An invitation to breathe

“God when you created the world, you breathed new life into creation. As students return to school this week, be with them through their breath. If the school day feels overwhelming or confusing, remind each of us that we can focus on our breath.”

I shared those words of prayer on Sunday at Camp Sloper during the Blessing of the Backpack tags and stickers. Focusing on our breathing is an ancient practice to connect with God.

Recently, I switched over to an Apple watch after using a more traditional Fitbit fitness tracker for many years. One of the new (to me) features I appreciate on the Apple watch are the Breath/Mindfulness reminders.

Throughout the day, I easily become lost in a flurry of emails. Hours can quickly pass staring at a computer screen and, suddenly, my watch will buzz with a reminder to breathe. There is a small notification asking me if I want to focus on my breath for one minute. Even if I am completely interrupted from my work, more often than not, I will click begin and focus on my breath for one minute. I reason to myself that most things can wait one more minute. And I almost always feel better after that one quick break to clear my mind.

Do you have a reminder for yourself to breathe? Maybe every time you walk by the front door, or each time you take the dog out for a walk? Or maybe you don’t even stop whatever you are doing, just focus on your breathing while making breakfast or doing dishes?

God is always with us! If we feel overwhelmed, we can turn inward and call forth God’s presence.

If you are interested in more breath prayers, there is a creative account on Instagram called Liturgies for Parents which regularly posts breath prayers. Usually they share different mantras which you can mentally repeat as you inhale and exhale.

I invite you today to:
Inhale – God’s Peace
Exhale – God’s Love

This devotion was first shared via email to members of First Congregational Church of Southington on September 10, 2020.

Recorded Lectio Divina

On Sunday, August 30, I preached my first sermon at First Congregational Church of Southington. A video recording of the service is available on Facebook and the full text of the sermon is available on the church website.

During the sermon, I shared a poem by Wendell Berry. I have used “The Peace of Wild Things” several times for contemplative prayer groups. Just this week, I recorded a guided lectio divina practice for those who are interested.

I instruct the listener in the audio recording, but here is a brief explanation of lectio divina for those who prefer text guidance. Lectio divina, or divine reading, is an ancient monastic practice. In a full lectio divina prayer, there are four steps: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation on a key word or phrase), oratio (listen and respond to God), and contemplatio (resting in God’s presence).

The recording guides the listener through a simplified lectio divina practice. During the first reading of the poem, allow the words to wash over you. In the second reading, identify which words or phrases stand out to you. After the final reading, meditate on one word or phrase to hear how God is speaking to you.

To view the full text of the poem, click here.

Holy Surprise: Postcards

Note: August 23rd was my first Sunday co-leading worship in my new role as Associate Pastor at First Congregational Church of Southington. The church has been doing a Holy Surprise each week, similar to a Children’s Moment or Moment for All Ages. My devotional today is the Holy Surprise I shared with the congregation during worship.

Just a few of the nearly 250 postcards I have received through Postcrossing in 3 years.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul is a prolific letter writer. Paul writes letters to early church communities to encourage them, share wisdom and advice, and stay connected when they cannot physically be together. I like to imagine that for those early churches receiving a letter from Paul may have been like a Holy Surprise. 
Fast forward to present day and we have so many ways to stay in communication with one another. Texting, social media and email allow us to regularly connect. But there is still something Holy and Surprising about receiving a letter or postcard in the mail. The Holy Surprise I’d like to share with you today is a postcard. 
A few years ago I was visiting a friend’s house and I admired how she had postcards from all around the world decorating the wall. This friend told me about a website called Postcrossing and I quickly signed up. 
Through Postcrossing you can send postcards to members of the site all around the world and you receive postcards in return. 
These postcards are like Holy Surprises because I never know when one is going to show up in my mailbox. And each postcard is an opportunity to connect with someone new. 
Over the past three years, I have sent and received nearly 500 postcards through Postcrossing!
I’d like to share the joy of this Holy Surprise with you, First Congregational Church of Southington. Over the next two weeks, I will be sending a postcard to each of the children in our congregation. I hope this is just one way we can connect during a time of social distancing. Be on the lookout for a Holy Surprise coming to your mailbox soon.

Nothing Can Separate Us

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

It is an occupational hazard… when I visit a new town or city across the United States I often look to see if there is a UCC congregation nearby, even if I’m not going to be in town to attend Sunday worship. Last summer, I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate a family member’s birthday and I knew that there was a historic UCC congregation in downtown Charleston. Circular Church is one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South. They also have a historic burying ground surrounding their church building with gravestones dating back to 1729.

While New England is filled with Protestant and UCC history, it was interesting to see our shared church history in a different light in Charleston. There was a familiar “God is Still Speaking” banner hanging on a fence outside of the church. But there were also palm trees lining the church yard which made it clear that I was no longer in New England!

I was reminded of my visit to Circular Church and their historic burying ground when reading this Scripture passage from Romans. The Apostle Paul writes how death does not separate us from the love of God. As Christians we believe that death does not have the final word. We are invited to remember life after death through the words carved onto a headstone from 1741, “departed this life…” Christianity is about believing that death does not have the final word. We are Resurrection people!

While we cannot safely gather in church buildings, like the one pictured here in Charleston, or your own beloved sanctuary, we must remember that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

My question for you is: what separates you from feeling God’s love? I encourage you to reflect on your previous week or even just the past 24 hours. Is there a friendship or relationship nagging at you and causing you to feel separated from God’s love? Do you have a burden you are carrying which might be in the way of allowing you to feel God’s love? Or maybe you just woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. When we feel separate from God’s love, how can we unburden and reconnect with God who is already there waiting for us, ready to love us?

God’s love abounds throughout time and place. From Circular Church and the historic burying ground in Charleston, South Carolina, to First Congregational Church of Wareham, Massachusetts, and everywhere in between, we cannot be separated from God’s loving presence. Let us rejoice in the good news! Amen.

This devotional was originally published via email on July 21, 2020 and written for First Congregational Church of Wareham, MA.

July 9 Devotional

This devotional was originally written for First Congregational Church of Wareham, MA.

“You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.” Psalm 65, verse 9

I love reading the psalms because no matter how you are feeling there is something for you in the psalms. If you are feeling angry, there are great psalms to help you express that anger. If you are feeling sad or alone, there are psalms crying out for God to make God’s presence known. And when you are feeling happy, there are many psalms of praise. 

The variety of emotions expressed in the psalms can also help us to feel whatever our feelings are and not wish them away. God’s people have been there before and we will get through it. I once heard a church member say that they appreciated the psalms because when they felt so lost, the psalms provided the words to find their way back to faith.

Psalm 65 is a psalm of praise and lifts up praise for God’s sustaining involvement. God is involved with us as a people, both individually and communally. Sometimes as humans we may have a difficult time remembering that we are not doing this all on our own. Our own egos can, on occasion, get in our own way. God is never absent, even if it may appear that way or feel that way.

God is present and involved in the environment. Psalm 65 has beautiful imagery, like in verse 9 “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water.” This past week I was reminded of the power of God through a summer rainstorm. When was the last time you were caught in the rain? I don’t mean just a little sprinkle. I mean the type of rain where your clothes are soaked, shoes full of water, caught in the rain. We might not always feel like laughing at the time, but I think there is nothing like a powerful rainstorm to remind us that God’s power is much greater than our own. 

Psalm 65 reminds us that God cares about our simple needs, like sending rain to nourish the earth. There is no prayer too big or too small for God. As we also saw in the Parable of the Sower, God provides and provides abundantly. 

The words of Psalm 65 I believe are echoed in the lyrics of a contemporary Christian worship song, “So Will I (100 Billion X)” by Hillsong United.

“If the stars were made to worship so will I

If the mountains bow in reverence so will I

If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I”

We can look to creation and nature when we are unsure how to praise God. If you are going through a difficult time and maybe don’t feel like praising God, that’s okay too. Just like nature praises God without seemingly doing anything, our presence is enough. God loves us just as we are. Amen.

Grace and peace to you in the week ahead,
Pastor Laura

July 7 Devotional

This devotional was originally written for First Congregational Church of Wareham, MA.

“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Matthew 13:8

This week I have been reading and reflecting on the Parable of the Sower (view the full parable online here). This is a familiar parable found in the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. A sower scatters seed across the road, in the rocks, in thorns, and, finally, in good soil. Predictably, the seeds that are not planted in good soil shrivel and do not reap a good harvest. 

The parables that Jesus tells always have hidden meaning behind the initial story. In this parable, we might wonder why the sower so liberally spreads the seeds all over the place. It seems like there is no thought or intention behind where the seeds are being sown and, as a result, most of the seeds are lost. 

I wonder if instead of scattering the seed everywhere, we might work together as a Christian community to prepare the soil. I am not a farmer, but I have helped out on occasion at a community garden. In order to reap a bountiful harvest, we should know the soil where we are planting. What are possible predators in the area? Should we guard our harvest against rabbits or deer with fencing and netting? We might even want to know more intricate details like, what is the pH balance? We can plow the soil, prepare it with compost, and sketch out a plan for our garden. 

I believe that all of these preparations help to identify two paths in the parable. There is the path of practicality and the path of miracles.

The seeds that were planted into good soil reap a hundredfold harvest. This detail is easy to skip over when reading or listening to the text. But it is an important detail. I confess that I didn’t really understand the significance of a “hundredfold harvest” in my initial reading of this passage. When I was studying this passage, I read an explanation from another pastor, Talitha Arnold, who conveyed the significance of the hundredfold harvest. 

Arnold explained that a sevenfold harvest would be a good year for a farmer. A tenfold harvest would be true abundance and a thirtyfold harvest would feed an entire village for a year. But a hundredfold harvest would be a miracle and the farmer could retire to a villa on the sea of Galilee.

This familiar Parable of the Sower is actually a miracle story!

God already knows the soil we are planted on and scatters the seeds in our midst. While human hands might sow the seeds and they will shrivel, God brings forth abundance. We are called as Christians to believe in God’s abundant harvest and celebrate the seeds that have been planted. I encourage you in the day ahead to reflect on where you see God’s abundance in your daily life? What miraculous harvest awaits you?

Grace and peace to you in the week ahead,
Pastor Laura

Reading Life Update

We are about halfway through the year and I thought I would write a little reading life update. I am on track to read 60 books this year. Here is a recap of some of my favorites.

My favorite book of January was The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I listened to it on audio and it is read by Tom Hanks. The Dutch House is a lovely novel telling the story of a brother and sister over the course of nearly fifty years. If you are looking for a good fiction book to get lost in, I highly recommend this book.

Most of my reading in February was focused on academic books, but my favorite book that month was another audiobook. I listened to Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers (read by the author). This book had been on my radar since Carruthers visited Yale Divinity School in 2018. Here is a good explanation of why you should read this book:

“Charlene Carruthers is a powerful organizer, radical thinker, paradigm-shifter, and one of the most influential political voices of her generation. Anyone seriously interested in the struggle for Black liberation in this country needs to listen carefully to what she has to say.”

—Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement and Making All Black Lives Matter

Considering the major ways the world changed in March, I still managed to read some good books that month. My favorite was The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister. It is a slim book, but it packs a punch. Sister Joan writes about prophetic spirituality to resist oppression and injustice. Very timely and the short chapters are easy to read whenever you have a few minutes.

During the stay-at-home time of the pandemic, I read a few pages each day from The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery by Henri Nouwen. It was a wonderful book to savor. It really is a diary of Nouwen’s seven-month sabbatical at Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. Nouwen is self-reflective, without being too self-conscious, and examines the busyness of his normal daily life as an academic. I shared the quote below on my Facebook page in April.

“I wonder if I really have listened carefully enough to the God of history, the God of my history, and have recognized the Divine when God called me by my name, broke the bread, or asked me to cast out my nets after a fruitless day? Maybe I have been living much too fast, too restlessly, too feverishly, forgetting to pay attention to what is happening here and now, right under my nose. Just as a whole world of beauty can be discovered and one flower, so the great grace of God can be tasted in one small moment. Just as no great travels are necessary to see the beauty of creation, so no great ecstasies are needed to discover the love of God. But you have to be still and wait so that you can realize that God is not in the earthquake, the storm, or the lightning, but in the gentle breeze with which God touches your back.”

From Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary, pages 94-95.

Once I turned in final papers, I enjoyed devouring seven books in May! A highlight of my May reading list was Grace Is a Pre-Existing Condition: Faith, Systems, and Mental Healthcare by David Finnegan-Hosey. This book was just published in February 2020. I had pre-ordered my copy because I really enjoyed David’s first book, Christ on the Psych Ward. Again I shared a favorite quote from this book on Facebook.

“In our current social and political crisis, it’s important to keep in mind that whole systems need to change. No single thing is going to be the one thing that does it. We need to acknowledge that and try not to get defensive about it. The one or three things that I can focus on today – the protest I can attend, the representative I can call – isn’t going to fix everything. We can’t all move everything at once. Care for yourself and for others, knowing that the struggle is both urgent and long-term. Pick a place you think you can intervene. Do it knowing that your actions are part of a larger system.”

Grace is a Pre-existing Condition by David Finnegan-Hosey, page 92.
When I was in high school, I had this white cover paperback edition of the book. We decorated the covers, similar to this one I found online.

We are almost at the end of June and I have finished eight books this month. Interestingly enough, this month I read three books on Kindle, listened to three on audio, and only two were physical paperbacks. I might have re-read a book for the first time ever. Since the beginning of the year, I could not stop thinking about The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Over a few days this month, I re-read this classic. It was interesting to read this book again about fifteen years after my first reading. The first time I read the book I was about the same age as Holden. I don’t think I realized how much trauma Holden had suffered with the death of his younger brother and the death by suicide of a classmate. I am very glad I re-read it and it gave me a lot to think about.

Another book I finished reading in June was Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy by G. Jeffrey MacDonald. Newly published in April 2020, I participated in a four-week book group organized by The BTS Center. From late May to mid-June, we met for one hour a week to discuss sections of the book. The book group greatly enriched my reading experience. I recommend Part-Time is Plenty to my clergy colleague friends. The book is full of ideas for your full or part-time ministry.

What have you been reading or listening to? If you want to know all of the books that I have read so far in 2020, check out my Goodreads account. I regularly update my reading list there. Happy reading!

UCC MID Virtual Gathering

On Thursday, June 18 nearly 100 UCC Members in Discernment gathered on Zoom to connect and hear from the various staff at the National Office. I’m providing a brief recap for friends and colleagues who were unable to attend the live events.

First, I want to express my gratitude to the National Staff for their hard work to provide this opportunity to MIDs. COVID-19 disrupted life and work rhythms for many people. Traditionally, there is an in-person gathering for MIDs at the UCC National Office in Cleveland, Ohio. The National Staff didn’t want MIDs to miss out on the opportunity to connect and therefore worked to replicate as much of the traditional event as possible.

Our day began at 9AM with introductions of the full MESA staff. A listing of the MESA team and the responsibilities of each person are available here. MESA stands for Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization. I felt like I was swimming in acronyms by midday! MESA, COM, MOM, MID, CARDD, etc. It helps to remember to ask if something is unclear. We need to advocate for ourselves as MIDs.

From 10AM to 10:30AM we were greeted by Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, Rev. Traci Blackmon, and Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson. It was great to hear from each of them and know that they care about MIDs.

Rev. Traci Blackmon addressing UCC Members in Discernment via Zoom on June 18, 2020.

The remainder of the morning was spent in small group time. When we registered we were instructed to share where we were in the MID process: discovery, progressing, transforming. It was a little confusing since I had never heard those words before. But Discovery is early in the MID process, under one year as a MID. Progressing is the middle phase. Transforming is coming to the end of the MID process, looking towards search and call.

The small group time was helpful to connect with other MIDs in a similar phase. Each group was given some discussion questions. My group discussed what was causing anxiety for us in our current phase and what were we doing to reduce or calm the anxiety. Many in the group mentioned how it is a challenging time to be in search and call. Some were working on ordination papers and having trouble focusing due to the stress of the pandemic and life circumstances (loss of employment, caring for children, health concerns, etc).

Later in the day we had another opportunity to be in small group time and my group spent most of the time getting to know each other more. We shared where we were in the MID process, where we were located, and what kind of ministry we felt called to. Truthfully, this was one of the few opportunities I have had to connect with UCC MIDs outside of Divinity School. I would say the personal connections were one of the major benefits to this National MID Virtual Gathering. There are two ways for MIDs to connect moving forward. A Slack chat was spontaneously set up during the gathering as a way to share information outside of the Zoom chat box. And there is a pre-existing UCC MID Facebook group. If you need assistance connecting to either of those resources, please let me know.

The afternoon sessions were the content heavy time. Attendees received presentations on the Manual on Ministry and the Marks for Ministry. You can view the Manual on Ministry (MOM) online. There are various documents available online for Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers. I’m including a link here to what I think is the MOST helpful version of the document. Personally, I like the longer document I’ve linked to because it helps give examples and context for the Marks. Some COMs (Committees on Ministry) use the Marks along your journey as a MID, but others do not. However, whether you are super familiar with the Marks or not, you need to write and reflect on them when you are crafting a profile to find a UCC ministry job in the search and call process. The longer Marks document is helping me to prepare my profile.

We also received presentations on the search and call process, setting up a profile, different types of covenant agreements, and basic guidance on call agreement. Most search and call information is available online here. One helpful document that was brought to my attention, which you can find via the previous link, is a sample call agreement. Another new resource I learned about at this gathering is a shared Google Document, “Conducting a Pastoral Search During a Pandemic.” This document is helpful for churches and for MIDs and pastors who are currently searching and unable to gather in person due to COVID-19.

There were afternoon breakout sessions with various presentations. Obviously I could only attend one, but I heard great things about the various groups and the information that was shared. A good way to stay connected to the UCC and all of the various work they are doing is via email. I believe that the primary UCC email newsletter is KYP: Keeping You Posted. Be sure as an MID that you are also getting emails from your conference and association, as applicable. Personally, I get regular email newsletters from the Potomac Association (where I am a MID), the Central Atlantic Conference, the Southern New England Conference, and, most recently, the Vermont Conference, because I am working with some UCC churches in Northeast Vermont this summer. These various email newsletters are a great way to learn what the UCC is doing at various local/regional levels and discover different types of ministries in the area.

Our final afternoon session was with the Pension Boards. They put together this great little YouTube video to walk us through the variety of programs and departments at the Pension Boards. I definitely recommend watching the video. This link goes directly to the Pension Boards website.

The long day on Zoom concluded with final reflections and a closing worship, but I was unable to attend past 5:30PM.

Overall, as I said at the beginning, I am very grateful to the National Office for coordinating a virtual MID gathering on a time crunch. The ability to connect is a blessing. However, technology was not always our friend throughout the day. And I think that the schedule was overly ambitious. A more comfortable schedule might have been two half days, or even one night a week for a month. I hope that the MESA team continues to provide these virtual gatherings because for many people physically traveling to Cleveland for an in-person gathering is a challenge, due to other employment, child care, health, etc.

I think it is so important for UCC MIDs to support each other and connect as best we can. If you have questions about something I shared, please let me know. If you don’t have my email, the best way to contact me is on Facebook Messenger, my Facebook profile is public. And I look forward to virtually connecting at General Synod 2021.