Monday, October 25, 2010

Martin Luther--Fashionista?

A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that many Christians don't know much about religion, including our own Christian history. As a pastor I think it is important to take this as a wake-up call, and so I am determined to put more energy into Reformation Sunday every year (in past years our congregation has sung "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and gone about our business as usual...)

Interestingly, this year Reformation Sunday falls on Halloween, so in keeping with the current American way of celebrating this holiday, this Reformation Sunday at Riverton Church we will be trying on some of the interesting hats worn by some famous Reformers. Yes, I know that such an activity would cause our Puritan ancestors great consternation, but they should have thought of that before actually wearing the hats out in public themselves. (Please note that I will not be attempting to re-create their hairstyles and/or facial hair. That would be taking things a bit too far.)
If you haven't taken the Pew Survey you can find it here. You can preview some of the hats at the Wikipedia entry on the Protestant Reformation. You can learn more about Connecticut's own great theologian Jonathan Edwards here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What are you, some kind of animal?

Early on in my ministry at Riverton Church I learned that most of our members are heavily involved in the annual Riverton Fair, a large fair held on the second weekend of October. Wanting to participate in some way, my first year at Riverton I baked some cookies, affixed a label with information about the fair, and passed them out on the main fairway. The next year I planned to do the same (except with purchased candy--it takes a long time to bake cookies for a fair that has about 20,000 visitors annually) when I spied a cow costume while shopping one day. That year marked my first as a fair "animal." In subsequent years the church began to host a duck race fundraiser at the fair, so I switched to dressing like a duck.

From the start people remarked upon my bravery for stepping out in public dressed as a large farm animal. From the outside it might look brave, but the view from inside the costume is very different. When I walk around as just-plain-me children don't jump up and down with excitement at my approach and tug their parent's sleeves to have a look at me. I don't get asked to pose for photos with dozens of people. Even though you can't see my face in these pictures, I assure you that I'm smiling down to my toes. Yes, I'm uncomfortably hot in the costume much of the time, and the visibility is poor, but the opportunity to be a human day-brightener, even in a small way, makes it well worth it. It makes me realize how much we as people can do to spread joy to each other when we take the time to make the effort. When I'm a duck I make an effort to be friendly to everyone I see. When I hear music I like I sway and dance. In real life I can be more shy and retiring. The fair is over for another year and I'm back to being just-plain-me again, but I'm going to try to bring my duck attitude into my regular life.

Monday, October 4, 2010

All Saints/Day of the Dead

Over a decade ago, while I was serving as a Protestant Chaplain at a University, I received word that a young faculty member had died suddenly and unexpectedly. While this is never welcome news, it came at an especially challenging time--I was co-hosting a regional campus ministry conference. Nevertheless, I sped over to the home of the young woman who had died and spent an hour or so just sitting with her husband, who was more or less in shock.

That event inspired me to learn more about death, dying, grief and mourning, and I signed up for a seminar in Mexico about The Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead is a national holiday that falls at the end of October and the beginning of November. It is usually observed from October 31-Nov. 2, with citizens getting the day of Nov. 2 off. It begins with family members creating an Ofrenda, or altar, in their home on the eve of October 31. They decorate the offering with paper cutouts and cover it with photos and mementos of loved ones who have died, with candles, flowers, traditional breads and with their loved one's favorite dishes.
A path of marigold petals leads from the entrance of the property to the altar, to lead the loved ones to the display.
Many families also decorate the graves of loved ones, and some spend the night of Nov. 1 at the cemetery, feasting and feeling close to those who are gone.
I returned from Mexico convinced that this practice would translate well to an American church context. Happily, I have been right.
It is easy to set up an Ofrenda in your home or your worship space. Begin with a table large enough to accommodate photos, flowers and candles. At church we generally place a smaller table on top for a tiered effect. At one church I used a tiered poinsettia stand. Cover the table with a white cloth or sheet. Flowers in vases, candles, dishes of food, etc., help anchor the tablecloth. (Usually we just stick with the traditional Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead,
sprinkled with pastel colored sugars in pink, orange and blue.)
Then come the colorful cutouts. These are like large snowflakes cut from crepe paper. Usually the children at the church are invited to create these on the Sunday before the celebration. These are taped to to the front of the white cloth. Depending on where your church is located and how your worship space is set up, marigold petals may or may not be a suitable addition. In early years we harvested marigolds and froze the petals, but as they thawed they stained the carpet. I also tried mum petals before settling on orange and yellow confetti.
Worshippers are asked to bring photos and mementos of loved ones. As the photos arrive, arrange them on the altar. I usually light a few large votive candles prior to the service, and then after the sacrament of communion I invite people to come up and light a candle in honor of lost loved ones. I usually use small votive candles for this purpose. I have also provided colorful cutouts of autumn leaves for people to write the names of loved ones upon and place upon the altar.
This is a photo of a pretty traditional looking altar (except for the black cloth.) Here is a photo of a nice home alta
Altars can getpretty elaborate and include wired arches made of marigolds.

The first time I celebrated this custom in the United States, I was both really excited to share with my American Congregants and really afraid that they would find the entire thing weird or even offensive, so I put it in the entryway of the church rather than up front. I needn't have worried. By the time it was all over everyone was suggesting we move it up front. The next time I did, and it has been up in the front of the church ever since.

I do take care every year to explain and prepare the congregation, particularly as new people need to learn about it and others forget aspects from year to year. Sometimes I make a flyer explaining the practice to the congregation and even then I always explain verbally and point out each element of the display.

Worship Costume instead of Vestments

At the 2009 United Church of Christ National Synod meeting, many worship services were led by people in costumes rather than more traditional robes. I liked that idea and decided to implement it for our annual outdoor worship service by the Farmington River. I didn't want to spend a lot of money or time on the costume so I re-purposed a dress by creating iron-on transfers with my computer printer. I also sewed some matching trim on the neck, sleeves and hem of the garment.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Star Gifts Sunday

On the first Sunday of the new year, church members choose, at random a paper star inscribed with a word such as "love" or "sharing" or "prayerfulness," in celebration of the gifts that the Magi (also called Wise Men or Kings) brought to the Christ child. There are a total of 128 gifts in all, so even in a large congregation there are only a few repeats. Each person is instructed to take their gift home, put it somewhere they will see it often (computer monitors and refrigerators are popular spots) and meditate upon it whenever they see it. Some people find this to be one of the most meaningful Sundays of the entire church year. I first encountered this worship practice at South Church/First Baptist in New Britain, when I worshiped there in the early 90s. I received the gift of "sharing" and instantly rolled my eyes. Didn't I do enough "sharing?" But even though I wasn't excited by my gift, I placed it on my refrigerator, where it caught my eye every time I went to get some milk for my coffee (which is to say, pretty often.) Over the course of several weeks and months I gradually became aware of how often people shared with me--shared of their wisdom or their bounty (fresh produce!) or thoughtfully included me in their lives. I approached other church members and asked them if their star gifts were meaningful as well, and everyone I talked to said yes. The following year I found a way to distribute the stars to the entire faculty and staff of Central Connecticut State University, where I served as the Ecumenical Protestant minister. I did remove some of the exclusively Christian words to make it more universal, and I explained the story of the Magi, and the gifts got a delighted reception. Over the years I have distributed literally thousands of these stars.
I have long since lost track of the original source of the idea. It came from a Presbyterian publication (if you know, please provide it to me so I can credit the author.)

Currently we create the stars on brightly colored card stock. It has become a family project to cut out the stars. I also make star-themed snacks (usually cut-out cookies.)

The Blessing of the Animals or Pets in Church! What's Not to Love?

Today we held our annual Blessing of the Animals in honor of St. Francis. I started doing this eight years ago with no previous experience--I just googled "St. Francis Day" and "Blessing of the Animals" and turned up lots of resources. Today it's even easier to plan a Blessing of the Animals--many resources are available on

Add some animal-themed refreshments, treats for pets, and you're looking at a fun and memorable event.