2020 Annual Report

Pastor’s Annual Report to the Congregation
Windsor United Church of Christ, 2020

When I first saw this lovely building and talked with the Search Committee about what God might have in store for us, I was convinced that 2020 was going to be a very good year indeed.   

We made plans for the weekend of March 22nd–time for our families to meet, time to sit together and to share a meal, time for questions and answers, time to get to know one another–but then the pandemic disrupted our plans and not for the last time. 

We rescheduled for the weekend after Easter, April 19th, planning to meet outdoors so at least we could be together in the same place at the same time. Alas, COVID-19 disrupted these plans as well. Undeterred, the Search Committee arranged for us to meet online and the congregation worked together to conduct a vote on-line.  

It’s startling how faith works, isn’t it?  How God’s timing defies our plans and how the Holy Spirit calls us into unexpected and uncharted territory. It was an amazing thing for God to call us together in 2020. We are all wondering what God has in store for us in 2021.  

We hope and pray the vaccine will reach us so we can safely congregate again (and for the first time :-).  When this time finally comes, it will be time to celebrate. There will be babies to baptize, loved ones to mourn, a Sunday School to reopen, new people to welcome, and new opportunities to serve God by taking care of our neighbors. 

I continue to be amazed by the strength and resilience of the congregation.  These hard times have not shaken our belief that our congregation is a light in dark times, nor diminished our commitment to minister in Christ’s name. 

I would like to especially thank Roger Stoltenberg, Chair of  the Search Committee, and Terry Anderson, our Moderator, for their tireless and faithful work; Aaron Lissowe for his technological skills and generous support of the worship life of the congregation; and our staff, Barb Varner for her brightness and know-how, and David Schipper for his nurture of the music ministries of the congregation.  Thank you also to the members of the Search Committee and their families for the extraordinary effort that went into bringing us together during these unprecedented times: KJ Busse, Denny Dobson, McKenna Kelsey, Karen Meylor-Miller, Jon Rouse, Matt Sutherland, and Kit Thomsen.  

Yours in Christ,
Pr. Craig Jan-McMahon

Can We Tell the Truth about Call?

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
1/17/2021, Windsor UCC
Year B, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany
National Guard in Capitol; Threats of Violence in State Capitols; Inauguration in three days
1 Samuel 3:1-20 The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
John 1:43-51 He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
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Here we are again.

We are here recording on Thursday, not knowing how the world will change and change again before our words and music and prayers reach you on Sunday morning.

And yet we hear in our readings timeless words and stories, the lovely and rich call story of the last great prophet-leader of Israel, Samuel; the beautiful, poetic psalm of the inescapable love of God, the call of Philip and Nathanael, who are eager and primed and ready to answer the call to follow Christ.

Nothing I can say can speak more truth than the truth we find in these lovely stories, and yet these stories help us open ourselves to how God is calling us in these tumultuous times.  

We must protect ourselves from the delusion that serving God and answering the call of God on our lives solves all of our problems and allows us to stand apart and above the complex and endless troubles the human family ceaselessly makes, and so for a few brief moments, let us open our hearts and minds to the Spirit as we seek to answer the call of God on our lives in this time and place.

Let us Pray: May the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of our hearts this day, 
Be pleasing to you,
O Lord our God:Our Rock and Our Redeemer. 

In 2005, my last year in Seminary, I served at Samuel UCC in Clayton, MO.

It began at an Evangelical church, populated by German immigrants who came to America and built churches and orphanages and hospitals, and seminaries.  

Above the balcony, facing east so as to capture the light as sunrise, was a stained glass window of the call of Samuel.

The German Evangelicals who built the church and chose this story to inspire the congregation and to tell the world who they were as a people chose these words from the text we read this morning, for these words are the heart of this story:

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

This is, after all, the part of the story we most fondly recall, the part of the story where we say yes, the beginning of the journey, that moment of certainty and clarity when we see the truth and hear God’s call, a time or an event we look back on, turning points in our lives when we were forever changed.  

We often forget the struggle and difficulty that opens our hearts to the call of God on our lives and disremember how easy we thought our lives would be after that stunning brilliant moment.

“Here I am Lord. Speak for your Servant is Listening” are words we say when we encounter the end and limit of ourselves and experience the truth and the light of God, and what lies ahead of us when we open ourselves to the call of God on our lives?

Everything falls into place?

Everything just kind of works out without much work, without any conflict or difficulties?  

Pardon me, but where do we find such an easy road in scripture?

Certainly not in the story of the disciples when they answer Christ’s call to serve?

Nor the prophets who are harassed and dismissed and persecuted, whose prophetic vision is celebrated after they are dead and gone.  

And not in the story Samuel, his peaceful sleep disrupted by a voice he does not know how even to answer.  

Again and again he goes to the God he knows, Old Eli, and finally Eli understands this young and tender soul is himself hearing the voice of God calling him for the first time, the time has come for Samuel to answer for himself.

Let’s not pass over this moment too quickly, this transformation, for Eli tells Samuel to wait alone in the dark rather than running to him for guidance–the lamp of God had not yet gone out on Eli’s watch, we are told, as we see when Eli moves Samuel from depending on him to answering for himself to God who calls him in the night.  

And here we find the great danger and challenge of the call of God on our lives we prefer to forget, for the message given to Samuel is judgment against Eli and his house, an irrevocable judgment because he has allowed his sons to abuse their office and has failed to restrain them.  

Samuel hears God speak for the first time, and lays in bed through the night worrying about what to do next, afraid to tell Eli his vision, hoping he can just put it behind him and forget it, that Eli won’t remember to ask about it….

He rises in the morning to do his morning chores, opening the doors of the house of God, perhaps praying there will be a throng of worshippers to sweep in and distract Eli from talking with him.

We don’t often talk about the fear and regret that goes along with the call of God on our lives, when we see what sacrifices will be demanded of us, how our relationships will change, when we may well wonder, like Samuel, whether Eli will throw him out of the temple and disown him to protect himself and his sons.

How many times has someone we loved been trapped in addiction or abusive relationships or destructive patterns of behavior and are afraid like Samuel is for what happens next? For surely the devastation of addiction on lives is a form of God’s call for change. Surely the physical and emotional havoc of abuse is a form of God’s call for change. Surely the despair of being trapped in endless patterns of destructive behavior is a form of God’s call for change. Yet what comes next is always a step of faith into the unknown, and what comes next will surely be a feeling of fear and regret.

Friends, we have such a clear record in scripture.

Can we agree to tell the truth?

The Call of God is never easy on us, and it always demands just a bit more than we ourselves have resources to meet, 

It moves us toward rather than away from challenges.

But the truth is also that in these challenges God meets us and provides for us and makes a way for us. We later look back and tell the story of how God disrupted us from spiritual sleep and gave us a vision that challenged us to live by faith in God.

Like Old Eli, my message for all of you Samuels is to struggle with your own sense of call rather than depend on me, for God does not just call pastors but God calls people, and we together are called to discern how God calls us in these challenging times.

Human suffering and political foment are a form of God’s call: challenges rousting us out of our comfortable sleep and demanding so much of us we are afraid to take the first step.  

For this reason, we pray for courage. For this reason, we remember Samuel’s courage in telling the truth to Eli. For if we answer the call of God our lives, we become courageous enough to welcome challenges, and in these challenges God makes a way for us.

And so dear friends, for these challenging times we are facing together,

May God bless you and your family and your friends and neighbors,

And may God Bless Windsor UCC

Windsor Word, January 2020

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 
moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil –Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

This week I learned from Facebook that two of our members have received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.  As health care workers both are in the 1a category, first in line to be vaccinated.  

This is glad news.  We are all grateful for our healthcare workers, and we understand that we wear masks, practice social distancing, and wash hands not only to keep ourselves, families, and friends safe, but to protect healthcare workers and the capacity of our hospitals. 

This glad news also suggests that this time of isolation will end in 2021.  Most people I talk with hope the vaccine will reach us by middle to late spring, in time for children to return to school in fall.  

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, says Ecclesiastes.  We are learning through this season of pandemic how very hard it is to trust ourselves to God’s time–we desperately want to this season to end, our desperation making us vulnerable to the illusion that we are in control of time, or that we need not live in time with others, or share with them our mutual, human vulnerability to time.  

And yet we are also likely to miss the resolution of the problem of time; God wants us to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live and take pleasure in food and wine and companionship, for our lives are not merely about toil and sacrifice and waiting for a better time.  

Surely, 2021 will be a better year; we all pray that it will be.  But no matter how time is shaped by vaccine distribution, one thing I know for sure: when this time comes at last, we will experience what God intends for us; it will be time to celebrate, and we will experience pleasure unlike any other time in our lives.  

God bless you in 2021 and keep you safe until we can at last be together again for the first time :-).
Pr. Craig

Ready for Riding Help

Dear Windsor-UCC-Person-Whose-Name-I-Forgot,

You called and we talked soon after I came to the church in July.  

You are a retired teacher, a lover of books and words.  We talked about teaching and writing and you said you were keeping safe during this pandemic. We wondered when we would have the chance to meet, and agreed we just didn’t know. Meantime, you said that if there was anything you could do, any help I needed, to just let you know.  

I promised I would get back in touch with you because I would surely need your help, once I got settled into a routine and got organized a bit.  I explained that I write a lot,  often on short deadlines, and their are tines eye kneed riding help because I tend not to have time to edit out embarrassing mistakes :-).

You said you would be glad to help. When our conversation ended I was relieved to have found a person I could call on at the last minute to help with this work.

But then forgot your name. 

I know; I know:  I should have written it down!  Maybe I did write it down? 

Anyway, I am sorry to confess that though I remember you, I can’t recall your name.

If you would kindly call again, or send me an email, I promise I will remember your name this time, because I am ready for some riding help.

Yours in Christ,
Pr. Craig

A Beautiful Thing

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Windsor UCC: 9/19/2020
Funeral Homily; Erin Mackay Harvey Blasinski
Isaiah 40:27-31; Psalm 121; Mark 14:3-9
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A woman appears, as if out of nowhere.  

Though we remember her and tell her story, she remains nameless, which is fitting in its own way, for the story we tell to remember her fits the lives of others who add beauty to our lives, who are known for doing the best they can, and who like her upset those who think she should pipe down and stay in her place.  

The story, Jesus says, will be told in memory of her for as long as the good news is preached.

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts this day, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our God, our Rock, our Redeemer, our Comforter.  Amen.

Before the advent of screw-on caps for jars and bottles, costly perfumes and ointments were put in sealed glass containers, the glass container could be safely broken open but could not be resealed and the aroma could not be contained. 

And to those there that day, it smelled like death and memory, for perfume such as the nameless woman breaks open was used to anoint bodies laying in family tombs, the perfume strong enough to overpower the smell of death, allowing families to visit their beloved as long as the perfume allowed.

The aroma of the perfume emanating the room causes many to remember their own beloved, their own grief; some respond with anger and scold her, they say, for squandering money, and in this way they cover their own grief with self-righteous judgment of her; in this way, they seek to hide their own vulnerability by exposing hers.

‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ 

The smell of the perfume working into their clothes, their hair, their memory, impossible to escape, too strong to avoid, unasked for, uninvited.  

But Jesus praises her.

She has done a beautiful thing to me. …  She has done what she could.

She has done a beautiful thing to me, he says,   She has done what she could, he says

The stories we heard today and the stories we tell in the days ahead, are of stories beautiful things, the ways Erin was extravagant with herself and those she loved, totally engaged in everything she did, appearing as if from out of nowhere, not waiting for later, not holding back, but breaking open what she had to give and looking in her own way to anoint us, to add beauty to our lives.

Jesus praises the woman who breaks open her bottle of perfume to helps us see the extravagant gift of good souls such as Erin, who ceasely do all they can, and refuse to slow down and wait for the a better time later, who erupt onto the scene and disturb polite people who are too upset or too embarrassed or too disturbed by her extravagance to see her beauty as God sees it, as we whose eyes are open by love are able ourselves to see it.  

Erin was an extravagant soul who loved beautiful things, a cat purring, voices united in song, dew on a spider’s web, the foggy mist over wetlands in fall as the weather cools, the silence of a night blanketed by snow, 

And then there were all those ways she did little thoughtful, unexpected things, personal loving things, that those who she loved remember now, and which cling to memory the way perfume clings to clothes, a blessing, an anointing. 

We have also to look at those who scold the woman for her extravagance, who see her beauty as wasted, who are perhaps embarrassed because she upsets their sense of order or what is right, but we might see these people with a degree of compassion, because, after all, the woman reminds them of their own griefs, their own losses, and rather than see her beauty and extravagance as a gift, they feel exposed by it, made vulnerable by it, and so they close their hearts and minds to the good news Jesus preaches and we celebrate when we open our hearts to beautiful souls such as Erin Mackay Harvey Blasinski.

Jesus says: 

She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’

I am sorry our numbers have to be so limited today, because I have been hearing stories of Erin from the members of the church, and I know they are all praying for you gathered here today, Erin’s closest family and friends.  

I am quite sure our choir would have loved to sing for you, and our people would have loved to prepare a meal for you all so we could sit together and share stories of Erin’s beautiful way of doing the best she could.

And I know for sure we are aching to hug and hold one another here today, and that the congregation grieves with you, and longs to be able to express its love for you and Erin. 

There is in the grief of this day, a sense of regret, of what could have been, of what is being missed.

But there is beauty here today, in this moment in time, on this brisk day outside at Erin’s family home, accompanied by the sound of cars at the new stop sign, but also by the sounds of birds and surrounded by the landscape that formed her and shaped her lovely soul.

Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’

This is that wherever, and this is part of God’s world, and we tell stories in memory of Erin, and the body of people who loved her and were loved by her, the church body who cannot join with us physically today, this body of people who loved her and raised her up when she was a little girl and celebrated her and took care of her, this body is anointed beforehand and prepared for this day; 

Like a perfume it pervades, it clings to us, it reminds us ….

It reminds us of the power of love, too strong to avoid, inescapable, unbidden and uninvited, and yet pervading and enduring; we are all vulnerable to it, we all connected by it. 

This is what we remember, and this is how the gospel is preached, as we remember her, as we open our hearts to the power and beauty of love, as we accept that Erin did what she could do, and so did we.

This is the good news friends, and this is the gospel. 

God saw only beauty in Erin’s life, and God welcomes her into eternal beauty with the glorious company of Saints in Light, for she did all that she could do, and so did we.

And as you, Erin’s closest family and friends do what you can do in the coming days, the beauty of God will surround you, will fill you, will help you to remember, and in remembering, honor the gift and blessing of Erin’s extravagant life, and in time beauty will heal your souls, for God dwells in beauty, God’s beauty pervades, and God’s beauty never ends.  

God Bless you Friends. Amen.