Ritual of blessing

This ritual of blessing was first used in a Sunday morning worship service at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut during the time of Pastoral Prayer.

This morning I want to invite you all to help me in lifting up these joys and concerns. As we close this time of prayer, we will do a small ritual to bless one another.

As we begin, join me in placing your hands over your heart. Feel its precious beating. We thank God for the gift of life. Each gift of life is filled with countless blessings and challenges. As we feel the beat of our physical hearts, consider the stirring of your spiritual heart, and let compassion and wisdom radiate into your receiving hands. We ask God to attune our hearts to God’s still speaking voice.

Keep your hands over your heart and hear these words of blessing:

Hands, when in service to the human spirit, have the power to bless.

With touch that heals

Touch that comforts

Hands, when pledged in covenant to serve to our neighbor, have power to transform

Through service that strengthens

Service that liberates.“*

I invite you now to extend your hands out in front of you, palms facing down, over those around you.

Let us send out this healing spirit inside each of us to be a blessing to this gathered community. So that we might lend a hand to those in need. Offer a comforting hug. Or simply presence. As our hands are extended in blessing, we also remember that we should not overextend ourselves.

I invite you now to turn your hands over, maybe rest them on your lap, with your palms facing up, in a posture of receiving. We have sent our blessing out over this gathered community and beyond. But let us also receive. We sit for a moment of silent prayer to be nourished by the prayers, the joys and concerns. Let us be restored by God’s overflowing love, present here today. Amen.

*This liturgy was inspired by a Laying on of Hands written by Keith Goheen found online here.

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Reflection on 30 days without social media

On the afternoon of July 8th I deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter apps from my phone and then I logged out of all accounts on my computer. I was determined to stay off of social media for the next 30 days. This social media detox was inspired from reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Even before reading Newport’s book, I had been thinking about my social media consumption. I had begun falling victim to sitting down to look up one thing on my phone and the next thing I knew I had been scrolling for over an hour!

Digital Minimalism was a quick read (I read most of it poolside the week of 4th of July). One part of the book that resonated with me the most was the contrast of high quality leisure time versus low quality leisure time. Personally, spending a large amount of time on social media felt like time was wasting away. Newport suggests the 30 day detox as a time of intentionality. He advises spending time during the detox considering how to you want to spend your free time and what habits or relationships you want with social media if you return at the end of the break.

I began the detox with a goal of spending more time reading books for fun. I had already done a good amount during my summer break. I read 10 books from May 19 to July 5. I also had a few small projects around my apartment that I hoped to carve out time to work on.

The first few days of the detox I felt a physical urge to scroll on my phone, searching for the feeling and the validation of social media. Newport talks about this in Digital Minimalism so I felt prepared for this unpleasant feeling. He explains how social media sites want you to spend more time looking at them. The algorithms are formulated to keep you engaged by randomly showing you content they believe you will like/comment/share. Our natural instinct responds to this random feedback by continuing to scroll and hoping for that next endorphin boost when we see something we like or when we get a notification.

My biggest insight during the detox came during the final week. I realized that my month had been spent much more internally focused than my past few months had been. I felt like I was internally focused in a healthy reflective way, not a self-centered way. When I was not on social media, I was not constantly thinking about what other people were doing, what recipes they were sharing, or what articles they were recommending. My time was spent reflecting my own day and who I wanted to connect with or reach out to.

Overall, I was very happy with how my social media detox went. I reconnected with my love for reading. I finished 13 books in 30 days! I hosted my 1st game night at my apartment, having several friends over to my apartment for the first time in nearly two years. I completed several of the small projects I had around my apartment, even starting and finishing a small Ikea project, pictured here! Throughout the month, I cooked healthier meals, exercised more often, and slept better. I felt much less distracted at work and at home. Often when I returned to my apartment after work, I was amazed at how many hours there were in an evening when I wasn’t sucked into looking at my phone and wasn’t entering into the endless loop of social media.

Newport doesn’t talk very much about this in his book, but one of my biggest takeaways was reflecting on the natural size of a social network – the REAL physical social network. Is there a limit to how many people we can actually keep in touch with and keep strong connections with? I would suggest that yes there is a limit to how many people you can physically keep in touch with. Digital social networks want us to believe that we can keep in touch with everyone, every former classmate, every person you’ve ever met, every former colleague you’ve ever had. They can all be your friends! Newport showcases that many people have come to accept a large number of surface level relationships and possibly sacrifice higher quality relationships in the process. I don’t have an immediate answer, but it is something I will continue to think about.

It would be misleading to make it seem like this was the perfect month and I crossed everything off my to-do list. That was not the case! I had many ideas for things that I wanted to do and still didn’t carve out time for. But the social media detox helped me to realize what was most important to me. And I realized that what is most important to me is not found on social media.

Have you ever done a social media detox? What were your thoughts?

June 16 Sermon: Meditation on the Trinity

This sermon was originally preached on June 16, 2019 at First Congregational Church of Griswold, Connecticut. I provide a brief introduction and then guide the congregation in a meditation on the Trinity.

Today is Trinity Sunday where we celebrate the gift and mystery of the Trinity. I shared one famous representation of the Trinity with the children through the icon created by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in 1425, nearly 600 years ago! I hope you are able to take a moment to look at these icons during coffee hour after worship, if you haven’t already seen them. Icons serve as portals to the Divine. By gazing on an icon, we can see God. This icon of the Trinity is especially powerful. It invites us to imagine ourselves at the table with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We might consider why they are gathered at this table? What are they calling our attention to with the gaze of their eyes or the pointing of their fingers?

The Trinity is another one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, just like the many mysteries in the Bible we talked about last Sunday. Just because something is a mystery does not mean that it is unknowable or impossible to understand. Sometimes a mystery just takes a different way of approaching it to discover what gifts are within. 

This morning, instead of a traditional sermon, I’d like to invite you to join in a time of guided meditation and prayer. Now I recognize that for some of you, this might seem a little “new age-y” or strange. Some of you might be thinking, “I can’t meditate, I can’t stay focused.” But trust me, you can’t do it wrong! Even if you get distracted, that is okay.

Feel free to stretch side to side in a seated position if you’d like. Now I know that normally the pastor might be concerned if you have your eyes closed during the sermon. To enter into a time of contemplative prayer, I invite you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable, or feel free to focus your gaze, maybe even looking out the window or looking at your hands. Let’s prepare ourselves for this time of meditation and prayer by paying attention to our breathing. As I have said before, our breath is the most basic form of prayer. Even when we do not have any words to say, by paying attention to our inhales and exhales we can call out to God. Take a deep, life-giving breath. And maybe try counting your inhale and exhale. One, two, three. One, two, three. Find whatever pace is comfortable for you. At any time, if your mind wanders, you can always return to your breath to recenter yourself and focus your meditation and prayer.

Let us begin.

God we ask you to be present to us this morning as we enter into this time of guided meditation and prayer. We desire to more fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, God three-in-one. In this time of meditation, we will spend time prayerfully considering each of the ways you are made known to us through the Trinity: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. 

We begin with you God, as you were in the beginning. Yahweh. Jehovah. Elohim. There are so many names for you God. We seek to know you and see your hand at work in our world. God you are both Father and Mother, you care for each human being on this planet. No matter our own relationship with our own mother and father, help us to feel your love God and to know that you love each one of us, just as we are. We remember how God the Creator worked in Genesis to create all of creation. On each day in the creation story in Genesis, God said that it was good. All of God’s creation is good, including each one of us. Sometimes God we might feel overwhelmed by how big you are or you may feel distant God. And so we offer thanks for your wisdom as shown in the Trinity. When we feel distant from God, we can turn to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. 

Let us focus our attention and prayer now on Jesus, the Messiah. Fully human and fully divine. God came down to Earth and took human form in Jesus. God you showed us how much you care for all of creation by living the human experience. Through Jesus, you knew what it was to be human, to have human physical limitations and needs. Jesus felt hungry and tired. Jesus loved and laughed with family and friends. Jesus walked and shared meals. Jesus was and is our teacher. Through the stories and parables Jesus offered his disciples, we continue to seek to follow the path of Christ in order to know you better God. Jesus who called out to you, Abba, Father God, as he suffered and died on the cross. Jesus revealed the miracle and mystery of resurrection. Jesus who we can turn to as our brother and sister in faith.

And the final piece of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. We celebrated the gift of the Spirit last week at Pentecost. We thank you God for this gift of your presence made known to us through our every breath. We can hear the presence of the Spirit through the wind rustling the leaves or brushing against our face. The Holy Spirit is our sustainer.

Alpha and Omega. Beginning and End. As we come to the end of our guided meditation, I invite each of you to consider which part of the Trinity you feel most connected to in this moment and to remain in time of silent prayer for two minutes. Remember that if you feel your mind wandering, you can focus on your breath. Counting your inhale and exhale: one, two, three. Maybe one of the names of God is calling out to you:

Abba, Father, Jehovah, Yahweh, or Creator.

Or maybe you want to spend time in prayer with Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Take the next two minutes for silent prayer and meditation on the Trinity as it is speaking to you this morning. I will ring this prayer bowl to signal the end of the two minutes.

April 7 Sermon from Spring Glen Church: “Faith Beyond Words”

This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut. An audio recording is available online.

Faith Beyond Words 

Let me set the scene for you.

I am walking into a chapel in San Salvador. The doors are wide open. There are windchimes overhead made from seashells. I hear them jingle as a cool breeze comes through the sanctuary. The space is simple, but filled with light. There are windows all around. I see huge flowering rhododendrons outside. I walk farther into the chapel and I focus my attention on the chancel. There are almost a dozen fresh flower arrangements around the altar. Maybe this is because Oscar Romero’s feast day is only one week away?

As I approach the altar my eyes are drawn to a glass engraving on the floor. The glass depicts an outline of where Oscar Romero’s body fell after he was shot and killed while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. I am in the chapel at Hospitalito Divina Providencia in San Salvador. A few days earlier I hardly even knew of the existence of this exact place. However, as I walk around the chapel, soaking in the magnificent beauty of the nature that surrounds me, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I understand that I am walking on holy ground.

A few days before this encounter with the Spirit, I traveled over 2000 miles from New Haven, Connecticut to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador with a group of ten other Yale Divinity School students and our two faculty leaders. We had been preparing for this trip for nearly seven months. We had read over 1500 pages across ten different books to educate ourselves intellectually on liberation theology, the stories of religious martyrs in El Salvador, experiences of global migration, and other academic topics. But this trip was not just an academic learning experience. Traveling to El Salvador was an immersion. An immersion into the Salvadoran culture, an immersion into a country that suffered from a horrific 12 year civil war, an immersion into a new place with sights, sounds, and smells that at times would overwhelm our senses.

In some ways, an immersion experience is meant to be sensory overload. We participate in such trips to shake up our sense of self and return home with a new and different way of thinking. New smells, new sounds, new tastes, new sights, and new feelings. New, new, new. Not only an abundance of new, but old too. While I was in El Salvador, I experienced many old memories rushing to the front of my mind. A taste of a pupusa, the national staple food in El Salvador, brought back memories of my time living in Washington DC and eating pupusas with friends after church. Most mornings I woke to the sounds of birds chirping much like what I hear when I wake up here in New Haven. We saw familiar chain restaurants, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Wendys, and others. The smell of fire where weeds were being burned in the countryside reminded me of the smell of campfires as a kid. When our senses our overloaded, the new is connected to the old, this is the way that our brains work. An immersion is an overwhelming experience but our brain protects us by reminding us that it is not all as new and jarring as it might first seem. 

Three days of feeling overwhelmed by sensory overload is what prepared me to stop and recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel where Oscar Romero was killed. I had been searching for God in El Salvador. In our first two days of the immersion, we participated in two Catholic worship services entirely in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish and I struggled to connect with God during those worship services where I didn’t understand the prayers, I didn’t understand the songs, and I certainly didn’t understand the sermons! But those worship services weren’t meant for me. I was only an observer and just because I couldn’t  feel God’s presence does not mean that God was not there. God was certainly present in those worship services, in the people, and throughout El Salvador.

The scripture we heard this morning calls our attention to this sense of God’s presence. Here in our lived experiences, even when we might not initially recognize it: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” The letter writer in 1 John is reminding the reader of the tangible lived experiences they have had as followers of Jesus Christ. They have experienced the word made manifest through their senses, they heard, saw, and touched. A little bit of background about 1 John might help us understand the context of this passage. 1 John is an epistle written in such a similar style and with a similar vocabulary to the Gospel of John, that it leads biblical scholars to conclude that it was likely written by someone in the Johannine school, a follower of the writer of the Gospel of John. In ancient times, a letter was written to convey important information. Often the cost of visiting in person was very expensive. So it was more economical to send a letter. This particular letter was written because of a schism in the Christian community. In the church, letters were written to clarify and weigh in on debated topics. This background is important to recognize what is being emphasized. 1 John is reminding the reader of the importance of their fellowship as Christians and how they came to join this fellowship. They joined in fellowship because of what they experienced with their senses, “that which they heard, saw and touched.”

When I struggled to feel God’s immediate presence in El Salvador, it took a moment of reflection on what I had heard, seen, and touched. The reading that I had done to prepare for this immersion in El Salvador changed the way that I experienced everything. I was so much more aware of the history and the theology. There were many details that I might not have noticed if it wasn’t for the preparation that I had done. In particular, learning about Oscar Romero. The reading from 1 John says, “we saw it, and testify to it.” Romero, like Martin Luther King, Jr., saw that his life was under threat. But he testified anyway. He continued to preach the gospel even though he had foreseen that it would cost him his life. 

The final story I will share this morning from El Salvador is a new theology that I learned. This is the theology of cohetes. Cohetes is the Spanish word for rockets or firecrackers. We participated in a novena prayer walk with a rural Catholic community. A novena is 9 days of prayer leading up to celebrating a saint’s feast day. During this novena prayer walk, we joined about thirty local community members walking along about two miles of dusty half-paved road. The group was singing songs and saying prayers along the way. All of a sudden a firecracker when off and I almost jumped out of my skin. By the end of the novena prayer walk, around 12 fireworks had been shot off and we had learned about the theology of cohetes. This is a theology of place. When you shoot off a firecracker, you do so from the ground. You light it and it shoots up towards the sky. The crack sound catches your attention and you look up towards the sky. In a religious sense, by looking upward we might draw our attention towards the heavens, towards a sense of the mystery and our awareness of God’s presence. Shooting off the firecrackers not only draws our attention, but the attention of those around us. That particular community used the firecrackers as a way to evangelize, to show others what they were doing and invite them in. I was drawn to the theology of cohetes because so often my own faith experience is orderly, inside, and quiet. The firecrackers led me to wonder about ways that I can testify in a similar way?

Not everyone can go on an immersion trip. But each of us can reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and we testify to in our lived experience as Christians. Do you need a firecracker to shake up your faith life? Or maybe you are the one who is lighting the firecracker to call attention to those around you?

Let us each continually reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and what we have looked upon and touched with our hands, in order that we might testify to it. Amen.

November 2018 Contemplative Prayer

I am currently a ministerial intern at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut. A group gathers for Contemplative Prayer once a month. A majority of the November meeting was spent in reflection on many life updates for those who attended. Two different types of prayers were discussed and I thought they might be helpful to write about here. 

During worship on the Sunday previous to Contemplative Prayer, Rev. Susan Murtha had shared a message with the children on prayer. Rev. Susan taught the congregation a five finger prayer inspired by Pope Francis. I created an image to accompany her instructions for this blog post.

I also shared with the group a similar five finger prayer to be used as a daily examen, a type of prayer developed by St. Ignatius. You can view a brochure produced by the Jesuit Institute of London explaining the five finger examen in more detail here.

Our session concluded with a Lectio Divina reading and contemplation of Wendell Berry poem, The Peace of Wild Things. I love using this poem in prayer. I hope that you find inspiration in the words.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, from On Being. 
https://onbeing.org/blog/wendell-berry-the-peace-of-wild-things/

October 2018 Contemplative Prayer

Spring Glen Church offers Contemplative Prayer one night a month. Below is the agenda from the October gathering. Led by Laura Kisthardt, YDS Pastoral Intern, and Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, Sabbatical Coverage Associate Pastor. I (Laura) have added links and notes for anyone who would like to use this agenda for individual or group use.

  1. Begin in silence (10 minutes)
  2. Leaf Meditation (5 minutes individual reflection, 10 minutes of sharing)

We used fallen leaves gathered from outside for an object meditation. You could use a leaf, a shell, a rock or any other natural object. Spend 5 to 10 minutes with the object. Observe it and turn it around in your hand. What do you notice about the object? What strikes you? Does it remind you of anything? Consider the objects role in creation.

3. Ignatian Examen

I guided the group through a modified version of the Ignatian Examen used each Sunday in my home church of Cleveland Park Congregational UCC. You can find a version of the examen to use on your own here: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray

4. Loving Kindness Meditation

There are many variations of Metta, or loving kindness, meditations. This is one that I selected to use this day. If you are using it for personal prayer, sometimes it can be helpful to record yourself reading it slowly on your phone or computer and then use the recording for meditation to allow yourself to be fully present and not be reading.

https://blog.buddhagroove.com/the-buddhist-metta-lovingkindness-prayer/

5. Breath Prayer with music

Return your focus to your breath. I find it helpful to use 3 part breathing. Imagine filling your lungs from the very bottom, middle and then top. Hold that for one count before exhaling the air out in three parts: top, middle, bottom. That type of breath is not necessary though if you find it to be a distraction. If you would like to use a mantra in addition to the focus on your breath, I suggest something simple, either two or four words to be used on the inhale and exhale. Inhale: “Peace” and Exhale: “Love”. Or Inhale: “Holy God” Exhale: “Show Mercy”.

We listened to four songs from this album (one of my favorite to listen to during prayer):

https://karenrugg.bandcamp.com/album/cathedral-canyon-native-american-flute-meditations

6. Lectio Divina Psalm 46

You will slowly read the passage three times. The first time, let the words wash over you. The second time, start to become aware of words or phrases that stand out to you. The third time select one word or phrase where God is speaking to you right now. After the third reading, spend 5 minutes in silent prayer reflecting on that word or phrase.

7. Closing Prayer

July 2018 Book Recap

July was a fun month of reading! I read 7 books this month. Some of the books pictured in this stack represent others because I already returned them to the library.

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It had been a while since my last graphic novel. So July started with The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. It was a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about the author’s family and immigrating from Vietnam. I knew next to nothing about Vietnam before or after the war. Bui does a great job of drawing connections between her childhood, her aspirations as a new mother, and the life her mother and father lived before she was born. The Best We Could Do has a contemplative quality to it and many of the illustrations encourage you to linger and consider their impact.

My next two July reads were the second and third books of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. I thought the middle book (China Rich Girlfriend) in the trilogy was better than the conclusion (Rich People Problems). But overall an interesting story that I enjoyed reading! I am looking forward to seeing the movie coming out soon. If you are looking for a late summer pool read, I recommend starting with Crazy Rich Asians, the first book in the trilogy.

After finishing the trilogy I took a little bit of time to decide what my next read would be. At the beginning of the summer I had made a list for myself of books that I wanted to read this summer. I considered a few from the list, but I ended up ordering A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was all over bookstagram last summer and it has a very memorable man crying on the cover. I had been thinking about reading it for over a year! It was just the kind of epic 800+ page novel that I needed to dive into. A Little Life is a book that will linger in my mind for a very long time. I fell in love with the four friends (Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude) and their journey, struggles and celebrations, through adulthood. Earlier in the summer I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and the characters in A Little Life reminded me a lot of Cyril Avery in different ways.

Maybe my next two reads were dissapointments because the shadow left by A Little Life was so big… I really wanted to like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Books about books are usually my favorite. I didn’t feel strong connections to Montag or any of the main characters in Fahrenheit 451. I wanted to see more from Clarisse and some of the other minor characters. I followed Bradbury with a new book that has been getting a lot of publicity, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Educated fell flat for me. Similar to Fahrenheit 451, I struggled to connect with any of the individuals. The abuse that Westover faced by her family was terrible, but I was concerned by the lack of analysis she gave to the actions of others. I would have liked to have seen a conclusion that looked back and more clearly articulated the abuses she suffered, rather than leaving it implied, especially related to the risky situations her father put her and her siblings in while working in the junk yard.

Finally, I was happy to end the month with a book that surpassed my expectations. I had my eye on The Power by Naomi Alderman since it was a Book of the Month club pick in October 2017. I purchased a used copy at the Book Barn in Niantic in May. It probably would have sat on myself unread for a while if it wasn’t for Kate McGuire. She told me that her book club in DC was going to read it. I decided to make it my next read in so that we could discuss it when I visited DC. As I said before, The Power pleasantly surprised me! I knew a little bit of the premise before reading, but the execution of the plot was incredible. I loved the themes that Alderman tackled and the way she handled them: patriarchy, human nature, religion, etc. If you like Sci-fi or dystopian fiction, I highly recommend The Power, especially if you like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu TV show.

I have one more month of summer “break” before the fall semester starts. Hopefully I can squeeze in a few more fun reads before it’s back to theology, exegesis, etc!