Gratitude, especially in difficult times

You may think I’m crazy, but I’ve decided to start a gratitude journal as part of my effort to mitigate my COVID-19-induced anxiety.

What, a gratitude journal, in times like this? What a thing of privilege, in a time when folks are getting laid off left and right and small businesses are shutting down and we don’t have enough tests to even see how much of a problem this thing is nor enough hospital equipment to protect the nurses and doctors caring for people…

But yes, a gratitude journal. I’m late to the bandwagon that has been gratitude journals. Every once in a while I remember to be grateful, but not consistently enough to make a difference in my “root cellar” store of gratitude. There is a reason we call such things “spiritual practices,” for we need to practice them regularly, like our piano scales or our multiplication tables or our squats or our meditation before they become part of us, and then if we stop we have to get back in the habit today.

I get a newsletter on wellness from the New York Times in my email inbox from time to time, and yesterday it too talked about gratitude as a spiritual practice for our current times. As the author, Tara Parker-Pope, writes,

“Every time I wash my hands, I focus on my feelings of gratitude. I start with the doctors, nurses, ambulance and hospital workers on the front lines of the pandemic. I think about the countless numbers of hourly workers who are restocking grocery store shelves, working at pharmacies and staffing checkout counters. These people are coming face-to-face with hundreds of people each day, putting themselves at risk so the rest of us have food and necessities. I think about sanitation workers collecting our trash. I think about the young man who provides maintenance and cleaning to my building, while grandparents care for his 9-year-old and 1-year-old children…A gratitude practice does not sound like much, but we know from research that a daily gratitude practice is good for us, helping us reduce stress, get better sleep and stay healthier. Thinking about the sacrifice of these people gives me a boost (and I also share my thanks in person when I check out at the grocery store).”

I’d add that being grateful also leads me to write to my congressional representatives to push for paid sick leave for all, for relief for those put out of work, for the closing of immigration detention centers,…

I will be going old school and doing a hand-written gratitude journal starting today, but I will share my first entry here: I am grateful that I am part of a faith community that is truly a community, caring for others and not just for themselves in this health crisis, and even amid this health scare still reaching out to the wider world seeking to love all our neighbors. Case in point: one of our members called me yesterday and wondered whether I had heard if a man from our church was going to be ok because he lived alone and relies on restaurant meals for his food and much of his social interaction, and most restaurants have closed to all but take out due to public health directives. The man on the phone knew about the other man and his habits because they had chatted often before Sunday services and then again afterward during Coffee Hour. That is one of the ways that a church can be a community – we are not alike, we may even come from different political viewpoints, but we get to know one another and care for one another.

That is what hurts so much with not being able to safely gather in person in community: we are missing those connections, and we are missing opportunities to help one another and to help others in our area and the world. (We are working on facilitating such connections remotely, so stay tuned for more info.) But I am grateful that I am part of a community where the hyper-individualism of our day is not the overriding ethos, where people care for one another, and we can offer peace and love to all.

And I know, a gratitude journal will not protect me and my loved ones from the coronavirus, and it won’t make masks and respirators magically appear in hospitals where needed, and it won’t get us back to where we were one month ago, but it will help me to remember and pray for that owner of my favorite local coffee shop, struggling to stay afloat, and the nurse working extra shifts , and first responders,…, and it will remind me that it is not all about me, and maybe that wisdom will help carry us through to a brighter day, a more loving world, and more unite world. Maybe. I live in hope.

March 17: Be Still My Soul

I’ve noticed already that some people are struggling with the isolation of enforced physical distancing, and wondering about what the world, and their world in particular, will be like after this outbreak is behind us.  There is worry about what life will look like, will their favorite/needed activities still be here, and I don’t blame them for worrying about this, for our regular swim sessions, our favorite yoga instructor, the neighborhood restaurant that is like a second home and they know us by name…all these are important to us as ways in which we define ourselves and socialize in the world.

Yesterday, when I heard for the first time a newscaster predicting that everyday life would be changed by this outbreak, my first thought was — hey, it is way too early for such fear-based predictions (and also, what an issue of white privilege this could be considered, but that is a topic for another day).  But I also appreciate that uncertainty can lead us to such thoughts.  The uncertainties we face today — how long will we have to cancel worship services, or stay 6 feet apart from one another, or fear just going to the grocery store, and for most of us the greatest uncertainty (not getting the virus, but passing it on to someone more vulnerable than us)  — these uncertainties may be one of the most difficult aspects of this outbreak.  And so we go to a dark place — things will never be the same — it is natural. It is wise to focus on what we have control over — what we say and do today — but it is natural that we get distracted by what we have little control over right now — what the world will look like on the other side.  Perhaps this is a good time to remember “the Serenity Prayer,” a spiritual blessing for everyone, not just twelve step groups:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I offer something else today as an aid, of sorts, to help us to center ourselves in the spirit of what is there for us today — God’s love, and God’s presence, no matter how physically isolated we may feel today, and no matter what may come in all our tomorrows.  Below are the words of the hymn “Be Still, My Soul” for us to meditate on today, and a link to an instrumental version .  I hope it blesses you and provide you solace and calmness today.

Peace and blessings, Pastor Leslie

Be Still, My Soul (verses 1&2; words by Katharina von Schlegel, translation by Jane Laurie Borthwick, from The New Century Hymnal; music by Jean Sibelius)

Be still, my soul: for God is on your side; bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in every change God faithful will remain. Be still, my soul: your best eternal friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: for God will undertake to guide in future days as in the past. Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be clear at last. Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know how Jesus’ power ruled them long ago.

March 15, 2020: Church in the time of coronavirus, part 1

We met for worship service in person this morning, although it was a much smaller crowd than usual.  A link to my sermon and prayers of the people are attached.  In my message I remarked how Jesus was one to bring wholeness to people through connecting with them, but that it was the spiritual connection that was most important.  In these times connection is even more important, as people face challenges and anxieties we only imagined a few weeks ago, but just because we are not meeting as much physically, doesn’t mean we cannot connect together spiritually.  Write a letter, make a phone call, send a card — connecting with others helps them, and it helps us.


One of the hymns we sang was “We Yearn, O Christ, for Wholeness” (tune by Hans Leo Hassler, words by Dosia Carlson, from The New Century Hymnal; I thought I’d share some of the words, which you may find as blessing as those who sang them this morning.

“We yearn, O Christ, for wholeness and for your healing touch; too long have we felt helpless; our burdens seemed too much. Forgetting all pretenses we make our pleadings heard, in hope and expectation await your gracious word.

We long to have companions who travel by our side, strong friends to call and answer with whom we are allied; as we lift up each other when struggles lay us low, community develops; our faith and caring grow.

We need your living presence, O Christ of Galilee, a presence that revives us and sets our spirits free. No longer are we fearful, your love pervades each place. Empower us with courage to claim your healing grace.”


Pastor Leslie

Immigration Resources

At the UCC’s national gathering (aka General Synod) in Milwaukee this weekend, I will be participating in a panel discussion/workshop (Saturday at 1:30 pm) on how congregations can be immigrant-welcoming and/or sanctuary churches.  I will have some hardcopies of the handouts posted below.  Both have some aspects that are specific to south-central Wisconsin, but we hope they are useful as you seek to respond to the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and to love your neighbor — all your neighbors.

how get involved handout immigration

Resource sheet April 2019

Whose Voice? Sermon for 3/10/19

Whose voice do we listen to?  Whose voice tells us who we are, or who we should be?  In our gospel reading today from Luke, we hear about Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by “the devil,” just as we are plagued by devilish voices who try to convince us we are other than God’s beloved (all of us!).  See today’s sermon for more, including some Lenten practices to lighten your load.

sermon 03 10 2019


Reflection on the Border Trip

Below is a reflection on our recent border mission trip by one of the participants, Katarina Klafka.

Mariposa Welcome_Crop2On the last night of the mission trip, all eight of us gathered together to share images and scenes that had spoken to us. There was a lot to process. We had heard several accounts of what crossing the border—and life across the border—are like; we had crossed the border for ourselves. From priests, lawyers, Samaritans, and hosts, we had heard stories of desperation, of love, of shattering horror. A woman had fled alone after her husband and child were brutally killed before her eyes. A man, skin blackened with dehydration, close to death, had asked for a Coke. Families had been separated; seven women, arriving from a caravan, had tested positive for pregnancy; Mexican migrants had taught a fellow Honduran traveler their national anthem in the hopes that, if caught by ICE, he would be deported to Nogales, Sonora instead of to Honduras, so that he might try again to seek a better life.
All of this—all of what we saw, what we heard—was incredibly powerful. Yet what has stayed with me the most was—is—the laughter. Gleeful shouts from children out on a sunny, bare playground, contained by an imposing fence, not fifty feet from the Wall; giggles, at once buoyant and poignant, of other children, who awaited asylum in a tiny, dark room; belly laughs from classmates in our workshops, sharing artistic faux pas; the awkward yet unifying chuckles at the border checkpoint, when a stray dog—tail wagging—made his way inside the building twice, his joyful determination at once ridiculing and calling into painful relief the industrial concrete, the dour faces behind the desks, and the omnipresence of the Wall itself.
The Wall is shameful. Of that, I have no doubt. Fear hammered its panels and ignorance rivets it. Miles of razor wire have come to crown it with a sharp sneer at those who behold it. Its whole is a towering, ugly, monumental rejection—and a testament to the fear, ignorance, misinformation, and racist beliefs that characterize and color American life for millions of its citizens and residents alike.
On that last night in Arizona, one of the workshop teachers performed “The New Colossus” to music. The song was haunting, and Emma Lazarus’s words of welcome, refuge, and community felt intensely relevant—all the more so because the Wall’s existence, its policing, its physicality, its everything, mock both Lazarus’s verses and the Statue of Liberty with which they have been inextricably linked. “The New Colossus” illuminated the way for those “yearning to breathe free”: the Wall stands as a denunciation of the very people most in need of that poetic light.
As we come back and share our stories with you, we are also inviting you to join the continuation of this mission trip by loving greatly, serving compassionately, and helping those most in need. You might donate to groups who help migrants directly at the border, like Cruzando Fronteras or the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans; you might call your legislators to talk about the wall and immigration on local, state, and national scales; you might try to overcome the fear of embarrassment and speak up when you see harassment; you might strive to be more informed, open, and aware in your day to day life.
We all learned to laugh before we could speak; we all love; and I truly believe that, in those two languages—those of joy and of the heart—we are, and always will be, able to connect to, help, and unite with one another.