February 28, 2018

Pastor Noel posted the following commentary in the Pelham Interfaith Council Facebook page: 

The February 20th issue of the Pelham Post and the Pelham Plus both carried memorable photographs of six students outside the Pelham school campus holding signs in a protest against gun violence and government inaction to keep students safe. This was, of course, two days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed seventeen students and adults. 

The photo that most moved me showed a young male student holding up a sign: “Stop Praying and Start Leading.” How brave and hopeful that our Pelham High School students decided to take action. But how sad prayer now is linked in many young minds with inaction, delay, and obfuscation when it comes to the important issue of gun control. 

First of all, let me say that most religious leaders and most religious institutions, at least the ones around Pelham, would be on-board to support tighter and more meaningful gun control legislation. Though the NRA often claims it is furthering the cause of the protection of individual rights in league with many conservative Christians in this nation, most Christians I know, conservative and liberal alike, know the difference between sham self-serving arguments meant to rile up the NRA base, and a logical defense of the right to bear fire arms. No one other than someone in the military needs to own an ar-15 assault rifle. 

But my main point goes beyond the issue of gun control. It’s a shame the act of prayer has come to be identified by many with stalling, lack of courage, and even hypocrisy. All our faith traditions teach a necessary link between prayer and meditation and actions that require courage and fortitude. We don’t pray instead of acting, as some claim. We pray in order to take action. We pray to find the wisdom, courage, and perseverance to take actions that will be difficult and face opposition. 

So it was with the prophets. So it was with Jesus. So it was with courageous leaders like Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it must be with us when we know we can no longer sit on the sidelines but must take a difficult action to move forward for the common good. 

Dear Pelham students, thank you for your vision and courage in wanting to take the lead in this urgent national issue. An organized mass movement by high school students against gun violence is a bright sign of hope. The next time you are going to protest, please call me so I can pray with you all first. 

Pastor Noel Vanek

Community Church of the Pelhams

November 30, 2017

Linda and I recently watched an Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode set in Manilla. We learned that the Christmas season in the Philippines begins in September with songs and many parties. The whole society enjoys a three month time to get away from seriousness and to share in the joy of recognizing someone and telling them, through a gift, that they belong. Then comes the arrival of gift boxes from the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who work overseas separated from their families. It’s hard to get a box to arrive a week or two before Christmas when you send it from abroad. Plus, when you see your children or other loved ones only once every year or two you tend to over-buy out of an understandable feeling of sadness at the separation. 

Filipino culture exhibits a different attitude toward gift giving than is typically found in the United States. Their attitude toward gift giving emphasizes a gift as a means to make an occasion special and to show everyone they are included. Especially under the influence of advertising, our gift giving tends to try to reveal how special we are. We give gifts to show that we understand you, the recipient, perfectly, and thus found the perfect gift. Or in the church we hope our giving demonstrates that we are generous and kind to those in need. 

How might Christ’s birth shed a new light? 

The Christmas story tells of the three Wise Men bringing baby Jesus gifts to his birth bed in the stable: gold, frankincense and myrrh. These fancy gifts were meant to show all that the newborn babe born to such poor parents in such “mean estate” was to be, in reality, a king. Then I think of the poet Christina Rosetti’s beautiful lyrics in the hymn In the Bleak Midwinter: “If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb… yet what I can I give him, give him my heart.” The Christ child elicited a response not so much of self-sacrifice but of awe. In him we see the holy. 

Often we give gifts to show who we are. Other, non-Western cultures can show us the joy of giving gifts to include others. But the Christmas story spurs us to make our gifts point to the holy acts of God among us. 

I don’t think this means presents should become “churchy.” But we might want our gifts to capture what seems especially alive with the Spirit of Christ to us today. Are you “coming alive” in a new way? Share that. Do you have a new hope for the world? Tell people! Was there a wonderful experience this past year? Send me a picture. In every case God continues to bring us joy. This Christmas may you recognize anew that you have already received the greatest gift

of all: the gift of the birth of Christ, God-with- us.

– Faithfully and joyfully, Pastor Noel

JULY 26, 2017

A lament expresses our sadness to God.

I can’t wait to get “away” for vacation. Preparing for our trip, I wondered about the small towns we’ll drive through on the way to Vermont. “Hmm,” I thought. “I wonder what houses here cost.” The dream of a country getaway place dies slowly. Sunday, at dinner, I excitedly showed Linda and our daughter Sara an online real estate ad. “Look! This town, Hoosick Falls, has some really beautiful and inexpensive homes!” “Wow!” said Linda, “That’s a pretty house.” “Hoosick Falls?” asked Sara. “Yes, have you heard of it?” She replied, “As a matter of fact I have. Drinking water in Hoosick Falls was contaminated with PFOA, the toxic chemical in Teflon that makes it slippery.” Sara knows her stuff. Water contamination is her field. “The state doesn’t have a plan yet to clean the water. The best they can do is give people activated charcoal filters but that’s only a stop-gap measure.”

“At least now we know why houses there are so inexpensive.” Linda asked, “Is the moral of this story ‘All that glitters is not gold?’ Sarah chimed in, “I have a better one. Some online wit penned this one-liner: ‘Who’s Sick in … Hoosick Falls?’” Linda and I both groaned. “Think about how desperate people must be. You want to move out of town and get your child to clean water… but you can’t sell your home because no one is buying.” “Yes,” I thought, “the family that owned the pretty house would be happy to sell to some big city slicker from ‘far away.’”

It was my turn to be witty. “I think the one-liner for this story was coined by Anna Giordano.” Linda’s eyes widened, “That garbage recycling lady who came on so strong when she spoke at church?” “Yes, the very one,” I replied. “But she made a point that hits home. There is no longer an “away” in “throw it away.” Sara nodded: “Everything comes back to bite us. We think it’s going away someplace else and we don’t have to think about it anymore.” “But,” I interrupted, “There’s no longer an ‘away.’ All the systems are collapsing into one another.” “Right,” she interrupted me in turn. “Here’s another example. When we take antibiotics, we excrete it in our urine. Now they’re in all our water supplies and we can’t filter them out.”

Who’s to blame? Well, you can blame me. I once used a frying pan coated with Teflon. Anyone else want to raise their hand? Remember how Pogo told us years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us"?

My lament: O God, our actions bring us pain we do not anticipate, and we end up hurting others unintentionally. Forgive us. Heal your world. We pray it’s not too late.

Faithfully yours, Pastor Noel

March 27, 2017

We knew hosting the soup supper for the ecumenical Lenten Bible this past March 22 would prove challenging since our stoves in the kitchen are gone, and new (used) ones haven’t been purchased yet. I am so grateful to Margi and Ralph, Angela, Ana, and Austin and Gennette for bringing soups they cooked at home.

But I wanted to make soup, too. Cooking Tuesday at home got away from me, so Tuesday night I called a grocerey store and put in an order. I stopped by first thing Wednesday to talk about details. The best price I could get was $80 to feed twenty persons soup! So I said "No Thanks" and called some friends in the church.

Thank the Lord, Ana Pacheco was home. She had the cooking utensils and wasn’t going anywhere. So for $16 worth of ingredients we made enough to fill two big pots. It was a minor miracle of loaves and fishes.

We are trying out a new "Purpose Statement" as a congregation: Our current draft of it is: "Courageiously serving, as Jesus does, those iin jeopardy." Along the way to becoming a more "activist church" that genuinely wants to courageously serve those most in jeopardy in our world, we will need to sometimes say "yes" to a request before we know how to actually do what is asked. This can feel uncomfortable but the truth is churches today must skip ahead at least a generation in their decision making skills. Gone are the days in which an urgent decision can be put off to the monthly board meeting. The need and the opportunities to really make a difference don't wait any more. A great value in the secular world in which most people live is "nimbleness" in decision making. That means learning to become quicker, more flexible, and adaptive. Or, with my soup as an example, being willing to improvise sometimes when plan A doesn't work out.

This Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ who brought to the world a "New Covenant" for salvation. But I believe the world had to say "yes" to God's plan. Mary had to be willing to carry God's child. Disciples needed to say "yes" to Jesus' "Come follow me." As so often in life timing is everything.

Let's celebrate Christ's resurrection by looking for his active presence in the world. Most often we encounter him where there is great need. Let's practice saying "Yes!" and give glory to God. It feels really good when we do.

With resurrection joy, Pastor Noel