Thursday, 13 April 2017

Holy Week...Be Present for the Journey

When I was a child, I would get very excited about events or special things that would be coming up (ok, let's face it, I still do...).  But I remember my grandfather and sometimes my mother, telling me, "Don't wish your life away!" As a child, this advice used to leave me puzzled because I couldn't understand why the adults didn't want the exciting event to come faster too.  But now, as an adult, I see the wisdom in those words that enables me to be still and have a bit more patience for noticing and waiting.


As people of faith, it would be very easy for us to stand in the middle of Holy Week, after experiencing the excitement of Palm Sunday, to wish that it could just be Easter, and we could avoid the whole betrayal and death of Jesus.  Those things don't make us feel very good because it is very hard to look death in the face.  It is very hard for us to sit and wonder if it could be one of us who would give Jesus over to the authorities in return for a few pieces of silver.  It's even harder for us to think that we might be the frightened disciples who scattered because we like to think about ourselves as those who would have the courage to stand up for what we believe to be right.

But then we think about what the mystery of resurrection means, and realize that death needs to happen in order for new life to be known.  Jesus can't rise again if he doesn't die...New life and new ways of understanding who we are can't be known if the old ways aren't shown gratitude and then put to rest.  Many seeds cannot bring forth fruit or plants if they don't first go into the ground to die.  And each of those steps must be taken in order for us to fully experience the unfolding of the process.

So on this Maundy Thursday, the day that Jesus shows us what it means to be servant to each other, the day that he eats with his friends for the last time, the day that he gives us a new commandment--let us be patient.  May we truly be in the moment and allow ourselves to feel the sadness and rawness of what it means to give up what we know.  May we have courage and strength to stay awake with Jesus, to walk with him to the Cross.

There is, however, the ultimate catch--we know the end of the story.  And that's what makes it hard not to skip all of the parts we might not like. We are indeed an Easter people, those who believe in Resurrection and New Life, in all of it's mysterious hope.  So as we look forward to that, may we know that God is with us each step of the way. May we be present for the Journey, for in many ways, it is just beginning.

May the reality of God's love be yours. May the newness of the Easter Season surprise you in ways that you never thought possible!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

International Women's Day!

Today, on International Women's Day, I want to reflect for a moment, to give thanks for all of the women whose faith has shaped, and continues to shape, their lives, and without whom our church would not be the same.  We don't have to look too far in our collective memory or turn our heads to look around our communities to realize the impact that women have.  Scripture contains many stories of women who realized that things needed to change and courageously worked to make sure that those changes happened.  Even when they are not front and centre, women have supported and sustained families and communities, movements and uprisings for centuries and throughout history.

Within our own United Church history, women have worked to sustain communities of faith by answering the call to ministry (even when they couldn't formally), by educating our young, by raising countless amounts of money to make sure that God's light and love were shared for all.  I give thanks for women who fought tirelessly to make sure that future generations would be able to be ordained and commissioned...those who served as missionaries, as Deconesses, and as ministers' wives (who had and have a ministry in their own right) inspired many to let their own lights shine.

Finally, on this day, I give thanks for the continued work of women all around us.  For those who seek equal rights and financial compensation, who teach our children to love fiercely, who strive for a world without racism, class-ism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, xenophobia, and anything else that seeks to divide communities.  Today, I proudly wear my clerical collar to acknowledge and remember the privilege that I hold because of the tireless and unconditional love shown to me by generations before me, those strong and faithful women who surround me, and the girls who will become the women who already love and will continue to love the world.  On this day, may we all remember that we are fearlessly and wonderfully made in the image of God, who loves us beyond our knowing.

Love and Blessings to all of you,
Catherine


Monday, 30 January 2017

Peace and Light: Prayers for Solidarity and Unity

Below is my letter of solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters:

Dear Maritime Conference,

It is with a very heavy heart that I write this letter in response to the attacks on our Muslim brothers and Sisters at Centre Culturel Islamique de Qu├ębec (Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec) in Quebec City.  Words seem inadequate to express the grief, heartbreak, and sorrow being felt here in the Maritimes and across our country.  This hate-filled action not only infringes on our sensibilities towards those of different faith, but also shatters our understanding of the right to worship safely—our very ideals of sanctuary and refuge from the outside world. 

As a result of recent events, my words are no longer enough to express our solidarity with our neighbours.  We can no longer afford to watch as our ideals and beliefs are pulled away.  So I write this letter to encourage you to reach out to your neighbours, as United Church congregations, Presbyteries, and individuals:  If you have a local mosque, write them a letter of solidarity.  Hold gatherings where you can get to know each other.  It is in these times that we must know one another so that we can offer support and encouragement as people who not only speak of what we believe but as those who live it.  If a mosque is not in your neighbourhood, I encourage you to write a letter to the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, to ensure that they feel loved and supported by the wider community.  Communities of faith are strong, important parts of society, places of safety and community, and we cannot let these events change that. 

Please do not let fear trouble your hearts—be vigilant, yes, but not fearful—for as we know, fear brings out the very worst in humanity.  Continue to work to make our places of worship safe and welcoming for all, places of sanctuary and prayer, fellowship and community.  For it is in these places that we will continue to learn what Jesus meant when he told us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

May Peace and Light be yours this day.

The Rev. Catherine Stuart,

President of Maritime Conference 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Happy New Year! Happy Epiphany!

Happy New Year to all of you across our Conference! And with that, Happy Epiphany!

Over the past few days, I've been checking out what a lot of my colleagues are doing to mark the new year, and am paying particular attention to how they are celebrating Epiphany, both personally and in the congregations they serve.  One practice in particular caught my eye and my heart.  The Rev. Catherine MacDonald, who is no stranger to our conference, and is currently serving Riverview and Nine Mile River United Churches in Halifax Presbytery, posted on her blog about Star Words that she has given and will be giving to her congregations as they gather on Sunday.  You can check out her awesome blog at https://mywindowongodsworld.com/2016/12/24/star-words-starwards/ 

It particularly struck a chord with me because I like the idea of having a word on which I can reflect on its meaning over the course of a year.  She offered to give out words to those of us who asked, so my word for 2017 is Grace.  This word already holds a lot of meaning for me, as I am keenly aware of God's grace, both in my ministry and in my life as a Mom.  It's a gift that I often wonder if I take for granted, but as I travel around the conference, hearing stories of both joy and sorrow, I am realizing that grace comes in all shapes and sizes and is so abundant and extravagant and beautiful, even if it is found in tears and grief.  Words hold a great deal of meaning that changes because of circumstances and experiences, so I am very much looking forward to finding what this word will hold.

So today, I don't have much to say about it, other than thank you to Catherine for this opportunity to reflect upon this gift, as I come to the next few months in my term as president, and look to what God is calling me to do and be beyond this time.  I hope that 2017 will show me how much the gift of grace is a star in my life that calls me to follow with courage and in love.

May the light of Epiphany shine brightly for you all.

Love and Blessings!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

From My House to Yours: Merry Christmas!


Dear Friends,

I’ve been waiting all year to say, and finally can, Merry Christmas! Once again, this Holy time of year is upon us, a time that is filled with wonder, dreaming, and anticipation.  Some of the youngest among us know all too well how hard it is to wait, and I have to admit that I still find it hard to wait for the excitement of Christmas.

For me, Christmas is a time to take a deep breath in and to experience the best of what it is that makes us Church.  It’s a time when many of our congregations get to welcome people in from the cold, whether they are coming home, or are exploring church for the first time.  It’s a time of holding each other close, especially those in our churches and communities for whom Christmastime is difficult—grief-filled, lonely, full of unmet expectations.  And it’s a time of re-commitment—to remember why we are church, to experience Jesus—Emmanuel—being born in us and among us once again, and to promise anew to be God’s people, who try our best to walk in the light and spread it in the world, as difficult as that can be sometimes. 

It is my wish that this season will be a gift to you, a calling to continue to live the sparkle of the Lights of Advent—Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, for our Conference and for the world.  May you know, now and always, the love and compassion of the baby whom we celebrate, Jesus, the Christ. 

On behalf of myself, Scott and Ethan, may you have a Happy and Holy Christmas, and know that all things are possible for 2017.

In Wonder and Excitement,

Catherine 


Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Feeling Welcome in Shelburne: South Shore Presbytery

I know this is late, but I'm trying to tell myself that sometimes late is better than never.  Over the past few days, I've been thinking a lot about my visit to South Shore Presbytery on November 24th.  In many ways, my journey to Shelburne was a lot like my experience of Advent so far.

I began the day early in the morning, making my way across the bridge, greeted by the sunrise across the Northumberland Strait.  I knew that Shelburne would be a bit of a drive from Bedeque, so I decided that during my drive, I was going to try and notice small things that I might not have noticed before  when driving through familiar places.  I've also been trying to do this with Advent, taking time to notice things in the scripture and spiritual practices, such as lighting candles, that I might not have noticed before.  The first thing I noticed is that it took a lot longer to get to Shelburne than I had anticipated, mostly because construction was still happening! I think this is similar to my experience of Advent so far as well--some things seem to be taking longer to get to Christmas, but like children, I try to keep my excitement in check and wait for it to come!

After arriving in Shelburne, I was greeted by The Rev. Joanne McFadden at Trinity United Church, where she brought me in to have a lovely soup lunch provided by the women there.  The hospitality was amazing, and by the welcome I received, you'd never know that I was a stranger! I think one of the most humbling parts of being President so far has been the feeling that wherever I go, people have always been ready to welcome me...and through Advent, I've tried to notice how both hospitality and welcome are part of our practice as church.

Heading into the meeting, I was invited to address the court, and had a lovely question and answer time.  it was a gift to be asked questions about my time as president that enabled me to recall and remember all that has happened since May...and that's quite a bit! I also observed the rest of the their meeting, including some discussion of and voting on remits.


Barbara Rafuse addressing the court!

As with some of the other places I've visited, South Shore has it's share of challenges, but I've been deeply encouraged by the fact that people feel called to keep facing them, rather than giving up. Faith is strong and deeply held within their churches, and is a gift that I've seen in various ways as I've journeyed through this Advent season.

After the meeting ended, I experienced more hospitality, as some of us did the very Canadian thing of going to Tim Horton's for coffee, donuts, and of course, wonderful conversation! It was fantastic to hear of all of the wonderful things happening across the presbytery, and all that they celebrate in being church together.

My journey home was mostly in the dark, but my time on the South Shore reminded me that there are a whole lot of lights in this Conference that are working hard to keep shining, even though it might seem like a lot of things are trying to put them out. This journey through Advent has given me time to reflect on the courage it takes to be a light that shines, and so I am deeply grateful for my time in Shelburne and to South Shore's Chairperson, The Rev. Sharon Lohnes, for the welcome I received.

Love and Blessings!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Common Ground: Visiting the Maine Conference of The United Church of Christ

Friends, in light of the last 24 hours, and even though I am on vacation, I thought it only right and prayerful to finish writing and share with you the following thoughts:

From October 20-23, David Hewitt and I had the honour and privilege of visiting our neighbours to the south at The Maine Conference of The United Church of Christ.  When we arrived, one of the first things we did was accept a dinner invitation from Rev. Deborah Blood, Conference Minister, who had visited our conference in May.  It was wonderful to see her again and reconnect, while also meeting Beth Campbell (Office Administrator), Rev. Bill Walsh (who chaired their annual meeting) and Rev. Chris Davies and her partner Erik.  Chris was the theme speaker for the weekend and is also a national staff person from The United Church of Christ, working as the Coordinator for Congregational Assessment, Support and Advancement.  It didn't take us too long to know that we have so much in common and are seeking to hear where God is calling us to be, as local, regional and national churches.

On Friday, we had the privilege of attending their retreat day, mostly led by Chris.  She mostly focused us on her findings of a survey sent out to under 40's, asking the question, "What does a transformative church look like in 10 years?" There was lots of information shared, summed up under three headings: 1. Christ Driven Connection, 2. God-Centered Action, and 3. Spirit-led Leadership. The report is based on research found at howwegather.org (the report itself is yet to be released, but I will share it when it is available) but what I was most struck by with this day-long conversation is that as a church, The United Church of Christ is trying to figure out how to be transformed by the Spirit, rather than conforming to the world in which they find themselves (Romans 12:2)...this was the theme verse for their whole conference.  For all it was a conversation of some grief and lament, it was also a conversation of hope and yearning for something different, as one by one, I heard the people in my table group personally committing to things that they are going to let go of, give thanks for, and allow to change both within themselves and in the communities in which they serve for the sake of the Gospel.

The Rev. Chris Davies leading the retreat day

 Friday evening was a bit relaxed, as we gathered to eat together at their banquet that remembered the lives of those who served in ministry, and celebrated the anniversaries of those who are currently serving (they celebrate all of them every five years, from five years and up!).  It was amazing to hear stories of their faithful ministry personnel and worship together while sharing a meal.

Saturday found us gathering at Husson University in Bangor for the business meeting and workshop gathering.  The Theme for the day, Transformed, Renewed, Alive! was framed around the verse from Romans mentioned above. We began with worship led by a Jazz trio, including a musical interpretation of the verse, and then moved into the business portion of the day.

Prayer leaves from worship!

The Jazz trio!




The work was presented, including a budget, nominating report and state of the Conference address by Rev. Blood, which was an honest and thoughtful reflection about how she sees the conference from her position--recognizing both the pain and the joy, the lament and the celebration, and also reminding the gathering that when you find yourself in the Maine Conference, you are never "from away," but are at home in the oneness we celebrate in God.  Comforting words for the two Canadians in the room!

Later in the day, we heard more from Chris, and had the opportunity to attend workshops--the two I found myself in included one entitled "Oh No, It's Jazz Sunday!" led by the trio who did worship, and the other entitled "Vibrant Worship, Sustaining Fellowship, Bold Service: Reports from The Small Church Story Project of 10 of Maine Conference’s Smaller Congregations" which was exactly that...stories of 10 small congregations within the conference who are continuing in ministry to their communities, without much formal ministry leadership, some without church buildings, some with only 10 members--but their determination to seek where the Spirit is calling them was indeed inspiring!

At the end of the day, David and I were invited to reflect on what we had experienced and I have to say that Deborah's words rang true--although we have many differences in the way we do things, and in the way we organize ourselves, the choice to be in Full Communion continues to call us to live out our oneness in Christ and our openness to the presence of the Spirit.  I didn't feel like I was from away until my accent reminded me! Our commitment to being Open and Affirming (What they call their Affirming ministries), to seeking justice, to working on climate change, are just some of the ways that we continue to say yes to following in the radical, transformational way that Jesus offers us, especially when the world would have us think that we are so different (as is the case with the political results...which were not in when we attended the conference).  As the Conference closed, we shared in Communion, which truly allowed me to reflect on how this relationship between our two churches is not only called to deepen, but must do so in action as we seek to live in this world as neighbours and kin.

Catherine, Deborah, and David


Sunday morning found us worshiping at Hammond Street Congregational Church of the UCC, which is an Open and Affirming ministry, and I have to say, they do it very well! People greeted us at the door, made sure we had name tags (as did many of the regular members), gave us a bulletin, sat with us and talked to us in friendly, welcoming ways.  We even sang happy birthday to David (and others) who were celebrating that day!



Hammond Street Church
Gathering for worship
             

The Rev. Chris Davies preaching

We heard Chris preach one more time, which was an amazing reflection of how Jesus is calling us to ministry on the margins with those for whom finding and living hope is a daily struggle, and calling us to journey together because that is what we do best, especially when our hearts are aching. To say that my time in Maine was amazing and transformative would be an understatement. Thanks to Deborah and all of our colleagues there for their hospitality and feeling of welcome!



Chris and I after worship...definitely new friends!


Love and Blessings,
Catherine

PS-

I have to confess that most of this was written before the election results poured in last night.  Many of us, as well as many of our brothers and sisters in Maine are sorely disappointed, angered and sad because of what happened and what will unfold in the days and weeks to come.  But what called me to finish this reflection today was the deep connectedness I feel at my core and treasure from my time there.  We really are one in the Spirit, called to challenge racism, sexism, homophobia/trans-phobia, and anything else that seeks to divide rather than unite.  But we do so, recognizing our privilege, and as those who are seeking to understand a reality that deeply affects us, but one that is not our lived reality in quite the same way.  So let us join in solidarity with our Maine Conference friends as we seek a way forward that tries to bridge the hurt, anger, and fear the best way we know how--with love, compassion, and hope. Light and Love to all of you this day.