Pastor Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy

Notes from Eliza

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June 2017

Pentecost is upon us again: according to the church calendar, it is one day. But I encourage you to give the Spirit a season; this ever-present and dangerous member of our Trinity. Give the Spirit time, and make her welcome. For as we celebrate the moment in which languages and cultures came together in mutual understanding, we would do well to make spaces in which the Spirit can move among us, as well. Watch a movie that is not centered on people who look like you. Read a book by someone of a different gender, orientation, race, or background. Listen to music that was not written with your experiences in mind. Watch, read, listen without skepticism, without resentment, without defensiveness. Hear the experiences of those who are not like you, and let it open your heart to the ways in which the Spirit is present in your understanding and in your larger idea of what it means to be community

And celebrate the power of the Spirit, at work every day of our year.

Yours in Christ,


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May 2017

During Holy Week, I was talking to a good friend, who is going through a really difficult time. Towards the end of the conversation, she said, "I've never felt Good Friday so deeply... and never felt less prepared for Easter."  Her words made a lot of sense.

As Christians, we go through the patterns of the year in a set rhythm. The despairing shadows of Advent (4 weeks) give way to the light of Christmas and the brilliance of Epiphany. The preparation and soul-searching of Lent (40 days) culminates in the reminder of the cost of discipleship: triumph and tragedy hand in hand, but always leading to resurrection and life. The power of Easter (50 days) and the inbreaking of the Realm of God calls us to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit: the Pentecost that seeks to sustain our discipleship and ministry in this world.

And in between, long stretches of Ordinary Time.

In the church, the whole cycle happens in a year, in ritual patterns and set times. So we can walk through the 4 weeks of Advent, or the 40 days of Lent, knowing that they will soon end, that there will be light and life and joy again.

The ups and downs of our lives tend to be a little messier.

Sometimes, our times of difficulty fall within the pattern of the year, and it is easy for us to see them as "Good Friday" moments - as happened to my friend. More often, they fall in less-obvious times, with less-clear timelines. And the church calendar begins to feel as though it doesn't speak to us, as though it is forcing us into a season for which we are not prepared.

Yet the rituals of our liturgical year serve, as all rituals do, to remind us that we do not walk alone through the ebb and flow of life. The common life that we walk in ritual over the course of a year reflects the human life that we each experience over larger swaths of time. In the communal ritual, we are reminded to pray with those who are praying - in despair, in grief, in shadow - and to rejoice with those who are experiencing light and life. In the communal ritual, we are reminded as individuals that, although the timing may be less certain, light will come into our shadows; grief and death will not have the final word; the Holy Spirit will come into our lives as advocate and support. And in between, there will be ordinary time.

Some of you, like my friend, may not have felt prepared for Easter this year; Good Friday may still be too present. But let the ritual remind you that Easter is coming - your resurrection, your life made new - in its own time. There will be some of you who will know Epiphany in July, or Advent in February. That is human life. But I invite you into the rituals of the church year, the rituals embodied in community. I invite you into the promise that the light will shine in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it; in the church or in our individual lives.

Yours in Christ,


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April 2017

In her poem titled “The Church Year,” Ann Weems writes:

The church is Easter.

Out of Death: Life.

Out of blackness:     a lush green world,

            flowers in the ice,   

            sunrays in the storm,

            mustard seeds galore.

Our souls enter a spiritual springtime,

Our bodies given over to leaping and dancing,

Our very beings saturated in hosannas.

Our shouting crashes in upon this world:
The Lord lives!

We live!

Resurrection resounds throughout our community.

I love that phrase: “Resurrection resounds.” On Palm Sunday, Jesus declares that if the people are silent, the rocks will cry out. When Easter comes, resurrection resounds.

Often, in our lives, it seems we notice the presence of death - anxiety, loss, fear, hatred - and let the presence of life pass by unremarked. And so I challenge you, in these days leading up to Easter: Where do you notice resurrection resounding?

For the next couple of Sundays, we'll have slips of paper in the bulletins - I would encourage you to write on them your glimpses of resurrection, in your own life or in the world, and put them in the offering plate or bring them in to the office.

Resurrection resounds; thanks be to God!

Yours in Christ,


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March 2017

It's Lent again.

In years past, I've used this space to talk about discipleship, about what we might give up or take on as a spiritual discipline. I've suggested practices, reading lists, prayers.

Not so much, this year.

Because, really, I don't know what you need to do this year.

I don't know what any one person needs to do to grapple with their own mortality. I don't know how each person hears the words that start us on this 40-day path, "out of dust you were created, and to dust you shall return." Each of us shall feel that smudge of ash differently, based on our own experiences, our own individual understandings of our mortality.

Lent is an interesting and difficult season. It's shadowy, but not as dark as Advent. Lent takes the brilliance of the Epiphany light and narrows the beam: focuses it on introspection and discernment. Lent prepares us for Easter by asking us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and our lives; it prepares us for resurrection and eternal life by making us think about the life we're currently living.

The disciplines of Lent should help us focus that beam of light, should turn a clear mirror on ourselves.

So it may well be that you need to give something up. Not for the sake of suffering and deprivation, but for the sake of recognizing the abundance of our lives... or the clutter. You may need to give something up in order to find empathy, or for the sake of removing the distractions that keep us from self-awareness.

It may well be that you need to add something into your life. Meditation or prayer as a means of discernment; service as a means of humility and compassion. You may need a book to read or a program to follow.  You may not.

However you envision your spiritual discipline this year, and whatever it looks like for you, I hope that you will allow the deep truth of Ash Wednesday to lead you: that you are mortal, a being of dust and ash. But I hope that your discipline will lead you through the season and into a still-deeper truth: that God's eternal love fills and upholds even our mortal selves, and grants to us eternity.

Yours in Christ,


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February 2017

Content warning: your pastor is a geek.

I’ve had an episode of Star Trek (TNG, for those of you who care) stuck in my head this week. The one in which the Enterprise encounters one of many unknown phenomena: this one washes waves of energy over them which threaten to tear the ship apart. So, of course, they raise their shields. They assume a defensive posture, to safeguard not only the military-esque Starfleet personnel, but their families on board.

It’s human nature to self-protect, and to want to protect that which we hold dear. None of us would readily question the need to “raise shields” in moments of danger, real or perceived - most of us would be quite willing to defend first, ask questions later. Safety first.

When one is crouched behind shields, however - whether they are force fields against space, or strong opinions, or physical barriers - everyone on the other side is going to look like an enemy.

Jesus, facing those who had come to arrest him, rebuked the disciple who drew his sword. And we nod wisely, when we read the end of Matthew 26: of course we shouldn’t attack, meet aggression with aggression. But I don’t think we question why there was a sword: of course it’s right to be ready for whatever comes. Of course it’s wise to defend ourselves.

And so we miss the point.

Jesus, facing his own arrest, not only rebuked the sword-wielding disciple, but warned the entire group: who relies on the sword will perish by it. Those whose instinct is to aggression (even to counter it) will be overcome by aggression.

When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It’s human nature to defend, but God called us to the image of the divine within us all. It’s human nature to fight back, but Jesus showed us another way to be human. One that looks into the faces of those with whom we have deep and painful disagreements, and sees another human being, rather than an enemy.

Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and question the underlying assumptions that put swords in our hands, and shields up: the assumptions that defensiveness will keep us safe; that the threat of aggression will deter aggression.

It is a risky posture, to lower our defenses when the world around us feels so violent, when reports of attacks and violence flow daily through our newsfeeds. Even little disagreements feel heightened; it feels as though there is too much at stake. Lowering our defenses leaves our hearts vulnerable - and harder still, it leaves vulnerable that which we love. As vulnerable as Jesus when he left Gethsemane.

As vulnerable as the person who sees before them, not an enemy, but a human being.

As vulnerable as the person who relies, not on the sword, not on barriers, not on exclusion and the expectation of aggression, but on the possibility of love, and compassion, and mercy.

Our scriptures do not tell us that love will keep us safe. Mary, weeping at the foot of the cross, may well have wished that the disciple had ignored Jesus’ injunction…. she didn’t know how the story would end, so for her it must have seemed the end of the world. Our scriptures simply point us on the ways of death, and the ways of life; the ways of this world, and the ways of the realm of God.

And our scriptures tell us not to fear.

Not to grab for our swords. Not to put up our shields. Not to see anyone as inherently enemy, inherently “other.” Not to go on the defensive.

Not to fear. Even when the cross is looming before us.

Not to fear. Even when our place of comfort seems to be coming apart.

Put away your sword. Drop your shields.

Make it so.

Yours in Christ,


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January 2017

Now after that, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt..." Matthew 2:13

Thus begins one of the hardest texts in our Gospels, yet one we rarely hear, for this section of Matthew tends to fall on the Sunday after Christmas, when most of us are on vacation. Titled in many bibles "The Massacre of the Innocents," it tells of how Herod, upon learning that he had been tricked by the Magi (who went home by another way, instead of reporting back as ordered) had all the children in and around Bethlehem, who were under two years old, systematically killed. He was, of course, trying to destroy the child whom the Magi had named as a King - the infant born to Mary and Joseph.

Jesus and his family escaped. Most did not.

At this time of the year, we celebrate the coming of God into our world. We celebrate the incarnation: God made flesh, God with us. It is vital that we not overlook this detail as we re-tell the story; that we not lose ourselves in the cuteness of a baby surrounded by lambs and angels. God came into this world in the same messy way that all of us did: as vulnerable and dependent as any human baby. It is vital that we remember God's choice to become fully human out of love for us, for here God reminds us that our humanity matters. Our bodies matter.

Nor was it only the body of one infant, born in a stable in Bethlehem, that was of consequence to God. As much as the original incarnation, the continuing presence of God made flesh matters. The Body of Christ - interwoven, interdependent humanity - matters. The Body of Creation - vulnerable and needy - matters to the God whose love incorporates the entire world.

But if the incarnation matters - if it matters that God took on human flesh and lived as one of us - then we must read this Gospel passage as more than a horrific story.

For a powerful ruler, fearful of a challenge to his authority, sent soldiers to kill the people of his own realm. The powerful ruler sent the army, not into battle against other troops, trained and ready for battle, but to kill those who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were able to escape, under cover of darkness, praying that the baby wouldn't cry, that no one would see them, that somewhere, someone would welcome them: strangers in a strange land. Praying for Emmanuel: God with us, even as refugees.

The story that horrifies us in the Bible is unfolding in our daily papers, on the nightly news. People, who look much like Joseph and Mary, are fleeing state-sponsored violence, carrying their children and a few, necessary possessions. Children who look much as Jesus would have - brown-skinned children with wavy hair and big brown eyes - are watching as unspeakable horrors play out before their eyes.

Once again, Emmanuel - God with us - is fleeing before the specter of violence. Once again, people are dying because those in authority care more for their power than for human lives. Once again, the incarnate God is a refugee, seeking shelter from the cruelty that fearful humanity so often inflicts.

Once again, we are reading the story of the Massacre of Innocents. But now, we do not have the luxury of assuming that we would stand up to Herod's violence. Now, we do not have the luxury of assuring ourselves that we would welcome this Nazarene carpenter, with his wife and son.

Now the Christ Child awaits a cease-fire, and a bus out of Aleppo. Now, Joseph barters passage on a leaky boat, in the hopes of reaching Lesbos. Now, Mary rocks her child to sleep in a sprawling refugee camp that has become Jordan's third-largest city, and wonders how long she can survive in a tent. Now Emmanuel - God with us - wonders where to find shelter, welcome, love.

Friends, in this Christmas season, let us remember that it matters that God took on our humanity, our vulnerability, and came to live as one of us. And let us follow in the way of God, recognizing without fear our own vulnerability and interdependence. Let us live as though the incarnation really mattered to us, right now, in 2017. Let us put ourselves into the story, let God-with-us know that we are also with God, wherever God is made flesh in this world.

Yours in Christ,


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December 2016

This morning, in conversation with a colleague in Maine, I came upon Woody Guthrie's new year's resolutions from 1943. (See below for the link.) Guthrie, a talented and prolific musician who struggled with chronic illness and often had a troubled home-life, wrote a list of 33 resolutions that form a poignant reflection of what was meaningful to him at that particular moment in his life. Some of the resolutions seem simple: reminders to brush his teeth, take a bath, and eat some fruit and vegetables. Others seem like good advice for professional improvement: develop a schedule to help work more and better, read more, listen to the radio more, "play and sing good." Still others bear the imprint of the wider world: "Beat Fascism", a nod to the Second World War and the horrors going on in Europe. Even as his marriage was crumbling, the resolutions to "send Mary and the kids money" and "don't get lonesome" are heartbreaking. At the same time, though, he resolved to "keep hoping machine running," to dance better, and to "wake up and fight." It turns out that Guthrie is a lot like the rest of us, living a life of joy and pain, dedication and complacency, connection and isolation, dancing and forgetting to brush your teeth.

Even before you get this, we will begin again, starting the centuries-old journey through the church year. Advent has come around again, reminding us of God's radical breaking into the world in the form of a poor Jewish refugee child. We will be invited, once again, to reimagine how we can help God break into the world anew through our acts of worship and service. Looking towards the coming year, are you making some resolutions? What kinds of commitments are you making (and maybe even renewing) to reconnect yourself with God and with your neighbors? Our church has committed to a renewal and deepening of relationships within this community, to bringing the light of our church family outside of these walls.... what will you do?

Email me at Let me know what's on your resolution list. Help us keep our hoping machine running.

Yours in faith, Eliza

Footnote: You can find the complete list of resolutions at

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November 2016

As many days as I can, I try to walk; to walk my son to school, to walk to work, to walk around my neighborhood. It's something that I am privileged enough to be able to do, something that does me good in body and in spirit.

Recently, in one of our coaching sessions, Rev. Paul Nickerson introduced the concept of the prayer walk. Most of the folks in the room - New England Congregationalists - flinched at the idea. Paul chucked, accustomed to that reaction, and then explained. Prayer walking is not going out, looking for strangers to pray with. It's not walking around with a sandwich board advertising that you're a church member, praying for a community.

Prayer walking is simply walking, with an awareness of God's presence in any given neighborhood. It is walking with the intention of being compassionate, being open, being fully present to the opportunities that present themselves.

A colleague and friend, the Rev. Thea Racelis, reflected recently on her practice of prayer walking:

My prayerwalks in Middletown have taken me up and down Main Street, down to Harbor Park, around the South Green, and across the way to Middlesex Hospital, around Wesleyan and through the neighborhood. And they have taken me into the woods where I go to listen for the voice of God.

When you prayerwalk, you are asking God for the needs of the community. You are seeking the presence of God as you go, bringing God with you step by step. You might walk past St. Vincent’s and say hello to the people hanging out outside and pray as you go that God would bring blessings of food and shelter. You may notice a sign telling you that a business has closed and you pray for the ones who have left, that they may know success and joy elsewhere and pray for the ones to come, that they may be of blessing to the community. You might pray for what you’d like to see in a community as you go, for vibrant parks, for access and resources.

One thing I’ve experienced is that when I am on a prayerwalk I notice things differently, I am focused on God instead of on getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Sometimes I have an opportunity to stop and have a conversation with someone. Sometimes I notice the smells as I walk past a spot: coffee, fall leaves, exhaust from the cars driving by. Sometimes sounds catch my attention: the music coming from the speakers around town, a flock of Canada geese overhead.

In this Stewardship season, I invite you into the practice of prayer walking. On colder or rainy days, walk around the inside of the church. Other days, walk around Rochester. Notice things. Notice people. Allow yourself to feel: nostalgia, concern, gratitude, hope.  Be intentional in seeing the places where the Spirit is already at work - in the kindness of strangers, in the crunch of leaves underfoot, in the scents and the sounds of life around us. Be mindful in acknowledging the places that might need God's presence, grace and compassion.

Where God's presence is needed in this community: those are the places that are calling us to be the church outside our walls.

Walk around this church, this community, and pray: for the needs, and for our ability to respond lovingly to those needs. Consider prayerfully the response that you would like the church - this community of disciples, this Body of Christ - to be able to make. Discern what you will be able to give, of your time, your talent and your treasure, to do the ministry that First Church is called to do.

For we are called to pray within our minds and hearts, but to pray as well with our hands and our feet. This is the work of ministry for us all.

Walk. Pray. Discern. Where are we being called, right now? And what resources will we bring to our ministry?

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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September 2016

We are living into a lot of change, right now.

On a broad scale, election years are necessarily full of uncertainty and the possibility of change. They are unsettling, as we look more critically at the future - and our role in it.

During times of uncertainty in our lives, it has often been helpful to have the stability of the church and its message of grace and hope. We hang on to the knowledge that, whatever else happens, our God is steadfast and will see us through everything this world can throw at us.

It doesn't feel fair that the church is changing, too.

At the end of July, we said goodbye to our beloved organist and choir director, Dick Lavache. Dick's musical talents have often soothed our hearts and inspired our souls; his compassion and humor have made him a valued part of this church family. We will miss him, as we should. Thanks to the hard, careful work of our Music Committee, our new organist and choir director, Rev. Bill Bergquist, will begin on September 1. He will bring, I am sure, a new style and a new energy to our community. New music, new ideas, new faces; these bring uncertainty but also new possibilities, which I hope we will welcome as we welcome Bill and his son, Russell, into our church.

Over the summer, the Church Council voted to move from our traditional two services to one, at 9am. Although this is a somewhat familiar concept, from our years of summer worship, to continue in this way throughout the year feels new and big and perhaps a little overwhelming. The way we worship - and where, and when - provokes strong feelings in this church, as many of us know well! In the past weeks, there have been a lot of conversations in the ministries of this church, trying to make this transition as smooth and thoughtful as possible. The Ministry of Spiritual Nourishment has tried to balance our times in our two beautiful worship spaces, and to prayerfully discern how best to meet the needs of the entire congregation. Your Deacons have worked with tremendous love and hope for this church to live into what is possible, as we begin this new chapter. Likewise, the Ministry of Faith Formation is working to develop new curriculum to teach all ages of student - children and adults alike! - and to help us welcome all of God's beloved into our time together. There will likely be modifications of our initial ideas, as we put hope into practice, but we can be certain of this, at least: that these faithful ministers will, with open and loving hearts, guide us into the places God is calling us to be.

In recent weeks, the Ministry of Stewardship has been in conversation with a new grassroots Recovery Organization, on how our beautiful building might come to serve this community in a new and much-needed way. Much like the Frisbie Hospital initiative, SOS is partnering with local organizations and police to help people achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery, and it feels appropriate to help them with this ministry. Here too, we might see change: rooms repurposed and occupied during otherwise-quiet times of the week; new faces around First Church and new relationships with the community. Our Stewards have engaged in discussion both internally and with SOS; they have been both cautious of our space and our integrity, and open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Here again, in the midst of uncertainty and new beginnings, we may be certain of the faithful ministry of these members.

Amidst all of the change and uncertainty, I have found myself hopeful, this summer. There will be many changes for us, as we head into fall, but we are being guided by faithful and loving members of First Church. This church has spent the summer listening to the still-speaking God, and discerning how we are called to be church in the coming years. The leadership of this church has prayed, discussed, worried, hoped and dreamed together. They have demonstrated again and again the grace and hope of the Gospel message. They have embodied together the one truth that gets us through change, time and again: that our God - present in these faithful - is steadfast, and will walk with us through all the change this world might throw our way.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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August 2016

This month, I had the privilege of spending several days with colleagues from multiple denominations, gathered from around the country. Our presenter, Rev. Susan Beaumont, told us a wonderful story about a church she'd worked with several years ago:

Once upon a time, there was a dying church. They had a small building, but they had no pastor, no musician, and no leadership. But they did have Mrs. A. Every Sunday, Mrs. A would go to the church, turn on the lights, and open the doors. For a long time, Mrs. A sat alone in the church building on Sunday mornings. Until one day, some folks walked in and joined her.  And then more, and then more. Eventually, they were able to hire a pastor, and a musician, and their church came back to life.  All thanks to the faithfulness of Mrs. A.

It's a beautiful story. It's the narrative that that congregation still tells of their comeback.

But it's not what really happened.

It meant a lot to this congregation that their story felt like divine deliverance, like a miracle of God. It meant a lot to them to know that, even in the midst of fear, God had not abandoned them.  So their story is true, if not factual.

In many ways, the factual story is a better one. Mrs. A did continue attending the church faithfully, although it doesn't appear she was ever really alone on Sunday mornings.  She and the congregation used those times, without pastor or music, to make the hard, necessary decisions that enabled their resurgence.  They hired a pastor they couldn't really afford. They gave hugely of their time and treasure to invest in a new vision for what their church could do and be, and then worked for years to communicate that vision, that hope, to their community.  Growth happened slowly, sometimes painfully, although Mrs. A was a tireless cheerleader throughout the process.

God sent them a miracle: a group of visionary, dedicated church folk who believed more in resurrection than in death.

I wonder what it felt like, during those lean, hard years.  I wonder what it felt like for Jesus' disciples, before the resurrection, before the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.  I wonder what it felt like to be the church in Corinth, in Ephesus: to be so mired in disagreement and dysfunction that they had to write to Paul for mediation.

I wonder what it felt like for our congregation, to tear down and rebuild and move their building, more than once in their first hundred years.

I wonder what it felt like when this church had nine male members on the rolls, and no more than that.

What stories did we tell ourselves, to get through the changes we've seen, in our nearly 300 years? What miracles did we see, who were our Mrs. A - and what did they actually do, to move through death to resurrection?

What stories will we tell ourselves, 25 years from now, about the changes our church is living through right now? What stories will communicate to future generations our vision for First Church, our hope and our faith, during an uncertain season? Where, in the midst of all this change, will we see God? Where will we hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit? How will we articulate our vision for the church we want to become?

In the days and weeks ahead, I encourage you to tell the stories of this church. Use the facebook group, use the coffee hour, use Convergence and Out-of-Office hours and prayer shawl and member-guest events. Tell the stories of how God has moved in our midst.

Then take a moment to look for God's movement now. Look around for the vision we are creating together. Because in a few years, we'll be telling this very story to the next generation. Let's make it a good one.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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July 2016

Last month, I asked a series of questions regarding what the church is called, specifically, to do and to be in this world. Questions that pointed to the place where we are unlike some of the other institutions that call for our attention. Just a few of the responses I got included the following, which I share with you now:

"I think the Church’s distinct calling is to model the reign of God. Of course Who God Is might be the next question. God for me, is the Source of Creation, the Spirit of the Universe. So how do we model this Source/Spirit? Believing in the Oneness of all creation, which is in process. Oneness, i.e. community of love. The Beloved Community? Where peace, love, kindness, compassion, etc. is the rule of the day. The modeling of this Community is essential to the continuation of Creation and all this is part of it. This modeling can be specific in many actions by the community, such as feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, and changing unjust systems."

"Right now, my answer is that the church is called to be an inbreaking of the realm of God in this world. To be the place where grace is practiced, where the image of God is recognized, where the Body of Christ can seek healing together. The church is called to be the place where barriers are broken, and all people can break bread together in compassion."

"The church’s distinct calling is bring the faith perspective to each sector. Was not theology in the past regarded as “queen of the sciences?” In our secular culture and educational establishment we could say theology and metaphysics have been largely ignored, and even rudely tossed out. While we affirm a secular society and the separation of church and state—we do not want religion wielding political power, nevertheless, we do strongly affirm that religion should be informing and influencing each of the sectors.

For example, take the Sabbath. For years Sunday was observed as a day of quiet, rest and renewal. This has been largely lost. People now work 7-24 even if they do not wish to. This is because economics not longer includes religious priorities.

A similar situation prevails in farming. The farmer who was a person of faith observed fair treatment of animals, and recognized that one’s spirituality was essential for a sustainable, safe and healthy food supply. Now we have great biodiversitiy loss, unhealthy food, CFO animal operations, and the loss of small and family farms.

Or look at music and art; in the past inspiration was viewed as coming from “outside oneself”, from the divine, a gift, and was most alluring when it was offered for the glory of God.  Now we have celebrities, many of whom tarnish their lives with alcohol and drugs, unable to escape the trap of a false self.

It does means that religion must keep changing as the world changes, religion is a moving horizon."

"The church is supposed to communicate the reconciliation between God and humankind that God has initiated in Jesus to humankind, to worship and praise God for that truth, and to encourage reconciliation among humanity."

"For me (and it may not come out right), the church isn't just a social advocacy group, a meet-up, or an education center. The church is a thin place, where we wrestle with mystery, feel rather than understand the presence of the past colliding with the present & future, and don't have to have all the answers even while we surround ourselves with wisdom. I don't always come out feeling peaceful like I think I'm supposed to with meditation, but I (almost) always come away feeling like an integral part of something so much bigger than I could ever really conceive."

"The church provides the existential framework for how all of life fits together and what it fits together for.
It seems like the church (or religion) has the opportunity to help people look at all of the world in it's pain and beauty and say "that's all connected; we're all connected. It can be better. We can be better. Jesus makes that possible." And then worship would spill out of that awareness - that at the heart of existence, God moves."

In the light of the past couple of weeks, I would add one reflection: the church is the place where we are called to tell the truth of our God, whose love is beyond all of our imaginings, in a world that often leaps to judgment and shame. We are called to be countercultural in our radical, abundant, immediate love for all of God's Creation - and to put that love into action whenever we notice its absence.

What do you think? Where do you see God's love, where do you notice its absence, and what is our call in these times?

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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June 2016

Recently, a discussion started among a group of pastors, on what the role of the church is, or should be. But it is not simply our job, as seminary graduates or public theologians, to answer these questions. It is the job of the whole church together, to reflect on our role in each generation.

 So I pose these questions to you, disciples of Christ and ministers of Christ's church. What say you? What makes us unique and necessary?

Send back your answers, and we'll share in the next newsletter!

Serious Question: what do you think the church is supposed to DO?

 Plenty of non-profits exist that serve the marginalized in the world.

 Meetup and community activities can help you find groups of people to "fellowship" with.

 Professional and amateur musicians are ubiquitously available to listen to and experience beautiful art that makes you contemplative.

 The Internet is chock full of TEDTalk style teaching that challenges and informs you.

 You can find places to teach you meditation and centering techniques - yoga, reiki, etc

You don't need to go to church to experience any of that. Many times, the church doesn't even do those things well when they try.

 So, what is the church's DISTINCT calling? What about church is specific and NECESSARY to the world?

 (Thanks to Rev. Elizabeth Grasham, Pastor of Heights Christian Church in Houston, TX, for asking the questions.)

  Peace and blessings, Eliza

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May 2016

We enter May, still in the season of Eastertide. It seems appropriate, now; the world around us is bursting with new growth, all of it seemingly from the sleep of death. It is always astonishing to me, how quickly things grow and change at this time of year, both in my garden and in my life.

When my nephews were children, I didn't see them all that often. Inevitably, when I did, I'd exclaim at how they'd grown.  "I'm going to put bricks on your heads," I'd say, "to slow you down, because you're growing up too fast!"  Their childhoods seemed to be passing in a blur, and I wanted to slow it down, savor the little kid innocence, the snuggles, the whispered confidences, the silliness. I, like so many of us in similar situations, wanted them to grow up at my pace, rather than their own.

As I watch my own children grow, I see the same longing play out over and over. The simultaneous joy and grief at watching them learn and develop... and change. The desire to keep them small, and innocent, and cuddly. Although my perspective here is not what it was on my nephews (daily contact will do that),  I do not begrudge anyone their grief at witnessing the rapid changes of childhood. As language improves, adorable lisps and mispronunciations are lost. As they get bigger, we lose the giggles that come with picking them up, swinging them around, tossing them in the air.

No amount of joy at their new accomplishments can quite erase the loss of those giggles.

All change invites grief. It is simply human nature to hang on to the familiar, the known, the loved. Even changes that we anticipate with joy are prone to moments of longing for the past; embarking on a long-held dream, moving to a beautiful new place, transitioning to a fantastic new job. Even new parents, delighted at the arrival of their child, may grieve the loss of freedom - of being able to just pick up and leave the house without major planning (not to mention grieving the loss of a full-night's sleep).

It is human nature to want to manage change, to dole it out in acceptable amounts, so as to mitigate the grieving. We all have experienced some form of my reaction to my nephew's: things are just moving so fast, let's slow it all down, let's not have more change than we can handle all at once. I'm going to put a brick on your head to stop all this growth.

One day, when I had said this very thing to my youngest nephew, he responded very seriously, "You know, Aunt Liza, it wouldn't work. My body needs to grow. If you put bricks on my head, it would just mean I'd grow all crooked." He paused, for a long moment, obviously imagining this scenario. "And I bet that would hurt."

After the resurrection, Jesus told Mary not to hold on to him. I think my youngest nephew could explain why.

Growth and change are inevitable, in all of our lives. And they will bring grief, and they will bring joy, neither of which we will truly be able to control.

What we can control is how we act, in the face of change. We can react - we can allow grief to be dominant, and with it fear, anger, and resentment. Reacting cries out, "You've grown too much! I'm going to put a brick on your head!" Reacting ignores the hurt that we might inflict upon others, in our desire to halt or manage the chance. Reacting is the longing cry of the heart, in the face of possible loss.

Or we can respond, with thoughtfulness and care. We can respond by seeking the joy that change can bring - the new skills and accomplishments that are possible when growth is allowed to happen. We can respond by seeing beyond ourselves - to those who need to develop, need to grow, need us to encourage and rejoice with them, even as we grieve for ourselves. We can respond by working together to balance our natural grief with the ongoing need for growth in all of our lives, individually and in community.

My nephews have grown into really wonderful men, whom I still love dearly. They have grown into themselves, though occasionally the growth was awkward or difficult. There are still days when I miss their childhoods; I still grieve a certain snaggle-toothed grin. Yet I remain grateful for the reminder not to allow my grief to hold back their growth. I remain grateful for the reminder not to hold on to the old ways - not even to the immediate resurrection! - but to step back and watch the abundance of the Holy Spirit as she calls us to newness and life.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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April 2016

Christ is risen!

Now what?

It must have been pretty amazing, to see the empty tomb in the light of dawn. The beauty of such light makes even the most ordinary scene stop us in our tracks.

But then the sun comes up, and everything seems ordinary again. Peter goes home. The disciples go fishing. Two followers walk to Emmaus. When the world looks just like we expect it to look, even the miraculous can seem somewhat ordinary.

I suspect most of us understand this. After all, most of us probably went back to work on March 28th, as though nothing more than bunnies and chocolate had happened the previous day. In the day-to-day reality, in the ordinary light of our regular lives, the promises of the resurrection seem to fade. The awe we might have felt, staring into the empty tomb, fades to interest, then normality.

There are fish to catch, after all.

But what if we could maintain some of that awe? What if, even as the light around us changes, some of the dawn glow could remain within our hearts, transforming our vision? What if we could live as though we actually believed that love would conquer death?

What if the power of God were more than just a pretty story we hear between bites of chocolate bunny? What if it were the truth by which we lived every day?

What might be transformed, if we actually lived as though we believed in love triumphant? If we stopped letting the powers of death - fear, greed, hatred, defensiveness - control our lives?

That is our call, in this Easter season: to resist the temptation to simply go back to "life as normal", and hold on to the miracle of the resurrection.  To remain in a state of awe, to remain in the light of dawn, stopped short by the power of God in our world.

This is our call, to make Easter more than a story: to make the resurrection our lived experience.

For us, and for those around us.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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March 2016

Why do we worship in community?

It's a valid question, one that many people are asking in various forms. Slightly more often, I hear it phrased "I feel closer to God when I'm by myself in nature."

I don't think this is a new phenomenon. I think that experiences of the divine in beautiful, peaceful settings are as old as Christianity itself - if not quite a bit older. Why, then, does our tradition base itself in corporate worship?

I asked some colleagues this question. One quoted Tony Robinson, from his book Words for the Journey:

"'It takes a village to raise a child'... We need others to learn from and with. We need a larger story and framework of meaning than the family alone ordinarily provides. The church is that kind of village. The church is a community of people who are trying to live and teach a particular way of life, a way of life shaped by Christian beliefs and practices."

Another said this:

"You can't love or be loved alone... we are called to witness the Gospel to the world by our community: that is goes deeper than common interests, demographics, histories of morality, etc. And so we witness to that most fully when we represent the range of those to whom God's grace is available most completely."

It doesn't come easily to us, to love beyond our small communities. There is a lot of psychology that tells us that the less someone looks like us, the more suspicious we inherently are. The more someone challenges our notions of how the world should be - whether those notions are based on race, or gender, or age, or class, or religion - the more uncomfortable we become, and the more we are likely to reject that person entirely.

But Christianity leaves precious little room for that type of suspicion and rejection. Jesus seemed to relish making those around him uncomfortable. Who is my neighbor? a Samaritan - untouchable, despised. Who is worthy of healing? a slave, an invader, a woman, an outsider. The gospels are replete with stories of the disciples - who, presumably, should have known better - trying to exclude people from Jesus' circle, only to be rebuked. "Let the children come," Jesus said - and I suspect they were just as squirmy, loud and uncomfortably honest as my own children were. "To these belong the Kingdom of Heaven."

The disciples needed constant reminders. As, indeed, do we.

We need to be reminded that the image of God doesn't look like any one individual member of the church. God is not white. Or male. Or old. Or even human. (Although those Renaissance paintings are beautiful, they aren't theologically helpful.)

Because if the only image of God we ever see is ourselves, then our God is going to look a lot like us. And think like us. And behave like us. Which is problematic at best (I don't know about you, but I really want God to be bigger and better than me) and dangerous at worst. A God who is just like us is really an idol, and we're only worshiping ourselves and our own comfort.  A God whom we only experience in joy and beauty is a God who can't be present in discomfort and messiness. A God whom we see most clearly when we're alone isn't going to teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We worship in community so that we might learn to be more like Jesus: whole-heartedly welcoming those who are different, seeing them as fully human, beloved and worthy. We worship in community to learn how to see God in people we'd normally reject; to find God's presence in the midst of discomfort; to recognize the tremendous breadth and depth of a God who is so much more than just a more powerful us. We worship in community so that our God won't reflect our smallness and exclusivity, but that we might come to reflect God's vastness and all-encompassing love.

And that, my friends, is a God worthy of our worship.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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February 2016

Lent is very nearly upon us. 

Did you groan at that? Even a little? Lent has something of a bad reputation as being a dark and punishing time - a time of deprivation and endurance. We slog through forty days without whatever little pleasure we've denied ourselves: Easter is our finish line, when deprivation can finally give way without guilt, and we can pat ourselves on the back for getting through such a miserable time.

It's a cynical view, and one I hope none of your share in its entirety... but I very much doubt that there are many among us who didn't recognize ourselves, at least a little, in the above description.

So perhaps this is the year to re-frame Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality. More than that, we are reminded that we are all made of the same stuff - the same ash, the same stardust.

Given this perspective, what is it that we might give up, during these 40 days? What would change, for you, if you were to walk through this time, saying the Ash Wednesday blessing in your heart during every interaction: "Remember that you and I are dust, and to dust we shall return"? 

In Lent, we remember Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that were presented to him: to use his abilities to feed himself, and calm his own hungers; to rule over all the world; to manipulate God.

During this time, perhaps we would do well to ask what temptations we face: To serve ourselves before others? To exercise power over others - our co-workers, our friends, our children? To try to bargain with God, or make God serve us? What is it that we are tempted to put before our love of God and God's Creation?

What if our Lenten discipline this year were to give up convenience for the sake of community? If we were to stop using Dunkin Donuts styrofoam or plastic cups, and remember to bring our own instead? If we were to commit to buying local, or second-hand? To walking more and driving less?

What if our Lenten discipline this year were to broaden our perspectives: to commit to reading only books written by women, or people of color, Muslims, or LGBT folk? What might we learn about ourselves, our God, and our temptations, if we were to journal such an adventure? What might we learn, if what we gave up for Lent were an insular perspective?

It strikes me that Jesus did not fast so that he could really enjoy his first meal back after the wilderness experience. His fast was one of purification, of focusing priorities, of gaining perspective on the tempting distractions of this world. He fasted so that he could see the offers made him for what they were: idols that would turn him from God. He fasted so that he would be better prepared to serve God - to serve God's creation and the Body of Christ - with his whole self.

Perhaps that should be the goal of our disciplines as well. May we remove from our lives that which distracts us from one another and from God. May our fasts leave us changed for the better, able to fully appreciate and live into the new life of Easter.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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January 2016

The blessing that I wish upon each and every one of you, and which I pray daily for us all as a church. May this be given to us; may this be us.

May your eyes be opened to the daily miracles around you and your sense of mystery be deepened.

May you be aware of the light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness can never put it out.

May you be blessed with companions on the journey, friends who will listen to you and encourage you with their presence.

May you learn to live with what is unsolved in your heart, daring to face the questions and holding them until, one day, they find their answers.

May you find the still, quiet place inside yourself where you can know and experience the peace that passes all understanding.

May love flow in you and through you to those who need your care.

May you continue to dream dreams and to reach out into the future with a deeper understanding of God’s way for you.


(from "Hay and Stardust" by Ruth Burgess. Wild Goose Publications, 2005)

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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December 2015

Advent is once again upon us! 

As darkness comes earlier and earlier, as the cold finally sets in upon us, we start into the tasks of the season: shopping, cooking, and putting up lights.

It is very natural for us to do what we can to keep warm, as the cold sets in.  It is very natural for us to turn up the lights, as the darkness envelops us.  But we are becoming more and more able to set aside the cold and the dark, both literally and figuratively. We are becoming more and more able to skip Advent entirely, for the brilliance of Christmas. 

More and more, we are faced with the choice of whether we will engage in this time of preparation.  

Will we allow space for the cold? Will we walk when we could drive, even if it means facing the wind? Will we keep the heat lower, even if just for one hour per day?  We can learn from the discomfort of freezing temperatures. 

Will we allow space for the darkness? Will we hold off on holiday illuminations? We can learn from the discomfort of darkness. We can learn to see in different ways, with different contours. 

The physical, tangible practices of this time of year - of living with the realities of dark and cold - can serve to increase our compassion for those children of God for whom these realities are not a choice.  They can serve to bind us more fully to the rest of the Body of Christ, to remember that the health of the entire body relies upon the health - and warmth - of each individual member.  

But these practices open our hearts to pervasive spiritual realities as well, which are just as easy to ignore.  The warmth of our houses, the abundance of food, the brightness of the lights which surround us, belie the realities of a world in which inequality and violence, hunger and homelessness persist.  Will we allow space for this cold? Will we watch the news, will we listen to the stories of pain and despair, even though our hearts freeze and shatter? Will we allow space for the darkness? Will we look closely into the shadows, until the shades of gray become more pronounced, and we see with new eyes? 

The coming of the Christ child will not make the sun rise any earlier, will not keep the winter chill at bay.  But the arrival of God among us will shine a light into the darkness of this world's lived reality.  The birth of love made flesh will bring warmth to the emptiness of fear and despair... if we remember to look for it. If we have prepared ourselves for the spark that can start a flame to light the darkness and to warm the wounded heart.  

Advent is perhaps more necessary now than ever before, as we recognize how easy it would be to stay in our warm, well-lit rooms within the Inn; as we realize how hard it really is to venture out into a shadowy stable, dark and cold. May we use the coming weeks to prepare our hearts for God's quiet presence among us. May we make space for the cold and the dark, so that warmth and illumination may become a reality for all. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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November 2015

Excerpted from a recent article by Molly Baskette.
The full article can be found at

I’m a great connoisseur of anxiety. I used to be terrified of flying until the time my husband and I were coming home from my honeymoon and I literally drew blood from his arm with my fingernails and he said that’s it: either you get help or we’re getting a divorce. I went to the Boston University Center for Anxiety Disorders, and learned all about how anxiety works. And one thing I learned was that the human body will not stay anxious forever, unless new triggers are introduced into the system.

In the emotional system that is the mainline church, the Pew Center for Research is providing all the triggers we need to keep our anxiety at astronomical levels with their provocative studies crowing that the fastest growing religious group in America is people who worship brunch on Sunday morning, aka the Nones.  And if the Pew Center wasn’t bad enough then there are the bloggers who come in after each Pew study is released and dumb down the research for us, and write their sensational blog posts with titles like “Nineteen Ways You Have Already Completely Ruined Your Church,” and “14 New Careers for Washed up Pastors.” Church decline is practically an industry, and anxious people its target market.

I suppose I’m no better, because I wrote a book last year subtitled “How Our Church Came Back From the Dead and Yours Can Too.”

But it’s not true that the big-C Church is dying because our story is just too good, and the need for what we can offer is just too great...  the new narrative is an old narrative. It’s the parable of the feast.

Jesus was at a state dinner—how he kept getting invited to those things is beyond me— and he noticed people vying for the best seats. He got ornery, like he did sometimes, and he said something like, translated from 1st century into 21st century, “If you try for the best seats and get shut down, you’re only going to be embarrassed. Go for the nosebleed seats and then if you get moved up, you’re psyched. And anyhow, you want to see a real party? Invite the poor, the addicts, the mentally ill, the formerly incarcerated, the spiritually abused and former fundamentalist, the tattooed, pierced, the queers, the biracial multiracial foster adoptive families. Now that’s a party.”  

And Jesus went on to tell a story of just such a party—the king invited the respectable people, the ones who looked like they had their act together. The ones who ran the altar guild, and the prudential board. But those people didn’t need another party. They could throw themselves a party whenever they felt like it. And they made the lamest excuses–I have a herd of oxen I want to take for a spin! Or: my new wife won’t let me!  

Jesus was offering a stern warning to the religious insiders who thought their spiritual inheritance was assured, but who had forgotten where everything they enjoyed came from. They had their lives so together, at least to appearances, that they thought they had worked God out of a job.

But then there are the 30 million, 60 million, who knows how many millions of prodigals, nomads, exiles and Nones who really need and want what we can offer them in church, but they have not been properly invited. I talk to people all over the country about church renewal. I talk about radical, unequivocal, unrepentant welcome to LGBT folks, and alcoholics in recovery, and alcoholics NOT in recovery, and single moms, and soulful atheists, and radical antiracism activists, and what a real welcome to them looks like. 

There are so many people hungry for good news and good liturgy and generous community, people who want to learn how to pray, and who need places where they can bring their whole selves in, with their doubts and their heresies and their spiritual wounds. 

I think often about the church of the 50s–the church some folks still pine for–now I didn’t live then, but I’ve spent enough time with Christians who did, and heard too many stories about how folks felt like they had to present in a certain way, and hide or stuff or deny all the bits of themselves that didn’t belong. And all those bits went into their shadow side, and came out in really unhealthy ways: as alcoholism or abuse, self-loathing and suicide. But if you can’t come to church, and be your whole self, frail and flawed and in need of grace, what’s the point of coming at all?

This new generation of seekers wants to come real. They want beauty, mystery, transcendence–but not at the cost of authenticity and real vulnerability, which literally means: able to be wounded, because we are unarmored, and unwilling to fight violence with violence.

We can play church safe, with a lukewarmness that will offend no one but nourish no one either.

Or we can play church vulnerable, with an all-in lunatic longing for justice and love that will sometimes put us at risk. Jesus never said following him would make us safe. Maybe it’s why he had to say so many times: don’t be afraid.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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October 2015

Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee, passing through Samaria.  His disciples had gone into a village to get supplies, but Jesus decided to rest, under the broiling noonday sun, by an ancient well.  A woman came to that well, and Jesus asked her for a drink. After some hesitation, she began to converse with him, this strange man who didn't seem to know anything about convention or propriety, who was willing to speak - at length! - with a woman from outside his own religious group. In the end, he was the one offering her water - of the sort to quench a deeper thirst than even a desert sun can create. The Samaritan woman accepted the Living Water, the relationship with Jesus that would tend to more than just her immediate needs.

I suspect many of us come to church looking for similar results.  We come because we are tired and thirsty.  We come because the world depletes us, and we need to be refreshed.  We come because we need to tap into something which tends to us on levels that don't get nearly enough attention during the week. We come to church to refill ourselves with the Living Water, the experience of Christ in this world - and we hope to leave refreshed, renewed, and ready for the week ahead and all that it will pull from us.

All of which are excellent reasons to come to church. 

The one question that remains: Then what?

What do we do with our newly refilled selves? Where do we go with our renewed spirits, our watered hearts? What is our response to all that we have received with such grace and abundance?

The woman left the well at a run, and didn't stop until she was back in her village. She didn't have all the answers, didn't quite know yet who Jesus was, but had tasted enough of that Living Water to know what was being offered - enough to want more, and to want to share it with her friends, her neighbors, her family.  Receiving the water was the beginning, not the end of her story - not the end of her encounter with Jesus.  She drank her share, and then did her best to make sure that those around her would be able to drink theirs, as well.

In the coming weeks, we will hear a lot about giving to the church. In this newsletter, Ray talks about the satisfaction of giving to a church that he loves - and that I hope you love, as well. Giving is not a beginning; not a way in to the Church, not a quid pro quo that will get us an extra share of Living Water; rather, giving is a response to the refilling, the renewal, the relationship that we experience in this place. 

Some of us will give financially.  Some will give of their time, their work, their experiences, their talents - whether it is in painting, in organizing, in baking, in gardening, or in any other of the myriad ways we serve this church. I encourage you, as we walk through this Stewardship season, to consider prayerfully the ways you have been filled and quenched by your time in this community, and to consider how you will respond to the grace of God's extravagant welcome; to the abundance of love and caring that this community provides; to the presence of the Living Water, of the Risen Christ, within our lives because of this church.

I encourage you as well to remember that you are on both sides of this story. I hope that we will often be the Samaritan woman, eager to spread the good news that we have experienced.  Yet we are also the Body of Christ - we are, in our gathering, also the channels of that very Living Water on which we so depend. We are the ones who receive from our times together, but we are also those who make it possible for others to receive - those to whom we spread the good news, and those from whom we ourselves have heard it. Let us, like the woman at the well, respond to our own renewal by seeking to renew others. As our own thirsts are quenched, let us remember our ability to help others quench theirs, as well.  As we have received the waters of refreshment and renewal, so let us pour ourselves out - abundantly, generously, gratefully - that others might receive as well, both within and outside of the church. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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September 2015

We've been experimenting with Sunday School a lot this past year.

Partly, this just speaks to the current needs and realities of First Church.  But we are also part of something larger, common to many mainline protestant churches: a trend away from segregating ourselves by generation.

In the last church I served, I worked closely with the children and youth, teaching and leading youth groups, but also - as often as not - listening.  And what I heard made me sad: youth who felt disconnected from their church because they didn't know any adults but their parents and their Sunday School teachers. They who had no idea what an average worship service was like. They never heard the prayer concerns of the congregation, never felt like their own prayers had a place to be heard.  They did not feel heard, or known, or loved by the church that sent them away after 15 minutes of worship. 

Perhaps the most heartbreaking sentence I heard, though, happened during a confirmation class, as the students and mentors talked about what the Bible meant to them.  One fourteen year old, wide-eyed, finally voiced the surprise that a lot of them were feeling during that discussion, when he turned to the adults in the room and said, "Wait a minute: you have doubts and questions too?"

Yes.  Yes we do.  Even those of us who come to church every week, who pray regularly, who read and study the Bible, have questions.  We still grapple with certain texts, we still listen for new understandings and insights, we still wonder, and question.  And our children - the children of this church - need to know that. 

We all need a safe place to ask our questions, to delve into the mysteries of faith, to listen for the still-speaking God.  We need a safe place to try to put our understandings into practice - to feed the hungry, to warm those who have been too long in the cold, to bring community to the isolated.  We need a safe place to practice grace when those practices don't work as well as we'd hoped.  We need a safe place to practice being community - to work through differences and disagreements, to find common ground with someone who seems entirely "other", to speak the truth in love, to forgive as we would be forgiven. 

Our children need those things, too.  They need to see us practice, and fail, and practice again this life of faith.  They need to see that struggle and doubt are marks of faith, not of lack. They need to see us pray for one another.  They need us to pray for them... and they need to know that their prayers for us are heard, and valued. They need to learn from us, and we need to learn from them, together as one community of faith.

Because having the children in our community is not just a one-sided good.  They will learn from us, certainly.  But I hope that we will also learn from them, these little ones who aren't yet self-conscious about their worship, but who embody joy at being in the presence of God.  I hope we will learn from their laughter, from their prayers, from their enthusiasm.

And I hope that we will practice what we preach, when it comes to new things like broccoli and peas: try it.  You may well like it.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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August 2015

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should be Going to Church: a list for sharing.[1]

Recently, a long time and very active member of our church shared why he had started coming here.  Another member had invited him - not once, but several times. That, right there, is worth a pause: when's the last time you invited a friend to church several times? 

Many of us have a hard time talking about church, and why we love it.  Evangelism often feels like a dirty word in mainline Protestant circles. But we, who love this church, need to share that love.  We need to be able to tell people about the good we're doing in the community. We need to be able to talk about the benefits of being church together - the knowledge that there is a support network in case something goes wrong, or even the knowledge that we can be someone else's support during their difficult times.  The promise of being there for one another even if we don't always agree on every point - a practice that we need as the church, but that we need as well out in the wider world.  A reminder that love and grace transcend all our disagreements and all our differences.

Still not quite sure how to begin your evangelism?  Here's a top ten, for your consideration and to get the conversation started. 

10. Coming to church doesn't mean you have no doubts about God, faith, or religion. It means you have a place you can share with people who have their own doubts.

9. Bad stuff is going to happen in your life.  It just is.  A church community cannot be everything to everyone in times of crisis, but when the bottom falls out of your world, it's great to have a community to lift you back up.

8. Bad stuff is going to happen in your life, part two.  The time to build a relationship with God is not when life turns ugly, and you've run out of all other options.  Attending worship regularly helps build a (mutual, reciprocal, ongoing, growing - EBT) relationship with God and others that will give you a solid foundation when the winds blow and the storms come.

7. Not all churches are anti-something.  Most of us are for people, for acceptance, for hospitality.  Really, we're out there. We just don't get the good press.

6. Any church worth its salt has really good food on a regular basis. (Hello, Coffee Hour and Blueberry Pancake Breakfasts! - EBT)

5. Churches offer opportunities to serve. Many people would like to help the poor, the hungry and the homeless, but they don't know how to get involved... Churches offer you ways to plug in to help those who need it most.

4. You've got a gift.  Probably two or ten of them.  Becoming involved in the ministry of a church will help you discover and use gifts you never even knew you had.

3. Not all churches are after your money.  Good churches want you to have a healthy relationship with money. Sure, churches need to pay the electric bill and the pastor and staff, but money and the church is more about you than it is about the church. World events have proven that it's better to put faith in God than in a bank account.  Church can help you with that.

2. Taking a break from our hectic lives to come to church is accepting the gift of Sabbath... We don't take Sabbath and come to worship because we have time, and have finished up everything that needs to be done.  We take Sabbath because it is time to stop, and we are designed to stop, rest and reflect.  Those who don't are destined to crash and burn.

1. Jesus is really cool.  Even if you don't know if you can believe in the whole Son-of-God thing, even if you refer to the resurrection as the Zombie Jesus event and even though those of us already in church often do a lousy job of following him, come to church and get to know Jesus.  The more you get to know Jesus, the more you'll understand why people call his way The Way.

Come to church to seek.  Come to church to ask.  God is still speaking; church teaches us to listen. Thanks be to God.

[1] By the Rev. Anne Russ, Argenta Presbyterian Church, North Little Rock, Arkansas.  Printed in Baskette, Molly: Real Good Church. Pilgrim Press, 2014

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July 2015

Have you ever just read the Bible?

A few of us have, I'm sure.  At least one person in this church is in the midst of doing just that right now.

Inevitably, the question that a pastor gets during the cover-to-cover reading is some variant of: "I never knew that was in there!  That doesn't sound like the God that I know! What gives?"  And that question is understandable.  There is some really hard, really violent, really heavy stuff in this collection of books that we use as our scripture and guide.  And, for the most part, those passages never get any airtime in our churches.  They are not, by and large, used in the Revised Common Lectionary that gives us suggested readings for each week, over the course of a three-year cycle.  They are not the texts that most pastors turn to when the Lectionary texts don't excite us or speak to us on a given week. 

Who wants to preach rape, torture, and genocide?  Most of us just wish we could excise these passages from our Bible.

But they're in there, for better or worse.  And maybe they deserve a little attention.

So we're going to tackle a few of these "texts of terror", as Phyllis Tickle called them.  During August, we're going to read and grapple with where God is in the midst of these horrible stories, and what they might still be able to teach us now. 

Why do I tell you this?  Why am I using my newsletter article to talk about what we'll be doing in church next month?

For the same reason that these texts are so rarely preached.  These are hard texts.  They may be particularly triggering for some of us.  So I want to give us a chance to consider, and pray about, what it means to hear these texts.  I want to give you the opportunity to come in and speak with me before August, if you feel a need. 

I also want to give you a chance to suggest texts.  If you've read passages that have really bothered you, what are they?  Odds are good they've bothered other people, as well.  I may not get to preach all of the hard texts, but I'll try to honor your requests.

But mostly, I want us all to have a chance to pray.  To pray for openness and fearlessness, as we face the shadowy crevices of our sacred story.  To pray for one another, and the hard times we've each endured in our lives, which may find an echo in these stories.  I want us to take the time, this summer, to recall that we are called to be the loving community which surrounds the shadows  of our lives with light, and turns our worship space into a place of true sanctuary. 

I rejoice that we can gather together to be the church, to be God's light in the world, even when faced with our own shadows.  For a church in which we can hold each other during our struggles, and strive together towards love even in the midst of difficulty, I give thanks.  Bless you all for being church, even when it's hard. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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June 2015

I had the great joy this month of being able to attend the annual Festival of Homiletics.  It's an awesome experience, getting to hear approximately 18 sermons and lectures (which, when given by pastors, sound a lot like sermons) over the course of five days.  Don't you all wish you could have been there?

Well, I do. 

Because there was more than good preaching going on in Denver that week.  Within the good preaching, and the talks and lectures, flowed the hopes and dreams that we all have for the church. 

There was Walter Bruggeman - truly a giant among preachers - warning us not to value orthodoxy over relationship with God.  A God who makes sense to us is not a God who can move in this world.  We need to prioritize a living, breathing scripture that tells us of a God who is more than two-dimensional, who is capable of paradox and contradiction and all that loving relationship requires of us. 

There was Otis Moss III, current pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago - the largest church in our denomination - who spoke of needing to hear our scripture and traditions with a musical ear, because only when we've learned the blues - experienced it, felt it in our bones - can we begin to understand gospel.  Gospel, he reminded us, grew out of the blues - a statement as true theologically as it is musically. We can't know just how good the Good News is, until we have experienced the bad.

There was Bishop Yvette Flunder, founding pastor of City of Refuge Church in San Francisco, coaxing us to broaden our imagination past our lived experience.  What we have known, she reminded us, is not the sum total of what we can know, or consider, or achieve.  Just because we have known war does not mean that it is the inevitable answer; it is simply the one we see the most clearly because it is the one we have seen in the past.  Peace is within our reach if we are able to imagine it, if we are able to be creative in our expectations.  More than we have known is available to us, if we can just try to imagine it. 

And those were just the folks from the UCC. 

As we enter a period of discernment about the financial and missional future of First Church, I invite you to hear the words spoken, at an ecumenical conference in Denver, as though they were spoken directly to us.  I challenge us all to imagine a new way forward, to stop using the imagery and experiences of our past to chart our way forward.  I challenge us to envision peace, to create community, to imagine and live into a church that is true to both the blues and the gospel of life. 

I urge us to feel the blues of this time - in our church, in our community, in our world - deep within our souls, and down to the very marrow of our bones - and to hear from that deep place the Word that is still being spoken, which is grace, and love, and hope for us all. Hear the Word of gospel hope that we are being called to speak - all of us, not just the preachers - into this blues-filled world.  And then, I challenge us to speak it - loudly, clearly, to our friends, to our families, to our communities, to all who will listen.  Because hope, love, and grace are things that we all need in abundance.

And as we reimagine, as we listen and experience and discern the call that God has for us here and now, in Rochester, I invite us to openness.  Because the God who is still speaking to us is not a God of simplicity and soundbytes.  The God we trust and worship is a complex and grace-filled God, present with us in the blues while calling us to gospel; the God who can love us as we are while encouraging us to change and learn and grow; the God who calls us to use our history and traditions with imagination and courage so as to create something entirely new. 

Our God is a God who does not test our faith, but who calls us to put it into concrete action in this world.  Our God is a God of relationship, of new beginnings, of creativity. 

May our church reflect the God we worship.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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May 2015

I almost dare to say it: I think Spring might finally be here!

Sure, there's still a little snow on the ground as I write this, but it's mostly gone - which is pretty amazing, after this winter.  The crocuses and daffodils are showing their colors, the maple trees are budding.  It's pretty easy to recognize that we live in an Easter world, at this time of year. 

But it also means that summer is soon upon us.  In the hopes that this means you'll get some good sabbath time by lake, ocean or mountain, I thought I'd share with you some of the books that I've enjoyed over the past few months.

The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L'Engle.  The famous author of young adult fantasy novels like A Wrinkle In Time reflects, in this four-volume set, on her life, her family, her writing and her faith.  Without being at all preachy, L'Engle invites her reader into her experiences of the divine, both in the church and in the world.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.  Okay, so I haven't read this one yet.  But don't we all need to?  Don't we all need a reminder, from time to time, that imperfection isn't failure?

Beginner's Grace, Beginner's Grace, by Kate Braestrup.  One of the things that I hear church folk say, on a very regular basis, is that they can't pray "right".  By which, I suspect, they mean that their impromptu prayers don't sound like the pastor's written (and re-written, and re-written) ones.  Braestrup invites us into a practice of prayer, both spoken and not, and an exploration of different forms of prayer and mindfulness.  Perhaps a good book to read in conjunction with Brené Brown. 

Real Good Church by Molly Phinney Baskette.  This one has been making the rounds already; ask around at coffee hour and I suspect you'll find someone willing to loan you a copy.  It's a book about another First Church, in some ways quite different from ours, but in many ways similar.  Baskette asks her readers the questions that she and her church had to face: are we really welcoming?  How do we communicate that?  What does it mean to be the church in the 21st century?  A hopeful, humorous book from someone who loves the church as much as we do.

Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle.  A memoir of his time working with the population of inner-city Los Angeles - gangs, drugs, homelessness and all.  The love woven into every story, every page is both devastating and inspiring.  It brings out the humanity of those whom we would often rather think of as alien and entirely "other".  This book illustrates beautifully the quote from Hugh Hollowell that I used in a recent sermon: "The opposite of homelessness is not housing, it is community." And it shines a light on what that community really looks like.

Seven by Jen Hatmaker.  Both the New Horizons crew and those who participated in last year's Lenten study have read this book, and some wonderful discussion has emerged from it.  What happens when a privileged, middle-class white woman really examines her habits and her values.  Funny, self-deprecating, but thoughtful; a quick read that will stick with you for a long time. 

What are you reading this summer? What has moved you, recently?  Send me a note, post it on our Facebook page, or let me know on a Sunday morning.  I look forward to reading and talking with you all!

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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April 2015

It is the season of resurrection.

Despite the snow, we are beginning to see the signs of new life around us.  As spring begins, it is easy to see the resurrection in the increased light and warmth, the shoots of crocuses, daffodils and tulips; the earliest swellings of tree buds.  At this time of year, the promises of new life seem to be appearing all around us.

This is not a time when we want to remember what came before the resurrection.  This is not a time when we think to look back to the night before the dawn.  The sunlight is too tempting, the warmth too comforting.

We want the life, the light, the resurrection... but none of the messiness that came before. 

We want Easter without Good Friday.

In our scriptures on the fourth Sunday in Lent, we were reminded that the seeds we plant need to die before they can grow again.  We can't keep our seeds as seeds, and still expect them to become plants.  We can't hang on to our seeds and still expect them to produce new life and new growth for us. 

If there is going to be growth, and life, there has to be some risk, some letting go, some loss. 

If there is going to be a dawn, there has to be a night before it. 

If there is going to be abundance at the harvest, there must first be the planting and the waiting. 

There is much planting going on in our lives.  There are seeds we would prefer to keep in our hands, seeds that seem wonderful just as they are.  There are seeds planted that are taking much longer than three days to sprout, let alone to become sturdy plants in their own right.  There is a lot of waiting, a lot of nighttime without nearly enough dawn.  There is a lot of winter, and the snow is lasting far too long into the spring. 

But the sprouts are there. 

The promises of the resurrection are before us, just as they were for the disciples even during the small deaths of Maundy Thursday, the devastation of Good Friday.  New life is stirring, the first light of dawn is breaking.  Easter is upon us, because we have trusted in the difficult messiness, the letting go that Good Friday requires of us.  Christ is risen!  We shall know new life, in astonishing abundance. 

Let's get planting.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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March 2015

Is not this the fast that I choose... to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

The Ash Wednesday text from the Prophet Isaiah pushes us, none-too-gently, into Lent: a time of fasting and prayer; a time of preparation for our own discipleship in a post-resurrection world.  What is interesting is that it's an awfully familiar text.  It sounds a lot like a bit from the Gospel according to Matthew, about how we should treat one another all the time.  Matthew's text tells us outright what Isaiah only implies: our kin is the Body of Christ, which is hungry, and homeless, and naked, and cold. 

Lent - for all we treat it like a weird, parenthetical time of the church year - is a time to hit the reset button.  It's the time to remember what we're supposed to be doing as disciples all the time.  It's a time to recall that mostly, we've been tempted away from our responsibilities; we've been distracted from our work.  Lent is a time to remember that all our excuses are vain and empty, when there is so much suffering around us; it is a time to begin anew the loving relationship we are called to have with one another, and to continue that work past the celebrations of Easter, through the fun of summer and the beauty of fall. 

It's not a parenthetical time if we don’t let the parentheses close.

This is the perfect time to do some of the work that the church is working on right now: stepping up our feeding of hungry neighbors through an expanded food pantry.  Reaching out in a more mindful way to those who are not adequately warmed in mind and spirit - those who have been told that they are not our kin, not the Body of Christ - inviting them in to our community, sometimes wrapping them in prayer shawls.  Warming, as well, the bodies of our neighbors, with clean socks, hats and gloves given out to those in need; with hats sent to the Oncology Center at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.  This is the perfect time to be educating ourselves about the ways, both large and small, that we can grow as the loving, welcoming community that we are called to be; in Thursday evening films, gatherings like New Horizons or Convergence, Bible Studies or shared meals and meditation. 

March may seem far too early to plant seeds, here in New England, yet Lent is the perfect time to plant the seeds of love and compassion, to nurture them in prayer and study, so that they may flourish throughout the year.  Lent is the perfect time to remember that doing more for others is not a burden, but a privilege of discipleship.  Lent is the perfect time to reorient our priorities, and not just for a few weeks. 

Lent is the perfect time to consume a little less ourselves, so that we have more to share with our neighbors... and to realize that we are all less hungry for doing so. 

I wish you all a blessed Lent, and that the blessings of this season may remain and grow in your hearts throughout the year.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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February 2015

Well, that was a longer Annual Meeting than we expected, wasn't it?

What will come of the suggestion that we begin moving from two services to one?  Quite a lot, I would imagine…most of it having nothing to do with worship times.

In some ways, a lot already has come from the beginnings of this conversation.  Honesty, for one.  I give thanks for everyone who spoke during the meeting, and who felt safe enough in that setting to share their feelings about this church.  Although some of what was said may have been hard to hear - the sense that we are two, divided congregations; the sense that one worship service has been prioritized over another; the fears of losing the particulars of a worship time that we cherish - it is worth noting, as Kenn did that night, that all of the deep emotion expressed is a sign of our love for this church.  It is a sign of our trust in one another, that we can pour out our grief, our fears, our love into one another's keeping. 

In many ways, the honesty of that night's conversation - as hard as it was - demonstrated that we are not as divided as we might sometimes feel. 

And the conversation continues.  A task force, comprised of Madeleine Goodwin, Deb Allard, Kay-Lee Waters, Gayle Richards (representing Spiritual Nourishment), Sharon Reed-Erickson (representing Faith Formation), Bill Sammis (representing Outreach) and a member to be determined (representing Stewardship), as well as ex-officio members Dan Harkinson (moderator) and Roger Burkhart will soon meet to discuss the many practical and emotional considerations of how, when, and where this church worships.  We will meet again as a congregation this spring, to hear from that task force and to consider - as a church - how best to move forward. 

I hope you will join me in praying for the task force and for the church, during this time of discernment and discussion.  Let us hold in prayer all of the history that tugs upon our hearts, all of the time and energy that we have devoted, over the years, to this church and this congregation, all of the hopes we have for our future.  Let us pray that we may continue to trust one another, and enter into all of these conversations in good faith for the life of this community.  Let us pray for the openness of heart and spirit to try, in good faith, the ideas that come out of these conversations, whatever our initial position on the issue. 

Above all, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will be present in all of our speaking and all of our listening.  May God's love fill our hearts and open our ears, so that these sometimes-difficult conversations might only bring us closer together as a church.  In this and in all we do, may we bear witness to the constant and abundant love that God pours out upon as we do the work of relationship and community building. 

No matter when or where we meet, may we be God's church, may we be Christ's body, united in love.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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January 2015

For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Familiar words to us, especially at this time of year.  Especially so in the voice of Linus, perhaps, as he reminds us that "that's what Christmas is about." 

Yet the words are so familiar that they lose some of their sense of awe.  Unto us is born the Christ. 

Christ is born.


Like any one of us.  With about as much fanfare as any of us; Christ had angels singing to shepherds, we have emails and Facebook posts to friends and family. 

It's just another part of the story, the birth of this baby whose life and teachings we know. 

But it's not just an add-on to the "important part" where we learn to be good disciples. 

The birth narrative isn't just a sweet back story; it speaks to more than just our desire to see cute toddler pictures of our favorite celebrities. 

Jesus was born, like all of us were.  Mary swaddled him, as many of our parents did, because it calms and soothes babies to be wrapped tight... and it should mean something to us that Jesus needed to be calmed and soothed, like any of us.  That Jesus knew hunger, and teething, and growing pains, and the awkwardness of puberty.  It should mean something to us that Jesus knew the love of family and friends, the grief of loss, the uncertainty of day-to-day living.

It should mean something to us that Jesus, like us, had a body - with all its feelings, all its failings - a body that needed to be cared for, with all the same things that our own bodies need.

It should mean something that Jesus was born, God incarnate.  God made flesh.  God, looking like us. 

But the incarnation should not simply mean something to us during Christmas and Epiphany, as we think about the infant Christ.  God-in-a-body is not an idea we should confine to the baby Jesus in his manger - although that is a comfortable, adorable thought, and it is easy to see God in the face of a tiny baby.  God was not only in a body when that body was cute and snuggly and full of new-baby smell. 

God was still in a body - still incarnate in Jesus - feeding the thousands on a hillside with a couple loaves of bread and a few fish.  God was still incarnate when the blind man was given sight, and the paralytic walked, and the bleeding woman was cured.  God was still incarnate when the disciples were told to feed, and house, and clothe, and visit "the least of these" - as though they were feeding and housing and clothing and visiting God's own incarnate self: the self that still required food, and shelter, and warmth, and company. 

Bodies matter to God - to the God who has had a body, and knows what it is to be in a body.  Bodies matter, not just when they are infants, but at all ages, and in all forms.  Bodies matter, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

As we move away from the Christmas season, and Linus' words recede in our memories for another year, let us try to keep our focus on the incarnation; on the recognition of God's incarnation and Jesus' humanity.  Let us try to keep our focus on caring for one another, not only in mind and spirit, but in body.  Let us comfort one another, as Mary comforted her baby.  Let us care for one another through the difficulty and awkwardness of growth and transition.  Let us feed one another, and shelter one another, and visit one another. 

Let us continue to care about the incarnation. 
Let us continue to care for the bodies that surround us each day. 
Let us continue to care for the Body of Christ, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. 

 Peace and blessings, Eliza

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December 2014

"A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord...'" - Isaiah 40: 3

We are already into this season of Advent, this time of preparation for the promised Light, the promised presence of the divine walking among us.  We are in this time of darkness - and for us in the northern hemisphere, that darkness is not metaphorical.  In this time of mid-afternoon sunsets and long cold nights, preparing for the light seems entirely natural.

Yet often, we seem to prepare for the coming of the light by illuminating our world all the more.  Not only do we turn on our living room and kitchen lights, but we run lengths of twinkling bulbs along the outsides of our homes, we put real or electric candles in our windows, we add illumination to our streets and public venues.

I wonder: when the light comes into the world, will we even notice? 

The old proverb holds that a journey of a thousand days begins with the first step.  What is that first step for us, as we begin to prepare the way of Advent?  What is the first step, as we get ready for the coming of the light?  Perhaps it is simply to notice where we are; to recognize ourselves in a darkened world. 

I would invite you, during the coming weeks, to be more aware of the darkness, and how you respond to it.  Where possible, lower the lights in your house - use dimmer bulbs, or take one or two out of a multi-light fixture.  Eat one or two meals per week by candlelight.  What do you notice about your pace, about your comfort?  Are there new shadows, or sounds that are more noticeable?  If you live with others, does the increased darkness change how you relate to one another?  What is it like to live with more darkness?  What is it like to wait for light? 

Of course, the light which we await is not a physical one.  Yet the practice of noticing the darkness, of understanding our reactions to it, can make us more aware of the other areas of darkness in our lives and in our world.  The practice of awareness reaches beyond our daily lives, into the practices of our community and our relationships to the world.  May our preparation in physical darkness turn our hearts to the preparations we make in spiritually- and emotionally-shadowed places, and make us ready for the divine light that has come, and that will come, to illumine our way. 

For "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." (Isaiah 9: 2)

Let us prepare, let us be ready for the light, for the presence, that will soon be with us. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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November 2014

Let us give thanks!

Sometimes, November is a hard time to be thankful, at least for those of us in northern New England.  November loses the bright beauty of fall, and reminds us that the long, cold winter is soon upon us.

And still: perhaps this makes it the perfect time to reflect upon all the reasons we have to give thanks.

For me, this inevitably starts with the church.  No, really.  For the blessing of being able to look out, on a Sunday morning, or a Monday or Tuesday evening, and see your faces – the sight inevitably makes my heart swell with joy.  For the many simple, quiet acts of kindness that exist among you - we've heard about some of them in our Stewardship moments on Sunday mornings, but there are so many more that probably even I will never hear about.  For the care that you take of one another in times of need, the immediate response to crisis that nearly always finds a way to help.  For the prayers that you lift every Sunday, that demonstrate time and again the love you hold in your hearts.

But I give thanks for more than just who you are.  In the past weeks, there has been rich discussion in the church around the hopes and dreams we have for our community, and I find myself giving thanks for who you see yourselves becoming.  I give thanks for the hearts and hands and minds that seek to extend the love of God beyond the walls of this building.  I give thanks for the understanding that Church is not necessarily a building, but the presence of disciples, doing God's work in the world.  I give thanks for the many ways that we do use this church building for ministry, and the care with which so many tend our property.

Let us give thanks, for these and so many other reasons.  Let us recognize the great good that this church does.  Let us recognize the love that is present in this faithful community.

Let us give thanks, and let us respond appropriately.  Let us acknowledge all that First Church is; all that it is called to do and to be... and then let us put our hopes and dreams, our thoughts and our prayers, into action.  Let our thanksgiving, our gratitude for love and ministry, prompt us and encourage us to continue and increase our ministry.  Let our thanksgiving - our gratitude - push us to a faithful and loving response for all we have received, and all that we might still do.

Let us give thanks, and in our thanksgiving, hear again our call to be the Church: to make our prayers, our dreams for ministry, a reality.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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October 2014

It's been an interesting month in my family.  For the first time, we're having to juggle two jobs and two children, and the associated childcare needs.  This will get easier, as the routine gets established, but we spent the better part of several days on the phone, figuring out the gap between the start of a job and the beginning of formal childcare.  Which family members could come in for a day, or two?  Who could be on-call, just in case?  Who will do the school drop-off, who'll do pick-up? 

It's a lot of details, made harder by the importance of the task.  Our children are precious, and we want the care they receive to be good, even if it's just being walked to school. 

We are lucky.  Our families are able to fill a lot of these gaps, in the next days and weeks.  But it's also reminded us that "family" is not necessarily a designation of blood or marriage.  Family is love, and trust, and community. 

And sometimes, as a member of this congregation recently reminded me, it's church.

This church is much like a family, for better or for worse.  We joke and squabble with each other.  We offend and forgive.  Sometimes we appreciate one another, sometimes we put up with one another.  Sometimes old hurts rear their heads in new situations; sometimes old offenses get inherited.  But we are there for one another - we all see it, time and again.  In illness, in grieving, in rejoicing, in celebration, the church shows up.  For funerals and baptisms, the church shows up. 

We show up because we are family, despite everything.  We show up because we are church.

But sometimes we need a reminder.  Sometimes, showing up feels like work - supporting each other, being present with each other, takes effort and time.  To take the time to write a note to the member you haven't seen in a while; to make a phone call when you know it will probably make you cry; to make arrangements to bring a meal, or to take someone to an appointment... all of these take precious time out of our already busy days.  To show up for other people's children - working in the Nursery or helping in the Sunday School - takes us away from the corporate worship that so many of us value. 

It's easy to say, "Oh, I don't know her all that well," or "I wouldn't know what to say on the phone," or "Well, it's not my children in Sunday School."  All of those statements may well be true.  But we are still called to show up.  We are still called to be family.

We show up, because somehow, it is enough.  It is enough to be present, telling people how valuable they still are - even though they are absent from church, even though we do not know them well, even though they are still children.  It is enough to use our gifts - running errands, sending notes, making meals, doing crafts - and to bind ourselves again in the love that makes us family.  It is enough to show up, for those who are not related by blood, but who are equally God's children. 

I would encourage you, as the momentum of the church year builds and our routines become established, to take a good look at how we are present for one another in this church.  How are we being family to one another?  How are we caring for one another?  Who is writing notes to those on our prayer list?  Who is caring for the youngest members of our community, teaching and helping and playing?  There will be a lot of details and it may take a lot of work.  But our children are precious.  Our family – our church – depends upon us.

I would encourage you - and all of us - to show up, whether or not you think you know what you are doing.  And by God’s grace it will be enough.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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September 2014

Sometimes, it's wonderful and easy and comforting.  The days when it's pancake breakfasts and awesome choir music and the chance to spend time with cool people.  The days when we're in need of grace and love and kindness, and know that we'll find it in this community.  The days when it's familiar Christmas carols and joy-filled Easter on a frozen hillside and laughing as the pastor gets stumped one more time by a Children's sermon.

I love those days.  Even the stumped-by-a-kid-during-worship part.

I love those days because those are the ones that get us through the times that aren't easy.  The times when we are called to speak and act in ways that go against the prevailing culture - to speak out for non-violence, to speak out for fair working conditions and living wages, to welcome into our community the stranger, the outcast.  The times when we come face-to-face with uncertainty as to how to proceed: when we struggle with financial decisions, when we consider changes to our worship services, when new ideas spring up for mission or outreach.  The times when we disagree with one another.

Christianity is hard, sometimes, because it asks us to live in community.  Even when we are unsure. Even when we disagree.

Disagreement is not, itself, a failure of community.  It is in how we deal with difference, how we deal with disagreements, how we interact with one another that we demonstrate our faith.  Do we listen to one another with open hearts and open minds?  Do we seek less to "win" an argument, than to bear witness to one another's hurt, one another's fears, one another's hopes?  Do we speak our truths openly and honestly, trusting that this community has room for our doubts, our questions, our dreams? 

Christianity is hard, because it calls us to hear one another, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Christianity is hard, because it calls us to welcome one another - baggage and all - even when we'd rather not.

Christianity is hard, because it calls us to love one another as we would be loved, even if it breaks our hearts.

But how much sweeter are those good times - the laughter and the support that we find in this place - when they are built on a solid foundation of honesty and openness and love?  How much more do we understand the darkness of Advent or of Lent, when we have walked together through the shadows of difficult times, and arrived, as a loving community, into Christ's light? 

Let us be Christ's disciples, in darkness and in light.  Let us be the Christian community that we are called to be, loving and beloved, building one another up and holding one another close, secure in God's care for us all.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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August 2014

Luke's Gospel recalls Jesus' first time preaching in a synagogue, after his baptism.  He went back to his hometown, to the people who had raised him and knew him, and preached on the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah, who, like all of the biblical prophets, had spoken truths that no one really wanted to hear - not just words of comfort to a people in search of God, but words of rebuke, and words that called the people and their leaders back into a right relationship with God. 

When Jesus preached on Isaiah's words, he was run out of town.  Run out by his own people, for speaking uncomfortable truths. 

Uncomfortable truths abound in our scriptures and in our faith.  Often, they are couched in a comforting message: Love your neighbor as yourself... But who is our neighbor?  The one you despise.  The one you would never let near you.  The one you think isn't even entirely human.  Love that one as yourself. 

Christianity is a faith both of comfort and of discomfort.  We should certainly take comfort in God's abiding presence with us, in God's grace that holds us up no matter how often we fall.  We should take comfort in the assurance that we are beloved no matter what.

But the very fact that we need that reassurance - that we need grace - should keepus at least a little bit uncomfortable.  The fact that Isaiah's words, and Jesus' preaching, still call us back to discipleship; the fact that we continually need to be called back to discipleship, should make us uncomfortable.  We are called to a love that does not come naturally to us.  We are called to love beyond the barriers that human beings so often erect to exclude and dehumanize one another.  We are called to love beyond race, class, sexuality, gender, nationality, mental health, employment or housing status, and religion. 

And yes, that makes us uncomfortable.

Sometimes our call can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to remake God in our own image; to put our own prejudices on God and justify our fear, our unwillingness to love - to see every person we encounter as worthy, as made in God's own image, just as they are and without changing. 

Sometimes our call - to love as God loves - can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to act with malice to protect our own sense of who God is, and who God loves, and who God considers worthy.  To vandalize symbols of a love that extends beyond our own, beyond the boundaries that are of our own making.  To secure borders and boundaries and demonize those who would cross them; those who seek our love and our compassion.

We still need Isaiah.  We still need Jesus.  We still need the prophetic witness that calls us to a greater love than we feel capable of. 

And then we need to respond.  The call of discipleship requires us to respond.  Not by running the prophet out of town, as the people of Nazareth did, but by bearing witness ourselves to the power and depth of God's love.  By becoming a prophetic witness in our own right, trusting in God's presence and grace.  By not allowing God to be made over in hateful human form.  By being the persistent voices that remind the world that God's love extends beyond all that we can possibly know, let alone understand.

Bearing prophetic witness is hard, as Jesus learned quickly.  Speaking love, and grace, and peace, to a fearful world is a challenging call indeed.  But the opportunity to love those neighbors who have often heard nothing but hate preached in God's name is not one we can ignore.  The opportunity to open our hearts to the injustice that so many children of God endure on a daily basis leads us all the more deeply into God's love and presence in this world. 

This world is hungry for love.  For all the risk and sorrow that our prophetic witness may bring, there is so much more love and support.  For all those who would run us out of town, there are so many more who will keep us safe, patch up our scrapes and bruises, and carry our prophecy and God's love even further into the world.  For all the hate in this world, there are many more who are desperate to hear our witness of enduring and abundant love. 

Let us continue to bear witness, my friends.  Let us continue to speak aloud God's love, and let us not be silenced.  God is still speaking!  Let us do likewise. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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July 2014

There was a day recently on social media when it seemed as though everyone I knew was in the worst possible mood.  No matter what the subject - church, politics, children, life - there was nothing but complaining, whining, name-calling, meanness, and pessimism. Although I turned it all off for a good chunk of the day, that sort of negativity can really stay with you, and I found myself in a rotten mood.  So I put an idea out there, to the internet:

For every mean thing you say about someone, find something kind to say as well.

For every institution or injustice about which you are whining and complaining, tell us what concrete action(s) you are taking to make the situation better.

The answer to the idea?  Silence. 

Negativity is viral.  Say something snarky or cutting?  You'll get retweets on Twitter and likes or shares on Facebook.  Say it in person, you'll get laughs and affirmations.  You'll be rewarded for your "wit".  The conversation will build, it will stir passions, it will get exciting, it will be fun. 

 But if you say something nice about someone?  If you talk about the good things that are happening in this world?  Those are the conversations that seem harder to keep going.  Those are the one-liners that fall flat.  Those are the conversations that might start on a positive note, but that quickly turn around and fall back into the negative.  Talk about the good work that certain groups or people are doing around homelessness often spins into a pessimistic conversation about the hopelessness of the situation.  Talk about the need for better mental health services devolves into a discussion about violence.

It may be more "fun" to speak negatively, to complain about the problems of the world and be able to blame someone for them. Negativity and snark speak to something within us; there is a reason that the media - print, televised, or social - plays so often to angry soundbites.  It's easier, certainly, to call a politician names than to comment on her policy choices; to say "He is a jerk", suggesting there is something inherently flawed about a person, than to say "his actions have hurt me", separating the person's entire being from certain actions we find distasteful.  It's easier to speak in generalities, but we damage ourselves in the process.  We create an "other", a "not-me" that we don't have to like, let alone love.  We can dehumanize a person, write off their worthiness to be heard or even acknowledged.  But by doing this, we cut ourselves off from one another, and from the God who is most present among us in relationship.

What if we put as much energy into finding the good in each other, as we do into demonizing one another?  What if we put as much energy into love as we do into anger?

It's not easy, but discipleship isn't supposed to be.  It might be less fun, less popular, less entertaining.  But it might be a worthwhile challenge for us.  Because in forcing ourselves to look for the good in people, we are forcing ourselves to see even those who hold opposing viewpoints as children of God.  We are forcing ourselves to maintain relationship with those whom we might rather write off entirely, to remember that although we disagree, there might still be points of agreement, or even respect.

What might happen, if we made the conscious decision to get off the negativity bandwagon, even just for a month?  Who will take the challenge?

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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June 2014

When I was initially called to First Church, a friend and colleague asked me what it was about the church that I loved so much.  Among other things, I mentioned the sense of energy that I had felt in the congregation; the sense of wanting to do more than simply gather in worship on a Sunday service.  You have always been, in the time I've known you, a church of vision, and of discipleship, and of compassion. 

Now, after a couple of years of discernment with you, and many conversations that didn't seem to go anywhere at the time, things are beginning.  We have spent the past couple of years imagining our path forward, and planting the seeds.  Now the first sprouts are showing.  We are beginning to poke our heads out of the four walls of First Church, out into the community.  Some are doing it with specially-made t-shirts (and more should soon be available!); some with rakes and shovels; some with planned gatherings in homes and public spaces.  We are coming to a place of remembering that the church is not as much this building, as a gathering of people encouraging one another on the way of discipleship.

Yet I would remind you: the first sprouts in any garden need careful tending.  They need nourishment and warmth.  They need our attention and energy, which asks more discernment of us.  The task force that has been focused on this question is doing a lot of that discerning, but we all need you, as well.  Let us know where your passion lies.  Let us know what you do well - organization? details? sewing? cooking?  gardening? publicity?  Stranger things than that have been helpful in the life of the church!

And, as new programs arise and new ideas circulate, we ask your tender nurture of this new growth.  There will certainly be ideas that don't flourish, but let it not be because we weren't willing to tend them.  Even when we are unsure about the ideas, even when it seems like nothing is growing, let us trust in the thought and careful planning that has been going on, and in the desire that we all share to do the work of discipleship in this community.  Let us trust in God to use us to bring the love that this world so badly needs. 

Because what I sensed in you at the beginning is something that I now know to be true: you are a church of vision, and of faith, and of discipleship.  None of that can be contained within a building: rather, let us be the faithful members of the Body of Christ that we are all called to be - both in the church and in the world.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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May 2014

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” -Matthew 25: 37-40 (NRSV)

This is a familiar passage to many of us, and often cited as a favorite.  Here, in the midst of a long passage on judgment and redemption, is a call that many of us find compelling: to serve Christ by serving one another.  We give to our food pantry and serve in soup kitchens because the Body of Christ is hungry.  We put our old clothes in the Planet Aid box, or give to coat and sweater drives, because the Body is naked, cold, and exposed.  We try to care for each other as though we were caring for Christ, as though we were caring for God's own self among us - which, indeed, we are. 

Yet often, we care in ways that keep us distant from each other.  We give of our "stuff" - our money, our possessions, even our time and talents - in ways that do not put us into direct relationship with "the least of these".  We fill a container every year for Zimbabwe, but do we take the time to include our letters, our prayers, our questions for the people we're serving?  Do we know who they are, do we hear their stories? Do we allow them to teach us, to serve us, to ask us questions in return? 

In the ways that we serve, both the global community and the local community, do we create lasting relationships?  Do we consider those to whom we donate food and clothing to be of one Body with us - in interdependent relationship with us? 

The question goes deeper, even, than the Gospel writer takes it.  For where we leave off, in that parable, with recognizing Christ when we serve humanity; God picks up and pushes further.  For if the well-being of each of our bodies is dependent upon the well-being of all of our bodies, it follows that the well-being of all of our human bodies is dependent upon the well-being of this Creation. 

In What Are People For, Wendell Berry puts it succinctly: "God made the world because He wanted it made.  He thinks the world is good, and He loves it...  If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it?"  Rather, we are called to be in relationship with "the least of these": the ecosystems that hunger for clean air and thirst for clean water; the creatures made sick by our relentless drive towards convenience consumerism (both in the manufacturing, and the thoughtless discarding, of disposable products); the people and systems imprisoned by our quest for ever-more-scarce resources - you might ask our Zimbabwean partners about the diamond and gold mining that occurs in their nation.  We are called to be in economic relationship - to give towards the feeding of the hungry, the housing of the homeless, the care of the sick and imprisoned.  But we are also called deeper: into direct relationship with Christ through the lives and stories of "the least of these", however it is that we hear them.  We are called to serve and to be served; to give love and to receive it with humility and grace, for the good of the entire Body of Christ and in service to the God who created us all and dwells with us still. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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April 2014

Do you remember your first time?

I doubt it.  I don't.

Like so many of you, my parents first took me to church when I was a very small child - in my case, about two years old.  Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in the pew - pretty much the same one every week - and looking at the bulletin, or the hymnal, or the people around me.  I remember my father's finger, tracing the line of the hymn so that I could follow along as he sang.  I remember watching the adults around me bowing their heads in prayer, and sneaking glances to see if I was doing it right; trying to anticipate when everyone would stand for the hymn so that I wasn't the last one up. 

I learned the rituals and unspoken rules of the church as many of us did, at the side of a patient teacher.  Long before I reached adulthood, the rhythms of the service - standing, sitting, bowing head, finding the hymn - had become second nature. 

It's hard to imagine it any other way, isn't it?

The church, to many of us, is our comfort zone.  No matter what gets preached, no matter how weird the hymns that your pastor chooses for that Sunday, there is a familiarity about what we do that is comfortable and soothing to many of us.  It's hard to imagine, sometimes, that it might be otherwise.

There is a benefit to sitting where I do: I can see you all every Sunday morning.  I can see the church gathered in worship, singing and praying and listening as one Body.  There are many Sundays when I wish you could see it, too, for there is something very powerful in our gathered congregation, moving together through the familiar rituals of worship. 

And there are Sundays when I wish you could see it for the parts that aren't familiar, and aren't moving together. 

More frequently than not, anymore, there are new faces in our worship service.  Some who grew up with church rhythms and bulletins and hymnals and standing and sitting... but many who did not.  I wish you could see them.  And I rather think they wish you could, too.  Because that which is so familiar, so comforting, to us is new and strange to some.  Just as we once did, they need a patient teacher to guide them through the things we do without ever thinking about it. 

They will remember their first time, and just how it felt.  They will remember, and we will be The Church in that memory.  We will be God, in that moment.

We talk a lot about being the hands of God in the world; bearing the light of God, bringing the Kingdom of God out of our walls and into the larger community.  But in so doing, we should not neglect that which happens within our walls, in those who are brave enough to venture in, hopeful but unsure of what they will find. 

I look at you, on a Sunday morning, and I can see God present in our worship.  Even, sometimes, holding a hymnal and tracing the line of the hymn. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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March 2014

There seems to be a lot of handwringing in mainline church circles about the decline of the church.  There have been books and articles written about why we're in decline and who is to blame.  There are those who bemoan the secularization of our society as prime culprit - if only kids didn't have Sunday morning activities, they'd be in church!  There are others who lift up the mega-church, all-in-one-inclusive-package as the impossible standard against which the average mainline Protestant church can never measure up. Another, that I mentioned in a recent sermon, mentions the exhaustion factor of a theology that requires us to think constantly and be self-critical.  There seems always to be the enumeration of all that we've lost, all the people who are missing - the young people, the young families, the recent empty-nesters, each cited as a source of decline and decay in a formerly strong, stable institution.

A lot of factors justify all this handwringing, I'll admit: average Sunday attendance is down in almost every church where I've ever worshiped.  Sunday School attendance is down.  Pledges are down, often significantly.  Antacid sales are skyrocketing among those who are in charge of church finances. 

The thing is, however, that measuring church by these metrics is a little like measuring your child's growth only as pencil marks on the wall.  Height is a valid measurement, but it tells you nothing about the sparkle in his eyes as he tells a story, the awe of overcoming seemingly-impossible challenges, the simple acts of maturity and responsibility that gradually (one hopes) replace the temper tantrums.  Height is easy to quantify, certainly, but it tells an incomplete story. 

When I look at our church - whenever and however we are gathered - I do not see decline.  I see the numbers -  in attendance, membership, financial giving and antacid sales -  and those speak of areas of both hope and struggle for us right now.  But there are other metrics, far less quantifiable, that tell me clearly that ours is not a church in decline.  I see children, excited to be in church, asking the questions that we need to hear.  I see a strong, thriving ministry among the families of our church, who are teaching each other about covenant and community.  I see long-time members sitting with first-time attenders, living into our promise to be a welcoming church.  I see a group of people who are not content with a Sunday morning faith, but who are pushing for ways to be disciples in the world.  I see the Body of Christ, holding one another up in sorrow and in joy, loving despite difference, seeking after the health of the whole. 

I do not see decline.  Not in our church.  And I don't expect to see it anytime soon.

It's time to ignore the culture of fear that tells us we are declining. It's time to change the narrative, to talk more about how we seek to live our faith in authentic ways.  New ideas are percolating about how to live out the ministries and missions of First Church outside our walls.  At the same time, we're seeking ways to better utilize our walls - this historic building - to serve the needs of the community.  We must live, not in fear, but in hope.  We must live in the promise of God's providence and grace, the promise that reminds us that our church is so much more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Let these be the standards by which we are measured: by the love we show to one another and to our community.  Whether we are two or two hundred or two thousand, if love is our metric, First Church will never be in decline, no matter how much handwringing goes on around us. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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February 2014

Just wanted to put in a quick thank you to everyone...

Thank you all so much!

To the Deacons, who are working overtime, coordinating pastoral care and worship planning.

To all the fantastic pastors who have led, and will lead, worship. God's Word continues to be spoken!

To the church staff, who are probably finding their jobs simpler without my interruptions, distractions, and crazy ideas.

But mostly, to all of you, who are the church: you have wrapped my whole family in prayer and love, while still giving us the space and time to rest and relax together. We are so grateful to be a part of this community.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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January 2014

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Some of the most hopeful words of the Gospel, as we dwell in a time of light.

This may not seem like a particularly "light" time of year; it's still pretty dark when the alarm goes off, and dark well before many of us are sitting down to supper.  Although the days are getting longer, it will still be a while before we'll notice much of a difference.

But in our Christian tradition, the time of waiting, of wondering, of wandering in darkness is over.  Christ's light is present in the world, just beginning to shine in the hearts of shepherds, angels, a few animals, and a couple of very tired parents.  God is present in human form, to banish the shadows in which we so often find ourselves living.  And the light does not end with Christmas - even if we make it last for twelve days!  After Christmas, the church enters the season of Epiphany, marked by the arrival of the Magi, guided by yet another source of light.  Epiphany: the time of understanding, of clear-sightedness.  The time, in the midst of a bleak, cold New Hampshire winter, when we are reminded to remain turned outwards; to be open to all that is beyond our own warm, well-lit spaces, out there in the darkness and the cold.

I think, sometimes, that it's a good thing for us that this season doesn't occur at a time when we are naturally outgoing.  We are called into the light just at the time when we would naturally like to curl up in our own homes and hibernate a bit.  We are called into the light in a way that reminds us that light doesn't happen without some effort on our part - from the practicality of electricity bills, to the little acts of kindness and light that somehow mean all the more at this harsh time of year.  We are called into a light that we must tend carefully, that we must carry with us and spread - consciously and faithfully - so that the shadows of this world might be banished again, and again.

Which doesn't sound like hope, but like a thankless, super-human task.

But we are also reminded, at this time of year, that light attracts light.  It was the light of the angels that drew the shepherds on to Bethlehem, to bear witness to the birth of God's light.  It was the light of the star that drew the Magi out of Persia to find the home of the one whose light would continue, long after the star had disappeared from the night sky.

And it is the light of that one, whose birth we have just celebrated, who nourishes the light that we carry.  It is for the sake of that infant light that we step boldly into the shadows, extending our hands and our hearts to those who have so long lived in darkness.  And we do so with hope: that our light might shine in the darkness, and that we will tend that light well, renewing it as needed and sharing it far and wide, so that the shadows - of fear, of pain, of ignorance, of hatred - shall not overcome it.

The light is in the world.  The light is in each and every one of you, and the shadows tremble because of it.  In the cold and dark of a New England winter, you are God's hope in this world.  Thanks be to God!

Yours in Christ, Eliza

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