“Excitement” – Part One

On Epiphany Sunday I received my star word – “excitement.”  Everyone in our congregation is invited to reflect on one of 150 words. During the coming year we can ponder what God might be saying to us. How will God’s light be reflected through this simple paper star and how will it encourage us to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives?

I have an entire year to consider what the word “excitement” might be inviting me to do, learn, and experience. I have to admit, I was thrilled when I flipped the star over and “excitement” appeared. Even as a pastor in a small town in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut, it seems to me that the possibilities are endless.  I’m being invited to experience excitement! It may not be heart-pounding, dare-devil activities. I’m not sure sky diving is in my immediate future. But I can choose and seek things that make me laugh or bring me joy. I can take time to discover what brings a smile to my face and offers me a sense of satisfaction and that feeling of  “I’m glad I did that.” 

So far I have tried “bumper boats” (if you’ve never heard of it, I recommend it!  I couldn’t stop laughing!), I helped host a benefit concert in our sanctuary, and attended a talk about bald eagles in Connecticut followed by a thrilling walk where an eagle flew right by us! Last weekend my husband and I ventured out for a frosty walk at our local park and watched the ice fishermen bundled up in the cold. I have to admit, my adventurous spirit stopped at the shoreline, so I didn’t join them out on the ice, but I loved walking through the quiet woods and listening to the dramatic cracking and creaking of the ice responding to sunlight and temperature changes.

Since we worship a Creator with unlimited imagination, I’m looking forward to what the year will hold. Here’s to new adventures!

As fun as that is, I’m not sure that God means to be my tour guide through an endless array of new experiences. This word could also be inviting me to explore the excitement of learning new things. I have set myself a goal to learn more about racism – what it is and how it affects people. I think this will be “exciting” because it will expand my mind and introduce new ideas and thoughts. I suspect it will also be challenging because there is much I do not know; I anticipate that it will be humbling and eye-opening. It can be good to learn just how much I have to learn.

I have not accomplished as much in this part of my “excitement.” So far I signed up for a discussion group about the book Waking up White by Debby Irving which promises to be enlightening. I watched the movie “Green Book,” which I highly recommend; it is both entertaining and educational. Once again, I was astounded by how much of our own country’s history I do not know.

I have a whole year to enjoy “excitement” in whatever form it comes to me. I believe God is always inviting us to be more aware – aware of blessings, of God’s presence, of what we have yet to learn.  I’ll let you know how it’s going.

And – if you have a star word, I’d love to hear what it has meant to you so far this year.

If you would like a star word, just let me know and I’ll send you one.

What do you need?

                Our church celebrates Christmas Eve twice – once at 5:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 p.m.  Some ministers resist having two services but I enjoy both because they offer two very different, but entirely accurate versions of Christmas. The early service is crowded, noisy, and exuberant. The sanctuary walls are almost vibrating with energy as over-excited and over-sugared children try to hold it together so they can stay off the “naughty” list. This service represents “joy” to me.

             The late service is entirely different. Quiet, candle-lit, and hushed, our sanctuary glows with Christmas peace. Beautiful music soothes harried seekers who yearn to hear the Good News of a God who wants to be found. This service whispers “hope” to me.

 Although it was way past my bedtime, I shared the following reflection on Christmas Eve before we celebrated communion.

I hope you get everything you want for Christmas. And even more – I hope you get something that you need. That really is the question for Christmas, isn’t it – what do you need? It’s a good question to ask because if we know we need something, we will be ready to receive it.

We might even go looking for it.

Think about that very first Christmas. Who received something?

The shepherds did.  They heard the invitation – they heard angels singing, they heard the announcement of this miraculous birth. And they said to each other – I want that. I need that.  In beautiful Bible language, it sounds like this: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” But what they were saying was, “This is something I need. Here is something I lack. So I will go, I will seek, I will look until I find it. They knew what they needed so they could receive what God was offering.

It was the same for the wise men. They saw the star in the sky. It must have called to them, spoken to their spirit.  It must have awakened a need in them because they followed it across miles and miles. They journeyed a long way to find that young child. Because they knew that they needed what he had to offer.

I’m willing to bet that other people heard the angels’ song.  It wasn’t just the shepherds. And I’m sure that other people saw that star in the sky. But those people didn’t go looking. They aren’t part of the story.

Maybe they stayed home that night because they weren’t able to say that they had an empty spot in their hearts that could only be filled by a baby lying in a manger.

It’s a pretty vulnerable thing to say. To say – I am lacking something. I need something more.

Who knows what the shepherds were looking for?  Maybe it was

  • Love
  • Forgiveness
  • Courage
  • Strength
  • Reassurane

They needed something – and they needed it enough that they were willing to leave everything familiar behind. They wanted and needed something more. And they dared to believe that it was being offered to them.

That is the Good News of Christmas. This gift is being offered to you.

And we can either convince ourselves that we are “just fine” and we don’t need anyone or anything. Or we can take a look at ourselves and realize that we need what God is offering.

There is a saying that you can’t really celebrate Christmas unless you know that you are poor. We’re not talking about money here. We’re talking about what we need, deep inside of us. It’s about being able to say – I need God’s gifts. Sometimes we think we don’t need help. Or we think that we are beyond help. Beyond forgiveness. Beyond love. Beyond repair

We convince ourselves that we are unforgivable or unlovable. Or it’s just too late.

Christmas tells us that isn’t true. Christmas tells us that God wants to give, is waiting to give, is eager to give. Christmas tells us about God who seeks us out in order to be able to give us what we need. Christmas tells us about a God who puts stars in the sky so we will be able to find God. And who sends messengers so we will hear the Good News

Christmas is about the original gift-giver.

Christmas is about God who loves us. The one who knows what we need, even before we say. The one who is waiting for us to say – yes, please. I want this gift. I want the love, the forgiveness, the new life, the hope you are offering.

My reflection was inspired by this quote by Oscar Romero

 “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel, god-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador)

Learning from other traditions

My husband was raised Jewish and celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 14. Although he no longer attends weekly services, the holidays of his youth still echo in his heart. Therefore, in our home, amidst all the Advent candles and early Christmas preparations, we also celebrate Hanukkah.

This was a learning curve for me.When we were first married, I was eager to learn my beloved’s traditions. We started out by buying children’s books to enhance my education about the basics of this beautiful celebration. Just weeks after our wedding, we went to a Hanukkah festival at a nearby synagogue and purchased our first menorah together. Twenty-seven years later, we continue to share the stories and traditions with our adult children.

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On each of the eight nights, we light candles and recall the ancient miracle of a meager amount of oil that continued to burn brightly as it reflected the faith of the believers. We ponder the significance of God overcoming terrifying circumstances and the ability of a small group of dedicated people to stand up for their beliefs. We celebrate God’s faithfulness and take hope from the growing light shining in the darkness.

We enjoy latkes with applesauce and cherish a bit of family time as we spin the dreidel and play games.  Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, but its light-hearted joy offers vital reminders about standing up against evil and trusting in God.  

It turns out, of course, that it doesn’t have to be my tradition in order to have something to teach me. It doesn’t have to be my heritage in order to reveal more about the God I love.  While celebrating a holiday that is not my own, I have experienced what a wise (Jewish) professor of mine identified as “holy appreciation.” That is, I have the ability to appreciate the holy practices of others and when I do, I can learn about values that we both share.

We are not all meant to be alike.We are not called to all worship the same way. We can, however, learn with and from one another. And then everyone will be stronger.

For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mind, if we

each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some

of the darkness in the world.

  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The March – my experience

My bad feet survived.

My spirit soared.

It was thrilling to gather on the Mall, looking at our Capitol, surrounded by a vast sea of humanity of every age, color, and description.  I was filled with gratitude for our country which allows and guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.

The March was peaceful and it was powerful.

I never got close to the stage.  I couldn’t hear any of the speakers. But I didn’t need inspirational speeches to tell me about the need. I could hear that in the voices of those who surrounded me. Men and women, gay, straight, and trans.

Young and old.

Experienced marchers and novices.

All joined together to sing and chant their belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with dignity.

I read their message in their signs – some poignant, some angry, many humorous – but all advocating human rights for all of God’s people.

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What was the point?  The point was to stand together.

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These days it is possible to communicate and cooperate across the globe on-line and through social media. But sometimes we need to get out of our homes – and our comfort zones – and come together.

Sometimes we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with one another.

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I came back inspired and energized.

I came back realizing I am not alone in my concern about healthcare, the environment, the LGBT community, immigrants, and people of color.

I came back wanting to help save our planet from thoughtless abuse.

I came back determined to work hard on behalf of those who have no voice or are afraid.

I came back encouraged.

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I won’t give up.

And when I need to, I will march again.

Even in this circumstance, give thanks

Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.   Psalm 100

“Come you thankful people come,” we sing annually on Thanksgiving Sunday as we gaze at the cornucopia lovingly crafted by our favorite 90-something year old member. Overflowing with fruits and vegetables native to New England, she reminds us this horn-shaped symbol of plenty is “A living symbol of God’ abundant blessings.”

“Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving,” the Psalmist directs us. Admittedly, it is easier to approach those heavenly courts with praise when the sun is shining and all is right in our world.  But what about the other times?

Paul can sound like a grating nag when he urges, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” (1 Thessalonians 5:13). How would you like us to do that, Paul, when our spirits are nearly broken by circumstances that weigh down our souls?

Corrie ten Boon’s memory of leading forbidden worship in a World War II concentration camp might shed some light for us. Almost crushed by the effort of offering praise amidst wretched, flea-infested, frigid surroundings, they worshiped God.  Always fearful of discovery and punishment, they lifted whispered prayers of thanksgiving not only for the beloved community in that unholy place but also for the hardships they helped each other bear.  Months passed as their cherished worship continued uninterrupted by the usually brutal guards, offering encouragement to their battered spirits. Decades later, Corrie encountered a former prison guard who admitted he had never ventured into her barrack because he feared the overwhelming flea infestation. God was indeed in that place, utilizing every means to bless those worshipers.

We give thanks in all circumstances, not for them. Giving thanks for every good thing is easy. Giving thanks while staring down hatred, injustice, poverty or sadness may strain our faithfulness. Discerning God’s love while receiving cancer treatments, caring for a critically ill loved one or agonizing over a wayward child may challenge our belief.

Giving thanks is the beginning of trust. When we dare to pray, “Thank you God for being with me in this circumstance,” we may discover God’s strength and blessing when we need it most.

And may we pray, “Faithful God, may we remember the words of Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer I pray is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough. Thank you. Amen.”

More than a living corpse

“Whatever you do,” my wise New Testament professor lectured many years ago, “Don’t describe Easter as the resuscitation of a corpse.”  It was a startling statement.  We are, after all, talking about the fact that Jesus was dead and then alive again.

Easter is about that – and so much more.

If Easter was simply the annual celebration of a 2000 year old historical event it wouldn’t be very much. Who wants Easter to become of weary recounting of a long-ago occurrence?

Easter is not so much “ancient history” as it is “current events.” Easter is not only about what God did in the past, but about what God is doing right now.

  • When someone encounters hope in the midst of despair, that’s Easter.
  • When someone discerns some comfort even while dwelling in the shadow of death, that’s Easter.

Every time we encounter the absolute edge of our abilities and realize that we don’t have the strength to go on alone, we can pray Jesus’ prayer – not my will, but thine be done. Finding God in that place?  That’s Easter.

Easter happens when

  • We’ve come to “the end” – the end of a job, a relationship, our finances, our health – and then discover God is in that frightening, overwhelming place.
  • We have experienced loss or betrayal. When our spirits are as bleak as the night, when our phones are as silent as the grave, when it seems that all of our friends are sleeping or have disappeared. That’s when we should start looking for the promised light in the darkness.

Easter can be the over-the-top joy of trumpets and the Hallelujah chorus. The experience of hope and new life can fill our hearts until they are bursting with love.

Easter can also be a quiet encounter in a place of death and despair where we hear a whispered voice saying, “I know you. And I care.” Easter can be the pure, simple grace of discovering we are loved.

Amazingly, the Bible describes this life-changing, history-altering moment as a quiet one. The angels share this Good News with the women at the tomb. Just like when Jesus was born, these heavenly messengers are there to reassure, “Do not be afraid.” Just because nothing is as you imagined, simply because you are experiencing something you never dreamed possible – that is not a reason to be afraid.  There is joy to be shared. He is not dead, but alive.

The news gets passed along, one person at a time. Mary tells Peter.  Peter tells John. Jesus speaks a single word to Mary and her life is filled with hope.

When Jesus saw Mary by the tomb, there wasn’t an explosion of exuberant celebration – no parades of balloons and flowers. Jesus simply spoke her name, “Mary.” In that moment, God was saying, “I know where you are and what you are experiencing. I am with you.”  That’s Easter.

Coveting my neighbor’s religion

We know we are not supposed to covet – yearn to possess or have – other people’s belongings.  But what about coveting other people’s faith? Or their faith practices?

I have been a Congregationalist all my life, but I am inspired by the experiences and practices of other traditions and faiths.  I have to admit to a bit of “religious envy” when I think of observances not included in my own.

It isn’t that I want to convert to another faith.

I just want to learn from and maybe occasionally borrow some of the religious practices of others.

Here are some traditions that inspire me:

Namaste – when I go to my yoga practice, we begin and end by greeting one another and honoring the holy within.  We Christians have gotten away from recognizing the Christ, the divine, the Spirit that dwells in each one of us.  When we “pass the peace of Christ” on a Sunday morning, it is an attempt to share the holy with each other, but somehow it not as deeply satisfying as clasping my hands at my heart space, looking into another’s eyes to say “Namaste,” the holy in my greets the holy in you.

Crossing oneself. The Catholics do it. So do Episcopalians. It is a small gesture that somehow offers both a punctuation to prayer and a physical reminder of God’s presence. I find myself doing this at home sometimes when I yearn for a literal “hands on” expression of God’s presence.

Mezuzah – We have a mezuzah on our doorway, a small wooden box containing a tiny scroll with the Shema prayer: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.   Mezuzah

The mezuzah honors my husband’s Jewish upbringing but also reminds me that God’s presence goes with me as I enter into the world in the morning and arrive back home at night.  I  love the idea of praying as I go out and as I come in, that physical reminder that God goes with me

 Praying five times/day.  If you take the time to listen to the haunting and beautiful call to Muslim prayer  you will hear the words,

  • “God is the greatest,” sings the imman,
  • “I bear witness that there is no other deity beside God.”
  • “Make haste toward prayer.”

I love the idea of interrupting my busy day with the reminder of God’s presence and the invitation to pause and receive the refreshing Spirit of God.  It is too easy to allow an entire day – or even days – go by, filled with tasks and to-do lists, but not with the awareness of God.  If listening to a call to prayer from a minaret is not part of my Christian tradition, what method can I use to remind myself to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)?

Shabbat at home – another powerful Jewish practice, bringing our faith into the home with prayers, lighting candles, songs, and sharing.  What a powerful way to share faith and to pass along traditions, values, and learning to our children.

The season of Lent invites us to develop and deepen our spiritual practices by celebrating our own while also honoring others. I can learn from others even as I honor my own Christian tradition.

What spiritual practices will you incorporate into your life to remind yourself of God’s presence with you, every day?

Lent