Category: Reflections

The Tree of Life by Katharine Houk

fabric art banner depicting the tree of life in greens and with red apples with the Celtic spiral in the tree leaveswith the Shaker proverb "hands to work, hearts to god"
Tree of Life banner created by Katharine Houk

Hanging in the new sanctuary of the Canaan Congregational Church is a colorful fabric banner depicting the Tree of Life, with words across the top that say “Hands To Work, Hearts To God.” I immersed myself in the creation of this Tree of Life banner, which took more than eight hundred hours to design and create. It is a gift expressing my love for God, Life, and our Canaan Congregation.

About eight years ago, the Deacons of the congregation asked me to make a banner for the church. The fruit of that discussion was the Tree of Life idea, with a verbal message from the Shaker tradition. I began work on the banner, but soon was stricken with a serious, rare illness, which sidelined the banner work until relatively recently. With my health much improved, I was able to complete the banner just in time for the dedication of our new worship space. Had I not set the work aside for a time, it could have gone up in flames when our church building burned.

Trees nurture each other as do the members of the church family at Canaan Congregational Church

The Tree of Life has surfaced as an important religious symbol in many traditions, in differing forms, carrying a variety of meanings: love, peace, honoring of ancestors, growth and strength, harmony, family, fertility, wisdom, immortality and rebirth, and a connection to everything. In the Celtic tradition, the Tree of Life is depicted in multiple forms. The roots represent the “otherworld,” the trunk represents the mortal world and connects the roots and branches, and the branches represent the world above, or the heavens. When they cleared their lands, the ancient Celts, who held great reverence for trees, would leave one single tree standing in the middle. They would hold their important gatherings under this tree and it was a very serious crime to cut it down. It represented harmony and balance and was an important symbol in the Celtic culture.

“She (Wisdom) is a Tree of Life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.” — Proverbs 3:18 (New International Version)

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are several references to the Tree of Life. The first is in the Book of Genesis. It is a tree that grows within the Garden of Eden and is the source of eternal life. In Christianity, some believe it to be the symbol of humanity free from corruption and sin, while others believe it to represent love. The tree is believed to have healing properties, and its fruit grants immortality. Because Islam honors many stories from the Bible, the Tree of Life, which appeared in Eden, is known as the Tree of Immortality in the Quran. Buddhists have the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

The choice of the Tree of Life is of deep meaning to me personally because I have been a tree lover all my life. As a very young child, I used to think that the trees swaying on a windy day were expressing themselves by creating the wind with their dancing movement. My scientist parents promptly disabused me of this notion, but I continued to think of trees as marvelous and very alive beings. Now science is discovering that trees do indeed “communicate” with one another underground, via tiny white strands of fungus in the soil called mycelium: Trees nurture each other as do the members of the church family at Canaan Congregational Church.

The Paradox of Christian Joy

Sometimes we find ourselves persuaded to the presence of God in all things and persuaded equally that everyone is born to be blessed, to accept joy—if not in our own time, then in God’s time. To say this is not in any way to minimize the tragedies and worries of our current circumstances. Rather, it is to affirm that being blessed is moving ourselves—flesh and bone, mind and heart—more fully into the suffering and the bewilderment of the world.

“God’s joy is endlessly given to each of us”

The paradox of joy in the Christian experience is truly that “they who would save their lives must lose them.” The environment of blessedness as declared in the Beatitudes is poverty in spirit, mourning, meekness, persecution for the sake of righteousness, and God. Yet our society exalts pride in spirit, hides from death, deplores humility, avoids suffering, substitutes bravado for righteousness, and makes God an idea for discussion. But the signs of God’s presence are all around us. God’s joy is endlessly given to each of us not taken in by the facades of fear and the cleverness of cynics. We can choose to be joyous, even in the face of great worry, grief, and evil. We can go forth with strong strides of faith, turn our routines of work into the ceremonies of joy, and become minstrels of God’s glory.

—Pastor Charlie Close


Interfaith Celebration of the Earth: Compelling and Sustaining

On Sunday afternoon, April 23, 2017, the Canaan Congregational Church (CCC) hosted an Interfaith Celebration of the Earth—a prayer service and jazz concert. Interspersed with the music were readings from diverse faith traditions: Rev. Koshin Karl Bower, a Tendai Buddhist priest ordained at the Buddhist temple on Route 295, led a thoughtful meditation; Yaqin Joseph Aubert, a Sufi from the neighboring Abode of the Message led a breathing meditation; form CCC Deacon Jay Aronson read a Native American prayer; Nellie Rustick, who represented St. James Roman Catholic Church, sang a beautiful Marty Haugen song, “Canticle of the Sun”; and of course, Rev. Charlie Close, represented our Protestant Congregational faith. And in keeping with the interfaith spirit of the event, the jazz quartet performed a traditional Jewish song, “Adamah Veshamayim [Earth and Sky].”

Each individual message was inspired, and the responsive readings were deeply moving.

Interfaith Celebration of the Earth and Jazz Worship Service at the Canaan Congregational Church, April 23, 2017 (Photo courtesy S. Bues)

The jazz group, comprised of four performers, saxophonist Willie Sordillo, pianist Chris Bakriges, bassist Avery Sharpe, and vocalist Zoë Krohne, were terrific. Although each performer was a wonderful soloist, when they performed together as a group, the effect was powerful.

It is praying, singing, and worshiping together—in a group—that is the most compelling and the most sustaining.

—P. Bues

An Inventory

As this year draws to a close and a new year approaches, I find myself with the desire to take stock, do an inventory of sorts. As knitting plays such a big part in my life, this is where I feel it first. I get the urge to take stock of what projects I started and have yet to finish, what yarns I have at hand. I think about which of those projects I still want to complete, which I no longer like or want to finish. I set goals for the unfinished projects and decide what to do with the others. Will I take them out and reuse the yarn for something else, or do I no longer care for the yarn, and will I give it away to someone else who will use it?

In our spiritual lives we can do the same thing. Take a look back at this year. Ask yourself: What happened in my life this year? How did I handle things that happened? What areas did I do well in? Where have I grown? What things do I regret? What areas could I stand to improve? Have I invited God into my life on a regular basis?

In my own life, I try to remember to start each day by thanking God for another beautiful day. I believe this simple act of thanks and an acknowledgement of God’s grace in my life can start each day on a good foot. The other part of my daily ritual is to ask for God’s guidance and help throughout the coming day.

I am reminded of Pastor Charlie’s sermon on Christmas Eve: “Go, Tell.” How can I live out and share my faith in God’s presence in my daily life? How have I done this in the past year? How can I improve on it in this coming year?

Taking stock is not meant to be a list of the negatives about yourself. It’s meant to be a simple inventory, as if you were a shop owner looking at your shelves. It can be freeing to let go of what is no longer working for you, whether in the physical or the spiritual sense.

As a church, this is also a good time to think about this past year, as we move into the new. Soon we will gather for our Annual Meeting. In leading up to this, each committee will be looking back at this past year and looking ahead to the new. What things worked this past year? What would we like to improve? What new things would we like to try?

Let’s step into this new year both personally and as a church, with trust in God’s guidance, and share, by the power of our example, how God is at work in our own lives and the life of our church.

—Deacon T.C.

An Unexpected Gift from NYSEG

colin-wedding-june-2013-063There’s nothing like a power loss to give one new perspective on darkness and our dependence on light. A snowstorm and its accompanying 13-hour power outage provided an interesting opportunity to reflect on darkness, on waiting, and on the coming of the light.

Candlelight creates a contemplative atmosphere. I didn’t fight it. As a matter of fact, I welcomed the break from our ever-present electronic devices and basked in self-awareness, self-reliance, and independence. Darkness falls in our area closer to four o’clock each day as we near the winter solstice. To preserve body warmth, we hunker down, as we did in front of the fireplace during the storm. The richness of the dark, the holiness of silence, the mystery of shadows, and anticipation of things unseen are ripe in our consciousness and imaginations.

It was the perfect gift for Advent. A sharp crackle of the birch logs on the fire shook me from my reverie, and yawning, I waited by the fire for the coming of the light.

— Susan Bues, Moderator

God is good. All the time.

I love the contrasts of November. Short, dark days foretell the hardships of winter, yet home is cozy and warm. The November landscape is bleak, yet beauty is there if we look for it. The days grow cold, and we worry about our heating bills, yet the first snowfall is magical.

November brings contrast to the life of our little church as well. On the November 6, All Souls’ Day, by sharing memories and mementos we honor the people we loved who have died. I suspect that many focused on other losses—or fear of losses—as well, this November. Some in our church family are suffering illness, some have fears of job loss, worries about money, or worries about people they love. Our country is hurting: We are a divided nation and it is hard to see the end of that. There is plenty of fear and loss to go around.

God is there in the contrasts.

Yet November also brings Thanksgiving. In spite of sadness and worry, we find joy as we recognize the many, many blessings God has given us, and we hear God’s call to share our blessings with others. We will celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday on the 20th, a time to focus on gratitude for what we have and to do what we can to contribute to the needs of our church.

Thanksgiving is a reminder, as well, of God’s continual presence with us, in our sorrows, our losses, and our fears, and in our joys and celebrations. God is there in the contrasts.

—P. Wallender, Deacons

Thoughts on Spiritual Practicing

Over the years I have engaged in varied practices which have been meaningfgreylock-glen-bushwack-october-2014_02ul for me. I used to be a runner but had to give up that practice following knee surgery. Running was a physical and mental release for me. As I would run, I would go over the minutiae of the day and eventually my thoughts would drift and calm. Sometimes I even came upon solutions to gnawing problems. A dear friend once said that if I were a minister, I would write my sermons during my runs. I had not always thought of my running as a spiritual activity, but her words helped make that connection conscious for me.

“Living with intention (not in self-absorption or obliviousness), trying to do the best we can for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our planet is a spiritual endeavor in which we all partake.”

We live in a beautiful region with abundant trails for hiking. Hiking on our trails is a soul-satisfying, spirit-filled activity for me. Physically exerting myself, especially in a natural setting, gives me a spiritual lift, a sense of well-being. Someone else might experience this contentment through an artistic endeavor, such as painting, writing, photography, or music. For me to transcend mundane and daily tasks and feel spiritually connected and renewed, the physical exertion and setting are significant.

If I look beyond running and hiking, I realize that keeping a journal over many years has also provided a time of sanctuary and chance for reflection. There is an ebb and flow with my journal. Sometimes I am pouring thoughts and feelings into the pages, sometimes I am merely making a fleeting entry to hold the “place” of an event. Sometimes I need to put the feelings into words within my journal to release the angst and be able to move forward.

“Just living each day is a spiritual practice.”

I wish to affirm that each of us is living our lives the best way we can. When in survival mode, the concept of “spiritual practice” may seem a luxury. Perhaps we might consider that just living each day is a spiritual practice. Living with intention (not in self-absorption or obliviousness), trying to do the best we can for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our planet is a spiritual endeavor in which we all partake.

J. Aronson

Deacon, Canaan Congregational Church, UCC


The Fragility of Life

Every Spring I am awed at the lush new growth in our natural world. The first tints of color on branches appear, then an underlying blush of green in response to increasing light. Soon the grass is thick, and buds on early shrubs open to the sun through the canopy of trees before the leaves appear overhead. Spring bulbs of daffodils, tulips, and narcissus fill our gardens, and dandelion and dame’s rocket grace the roadsides with the colors we’ve missed for six months. As trees blossom—apple, cherry, pear, and peach—and forsythia, lilac, and viburnum bushes fill with flowers, the air is filled with fragrance. We count on it.

We only need a single season where one of these familiar and well-loved spring sentinels does not appear to be reminded of the delicate balance of nature. This year, no forsythia bloomed in my garden because it was so warm early in the year. Buds were set in the warmest January on record and froze in February. The buds had already spent their seasonal bloom when spring arrived. In the twenty years since I planted those forsythia, this has never happened. They have bloomed early; they have bloomed late; but no bloom—never.

Are we responsible for this interruption of the natural cycle? When I dwell on the awesome responsibility of caring for the only world we can live in (for the foreseeable future, anyway), I am reminded of the late astronomer Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” an excerpt from his book by the same name, inspired by a photograph taken from Voyager I in 1990 in which the earth appears as a pale blue dot. In the image—taken from a distance of more than 4 billion miles—the Earth is a mere point of light, caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays, resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. To paraphrase Dr. Sagan, because it is our only home, we have a responsibility to be kind to one another and preserve and “cherish the pale blue dot.” —Moderator Susan Bues

The Power of Small

Two years ago, 14 people, some from our church, attended a meeting at the Canaan home of Becky Meier and Bob Connors to discuss the need to do something to prevent Kinder Morgan from expanding their Tennessee Gas pipelines, which run through our neighborhood.

On June 7, 2014, our church hosted an informational meeting about the proposed Tennessee Gas pipeline expansion that would follow the route of the existing three pipelines in Canaan and the surrounding area. Activists from No Fracked Gas in Mass and Berkshire Environmental Action Team led the session, complete with PowerPoint presentations and handouts detailing what people could do, and 130 people packed our little church.

In the months that followed, No NY Fracked Gas Pipeline, led by Becky and Bob, tirelessly pursued the cause, enlisting aid and advice from other local groups throughout New York and neighboring states. They expanded their reach through social media, meetings, and yard signs, never tiring, despite what seemed like impossible odds, visiting town boards and elected officials at every level.

On April 20, Kinder Morgan announced that it was suspending work on the pipeline because of economic reasons—although the company will likely take another tack to get the pipeline created.

On April 22, the N.Y. Department of Environmental Conservation denied a water quality certificate to the Constitution Pipeline, a 124-mile natural gas pipeline that would transport fracked gas from Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, through Broome, Chenango, Delaware, and Schoharie counties.

As the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal said when he visited our church on April 10, climate change affects every person on the planet, whether they believe it is human-made or not. Too often we feel powerless to halt it, that the little we can do to keep fossil fuels in the ground will never amount to change. That’s not true. That’s just what energy companies would like us to believe.

Every call to a senator or representative, every petition signed, every little thing we do can build to promote a healthier planet cumulatively counts. We are a small church, but we have intelligent, articulate members whose voices can be persuasive.

We are small, but we have power. Let’s use it.

New Beginnings

And now a message from our pastor, the Rev. Dr. Charlie Close

The past year has been a year of expectation, gestation, investigation, conversation, and ultimately transition. And in a very real way, the same has been true for Canaan Congregational Church. We found each other; covenanted with each other; and decided to walk with each other into new chapters of our respective lives. This has been a time filled with new friendships and new relationships. Every time I spend time with you I feel blessed. Every time I head home from leading worship or attending a meeting, I feel content and happy.

. . . .

We have only just begun our journey together. I pray that everyone feels as blessed as I do. May God continue to bless us as we all do a new thing, and may we all continue to grow into the “beloved community.”

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” – Isaiah 43.19