Beautiful Music, and You’re Invited

It’s been a long time since I’ve written.  A lot has been going on and my spirit has been a bit uninspired of late.  Or perhaps I’ve just been distracted and busy. Whatever the reason, I’ve rather missed talking about our wonderful and quirky congregation and so I begin again.  And do I have some wonderful news to share with you!

We have a fabulous pianist at Forest Hill.  I know, every church thinks their musician is wonderful, and in my book, any one who makes music is pretty special, but Adrian is truly amazing. He not only has been blessed with an amazing gift and plays with great passion but he listens, truly listens, to the liturgy. He somehow intuitively knows what notes to play behind our speaking to make everything seem to vibrate with the Spirit.  His music creates this beautiful backdrop, or container, for our prayers and scripture and sermons that somehow brings our words and intentions alive in ways beyond what we could have imagined.

Well, God has placed a dream in Adrian’s heart; a dream that we will have a grand piano in our sanctuary.  He doesn’t want to replace the keyboard that we now use but to open up new possibilities for music to fill the rafters of our sanctuary and for a joyful, and beautiful, noise to be made for God.  He wants others to be able to use our space for rehearsals and concerts and classes and whatever else the Spirit inspires in our hearts.  And you know, I just bet that with the Spirit’s leading, and Adrian’s determination, it will happen.

He’s started a wonderful concert series every Sunday evening at 6:30.  He invites his friends and fellow musicians – instrumentalists and singers alike – and they come to share their gifts and passion for beautiful and inspiring music.  And he invites visual artists to come and paint, or sculpt, or draw what they experience in the concert and they then make their creations available to the audience.  And it’s all their gift to us to help us raise the funds to purchase a piano.  There is no charge for these wonderful evenings of music and art, but donations are gratefully accepted.   Everyone is invited to join us as we celebrate, appreciate and encourage the amazing gifts of many fine young musicians, mostly from the Conservatory of Music here in San Francisco or from San Francisco State.  Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

Earth Day Celebration and Worship

We celebrated Earth Sunday this last week at Forest Hill – what a wonderful time we had!   Instead of worshiping in our sanctuary, we gathered in our fellowship hall and spent most of our time outside, planting, weeding, harvesting, painting, making stepping stones and just generally enjoying the sunshine and God’s Presence in nature – what a wonderful way to worship our God  and remember our charge to be good and faithful stewards of God’s Creation.

Painting Pots for our Gardens at home and at Forest Hill

Lots of new plants were planted on our hillside, thanks to the hard work of people like Shannon and Howard

The Parable of the Seeds comes to mind as Alan and Cynthia gently plant and water seeds that will hopefully sprout and bear fruit – or in this case, veggies. We planted carrot – even rainbow colored ones! – squash, winter and summer, beans and pea seeds. Now we’ll wait patiently for them to sprout before planting them in our raised beds.

Brandon and Keylse planted and harvested  carrots, broccoli and parsley.  And Keylse discovered how good broccoli tastes when it’s just been picked!

Ricardo and Leon planted and weeded

and Barbara and Karen helped them out

but not without the help of one of our Nineties Club members – Mr. Cole.

Have you ever seen such a crazy looking carrot?  Think it stayed in the ground too long?

Here’s an up-close look – rather unique, wouldn’t you say?  No one is brave enough to take a bite; in fact, some suggested we preserve it some how and put it in a museum.  Any ideas?

“90’s Club”

We have a “90’s Club” at Forest Hill: a select group of wise, spirited, and sometimes feisty women and one man who have reached the incredible age of 90+ years. There’s six all together, five of whom show up just about every Sunday to worship, fellowship and keep us on our toes. I jokingly say that Forest Hill has discovered the fountain of youth – they’re just not sharing its location with me – because I have to say they are some of the youngest people I know. They are full of life and spirit and energy and they love to worship. And not just in the old “we’ve always done it this way” kind of way. They take their faith seriously but not so much their own personal agendas. They seem to have arrived at a place where they’re willing and able to be open to the new and different while honoring and giving thanks for the ways that have shaped and formed their lives. I know they love the old hymns that they grew up with but I’ve also seen them tapping their feet to a new beat or lifting their hands in prayer and praise just about every time Brandon introduces a new style of music in worship. This last week it was the Blues and every body, most especially our 90’s Club, loved it!

Last summer we had a big party for these special people. Members of our congregation volunteered to interview each of our “90’s Club” members and we made a video of them sharing their wisdom, a bit about their faith journey and how and why the church has been important in their lives. They also got to share what they would most like us to know from the wisdom of their lived experience and we were truly blown away by their responses. We laughed and cried, ate a great meal, listened to wonderful stories of faith and family and the changing world in which we live and gave thanks to God for this special group of “saints” among us. We were all a little richer, and hopefully wiser, as the day grew to a close. They reminded us that day, and every day since, to be faithful to our God and to the Way of Jesus, to appreciate our lives, to value our family and the friends that walk with us, to commit our lives to something bigger than ourselves, to live with integrity and to value work – almost every one of them told us “hard work never hurt any one!” And they should know, they’re some of the hardest workers I have ever known.

In Jeremiah 6:16 we hear: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” As our congregation stands at the crossroads and seeks the way God would have us walk, we know we are blessed by the presence, the wisdom and the faithfulness of our “90’s Club.” Their spiritual depth and faithful living challenges and encourages us to grow in faith and spiritual maturity. Their openness to life and worship and new perspectives is not only a breath of fresh air in a world that sometimes insists there’s only one “right” way but an invitation to each of us to experience God’s creativity and diversity with appreciation and wonder as we journey together. And did I mention, they’re a lot of fun to be around?!

Blessings, Susan

“Ah, the Blues”

Our first, but hopefully not last, Blues Sunday Worship finally happened this last week and was it worth the wait! I’ve always loved the Blues, especially when there’s a harmonica, and boy did we have one! There’s something about its sound – soulful and haunting, dark and yet filled with energy, sultry and sensual – that just sort of grabs you deep down, and lingers long after the music has ended. I realized something on Sunday, the Blues aren’t just something musicians play but something they feel; all the technical prowess in the world won’t really make a Blues song stir your soul if the feeling’s not there. Perhaps it’s that way with all music, but it really came home to me on Sunday. Our musicians gave us the gift of their music from the depths of their souls and the love in their hearts – from the highs and lows, the joys and the sorrows of their lives. There was no faking the soulfulness of their music – it was not only passionate but it was truthful – it had integrity – and it called forth a response from us.

How like our life of faith! We’ve all witnessed the disconnect in the words of faith and the actions of faith, not only in the lives of public figures and “other” people of faith, but especially in our own lives. How much easier it is to talk a good talk than to really walk what we talk – “walk the walk” as they say. We have to ask:  Does our faith live in our lives like the blues live in the souls of musicians who have experienced the depths as well as the heights that life has to offer and offer their music in response? Can others “feel, see, know” our faith in our choices and our actions as well as in our words? Is there integrity, honesty, passion in how we live out the call of Christ in our lives? Or do we just have the “technical prowess” to look good, sound good, even act good without Love at the center of all we are and do?

1 Corinthians 13 talks about actions without Love: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (NRSV)

Our Blues Sunday reminded me that as important as technical prowess may be to musicians, and words are to people of faith, without heart and soul it’s just not the blues and without Love, it’s just not the good news.

Blessings, Susan

World beyond arguments…

I shared an anonymous quote that I had read with Brandon the other night:

“Watch your thoughts they become words.

Watch your words they become actions.

Watch you actions they become habits.

Watch your habits they become character

Watch your character it becomes your destiny.”

We talked about the truth and the power of these words. We expressed our bewilderment that bad habits are so easily acquired while good ones, well, we all know how hard it is to create good habits in our lives. The next morning I had a new quote from Brandon, powerful and true, waiting for me in my inbox and he gave me permission to share it with you:

“In a world of misunderstandings and disagreements that escalate into arguments

and arguments that escalate into violence

and where violence escalates into battles, even all-out war,

there is this table with simple, life-sustaining elements upon it.

The One who created this setting, did so facing all the world’s misunderstandings and escalated disagreements

and the violence that was sure to follow his radical ideas

of a world beyond arguments and ever-lasting peace – this world.”

~Brandon Shaw

Hide and Seek

Remember hide and seek? Oh how I loved that game when I was young. Every evening before supper the kids in my neighborhood would gather in our big corner yard to play games of tag and dodge ball and my favorite, hide and seek. I always felt rather special and important, knowing that someone was out there looking for me. I can still remember the anticipation I felt when I was hiding, waiting anxiously to see if someone would be able to find me, worrying just a bit that they would forget to look and I would be left hiding forever. And then, they’d move back the bush or look under the bench or around the corner and they’d find me and the chase was on. I’d run my heart out hoping to reach home safely so that I would be free, and not the dreaded “it” – you know, the one who had to do all the looking in the next round if you tagged.

Sometimes it seems the life of faith is like a game of hide and seek. We keep hiding ourselves away in the bushes or under the bed or in the closet, hoping against hope that we’re not lost…that God really is out there looking for us…that we’re really worth seeking. We wait, and we wonder, and we worry. But the good news is our God is always shouting “Ready or not, here I come.” And then, God peaks around the corner of our heart or moves back the veil we’ve been hiding behind and we’re blessed with that wonderful, surprising moment of experiencing God’s grace anew – the sun breaks through the fog, there’s a lull in the pounding waves, a stranger smiles, a friend lifts us up in prayer, the glow of a candle dispels the darkness, a word is spoken with tenderness and conviction. . . and we know, we just know in that moment, that we aren’t really lost at all, only hiding.

I have to admit, my favorite moment in the game was when the person who was “it” called out: “Olly olly outs in free, free, free.” We all knew in that moment, that no matter where we were hiding, whether we had felt lost and forsaken or giddy that no one could find us, we got to go home; we were free; we were safe.

Let this good news wash over you: our God is always seeking, looking, searching out all the broken places and dark corners in our world and our hearts because we are God’s beloved and God’s grace is always calling and welcoming us home. And if we still feel lost, as we sometimes will, God calls out “olly olly outs in free, free, free! For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” ~Luke 19:10 NRSV

Want to play sometime? Susan

Coffee Hour

Before I came to Forest Hill I was never a big fan of “coffee hour” and I would find just about any excuse to avoid it. It always seemed a bit contrived to me, not to mention I’m an introvert who finds schmoozing a most challenging task. That’s pretty much changed now though, and I have to admit I rather delight in what is known in our congregation as Fellowship Time.  Since we’re a small community it’s rather hard to get lost in the crowd and believe me, no one’s left out for long – some of our members are extraordinarily gifted at inviting others into conversation, conversations that sometimes continue over lunch at a favorite restaurant or around our Table of Many Colors.  A typical Sunday has kids running around the courtyard while our youth are shooting baskets in the pre-school’s basketball hoop; a few souls picking produce in our garden – yumm, broccoli and cauliflower and carrots are ready even now; our nineties club sitting and chatting near the sliding glass doors so the rays of sun can keep them warm; Shannon, our student minister, and John Murphy, our resident math wizard, doing math problems at a table; and lively conversation filling the fellowship hall.  Hai stands near the window and watches, listens and smiles.

Hai is rather new to Forest Hill. Not quite sure how he found us, but oh so glad he did. Hai came to this country from Vietnam with his family when he was quite young. His mother is a Buddhist, his father an atheist, and Hai is a follower of Jesus. He brings a quiet wisdom, a knowing smile and a generous heart. He gifted me with a new bag for my laptop and he’s always looking out for our specially abled members or finding something that someone needs on the Internet for our otherwise non-computer savvy folk.  He’s very observant and keeps me in the loop about things I might not otherwise know, like how Joe burst out laughing and nearly fell out of his seat at a silly experience that was shared in Sunday school. Hai is waiting for my husband and I every Sunday when we arrive about 8:30; amazing considering the fact that he walks from his home and it takes him about 2 hours to get to Forest Hill.  He comes every week though, and sometimes he even joins us on Wednesday evenings for dinner and spiritual practice and choir.  Does such faithfulness produce the fruits of patience and generosity and compassion that we experience in him?  I know this, his love of Jesus shines in his life, his smile warms our hearts and his presence blesses us. Yes, I have come to love “coffee hour” and wouldn’t miss it now for the world.  With joy, Susan

Keepers

We have a lot of “keepers” around Forest Hill – a title that not only celebrates some very special people and their gifts but affirms the priesthood of all believers.  You see, we believe that ministry belongs to each and every one of us.  Part of our privilege of being in community is to help discern and celebrate each others gifts.

John Murphy is our resident “keeper of birthdays” – given his gift of never forgetting them – and our “keeper of the chairs.”  Every potluck Sunday he puts chairs around our tables and on other Sundays makes sure there’s chairs out for our seniors.  He never grumbles that his job is too menial but he’s always ready to welcome others to join in the fun. 

Joe is our “keeper of the light.” He not only turns on the lights in our sanctuary but the light of his smile chases away any darkness in our hearts.  Joe has limited mobility because of cerebral palsy and always wears a bicycle helmet to protect him from falls but that slows him down.  He may be unable to speak words, but Joe speaks volumes – with movement and sound and gesture, with his eyes and especially with the light of  his presence.


Howard has become our “keeper of communion.” He helps me set the Table before worship, carrying the elements oh so carefully, and then praying that our worship will be a gift to God and to our gathered community. I love Howard’s prayers and he loves praying.


Rick is the “keeper of the flame.” Each and every week, even when he can’t stay for worship because he’s going to the ballet, Rick takes the bus to Forest Hill to center himself, to pray and then to light our candles. His commitment is amazing and the candles always have a special glow when Rick lights them.

 

The faithfulness of our “keepers” is humbling and inspiring. Even though they may be challenged in special ways, they show up, they serve and they touch the lives of our community.  And frankly, they challenge us to grow in faith – to show up, serve, and touch as joyfully and as lovingly as they do.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” ~1 Peter 2:9-10.

Thanks be to God for John and Joe, Howard and Rick; for our keepers who truly teach us what it means to be God’s own people and to proclaim with our lives the Light of Christ.

Blessings, Susan

Serendipity

Bruce and I love to walk at Chrissy Field. After more than 15 years in this City by the Bay the views still astound us and cause us to stop, look and give thanks.  We especially love the old pier just to the east of the Golden Gate – the view of the bridge is magnificent from there and the hot chocolate in the Warming Hut quite yummy after a brisk walk!  We love to walk along the water’s edge, listen to the waves pound against the rocks, watch the children and dogs run and play, and feel the freshness of the air cold against our cheeks. Tucker loves to come along but since dogs aren’t allowed on the pier I have to carry him bundled up inside my jacket.  On one particularly windy and foggy day I really didn’t think I had time to go walking but Bruce insisted and so along I went, rather grudgingly I must admit.  Oh am I glad that I did, for we were graced with a bit of serendipity. Don’t you just love that word?  Serendipity: the gift of fortunate discovery by accident of things one is not really looking for.  Serendipity, definitely one of my favorite words!  I even used have it on my vanity license plate until I decided I really didn’t need to spend extra money every year to be reminded that all of life is a gift, not of my doing or my making, and always there for me to discover anew and then, like a child on Christmas morning, to relish and delight in.  I believe our spiritual journeys are about waking up to Life and being present to the Holy in each moment, in each breath, in each experience… Serendipity:  discovering sometimes quite by accident all the surprising places where God abides.

But back to my story.  On this very cold and rather dreary day, the last thing I expected to find was a friendly, quiet large and a bit-full-of-himself pelican. If I were to write a song about “My Favorite Things” pelicans would be pretty near the top, so you can imagine how delighted I was.  This silly, fearless pelican preened and poised for the camera as Bruce snapped photo after photo, getting so close he could have reached out and touched him.  I stood transfixed for I don’t know how long, until finally I was so cold I had to move.

What a gift!  we were graced with a timeless moment of sheer delight and utter joy that we weren’t looking for or even really prepared to experience – my jacket was much too thin for such a cold day and I really thought I needed to be elsewhere!  I wonder, how many such serendipitous moments do I miss because I’m in such a hurry or so distracted or so full of myself?  How many grace-filled moments do I overlook because the eyes of my heart are closed?  How many blessings do I turn away because my heart is just too full of other things?

One of my spiritual practices during this season of Lent is to slow down and pay attention, to stop multi-tasking and truly be open to Life, right here, right now.  It isn’t nearly as easy as I might hope, but my preening pelican reminds me that serendipity abounds and if I’m not present, I’ll miss out on all the beauty, and the fun!  Ann Lamott says that “Grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.”  Thanks be to God for serendipity, and for the chinks in my armor that allow God’s grace to get in and do it’s amazing, transforming work.

Circles…

A colleague asked me the other day “What’s your favorite part of worship?”  Well, that’s easy for me to answer.  My favorite time in worship has to be coming to the Table: bringing all that I am and hope to be – my brokenness, my hopes, my doubts, my fears – to our God who receives and loves me, heals and restores me, blesses me, and then sends me out to be a blessing. But before we’re sent out at Forest Hill, we gather in a circle around the Table. We hold hands and share joys and celebrate all the beautiful images of God in our circle. No one is excluded from God’s circle, even if sometimes our pettiness, our fear or our lack of faith cause us to act otherwise. I heard once a wonderful quote by man with a great name, Empedocles: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” That means that the center is Howard and John Murphy and Lola and Keylse and everyone else, and no one, not our developmentally challenged or gay members, not our theologically progressive or conservative folk, not our seekers or our doubters, are excluded. What a radical God we love and serve! We also sing and dance in that circle around the Table. How could we not when we’ve just experienced the magnitude of God’s love, the grace and peace of Christ and the joy of the Spirit in the Bread and the Cup? Yes, coming to the Table to receive the gifts of God for God’s people and then gathering in a circle to proclaim our unity in Christ is surely my favorite time in worship! That doesn’t mean I don’t love hearing scripture and preaching the Good News, the music and the prayers, the silence and the singing. Somehow it just makes sense though, when I come – unworthy as I may sometimes feel – to the Table; when I come, bringing my fears and my failings, my hopes and my dreams, to the Table of our Lord to receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing. It all just makes sense somehow and I know the blessing of God and of community and of circles that have no boundaries, of circles that include every one of us, even me. Thanks be to our Boundless God of Bread and Wine, of Circles and Handholding, of Presence and Images galore.

With gratefulness and joy, Susan

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