My daughter came home from school last week and told me that she had to write a paper on a bible verse, from some book that began with an ‘E’. She said it had something to do with knowledge and grief. Ach, I am regularly chagrined . . . . “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18. I am looking forward to reading her paper if she’ll share it with me!
Ecclesiastes is a curious book, and a good one to read now given the political and ecclesiastical landscape. Many have labeled it a depressing book and they quote — “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity and then we die.” (My paraphrase). But Qohelet (the author) returns again and again to more optimistic thoughts before concluding: “The end of the matter — everything has been heard. Love God. Keep God’s commandments. . .” Qohelet’s overall concern seems to be about being in the real world without giving up. He suggests that in order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first recognize all that does in fact deceive and get rid of it; in the end, it’s worth it.
On the political/news front, it’s been a trying year, without much apparent wisdom and certainly with great vexation. Nevertheless, I trust that for you, as for me, this church and all of the lovely people associated with it stands in marked contrast to the vexatiousness of the news. Sure, we have our problems, but we have learned how not to let them become insurmountable because we have internalized this most basic lesson of wisdom: it is a gift, and it is not a gift. It is freedom and it is not freedom. We learn, day in and day out, over and over again, the virtues of moderation, and with moderation, understanding, and with understanding, patience, kindness, humility, and gratitude.
Here are a few things which this past year have been beautiful gifts — the fruits of your loving spirit. First, we have hired a new Christian Education Director! We are so grateful that from our own ranks comes such a qualified, interested and interesting person ready to take on the challenge of telling the old story to our children and making it accessible, interesting and meaningful to them. Lori Morse has been involved in the life of the church since early adulthood. She has served on just about every committee or board there is to serve on and has sung in the choir for that time too. She has led youth groups and been with them on mission trips. She stated during our interview process last October, “My teaching career and my life in the church have both been focused on one thing: the strong belief that people have a responsibility to make the world better. . . [I look forward] to helping the youth of our church understand how to do this themselves.” We are so delighted to have you at that helm, Lori!
Another thing for which to be grateful: for a little over two years, once each month, someone volunteers to go down to the Waterbury Laundromat and help folks, who would otherwise forgo laundry perhaps for another month, get it done. This program proposed on Mother’s Day, 2017, has taken a little while to take off. We weren’t allowed to advertise and it takes years sometimes for trust to develop with this community. But now we serve several families each time. I am wondering, as it continues to pick up steam, if we need to increase our hours! It is a little noticed gem and I encourage you to volunteer for a shift some month.
We continue to be good caretakers of this building, which is an architectural treasure of great historical value to this town and state. It is not inexpensive. But thanks to the wisdom of church members many years ago, we’ve invested good money as the result of a “mini-capital campaign” into a fund, called the “Firm Foundation” which allows us to stay on top of maintenance issues before they become huge renovation projects. Last year saw completion of work on six of our distinctive gothic spires which had been rotting because of water damage. This year, as part of the Main Street reconstruction project, we’ll be replacing the falling apart marquee/sign board and planting new, less unsightly rhododendrons. Again, all paid for out of the Firm Foundation Fund.
No list of the good gifts of this past year would be complete without highlighting the magnificent contributions of our artists: Ned Davis, Mary Jane Austin and Erik Kroncke and our choir members who work hard each week to bring us music brimming with love and joy. Ned’s creative vision continues to inspire. Thank you all so much!
In the spirit of Qohelet, let me note a little frustration! You will notice a few slight differences to this report from previous versions. Both have to do with the fact that a few of our boards are not fully staffed with volunteers. The most important of these is the Nominating Committee. You will notice that instead of a report from the Nominating Committee this year, you have a Slate of Board Members and Officers, prepared by me. It is a vital committee to have fully staffed so that they can work, to make sure the other boards and committees are equipped with the people who want to do that work and can with the right people around them.
You’ll also notice that there is no Business Administration Committee report. It was a committee of one. Gary Winnie and I did stay in touch about building needs. On one occasion, Gary Winne and I tried (not too successfully!) to power-wash the front of the church. Gary has provided help with organizing spring and fall cleanup, and with helping out with a little oversight during the spire reconstruction — along with Russ Snow who was really the clerk of the works. (All of that construction happened while I was on vacation. Thank you Russ and Gary.)
A new project that I am hoping to see take shape early this year is a volunteer liturgical reader rotation. A few people have expressed interest in being a reader during worship. This reading could be anything from the gathering poem, scripture reading, litany or even a children’s story. If you are interested in being a liturgical reader, please let me know, and I’ll add your name to the list. I have no doubt it will be good for you and me to hear other voices besides mine give fresh expression to our texts.
Speaking of other voices, let me conclude by thanking you for your wisdom. I continue to learn and grow in this community of religious seekers. Many years ago, one of you wisely counseled me to stop fretting about the numbers of people in the pew from week to week. “Do what you know how to do, and let us be who we are, and you’ll be happier.” Yes, we struggle to make ends meet. Yes it is frustrating that we have such good things to offer and they are not being more widely experienced. But I can tell you two things: 1) we are fortunate that the struggle continues to be manageable because of your continuing generosity on the income side and careful diligence on the expense side. Many progressive churches are finding the going more difficult and not a few are closing their doors. 2) I am happier. I delight in who you are and am honored to be your pastor.
“Two are better than one, because they have good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9) As I write this, the first day of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump is underway. It’s not fun news to read about in the papers, listen to on the radio or watch on TV. As legal scholar Cass Sunstein, puts it, impeachment is “a national nightmare, a body blow to the republic, even if it is also the best or only way to keep it.” We are a republic — and despite the many differences we have, we will not let our differences make us fail. We’ve invoked the impeachment mechanism only rarely for precisely this reason. So, yes, even here in this sacred space, it becomes our responsibility to be vexed a little and find in each other hope for the future. It is worth it.
Respectfully submitted, Rev. Peter Plagge