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October 20, 2015, 2:44 PM

Navigating Winds and Tides of Long Island Sound

The final experience of my three-month sabbatical this past summer was a weekend sailing trip aboard the 61-foot schooner, “Brilliant.”  Brilliant was built in 1932 for Walter Barnum (brother of P.T.) as a cruising yacht.  Donated to Mystic Seaport in 1950; it is now an educational vessel that takes small groups of young people on week-long sailing adventures, and smaller groups of adults on weekend trips.  There were four of us guest crew members that weekend: a High School English teacher from Brooklyn, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Yale, an engineer from Pratt and Whitney, and a Congregational Church Pastor (yours truly).  In the photo at right, I am at the helm on Sunday morning on a beam reach.

We gathered in the cockpit at 9:00am on Saturday for introductions and a brief orientation to the boat by our Captain ­­­Nicholas Alley, and first mate, Chris.  We were underway in time to pass through the open Mystic drawbridge and remove the sail covers as we threaded our way down the Mystic river under power.

Our destination was determined largely by the tidal currents in Long Island Sound.  The tide flows into the sound from East to West and ebbs out of the sound from West to East.  We made good head way down the Sound on a port tack on the incoming tide.  We ate lunch in the teak-paneled “salon” below before tacking over toward the end of Long Island to slip through Plum Gut on the outgoing tide.

There are three relatively narrow openings where the tides rush into and out of the sound.  When the tide is running at maximum flood or ebb, the currents in those places can run faster than four knots (similar to mph).  Even in a 61’ schooner, sailing against the tide wastes time and makes navigation more difficult, so we timed our passage for later in the day when the tide was ebbing.

My dad’s sloop, “Windbourne,” had a maximum hull speed between four and five knots, so any sail through the Watch Hill Passage, the Race, or Plum Gut absolutely had to be timed so that the tide was in our favor.  A good lesson for life: don’t push ahead when the tide is against you.  If you wait for a while, the tide will change and carry you where you want to go.

There were a number of life lessons I learned sailing with my dad.  We always paid attention to the direction of the wind in planning our course for a day of sailing.  If we could; we would begin our journey by sailing into the wind, so that we could let the wind blow us home at the end of the day.  My husband Scott does what he calls “eating a toad” every morning.  He tackles the most dreaded or difficult task on his to-do list first thing in the morning - to get it off his mind and out of the way.  After that, the rest of the day is “clear sailing.”

One of the first things I learned about sailing was that, if a strong gust of wind overpowers your boat and you are worried about capsizing, you can stop trying to control it and just let go of the tiller.  The boat will head into the wind and right itself; so you can gather your wits and set your sail again.  “Let go and let God” is good advice for times when the winds of life overpower your ability to control your “boat.”

For the same reason, I learned not to put up more sail than I needed for the amount of wind.  Dad had several different jibs for his boat.  If the breeze was very light, we put up the big “drifter” jib that caught every breath of breeze and kept us moving.  Slightly more wind would warrant the “Genoa” jib that was of heavier cloth with a little less sail area.  For a good wind, we used the 100% jib and for storm winds, we had a little, heavy, storm jib.  Even the main sail could be made smaller in a heavy wind by lowering it some and tying one or both of the “reef points” down around the boom.  I learned that if you put up too much sail, you won’t go any faster than hull speed anyway; and it will be more difficult to handle the boat.  Captain Nicholas told us that even the schooner “Brilliant” had been knocked down by heavy winds a couple of times in its 83 years.  Maybe “too much sail” is like saying yes to too many things.  Life gets difficult to handle and we are likely to get knocked down emotionally or physically or both.

Dad also taught me never to complain about the wind.  The wind might be too heavy or too light, or coming from an inconvenient direction, but it is what it is.  Just set your sails and your course to make maximum use of the wind you have.  That reminds me of the “Complaint Free World” challenge to give up complaining, criticizing, and gossiping in general.  If it is something you can’t do anything about; complaining, criticizing, or gossiping wastes time and makes you and people around you feel worse.  And complaining, criticizing or gossiping keeps you focused on what you don’t want and slows down your progress toward what you do want.

Is there something that you love to do that has taught you life lessons?  Respond to this post and share some here.

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October 13, 2015, 10:30 AM

Childlike Mindfulness

On my sabbatical this summer, I began a 16-month course offered by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  The course, “Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership: Going Deeper,” began with a week-long residency down in Maryland in July.  Before the culminating residency next summer, I’ve got a load of reading to do, and I am required to recruit and meet with a “Listening Group” once a month.  We had our first meeting as soon as I returned from sabbatical and we meet on a Monday morning once a month.  What we are “listening” for in our meetings is the leading of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives and in the life of this congregation.  We spend time in silent prayer and discussion.

This month, our focus was on experiences or places or activities that evoke in us a sense of God’s presence – a sense of awe, or delight, an unexpected calm in the midst of a storm, or a sudden sense that everything is going to be okay.  God is always with us, but where and how do we recognize the Presence?  And how do we cultivate our awareness and openness to the guiding of the Spirit?

We brought objects from our everyday life that symbolized a time or place where we have experienced a sense of the Sacred. (The photo on the right is the table with our objects.)  When all the stories had been shared and all the objects were together on the table, someone commented that all the experiences that had connected us to a sense of the sacred, or the holy; were things that children love to do and do regularly, while we adults seldom make time for them.

Do you suppose that is what Jesus meant about the Kingdom of God belonging to children?  Think about awe, delight, trust, creativity, appreciation for every leaf and bug in God’s creation, love of learning new stuff, joy in being alive, eagerness to get out of bed in the morning, openness and curiosity about new ideas and people who look and sound different.  All these attitudes sound more like children than they do most adults.  Yes? The Kingdom of God really does belong to children – at least until people around them succeed in teaching them “what’s really important in life” and convincing them that life is not supposed to be fun.

Jesus scolded his disciples for not showing hospitality to children and families.  The disciples considered the children a bother and a distraction from their important work.  But Jesus’ welcomed the children to show his disciples what the really important work is: showing hospitality to the Holy Spirt – being open – listening for the guidance of God in our lives.  If we can’t receive the present moment the way a child does; then we will never recognize the presence of God in our midst right here, right now, in this moment.

Most of the experiences that we shared were experiences that, sometimes unexpectedly, focused our attention powerfully on the present moment.  The task or the crisis or the beauty stopped our multitasking minds for a moment and that “still small voice”– that awe, joy, love, and peace – of the Spirit washed over us.

We can achieve that same present moment awareness on purpose.  Brother Lawrence, a French monk who lived in the seventeenth century, called it “Practicing the Presence of God.”  His little book by that title is a classic of Christian literature that is still available in many different translations today.   That same practice is called “mindfulness” by the Buddhists.  It can be practiced with our without a focus on God.  In worship recently, I taught a simple three-step mindfulness practice that can be practiced sitting with eyes closed or while doing some simple repetitive task like walking, running, swimming, washing dishes, or splitting wood.

Begin by bringing you attention to whatever is going on inside right now. What thoughts are running through your mind?  What emotions are present right now?  What physical sensations are happening in the body?  You can begin by scanning slowly from the tips of your toes up your legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck, jaw, face, scalp…just noticing sensations and moving on.

Once you have noticed what is going on inwardly, move your attention to just the breath.  Where do you feel it in your body?  Is it the cool tingling in your nose as you inhale?  Is it the expansion of your chest or abdomen?  Focus your attention on that place for a few breaths or a few minutes and then:

Expand your awareness to the whole body while you maintain an awareness of the breath.  Feel you whole body participating in whatever you are doing while breathing.  If you are sitting with eyes closed, you can be aware of your body sitting and the posture you are in.

When thoughts come (and they will, incessantly) notice them.  You are back to step one.  Notice what emotions they evoke.  Notice where you feel them in your body, and then gently usher your mind back to focusing on just the breath, and then to an awareness of the whole body.

If there is a sensation – a tickle or a pain – that comes forward, treat it the same way.  Focus on it without judgement until you are able to gently usher the mind back to the breath.

In our faith tradition, the breath is associated with the Spirit.   Every time you bring your mind back to the breath, you can bring it back to an awareness of the constant presence of the Spirit of God with you in everything you do.  To be “in-spired” is to be breathed into by God.

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September 30, 2015, 12:00 AM

Tidying as a Spritual Practice

At the beginning of my 3-month sabbatical this summer, I had the house to myself for two weeks while my husband, Scott, was doing research in Ohio.  Seizing the opportunity for solitude, I planned a two-week silent retreat in place.  I turned off my phone, put away my lap-top, and took my morning walk early enough that I wouldn’t pass anyone on the road who might misinterpret my silence as rudeness.  I once participated in a 10-day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts – on which I based my plans for this retreat.  But this time, I wanted to structure it myself.  In addition to sitting and walking meditation, I wanted to include reading time in preparation for two courses later in the summer, and weaving time to finish the rugs I began last summer.

What actually happened was that shortly before the sabbatical, I noticed a small book at the counter at the Hickory Stick Bookshop, entitled: the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, by Marie Kondo.  The book is a quick read and her idea of keeping only those things that give you a feeling of joy when you hold them made the whole project seem like a treasure hunt.  The author says to sort by category beginning with your clothing – pulling all of it out of closets and drawers at once, piling it all on the floor and then picking up each piece to see whether holding it gives you a feeling of joy.  Anything that doesn’t, goes in a bag for the thrift shop (she actually advocated the garbage, but I reserved that fate only for things that were too worn out to be useful to someone else).  There are even instructions for folding the clothing – or table cloths or napkins – when you put them back into the drawers so that you can see everything at once and never have to root around for anything or forget the thing that got buried at the bottom.

Instead of the intended reading and weaving, my silent retreat activities became purging and tidying.  I confess that I started in the wrong order; with cookbooks, table linens, and miscellany that I could give to the Church Fair.  But in the two weeks of my silent retreat, I also got through all my clothes. The photograph above is of my table-cloth and napkin drawers as they now look, with Marie Kondo’s book lying on top.

I didn’t know when I left for sabbatical that I would be doing the same thing at work when I returned.  Everything that used to be in my office – furniture, books, pictures, baskets, tea mugs, candles, table runners, shells and rocks for object meditation, children’s sermon objects – was boxed up and stacked in the hallway so that the office could be painted before new carpet was put in.  My return from sabbatical on September 1 was another opportunity to purge and tidy.  The new carpet had not arrived, so I had the luxury of time to go through every box of books and every basket and desk drawer and hold every object to see whether it gave a sense of joy, before I allowed it to cross the threshold back into my work life.

Purging and tidying my possessions was a physically “lived” metaphor for the inner work I was undertaking on my sabbatical.   Getting some distance from my ministry was an opportunity to get a “balcony view” of my pastorate and make some decisions about priorities.  There were some things that I needed to let go of in order to shift my focus to some new activities; which I will say more about later.

Marie Kondo promises “life changing magic” when we tidy up.  The process of making new choices based on whether a possession, activity, attitude, or belief is life-giving or life-sapping really is life changing.  Although I am still in the process of “tidying up” my house and my office; my life has been changed by both the physical and spiritual work of this summer’s sabbatical.

See you Sunday!  Cheryl


02-19-2016 at 8:28 AM
Sari Max
Lovely! Inspiring! Especially at this turning point in my life. Thank you!
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September 21, 2015, 1:57 PM

The Remodeled Pastor

Anything I could say falls short of expressing the gratitude I feel for the sabbatical break my congregation made possible for me this summer.   It was requested and granted on short notice, in order to take advantage of two important learning opportunities for me and Ellen’s availability to fill in as sabbatical replacement.  And this church rose to the “last minute” challenge; allocating the necessary money and stepping up the laity’s responsibility for one another.   Knowing that I could count on Ellen and the deacons to care for the congregation and with great confidence in the rest of our remarkably competent and wise lay leaders and staff; I was able to focus on my own spiritual and intellectual development for three months.

There is a common misperception that summer is a “slow time” for churches.  Summer worship attendance may slow down with people going away on vacation; but our annual meeting and Green Fair keep this church humming through most of the summer.  It felt strange to not be part of those two important events for the first time in twelve years.

The stewardship of our buildings was also going non-stop this summer.  With great appreciation, I watched from afar the beautiful work on Woodruff House.  My appreciation turned to amazement the day I saw a dumpster parked next to the Meeting House in the morning, which was full of old roofing materials at the end of the day and a brand new roof completed on that side of the Meeting House.  After a day of rain delay; the second side was completed, start-to-finish in a single day.  If I hadn’t been in town at that moment I might not even be aware that we have a new roof.  To cap it all off, Ellen’s request that the carpet in the Pastor’s Study be cleaned, led to a complete remodeling of my office which is still in progress as I write this in the temporary pastor’s study in the room next door. 

The only emails I received from Ellen this summer were questions about what color I would like for the walls and carpet, and whether I would like track lighting instead of those dreadful fluorescent overhead fixtures in my office.  As the project mushroomed; one email from Ellen referred to “Lee ‘while-we’re-in-here’ Parsons.”  I hope he doesn’t mind if I continue to call him that.  It is only with deep gratitude and appreciation for Lee’s caring attention to all the details of the place in which I spend more time than I do my own home.

The two courses I took this summer to help me shift my activities to building church vitality, have remodeled to some extent the focus of my day to day work.  Coming back to a newly remodeled office will remind me daily that God is, indeed, doing a new thing here at First Congregational.  God is calling me and all of us to do a new thing that will extend the love of God wider and deeper into the community beyond our walls.

Ellen, in her sermon the day of the annual meeting, talked about how remarkable it was that this church would and could successfully arrange for the pastor to have a sabbatical, on such short notice.  She bragged on you all: “What we are able to do here speaks to a real strength of lay leadership, it speaks to a true openness of the membership and it speaks to extraordinarily responsible and resourceful stewardship.”  I second her observation that, “It demonstrates the great vitality of this congregation.”

I will write a lot more about the things I did and what I learned during my sabbatical, but what needs to be expressed first is my gratitude for the opportunity of time away from my usual responsibilities, and my appreciation and admiration for the leadership of this church.  Ellen, the Church Council, and the Deacons kept everything running so smoothly that I think I might have missed all of you more than you missed me.

See you Sunday!  Cheryl


09-21-2015 at 6:14 PM
Hi Cheryl,
Missed you terribly more than I/we can express.
Ellen did a fabulous job. She is a wonderful person and a great pastor. Wishing her only good things in her future studies and accomplishments. You rock Ellen.
Welcome back Cheryl. You rock as always!!!!
Big hugs and enjoy your new remodeled office and tranquil space.

You are both inspiring and very special ladies. We are as a congregation so lucky, inspired and blessed.
09-21-2015 at 3:00 PM
Karen Esslinger
Welcome back!!
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September 3, 2015, 12:51 PM

Extending Our Extravagant Welcome

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”   Romans 12:9-18

The summer is over?  Already?  It must be true what they say, times flies when you are having fun.  I have had a wonderful summer here at First Congregational Church.  I want to thank all the members and friends of our church for the extravagant welcome, grace and hospitality shown to me this summer and for the support given to me and my ministry.  It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to be allowed to serve as pastor in Cheryl’s absence.  It is an opportunity not many seminary students get, and one that I was only able to have due to enthusiastic support from all of you.  I am deeply grateful. 

Honestly, when I think about it, I should not be surprised.  It was the extravagant welcome and hospitality of this congregation that caused my family to join many years ago and it is the ongoing hospitality of this congregation that continues to make it such a wonderful place for faith formation.  This fall, the faith practice we will turn our focus to is “Giving and Receiving Hospitality.”  I can’t help but think that this one was custom made for us.

As I consider the words of Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, I see our church embracing and living so many of the qualities we are called to have as Christians.  One of the most Spirit filled parts of our worship service is the sharing of joys and concerns when we come together to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  I see all of us contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to others through our successful missions work.  As a faith community we do more than live peaceably with one another, we value and embrace one another and respect each other for our gifts.  This is truly a wonderful, welcoming church with hospitality to spare.

With our focus on church vitality, I have been wondering, how would someone who hasn’t yet walked through our doors have any idea what is here?  As we enter into this faith practice of Giving and Receiving Hospitality, I hope that we can not only take some time to fully appreciate the hospitality we have here, but also challenge ourselves to find new ways to make sure our offer of hospitality is extended to the wider community in ever more clear and meaningful ways.

Some time ago we began a discussion around officially adopting a statement of intentional welcome for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and becoming an Open and Affirming church of the UCC.  It is a fantastic way to extend an extravagant welcome and abundant hospitality, making it clear to traditionally marginalized and excluded people that when we say “all are welcome” we actually do mean all.  We as Christians do recognize and affirm that the light of God shines through all people and anyone, absolutely anyone may be called to be Christ’s disciple.

Before Pastor Cheryl left for the summer she and I discussed ideas for ways to reignite this discussion in the fall.  Neither one of us knew, nor did we imagine that by the time summer had drawn to a close, marriage equality would be the law of the land and that Caitlyn Jenner would have started a nation-wide discussion about gender identity.  

The Apostle Paul instructs us, “as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  We cannot extend peace without understanding.  It is required of us as Christians to do our part to understand one another.  The Open and Affirming discussion may require us to have some difficult or uncomfortable conversations.  I hope it does.  In our larger society so little grace is extended to people who don’t understand or who hold a different point of view.  In our faith community, so much grace is extended to those who want to explore new ideas or learn new things.  That gift gives us a unique opportunity to ask questions and to have conversations we could have nowhere else. We have a gift for remaining hospitable to people with whom we do not always see eye to eye.  By focusing on the faith practice of hospitality we have an opportunity to use that gift to help us discern who we are as a faith community and what kind of ever widening welcome we wish to extend to all.

The words “so far as it depends on you” are worthy of much reflection.  All of our assumptions and ideas and beliefs, whether we keep them or challenge them or modify them, depends entirely upon us.  Whether we embrace chances to have new conversations depends entirely upon us.  Whether we take every opportunity to extend our extravagant welcome and hospitality to all who wish to know Christ’s love depends entirely upon us.

I pray that we all continue to do our part to extend hospitality and live peaceably with all. 

Grace and peace be with you.     

Ellen Willert

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