Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What if?

What if?

As a pastor, death has been no stranger to me, but two experiences stand out. I watched one friend break out in a radiant smile, lift her arms as if to reach for someone and died, leaving the room filled with the most incredible "presence." Another friend's husband pointed to the ceiling. "Look. There she goes!"

I suspect we fear death because we rarely have the chance to share that final experience with the ones we love since many die in the hospital away from us rather than at home. Because we fear the unknown, we seek to prolong life regardless of the human, emotional or financial costs. In the old days the family cared for the sick, held them as they died, "laid out the body," made the casket, dug the grave. This gave the families tangible ways to say "good bye."

Thanks to Hospice, I got to share in both of my sisters' deaths. Both times, (one local and the other in Indiana), I found Hospice to be incredibly kind, supportive, helpful, and grounded. They helped us realize the difference between medical treatment which is designed to prolong life, and hospice care that is designed to keep the terminal person pain free and comfortable. Both of my sisters came home with less than 2 weeks to live. Both lived several months, with good quality, in large part due to the ways Hospice managed their pain and care. Hospice provided all of the equipment and medication. They were on call 24/7. They helped us recognize the stages of grief and impending death so we could let go and allow my sisters to die gracefully and peacefully.

In Final Gifts, a book written by Hospice nurses, the authors spoke of a conscious state that dying people often experience, an alternate reality. My one sister described it as "being in a story that's being acted out in another place" or "being caught between two worlds without knowing where I belong." At times she'd ask, "Is someone here? Who just came into the room?" I'd see no one. Once she said, "there are three people sitting at the foot of my bed." Another time, "someone standing by my left shoulder." One afternoon when she was very weak she told us, "I was going down this long hallway, but when I got to the end there wasn't a knob on the door so I came back." Hospice helped us understand that these were not hallucinations but experiences that were very real to her.

For those who can't care for their loved ones at home, hospice provides similar services in nursing homes and hospitals. As with most experiences in life, the one who helps gets as much or more out of the experience as the one who is helped.

In spite of being a pastor, I have my doubts about an afterlife. The world is very much with me. I used to watch "Touched by an Angel" and snicker, thinking it pretty far fetched that angels took the dying "home." Having shared my sisters' experiences, I now find myself wondering. What if that actually is true? What if we do entertain angels unawares?


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

All I want for Christmas

All I want for Christmas is a grateful heart. Not something that occasionally spills out in spontaneous feelings, a thank you note or an act of generosity, but a day in, day out ethic of gratitude. An ethic that leads me to intentionally seek the best in every situation or person, an ethic that allows room for “the other,” an ethic where the God of my understanding is not something or someone out there waiting to trip you or me up, but that divine source that creates everything and everyone for good, that source which loves everything and everyone, unifies everything and everyone, whose creative impulse is not to divide choosing some and rejecting others, but whose ultimate design is to bring us together as a unified whole.

All I want for Christmas is a grateful heart, each beat reminding me that our lives are not our own and that life is a precious gift, that the driving goal of life is being gratefully aware of all that is given to us lies outside of our ability to create or control, or even deserve. Gratitude feeds gratitude thus creating this wonderful spiral of abundance and joy.

An ethic of gratitude increases my awareness of all that lies outside my control allowing me to exist and be: the trees that give me the oxygen I breath, the streams and rivers providing the water I drink, the plants and animals that feed me. An ethic of gratitude allows me to care about all those hidden people whose work allows me to be relatively safe, secure, and comfortable, who create the clothes I wear, the cars I drive, the food I eat, the energy I consume, the protections I enjoy. All those who both past and present, living and non-living, remembered or forgotten have gone before. For me, Advent and Christmas is not about shopping or parties or baking or decorations, it's about being intentionally grateful, of using less so that others might have more. The shortened days and longer nights remind me that each of us is born with the same promise and potential as the Christ child who did not come to validate shopping sprees or greed but to bring peace on earth, good will to men. We are each born to love and be loved, to give and forgive, to live lives of quiet, profound grateful integrity.

It's easy to lose sight of the many gifts each day brings, especially when things don't go the way we've planned. But when one intentionally seeks the good in life, each day brings multiple reminders of what is transcendent and positive allowing us to see the reality of a wider world and our connection to everything, so that we become aware that not only is something better possible, but we are each called to help make it so. Fortunately we don't have to understand this mystery we call God, life, hope, gratitude. We need only embrace it. So this Advent season, liturgically a time of waiting for the hope to come, I already have everything I need; I have a heart opening to gratitude.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. You can read her blogs by going to 606 thanksliving.blogspot.com


Over the years I've learned to be grateful in and for all things, even though it sometimes takes me years to get to that point. For instance, out of the wreckage of my father's tragic death in an automobile accident came a closer relationship with my mother. A daughter's refusal to participate in traditional holidays at first caused a lot of family tension. Then out of support for her we were tempted to throw away all of the trimmings and trappings but instead, like the Grinch, we puzzled and puzzled until our puzzlers got sore, discovering that Christmas “doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

It's no wonder people get depressed at Christmas. We have such unrealistic expectations of the holidays. But remember, expectations are resentments and heart break just waiting to happen! All the holiday hype promises us that we can magically heal our broken families and hearts with frenetic activity, over eating, drinking too much, elaborate decorations, and gift giving which few of us can afford! Like the Grinch we've discovered that the secret to a happier Christmas is keeping things in perspective which (like the Grinch) allows our small hearts to grow three sizes bigger. Because, and this is a big because, when our hearts don't feel quite so tight we are freed to be grateful for what we already have. And being grateful, we can let go of old resentments, fears, family competitions. We can forgive past or present disappointments, slights, and hurts and approach each day as God's open future.

There is so much beauty and wisdom encapsulated in our Christmas traditions that we'd do well to spread that good stuff throughout the entire year rather than trying to cram everything into several compulsory weeks. After all, the essence of Christmas is not about the obligatory giving of things we don't need or want, the essence of Christmas is about making the world a better place for everyone. Literally everyone; friend and enemy, legal or illegal. And not just with stuff. Christmas is about gratitude, sharing, peace making, civility, kindness, acceptance, empathy, justice. “Peace on earth, good will to all.”

Happily, no longer caught up in Christmas expectations and shopping, my better half and I now give gifts to those we love and and the causes we care about throughout the year...when we discover a need or when impulse strikes us. Consequently, along with enjoying the holiday music, putting up a few decorations, doing a little baking, sending cards and letters (because I love to receive them), I have been counting down the 25 days of Advent with a new gratitude journal. In it I am acknowledging the blessings I receive each day, reflecting on who and what nourishes me, the people or experiences bringing me joy, the people or experiences teaching me needed life lessons, and especially noting the random acts of kindness I witness others doing. In the process I am discovering that gratitude is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. You can read her blog on thanksliving.blogspot.com.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Justice a Commodity?

Justice a Commodity!

Listening to SMART TALK on WITF, I was startled to hear the dean of the Penn State/Dickinson Law School describe justice as a commodity! Justice a commodity? Unfortunately, statistics confirm that description. In 1970, roughly 1 out of every 1000 went to prison in the US. Today we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world; approximately 1 out of every 107 US citizens! More than 65 million US citizens have criminal records. Add to that the 11 million hard working undocumented people living within our borders having no legal protections and we have a big problem!

Even for-profit prisons are beginning to recognize that our excessively high rates of incarceration and recidivism are bankrupting our nation, morally and financially. One unintended consequence of closing our mental hospitals is that many homeless and mentally ill end up in prison since they cannot get affordable treatment in their communities. Many inmates are learning disabled and/or alcoholics/addicts. Nor is it any wonder drug addiction is an epidemic when not only our media but our health care system holds up drugs as the seeming solution to our problems. And then there are our wounded warriors who end up incarcerated because of behaviors related to their post traumatic stress or brain injuries. Is this the kind of justice system and society we want?

Something is very wrong when huge corporations can buy elections making our elected officials more interested in job security than our nation's welfare. When Wall Street earns billions by cheating the public, caused the current economic downturn, and then have the audacity to whine about people wanting a living wage? When someone black or poor is incarcerated for possessing a ½ oz of marijuana but a Congressman gets a slap on the wrist for using cocaine?

Can we afford a justice system that sells justice as a commodity? Can we afford a justice system that sends the incarcerated to a hell in which they have no legal protections or rights? Can we afford a justice system that condemns anyone unfortunate enough to be incarcerated to a future in which 3 out of every 4 will be trapped in the revolving doors of recidivism because they will be released with untreated illnesses and addictions, crippling fines, little or no health care and because Congress passed a bevy of laws prohibiting ex-offenders from finding housing, receiving benefits, voting or getting good jobs! 

Recently the Rand Corp did a study concluding that every 100 inmates getting their GED or high school diploma while incarcerated saves the state as much as $1 million every 3 years. $1 million for just $140,000! If treating and educating those we are incarcerating would save that much tax payer money, why aren't we doing this?

Do we really want to live in a country where justice is a commodity on sale to the highest bidder, where the poor, uneducated, mentally ill, and addicted are sentenced to a life in prison because prisons have become a big business? Surely we can do better than that!

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church and co-convenor of the Adams County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society which meets the 3rd Wed of the month, 8 am at Dunlap's restaurant, Gettysburg.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Life Lessons

Not long ago I read The Fault in Our Stars, and like Gus, I grew up wanting to leave my mark on the world. To be somebody. In some ways, I've succeeded enough to discover fame is a fickle companion and fortune a deceptive lover. We ignore Polonius's advice to Hamlet at our own peril, “to thine own self be true for thou can'st not then be false to any man” When greed and power gained by any means becomes our god we not only destroy ourselves, we endanger the every existence of the world. True success demands that we do no harm to ourselves, others, our environment.

Our country is drowning in unhappiness. Unwilling to feel our pain we hide behind our various addictions. Street drugs, shopping, prescriptions, alcohol, gambling, depression, junk food, work, smart phones, techno toys...anything to deaden the pain. It's been said there are really only two kinds of pain, the pain that comes from refusing to deal with something and make the needed changes or the pain that comes with the agony of confrontation and change. The difference is the first never goes away but the second eventually transforms itself into something new, joyous and freeing.

Change and challenge are an inevitable part of life. Like oldsters of all generations I asnticipate the future with trepidation and tiptoe toward the new thing with more than a little anxiety. Embracing some changes while avoiding others, I am reminded of some life lessons I have learned.

--I have learned not to take life forgranted. Things can change in the blink of an eye.

--I have learned that failure need not define me. I can use my failures as steppingstones.

--I have learned to trust the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus not because I need an evacuation plan to heaven but because their wisdom contains what I need to live in relative peace and contentment.

--I have learned there is little point in trying to make a good impression on others.

--I have learned that trying to do as little harm as possible is a full time job. That applies too myself, those I love, the community around me, and this precious planet we call Earth.

--I have learned I am not the center of the universe, that it's not the world's responsibility to cater to my wishes.

-- I have learned to intentionally pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” because it's precisely when I think I know what's best that things go terribly wrong.

– I have learned to be grateful for what I have instead of bemoaning what I don't have.

-- I have learned that less is more and that simplicity is liberating.

– I have learned that love is stronger than hate and that forgiveness is always liberating.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Aging with Gratitude

Monday I groaned to my tolerant spouse, “I just don't have the energy and strength I used to have. This energizer bunny seems to be running on rechargeable batteries that don't hold a charge!” He lifted one eyebrow. “Could it be that you are just a few years short of 80!” So who said 80 is old?”

I can remember laughing at my parents when they fell asleep reading or watching TV. Now if I stay awake through a favorite program I feel as if I have climbed Mt Everest. I can remember when I needed to go places and do things to avoid boredom. Now I am content to stay at home and read, knit or quilt. But then aging really is just like the motto on one of the Office of Aging T-shirts. “Age is a case of matter over mind. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”

Aging is a little like gardening. In the spring, we have grandiose plans and intentions but the longer the summer stretches on, the more our enthusiasm wanes. Spring's perfectionism gives way to an increasing tolerance for weeds and procrastination. A bountiful harvest is met with groans. In spite of our best intentions to stay fit, our get up and go, gets up and goes. But then, now when I don't get as much done, I don't care.

There was the day I thought I was smart and well educated. Now I there's so much I don't know that I only read what I enjoy and do what I find interesting. And I have to admit that it wasn't that long ago that I turned up my nose at invitations to join the exercise program at Fairfield's Senior Center because “that's for old people.” What did I think I was, anyway? Middle aged?

But being over the hump has it's advantages. Unlike my grandchildren who are obsessed with what others might think, how they look, and making a mark on the world, I've been there, done that. Trying to meet others expectations simply creates resentments I don't need. Sure, I've gained a lot of insights during my lifetime but if others aren't interested in what I've learned, that's their loss not mine.

They say old age is not for sissies which is all too true. But aging has some distinct advantages. Having always been fashion and cosmetically challenged, looking professional was hard work and frequently was brought before the fashion police. (My daughters and a friend.) Today everyone is satisfied when I look neat, clean and reasonably presentable. Besides, I've discovered getting older is a great excuse for releasing my inner eccentric!

It's pretty cool being able to smile when someone is rude because I can't hear what they're saying. It's a relief not having to worry about where I put something because I know I put it in a safe place. I've always had trouble remembering names but now I simply claim “senior moment,” Admitting that my sense of balance is not what it used to be allows me to substitute strolling for power walking allowing me to see so much more that way! And what a blessing that without my glasses I can shower without having to observe the competing parts of me racing for the floor.

Truth be told, even with the challenges and set backs of aging, I still find so much to do and enjoy that I don't have time to be bad tempered, judgmental, or begrudge what I can no longer do. Aging, I'm learning, like everything else, is best enjoyed by being present to the moment and grateful for each day, each experience, each friend, and the many blessings coming to me.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I love being outside, digging in the dirt, planting and watching things grow. Even though I pastored for over 20 years I've always felt closest to God in his great outdoors. When we had orchards I reveled in the apple harvest, walking the rows, eating crisp apples, checking bins, punching picker tickets, shivering on chilly October mornings. Now that we live in Fairfield I find all kinds of excuses to be outside so I can admire piles cloud sculptures, hearty mums, scarlet maples.

Confronted with problems I pray “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Only recently, I've started praying those same words in gratitude, recognizing that I am always surrounded by so many blessings, things, people, and opportunities that our outside of my control. I've discovered shifting my attitude to one of gratitude makes a radical difference in how I approach problems and that generally occurs when I work in the garden, transplant some house plants, take a walk, watch a sunset. I am reminded when outdoor that the world and God are far bigger than me and that I really have little control over anything other than my own attitude and response.

This summer my cousin's blueberry bushes outdid themselves, producing a bumper crop that far exceeded the pick-your-own crowd that generally strips his plants of luscious fruit. So mid August when he offered the excess berries to SCCAP gleaners for the food pantry, we jumped at the chance. Each foray resulted in buckets of sweet berries. Basking in orcharded hillsides, the soft summer sun and gentle breezes, we'd come home sticky with berry juice, but at peace. Whatever concerns we brought to the blueberry patch got left there. I find something profoundly spiritual about being outdoors, connecting with the land and our creator, seeing how I fit into the infinite whole.

Pippenfest weekend Matt Battersby's law office set up Honest Abe's Root Beer Stand as a fund raiser for the Fairfield Food Pantry. Much of their motivation came from learning that hunger in Adams County is not going away. Almost 50% of our county school children qualify for free breakfasts and lunches! The majority of the folks using the 8 SCCAP Food Banks and other church related food pantries are seniors on social security, folks on disability, the unemployed. or those working minimum wage jobs. There are precious few “free loaders” critics like to highlight. In fact, many here in Adams County go hungry rather than ask for help!

It is no accident that the SCCAP gleaners, county growers, and others who so generously donate food, time and dollars to our local food banks are people who feel a part of nature. I suspect God created us that way, as we seem to become more centered, more serene, more open to life and love when we connect with nature. Our consciousness actually expands when we experience ourselves as a small, but loved part of an immense whole. This awareness motivates us to take better care of this wonderful world God has so graciously given us. It is critical that we become compassionate and concerned about social and environmental distress because our very being depends on it.

Fairfield Mennonite is a small welcoming community, what a newcomer describes as a house church within a building.  Brenda Walter, our pastor, works part time so I am stepping up to assist her in this way.  We'd love to chat with you about what you think is important, your questions about both faith and doubts, so we'd love to hear from you.

This site will also include posts from a column I am writing for The Gettysburg Times.
Hi I'm Joyce, pastor emeritus of Fairfield Mennonite Church.

This blog is to give voice to the congregation's hopes, dreams, and concerns.