I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
– St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi (Phil 1:3-6)
What a year this has been. I am so thankful as I consider the great blessing that God has given to us in our worship and our fellowship, in our learning and growing and ministry together. It’s been close to five years since we began this adventure together.
It was a really hard year. Losing SB this past May was one of the most painful experiences of our congregation’s life together. My heart swelled with gratitude as I witnessed the outpouring of support and care that the congregation gave to B and to one another in those days that followed. I am especially grateful for KW’s compassionate care for the congregation during her pulpit supply the Sunday after. Anyone who watches the video of that service witnesses the depth of community that is here in our midst. Healing takes time – but it always involves leaning on one another and trusting in the one who is always near to the brokenhearted, who heals those crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18). With sadness we also said goodbye to MN in January and JN in December, two beautiful Acworth souls who are sorely missed.
One of the things I most appreciate about our worship is the practice of giving space to both joys and concerns. I have been to services where joys and concerns are invited all at once and so often the concerns drown out the joys. The truth of our life together as a congregation and as individual people is that we are simultaneously joyful and grieving. To not give voice to joy is as damaging to our spirits as it is when we deny all grief. St. Paul’s admonition to the church in Rome is as simple as it is profound: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). To do so is to open ourselves to the fullness of our embodied lives before God and others. This is freedom, to love and be loved, all in the openhearted presence Christ who makes all things new.
It was the day before J’s Memorial Service after a full Sunday of worship, Youth Group, and Holden Evening Prayer, that R and I stood in the parsonage watching the pregnancy test turn positive. The next morning, before we gathered to say goodbye to J, I walked around the Common, the Library, and the Acworth School ground, welling up with tears as I remembered and imagined this place again as it was for me as a child. Life has a way of coming to us in profound “boths.” Both sorrow and joy. Both death and new life. And it is at the heart of our faith to hold these both as truths at the core of our life in Christ. It has been a year of loss, it has been a year of new life.
It has been a joy to welcome new friends into our community and experience the gift of their presence with us. It was wonderful to witness the congregation’s openhearted reception of baby GG’s presence in our Sunday morning gathering. LG remarked to me last fall, “It’s good being at a church that not only doesn’t mind a noisy, busy baby, but rejoices in her being there.” It makes me happy to know that I can expect a similar delight and care for our son this coming year. It’s been a blessing to welcome L, KW, F, and DS and their many and various contributions to our community have been a blessing to our life together.
I had a blast leading the Youth Group with a number of new volunteer helpers. Between our kick-off at the Captain Woodbury Guesthouse, collecting apples, making, and drinking cider, to our last session of the year hiking Gates Mtn. and making pizzas together in the kitchen of the Church on the Hill, we had lots of fun, leaf-raking, caroling, hanging out and playing games, and talking together about important issues of faith and life. We explored issues of the relationships between religions, of the importance of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and its basis in deep spiritual conviction, and the importance of Pentecost for teaching us the global and intercultural scope of God’s love, singing songs together from many languages, and putting on a Pentecost potluck to mark that feast and the birthday of the church.
Last summer, I invited MLH to play her ukulele with me on Sunday mornings and over the course of this past year, the band has grown and grown. We still play one song every Sunday, usually at the end of the service, and we have been joined by JL singing and playing the djembe, KW on guitar and vocals, JG on harmonica and djembe, RE on vocals and fiddle, DS on flute, vocals, and piano, and BD on vocals, various percussion instruments, and a train whistle! It has been a joy to practice every week with a group of spirited musicians and as I write this we’re planning to perform this Friday at the Community Potluck Supper.
One of the requirements of the Master of Divinity degree at Andover-Newton Theological School is a ministry internship. And so beginning in September R served as Assistant Pastor at the North Springfield Baptist Church in Vermont. She enjoyed to opportunity to preach once a month, to visit and provide pastoral care to members in their homes and at nursing homes, assisting Pastor George Keeler in officiating funerals, baptisms, and the communion. She also volunteered once a month at the warming shelter that operates out of their church building and was impressed by the great care that the community and pastor there had for the most vulnerable in their midst. Her presence in leadership and support of the church’s ministry was sorely missed, but it was a joy to receive her back again in May when her internship was completed. R is a woman of deep wisdom and compassion, her care for the work of ministry and her intelligent understanding of both theology and practical church life has been a real gift to the life of our church. It is no exaggeration to say that I could not have done my pastoral work without R. And her work with Christian Education helped to strengthen what we offer for young and old. She has been and will continue to be a real blessing to the communities she serves.
I continue to delight in the opportunities to visit with people from church and community whether at the counter in Village Store, at the Friendly Meals table, at Out to Lunch, in hospital, home, or nursing home. These conversations also help direct me as I consider prayers and sermon for Sunday. It was also a joy to read Brian McLaren’s book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” with the book study group during Lent. We had some very meaningful and engaging conversations about faith and identity and how we might live more authentically in the way of Jesus.
I completed my tenth semester of study at Yale Divinity School (YDS) this past May and my fourth unit of Clinical Pastoral Education this past June. I was granted paternity leave for this coming Fall semester from YDS and look forward to being present in Acworth even though I will be certainly kept quite busy with Fatherhood 101. I am grateful that the church voted to give me four weeks of leave after the baby is born so that I can bond with my son and be supportive to R in those first weeks of recovery and adjustment.
Expecting a newborn transforms your experience of time. It’s not that the future matters more to me, but it matters in a different way, through different eyes. Seeing the Acworth playground as a place where my son might play transformed my experience of walking the dog up around the common. Seeing this church as a place where my son will be nurtured in the faith, transforms my experience of leading worship. My hope for the church, for a community of care in Acworth and the surrounding towns, is a hope now imagined with my son in the picture. The future will never be an abstraction because now for me personally the future has a face, and tiny hands and little kicking legs.
Jesus taught his disciples that we must enter the kingdom as a little child and that it is in the welcoming of children that we welcome him, and the Father who sent him (Matt 18:3, Mk 9:37). When we relate to time as children and through the eyes of children, we can be gentler, more hopeful, and more open to the wonder of the grace of God as we encounter it in the world around us and in one another. We might laugh and delight in the small wonders and not so easily enslave ourselves to the fears and coercions of those who imagine that they can control the world. Moreover when we tune our hearts to the laughter of children we find new energy for mission, to imagine and create and practice life together where gentleness and grace, compassion and mutual care, are the norm – not fear and shame or blame. We can relate to the future with hope as we practice our hope in the present, being peace with one another, welcoming God’s grace into our conversations, our relationships, our cooperative efforts.
None of us regain the innocence of children when we relate to the world, but we can move through our adult fears and anxieties and learn again the openhearted love, the compassionate engagement with a scary world, trusting that we were made for open hearts, this is a truer and more human way. And when we choose openhearted engagement with ourselves and the world, through self-compassion and service, we teach our children a more human way to be in the world than the wall-building, hate-spewing, defensive rhetoric so prevalent in our society right now. So much energy is being mobilized right now under the banner of making America great again. I don’t believe Jesus wants to make anyone or any community great again, I think he wants to encourage us to love again, and again, and again. To welcome children and refugees and strangers and disabled and weak and vulnerable again. To welcome the Spirit’s prompting in our hearts again that we might have heart transplants as God removes hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezek 36:26). Because Jesus’s heart has always beat with the hearts of the most vulnerable of society. And Jesus’s longing was for people to see themselves again as children of their heavenly Father, whose generosity knows no boundaries.
We take stock of the great work of our ancestors in cultivating spiritual community, focusing a sense of purpose in mission, and maintaining our historic buildings, not for the sake of hearkening back to a time when they lived, but in appreciation for their contribution to the present time in which we live, and the resource that they are to our shared life and ministry and our ability to be a blessing to those among whom we live. The past is not master, but servant of the future hope that we walk into with the good news on our lips, the spirit of Christ in our hearts, and the work of reconciliation in our hands. We recognize that our ancestors gave us these investments for the sake of something much bigger than buildings and constitutions and pews and hymnals, for a hope founded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a hope that all people might know the love of God in Christ Jesus, that all people might find healing in forgiveness and peace in the knowledge of God’s everlasting care. We don’t seek to recreate the past, but to receive the past as a gift in the building of a more loving future. We become friends of time as we become able to receive the past, the present, and the future as guests with compassion and hospitality and hope.
This is what I see happening in the Acworth church. As we grow in our community, we grow in our mission and imagination of God’s healing work in our own lives and how we might be a part of that work in the community in which we live. I see a people oriented toward the present time with compassion and dedication and hearts longing to pray and help and bring healing to a hurting world as well as those who hurt in our midst. I see lovers of God’s beautiful earth, planting gardens, caring for flowers, and bringing beauty into our worship space. I hear the sound of joyful singing and bright-eyed laughter. I see a grateful and generous community of faith.
When we keep our eyes on the one who calls us into a future of hope and of healing, we can trust in the present and become a friend of the time that is given to us, seeing ourselves again as children, and preparing a space in our hearts for the childlike spirit of God to make all things new in us.
A big thank you this year to AG who stepped down after years of service as president of the Female Charitable Society. To list her accomplishments in that role and the blessing she has been to her community through her service would require more ink and pages than this pastor is allowed. I think it’s a testament to A’s leadership that the Female Charitable Society numbers around twenty now and span many generations in their membership.
I am grateful for the energy of BD and SE in organizing a team to represent the church at the Turning Points Network Steppin’ Up to End Violence walk in Claremont this past April. As we connect to other regional helping organizations like Turning Points, the Fall Mountain Foodshelf and Friendly Meals, it helps remind us of the mission always at our doorstep. I am grateful for RL who heard through her work with 4-H about an activity called Text, Talk, Act a guided conversation about mental and emotional health. At our Text, Talk, Act conversation at the Hill Church in June, we were blessed by meaningful sharing from the participants, breaking the silence that often surrounds mental health and realizing that all of us suffer in some ways and know those who suffer and can do so much good just by learning to be compassionate with ourselves, listen to others, and not be afraid. It was time of really meaningful connection.
I am grateful BY’s coffee hours, for EG’s and BM’s faithful snow removal down at the Valley Church, for BD’s custodial work and for LG’s work as her successor. I am grateful for the weekly diligence of EL in counting and keeping track of the offerings. I am grateful for plant-waterers, flower pickers, and Bible dedicators. For S’s volunteering to put together the church bulletins and record the service. For S, D, and LB for their diligent efforts in creating a church webpage. For BD for organizing the effort to make a Memorial Garden on the Common and for CI’s card ministry which has been a blessing to so many within and outside our community. For JL and his leadership with the deacon’s ministry and SE and BB’s leadership this year in the trustees. As CP and C go off Deacons this year, I want to express my deep appreciation for their service and care for the church especially for their help during the service on Sunday mornings, reading and praying and preparing the space for worship. As BM and CW go off Trustees this year, I am grateful for their hard work and dedicated service for good stewardship of the church’s resources. For all of you who give so much of your time, talents, and treasures to build up our life together – thank you so much!
I could go on and on with who and what I am grateful for when I consider this past year. I look forward to this coming year and the grace and blessing God will provide. I look forward to growing with you in the depth of our worship and mutual care and to seeking out new ways to become the hands and feet of Christ in Acworth and beyond. I feel the joy of an expectant hope as I consider the good work that Christ is nurturing here in our midst and look forward to continuing with you in the good work of caring for the family of God.
Pastor Joel Eaton