Housing the Holy

We will begin our celebration of Advent on Sunday. In our congregation, uur Advent theme this year is “Housing the Holy.”  Christmas begins with the familiar story of Jesus’ parents searching for a place to stay at this critical moment in their lives. We have only the barest description of their plight; we are told simply that “there was no room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7). We can only imagine the fear, worry, and concern they experienced as they sought for a place for Mary to give birth.

            The “innkeeper,” a popular figure in most church pageants, does not actually appear in Scripture. Our imaginations have ranged between a belligerent gatekeeper who refused entry to the inn and a creative, out-of-the-box thinker who recognized the stable as a worthy substitute for these desperate parents. Whoever directed Mary and Joseph to their hay-filled accommodations changed history forever. Suddenly it became clear that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the long- awaited Messiah, would enter the world humbly. He didn’t need a pristine resting place. Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed the way he would live his life – he surprised the wealthy, powerful king by being born in the simplest surroundings. He was prepared for a life of living amongst the outcasts, the forgotten, and the overlooked.

            Advent, it turns out, is an opportunity to celebrate hospitality.  In these weeks leading up to Christmas, we can wonder how we can make room for God in our lives and how we can house the holy in our lives.  How do we welcome God’s Spirit of new life? Hospitality is all about inviting someone in.  It is about making room in our hearts – and in our overbooked schedules. When we encounter an obstacle (“the inn is full”), do we imagine other ways to accomplish our goal (“the stable could be a birthing place”)? Are we prepared to be surprised by a God who appears in unusual places? 

We live in a world that is often inhospitable and which does not always welcome the outcast or the stranger.  How can we open our doors and our hearts?

The days between now and Christmas often fly by. We can get so busy with activities that we don’t notice the quiet whisperings of God. How can we make room for God who is always seeking us?  Can we pause? Slow down? Listen?

During this special season of Advent, let us make room so that we can house the love, peace, and hope of God in our hearts.  And then let us share those gifts freely with others.

“Enough is a feast”

“Enough is a feast.”

I’ve been mulling over this saying all month.  It’s hard to focus on “enough” when ads are blaring about Black Friday shopping frenzies which somehow have expanded to a month-long event.  Or when Christmas trees seem to be sprouting everywhere, as if the calendar somehow skipped November and we are on an express train from Halloween to Christmas with no time for Thanksgiving in between.

            Yet Thanksgiving is a powerful reminder of gratitude’s importance. It is a day set aside to consider what enriches our lives and gladdens our hearts. Thanksgiving avoids the pressures of gift-giving and invites us simply to offer thanks for what we already have.

            Do we have enough?   Give thanks.

            Do we have heat on a cold day?  Give thanks.

            Will we be fed?  Give thanks.

            Will we gather with friends or loved ones?  Give thanks.

Will be comforted by memories of those we miss? Give thanks.

Perhaps this quote encourages us to consider what is enough in a society that insists that we always need more.  Maybe now is the time to reject messages that focus on what we don’t have. Maybe it’s an opportunity to refuse society’s nagging insistence that we are somehow lacking or don’t quite measure up.

Here’s an idea – Maybe we could begin Thanksgiving morning by looking in the mirror and greeting our reflection with the celebration, “You are enough.”

What do you have today?  Is it enough?

Then lift up your voice and give thanks to God.

The Gospel of Christmas Fairs

“Our church no longer holds a Christmas Fair,” this minister/colleague sniffed, “Instead we concentrate on the real work of the church.”

And to that I say, “Bah, humbug!”

 I know that selling Christmas knickknacks isn’t the mission of the church. More important – so do the members of my congregation.

But in these days leading up to our Holly Fair, our church has been filled with sounds of people talking and laughing as they create displays and sort through ornaments, angels, and brightly colored candles. It is especially sweet after 18 long months of isolation and distancing. Simply being together again – even with masks on! – is priceless.

They know that they are raising money to support the mission and outreach of our church.

As people wend their way between craft tables, jewelry displays, and an array of gift items, they will see the signs and symbols of our welcome and hospitality that are the cornerstones of our ministry.   They’ll notice our rainbow flags, “safe space” signs and declarations of welcome for all of God’s people. Maybe they’ll take home a brochure about our prayers shawl ministry or be inspired by the invitation to donate sheets and blankets to the homeless shelter. Perhaps they’ll see the sign advertising our food giveaway program or fuel assistance program. 

Our Christmas fair allows us to swing open our doors and invite people inside. And while they are here, they are welcome to enter our beautiful sanctuary and perhaps pause for a few moments of quiet and rest in our pews. Maybe this low-key experience of quiet beauty will encourage them to return on a Sunday morning or tune in to an online service.

Events like these offer us the chance to embody our welcome and to live out the Good News of meeting our neighbors and sharing God’s love.

So go ahead you Winter Wonderlands, Candy Cane Bazaars, Christmas on the Hill, St. Nicholas Fairs – enjoy your gatherings!  And know that is one more way to reach out to God’s people and celebrate the Good News.

Starting with gratitude

Can I admit it?  There are days when I feel a little discouraged.  There are times when I am weary and unsure that my efforts and the dedicated work of the church are making even a dent in the myriad of challenges facing us today. There are moments when the angry voices and ugly violence that fill the news cause me to despair that we will ever experience God’s peace or come close to God’s loving justice.

The wisdom of Proverbs whispers to me, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding” (3:5). So then I resolve – again – to place my confidence in God. 

            In order to do this, I needed to remind myself of God’s presence each day. I am developing a spiritual discipline (which is just a fancy way of saying I am trying to create and maintain a new habit) of gratitude.  Now in the morning before I look at my phone, before I turn on the news, and before I look at the (online) newspaper, I jot down five things for which I am grateful. I call it my thankfulness list.

            Sometimes my gratitude reflects the weather – I am thankful to be in a warm house on a cold, rainy day. Other times, I give thanks for communications – a Facetime chat with my daughter, texts from my sons, talking with my parents on the phone. Reflecting back on a previous evening’s meeting, I give thanks for volunteers who care deeply about the church and give their time and energy to live the Good News. It is usually not hard to find five things that warm my heart and fill me gratitude. And so I give thanks to God.

            These lists do not change the bad news that’s waiting for me. But they do offer me a fresh, uplifting start to my day. They provide a life-giving perspective. They remind me that God is at work in this weary world and that I am not alone.

            These simple lists bring me back to the eternal truth, “God’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). “Forever” is a long time. So no matter what I am facing on a given day, I do not go forth alone. God’s love surrounds me and for that, I am very grateful.

Grateful

When I was on sabbatical, I bought a handbag with the word “grateful” on it.  I am not much of a shopper.  I can usually talk myself out of almost any purchase (much to my children’s disappointment as they were growing up). But the bag’s simple message spoke to me. It defined my prevailing mood throughout my sabbatical.  For the entire four months I was away, I experienced gratitude.

I was grateful for

  • Time to rest. When people ask what I did during sabbatical, I am hesitant to honestly say, “I slept.  A lot.”  I had underestimated just how tired I was. The impact of ongoing ministry especially during the pandemic combined with my own experience of the disease in addition to the loss of my father-in-law that winter all brought me to a level of exhaustion.  I was grateful to stop and rest.
  • This congregation who lived out their belief in God’s concept of Sabbath and sabbatical by providing both funds and time. God promises that rest is not only necessary but also good for us. I was grateful for this extended time of renewal.
  • Danielle’s ministry and the congregation’s openness to a new minister. EWCC has a long history of welcoming and nurturing new and student ministers. This congregation has offered a gracious atmosphere in which to learn and grow.  And Danielle did an excellent job serving this congregation.  I was grateful to know that EWCC’s powerful ministry continued under skilled leadership.
  • Time with my family.  I didn’t have to squeeze in time to visit my parents – I could relax and offer them the care and attention they deserved.  Roger and I were overjoyed to travel with our adult children – such a treat to experience the beauty of Alaska together as a family.  Those precious memories are priceless. And I am so grateful.

This experience of gratitude provided new insight into the phrase, “My cup overflows.” My heart was overwhelmed daily with gratitude for the beauty I encountered, for the opportunity to rest and heal, and for God’s invitation simply to soak it all in and enjoy.

            And now I am grateful to be back among you as we venture forward in this new era of pandemic and healing. I am grateful that we are surrounded by the presence of God, whose steadfast love endures forever. 

Thank you.

Sabbatical time

My congregation and I are about to embark on the very special experience of “sabbatical.” What is sabbatical, you may ask?

            A sabbatical is a time to step back and experience something new. The tradition of sabbatical is grounded in the Bible when God gives these instructions, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 25).

            God was telling Moses that the Promised Land would need a time of rest and renewal – a sabbatical – to ensure its health and productivity. The word “sabbatical” has the same root as “Sabbath.” We are commanded to take a weekly Sabbath; this time of rest and renewal is a gift from God. (This commandment is probably the one that gets broken most often). We live in a society that values staying busy and multi-tasking and being productive. But God knows that we all need time to rest, breathe, take a step back, and get a different perspective. We all need Sabbath time.

A sabbatical is an extended Sabbath. In our congregation, after six years of ministry, the congregation and minister engage in sabbatical time. We will spend time apart from one another; when we come back together we will have new experiences, insights, and learnings to share with each other.

When I look at my calendar for the coming months, much of it is blank. It offers intentionally unplanned and unstructured time to renew my spirit. I imagine days of reading, biking, kayaking, knitting, and simply sitting outside enjoying God’s creation. During my sabbatical I will also have the chance to visit family and friends – something that is especially sweet after our pandemic isolation. Roger and I will also be traveling to Anchorage Alaska where we will spend some weeks volunteering part-time at a homeless shelter.

            It is also sabbatical time for our congregation. They will have the opportunity to learn and grow under the leadership of Danielle Arnett Keller, our substitute minister. Her experience, enthusiasm, and abundant good ideas will provide our congregation new ideas and perspectives.

            Sabbatical – like Sabbath – does not last forever. It is meant to be a transformative experience that helps us return to our schedules and responsibilities with renewed energy, fresh enthusiasm and increased knowledge.

            I won’t be posting in my blog during my sabbatical – taking a break! – but I’ll let you know what I experienced when I return.  

Holy Week: Silent Saturday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

There is no Scripture for today because no events are recorded. The cataclysm of the crucifixion had taken place. Judas had betrayed. Peter had denied. The disciples ran away. On Saturday, there was simply the empty, hollow reality of pain. Jesus’ followers were left with the sad, miserable, terrifying aftermath.

            It is Silent Saturday.

We modern-day believers know that we simply have to wait until tomorrow – or until just after midnight if we attend an Easter vigil – and we will hear the triumphant, miraculous announcement of new life and resurrection.

But for the first believers, it was a day of sorrow and loss. A day without hope and a bleak future looming in front of them.

            Maybe you know someone who is experiencing that profound silence and loss. Maybe you are yourself. This seemingly endless experience, unbroken by any word of hope or comfort, is also part of our human story. There are times when there are no easy answers, no slick solutions, no rescue from our pain.

            In those times, we can simply acknowledge the reality. If we go to someone who is suffering, we will not help them by ignoring their agony or trying to convince them otherwise. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is to recognize their pain. We can validate their experience not by trying to alter it but by saying, “I hear you, I see you, I am with you.”

            Those early believers were not God-forsaken. God had not abandoned them. They simply could not see or believe or imagine that God could be in that excruciating place with them.

            It is a day of waiting, a day simply of existing. It is a day to cling onto the hope that God’s steadfast love will eventually break through our darkness.

Holy Week: Good Friday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.   (Luke 23: 44-46)

     Death comes in many ways; it can be tragic, gruesome, or unjust as Jesus’ was. It can also be a relief, a release, and a blessing. Death is a holy mystery that we cannot explain. A person embodies a physical presence and then – in a moment or after a lingering illness or tragically, unexpectedly – that person is no longer on this earth. They have gone to place we cannot follow. And though our love or relationship may still endure, we are separated from them in a way we cannot explain.

    Jesus was the Son of God. He did not have to suffer a human demise. Yet his willingness to endure death assures that I will not be alone when my own path inevitably leads me to the end of my days. He has gone before me. I visualize a trailblazer who will continue to guide me into the unknown beyond just as surely as he does right now.

     The death of another can leave us brokenhearted. Thoughts of our own death can paralyze us with fear. What can we learn from Jesus’ final act of courage? What does Jesus’ faith and trust tell us about the final moments of life? Can we turn ourselves and our loved ones over to God’s care with those same words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”? Can we trust that our loved ones are safe in God’s care?

     Good Friday tells a sad story that nonetheless offers comfort and hope. God’s steadfast love endures forever – in life, in death, and beyond the life we know into life eternal.

Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.” This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.  (Matthew 26: 26-30)

It had all the elements of a wonderful supper – a leisurely gathering with close friends, an abundance of food and drink, singing, relaxing, and storytelling.  This pandemic year robbed us of this kind of evening – the profound gift of breaking bread together with loved ones.

So let’s start there – remembering what we have lost in the past year, the meals we didn’t share, the holidays we missed, the hugs that weren’t given, the postponed visits. If you could make up for lost time, what would be your ideal gathering? Who would be there? What would be on the menu?  What stories would you tell (again – because all the best stories deserve to be repeated). What memories would you share? What is the soundtrack? The next time we share a meal with family or friends, those moments when we look across the table at ones we love, let’s not take it for granted. Let us be aware that we are sharing a holy moment.

And what about this holy moment – this meal that Jesus knew would be his last. It is a meal of love and forgiveness, new life and promise. Everyone sitting at that table would let Jesus down. Every single one would fail the test of loyalty and friendship.  But Jesus shared his bread, his meal, and his life with them.

Maybe this meal will make us wonder – how is God feeding our spirits today? What gifts are we being offered today? Have we taken time to give God thanks and praise? Are we aware that there is always room at God’s table for each one of us? Can we be inspired by Jesus’ generosity and graciousness and love?

Holy Week: Wednesday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.  And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.  They were delighted and agreed to give him money.  He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.  (Luke 22: 3-6)

Yesterday’s story was filled with love and devotion and compassion as Mary anointed Jesus. In contrast, today’s reading is defined by betrayal and disappointment and hurt. Tradition calls today “Spy Wednesday,” the day that Judas agreed to betray Jesus.

            Life is filled with painful moments. A friend lets us down or isn’t there when we need them most. A loved one doesn’t seem to be listening or doesn’t appear to care about what is affecting us. We can feel alone, forgotten, pushed aside, even betrayed.

There is no explanation for Judas’ actions. This Holy Week story reminds us of the hard truth that we fallible, flawed human beings hurt one another regularly.

Judas’ story reminds us of times we have failed, of promises we have not kept, of moments when we have been self-absorbed and not available to listen or care or help. There have been times when we have turned our backs and when we have not done enough for someone in need.

There have also been times when we have been hurt by others. We have been on the receiving end of undeserved taunts and meanspirited gossip. Sometimes people don’t have our best interests at heart or may even try to actively do us harm.

Holy Week includes Judas’ story as well as other examples of our human failings. Maybe the story of Judas’ betrayal offers us a greater appreciation of God’s faithfulness. Unlike Judas, God will never leave or forsake us.

What can we learn from these stories? Can we ask for God’s forgiveness where it is needed – for ourselves and for others? Can we be inspired by Jesus who did not call for revenge?  Can we recognize our need for God’s help to face challenging, painful situations like these?