Advent: Praying for Peace

December 8th will be the second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Peace. As we light two candles on our Advent wreath, we will give thanks for God’s gifts of Hope and Peace.

It would be understandable if someone in the congregation raised a hand to ask the obvious question, “What peace are we celebrating? Where do you see peace in our world today?”

Certainly not in New Orleans, where 10 people were shot this week.

Not in Hong Kong where rioters demand free speech and increased self-determination.

Not in too many homes where incidences of domestic violence are on the rise.

Addiction, racism, prejudice, misogyny, and bullying are all forms of violence which are prevalent in our society and across the globe. 

It is enough to make one hesitate about lighting a candle of Peace.

As I pondered these troubling truths, I came across this beautiful prayer:

God of life,

Every act of violence in our world, between myself and another destroys a part of your creation.

Stir in my heart a renewed sense of reverence for all life.

Give me the vision to recognize your spirit in every human being, however they behave towards me.

Make possible the impossible by cultivating in me the fertile seed of healing love.

May I play my part in breaking the cycle of violence by realizing that peace begins with me.

The painful honesty of this prayer touched me. Then I discovered that this prayer had been written in the 7th century. It was oddly reassuring to me to be reminded that people of faith have prayed for peace across the centuries and through great tribulation. They have offered themselves up, as Saint Francis did, as instruments of God’s peace and asked to be used as messengers of God’s vision for our world.  

 This prayer was written by Saint Ethelburga who, I learned, was the founder and abbess of a double monastery (a monastery that housed both men and women) in England.  The abbey existed for 900 years until it was destroyed (ironically) by the violence of King Henry VIII who oversaw the disillusion of all the monasteries and abbeys in England, Wales, and Ireland.

Yet despite the efforts of a powerful king, this eloquent prayer has survived. On the second Sunday of Advent we will join our prayers with hers as we celebrate the Sunday of Peace. The Season of Advent does not celebrate accomplishments but rather voices God’s intention for God’s people.

God desires that we live in peace.

God desires that we treat one another with kindness and respect.

God desires justice and equality for all of God’s people.

So on Sunday we will light our candle of peace and together with Saint Ethelburga remember that peace begins with each one of us.

Advent: A New Beginning

Whenever I hear people talk about Christmas, I hear the word “stress.” Even enthusiastic holiday-celebraters admit to a certain amount of dread this time of year. And with good reason – our society depicts Christmas as a set goal with pre-determined outcomes. There seem to be a lot of “shoulds” connected with Christmas. There “should” be a perfectly decorated tree with beautifully wrapped gifts. There “should” be delicious food for happy guests (who all get along) around a creatively decorated table. Carefully decorated cookies “should” be baked with happy, well-rested, non-whiny children. And everything “should” be perfectly prepared by this unmovable deadline.  Is it any wonder that Christmas can feel like an overwhelming burden?

 The season of Advent, which begins on December 1st, is very different. While Christmas can feel like a marathon march to an exhausted finish line, Advent is the gift of a journey with an unknown destination. Christmas is about completion; Advent is discover and wondering. Christmas might feel proscribed; Advent is surprise and discovery.

Advent has a sense of mystery about it as we follow, search, wonder, and venture out in faith. It is an opportunity to trust as God leads us into an unknown future. The possibilities are as unlimited as our Creator.

During Advent we remember those who said “yes” to invitations in the past.  The shepherds hear Good News of great joy and go on a journey of discovery to “go and see” what God has done. The wise men respond to the flickering light of a star and place their faith in God out of the familiar and into the unknown. Mary begins her life-changing journey with an unshakeable faith. Joseph trusts that these incomprehensible events will reveal God’s love and purpose.

Into each journey is interwoven the theme of “do not be afraid.”

This Advent, do not be afraid…

 although you venture into the unknown.

although you feel very alone.

although the end result is not clear.

The season of Advent reminds us that God is “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.” What new thing do you imagine or dream of? Where might God be inviting you to go? What unknown is placed before you and where is God in that? What do you need to leave behind in order to discover this new thing that God is doing?

 Advent is about mystery and possibility and wonder. A candle glows to provide just enough light to take the next step. The promise of Advent is filled with possibility and new life.

Where will your Advent journey take you?

I wish you the joy and blessings of Advent.

Advent: A New Beginning

Whenever I hear people talk about Christmas, I hear the word “stress.” Even enthusiastic holiday-celebraters admit to a certain amount of dread this time of year. And with good reason – our society depicts Christmas as a set goal with pre-determined outcomes. There seem to be a lot of “shoulds” connected with Christmas. There “should” be a perfectly decorated tree with beautifully wrapped gifts. There “should” be delicious food for happy guests (who all get along) around a creatively decorated table. Carefully decorated cookies “should” be baked with happy, well-rested, non-whiny children. And everything “should” be perfectly prepared by this unmovable deadline.  Is it any wonder that Christmas can feel like an overwhelming burden?

 The season of Advent, which begins on December 1st, is very different. While Christmas can feel like a marathon march to an exhausted finish line, Advent is the gift of a journey with an unknown destination. Christmas is about completion; Advent is discover and wondering. Christmas might feel proscribed; Advent is surprise and discovery.

Advent has a sense of mystery about it as we follow, search, wonder, and venture out in faith. It is an opportunity to trust as God leads us into an unknown future. The possibilities are as unlimited as our Creator.

During Advent we remember those who said “yes” to invitations in the past.  The shepherds hear Good News of great joy and go on a journey of discovery to “go and see” what God has done. The wise men respond to the flickering light of a star and place their faith in God out of the familiar and into the unknown. Mary begins her life-changing journey with an unshakeable faith. Joseph trusts that these incomprehensible events will reveal God’s love and purpose.

Into each journey is interwoven the theme of “do not be afraid.”

This Advent, do not be afraid…

 although you venture into the unknown.

although you feel very alone.

although the end result is not clear.

The season of Advent reminds us that God is “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.” What new thing do you imagine or dream of? Where might God be inviting you to go? What unknown is placed before you and where is God in that? What do you need to leave behind in order to discover this new thing that God is doing?

 Advent is about mystery and possibility and wonder. A candle glows to provide just enough light to take the next step. The promise of Advent is filled with possibility and new life.

Where will your Advent journey take you?

I wish you the joy and blessings of Advent.

Praying for strangers

Who do you pray for? Would you pray for someone you don’t know?

 On October 6th we celebrated World Communion Sunday. It is interesting that this celebration was originated in 1936, which was another time in history when countries and individuals needed to be reminded that we are all beloved children of God. World Communion Sunday celebrates our inter-connectedness as we remember that our actions (or lack of action) has an impact on others.

World Communion Sunday is, by definition, a Christian commemoration but our worship lifts up countries, religions, and people across the globe to ask for God’s blessing.

            One of our practices on this special Sunday is to use a variety of breads during communion. Instead of the usual white bread that symbolizes the Body of Christ, the congregation was invited to choose from breads representing different parts of the world. South American tortillas, Asian rice cakes, and Israeli matzos graced our communion table. Breads of different colors and textures like pumpernickel, rye, corn, and Italian represented the diversity of God’s people and the richness of our unique cultures and heritage.

            As people entered our sanctuary, everyone received a slip of paper with the name of a country. In the days ahead, we are all encouraged to learn a little bit about that country and offer prayers on behalf of the people who live there.

            “My” country is the Maldives. While I recognized the name enough to know that they are islands, I couldn’t have told you much more than that.  I have since learned that the Maldives are a collection of 1,190 islands and atolls (my new vocabulary word: a reef made out of coral) southwest of India in the Indian Ocean.

 After watching a number of travel videos, I was tempted to put a trip to the Maldives on my bucket list but I suspect the expense will prevent any first-hand exploration of this beautiful country. My first impression of this country was “island paradise.” However, when I learned that their highest point of elevation is a mere 8 feet, my second thought was “island on the brink of disaster.” Rising sea levels cannot bode well for this fragile environment.

So I will pray for the people of the Maldives. Why might we pray for people we don’t know? These prayers are not so much to nag an already compassionate God to care about God’s people, but are much more a celebration of our connection to one another. They are also a much-needed reminder that when I am personally powerless to lend a hand (in the Maldives or elsewhere), I can trust that God’s Spirit of love, peace, and comfort is with those in need.

These prayers ward off feelings of despair and helplessness and may well nudge me to take action where I can.

So go ahead and pray. Pray for your loved ones and pray for those you’ll never meet. And trust that the God of yesterday, today, and forever is moving in and through the lives of God’s people.  

Learning from Farmers

What can churches learn from the farmers? Something new is happening on the farms and we ought to be paying attention. Here in the picturesque “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut dairy farms, vegetable fields, and orchards are no longer simply beautiful scenery to admire from afar. Visitors are invited to drive into farmyards and traipse through the growing fields to experience the farms first-hand. Farm-fresh eggs, freshly mixed yogurt, homegrown meat, milk (including chocolate!), apple cider, and a huge variety of fruits and vegetables are at our disposal. We can know – and see – where our food comes from.

 It changes everything. Now we have the opportunity to chat with the hardworking folks who put food on our tables and we can ask questions of people who labor according to the seasons and whose lives are affected by the weather. We can see the cows, hear the roosters and sheep, stroll through blueberry patches, and wander through the apple trees.

            The farmers are evolving with the times. It is no longer profitable or practical to grow their products and ship them all to a distributor. In response to the strong interest in the “farm to table” movement, they are inviting people to realize what is required to produce fresh food. They are discovering that people are willing to pay a bit more and drive a bit out of their way in order to benefit from delicious, local food.

 Some of these farms are over 200 years old, but “innovation” is their mantra. Their enthusiasm for their products and their way of life is leading them to discover new ways to engage their customers.

            The Woodstock Orchard opened up a bakery. Customers are greeted by enticing aromas of apple cider doughnuts, freshly baked pies and crispy turnovers. Apples are still the primary product, but customers can also find apples dipped in caramel and apple cider as well as a variety of vegetables, pumpkins, and flowers. Weary parents can grab a healthy treat for hungry children while doing all of their shopping in one location.  

Woodstock Orchard has a wide variety of fresh food.

           That same creative marketing can be found at the Creamery at Valleyside Farm. Inside the compact store visitors can view the workers in the backroom mixing up batches of yogurt and creamy dips. Don’t have time to stop? They brilliantly offer a drive-through window. Parents who can’t face another round of car-seat wrestling and teenagers in a hurry can glide up to the window and order milk, ice cream, and yogurt to go. Receipts are texted to their cell phones. This is not your grandfather’s farm; they are embracing the 21st century.            

Angela Young greets customers at the drive-through window at Valleyside Farm.

            Down another backroad is – amazingly – an ice cream stand. The cute Farm to Table Market gives visitors the chance to stock up on farm products before they wander outside to enjoy creamy dairy treats while communing with the cows in a nearby field.

The Farm to Table Market in East Woodstock

            Churches can learn from the “can-do” spirit of the farmers. Society has changed and life is different than it was decades ago. Churches, like farms, need to adapt. The way it’s “always” been done may not work anymore. These farms are demonstrating a simple truth – we must find new ways to offer the valuable products we have. For farmers that might mean farm stands and new products. For churches it might mean creative scheduling and a willingness to dream of new ways to share Good News that the world needs to hear.

            Stop by a local farm and be inspired.

“Peaceful racists”

Some words just don’t fit together.  Like “sweet lemon” or “warm ice.”

Or – “peaceful racists.”

That’s how the organizer of the ridiculously named group “Super Happy Fun America” described participants in the abhorrent “Straight Pride” parade that took place in Boston last weekend.

“Peaceful racists” don’t exist.

Racism is, by definition, violent.

Racism excludes, demeans, ostracizes, and belittles.

Racism robs people of opportunities.

Racism denies people a voice.

Racism categorizes people based on their skin color, ethnicity, or nationality.

Racism refuses to recognize the complexity of human experience with all of its pain, experience, and joy.

Racism keeps people out instead of welcoming them in.

Racism hurts.

There are no “peaceful racists.”

 The poorly attended “straight pride” parade was a weak attempt at mimicking the glorious annual Gay Pride parade which celebrates humanity in all of its diversity. The Gay Pride parade is about widening the circle to ensure everyone can participate; it is a celebration of welcome and inclusion and revels in the vibrant richness of God’s people.

Let’s call racism what it is – despicable.

Instead, let’s live out words that go together well: Extravagant welcomer. Radical includer. Heartfelt sharer.  

And let’s share God’s love and welcome.

God’s Welcome Table

On Sunday we will celebrate communion during worship. Before the bread and the cup are shared, I will say, “Everyone is welcome at God’s table. Whether you have been here hundreds of times before or whether this is a first occasion, whether you are filled with faith or overcome with doubt, whether you are sure of who God is or whether you are searching for even a glimpse of God in your life, you are welcome here.”

Sometimes I use words like, “Everyone is welcome here – old, young, and in-between, gay, straight, transgender, and questioning, people of all races and cultures, all are welcome here.” Each month I wonder how to express the welcome that God offers. God’s inclusion is so broad that it can be challenging to express in words.

How should we describe it? Everyone is welcome here…

–       Those who need forgiveness and those who are seeking to forgive

–       Those who are addicted, those who are celebrating sobriety, those who are seeking to live life one day at a time

–       Those who are angry and seeking solace, those who are worried and searching for reassurance, those who are broken-hearted and feel as if they will never be happy again, those whose lives have been shattered by violence, illness, or loss

–       Those who are parents or grandparents who rejoice in love shared and those who review past moments with an aching regret, worrying about words spoken or unspoken to those they love.

–       Those overwhelmed by the responsibilities of care-giving who wonder if they will make it through one more day, one more meal prep, one more doctor’s visit, one more sleepless night

–       Those who feel permanently, constantly, achingly unwelcome because of their race, gender, or sexuality

–       Those who are overworked and those who are unemployed; those whose calendars are overbooked and those who yearn to fill empty days and hours

Who is welcome? All of us. Us, in all of our variations, differences, and commonalities. Every single one of us – we are welcome in God’s sight and invited to God’s table.

What joy, what relief, what reassurance.

Come and eat.

Taste and enjoy.

Receive the gifts of a loving God.

              This is the message, the Good News, that we – as the church and as individuals – are called to live out every day. We are meant to express and embody God’s love, forgiveness, and new life at work, at home, and in the world.

            Who do you know that needs that message of love, forgiveness, and inclusion?  How can you find a way to convey kindness and understanding?

And be sure to invite them to church sometime – let them know that they are always welcome here.