“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

Make a Joyful Noise!

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”  Howard’s better at it then most.  Visit Forest Hill and he’s likely to be the first person you encounter.  Stick around Forest Hill for any length of time and you’ll get to know him and be touched by his passion and faithfulness. He may be developmentally challenged but his faith is deep and his passion for worship is contagious.  Music moves Howard deeply and profoundly. In fact, he cannot not sing; the music starts and he moves, or hums, or claps his hands, or sings whatever words come into mind, especially ‘Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.” He loves to strum his guitar and play his harmonica, sometimes to the dismay of those around since he’s only sometimes in tune. Brandon always invites him to join in the closing music and his exuberance is contagious.

Howard is also what you call an evangel extraordinaire – he’s always sharing the good news about God’s love and our congregation. He’s invited more people into our community than anyone I know.  He’s also quite a welcoming committee. Everyone is his friend and his brother or sister, even when he’s never met them before. He gets so excited when someone visits that he can’t contain himself.  In the midst of worship he’ll alert our attention to someone’s presence or call out someone’s name. He’s also great at answering rhetorical questions; I learned early in my ministry to watch what I asked in a sermon because Howard would probably answer me. He also has this wonderful knack of mimicking the words he hears. To hear his voice speak back the words of the prayers he’s hearing is profoundly moving – like God’s voice echoing back our heartfelt hopes and joys and concerns almost before we’ve finished speaking them. There’s rarely a Sunday that he doesn’t want someone to light a candle for him so that he can lift someone in prayer, often our guests or our musicians, and last Sunday he led our worship leaders in prayer before we began worship, not forgetting to remember those blue suede shoes that are so dear to his heart.

Howard is filled with good news and joys overflowing and besides the music, his favorite time of worship has got to be sharing those joys around the Table. He can go on quite awhile so the art of containment is one of the first skills our student ministers must learn.  Howard is truly one-of-a-kind and we are so blessed by his joy, his friendship, his “in-your-face and in-this-moment” faith, his generosity, his heartfelt prayers and most especially by his love.

Joy and blessings, Susan

Jazz at Forest Hill

Sunday was Jazz worship at Forest Hill, a day always filled with energy, excitement and wonderful music. We have been so blessed by Brandon, our minister of music.  He came to us a few years ago looking for community and I think it’s safe to say he found home.  He’s plays a mean trumpet, leads our Joyful Noise Choir, creates wonderful new music with our amazing pianist Adrian, and brings a wisdom far beyond his years. In fact, he’s an elder at Forest Hill, which means we see in him spiritual wisdom, depth and leadership, in spite of or perhaps because of his youth. He really gets servant leadership and he challenges us with his patience, encouragement, probing questions and deep faith. He’s also fun to be around and because of him, we celebrate worship every second Sunday with jazz – sometimes just he and Adrian, and sometimes a whole host of musicians – and it’s wonderful!  Before long, we’ll have reggae and blues and Elvis and hip hop and maybe even funky Sundays. How wonderful that we can praise and worship in so many ways and sounds and styles. Based on the incredible diversity of creation we would have  hard time arguing that God likes every thing the same, including the way we worship. Our God has an imagination that knows no bounds – just take a look around – and surely a wonderful sense of humor.  Even the Psalms tell us to “Make a joyful noise to God!” – another favorite scripture around Forest Hill – and with all sorts of instruments as well as our bodies.  So let’s make a joyful noise; the world needs to hear some good news.

Blessings, Susan


I am blessed to be the pastor of a vibrant, diverse and somewhat quirky congregation in the beautiful city of San Francisco.  Most days I marvel at that fact. Not only do I get to live in an amazing city surrounded by natural beauty that never ceases to take my breath away,  I get to walk with some pretty amazing people – people who embody for me the way of Jesus in beautiful and life-giving ways. I hope you’ll come to know them, delight in them, and be blessed by them, as I am every single day, as you read these reflections, noticings and ponderings about life lived in the messy middle of our congregation.

We are known as Forest Hill Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a somewhat long name for a small congregation, so most of the time I will just call us Forest Hill.  We are nestled on a hill with lots of trees and birds and surprising critters for the middle of a city.  In fact, we’re near the geographic center of San Francisco and yet hardly a day goes by that we don’t see hawks and squirrels and this morning even coyotes!

I often think this “messy,” sometimes chaotic, always surprising community would be a place where Jesus would feel very much at home – but perhaps that’s not quite right. Forest Hill is a place where Jesus is very much at home, and he shows up all the time!  This faith community is like a a delicious tossed salad:  filled with crunch, color and lots of oh so good for you things with a few nuts and a little spice thrown in for good measure. It is a community filled with black and white, gay and straight, abled and differently abled, young and old and in-between, women and men, seekers and questioners, learners and teachers, who all share something in common:  we love gathering around the Lord’s Table, wherever it may be found, to receive the gifts of God, to fellowship and to eat, to laugh and cry, to sing and dance, to pray and bless, to rejoice and celebrate the welcome we have received by our gracious God and to extend that welcome to others. Sometimes we struggle with what that means – the breadth and the depth that welcome invites us to live – but we keep wrestling with it and encouraging each other to embody it, not only when we gather at Forest Hill but especially in our lives and in God’s world.  I hope with this blog to share some of the wonder and the joy, as well as the invitation and the challenge, of being “church” in the world today. One of our favorite scripture verses around Forest Hill is that we are “blessed to be a blessing.” (Gen 12:2) Our congregation has surely been blessed. May this ongoing conversation about Life Around Our Table of Many Colors be a blessing on your faith journey and to your life.

Shalom and Blessings, Susan

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