagles teach their young to fly. As she explained it, the mama eagle coaxes her young one out of the nest and then flies under her eaglet to provide it with the security of knowing that should the little one falter, it will not fall very far because mama will catch it on her back and carry it to safety. It was a beautiful image and a wonderful metaphor for God’s protection that as we try new things – as we stretch our wings and take off into new horizons – not only is God with us to encourage us, but God is also with us to ensure that we won’t fall.

I was so taken with this imagery that I decided to use it to illustrate a pastoral prayer a few years ago. And it was a wonderful metaphor for my prayer of assurance that God is always with us. It’s a beautiful image. Unfortunately, it’s not accurate. A doctor sitting in church that day pointed this out to me. It seems that eagles teach their little ones to fly like most other birds do. They don’t force their young ones out of the nest, but they start bringing food to nearby branches, and the eaglets then test their wings as they “hop” to these branches for the food. They hop first to the closest branches and then, as the parent birds extend the distance by bringing food to further branches, the eaglets hop and flutter further. They do this until their wings are strong enough to get them airborne. Then they learn to hunt with the adults and will leave the nest for good once they become adept at this.

Of course, this is still a nice image of a caring parent teaching their young how to navigate the world beyond the safety and security of home. And it’s a good metaphor for how God is at work in us, nudging us into new beginnings where we too can exercise our gifts in the world. It’s a good metaphor for how God stays with us as we learn more about our strengths and the gifts God has given us. It’s also a good metaphor for all the ways God knows us and what we are capable of doing, even if we’re not so sure just yet.

It’s a nice image, and a good metaphor. But, I still prefer the image my professor painted in class that day. And, even if it’s not accurate, I think it’s valuable because we do know that parent eagles soar with their young. They do keep an eye on them as they take to a first flight. They don’t leave their little ones alone in the world should they falter and fall. So, maybe there is something to the image that corresponds to God’s description of bearing the people of Israel on “eagles’ wings.” Whatever new beginning you are entering this Spring, may you feel the assurance that God is with you, keeping you safe while encouraging you to soar on your own eagles’ wings.

Coming back from COVID

Coming back from COVID

by Rev. Dr. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister

On Tuesday the Church Council voted to officially announce the plan to begin multi-platform worship on June 27th. This will be quite a change for us. We have not gathered in-person, indoors, for worship since March 8, 2020. That is a long time to go without something that has meant so much to us. And, when it came, it came suddenly. For many of us, we hoped, and perhaps still hope, it would end just as suddenly. But the reality is that it has been a long slow slog. And we are not through it yet. Coming back to church may not be as easy as we might expect.

 

What should you expect?

Things Will Be Different. You cannot go through 15 months of pandemic induced isolation without things changing. You have changed over the past year. Those around you have changed. The world has changed. Your church has changed. Literally, everything is different. In some ways it might hardly be noticeable. In other ways it will be like running into a sign post. You won’t be able to miss it. And you probably won’t like it. On some level we are all longing for things to return to “normal”. The reality is that will never happen, because that normal has changed. Everything is different.

When you feel comfortable returning to worship in the sanctuary, you will likely be met with a series of emotions. Part of you may be overjoyed at the return. Part of you may be afraid or timid. Part of you may be sad that so many of your church friends are not there, having chosen to not be present for their own reasons. All these feelings will be different than what you may expect to feel. Then add in that everyone around you will also be going through this emotional blender too. Yes, even if we were doing everything the same, church would likely feel very different than you expect.

Offer Extra Grace. In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, author Rick Warren coins the phrase EGR, Extra Grace Required. He states that in a Christian life you will come across people that require extra grace. Difficult people abound and sometimes the best response is to offer them extra grace: love them anyway, and try to understand where they may be coming from. Moving out of the pandemic in a healthy, Christian, way is going to require extra grace. This is tough because living in the pandemic has already required us to offer extra grace. Our reserves may feel like they are running low.

Extra grace is required because things may not move as fast as you want them to. Or they may move faster than you are comfortable with. Expectations of things “getting back to normal” may never materialize in the way we envision. As I mentioned above, things (worship, people, relationships, etc.) will be different. People are exhausted. They are tired of living in a COVID world and this will not change even when we offer worship in-person again. Some people will choose not to return. Others will have contrasting opinions of what they want or expect. You might even become frustrated with yourself! We will need to meet all these challenges with Extra Grace.

So when someone gets on your nerves, or a new policy causes your hackles to rise, or something steps on your toes, remember to dig deep into that well of grace that is within you. Others are likely offering you extra grace at the same time. The transition back to “normal” may be just as hard as the transition from it.

Bring Your Patience. I mentioned above that everyone will have their own pace in feeling comfortable when resuming activities we used to take for granted. When we begin our multi-platform worship, a lot of the familiar elements of worship will still be missing. It is still recommended that we have no hymnals or shared items in the pews. It may be some time before we will be able to sing together inside. (Singing, like coughing, is one of the easiest ways of spreading the virus.) We haven’t yet decided how we will take the offering or celebrate communion. Our traditional way of passing these elements to everyone in the pews is strongly discouraged.

This idea of bringing your patience with you to church goes hand in hand with the Extra Grace already spoken of. In time, more and more of the familiar parts of worship will return. But it will take just that, time. And you may be ready or willing to partake of an activity that others aren’t. Part of being a community is respecting that other people are different than us and they are allowed to feel differently than we do. In fact, it is these differences that, when respected, make a community strong and vibrant.

Have Faith. This has stunk. The past 14 months has really tried and challenged us. Yet, we persevered. There are still challenges ahead. We need to hold onto the faith that God will see us through. Yes, things will be different and even frustrating. But we will weather this storm as we have others. Know that even though things will be different, they can still be meaningful. God will be with us whether we sing out loud or not. God will be with us if we take communion through disposable cups and prepackaged wafers. God will be with us if we don’t get to sit in our favorite pew or shake hands in Fellowship Hall. God has seen us through a lot worse and will do so again. Have faith, God will see you through.

 

I’m sure that some of this is not welcome news to some of you. I’m sure that some of this seems like common sense to others. Either way, know that this pandemic has been a difficult challenge for us all and that as much as we would like it to be behind us, it is not yet and may never be. We have learned a lot about the virus over the past year and are better able to mitigate its impact on our lives. Vaccinations have helped a lot. However, it is still a very real threat to our lives and our community. We did not have the option to move into the pandemic in a calculated intentional way. We do have that option when coming out of it. We will continue to be pragmatic and intentional in the way we move forward as a community.

Peace and blessings to you.

Abundance

Abundance

by Rev. Dr. Linda Hartley, Assoc. Minister

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10 NRSV)

This passage from the Gospel of John came to me the other day in the grocery store, of all places. I was walking down the paper goods aisle and couldn’t help but notice that the shelves, which had been completely empty one year ago, are now filled to capacity with paper towels, toilet paper, paper napkins, and every imaginable iteration of tissues with which to blow your nose. If it hadn’t been for the events of last year, I would have walked down the aisle in typical fashion – not paying much attention to the plethora of products available for purchase. But then last year made us all look with new eyes at the things we have taken for granted.

I remember the shock I felt last April when walking down these same aisles and seeing the bare shelves. It was like something out of another place and time. I was reminded of photos I had seen of breadlines, meatlines, and (yes) even toilet paper lines outside stores in Soviet Russia when all of these items were in such short supply there. Seeing those pictures, I never imagined that I would encounter shortages in our supermarkets where there are more items lining the shelves than most people in the rest of the world ever consider needing. And yet one year ago, there I would stand in the paper goods aisle grateful to find a single roll of paper towels or a single roll of toilet paper – “limit one to a customer.”

Of course, supplies began to be restocked as the year progressed. But, certain items remained scarce. It was only about a month ago I was walking through the aisle of cleaning products in Target and nearly shouted for joy when I found Formula 409 once again! My delight was so great that I had to share it with the checkout clerk who was suitably happy for me. Not only did I find 409 that day, but I also found a bottle of Purell. It was a very good day! Recently, I noticed an abundance of both Purell and Clorox Wipes on those shelves and it felt like we’re almost back to normal.

Like most of us last year, I did stock up when I could find a multi-roll package of paper towels or toilet paper. I still have some of that stockpile – not enough to open my own paper goods store, but enough to laugh at myself now as I peruse grocery shelves overflowing with paper products. All of this makes me aware of how we humans behave when faced with scarcity. Maybe there’s something deep in our brains that leads us to believe that our current situation (whatever that may be) will last forever. We tend to do this during good times and bad times, but it seems that we are more inclined to assume the bad times will become our new normal and so we respond accordingly.

Even now as I see the full paper product aisle, I feel a little uncertain that this abundance will last. That may be contributing to my sense of surprise, although I do suspect that one day I’ll get used to it—I’ll probably walk down that aisle and not notice the abundance. I’ll be lost in my own thoughts, concerned about something else and walk right by all those huge packages of Bounty and Charmin. Experts tell us that we humans are good at adjusting to any new normal. We may be stunned at first at an abrupt change in our lives, but we tend to find ways to adjust. It’s a strength of our humanity.

We all certainly did adjust to the “new normal” over the past year. We had to. But now we’re entering a new phase. We have effective vaccines and the roll-out is going a bit smoother than it was in the beginning. If we haven’t been vaccinated yet, we know we can be in the not-so-distant future. And with that comes the sense that things will get back to some form of “normal” before too long. Unlike last year, this spring is bringing with it the renewed hope for a brighter tomorrow. As the buds and flowers are bursting into new life, so too our hopes are beginning to blossom. It feels really good. And yet, I have to say that I also hope I don’t completely forget what has been.

I hope I don’t forget because I want to maintain my sense of gratitude for all that we have and for all that I have. I want the abundance of paper goods to remind me of the greater abundance I have in things that aren’t things at all. Things like God’s graciousness and love. Things like Jesus’ life and ministry. Things like the bountiful feast to which Jesus invites us all. I want to walk down that aisle and think of Jesus’ promise that he came so that we may have life and have it abundantly—and I want to feel abundantly grateful.

I also want to be reminded of my part in the work that needs to be done to ensure that everyone has a place at that abundance. I know that even as my local store shelves are now fully stocked, there are still people for whom the shelves are not packed full. There are still people in our country and beyond who can only imagine a day when the abundance for some gives way to abundance for all. Jesus promises us that that day will come. Jesus promises us that there is enough and more for all of us to live an abundant life. In the meantime, I hope that I will remember this feeling so it may infuse my own work to do what I can to bring us into that new day.

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.