“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

“Where God Calls Us”

Shannon has been with us now about a year and a half. She came to me one summer afternoon looking for a place to do her field education. Shannon is in seminary, studying for the ministry, but she wasn’t quite sure back then where God might be calling her. A bit to her surprise, she thought she might want to give parish ministry a try and came to talk with me about it. Surely it was the Spirit who led her to Forest Hill for her presence has been such a blessing and gift for us.  I know it has been for her as well.  She would tell you she has discovered her calling in a passion for ministry in this special place. She found, in Frederich Buechner’s words, her deep gladness in the midst of the need and hunger of our developmentally challenged members and friends. Every Sunday before worship she sits with John Murphy and patiently listens as he asks the same questions over and over again or writes out endless math problems for him to solve during fellowship time. She watches and listens intently to discover just what Joe is trying to communicate, asking lots of questions until she gets it right. She’s learned how to “contain” Howard without stifling or demeaning him, using simply  a quiet shush, a loving glance or a gentle touch. It’s fun to watch the shuffle on Sunday mornings as they figure out who gets to sit by her!

This last month she began an outreach ministry to our special needs folk and their friends and families with a Community Dinner.  A simple concept really – Joe and John and Howard are the hosts and we invite their friends to join us for food, fun and fellowship.  Our youth spent the afternoon helping our cooks prepare the meal and set the tables and goof around – they are teenagers you know. – and I’m guessing the workers had as much fun as the guests.  We’ve all been dying to meet Valerie, Joe’s girlfriend. And what a joy it was!  To see Joe’s face light up when Valerie arrived, to watch them communicate without speaking a word, to see them dance together as Joe slowly pushed Valerie’s wheelchair – such love and tenderness.  We were all touched.

Brandon provided music; Howard strummed along and sang his own words; we all danced and ate and laughed. I think we all had a taste of the beloved community that night and I for one can’t wait until we do it again. There’s always plenty to eat so you’d be welcome to join us too, on the last Sunday of every month at 5:00, for food for the body and the soul. Thanks be to God for meeting places of gladness and hunger and for glimpses of heaven here on earth that.

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