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

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

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

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.

Works of Art


Wednesday evenings at Forest Hill could be called “Practice for Walking in the Way.” Every week we gather for a simple meal, spiritual practice, conversations about our faith, worship and growing in the gifts and graces of God. And to top it off, many of us stay for choir.   We’re learning that laughing, walking, paying attention, creating, being silent, singing, noticing, washing dishes, preparing food can all be ways of praying when our intention is being present and open to the Presence of the Holy.  Whenever we offer ourselves to God, we are in effect praying, seeking a deeper relationship with the Divine. Our congregation has been blessed by this practice in wonderful ways, including our Table of Many Colors, so dubbed by Brandon.


Bruce and I spent a few days at the Heath Pottery factory in Sausalito picking out left over tiles – seconds, thirds, broken pieces, throw-always – and our pray-ers took those remnants and with the Spirit’s leading created a beautiful table in our kitchen.  Around it we gather on Sundays and Wednesday’s and days in-between. At this table we laugh and cry, celebrate and rejoice, study and learn and even in good Disciples’ fashion share wonderful food.  Around our table of many colors I believe we become more and more what God created us to be – reflections of God’s love and grace in the world.  Our table symbolizes this wonderful motley crew of a congregation we know as Forest Hill.  Various colors, shapes and sizes, different textures and heights with a few worn spots and definitely a little rough around the edges, our table and our congregation are one of a kind, unique, created in Christ Jesus for good works. 

I love the way The New Jerusalem Bible says it: “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life,” ~Ephesians 2:10.

Imagine that, works of art!

Blessings, Susan

“Bruce’s Diner”

Carrie Newcomer has a wonderful song that resonates deeply with my understanding and experience of church and community. It’s called “Betty’s Diner” and in some ways it’s the reason for this blog. Listening to it just the other day brought up all sorts of images of our community gathered around our table of many colors – a story saved for another time.  The words of the chorus speak to me of what church can be at its best:

“Here we are all in one place, the wants and the wounds of the human race; despair and hope sit face to face when you come in from the cold.  Let her fill your cup with something kind, eggs and toast like bread and wine. She’s heard it all so she don’t mind.”

Every Sunday before Sunday school, church happens in our kitchen.  We come in from the cold to sit around our table and share bagels and coffee, and so much more. Bruce is sort of like Betty; he makes the coffee and toasts the bagels, serves us and listens to our stories and watches as life unfolds and renewed hope kindles.  John Murphy kind of started the whole thing. He always comes early, sometimes even before Bruce and I arrive, and keeping him engaged became a challenge to me as I was preparing for worship. So Bruce started inviting him down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and then a bagel and then the others just started coming:  Shannon and Howard, Hai and Alan, Ellen and whoever else got to church early. And there you have it:  “Bruce’s Diner!”

Let me tell you a little about John Murphy. He met Howard way back in the sixties when they both were institutionalized in Napa Hospital – a so called home for the mentally challenged.  It may not have been a good place to call home for John and Howard but from it came a life long friendship. John has an incredible memory – tell him your date of birth and he’ll never forget it!  He also has this amazing mind for math and numbers.  One of his favorite things to do is math problems with a gazillion zeros and telling you what day of the week you were born on. Yes, if you tell him your birth date, he can tell you what day that was – and I’ve never known him to miss. I have no idea how he does it but he does. He also loves music – Tony Bennett and Donnie Brooks and just about any group from the fifties, Nancy Sinatra and her dad, Tijuana Brass and…. John’s filled with questions that touch on life and death and meaning.  “What’s our heart for and who put it there? What happens to a raccoon when it dies?  Who will take care of me when I’m 90?  And are you sure? Are you really sure?” Spend some time talking with John and you’ll start asking some of those questions yourself:  What am I here for?  Who will take care of me when I’m old and feeble? What happens when this life passes away?  Am I sure? Am I really sure?

Yes, church happens every morning before worship begins, down in the kitchen, when we bring our hurts, our hopes, our fears and our questions and share them with each other.  And “our cups are filled with something kind, bagels and coffee like bread and wine.”

Come and join us. The coffee’s on and there’s always a bagel to share at “Bruce’s Diner.”

Blessings, Susan

%d bloggers like this: