Worship at Old Stone Well Farm

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God’s Wish

Welcome to worship! Today we take a trip to one of the four covered bridges that are in Washington County, Upstate New York, which is on the border of my little 18th century home in Vermont. These bridges were sometimes called “kissing” bridges and sometimes called “wishing” bridges. It got me wondering, what is God’s wish for us? I thought a lot about that as I read our Scripture reading from Matthew. And so, let us prepare our hearts and worship God.

Blessings, Pastor Donna

Matthew 22:15-22 (New International Version)

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

After Sunday Thought… I See Failure; God Sees Success

Have you ever failed at something? Made a mistake? Messed up a project?

Of course you have. You’re only human. That’s why I loved yesterday’s scripture from Mark where Jesus returns to his hometown to preach only to find that he isn’t warmly welcomed. On the surface you can say that he was a big flop.

Soon after the synagogue debacle, though, we don’t see Jesus rethinking his life’s call, giving up on the mission of radical love and welcome. Rather, we see him move forward. This time, sending out his friends, two by two, to go to the towns and stay in homes to share the good news. And knowing that sometimes life brings rejection, he tells his friends, don’t let it get you down. You have something to offer. You have been called to do a job. You are part of God’s bigger plan. Just shake off the dust from your sandals and move on. There’s no time to waste; there are others to reach.

There really isn’t time to waste wallowing in our failure or rejection, for when something doesn’t go the way we had hoped or we don’t the results of our labor, it isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it could be God’s way of redirecting us — for example, those in the synagogue won’t receive you, then go out to those in the streets.

I have a chicken coop I’ve been trying to build for a year now. My father began the project last summer, but it was put on hold in the fall because of my indecisiveness as to how to side the walls. I wanted weathered barn boards, but they are wicked expensive to buy and I haven’t come across any old barns that have fallen down lately.

During this time of searching for siding alternatives, two major windstorms blew the coop over. By the second storm, I felt crushed thinking I would probably have to give up on the dream of having chickens. I really thought about dismantling the structure, but something urged me on. Once again, I cajoled my husband into helping me hoist the sad looking coop upright. And there it sits.

Somedays I stare out the kitchen window at this “failure” and I get down about it. Other days, though, I see these delays in finishing the coop as blessings because the reality is I  don’t have time to tend to chickens. The failed chicken coop is starting to look more like a rustic shed for my garden tools.

I have always joked in my life that if Plan A doesn’t work, I am okay because there was a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D. I vowed I would never fret until I got to Plan Z. Why? Because I have learned that God has a beautiful way of guiding us. All the times I thought I have failed, I actually found myself stepping onto a new and better path.

And here’s the other thing with “failure.” It really isn’t what it seems to be because God sees things differently. God, who is a redemptive God, can take a mess and bless it.

I overheard a conversation on a shuttle bus to the airport recently. A woman asked a man sitting next to her what he did for a living. He led Christian retreats at a conference center. The woman was excited because she had attended that center years ago. She then went on to tell how one speaker she heard changed her life forever. It led her to give her life to Christ, to go into Christian publishing to spread the good news and, subsequently, because of the path she was now on, her sister was so inspired that she became a missionary. The woman was quiet after sharing the story and then said, “Now that I think about it, that retreat saved me.”

I was startled when I saw the man getting teary-eyed and wondered what was going on? I soon found out as he replied, “I led that retreat and I thought it was the biggest failure of my life. I was so depressed afterwards and found myself rethinking everything.”

A failure isn’t a failure — with God. Just take a look at Jesus. It seemed to everyone — even his friends — that his ministry failed that day he was nailed to the cross. But it didn’t. It was just starting.

So the next time you think you really screwed up or feel you are a hopeless cause or start believing you have no worth at all in this world, think again. God sees things differently. God sees blessings in messes. God brings holy successes out of our human failures.

Now, shake off the dust. You have a beautiful life to live — and I have a chicken coop, um, I mean garden shed, to finish.

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Failures aren’t what they seem. Take for instance, my chicken coop. Blown over by high winds twice and still not finished, the delays have made me realize, I really don’t have time to raise chickens. I do, though, need a place to store my garden tools.

 

Right Where You Are

The plane was relatively empty. I was relieved. The last thing I wanted was to be packed in tightly like a sardine. Or worst yet, have someone sitting next to me so that when I inadvertently brushed against the other’s arm while making sure my seatbelt was tight and secure, a conversation would begin—one that would last during take-off, cruising altitude and landing. I just wasn’t in the mood for small talk.

I was on a late flight and tired. My tiredness magnified by the fact that once I touched down I still had an hour-plus drive before I could finally crawl into bed.

I looked around the empty cabin. Yes, perhaps I could get some sleep.

I began to nuzzle against the window and closed my eyes. That’s when I heard the conversation. An older couple was arguing about where to sit. What alarmed me, though, was that their voices were too close to my row. I kept eyes closed and listened. They argued in the way that told me they have been married for many years. The exchange, more humorous than heated, finally ended with the wife plopping herself down in my once-spacious row. Her husband was the distance away that she wanted. He was across the aisle.

I tried hard not to make eye contact with her, but failed. With just one crack of my eye, she began talking.

Were you on a business trip? (My professional dress gave it away that I wasn’t on vacation.)

What do you do? (Ugh…that’s not an easy one to answer. Let’s see. I am a minister. A writer. I was serving a church in Maryland. I’m now back in Vermont where I am trying to be a farmer—well, in my dreams I am trying to be farmer. Truth is, I have one little garden that is struggling and a half-finished chicken coop.)

Yes, all of this came pouring out of my mouth and as I did I could hear my husband’s advice, “You don’t have to tell your life story to a stranger.”

The minister/writer vocation fascinated this woman and spurred on more conversation. She wanted to know everything. And so, I told her. I told her about my call into ministry that led me out of Manhattan where I was editor of a fine jewelry magazine. I told her about seminary and my first call to a little white church in rural upstate New York. I told her about meeting my husband in that rural community. I told her about my dreams to have a farm, to be back writing and to be serving once again in a country church.

And before I knew it, I told her my confession.

“I’m not sure about anything anymore, really. I find myself wondering what God is up to,” I said with a shrug and a smile, adding, “Is it crazy to like wearing heels and, also love wearing barn boots?”

The cabin had grown dark. Only the reading lights overhead from a few seats could be seen. The woman didn’t answer back to my confession. That disturbed me. Throughout the two-hour flight she was quick with the replies. In fact, much to the chagrin of the person in the seat in front of us, she never seemed to once come up for air. She was blessed with a gift for conversation. images

She was quiet now and her gaze shifted from me to the window. I followed her eyes to see what she was mesmerizing her. All this time talking, we hadn’t noticed the full moon in the sky. This wasn’t just any full moon though. This moon was a deep, glowing orange. And from our vantage point in the sky, it looked as if we could reach out and touch it.

We stared and marveled at it, agreeing that we have never seen anything so beautiful.

Silence finally fell on Row 16.

Silence…till the woman, who I now see as one of those angels in disguise Hebrews mentions, gently took my hand and whispered, “You are right where God wants you to be.”

As the moonbeams illuminated the houses and little specks of cars below on the ground, I realized she was right. Life wasn’t as muddled as I thought it was. I just had to get above the confusion and focus my thoughts on things above—God.

For God has a plan. God always does.

We are each where God wants us to be.

 

Back Again

It’s been awhile since I have sat down at my old farm table to reflect on all the beautiful God moments I stumble upon in my daily walk as an accidental country pastor.

It’s been awhile because since taking a giant leap of faith last fall to move back home to Vermont—without a job and no clear sense of what God was calling me to do—I have been on a spiritual rollercoaster of sorts, strapped in for a ride that would take me slowly up and up and up to dizzying views of what can be only to have that view blurred by the sickening descent down to the realities of how exactly will my life play out.

Up and down. Down and up. Left turn. Right turn. Stop. Wait. Proceed. Not now. Go.

God, what are you up to?

I found myself taking refuge in my garden, quilting (my husband is wondering just how many quilts we need!) and going on daily prayer walks. I found myself being put in a place of retreat, withdrawing from not only the world, but myself. I found myself not eager to write, for I didn’t want to hear what it was my heart and soul was saying. The words—harsh or honest or inspiring and comforting—it didn’t matter, I just wanted all noise to be silenced.

As for my prayers on those solitary walks on overgrown paths of wildflowers, cat tails and a rabbit or two, they were not eloquent nor were they poetically rich with meaning. They were simplicity at its best. The prayers were just one name I shouted in my heart repeatedly. A name of a friend I couldn’t find anymore; a friend I felt I had lost.

“God. God. God…”

Early morning August 1. I sat in the vintage Queen Anne wing chair (made vintage by the claws of my cats) feeling anxious. I had one more dentist appointment scheduled to finally put an end to the summer-long saga of my root canal. I wasn’t anxious, though, of the crown I was about to get. If anything, that would be a piece of cake. I was anxious because the first time since leaping in faith into the unknown, I had no work lined up for the month. No freelance stories due. No preaching gigs. I was feeling lost. I was scared.

God, what are you up to?

I was about to do what I do best. Jump into something out of fear without thinking it through. I was going to see what part-time retail jobs were available in the nearest town to our little fledgling farm.

My husband, though, talked me out of it throwing back words I have thrown at him many times.

“Wait. Be still. Trust God.”

And so, I did.

I continued my search for my friend only to discover—once again—that God was always right there with me. God was never lost in my life. I was lost from God. My anxiousness to know the future and my fear of it, stole me away from my faithful friend.

I’m back now. Back at my farm table writing. I’m still a wee bit hesitant as to what my heart and soul will say to me in the words that will be pieced together into sentences. But this I know.

The God moments—those filled with divine light and those shrouded in holy darkness—are just too beautiful not to embrace, celebrate and share.

I’m back. The calendar is full, praise God. But beyond the scheduled days is a lesson I hope never to forget. That is, never fear and be anxious when life seems empty. Just wait. Be still. Retreat a little if you must. And trust with all your might. God is at work.

Postscript

On August 21, I was named the new interim editor of my denomination’s magazine, Presbyterians Today. Great is God’s faithfulness for my prayer since coming home to Vermont was to return to my editorial roots, while still serving God. And so, I am IMG_8527 (1)working in my 18th century home here in Vermont, sharing the amazing ways God is at work in our congregations and communities. I also continue to preach in the rural churches in the area. Thank you all for being on this journey with me.

The only sad news to report is that I might have to put getting goats on hold. Not enough time for now.

Weathered Wood and Coming Home

The little village was just beginning to come to life on what was a picture perfect Fourth of July. As I pulled into the parking lot of the little white church I noticed a few early birds had already claimed their spot on the parade route. At least they had nice weather in which to wait in, I thought.

I, myself, took a deep breath in as I got out of the car and allowed my eyes to linger up at the blue skies. I couldn’t remember a more beautiful holiday than this.

The clear skies and cool temps were ideal for the “big” parade—big meaning lots of firetrucks, a few pickup trucks and tractors transformed into floats thanks to the invention of crepe paper and balloons and one band and a group of bagpipers joining the teens which made up the high school band.

Still it was “big” in terms of the hearts who marched out of love for country, love for village, love for tradition, love for one another. My own heart filled with a love I thought I would never feel again.

A love for a home that I never expected to find, then lose, and then, by the grace of God, find again.

Many times, I had pulled into this parking lot when I was the little white church’s pastor and many times I would stop before heading inside to gaze at the weathered clapboards. And many times, I would look beyond the weathered wood and see what other eyes could not.

I would see a vision of hope.

I gazed again. And there it was. Hope shining back at me.

Just then my friend who was going to join me in watching the big parade pulled into the parking lot. I could hear the engine shutting down, the clicking of her seat belt, the slam of the car door and the beep of the car being locked. Soon she was standing by me, gazing too at the weathered wood.

“It needs a lot of work,” she said.

“Yep, it does,” I nodded.

“It’s a big structure,” she said.

“Yep, it is,” I nodded.

As we scanned the expanse of the slate roof, I described to her how the roof was being supported by the most incredible hand hewn beams that a building inspector once showed me many years ago while climbing high into the old rafters on a hot, humid summer day, making the old wood smell even more pronounced.

“Hmmm…” she said and that was all.

“Hmmm…”

She sensed I didn’t want this sacred moment of gazing at weathered wood broken by the not so sacred discussion of painting and slate repair costs.

Instead she said, “You’re home, aren’t you?”

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Weathered wood stands as a testimony not only to time, but to God’s grace and our faith in future.

I nodded a short “yep” not wanting the tears of gratitude to start falling.

“I’ve always had this vision….” and then I began sharing the hope I saw in the weathered wood.

Hope that withstood the storms of life and the harsh elements of setbacks and trials. Hope in which was asked to lay dormant many a winter waiting and waiting and waiting for spring’s rebirth to come again.

“I’ve always had this vision…” my parking lot sermonizing was over.

My friend kept staring at the church. I couldn’t tell if she now saw my weathered wood vision.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

She saw.

As we walked up street (as my husband, the local boy, would say, always leaving out the “the” that I would put in when indicating I was going “up the street”), I silently prayed for more eyes to see the beauty—and the hope—in weathered wood.

For it’s there. Always. With faith, we can and will see God’s beauty.

 

Stay Out of It

Stay out of it…

That was the advice from my mom the other night as we talked politics.

Just stay out of it. Don’t get involved, etc., etc., etc. Let the women march. Let others say what they want on social media. Let folks in the backwoods of Vermont fire off their guns in celebration of the recent inauguration.

Now my mom is not one to step aside from righting a wrong. Growing up she was always the one supporting me to write a letter to the school board if I, as a student, saw something wrong. Speak up and act to change things, rather than complain about things. That was her motto.

No, my mom doesn’t step aside from righting a wrong easily. So, her advice to me the other night I realized was one of motherly concern for her daughter. Her daughter whose first career was that of journalist and whose second incarnation in life is that of pastor.

Journalist plus pastor equals trouble at times for both callings are spurred on by a passion for truth telling and for a desire for advocating for the underdog.

“But mom, I can’t just stay out of it,” I said quietly. “To do so would be going against everything I am.”

More importantly, to stay out of things, to keep silent, to turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, whatever body part you want to use as a metaphor, to do any such thing is going against all Jesus is. Jesus whose inauguration speech in Luke’s gospel, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, outlined his policies: proclaim freedom for the prisoners, restore sight to the blind, set the oppressed free. There was no mention of building walls, but rather building bridges of love so that all could cross over each other’s “side” and finally understand one another and begin working together to make a better life for all.

Frederick Buechner, a writer and theologian who lives just up the windy mountain road from me here in Vermont, once said when Jesus told us to love our neighbors, he wasn’t telling us to love them in a “cozy, emotional” way. On the contrary, Jesus, said Buechner, is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our well-being to that end.

Do I want more job opportunities for those I love here in rural America? Yes. Do I want relief from the burgeoning medical insurance my husband and I pay each month, a payment that is so high, provides so little in return and means we must dip into our savings to help pay for it? Yes. Do I want a better country, a better world, a better future? Yes, yes and yes. But not at the expense of others.

For if I forget there are indeed “others” also trying to live and build a good life, then what kind of person am I?

To stay out of what is happening nowadays is to be like all those in the crowds who followed Jesus but didn’t go all the way to the cross with him for fear of jeopardizing their comfortable lives by upsetting the powers to be or even worse, upsetting friends and loved ones.

I sit here in the home that I have cried to God to return to. God turned to me and heard my cry. And for that I will be forever grateful. I sit here in my 18th century home with the wide plank floors that slope and stare out the window at the snow covered Green Mountains of Vermont so thankful to be brought back to an area in which fills my heart and connects me ever more closely to the divine.

I am thankful for the opportunity to be a reporter once again and for the opportunities to continue being an accidental country pastor as well.

My heart is full, but heavy as well. It is concerned. I can’t pretend all is well with the world, just because all is well here on my little fledgling farm.

There is work to be done. There is good news to proclaim. And that good news is not going to be easy to proclaim.

Then again, it never was.

 

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The old stone well covered in snow is a beautiful sight here on the farm. But as the accidental country pastor reflects today’s news headlines, there is the realization that there is work to be done beyond the farm. 

I Believe

One of my favorite Christmas movies is “Miracle on 34th Street.” Not the remake or the colorized version, but the original 1947 classic starring a young Natalie Wood and an oh-so elegant Maureen O’Hara.

I love the movie for so many reasons.

Nostalgia is one of them. I used to watch it on an old TV complete with rabbit ears with my grandmother when staying at her house for one of my special “overnight with grandma” visits.

But the real reason I love the movie is because of its urging for us all to believe. Believe in the unbelievable. Believe when the world around you is saying your beliefs are unrealistic. Believe. Period.

There is one particular scene that has made an impression on me for all these years. It’s the one where little Natalie Wood is disappointed with her Christmas presents. Her doll just wasn’t enough. What she wanted was a house. A real one. Not a dollhouse. She wanted a house that she could call “home.”

So she sits in the back of the car feeling glum and she keeps whispering, “I believe. I believe. Yes. I believe.” She is saying it half-heartedly, but at least she is still saying it.

I have been in her shoes many times in life. Trying to hold on to belief when it seemed as if God just wasn’t listening to the desires of my heart. But I held on. I held on to God’s word that never will He leave me or forsake me. I held on to the belief that God knew the plans for my future.

I believe. I believe. Yes, I believe.

I dreamt of living in Manhattan and becoming a fashion editor.

I believe. I believe. Yes, I believe.

After challenges and moments when it looked as if I would never have a coveted “212” area code, it happened. And you are never going to guess where my first studio apartment was. It was on 34th Street.

The two Christmases I lived there, I would stare at the street sign on my way home from work at the magazine and stare at the “34th St.” and whisper to heaven, “I believe. Yes, I believe.”

Years went by and a soaring magazine career followed by a move cross-town to a one-bedroom apartment was not what I thought it would be. Something was tugging at my heart. Ministry. What? Yes, ministry. How was I to go to seminary, pay my bills, live? I believe.

I believe. Yes, I believe.

Years later, a theological degree was in my hand and a call to serve in rural Upstate New York was accepted. A few more years later, I met the love of my life after years of loneliness. And one Christmas Eve, as I looked around at the little white church I was serving, husband sitting in the pew, I realized I found what I was always searching for. Life lived authentically. Hugs followed worship, many coming with gifts such as molasses cookies and Coach Perry’s famous egg bake attached to them.

I believe. I believe. Yes, I believe.

But then New Year’s Eve last year, after twists and turns in my life that led me to serving a church in Maryland, I found myself once again doing my best Natalie Wood.

I was glum. I was sad. I was wondering why God wasn’t hearing my desire to return home to Vermont. To return to being the accidental country pastor I had failed to treasure as much as I should have.

I believe. I believe. Yes, I believe.

But how God? How was I to find my way home? When? How long? Are you even there listening to me God?

I believe. I believe. Yes, I believe…

in God who is merciful and mighty.

I believe in God who is always leading us.

I believe. I believe. Yes, I believe.

It’s New Year’s Eve once again. I am sitting in the living room of my 18th century home in Vermont. I am back home. And I am beyond thankful. I am beyond grateful.

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The ornament I received from my mother-in-law this Christmas. It says it all. Believe!

The Vermont snow has fallen down on me like celebratory graffiti. The cows have moo’ed a chorus of “hallelujahs!” The morning sun coming up over the mountains have shone a spotlight onto my heart overflowing with love. Hugs have been received. Warm molasses cookies have been eaten. And Coach Perry’s famous egg bake has once again graced my breakfast table this Christmas morning.

My friends, we are meant to believe and never give up believing. We are meant to hold on to our belief in a great, big, loving God. We are meant to hold on to hope when all hope seems gone. We are meant to follow our hearts. We are meant to live authentically.

A new year is about to be here. And I am home. How, when, why? Not quite sure. But I am home. There are no half-hearted “I believes” this year. Rather my “I believes” are declarative statements coming from a heart that has experienced for itself the truth that grace is not earned. Grace is indeed an unexpected and undeserved gift that God gives just because God loves us so much.

So keep on believing. For God is real. God does hear. God is always in your lives leading you, nudging you, pushing you, shoving you towards the path that is the best for you.

Will you believe?  Really believe?

A New Year Blessing

Believe…

For the Light is now in the world.

Believe…

For Love is born in each of us.

Believe…

For the manger is full.

Emmanuel, God with us, is here for us.

Go and believe…

it is as the prophets said.

And may the blessing of God be with you this day and forevermore.