Town Meeting Day in Vermont

It’s Town Meeting day here in Vermont. That time in early March where residents in sleepy hamlets and frozen-in-time villages throw on their barn boots and plod through the mud to get to schools and village offices to speak for against proposed budgets and prospective incoming clerks and supervisors, etc.

I have always been intrigued with Town Meeting day. Why call it a meeting when no one is “meeting” to discuss proposals? Those meetings have taken place—formally and informally—mainly informally in country general stores and of course, in post offices.

Still, Vermonters are meeting.

As I ran errands today that took me on windy back roads, I smiled at the official “Vote for…” signs. Signs written in marker on poster board stapled to a wooden stick. No glossy professional signs like I would see in Maryland where I spent some much-needed time in exile, learning better how to listen and trust God.

Simple signs, but not simple issues.

This year’s Town Meeting day is one that has the potential of changing a way of life so many seek out and desire for their families.

This year’s vote is about school choice in rural communities…well, more like, taking away school choice and merging into larger districts to save money and resources because as “officials” say (not quite sure who these officials are or think they are) rural communities can’t keep going the way they are going with numbers and money shrinking.

I saw the signs today, also written with a black marker on poster board, telling folks to vote no to mergers.

I wonder when the polls close tonight at 10 p.m. what tomorrow will bring?

While I am not able to predict the future, I have a feeling tomorrow will bring a change that many do not want.

So, I sit here as the sun goes down on Town Meeting day in Vermont and think about change—good change and not so good change. Change that challenges us to grow. Change that leads us on. Change that invites us to see just how God can indeed make all things new—whether we like it or not.

God can take dashed dreams, failed attempts, deflated hope and make something wonderful out of it all.

What we must do is trust God in all of life’s changes. Trust God when all seems lost. Trust that whether we win or lose, God is still working in redeeming our lives and our communities.

The other day as I moonlighted at the local paper, I got to interview a woman in one of Vermont’s picturesque hamlets that has been dotted with “No to school merger” signs.imgres

She is planning a pie for breakfast event this weekend. It’s a fundraiser for the library she oversees. After I asked her about what kind of pies would be served and how she came up with this novel idea, she added some very important information that I didn’t think to ask.

She said she schedules this event after the Town Meeting to bring the community together after a contentious vote.

She said it is a reminder that no matter what side folks are on, we are still to be a neighbor to one another. And what better way to remember that and to have fun than while gathering over homemade pies for breakfast?

In a way that Vermont hamlet captures the hope and redemption that I witness in the breaking of the Eucharist bread.

When I as a pastor say the words to all that this is Christ’s body broken for them, take, eat, remember…I am inviting all to remember how Jesus came to show us a better way, a different way forward, a way of loving even when disagreements arise.

No, there won’t be any Eucharist bread being broken at that event. But those Vermonters will still be doing something holy when they break apart the flaky pie crusts with their forks.  For in the breaking of the pie crusts, they are in fact inviting the spirit of unity to fill the room. And, I believe, the Spirit of God will be with them in a powerful and healing way.

It’s Town Meeting day in Vermont. A reminder that change can be hard, but why fear?

We serve a God who changes not. God’s love is steadfast. So is God’s promises for bright hope for tomorrow.

I think I will have some pie for breakfast this Saturday.

 

 

 

Hot Coco, Cherry Jam and Bread

Aunt Sofie is not expected to make it through the night.

It’s strange how a few words spoken in just seconds have the ability to linger in your heart. But linger they do. Just as the smoky residue from the burnt bacon I attempted to cook for breakfast that morning continues choking my lungs, I can’t stop this sadness within from suffocating me.

I am sad for my father’s older sister that her time has come to close her eyes to the beauty of the Swiss Alps she had called home for more than eight decades. I am sad to think she will no longer pick cherries from the trees I once helped her pick from when I was child visiting my dad’s family in Switzerland.

Nothing tasted as good as the tartness of her jam spread abundantly on thick, crusty bread served up with a side of hot coco. Even in the summer hot chocolate was the drink served to us kids, and this wasn’t the packets of Swiss Miss I was used to. This hot coco was the real deal, made with milk from the herd of Brown Swiss who munched on grass and wildflowers in the field. As the drink cooled, the milk would curdle on top creating a slippery film of creamy sweetness you could peel off and eat.images

If you really wanted to fit into the Swiss side of the family, you would dunk the crusty bread into the chocolate elixir, allowing it to get soaked just enough to make it moist yet not to the point where it would fall into the bottom of your mug. The “who can dunk the bread the longest into the hot coco without having it disintegrate into pieces” became a game for my brother and sister and I that summer.

I pick up the roll on my lunch plate. I dunk it into my tepid coffee. Kerplunk. Game over. I had once again dunked too long. I stare into the mug. I can’t breathe. I am suffocating. Suffocating with sadness over the loss of my Aunt Sofie and what it represents.

Her death is not just the passing of yet another one of my father’s many siblings. Her death widens the ever-growing gap between me and my Swiss heritage and adds to a worry I have held since my teen years—what will happen to my connection to family when my father is gone? I never was good at mastering languages and so my meager attempt at learning the Swiss German dialect spoken by my family failed many years ago. And so I am sad about losing a family that I have never really known except through the all too few visits made and the all too few stories my dad has shared with me.

Whether we like them or not, family is important. Family gives us a sense of belonging and an understanding of who we are. As I get older I have come to respect that truth. I have also come to understand why it is that Vermont is and will forever be home to me. For whenever I see the clouds hanging low over the hills and valleys, whenever I hear the cows moo, whenever I hike high into the Green Mountains, whenever I pick cherries or strawberries, whenever I wake up to the early autumn surprise of seeing snow sprinkled on the top of the mountains like powdered sugar on a donut, I feel a powerful sense of belonging and I feel connected to those whose eyes are the same blue as mine.

We will never truly understand who we are, where home is or what makes our hearts come alive with great joy, until we come to know those we are a part of.

And so as each elderly aunt and uncle closes their eyes to the Alps before them, I feel the urgency all the more to keep my eyes opened, to see the many blessings of family before me and to surround myself with that which says “home.”

I feel the responsibility to preserve legacies—even if the legacy is simply the game of dunking bread slathered with cherry jam into a cup of hot coco. It’s something. It’s a start.

 

A Little White Church Maundy Thursday Reflection

I know you will make the right decision.

You have great faith.images-1.jpg

I looked at the text again. It was from an old friend whom I haven’t spoken to in a while. My first reaction was to scoff at her words. Me? Great faith? If only she knew of my struggles in that department lately, wondering where God was…wondering more as to what in heaven’s name was God up to.

My scoffing softened though. Tears soon came from my eyes dropping onto the screen of my iPhone blurring the message before me.

I’ve heard these words before.

Helen was her name. She was 92 years old when I came to the little white church. I remember her age well because on my first Sunday during announcements it was brought up that it was her birthday. I, being a brand new pastor, said with a smile, “Well, happy birthday, Helen!”

To which this petite, white haired woman replied, “What’s so good about it? I’m another year older!” Seminary never prepared me for this and so I stood there with a smile still on my face, praying for a quick quip or two to get us moving along in the service.

To say Helen had spunk would be an understatement, and I soon discovered she had more than just spunk. Helen had an amazing heart and a faith that was stronger than nails.

The family farm in which she was matriarch of for so many decades was on the winding country road to and from my first home, the primitive Colonial saltbox, to the little white church.

Late afternoons on my way home I would stop in to say hello. Walking through the mudroom where barn boots lined the wall, I would see her sitting at the kitchen table where in front of her was a large window giving her the most beautiful vistas of the farm. There we would sit and I would hear the most amazing stories of life back then. I would hear about how the farm dated back to the 1700s. I would hear about the frigid winter evening when her husband and her snuck off late into the night to go sledding as the children slept. And how one very icy hill turned out to be a mistake, as they crashed and got all mangled up.

“Not smart, but fun,” she would say.

I would hear all about the joys and challenges of farming, and I would hear all about her great love for the little white church and her hopes she had for it. Hopes for a bright future.

She cared deeply for her church family, as was evident in all the newsletters and bulletins from the little white church strewn on the kitchen table. She kept up to date with everything I was doing as pastor.

One spring day when the grass was just turning green and mud season was subsiding, we just sat at the kitchen table in silence. Both of us staring out of the window, watching the birds fluttering about for an afternoon snack in the many bird feeders Helen had hanging out in the yard.

“Helen,” I said quietly breaking the silence.

“Yes,” she replied just as quietly, with both of our eyes still staring at the birds before us.

“I can’t do this without you,” I said, referring to the high hopes she had for the little white church that I felt were weighing down on me as pastor. “I don’t have the strong faith you have, and so I am asking you to be my prayer warrior.”

Still looking out the window, her reply came. Short and sweet, with no further discussion or emotion or hugs of thanks.

“I can do that.”

Silence and then…

“But you don’t need me. God is with you.”

Truth was, I didn’t feel God was with me. I needed Helen’s strong faith to sustain me.

Spring turned to summer. Summer to fall. Fall to another winter. Time marched forward adding more life to the little white church and with it two more blessed years to Helen’s life. Until one morning in early summer when it became clear the song Helen would soon be hearing would not be from her beloved birds outside the big kitchen window, but rather from God’s heavenly chorus of angels.

I came to her bedside at the nursing home and sat there quietly. She opened her eyes and took my hand. In her labor state of passing from this world to the next, I leaned over to her and selfishly pleaded with her not to leave me. She was my prayer warrior. What would I do without her?

Helen, full of spunk even towards the end, grasped my hand tighter and said, “God is with you. You have strong faith.”

I gently leaned down and kissed her forehead and lifted a prayer of praise and thanks for God’s servant who had ran an incredible race. I didn’t want to say good bye and so I whispered to her, “See you later.”

I stood in the hall of the nursing home sobbing, trying hard to hold on to her words to me.

God is with you. You have strong faith.

Helen has been on my mind this week we call “Holy.” It’s a week in which we will walk with our Savior to the cross where death cannot be averted. Endings. Good byes. Failed hopes. Failed dreams. Everything and anything that tests our faith in a good and loving God will be taunting us from the cross. For there Jesus hangs and as he does we must believe God is still with us. We must have strong faith.

Strong faith in Jesus. The disciples’ prayer warrior.

Jesus. The one with spunk who challenged those in the world to think differently.

Jesus. Who broke bread with them before he died and asked for them to remember him. Remember the trust in God he lived by. Remember the power of prayer. Remember his promise to be with us always.

Helen, on her deathbed, was asking me to remember, too. To remember her faith came from her knowledge of a loving and gracious God. To remember that while my beloved prayer warrior was leaving me, I had something with me always. God.

If we can share in the bitter sting of betrayal guised in the breaking of bread with Jesus, go to the garden to plead for this cup to pass, walk to the cross and not flee as the clouds of despair and gloom set in, if we can do all this, if we can hold on and trust even when it seems we have no more trust to hold on to, then we too will know what Helen knew so well in life.

Your faith is strong.

For God is with you.

Now and forever.

Maundy Thursday Challenge: Take time today to be still before God. Listen to the birds. Feel the wind on your cheek. Gaze at the spring flowers. And know your faith is strong, even if it doesn’t feel that way. God has not abandoned you.