Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Talk Story

Talk Story

In Hawaii, when friends gather together, they “talk story”. Talk story is informal conversation that always generates story-telling. The stories told are rich with history, culture, family, people and place. They can be funny at one moment and heart-rending at the next. They are the narratives upon which relationships were built. They give substance to experience. Those stories gave me windows into others, and perhaps most remarkably, traveled through the windows of my own heart to leave their imprint deep inside. Shared stories have a capacity to connect us not only with the story teller, but with our own narratives. And those connections build relationships.

I love hearing people’s stories, and am amazed how asking one simple question and then listening deeply opens sacred, shared space between us.

In the few short weeks that I’ve been at St. Paul’s I’ve already heard some amazing stories, and want to share one. Perhaps it could be titled, “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

The church received a very generous gift from the estate of a former member.  Being new to the congregation, I asked Becky, our secretary, to tell me a bit about Elizabeth “Betty” Page and her parents, Katharine Hottel and Guy Anderson Benchoff.  I was delighted to see photos of all three of them on the wall just outside the church office. 

One of those pictures had a pipe organ in the background. I asked where that photo was taken, since we don’t have a pipe organ at St. Paul’s. To my utter surprise, Becky told me it was at St. Paul’s and quickly took me on an excursion to view the organ’s pipes which are behind a wall in our sanctuary. They are amazing, each carefully labeled, the whole thing a work of skilled artisanship right here, hidden in plain sight, and without talking story I might never have known!

The music we enjoy each Sunday morning depends in part on those hidden pipes, their ongoing maintenance, and the talents of skilled organists like Emily Koon and Derek Ritenour, accompanied by the combined voices of each person present.

Perhaps most delightful of all was learning that Mr. Benchoff was a musician, taught music at Massanutten Military Academy, and played the organ. My great-grandfather, the son of German Moravian missionaries to Labrador, was a music teacher at Sewickley Academy in Sewickley, PA, and a church organist. My mother inherited his talent and taught piano and was a church organist for years. I feel a certain kinship to the congregation, the Benchoff family, and our organ, all because Becky and I talked story.

I can’t wait to talk story with you! Only God knows what might emerge!

Pastor Anne

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Thinking of children

         Front-page news coverage draws us to particular political realities.  The pictures and the report cause us to think of the conditions under which children from Central America are being subjected.  We need to think of the children in these situations.  We have a moral imperative to think of other ways to solve immigration and asylum issues.

            This 4thof July week is a good time to think about the children for whom we in America have responsibility.  What kind of world do we want them to experience in their adulthood?  What are our hopes for them?  As people of faith what do we want to tell them?

            As I look at the state of education over the years contained within my own lifespan, I can certainly see great advances.  I, for one, was the first in my immediate family to go to college, and even get a Masters Degree.    Yet all children do not have access to quality education.  All schools are not created equal.  All children in this great and wealthy nation cannot afford to go to school.  Some even need to sacrifice for the sake of the family and give up school in order to work in the fields.  Teachers are uniformly underpaid.  As we celebrate the 4thof July it is a good time to think about the children and how we teach the stories of America, the good and the tragic.  

            As Global Warming and Climate Change (or in some cases the denial of such) dominate discussions worldwide, let us think of the children.  As people of faith we have been entrusted with the task of being faithful stewards of creation.  The time of exploitation needs to end because it is not sustainable.  Our children deserve better.  Our children deserve the opportunity to enjoy the natural world. Our children deserve safe water and clean air.  As we celebrate the 4thof July it is a good time to appreciate those parks and recreational spaces where we will celebrate and consider how we safeguard their future.

            This annual celebration of America’s founding is a good time to think about the children.  Are we teaching them the lessons of Civics about how our nation works?  It is an opportunity to think about how we teach our children (and hopefully ourselves) how to listen to one another and talk to one another.  Democracy is a fragile creation.  We need to teach our children (and ourselves) how to move beyond negative obstructionist political action.  We need each other so that we can preserve our Democracy for our children.

            Finally on this 4thof July week it is well to remember that our founding ancestors deliberately separated “church and state”.  Rather than limiting God to blessing only our nation, let us think how our faith informs the decisions we make.  As a people of faith guided by the teachings of Jesus how we do view our policy discussions on such things as education, immigration, climate, our Democracy through the spectrum of compassion, mercy, and justice? 

            Maybe, just maybe, if we paid attention to the children we might find the will to confront the difficult issues of our corporate life in such a way that our children and our grandchildren might enjoy the fruits of this great experiment, The United States of America.  It’s worth a try.  Happy 4thof July!

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara

Friday, April 12, 2019


            I admit it.  I love Spring!  It literally awakens my soul.  There have been decades in my life when I lived in areas that did not have four seasons. Since I began my life in western Pennsylvania I found myself missing that visual palate of change.

            I did learn to appreciate the subtle differences in those areas for which the classic definition of  “winter, spring, summer, fall” were not descriptive.  While we lived in Arizona, we were fortunate enough to see the desert in bloom.  It was wonderful.  In Panama the tropical lushness was enhanced during a brief couple of months of dry season, when there were even more exquisite blooming plants.  In California there is a time of the year when the brown hills turn bright green and mustard and poppies cover the hillsides in yellow and orange.  In Florida the differences seem more subtle in my memory although year around there is much beauty to be seen.

            I once again live in a region that displays four seasons.  The delicate beauty of cherry blossoms, dogwoods, redbud, daffodils, and so much more refresh my spirit and renew my soul.  I see new birth and new life all around me. I breathe deeply the warming breezes. I begin to envision new possibilities.

            For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is when Earth Day is observed. The fragility of the spring blossoms is a visual reminder of the fragility of our planet.  Although the blossoms give way to the heartier leaves and plants of summertime, our earth is increasingly not in a similar trajectory.  For our planet the fragility of spring is rapidly progressing to the end of autumn and the barrenness of winter.  

            This spring, this April, let us listen to Spring’s message of beauty and possibilities.  Just as the blossoms have within their structure the ability to bear fruit, so can our imagination and commitment to our earth produce new possibilities.  We can reorder our way of doing things in order to protect this fragile planet.  We can treat the earth gently so that she can thrive.  Spring is a reminder of new birth.  

            I love the hymn “Touch the Earth Lightly”.  The lyrics were written by Shirley Erena Murray (1931-  ).

            Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, 
            nourish the life of the world in our care:
            gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, 
            trust for the children tomorrow will be.

            Happy springtime!

Grace and Peace,
Rev. Clara

Monday, March 4, 2019

Wilderness Walking in Lent

          The season of Lent traditionally begins with reading the story of Jesus entering the wilderness after his baptism and facing three temptations.  The practices of Lent are designed to engage us in introspection of our own failings and a recognition of our reliance on God’s Grace.

          The wilderness imagery is helpful as we begin this journey to the cross.  Recently I read a book by Scott Stillman titled, Wilderness The Gateway to the Soul.  Some of his reflections as a wilderness trekker are instructive for our 2019 wilderness walk.

          Scott Stillman is a lot more prepared for spending time in the remote wilderness of our country than was Jesus.  He goes into these experiences equipped with water and excellent food choices to give him the energy needed for such an adventure.  The gospel of Luke records that Jesus ate nothing during the forty days in the remote region of what is now Jordan.

          The author of Wilderness recounts one backpacking trip when his planning did not work out quite as well as he envisioned.  He was on a five-day solo journey through Sycamore Canyon Wilderness in Arizona.  The canyon was not providing the expected sources of water.  His four liters of water went down to one and then less and less.  His story gives depth to Jesus’ experience.  When you are hungry or thirsty the mind focuses on these needs.  As well it should. These are life threatening issues.  The human body needs water and food to survive.  It is no wonder that Jesus heard the lure of twisting his mission in the world to that of self-centered miracle worker – command the stone to provide for your physical needs.  Do anything to make the desperation go away.

          Our Lenten Journey may not be fraught with hunger and thirst.  Most people only give up one thing for their Lenten Fast.  The human body can subsist without chocolate or meat.  We may be uncomfortable, but we are nowhere near the crisis of decision brought on by no water, or no food.  That means we need to engage our minds and spirits this Lent to become aware of the pain and anguish brought on people for whom this deprivation is a stark reality. 

          Scott Stillman found water in the canyon walls as he slowly continued his trek.

          Jesus rebuffed the temptation when he said: One does not live by bread alone.

          Can we hear the cries of the families in Flint, Michigan who continue to be without safe drinking water?  Can we see that people are starving in Venezuela while relief is withheld on the other side of the border?  Can we give more to Food Pantries as part of our Lenten Discipline so that people in our county can eat nutritious food?

          The second Temptation connects with a very human desire, prosperity.  In the midst of the Great Depression, people wanted relief from the destitution around them.  After the WWII there was a period of “success”.  The machinery of war was transformed into the machinery of acquisition.  As a people, we bought a lot of things.
This impulse continued in the decades to follow.  We are a consumerist society.  We look from our own “mountaintops” and see all the things we want.  And we give celebrity status and deference to those who acquire the most.  And some of us want to be one of those with the “most toys” because “those with the most toys, win”.

          As a backpacker in the wilderness, Scott Stillman’s relationship with the environment and his experience of ecstasy over the beauty of creation has had the opposite effect on him.  For him, less is best because it allows him to experience the abundance that is right before each of us.  He writes about Dark Canyon Wilderness in Utah:

          Like dancers in sequins, the cottonwoods dazzle and sparkle against an illuminated backdrop of glowing red sandstone.  Such a glory to witness!  What’s so comforting, so reassuring, so gratifying, is the fact that this happens every day, whether I’m here or not.  The beauty remains.  Perfection exists!  Unfathomable.  Unconditional.  Long before we ever existed, long after we are gone.  This place exists.

          There are no roads, no motors, no scenic roped off viewpoints, no paved walkways.  No improvements. There’s only one thing to improve here.  Our respect.  Our empathy.  For the Earth.  The very soil beneath our feet.  This place we all come from, and will all return to, as does everything that nourishes our bodies to survive.
          Jesus responds to the Temptation of power and riches with the words:  It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’
          Scott Stillman does wilderness backpacking to appreciate the very essence of life on this earth and the sacredness of that life.
          On Ash Wednesday we are reminded:  Dust you are and to dust you will return. 

          The third Temptation Jesus endured was an invitation to invulnerability – power in the extreme.  “You can do no wrong”.  “God is on your side, so you have absolute license.”  Sadly authoritarian figures fall prey to this tempting idea.  We see this “protected absolutism” in homes, businesses and governments.  We also see some spectacular falls with no angels handy to help out!

          Scott Stillman does not recount anything that shows this hubris.  However his narrative introducing his walk into the wilderness of the desert between Moab and Hanksville, Utah, does show us the healthy self-awareness we can find in our own wilderness places.  He writes:

          It’s a time for gratitude and healing, both spiritual and physical.  And it’s a time to walk, simply walk, one foot in front of the other, and breathe in deep blissful silence.  It will take a few days for my busy mind to slow its chatter, but it always does.  So long as I’m patient, trust the process, and submit completely to a power much greater than myself.

          Solo trips are where I remember who I am.  Beneath this body, this face, this name.  In the end, I know too well that these details will fall away, and all that will remain is this pure silence, this pure light.  The same light I see in the eyes of a lizard, the eyes of a child, and the rocks, the plants, the lakes, the streams, the sun, the moon, the clouds, and the stars.  As divided as we may seem, we’re in this together.  In the end there is no separateness.  No lines drawn between you, me, rock and tree.  All of this I forget.  Over and over I forget.  Fortunately the desert is patient, reminding me again each time about the beauty, the silence, the light, and the miracle of all existence.

          Many of us have had similar revelations.  Perhaps in a church or monastery, high on a mountaintop, or gazing into the eyes of a newborn baby.  That experience when we stop thinking, even if just for a moment, and suddenly know – absolutely know – some overwhelming truth that we cannot put to words.  But these moments are fleeting, for as soon as we try to put them to words, label them in some way, we lose grasp.  We are back to thinking again and the moment is lost.  The truth is enough.  Just knowing that it exists.  So long as we don’t try to turn it into something.  Some thing, which it is not.

          Let’s go on a walk into Mystery.

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara

Wilderness, The Gateway to the Soul, Scott Stillman, Wild Soul Press, Boulder, CO, 2018.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Meeting God in a Winter Landscape

          As I write this, the sun is shining, the winds are up, but no snow has yet to change the landscape of my yard.  According to the weather forecasters, that is about to change.  Snow may well affect Sunday morning worship.  If it doesn’t, snow will surely affect some schedules in the mid-Atlantic region before spring blossoms arrive.  This meditation is designed to be a reflective piece for when the snow falls.

          The Bible doesn’t reference “snow” very much.  Not surprisingly considering the geographic area that gave birth to our sacred scriptures.  Snow is possible but uncommon in Israel.  It is primarily confined to certain parts of the country.  The 1950 snowfall was memorable.  That said, snow would not be a common metaphor in biblical literature.  In fact only six references make the “most memorable” lists. 

          Come now, and let’s settle this, says the Lord.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.  If they are red as crimson they will become like wool.   Isaiah 1:18 (Common English Bible)

          And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places; you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.  Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean, wash me and I will be whiter than snow.  Psalms 51:6-7 (Common English Bible)

          I am fortunate to live in a house that has a bit of a rural feel.  All the properties on our block are 1-1 ½ acres.  Many of the houses, including mine, are small Cape Cod style housing built in the early 1940s.  Others, on our adjourning block are houses built in the style of the 1950s.  It is only recently that some of our properties have been transformed into the popular large house with the manicured lawns.

          That means that even though I live a block away from the busy Beltway surrounding Washington DC, the view out my window includes trees and lawn and bushes along with deer and foxes.  When winter comes the lush verdant nature of the forest is replaced by barrenness.  There is  starkness in a winter landscape.
          That barrenness can be a reminder to us that we too are exposed in various seasons in our lives.  Sometimes we just know, whether we want to or not, that we can’t hide behind anything.  Just as the winter deciduous trees, we are robbed of our masks and our public coverings.  Our inner self and our inner attitudes are exposed.

          Let’s call them the 3 P’s – Prejudices, Presumptions, and Pride.
Oh, we keep the 3 P’s carefully hidden. 

          We say publically that we haven’t a prejudice bone in our bodies.  We love everyone, unless of course we decide they are a threat to us.  We don’t mine “diversity”, as long as “they” don’t get too close to us.  We have our prejudices, but we try very hard not to advertise them.  However our decision-making and opinions often betray us and we are stripped of pretensions. 

          We make our presumptions about how things should be based on our own life experiences.  That’s imminently logical.  Yet it is also self-defeating because we often find it difficult to hear and understand how someone else’s life experience is so different from ours.  We often quote “walk a mile in another’s shoes”.  Yet when it comes down to it, we don’t trade footwear.

          We say we are not prideful, yet we are adamant we have the right to prioritize our own self-interest.  What “I” want or think I need is a much stronger motivator than what “we” can do together or how “we” can share in the earth’s resources.

          Our winter selves stand barren against the world.  Our winter selves need to be reclothed in  God’s righteousness. 

          Into our winter world, (at least in some parts of our world) comes snow.  Quietly and silently falling, snow transforms the landscape.  Those barren trees are outlined in white.  Weeds are covered by a blanket of snow.  For just a moment, before the frenzy of shoveling, the noise of the snow blower, the sound of children playing, the world is made new. 

          In our spiritual lives we can look out at that winter landscape and see the work of God on our barren lives.  We too are covered by God’s Grace – coming silently and peaceably, settling on us and washing us free of the those three P’s that distort our relationship with God and with the world.

          Should the snow not come this weekend, or any weekend, take some time to look at some winter landscapes.  Get lost in the possibilities of that winter scene and allow it to draw you to God’s Grace. 

          Come now, and let’s settle this, says the Lord.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.  If they are red as crimson they will become like wool.   Isaiah 1:18 (Common English Bible)

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara