Friday, January 31, 2020

A Small World Story

I will be traveling to the Philippines (depart 2/19 and return 3/1) later this month for the second of two week-long retreats to work with clergy in the Philippines develop spiritual practices and communities of support to help sustain their ministry over the long-haul. I’ll be working with Rev. Dr. Matthew Lewis from my Wisconsin days. Matt is part of an organization that provides training for clergy both in the US, Africa, and Asia. 

You might wonder why in the world I’d travel halfway around the world to visit a third-world nation that was hit by a Category 1 hurricane on Christmas Eve, followed by the eruption of the Taal Volcano with over 300 earthquakes recorded since its eruption. 

For me, it’s personal. Shortly after I moved to Hawaii in 2001, I met Fe Nebres, Hawaii Conference UCC Associate Conference Minister. Fe was ordained to ministry some 35 years earlier in the United Church of Christ Philippines. She was incredibly generous in her acceptance and nurture of me as I sought ordination. She modeled the extravagant welcome of the UCC and mentored me through that process. She developed cancer and her final public act of ministry was at my ordination in Hana, Maui. At the end of the service she came forward, stood face to face with me, removed her beautiful, hand-woven stole, and placed it on my shoulders. The stole was made by women in the mountains of the Philippines and presented to her at her ordination. In giving it to me she passed on her blessing and affirmation of my call. 

Matt contacted me two years ago to see if I’d be interested in mentoring a group of clergy women in the Philippines. They had specifically asked for a mature woman to work with them and apparently, I fit the bill. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or honored! 

I didn’t have to think twice. Unknown to Matt, I’d traveled to the Philippines with a group of clergy from Hawaii in 2009 with Compassion International. Rod and I have sponsored a girl named Vhea for the past 10 years as result of that visit. And Matt had no idea about Fe Nebres!

Last February I returned to the Philippines and met the cohort of women clergy I’d be working with in-person for that week-long retreat and then via internet video calls for the next eleven months. Early in our time together, I told them the story about Fe, and showed them her stole. The women broke down in tears, knowing the place where the stole was made. One woman boldly declared, “You brought that for me!” I gave it to her and she immediately put it on her shoulders and wore it for the rest of the day. Later, she told me she’d lost her husband, with whom she co-pastored, to cancer 5 months earlier. Although they were both pastors, that denomination wouldn’t support her ministry in a ministry without her husband. She had to move out of the parsonage and, without a home or job, she was desperate. She discovered a home and ministry in the United Church of Christ Philippines. She’d been praying for a sense of affirmation and peace, and the stole was her answer.
This trip, I’ll spend a week leading sessions, teaching, mentoring, and praying with these friends I have come to love. As a bonus, I’ll make a side trip to meet Vhea, now 15 years old, for the very first time!

It will be a busy month, with the start of confirmation class, and preparations for my travels.  I ask for your prayers for safety, good health, a quick adjustment to jetlag, patience in the midst of language challengers, and above all sensitivity and attentiveness to the movement of the Spirit in our work together. I am sure I will receive far more than I can possibly give!  Please know that I will also be praying for you!

Thanks you.

Pastor Anne

Thursday, November 28, 2019

One Tiny Little Light

One tiny little light. That describes in the simplest of terms what comes to mind when I think about Christmas.  It comes from my childhood memories of multiple Christmas Eve services at Kenmar Presbyterian Church all wrapped up in one. It came towards the end of the service, after the choir, the scripture readings, the Christmas carols, and the sermon. On the altar at the front of the chancel rested a manger set, and as all the lights in the church dimmed, the only light remaining was one tiny little candle set in the front of the manger. The pastor would sing in his lovely tenor voice, “Dear Little Stranger, Born in a Manger.” The light from candle would cast shadows of the manger onto the wall behind it, twinkling small and brave and true, like the infant receiving the lullaby.

There are a lifetime of additional memories I could share about Christmases past, the single orange in the toe of the stocking (a treat beyond measure), or the scent of the pine tree, or the sound of my father’s voice reading the Christmas story from Luke before we could go into the living room to see the gifts under the tree. But the simplicity of that one tiny candle is what grabs my attention.

Perhaps it is the littleness of Christmas that matters most. God, the creator, redeemer, sustainer, the One Beyond our human capacity to grasp, poured all of what is good, God’s faith and hope and  love, into the tiniest of vessels – a helpless and totally dependent little baby left in the care of two na├»ve, poor, parents. Jesus, the helpless and dependent, is life, and that life is the light of all people, darkness not able to overcome it.

It is so easy to fall under the spell of bigness in our culture of supersized meals and more is better. It is easy as a congregation to compare ourselves with bigger churches, and our small town with bigger metropolitan cities. But the miracle of Christmas, indeed the hope of Christmas, is in small, personal, intimate acts of love and grace and justice expressed not in wealth or dominance, but in peace and kindness and hope in the darkest of circumstances.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “The big things in life are things.” This month our congregation will be involved in a number of worship experiences, decorating the church, leading one of the Woodstock Minister’s Fellowship Lunchtime Advent Services, the Hanging of the Greens, four Advent worship services, putting up and taking down the Singing Christmas Tree structure, providing gifts for those in the greater community in need, two performances of the Singing Christmas Tree, and the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. The challenge for us is to remain focused on the Light of all people in the midst of what is going to be a very busy month. Be alert, looking for that light in the smallest acts of kindness, of sharing, of peace. Only God knows what a tiny little light can accomplish in the darkness of winter.

Thanks you.

Pastor Anne

Thank You!

What a glorious time to be in Woodstock! The weather has turned brisk, the leaves are absolutely gorgeous, and popping up all around town are Pumpkin People! I’ve seen a pumpkin dressed in fatigues waving an American flag, pumpkins playing checkers, a pumpkin life guard, and a pumpkin farm complete with barn, farmer, and pumpkin pigs. 

St. Paul’s United Church of Christ didn’t miss out on the festivities. The last weekend of October was full of ministry opportunities and community engagement including a Friday evening Halloween Party for children and their families in the fellowship hall, participating in Halloween on the Square on Saturday,  giving out orange “Set Out to Shine” wrist bands to all of our children, and Bibles to our 6-year-olds during the Moment for Children, an exciting Jr. Church focused on “Super Heroes” in the Bible, and passing the 2020 Church budget in a congregational meeting.

As I think about November, gratitude and thanksgiving well up inside! I am so thankful to be serving alongside you at St. Paul’s. I am thankful the people involved in our ministries: those who work with our children, those who donate goods, money, and time to the work of our church, those who faithfully bring children to church, those who organize and lead by serving as Elders, Deacons, Trustees, Offices, and on our various ministries, those who pray for our church and community, those who share their gifts of music, and those who give by being present.  I am thankful to have the privilege and opportunity to live and serve in Woodstock.  And I am so very thankful for the gift of being able to learn more about the community, the congregation, and each person I’ve had the chance to spend time with.

Thanksgiving is a part of our national narrative, a hard-stop to take time to recall and reflect upon the many blessings that we have received. But thanksgiving extends beyond our borders and our time, back to the very origins of our faith.  I imagine God breathing thanks into creation, into swimming fish, birds in flight, giraffes stretching their necks, monkeys swinging from branches, and humans awakening to the gift of life. From the beginning of our Judeo-Christian roots, regular times of thanksgiving were built into the fabric of worship and life. Thanksgiving is a reminder that all that we have isn’t really ours; it is pure gift, from the food we eat to the roof over our heads, to each heartbeat and breath.

If I were to make a pumpkin person, it would be smiling, and holding a quote by Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in all your life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Thanks you.

Pastor Anne

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