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The Gift of Clueless

I drove into Boothbay Harbor on a snowy day in early January, 2020, got out of my car, turned around, held up my car key and clicked. “Beep!”

Someone behind me said, “You don’t have to do that here.”

What?  19,000 miles of locking my car and you don’t have to do that here? 

I drove back into Boothbay Harbor a few weeks later with all I had – 37 boxes that I was having a hard time letting go of and my 1001 assumptions about who people were and how things worked. 

But from that first day, I’ve found that 100% of my beloved assumptions have been, well, wrong.

So many funny things have happened as I’ve been learning about the silliness of my assumptions.

I’ve had a chance to visit only a few people in their homes since I arrived, but when I have gone to someone’s house I’ve had no idea how to get in. What?  You don’t use your front door?  And is it really okay to be wondering around your backyard to find my way in?

I was sent out to pick nasturtiums in the garden before dinner.  After being told what a nasturtium is I picked these tiny little orange flowers thinking this is going to be a very tiny bouquet.  I walked in with my tiny flowers only to learn that the bouquet was indeed cute but alas the flowers were to be cut up for a salad! 

My first winter I asked people at the first snowfall how they were coping with all the snow.  

“Are you kidding?” they said.

In Seattle these three inches would have shut the city down for a week!

Tom arrives on a Sunday morning in spring singing of how warm it is out.

I respond, “Warm?  Its freezing!”  

And yes, the heartbreaking assumption of being so excited to at last find an ice cream shop open after 8 only to learn that alas you cannot get a hot fudge sundae after 8 at Sarah’s Scoops even though they are open until 9.  

Yes, it has been poignant experiences of putting down assumptions.

Rally Day this past Sunday was all planned and going to be great with the kids back for their first day of Sunday School and leading the beginning of the service.  Alas, a phone call on Saturday that there was a case of COVID at the elementary school and 45 kids in quarantine.  “We’re getting good at this pivoting,” Magen said, “We’ve had to do it so many times.  Yet again, all that we assumed was going to happen with the kids – hasn’t.”  

I’d planned to meet Jack for breakfast on Friday and had already thought about what kind of pancakes I’d get and how good the coffee was going to be….and instead of breakfast, sat with him at his bedside in the emergency room at Miles hospital where he’d come in the night before. Our morning coffee conversation took place but instead of over pancakes over the phone the next week in short conversations each day before and after his surgery. 

We’ve all had to put down so many small and not so small plans of what we assumed we’d be doing. When loved ones have been sick and in hospital, we haven’t been able to be there.  The graduation celebrations that “always” take place, didn’t.  The summer camp where we “always” go, closed.  

When a beloved has died, we haven’t been able to do the things we assume to do when there is a death.  Memorial services cancelled.  Grief and gathering disrupted or delayed.  

Its been a strange, disruptive and at its best amazing time for putting down assumptions and welcoming new stories and experiences.  

In it all, I can be just like Cleopas (Luke 24) who meets Jesus walking right there beside him on the road to Emmaus and doesn’t have a clue.  The Jesus he knows is dead and the stories he’s heard about an empty tomb preposterous.  Besides, this person looks nothing like him.  

Like Cleopas I hold my assumptions and stories tight too much of the time. 

And yet, a gift of having my assumptions toppled time and time again has been the wonder of learning that I have something else beside my assumptions – I have my curiosity and wonder. 

In a couple of weeks you will welcome another Stranger from Away.

Your new settled pastor, Todd, comes with lots of gifts and experience and he’s been around the block of life a time or two. Yet when he comes it will be easy to see him as “clueless.” He won’t know how you do things, won’t know where you put things, won’t know all the assumptions you have about how life is “supposed” to work and all the loss and dislocation you feel because they aren’t working that way these days.  He’ll ask questions and you’ll think, “Everyone knows that!”  

Next week you’ll welcome three fabulous new members as well. They too will come with lots of life experience and abundant gifts, and it will be easy to think they too don’t have a clue. 

The great gift of “cluelessness” Todd and the new members will bring won’t last long. All too soon, they will become “one of you” and learn where things are and how things get done around here.  But before everything gets “settled” may you lean into this opportunity to wonder with them about how things work and why. May you be curious with them about why is it you do things this way and wonder with them about different ways ministry and meeting might take place.  

I have no doubt that over time Todd and the new members will learn your traditions and treasure your stories.  

And I wonder, Do your hearts burn to learn their traditions and hear their stories?

Will you in other words be open to surprise, to the gift of new questions, new stories, new ways you never heard of or expected?  

Yes, in the coming weeks, months, years ahead, I plant a prayer that you may be blessed with putting down your assumptions and picking up your Wonder.  To discover, in other words, Jesus in your midst who is always opening up a new story just when we thought the story was over.  

The Door 

You asked me what I would like to have.

More than I would like to have knowledge,

More than I would like to have certainty,

I would like to have a door, opening

into a wide field, filled with the songs

of small birds, filled with light, filled

with dancing and with gladness.

And far across the field, another door

opening into Summer, into wilderness,

a greening of imaginations.

and finally, at a great distance,

another door, opening, opening…                                              

Alex Noble

A New Way Home

Last week I had the privilege of officiating a wedding on Monhegan Island. I’d enjoyed talking with Ellen and Rick over the past months as they prepared to celebrate the home they had found in one another.  I’d been looking forward to a trip to an Island that I’d heard much about. 

On the day before we were to leave I received a phone call from the boat company.  

“We wanted to let you know that you’re all set for your outbound journey, however….. coming home is another matter….

The day of our return home was also the day Hurricane Ida was set to come through the Maine Coast.  The boat from Boothbay Harbor cancelled, and our return trip rescheduled to the “Hardy Boat” that would take us to New Harbor where we’d meet a car to take us back home.

Not the journey home we’d planned and not one I was looking forward to. I did not like tippy boats on tippy seas.  However, I easily forgot the return trip as I luxuriated in the outbound trip sitting on the crowded top deck with other happy passengers taking pictures of the passing islands and lighthouses and thought how ocean travel was indeed quite a fine thing. 

I loved clamoring the rugged trails on half the island that afternoon, celebrated a beautiful wedding by the lighthouse that ended with a soft sprinkle of rain. “Its like confetti!” I laughed. 

A spectacular orange-pink sunset, and an over the top delicious meal to close the day at the Island Inn.  What could I possibly worry about after a day like this?  

I woke early the next morning to the patter of rain, put on my rain pants, rain jacket and boots and headed out to hike the trails on the other half of the island on trails had turned to not so small rivers.  As the wind picked up and the trees bent, I decided it was a good time to turn home for coffee and breakfast.  

As I came through the door to the Inn a woman asked, “What’s it doing out there?”

“Oh its just great! Pounding rain, howling winds, tumultuous seas!  A real Maine storm!”  

She looked at me askance. Not the answer she was looking for.

And I had loved the wet walk and now the plate of blueberry pancakes and bacon and hot coffee – what could I possibly worry about?

An hour later, luggage packed, standing on the porch of the Inn looking out for our little “Hardy” boat home to arrive. Pouring rain dripping off the eaves, white-capped waves, flags snapping. 

“I’m so glad we don’t have to leave today!” said the couple sitting in the rocking chairs behind me.

“The Hardy Boat is sure tossing about in the waves,” the man with the binoculars shared.  “It looks so tiny out there.  Would you like to see?” Hands me his binoculars.

No, I do not want to see. No, I do not want to know. And as I looked through the binoculars because I had to see, yes, I wish I was staying until Saturday safe on shore with the rocking chair couple. 

But no, our boat arriving through all the mess. 

Maybe they’ll cancel the trip, I thought…alas no.  

Instead, standing on the dock in my rain pants, rain jacket and very wet boots, hood pulled up tight over my head, I so don’t want to do this.  I don’t want to get on the boat. I don’t want to go.  But sometimes there is no choice and the only way out is through.

“Do you have sea-bands?” I asked the skipper as I stepped on board. 

“Yes we do,” he said and I promptly bought a set.  

As I sat clinging the bench as the boat clanged against the dock, I asked the 16 year-old deck-hand Rob if he ever gets used to this.  “It never bothered me,” he said.

As we took off into a roll of waves, first mate Zsa Zsa offered assistance for our rocky journey home.

“Sometimes its helpful to hold something on a journey like this,” she said and passed out little white bags for us to hold.  

And sometimes a ginger candy helps settle your stomach.  I took a handful.  

“If you’re worried about the boat, don’t be,” she continued. “This boat has been through much worse storms than this.” 

I couldn’t imagine “worse” and was so grateful I wasn’t on board on a “worse” than this.  

As we made our rolling way tossed this way and that across the pounding seas, up and down, side to side, I sat on the edge of the bench looking out towards the horizon as it appeared then disappeared below the waves.  Remembered how I’d been told that in times like this what can help is looking out to the steadiness of the horizon which holds when nothing else is.  Looking up and out far enough, far enough, I breathed, breathed. Finding a new way home.  

Several years ago as I was preparing to leave a beloved home and set sail for an adventure into the unknown, a wise kind pastor said to me, “Endings are messy, don’t try to clean them up.”

In these last weeks before I set sail from this home of the past 20 months, I’ve been remembering his words and thinking on the messiness of endings. 

How times like this require a putting down of perfection and releasing of control. An opening of hands. Of how a new way home is made not by clinging but by holding your sight to a far horizon always before us, steady and sure.  Of the necessity of stepping into the fear and not around it, putting your hands in the care of a crew who has been through worse before and a boat that is hearty enough for seas like this.  

And yes, in time, a harbor appears.  Songs of praise. We made it safely, a new way home.  

 

Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog

Truth be told thanks to the song by Jim Croce that’s about all most of us know about Jeremiah. For 2500 years he’s been trying unsuccessfully to get us to look up and pay attention to how we’ve lost our way. And for 2500 years, well, we’ve had other things to worry about besides Jeremiah’s antics. He’s the great reminder that we are much more invested in keeping things the way they are than in looking up and seeing what more might be possible.  

Jeremiah gave his whole self to his call of taking in and taking on the heartbreak of his time that has such echoes of our own – environmental catastrophe, neglect of the most vulnerable and a cascade of bad prophet imitators who are making life miserable for others. He did his best, tried everything he could, pulled out all the stops to get his people to see beyond their short term interests including eating bad figs, refusing to get married, making and breaking a beautiful pot, burying his swim suit. 

All of it, an attempt to get us to look up to see each other, remember who we are and are called to be.  He had a wonderful image of our human possibility – a great parade of all of us led by the blind and lame and pregnant women.  

I love the ending of Jeremiah.  Everything Jeremiah said would happen, has happened. The Babylonian Empire overran tiny Judea, destroyed the temple, took the king away in chains to Babylon.  It’s now a generation later and there’s a new king in Israel (still languishing in jail like the last king) and a new king of Babylon. The King of Babylon releases the King of Israel from prison and invites him to sit at his table each night and cares for his daily needs. Two enemies sit down together and discover each other which gives me hope for the rest of us.  

Last Saturday I officiated at my first wedding in the last 19 months. Cooper, 4, and Connor, 2, were the ring bearers. They started out down the aisle with Cooper holding Connor in a neck brace stumbling along together. When their Dad opened his arms for them to come, Cooper ran down the aisle leaving poor Connor stumbling out to find comfort in his mom’s arms.  

“Cooper you forgot Connor,” his Dad said. 

Cooper looked back and went back down the aisle to find Connor.  

This time he tried holding Connor around the waist but Connor walked too fast and Connor tumbled to the ground.  

Cooper stopped, turned around.  Came back, held out his hand and together hand in hand they found their way down the aisle. 

If you walk ahead of me I may not follow. If you walk behind me I may not lead.  But if you walk beside me, together we might yet find a new way home.  

37 Boxes

The last 3 of the 37 boxes here on the kitchen counter. I reach into yet one more box crammed with paper and pull out a letter from years ago. As I scan through it, tears that break into sobs, that find me leaning against the counter holding my head in my hands.

You all know that letter – it’s the words said, and the words left unsaid. It’s what you said or what was said to you a long, long time ago and feels like yesterday. 

Perhaps you’ve carried the words of your life like I have carried mine, in the weight of 37 boxes of your past that you haven’t been able to let go of, haven’t been able to put down.

I confessed to friends what they already knew – I was a paper hoarder. Twenty some boxes of papers, journals, notes, that I could not let go of, an externalized self made of scribbles as I sought to sort through my feelings and find my way.

And in those boxes as well all the projects I’d been putting off to an elusive “someday” that I know will never come, all the possibilities I’ve packed away even though I know I’ll never have time or inclination to complete them. In the boxes, volumes of remembrance that I can never sort through long enough to answer mysteries I will never solve. Boxes of all the books half-finished I know I’ll never complete and the books I bought that I’ll never have time to read.  

The 37 boxes contain all that’s on the other side of the questions –  Will my life really matter?  Will I be remembered?  What of anything will I leave behind?  Is there something to show for the fact I have lived and loved?  

Those 37 boxes have sometimes felt like all the evidence I’ve got of a life and my struggles to make meaning of it. 

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the 37 boxes also contain all that keeps me from living fully in the present.  

“It’s sometimes like you continue to carry around your past like a present reality,” a friend told me, “Like there is something there in your past you think you can still go back and fix.” 

Perhaps he’s right. The 37 boxes containing the futility of all I cannot change and the frustration that it is so. 

I’ve been carrying them around for a long, long time.  

I carried the boxes to my friend’s garage where they sat collecting dust for a year. Returned to carry and ship them where I carried them once again to the basement, box by heavy box, where they have sat unopened for the past year and a half.

Oh, I’ve carried them with good intentions. Vowed to sort through them – made a plan like so many plans I made this past year that never came to fruition. But instead of boxes to sort there were more interesting things to do than sorting through boxes. Present relationships to nurture, responsibilities and joys to discover, new stories to write. 

We do the best we can. These processes of leave-taking take their own time.  And last week, time.  

Perhaps it was the reality of another move. The question again of what I really needed to set sail into the next chapter. Would I need a U-Haul or a storage unit to put off facing yet again what I could not face? 

Sometimes you have to make your way into a new story yourself. That was me last week crawling my way across the Knife Edge on my way to Baxter Peak, one bloody knee at a time, present to this breath, this moment. A word of encouragement, “You’re doing awesome!,” all anyone can offer even if you are not sure if what you are doing is “great” or “awesome” but knowing only that you are making your way through, ridiculous as you must appear.  

But there are other journeys that you cannot take alone. For years I’d been trying to do it alone. For the past year and a half here in Maine saying,  I should… I must…I have to….it would be good for me if I did… open the boxes and sort through the past to empty out all I do not need to still carry to find the treasures and the few items I wanted for a new home. 

I tired, but I couldn’t. Got so far as to haul a box out of the basement, open it up only to find myself rearranging the papers and stuffing the box into the back of the closet upstairs. 

In the past month as I found myself talking more and more about all my issues and considerations about my 37 boxes, I knew the time was coming, a turning.  No longer were the boxes something I had to do or should do but something that I realized I was ready to do. I was done with them. It was time

The anticipation of a visit of friends became an opportunity to get the help I knew I needed. When they arrived, I joked that their visit was not “rent free” but came with a project that I needed their help with. They graciously agreed.  

It’s funny how sometimes when it comes down to doing the things you have put off doing for years, that it in fact takes only a few hours to accomplish that which you never had “time” for. In the few hours each morning over the next two days, Marlene and Judy helped me open the boxes and find the treasures, heard my stories carried in the rocks (yes, I brought rocks with me….) and yesterdays knickknacks, looked at the photos, sorted the papers, helped me say thank you and goodbye.  

I was doing well, did well, surprised myself by how well I was doing with the process, until those last three boxes. It always seems to come down to that – you’re almost done and then realize you’re not done yet. Everything that you thought you had done such a good job of releasing comes back and grabs you as it grabbed me on Saturday morning. 

And perhaps like me as you lean against the kitchen counter holding yourself in a grief the depth of which you cannot understand, you too will be gifted by the friend who helps you do what you have been unable to do alone. Surrounds your tears with an embrace, your sobs with a gift of words and release that you have been unable to give yourself…You can let it go, you don’t need to keeping holding on to it. You can put it down. You can let it go.

I wonder what it is we are afraid of that is waiting on the other side of letting go? Perhaps, like me, you too are fearful of being light. For who would we be without the weight of the past, the stories that drag us down, our disappointments, our hurt? Who would we be if we were light and let it all go into arms of forgiveness and grace, all that we have done and all we have left undone? For all that unfolded not as we might have wished but as it did. To let go of our endless desire to sort through those 37 boxes as if there we would discover the secret to fix and solve the mystery that is our life and what we’ve made or haven’t of it. 

Who would we be if we were light? And who might we become if we took in the embrace of forgiveness, the leaning in of love, the wetness of tears, and let it go, let it go?

I do know this: if all we call God is only a God of judgment none of us could stand. But there are stories of others like me who have had a hard time of it, of letting go, that give me comfort and strength.

It’s a story like I was sharing the other day about the scoundrel Jacob, the louse and cheat who hoodwinked his brother out of getting his father’s blessing. Now 20 years later he’s called to go home, but not so sure of what he’ll find there. He fled for his life decades ago carrying with him his 37 boxes of his past, his guilt and shame, his fear of his brother and the stories he’s told about him, those last words of his brother still ringing in his ears, “I’m going to kill you.”  

But as he at last puts down his old tired story that has weighed on him all these years and walks into the possibility of a new one, he meets his brother who has also put down an old story into the possibility of finding a better one. His brother Esau who vowed to kill him, runs out to meet his brother Jacob with kisses and tears, a wet embrace he cannot let go. In one of the most beautiful descriptions of God in scripture, Jacob says in his brother Esau’s face, scratchy and tear streaked next to his own, he has seen the very face of God.  

It’s the warm embrace of mercy received that empties the boxes, unburdens the weight, frees the past, cleans it all out to the emptiness and freshness of Now. 

Why do we hesitate?  Why do we cling?  We may never get to the bottom of that mystery.  

Today pictures I need no longer carry decorate my sister’s home. A carload of treasures will bring joy to customers at the thrift shop, books that I have never read will have the chance to be. Yes, there will be boxes and reams and reams of paper made from all the paper I have recycled for the scribbling of new stories. Yes, the boxes emptied, a lightness embraced, a dream I’ll live — to drive out of town with just what I need. 

Knife Edge

Ever since I moved to Maine a year and a half ago I’d wanted to follow in my father’s and sister’s footsteps and climb Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. And so I was delighted when I was invited by friends in town to join them for a climb last week.  

We hiked into Chimney Pond on Thursday morning, took long afternoon naps in our lean-to to the tapping of afternoon rain showers, rose Friday morning to a beautiful warm day.  A decision made to climb the new Dudley trail to the top of Pamola and over the Knife Edge to the top of Baxter Peak. 

I’d heard about the Knife Edge from my Dad but I really didn’t get what it was until sitting there on the top of Pamola waiting for the other members of our group to arrive. Before me a mile long stretch of jagged boulders, a steep precipice on either side of the narrow trail.  

Suddenly I wasn’t sitting here on the mountaintop, but standing there on the peak of the house that day on the slanted roof, paint cans in hand.  Looked down at the driveway three stories below. Froze. A cold grip of terror in my shoulders and hands. Reached out, grabbing with finger nails at roof tiles, knowing I had to get down and no idea if I could move. The cold sweat in my hands like I was feeling now. 

I had to get out of here. 

As I stood up, there I was again at the top of that steep bluff on the coast of Scotland looking down as the green grass gave way to air, the rocky cliffs and roaring surf below. Felt the grip in my throat, like I  was feeling now. Remembered how I called out for help to show me the way down. Knew today that no help was coming to rescue me. 

I had to find my way. I couldn’t freeze. Couldn’t let myself be overcome by anxiety. Needed to move.  Now.  

Down I went off the peak to the edge of the cliff below, turned to face it, hands grabbing for anything to grip when I heard the crash. The hikers on the cliff on the other side of the ravine had panicked when they got off the trail and thrown their backpacks. The packs bounced off the cliff, spun in the air, broke open on the next ledge, spewed water bottles and hiking poles clamoring over the rocks below.  

I watched it all, gripping the cliff, mesmerized, horrified.  I had to move, keep moving.  Wanted to be anywhere but here. Knew there was no way back.  No way I could go back the steep trail we’d come. The only way through was through.  

I lowered my foot to the next cut in the rock, grabbed for the next narrow lip, made my way down, slowly, slowly.  One foothold, one hand at a time.  

Up the other cliff past the hikers who were gathering the scattered debris from their packs. 

At the top of the cliff, looked up quickly at the long narrow rocky trail before me, the sharp drop on either side.  Breathe, breathe, I willed myself. Set out bear crawling hand to rock, rock to hand following the blue blazes across the boulders. Eyes on the ground, breathing, breathing.  Knowing I could not, must not look up, look out.

Suddenly in front of me a pair of boots.  

“Oh, people,” I thought. 

“Good morning”, I called. 

“Good morning,” the boots said.  

“A beautiful day”, I said. 

“Yes it is,” the boots said. 

Met other boots who offered to step out of my way.  

“Oh no, I’m fine, I’ll crawl right over you,” I said.  

And did.  

Sometimes it’s the only way.  One handhold at a time. One foot at a time. One blue marker at a time.  One breath at a time. 

One thought at a time…I am breathing.  I am reaching.  I am stepping. I am making it.

A familiar voice comes up behind me.  “Are you doing okay?” Jen asks.  

“Fine,” I say, “just fine.” 

Hears in my tone that indeed I need to do this practice of presence alone.

Many sets of scrambling feet before me.  

“You’re doing an awesome job,” the young shoes say to me.  

Breathe that in. 

Treasure the encouragement.

Every part of the trail becomes in my imagination that particularly narrow portion that Dad told me about.  

“It’s only a few steps,” he said, “and you’ll be over it before you know it.”  

This has to be it, this must be it, I think. This very boulder I’m climbing over.  Don’t look down.  I must not look down.

Centuries ago, Brother Lawrence called it “the practice of the presence of God.” This way of prayer that is paying attention – one handhold, one breath, one movement of one foot forward.  What prayer comes down to at times like this when you can’t see how you’ll make it through. No dreaming ahead to an elusive ending you’re not sure exists. A time that cuts through all the other ways you’ve tried before of feverish promises or cries of pleading, “if only I make it through I will….” Nothing but giving yourself to this very place you do not want to be, this very breath, where faith says all we call God is. God with me, God with us, as the psalmist says, in darkness and in light, in this moment and this, one step at a time, finding our way.

Today, scraped knees and scarred shins, hands stiff from gripping, I sit here on the porch tired and happy.  All which suggests that it was a journey significant to take and well worth taking.  Cuts and scabs, evidence of what it takes sometimes to make your way through to the other side of a crippling fear, a breathless anxiety, a story that is keeping you too small that you at last need to put down and aren’t sure you could.

Yes, crawled my way once again last week into a new story. 

Know something more now of what it takes to step into fear and not be overwhelmed, to practice presence when my imagination and fear could have run wild.  What it takes to make a way out of no way, one breath, one handhold, one knee at a time.

Time

“Life is short.  And we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us.  So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”  (Henri-Frederic Amiel) 

“We are joyful and exhuausted,” the first words I heard.  Words that spoke of a significant and meaningful time as indeed it was last weekend at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor as the congregation met and voted to call Todd Weir as their new settled pastor.  22 months after Sarah Foulger’s retirement after 16 years of ministry; 19 months after my coming here as interim pastor; 5 months of weekly search committee meetings.  A call heard and affirmed.  The fullness of time.

Last weekend as the congregation was meeting with Todd, I was across the country in Portland, Oregon visiting my friend Esther.  Esther was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago and since then we’d been waiting and hoping for this time to be together. We had a wonderful two days of conversations, watching movies and most importantly the chance to meet Esther’s close friends who like me had committed to be there with her along this way. The grace of time.

When I returned on Sunday night, the first news I heard was of Kim’s death in an ATV accident that day.  A day of fun with her fiancé, family and friends turned to tragedy. A hole of grief in this community, a life that touched so many children and families as she ran the only day care center in town.  A woman far too young with young children, a grandchild on the way and a wedding to look forward to in January.  Time out of time.  The heartbreak of time.  

On Wednesday evening the church offered a time to gather in the memorial garden to remember Kim and share some words about how she had touched our lives. 40 members of Kim’s family came, a great circle of remembrance, words and tears. The circle of time.

On Thursday I had the privilege of being with Jane and her step-daughter Emily as we kept vigil during the last hours of  Roger’s life. A time in which we were reminded that death takes its time, its own time.  No hurrying or rushing it. The holiness of time. 

Returned home to the visit of friends Marlene and Judy who helped me on Friday and Saturday empty the 37 boxes of my past that until now I had been unable to let go of.  An emptying of boxes, and with it the release of memory, laughter, thanksgiving, tears.  The letting go in time.

And in and through it all, COVID. A week that reminded us again that while we are so done with the coronavirus, it is not done with us.  New cases on the rise.  Increasing concern for all who are unvaccinated.  The need for continuing care in walking through a time we wish was over.

I don’t know what to make of it all except perhaps the cliché to say that time is precious and we need to be awake to it.  

And so now, a new season.  Two months left of this time, this interim time here with this beloved community. A week that sings to me of the call and opportunity of being present to time.  This grace and gift, this preciousness of this very moment in time.  Yes, I want to take it all in.  Be awake to all of it.  This unfolding through time. This wonder.

Buck Hill

We were done, done what we’d come to do.  Finished hiking The Hundred Mile Wilderness over the past ten days. Now, just 3.2 miles back to Phil the Outfitter and our car.  Between us and Phil’s place, Buck Hill.  

All day we’d been joking about it — while some finished their adventures on the Appalachian Trail at the top of Katahdin or Springer Mountain, we were finishing on the other side of Buck Hill, all 1500 feet of it! 

Barb agreed to stay with our heavy packs at the end of the Hundred Mile Wilderness Trail as Pat, Jen and I took off to hike the last few miles, grab the car and pick her up.  

And so we took off excited and anxious for hot showers, clean clothes and a big lunch. Sad too, that our trek was about done. We were already waxing nostalgic about our misadventures on the trail. Finding it hard to believe the hike was now over when there were times during it we thought it might never finish.  

So there we were, light, free, expectant, setting off with poles clicking behind us and no packs.  No water or food either for who needed that – we were done! I set out as I am wont to do at the head of the pack striding out confidently to jokes about what a fine Boy Scout guide I was.  

We conquered the “summit” of Buck Hill – a view of fog through a dense stand of trees, a wet, gray July day. Now just a mile and a half to the car, we started our descent. However, as we descended so did my energy. I watched my brisk walk turn to a slow walk, to a plodding stroll. Jen jumped ahead,  “Let’s keep Peter going!” But as Pat and Jen shouted encouragement, I was going slower, slower, slower. 100 miles only to collapse out here at the end of the journey descending Buck Hill!  

Jen turned, excited. “The BoBo Bar!  Does anyone have the BoBo Bar?” Alas, the alleged BoBo Bar that Barb had encouraged us to take, we had left behind.  As we’d taken off, I couldn’t imagine eating yet one more bar and now I’d kill a boar! 

At last we came to a cross roads. We all recognized the sign post – we’d walked out here that first night ten days ago when we’d spent the night at Phil’s — but none of us could remember which way to turn.  My energy continued to fall. Jen now hungry and tired herself.  Pat weary and ready to be done.  But which way to turn?  Seven minutes from Phil’s and not a clue how to get there. At this point, so close to the end, tired, hungry, thirsty, cranky we realized how easily people die in the woods!  

How you end a journey matters. We’ve all heard it said that ending well matters to make room for the possibility of all that will be.  And while that is true, like you, I have known good endings and less than good endings like ours on Buck Hill.    

Several years ago when I prepared to leave the church in Seattle where I’d served for 25 years, I realized I didn’t know how to end. I learned through that experience that making the possibility for a good ending means taking time to reflect, to look back – naming, remembering what we learned, what we did well together and recognizing and asking forgiveness of one another for what we did not. It means getting together the information, supplies and tools a new pastor will need as he gets to know your community.  It means preparing a basket of welcome and planning some ways for a congregation get to know a new pastor. It means making a great open clearing by having the conversations and rituals to hold in grace what we have done together and all we have left incomplete.  

It means taking the gift of time for all the feelings a goodbye brings.  And it is time which I look forward to on the other side of our goodbye.  To gift myself with a few months of my own Walden Pond time after I finish here in September – time to be, write, reflect on this amazing time that has changed and shaped me, affirmed in me the passion and call to this particular interim ministry work of transition and transformation.  

Back at the crossroads on the Appalachian Trail last month, we took off in every direction but the right one. At last Phil called and told us which way to turn. As we stepped out of the woods, there was Barb in the distance whooping and cheering. She’d gotten a ride back to Phil’s ten minutes after we left her at the roadside.  She’d had a hot shower, changed her clothes, got something to eat, and been sitting there reading Chicken Soup for the Soul.  We traipsed out of the woods in line without lifting our heads, without a wave or response. I was spent, Jen defeated and Pat fed up.  

Of all the stories I tell of our days on the trail, Buck Hill is the one I always tell first for it’s the one that left the most lasting impression and taught the most important lesson.  Buck Hill is the ending that finds us all after we think that the journey is finished, the way complete and home just around the bend.  Buck Hill means remembering in the joy and anticipation of rushing towards a joyful new beginning that we must not forget our need for the same food and sustenance that we’d depended on all along the way. Buck Hill bucked us all into the reminder that ending attentively and well makes all the difference!

So here we go – Onward!   

The Conversation

Last Sunday was Jazz Sunday at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor.  I’d heard it was a long and favorite tradition here but because like most everything else it was cancelled last summer, I’d never experienced it myself.  And because I don’t know much about jazz,  I called the band’s director, Barney Balch.  

“Jazz is about communication,” Barney told me, “It’s about having a conversation between the instruments in the band.”  And so on Sunday, Barney and band members Lefty, Micky, Bill and Herb helped show us what jazz has to teach us about conversation.  

We listened to the sound of a conversation that works. We remembered the importance of looking at each other, listening to each other.  We listened to the sound of a conversation “break-down” or “train-wreck.”  We heard how a train-wreck can turn to a new conversation by stopping and inviting a “do-over.” But most of all we all learned something about the wonder and holiness, the beauty and grace, fun and play of a conversation that ebbs and flows into new discoveries – just like jazz. 

This weekend the congregation here is invited to a sacred conversation with the search committee’s settled pastor candidate. They’ll have the chance to meet, worship and gather as a community to vote on calling them as the next settled pastor of the church.  The search committee has heard the Spirit’s call and this Sunday the congregation gets the opportunity to listen to and affirm that call as well. 

It is a strange and wondrous work of trust that we hold in the United Church of Christ to listen for the Spirit’s call as a community to guide and lead the church into a season of transition. 

It is common practice for the interim pastor to be away on this important weekend to make space for the new conversation to take place.  I am gifted to have the opportunity to visit a friend who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and expected that she did not have long to live.  Here we are a year later and while she still has terminal cancer, she is feeling and doing well.  It is a gift beyond words to be able to have the conversations with her we expected we might never get to have in person.

When I return next Monday, the conversation here is expected to turn to closing this interim time together and making room for the new.  We’ll make time for conversations of thank you, forgiveness, love and goodbye.  We’ll have the opportunity to look back on this strange, challenging and holy time we’ve walked through together framed by the pandemic.  We’ll remember what good work we did together to prepare for the new as well all we did not do and have left incomplete.

We concluded Jazz Sunday with a reminder that in days of change and transition we need more than ever to be carried by the reminder of what we hold in faith and trust – that we are carried by Grace.  Grace in the waves beneath us, Grace in the wind around us, Grace leading us forth to surprising new life and the other side of the Sea where we discover again that the journey through was more than worth it. A discovery of a new relationship and and new season that was so worth getting to.

In these holy days of conversation, may we open wide our hearts to a deeper listening, welcoming, discerning and following of the Spirit’s will and way.  

Blessings in your conversations today!

Pivot

The past week has been a full one for many parishioners at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor. 

We’ve had more people in the hospital, in rehab, taking falls, recovering from falls, facing surgery, recovering from surgery than we’ve had at any one time in the past 18 months.  

Perhaps it’s a coincidence. Or perhaps pivoting to a new season is like getting up from a chair and moving across the room — a bit trickier sometimes than we thought.

The past week has brought pivoting to a host of other activities we haven’t seen the likes of in well over a year.

The first Children’s Ministry social event.  

The first Rotary dinner. 

First in-person worship services and planning for the first in-person memorial service at church next week. 

First July 4th Parade in two years.  

First time going to church in-person with my family . Seeing old friends for the first time.

And yes, the first hospital visit.  

Last Tuesday at a dinner at a table of eight in a crowded room I looked around at the wonder and weirdness of it all.  Still trying to remember how to do what I used to do all the time. Remember, that its not the same. It’s different. I’m different. We all are.  

Today my family is going out on the mailboat run in Lake Winnipesauke.  Front row seats in the bow on a gorgeous day.  As I look out at the mountain ranges ringing the lake I bask in the beauty, the wonder and beyond words gratitude of just being here together. 

It’s been a year and a half of anxiety and uncertainty. For some of us, a time of deep grief, the death of loved ones. The loss for others of the particular plans we’d made, the hopes we held.  

But today, just this. This moment of grace. This here and now.  

The smile of relief as family members sprint on board with two minutes to spare. 

The other day I was challenged in this my own season of pivoting to take it all in.  To feel all the feelings – grief and anger, anxiety and expectancy.  Everything.  All of it.  

To open the vast room of emotion inside, as wide as this open lake.  Opening from all that keep us shut down, closed off, stuck in our small rooms and spin of anger, grief or despair.  Opening, opening to the wonder and the weirdness, the beauty and grace, the tears of love and loss of all that is here.

A duck flies off.  A great splash below. A lone figure paddle boarding. The mountains clear through the morning mist. 

Perhaps, I don’t want to miss any of it.

Enough

I’ve learned that I’m an experiential learner. In other words, unless I do it, I don’t quite get it.  I wish it were otherwise but honestly if you explain to me what to do or give me a set of directions to follow I won’t really “get it” until I’m actually doing it.

Before my 100 mile wilderness trek, many people told me about the importance of eating during the day on the trail. I went with my Dad to the grocery store and we picked out Cliff Bars and Protein Bars, sausage sticks and beef jerky, cheese, bags of nuts and two emergency Snickers bars for whenever I’d come to the end of my rope and needed to keep going!  It all seemed like a lot of snacks to munch on and more than I’d ever taken on a day hike. Besides, I was trying to keep my pack as light as possible. So I didn’t pack the other things we’d talked about taking like tortillas, peanut butter, raisins, chocolate and yet more nuts.  

Out on the trail I soon learned that I didn’t quite have enough snacking energy to sustain me or perhaps I wasn’t consuming what I had in the right way. Our group leader, Jen, asked me several times the first few days, “Are you doing okay?” I nodded.  I was feeling good, felt I could physically do the hike, but my energy slid off the chart by later in the afternoon when we finished up our hikes.  “Where’s Peter?” was the question my hiking buddies asked each afternoon as they looked around for me.  

This summer we’re all figuring out what we need to sustain us in yet another season of change. We’ll all need different things and perhaps more gifts of sustenance and grace than we imagine we do, as we navigate our way through.

We’ll be figuring out how comfortable we are gathering in-person with others.  We’ll be figuring out how to handle our anxiety and protect ourselves and family members and friends who are not vaccinated.  At in-person worship we’ll be continuing to learn about moving through this season and yes, learning in real time about what works best for the safety and care of the whole community of our visitors, friends and members.  It will take extra patience, kindness and understanding with ourselves and one another, yes. What’s the “food” and “sustenance” you need to help you trek with care through this coming season?  

This week of July 4th is sometimes an important gathering time for family and friends.  I am here with some of my family on Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire near where my parents live. I am so grateful for this time we have together and I’m also holding in my heart all who aren’t able to gather with family and friends this year. Some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones.  For some of us other’s family gatherings just emphasize the ache of our own isolation. Others of us are unable to travel or have loved ones that cannot travel to see us.  

What it all adds up to is feeding one another with our care, checking-in and presence in a season that is full of joy, anticipation and thanksgiving for some and for others of us grief, loneliness and loss.  We need each other – that’s one of the central gifts and messages of church.  And we do.  

May your loved ones walk and be with care these days.  

May we all find food along the way of sustenance and strength.  

And when your supplies run low may we reach out and check in with others because truly when we are together there is always abundance and more than enough.