An Intention to Listen


One of the attractions of travel, for me, is to get to spend a little time with languages other than the one I speak every day.  I’m not nearly fluent in anything, but there are a couple of spots in the world where, if you dropped me from a helicopter, I’d probably survive.  Central America is one of those areas, thanks to high school and college Spanish, so this recent trip to Nicaragua was an eagerly awaited opportunity to see what I could dust off.

It was quite gratifying to be able to be polite in the language of our hosts – hello, please, thank you, the rice and beans are really delicious, etc. What I found it harder to do was listen.  And it turns out we were primarily there to listen.  As the week went on I noticed a few things about myself vis-à-vis this language thing.  If I had enough sleep and enough coffee — and set an intention to pay attention — I could usually get the gist of the conversation (although I was still really happy to have our awesome interpreter Julieta to fill in any gaps in my comprehension).

If I could get some exercise in now and then – a short walk, a little stretching – and set an intention to pay attention, I could focus anew, and in addition to the Spanish coming at me, I could read faces, eyes, hands, bodies to help get more of the nuances.  When I reminded myself that my many internal responses, defenses, questions could all wait till later, I could create more quiet space to accept what was being offered to us in our many, many conversations about Nicaragua’s history, sociology, economics, gender relations, coffee production, biointensive gardening, community organizing.

But whenever I was tired, fidgety, impatient or inattentive, the very language that was flowing pretty nicely just a moment ago became senseless sound, and I sat back and waited for the familiar English.

And although this happened hundreds of miles away and in a different language, it isn’t much different in my life here on the Seacoast.  With my family, my friends, with you, my South Church peeps, I always seem to listen better if I have enough sleep (and enough coffee!), if my body gets enough movement, if I quiet my impulses to be the one talking….if I set an intention to listen, the connection is richer.

Your Committee on Ministry exists in large part to listen to you.  Our church is at its best when we are all really listening to each other. Might that not be a big part of nurturing spiritual growth in community?

Blessed be.

Laurie Bilby


Being Present for That One Moment

Today while walking along the ice encrusted sidewalks a young person stopped in front of me and took the time to reach down and pick up a scattering of papers, all wet, several half-frozen to the surface of the walk.

It had been recycling day in Portsmouth and the walks were littered here and there with the debris of overturned bins and breeze blown papers. The young person didn’t have to stop, didn’t have to sort out the little corner of chaos she found along her way. No one would have criticized her if she hadn’t – no one would even have noticed as she strolled by the remains. But she didn’t stroll by, she stopped, and that made all the difference. It was a small intention, but it showed that she had her eyes open and that she cared enough to get involved. That simple act on her part made the street look a bit better, and seeing it lightened the rest of my day.

Our ministers’ sabbatical began a couple weeks ago. Until they return different members of the South Church Community will be publishing their reflections in the NuusFlash. This week it falls to me as chair of the Sabbatical Committee, so I offer you this:

Let’s be like the young person who stopped to pick up the papers; to keep our eyes open for those little moments when our friends, our neighbors, our community, our world need our participation or help. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it doesn’t have to seem important. It doesn’t have to forever solve a problem…it just needs us to stop and do that one thing, say that one word, be present for that one moment. Sometimes, even if unnoticed, these little turns can make all the difference in the lives of those around us and our own.

Peter Okhuysen

Coming Back to You

It was just a few weeks ago.

It was the first Sunday of the New Year and I tucked myself into one of the last row pews at South Church, and experienced a worship service. Kimberly Cloutier Green was preaching and I had that experience that so many have so often, feeling like the sermon was written just for me.

I sat in that back pew and tears started to come.

I was thinking about you all. I was thinking about how much I am going to miss you during the sabbatical. I was thinking about how much I cherish this thing that we all are building together, this thriving moment in the long life of South Church.

But what I kept coming back to is all of you. Just the particulars and the details of you. You all are very much in my heart, very much in Lauren’s heart. It is a such a privilege to get to serve you all as your ministers, to be welcomed into your lives, to be allowed to show up for you, to witness you, to love you.

And I will miss the regular and sweet connections with you all. I will miss standing on the tops of those steps and welcoming you in on Sunday mornings. I will miss the moments of connection in passing, checking in on you, hearing about how you are, hearing about all you are facing.

Sitting there in that back pew this is why the tears came. Because I love you, and because we will be apart.

And, of course, it is also good. I am also very excited for time with my beloved, to slow, to reconnect, to deepen our spiritual practice, to sink into gentler and more abiding rhythms of living. I am excited to travel and meet with minsters I respect and admire and to learn from churches who are thriving and living out radiant missions, serving and joyous.

I am excited for time in nature. For rivers and lakes and oceans.
For the rhythms of the wild to do their good work on my soul.

I am excited for so much, and shining at the end of this time is our reunion.

And for me, this is among the sweetest things. We get to come back. We get to come back and reconnect and set course for this next phase of our work together, all of us, building this next chapter in the long life of South Church.

When Lauren and I came to be your ministers seven years ago, we wrote a little document at the beginning of our search packet. It was called Vision 2021. We spoke in the present tense and we told the story of the church that we could one day create together.

We spoke of things like worship being joyful and engaging. We spoke of things like long time members and newer members joined together in the good work of the church. We spoke of increased generosity and expanded staff. We spoke of South Church again claiming its role in the Seacoast as a beacon of progressive values and a resource for the good work of many organizations. We spoke of deepened relationships, of nurtured leaders.

And the amazing thing is that we have done almost all of it.

Lauren and I leave for this time of sabbatical with so much joy in all that we have accomplished together.

We are on the verge of expanding our program space with the renovation of our new building. So much will be made possible once we have this space. Your generosity has increased this year again and in the seven years we have been together has increased by leaps and bounds, and this has made so much possible.

We are poised, right now, together, for another chapter of deepening and growth. We are poised, right now, together, for more good work, for many more years of realizing this radiant mission we share.

We will take this time, this precious gift of time, to reflect, to reconnect, to deepen and to dream. We will come back refreshed and reinvigorated (yes, I can be further invigorated, or perhaps I will come back all calm and easy and wise and Lauren will be bursting with energy, who knows)

We will take this precious time and do our work in it. And we have faith that you will to.  Please do dig into this time together. Come and experience the worship. Listen to the testimonials from other congregants, speaking to what the mission of South Church means in their lives. Reflect on your heart’s desire for this precious place we love. Reach out to one another. Care for one another. Cherish one another.  I know you will.

And know that you are in our hearts.

We are so grateful for all that you are, and for all that we yet may be together.

So much love,


In Praise of Loose Ends

When our son Ben was little, we discovered the joy of wooden train sets.  We bought some track and inherited some from friends whose kids had outgrown them.  We ended up with bins of track and bridges, engines and cars.  We used them to build elaborate webs of connecting loops, complete with hills and tunnels and stations.

Back then, I had an obsession with making all the pieces line up–no dead ends, no stretches of track that ended by running into the couch.  I liked to make sure that if you entered a loop, you could get out of it without lifting up the train and turning it around.  Ben and Chris and I made beautiful epic tracks.

But there was just one problem:  They were fun to build and amazing to look at, but they were hard to play with.  Once the creation was done, it was so intricate and elaborate that there was nowhere to sit, except maybe at the edges.

We brought the bins of track out again recently because our daughter Aliyah is just the age to love them.  We’ve been having a great time experimenting.  This time, I watched the way Aliyah plays.  She plunks herself down, makes a little section, then sits down to play right in the middle of her creation and all its loose ends.

I learned from my daughter how important it is to make space for people.  A track the way she builds it is first and foremost for the people playing in it.  I loosened.  These days, I begin by making a large circle for myself, a place where I can sit and move a train around as my children play, so it’s easier for me to stay and just be with them.  I make spaces for Aliyah.  I still love to make all the pieces line up.  The engineering feat of a good track is a singular pleasure, after all.  But I worry less about loose ends.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those tracks as Chris and I prepare for sabbatical, and as we look ahead to our next stretch of years in ministry with you.  Church can be messy, but that’s an inherent part of its potential.  First and foremost, churches are human institutions whose purpose is to connect us to one another and to what theologian Paul Tillich calls our “ultimate concern,” that around which we orient our life.

Chris and I and an amazing team of lay leaders have worked hard to create systems that will hold the church during the four months of sabbatical.  Good people have done great work, but I think I’m most proud of the ways we’ve left room for all of you, the ways we’ve left room for the spirit to move.  There will be opportunities for members of the congregation to hear each other’s vision for South Church, to see one another’s gifts, and share your own gifts in more visible ways.  There are intentional open spaces which you will make your own with your creativity and energy and vision.

I confess I’m a little nervous.  Not about you or the church as an institution.  I know there will be bumpy bits and also that South Church will chug right along.  There will be challenges, maybe even big ones, because there always are, but this community is fundamentally sound and strong and can handle anything that comes up.  This community is healthy enough to thrive without us.  There are so many good leaders, so many good people.

I’m nervous and hopeful and curious because we’re standing together at the edge of the unknown.  What will you make of your time?  What will you discover about yourselves?  What will your discoveries mean for the shape of our future together and the shape of my own ministry?  What will your experiences require of me upon my return?

Loose ends, open opportunities.

Room for all of us to play.

Space for all of us to be moved by the spirit.

This moment is an invitation to step up and step forward into a new phase of our communal life.

May we  step forward with confidence and curiosity, buoyed by faith in ourselves, in one another, and in the unwritten future we share.

There will be an open session to talk about sabbatical after both services this Sunday, 1/7, in the sanctuary.  Both ministers will be there, along with select lay leaders.  Come with your hopes, dreams and questions.

Love to you all, and happy new year,


Do you love?

“Do you love you?”

Sometimes a two year old will slice right through the walls we have built up. Either completely by the accident of the bumpy road of language acquisition, or because of a direct connection to vast amounts of wisdom and insight, it almost doesn’t matter.

What matters is my little two year old daughter, standing on the breakfast bench she was sharing with Lauren and I, her little body between us, toast in one hand, looking right at me, asked me,

“Do you love you?”

I couldn’t not answer.

“Well, I definitely like me, and I want to love me, but I think I often get a little hung up on the things I know I should be doing better.”

Again, she asked, “Do you love you?”

I had to keep answering.

“Yes, since you ask, I really do. I love me. And I want to do a better job at loving me. I am maybe not in the best of relationships with myself right now, but that relationship has a lot of potential.”

And then she said,

“I love you.”

And I could feel it all rushing back. My clumsy overthinking, these challenging times, these overfull and overfilling days melting away, and love just rushing in.

I knew all over again that I can love myself, be sweet to myself, even and especially in the mix of these challenging times.

We have had a number of deaths in the community lately. Most recently Noele Clews, who has been a huge part of so many of your lives as mother, partner, collaborator, neighbor, and friend.

Her death, along with so many others, along with the fullness of this time of the year along with the fullness of this time in which we are living, this is all a lot. Officially. Just a lot.

And so I share this little nugget of wisdom from my sweet little nugget of a human being.

“Do you love you?”

And are you acting like it? What would it mean to love yourself well in this moment? To be sweet to yourself, gentle with yourself.

After the exchange there at the breakfast table, I announced to the family, “Everyone, behold, your little sister has just written the nuusflash article for this month.”

In these full days, in these sometimes difficult days, know that you are held, know that you are loved.

Sometimes, hopefully, even by yourself.

So much love to you all,


The Just Right, Lasting Gift

In this day and age of screen based entertainment, it is good to know that a tangle of Christmas ornament hooks and a stack of packing peanut can enthrall my seven year old son. Especially when you couple it with the fishing line tied to the bannister which holds up my mother’s tree.

Every year I squeeze some time from a crazy December schedule and head down to my mother’s house to help her decorate her tree with our many children. It is, of course, a helpful journey as my mother has three enormous tupperware crates of Christmas ornaments and decorations, and it takes two adults and the randomly ebbing and flowing help of children the better part of a day to get it all up.

And for a number of years now, my sons have loved taking the packing peanuts which help the ornaments stay safe int he basement for another year, and piercing them with an ornament hook and placing them on the fishing line attaching the top of the tree to the stairway, keeping the tree from falling over. They then exult in watching the peanut zipline down from the stairway and crash into the tree.

It is endlessly fascinating and fun for them. Over and over they shriek with joy, peanut after peanut making the same journey, landing in a packing peanut pile up.

This year, after there was a bit of a clump starting, I went to go remove some of the peanuts and get them poised for another journey, giving Jack, our seven year old, a replenished stack of zip liners, and my mother chided me.

“Leave it alone. Leave them there.”

I looked up from my work, from the holiday to do list crush of my work and I saw her face. I saw her face lit up with the presence of her son and her grandchildren. And I realized that she understood the preciousness of her seven year old grandchild finding fun with her Christmas tree.

She has already traveled down this road. She has watched a child grow from once enthusiastically decorating the tree to struggling between wanting to help and enjoying it and then realizing all the other things they could be doing, to the full throttle teen barely there, with life pulling so many directions, to the young adult and then adult with their own lives, struggling to fit visits in between the many things they have to do and the few things they would rather be doing.

She was savoring this moment. This sweet moment in the midst of one of her favorite seasons. And I loved her a lot as I looked upon her looking upon her grandson in his exuberant, ridiculous play.

I told the kids before we went down that this was the best present that we give grandma every year, the gift of our time. The gift of a late night drive down after karate with slightly busted up sleep as people arrived and transitioned to strange beds. The gift of a four am wake up because the clock was set four hours fast and the boys were just up at four, thinking the day was starting, which, by a cruel twit, it did.

The gift of a breakfast table full of people she loves, and a picture all together, the picture above, in front of a beautiful tree, full of the same ornaments as every other year. And for a few more sweet years, a stack of zip lining peanuts, extending from the top of the tree to the staircase.

I imagine her seeing those peanuts every time she comes down the stairs in the morning, and thinking of us all, of those many hours together, and smiling.

And this year, I wish for us all gifts like this. The just right, lasting gift. These gifts might take a little while longer to think of, but often they are cheaper than the ones we might buy in the store, and almost always mean a bit more.

So much love to you all,


New Spaces Open for Our South Church Community

I would happily serve South Church, her mission and her people, if we had just one building. I would happily serve South Church, her mission and her people, if we didn’t even have one building. If we met in a parking lot next to a paper mill, next to a biker bar with a brunch special on Sunday mornings, next to a cattle farm, I would consider myself blessed to serve South Church, her mission and her people, all of you.

But the wonderful news is not only do we have our recently beautified and repainted sanctuary, but we have officially bought the building at 73 Court St. If you haven’t yet seen the building, you can google the address and some beautiful pictures come up. It is an incredibly exciting step for us as a congregation. This new space and the adjustments to our existing space which will be coming in the next year or so will make so much possible.

We will be able to have meetings, glorious meetings, so many meetings in rooms designed to have meetings in them. No longer will you need to decipher the confusing mix of images which fill the walls of my office unless you are actually meeting with me. We will have lectures and forums on Sundays, opportunities to explore and deepen for people of all ages. So much opens up with these new spaces.

Our journey to that moment will continue to be guided by some incredibly hard working volunteers, and you will be hearing more from them. The Planning and Implementation Team will be sharing regular monthly updates as to the evolutions of the plans and then construction in the new space. We will have much to share by the congregational meeting on January 21st and at an informational meeting to be scheduled before that date. Stay tuned.

But for now, we celebrate this milestone. It has been a long road to get to this moment. So many people have worked so hard, and I am so deeply grateful.

And this gratitude has been sometimes a bit overwhelming lately. As Lauren and I prepare for our sabbatical coming in just a handful of weeks, I look out at meetings and during worship, and I am amazed. I am amazed by you all, by your passion and commitment, by the depth of your caring and the clarity of your purpose.

Lauren and I know the church is in good hands because we have been shoulder to shoulder with the owners of those hands for years now. I have to lift up a few people especially. Your Board of Trustees right now is an exceptionally healthy and hardworking team. With the dedication and wisdom and love of Jeff Leathe at the helm as President and the warmth and care and hard work of Cindy Brown as Vice president, this is a great team you have leading you.

And for the sabbatical, you have another incredible team of dedicated folks with Peter Okhuysen and his indomitable spirit and reaching mind and bone deep integrity at the helm.

And our Property Committee and Associates Programs and Shared Ministry and Small Group Ministry and Religious Education Teams and Green Sanctuary and Pocket Garden Tour and Book Group and Knitting Ministry and Endowment Committee and Annual Budget Campaign and Kitchen Ministry and South Church Folk and Choir and Ushers and Greeters and Aging With Grace and Planning and Implementation Team and Shared Ministry and Committee on Ministry and Personnel Committee and more.

So many of you, far too many to name here, are pouring yourselves into this moment, into this sweet and powerful moment we are sharing, into this beautiful thing, this South Church which we are building.

And I am so grateful.

I say it every Sunday that I happen to be the one doing the welcome but it truly is my joy to serve you all as one of your ministers. And that joy is deepened, the fire of that joy is stoked and enlarged by each and every one of you, by all of your gifts, by all of your talents and vision, by all that you bring to the circle of South Church.

And while I would happily serve alongside you all in a parking lot next to a paper mill next to a biker bar next to a cattle farm, I am glad we have the glorious space we have, and that we will be adding another beautiful space to hold and further all this good work.

So much love to you all,