Palm Cross Prayer of Confession

Palm Cross Prayer of Confession

Liturgy first led in worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt on March 29, 2015 at our Upstream Service. The liturgy is designed so that the responsive confession is happening while the palm frond is being folded. I recommend letting the congregation know this before the invitation. Also, take your time and be sure to show them your frond you are folding (and/or project images of the folds close up – feel free to use my photos for this) so that the congregation can follow along. I did provide the written directions alongside the liturgy when I used it in worship. Since different people receive information if different ways, I recommend having the directions visually and in written form.

Invitation to Confession: The palms don’t wave for long. Just moments later and the people were picking up their coats, cleaning them off, and going about their day. So, too, we are quick to move on, pass the joy of welcoming our savior, into our own concerns in day to day living. Together, we transform celebration into ignorance, and our ignorance is transformed into pain. As we confess our sins together, we fold palms into crosses, symbolizing the journey of Holy Week. Together let us pray:

Prayer of confession

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Holding palm frond

Holding palm frond

Leader: We come knowing the way we ought to live

People: The path of righteousness laid before us

 

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Bending 2/3s of frond over to back

Bending 2/3s of frond over to back

Leader: But we bow before so many idols

People: Ego, status, wealth

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Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece (here's what that looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece (here’s what that looks like if you are not holding on to it)

 

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece

Leader: Offered the guidance of the Holy Spirit

People: We turn away

 

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Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards (here's what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards (here’s what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards

Leader: Offered God’s boundless love

People: We draw boundaries around those we will love

 

Folding frond in on itself

Folding frond in on itself

Folding frond in on itself (here's what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding frond in on itself (here’s what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding frond in on itself

Leader: Offered the peace of Christ

People: We join the crowd in demanding for his crucifixion

 

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Leader: For all of these things we ask forgiveness

People: When our “Hosannas” turn to “Crucify Him!”, we know not what we are doing.

 

Here are a few finishing steps to tie them. I did not put them in the liturgy itself simply for timing, but the end of the last piece folded can be tied around the back as shown below:

Folding end around the middle

Folding end around the middle

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Tucking the end into the middle back

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Pulling the end tight. I then ripped off the loose part, but it could be looped through again so it will lie flatter

Learn more about FPC Holt’s Upstream Service here:

Litany of Joy from NEXT Church National Gathering 2015

I started this post out with the formal title of “Reflections,” but once I decided what I really wanted to hold onto from this conference, it came out in bursts of inspiration and joy, the little and big things that were life-giving in this short, Spirit-filled three day conference. So here are the gifts of inspiration that I am bringing with me out of this experience:

  • Collaborative Arts Workshop at Grace Commons: A tremendous, eye opening workshop, reflecting on the collaborative art that has been created in community at Grace Commons including stations of the cross reflecting on individuals’ experience of immigration
  • Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb

    and creation of icons through collage in various liturgical seasons. I appreciated that Pastor Nanette Sawyer shared the processes of the different projects, including showing us how for the collage the icon was first traced and then set up in a sort of paint by number fashion, with one color painted each week, which was then to be filled in by magazine clippings of that same color.

    Another helpful piece of that workshop was hear about Grace Common’s four-fold liturgical pattern. Most intriguing of which was a poetry based liturgy with improvised music to match

    We also had the tremendous privilege at that workshop of hearing the liturgical music of Rob Clearfield, the musician of Grace Commons. He has written many beautiful theologically thoughtful songs to accompany the liturgy at Grace Commons.

  • John Hendrix‘s sketch art responses to the conference throughout our time together:

  • My own chance encounter with Dwight McCormick: Dwight’s business card reads “Pastor, public speaker, and comic,” and he happened to join the group of people I was talking to informally on Tuesday night. I’m so glad he did. He had taught a workshop the previous day on “Improv: the Art of Listening, Being Present, and Not Being Afraid,” which I did not attend simply for the fact that I could not be two places at once. We chatted about improv, the way it cultivates attitudes and ideas that are life giving in relationships…which is a very polished way of saying we had a great time geeking out about our shared love of improv.
  • Crowdfunding the Church IGNITE presentation: I’ve experienced different crowdfunding initiatives, but it was interesting seeing crowdfunding framed as a way to draw people from outside of your church into your community through the very things you are most passionate about.
  • Biblical Storytelling by Casey Wait FitzGerald: I first experienced her ministry last year at NEXT Church and have been blessed to get to know Casey and her ministry through the Young Clergy Women Project as well as her podcast, Story Divine and blog, Faith and Wonder. It is always a joy to hear her lead worship in person. The story begins at 3:05 in the video below, which also contains a service that is all around wonderful with a great discussion of the church as a “third space”:
  • Collaborative art during the conference, which was transformed into the final form of a bird lifted up in the sanctuary

So grateful also for the less easily defined, but tremendously life-giving interactions I had throughout the conference with many individuals who offer a hopeful vision of the future of the PCUSA. To learn more about NEXT Church, as well as see orders of worship, recordings of the conference livestream, and additional conference notes check out the website: http://nextchurch.net/ .

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2015

A favorite practice of mine on this blog is to put together playlists for liturgical seasons, based on the songs that have been buzzing about my brain on the themes of the Biblical narratives. Some of the previous years’ Holy Week playlists are available on my blog:

– 2013: Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist – 2014: Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2014 Addition

As we are now approaching Holy Week, here are some songs that resonate for me this year:

Note: These songs are not specific expositions on the Gospel, but rather they reflect the mood and themes in ways I find helpful as approaching these narratives

Maundy Thursday

“Believe” by Mumford and Sons

“I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
Everything you’re trying to say to me

I had the strangest feeling
Your world’s not what it seems
So tired of misconceiving
What else this could’ve been”

This song speaks to me of the disciples’ frustration in trying to understand what it is Jesus is saying to them.

Good Friday

“No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” by Sufjan Stevens

Be aware that this one does have explicit lyrics

The depth of the frustration, pain, and exhaustion in the repeated line “no shade in the shadow of the cross,” speaks for me to the lost feeling that the disciples must have had following Christ’s crucifixion

Holy Saturday

“World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies

“Woke up and wished that I was dead
With an aching in my head
I lay motionless in bed
I thought of you and where you’d gone
and let the world spin madly on

Everything that I said I’d do
Like make the world brand new
And take the time for you
I just got lost and slept right through the dawn
And the world spins madly on”

This song echoes for me how lost the disciples felt, knowing that they were called to carry on Jesus’ message of hope, but not quite able to rally without guidance from Jesus.

Easter

“I Ain’t the Same” by Alabama Shakes

“I ain’t the same no more
In fact I have changed from before
No, you ain’t gonna find me
Oh no, cause I’m not who I used to be”

I’ve always been intrigued by the way Mary is unable to recognize Jesus post resurrection. This song makes me think of the way both Jesus and Mary were changed by the resurrection, and how we are transformed by encountering Jesus at Easter.

Presbyterian Resources on the Web

As part of an Exploratory Gathering at FPC Holt, I was tasked with putting together a list of online resources. After crowd-sourcing other PCUSA leaders I discovered some new resources as well. Feel free to check out the FPC Holt specific resources to see what we’re up to (and what God is up to in our midst) or the broader resources to connect with the PCUSA:

Presbyterian Resources on the Web

FPC Holt Website: http://www.fpc-holt.org/

Web presence for our church with weekly Chanters, bi-monthly newsletters, and past sermons.

FPC Holt Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/fpcholt

News, updates, and resources for our church and wider community

FPC Holt Twitter Page: https://twitter.com/fpcholt

News, updates, and resources for our church and wider community, with further opportunity to engage in live experiences.

FPC Holt Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/155759854487131/

A forum for prayer requests and other information for our church family

“I’ll ChicaGO Where You Send Me”: http://chicagowhereyousendme.weebly.com/

Blog of FPC Holt member, Teresa Larson, serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Chicago.

ACT Uganda: http://actuganda2014.blogspot.com/

Blog of our church’s ministry with Agape Community Transformation (ACT) in Uganda.

Camp Greenwood: http://campgreenwood.org/

The PCUSA camp that our church is affiliated with.

Presbytery of Lake Michigan: http://www.lakemichiganpresbytery.org/

Resources and contact information for the churches of our presbytery.

Theocademy: http://www.theocademy.com/

Drawing on the vast gifts of our denomination, Theocademy wants to provide members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the finest theological education they can get short of attending one of our 10 seminaries. Free videos on the website with DVDs available for purchase as well. There are videos particularly designed for new members as well as for ruling elders and deacons.

D365: http://d365.org/

Provides daily devotions online written especially for youth and young adults

Presbyterian Daily Readings: www.presbyterianmission.org/devotion/

Provides the two-year Daily Lectionary from the Book of Common Worship and the three-year Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sundays and festivals.

The Thoughtful Christian: http://www.thethoughtfulchristian.com/

Offers downloadable resources for study groups and individuals at affordable prices with new studies added weekly.

Mission Yearbook: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/yearbook/

Stories of the PCUSA throughout our country and world, organized with one entry for each day. Engage in ministry alongside them by praying through the Mission Yearbook.

What’s Next What’s Now: http://whatsnextwhatsnow.org/

Equipping young adults for the journey of faith. What’s Next What’s Now is a central hub connecting young adults to their passions and interests and helping others connect better to young adults.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: http://pda.pcusa.org/

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance enables congregations and mission partners of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to witness to the healing love of Christ through caring for communities adversely affected by crises and catastrophic events.

All PCUSA Blogs: http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/

Through the Bible, the cornerstone of our faith, we know the stories of God’s efforts to communicate with creation and of creation’s response. God communicates through rainbows and burning bush, through earthquakes and fire, and through the still small voice. We pray that God will speak through us as we tell new stories of the faith, life and mission found in Christ’s church.

“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20; June 15, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Commission”
Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of JesupSLIDE 1 - Great Comission

Our scripture today is a familiar one, likely that you have heard in a variety of contexts: at baptisms, during confirmations, and before mission trips. Perhaps in reading this passage you feel energized to do the work of Christ, emboldened to go out into the world. Perhaps. But more than likely it makes you feel the way it makes most people feel: inadequate and perhaps even guilty. When we read familiar scripture we inevitably bring to it all the other ways we have experienced it, and since this one is so often used in contexts of people’s faithfulness, it can be convicting and perhaps frustrating to place this commissioning alongside our own lives. And so let’s dig in a bit deeper, and hopefully God will have a new word for each of us, emboldening us to take on this commission of discipleship in our own lives.

Our scripture tells us that the eleven disciples went to Galilee. All throughout the gospels we are told of the 12 disciples, their recruitment, their unity as brother’s in Christ, their perpetual need to have things explained to them by Jesus time and time again. But now, one disciple is markedly absent, Slide02 Judas, the one who betrayed with a kiss, the one who was lost. Starting this passage with this numeration of the eleven rather than the twelve, draws attention to the way that even Jesus, the one who shared the gospel and was the Gospel, had a disciple that chose a different path.

SLIDE 3 - WorshipNext our scripture tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Notice that all worshiped, even though some doubted. Doubt and worship are not mutually exclusive expressions of relationship with God. Remember Jesus did not admonish his disciple Thomas when he doubted, but rather drew close and revealed his side for Thomas’ touch. SLIDE 4- DoubtDoubt is welcome, even and especially in worship. Our doubt gives room for a deeper understanding of God, it’s when we think we have God all figured out that we lose room for growth.

Luther Seminary professor, David Lose writes, “I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples — that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best — do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are – people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - Heaven and EarthNext in our scripture Jesus speaks out of his authority of heaven and earth, telling these disciples, to also go and make disciples of all nations. With Jesus speaking on behalf of both heaven and earth that means that our work is not simply relegated to one’s lifetime on earth, but also their eternal experience beyond anything we can know. This is a hopeful thing when we feel like our work as disciples has been ineffectual.

Slide06As C.S. Lewis put it: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

This business of following God in seeking to right can be disheartening. We live in results oriented culture and so we seek immediate and measurable progress. We very well might not be witness to the transformation that God seeks to take place through us. We are called to reveal God’s love, to offer the joy of the Gospel, but we might not see a response. Trusting that God is responsible for God’s promises, we can have confidence that our work is not in vain.

Slide07It is not lost on me that this Great Commissioning passage came up in the lectionary on the very same week that I have offered my resignation as pastor of this church. It has been a quite a difficult decision to do so. It is hard not to feel like I am letting you down, and letting God down in the work that I have been called to. I received council from wise pastors who reminded me that though I am called to minister to specific churches at specific times, my larger vocation is a call to serve God, and that never changes. And so part of my task of ministry is one of discernment, determining whether I am called to stay or to go, whether a particular church at a particular time requires my gifts or the gifts of another minister. And while it’s certainly not an easy decision, I do believe it is the right one. Sometimes the commissioning for ministry looks like staying put, sometimes it looks like going out, either way, God uses us to be the Church.

Slide08In our scripture today, Christ affirms that we are called to make disciples through baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding with the promise that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. The “go therefore” of this passage is possible for us and for the disciples because we are not on own own or left to our own devices.

Slide09The Trinitarian formula of this passage, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is particularly highlighted on this Sunday, as we acknowledge today as “Trinity Sunday.” The trinity provides a framework whereby we may better understand our relational God, through the various way we relate to God. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that remains with us, enlivens us with the energy and joy of service. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the aspect of God that shows us how to live through example, through Christ’s life and ministry on earth. And God the Father, is the aspect of God that has to do with creation and formation. Through all these ways we are able to know and relate to God.SLIDE 10 - People of the ChurchGreek scholars will be quick to point out that just as God remains with us, our call is not just for us alone, but for all of God’s disciples together. In the Greek the verbs of this commission are in the plural. This is a commission not just for one person, but for the whole community. We need each other in order to fulfill God’s call on our lives and on our world.

We are called to worship even as we doubt, to baptize on earth even as we struggle with what is to come in heaven. We are called to do all of the things in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] May we be emboldened to do so. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3254

[2] Matthew 28:19

“Beginnings and Endings,” Acts 2:1-21; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Beginnings and Endings”
Acts 2:1-21
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I love home makeover shows. I love seeing the before and after, I love seeing how things come together, but my favorite part? The moment the family finds out that they are getting a home makeover.

In my favorite home makeover show, Slide02 Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, we saw Ty Pennington and crew come running into the family’s life, bullhorn in hand. I loved watching how the family reacts, knowing that their lives are going to be changed. In several episodes, people have explained their reaction as a “weight being lifted.” Most people just screamed and jumped up and down.

This is not unlike what happens in our Pentecost narrative today. Slide03The Holy Spirit rolls into where the disciples are gathered and changes everything. The Spirit comes not with a bullhorn, but with a sound like rushing wind. In Greek, the word for Spirit can also be translated as breath, and in this Pentecost action, the Divine Breath is breathing into the assembly. This raw and electric energy ignites the people assembled, giving each the ability to be heard and understood by the others, even though each speaks a different language. The people are beside themselves, prophesying, dreaming dreams, and seeing visions.

Slide04When watching these makeover shows, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the stories. The way we come to care about these people and their reactions is that these TV shows don’t just start out with showing up at someone’s door. We hear their story, many of all varieties of heartbreak and hardship. We hear specifically how getting a new home, one built to their needs, will make their lives better. We learn how a new home like this is not something they can build on their own.

Slide05The disciples too have had their own heartbreaks and hardships. These people have been following a man that they knew to be the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who gave them guidance, instruction, and purpose. When he died, they knew why, he died to save humankind from sin. However, this knowledge surely did not protect them from sadness at missing day to day breathing contact with this man.

Back even farther into the Judeo-Christian community’s history, was another heartbreak: Babel. SLIDE 7 - Tower of Babel In Genesis 11:1-9 we read of this story:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Slide06The builders of this city and tower were building not so that they might have a home that would meet their needs, but rather, that it might help them to “make a name for themselves.” They were trying to reach God, not for relationship or connection, but for dominance. And so God came into the story, and muddled their language so that they might not be so self-assured. They were scattered so that they could relearn how to be together.

SLIDE 8 - TrinityThroughout the Biblical narratives, we discover that when the Trinity enters into the human narrative, it’s to restore balance. In Babel, what the people needed was humility and diversifying their language created that. It made them reevaluate, reconsider, regroup. It forced them to work more on their relationships than their conquests.

SLIDE 9 - Pentecost PeopleBy the time we get to Acts 2, the people desire to understand one another, not for the sake of dominance, but for the sake of relationship. And so, to restore balance, the Holy Spirit enters in and allows the people to understand each other. Pentecost changes not the result of Babel, for we are blessed to be part of a diverse world, but rather it changes the impact of Babel. As the people were scattered following Babel they went out into the world forming their own communities, identities, and cultures. Now as they come together at Pentecost, though everyone is speaking in different languages, they are able to understand one another. They are able to relate within and through their diversity through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within this moment, the foundation of the Christian church as we know it today is established.

Slide10Pope John Paul II explained this well saying, “According to the text of Genesis 11, the builders of Babel had decided to build a city with a great tower whose top would reach the heavens. The sacred author sees in this project a foolish pride, which flows into division, disorder and lack of communication. On the day of Pentecost, on the other hand Jesus’ disciples do not want to climb arrogantly to the heavens but are humbly open to the gift that comes down from above. While in Babel the same language is spoken by all but they end up not understanding each other, on the day of Pentecost different languages are spoken, yet they are very clearly understood. This is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.”

Slide11There’s another thing that I can’t help but want to see on makeover shows, but that is not featured on too many of them: when they follow up a few months later. When a makeover show ends with someone receiving a home, achieving record weight loss, or now having the perfect wardrobe, we know that at this moment, things are good. At this moment there is hope of sustaining this transformation. However, months or years down the line, things might not be quite that way.

A child may have outgrown their highly thematic room, the doctor’s bills may be accumulating once again, the weight may be regained, or the cancer that had been in remission may come back.

In the Pentecost story in Acts, the Breath of all breath breathes into these disciples. The church is made alive by Pentecost fire. The people are linguistically reconnected to brothers and sisters separated by thousands of years of division. And now, 2000 years later, where are they now? By the grace of God and the work of millions of missionaries, the Gospel has been spread to nearly every country, and continues to be spread throughout communities around the world. Within the tradition of the Church we are the inheritors of hundreds of years of teachings and liturgy. A cloud of witnesses who have come before us surrounds us. But, with such gifts, also comes a history of deep division. Wars have been fought in the name of Christianity. Lines have been drawn for the sake of polity. The unity achieved by the Holy Spirit in Pentecost seems to have faded away. We are Pentecost people, but we are living like we are still suffering the consequences of Babel.

Slide12Galatians 3:26-29 tells us: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus came to this world to end division, give us hope, and like those home makeover recipients, lift our burdens. On this Pentecost day, know that the Holy Spirit is still breathing in and through this community. God is still yearning to be present in all that we say and do. Amen.

“Can You Believe It?” Mark 16:1-14; April 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Can You Believe It?”
Mark 16:1-14
April 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Easter morning growing up I remember waking up early, my often-groggy eyes opening excitedly in the anticipation of what was to come. Then my sister and I would wake our parents and rush them downstairs so we could see what the Easter bunny had brought for us. We were excited because to us Easter meant baskets and chocolate and home sewn often-matching Easter dresses. Over the years we celebrate Easter in a variety of locations, from my grandparents house in Chattanooga, TN, to Florida on a spring break vacation, own home, but each time the routine was similar, the feeling was similar: joy, anticipation, and family.

Slide02Two thousand years ago, the first Easter held a very different feeling: sadness, fear, and grief. We are told was early in the morning, the day after the Sabbath, and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb where Jesus was laid. They likely walked slowly in the morning light, united in the grief that things would never be the same with this Jesus they had all followed, they had all loved. They brought with them spices for anointing Jesus’ body, which meant of course that they were expecting a body. They were coming as they likely had to so many other gravesides, to do the dirty work of grief, washing, anointing, preparing. They were worried about the logistics: who would roll away the tomb, how would they draw close to their beloved Jesus?

They were coming for a funeral, a memorial. What they found was an entirely different scene.

Slide03They approach the tomb and there they find the stone had already been rolled away. At this point I would imagine their adrenaline would kick in, wondering who else could be there, what their motivations were for rolling back that stone. Were they friends or would they wish these women harm?

SLIDE 4 - Angel in TombThey take a collective deep breath and enter the tomb, where they see a young man, dressed in a white robe. They are frightened by this sight and can you blame them?

They were expecting death and found resurrection! They were expecting to see brokenness and saw holiness. It was a shocking sight!

The man says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Slide05We are told that they ran from the tomb, in terror and amazement, and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Slide06When you approached the church today, this Easter morning, what did you come expecting? That Easter morning 2000 years ago they were expecting brokenness, they had come in grief. Why aren’t we all dressed in black? We’re here remembering the life of Jesus, right?

SLIDE 7 - FPC CrossWell, actually we’re here for much more than that. We’re not dressed for a funeral, because that is not what we’re expecting. Many of us are wearing bright colors, new dresses and ties, colors of Spring, of new life. We have confidence in something more than the death that the women of the Easter morning were expecting, we’ve drawn close to the tomb, not expecting brokenness, but expecting healing. We’ve come expecting not death but resurrection!

What an incredible thing! Can you believe it?! Can you?

If you’re anything like the disciples, an honest answer might be “no.”

Slide08Let’s be honest with one another this Easter morning, it’s easier to show up in this story after God has already worked out all of this gritty and awful crucifixion business and everything is all grace filled and new life and resurrection. It’s harder to walk with Christ every single day of our lives. It’s harder to come to church on an ordinary Sunday without trumpets and lambs and lilies and the palpable feel of new life.

Slide09We are so much like the disciples, ignoring Jesus when it’s inconvenient, only making time for worship in the extraordinary moments of life. We need to be prompted by angels and miracles to remember the magnitude of our great God. We have no problem coming into God’s presence for weddings, funerals, Christmas, Easter, when we know what God’s story holds for us, but aren’t quite so sure what God has to do with us in the in between times. God has so much going on, God couldn’t possibly care about our day-to-day. When there’s nothing special to ask for or celebrate, God still wants to be with us, to remain in relationship with us in the mundane, so that we will trust in God’s faithfulness when things do get rough and complicated.

Why could none of the disciples stay awake through the night of Maundy Thursday with their Lord, Jesus? Where were these disciples when the crowds were shouting, “crucify him?” Why do the disciples scatter into the darkness of Good Friday? Why do we all gather today when the crucifixion and resurrection has all played out?

Slide10We would love to keep the darkness of those three days in the tomb at a distance, because perhaps then we might be able to ignore our own darkness. We don’t often live our lives expecting angels to show up in the places of our deep sorrow and point to the emptiness where our pain has been and trust that God’s grace has now taken root there. It’s easy to put on a white dress and a bright colored cardigan and to enjoy spring flowers coming to bloom in gardens, but it is very hard to accept the newness of life that God desires to spring inside of us.

What is the darkness in your life that you’re spending your time and energy mourning? What would it be like to invite God’s resurrection hope into your hidden pain? What would it be like to accept that there’s an angel sitting in the place of your darkest fears sending you out into the light to share the hope of resurrection?

Slide11Three times in our passage today we are told that the disciples would not believe that Jesus was living again after his death. Three times they are unable to accept that what Jesus had been telling them all along was the truth: that He was the Son of God. That He had come to bring about the Kingdom of God. That they would take part in building the Kingdom of God to come.

If the story had ended at cross, there might’ve been hope of these disciples being off the hook for bring about the whole “thy Kingdom come,” aspect of how Jesus had taught them to pray. If Jesus were simply a man, simply a great teacher who lived an exemplary life, and then died, there wouldn’t be much work for the disciples after his death. For what would this story matter if Jesus wasn’t what He said He was, if their Jesus, wasn’t actually the Christ? It would just be a story of another man with good intentions, who did some nice things for some people who were down on their luck.

Slide12But the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end in the tomb. The tomb is empty, Jesus is resurrected, and the story continues on. Through the disciples, we’ve all come to know the hope of resurrection: that Christ took on the sorrow of the world on the cross, suffered through hell, so that we might share in Christ’s resurrection, so that we might live lives filled with the grace of God.

Slide13What is your response to this resurrection story? Can you believe it? And more than that, does it matter to you? Are you willing to allow God to roll away your stony thoughts of “having it all together,” and allowing him to free you from the tomb of your hidden darkness? It is my utmost hope and prayer that you will allow this story of grace to be much more than a story to you, that it might be a very real chance at new life. May all of us welcome Christ’s resurrection into our hearts, this Easter morning, and always! Amen.

 

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2014 Addition

Following my post “Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist” from last year, here are some of the songs that have been buzzing around my brain this Holy Week. They’re not all direct reflections of the gospel, but for me have evoked the emotions of what this week is about. I hope they might bring similar reflection for you:

Passover Prophecy

“The Passover Song” by  Sean Carter and Caroline Cobb

“In the morning we will rise,
Taste the freedom we thought we’d never find.
We will dance now in the streets.
Once held captive now we will live as Kings.”

In the Garden

“The Once and Future Carpenter” by the Avett Brothers

“Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction I’ll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I’ll be ready to surrender, and remember
We’re all in this together
If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die”

“Be Still” by Holly Kluge

“Oh weary soul,
Come and sit for a while.
Stop runnin’ ’round,
Come and rest for a while.

Oh hurting heart,
Come and sit in my arms.
Stop tryin’ to hide, Come let me
heal you inside.”

“I Gave You All” by Mumford & Sons

“Close my eyes for a while
And force from the world a patient smile

But I gave you all
I gave you all
I gave you all”

Good Friday

“Death or So You Think,” by Von Strantz

“The days are short,
running out of time…
gather round your loved ones,
kiss them goodbye…
love release our souls.”

In the Tomb

“Here Lies Love” by David Byrne & Fatboy Slim

“Is it a sin to love too much?
Is it a sin to care?
I do it all for you
How can it be unfair?
I know that when my number’s up
When I am called by God above
Don’t have my name inscribed into the stone
Just say:
Here lies love…here lies love…here lies love—
Just say:
Here lies love…here lies love…here lies love—”

Easter

“Night Must End” by Sleeping at Last

“There’s something about sadness
that leaves us wanting more
A sickness that breathes…
From holding on to letting go,
The change is like dying.”

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right;” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; November 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1Today we have the incredible blessing of being able to celebrate the two sacraments of the reformed church in one service: baptism and communion. It is an exciting thing to be united in the sacraments, coming to table and font together as the community of Christ.

The Directory for Worship the Presbyterian Church USA’s affirms that we celebrate both baptism and communion as sacraments because they were “instituted by God and commended by Christ.” and it says that “Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” We affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

What an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service.

How does that impact you? Are you daunted by such a lofty connection and responsibility? Are you overwhelmed by the incredible scope of God’s goodness? Or once you’re brought into these sacraments do you feel like you’re off the hook? If your sins are forgiven and your life is redeemed through Christ, what do you have left to worry about in your own living?

The Thessalonians in our passage today were just beginning to learn how Christ’s promises played out in their lives, and what their response to God’s redemptive action should be.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Slide3Our scripture today can be a controversial one, it’s message having been distorted throughout time in political arenas. This passage has been misconstrued to lift up a puritanical work ethic and to question social services such as welfare. But in the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonian community, that was not at all the case. Paul was not confronting people crushed by their socio-economic situation or those unable to find a job.

He was confronting people who, in response to God’s message of Christ’s second coming decided to stop working all together, and simply wait for Christ’s coming. They thought if Jesus is coming soon, any work that they were doing was pointless.

Paul is quick to correct them, pointing to work as a way to lessen the burdens of the community, a way that they can be fed to do the kingdom work they have been called to do.

Slide4Victor Pentz, a Presbyterian Pastor in Georgia related a story about a woman who was joining a church. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” she said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ secretly disguised as a legal secretary.” [2]

We are all called to await the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime, we are called to work. Working towards God’s kingdom in whatever way we make our living. Our calling in our baptism and through the communion feast is to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Our job provides a mission field and a way to be fed on earth even as we await the heavenly feast.

In verse thirteen we read, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Living with faithfulness even in the mundane aspects of our lives can be tiring, but it is part of our call as followers of Christ. Our day-to-day work can glorify God if we approach it with a right spirit.

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese artist, poet, and writer who once wrote,

“And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.”[3]

Through prayerful attention to the work of our lives, we demonstrate our love for God and the blessings of God’s work and provision. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and then work alongside God to make that happen.

Slide7Today we will witness the baptism of Aria, Karsidee, and Amanda. They will take vows as followers of Christ, but this call is not for them alone. We are not to stand idly by, but we will also be called to make vows, “to help them know all that Christ commands, and by [our] fellowship, to strengthen their family ties with the household of God.” There is work for us to do in their lives as this community, as children of God. You are called to uplift these newly baptized as they navigate Christ’s plan for them. You are called to support and uplift them whether they be your family by blood or by being fellow members of the household of God.

May we embrace the call and the promises of our sacraments, being strengthened by this renewal and recommissioned to do the work to which you have been called. Amen.

“Humbled;” Luke 18:9-14; October 27, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Humbled”
Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

TSLIDE 1 - Reformation Sundayoday is Reformation Sunday, a day that marks the beginning of the Protestant Church as we know it today. It’s a day for celebrating how far we’ve come as a church. Our affirmation of the priesthood of all believers: which means all of us are called to read and interpret scripture, minister to the community, and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The ways that over the generations we continue to be reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God, a principle that has motivated believers throughout the year to stand up for justice for the enslaved, equality of all of God’s created people, and expand the pulpit to women and minorities. So, let’s just pat ourselves on the back! We’re so righteous, so much better than everybody else!

Wait. That sounds familiar. In fact, that first verse of that passage we just read seems to fit it exactly.  “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Hmm. Maybe it’s not time quite yet for a celebration.

Slide3Our Gospel lesson gives us a rather confrontational passage for this Reformation Sunday. One that shows someone so pleased by their righteousness, a Pharisee. Verses 11-12 tells us, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’”

SLIDE 5 - Tax CollectorIt’s an uncomfortable comparison to put side by side with a Pharisee. In Luke 7:29-30 we are told, that upon hearing of Jesus’ miracles,  “All the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

Pharisees had confidence in their own goodness, their own ability to follow all the rules, their own efforts to be right by God. In our passage today when the Pharisee is counting his blessings, instead of worry about the salvation of others, he is thankful only that he is not a thief, rogue, adultery, or the tax collector in front of him.

SLIDE 6 - phariseeAndTaxCollectorThis tax collector doesn’t try to defend himself when being bad-mouthed by the Pharisee. He wasn’t working on a list of his good deeds or his exceptionalism, rather he defers to God’s great power. In verse 13 we read, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

The tax collector isn’t trying to be justified by his own doing, but only by God’s great mercy. He declares himself unworthy on his own.

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains it this way, “You can tell the Law because it is almost always and if-then proposition –  If you follow all the rules in the Bible God then will love you and you will be happy.  If you lose 20 pounds then you will be worthy to be loved… The Law is always conditional and it is never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as Gospel there can never be life and happiness and worthiness.”

The Pharisee was caught up in all the “shoulds,” all the ways that he has worked to live up to the law. The tax collector declares his own unworthiness pursing God’s mercy instead of his own self-worth. SLIDE 7 - Luke 18 In verse 14 Jesus tells the assembled crowd, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the [Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May we approach God with humbleness this Reformation Sunday, and all days. Amen.

“Taking Your Worship to the Next Level: A Seminar on the Meaning & Practice of Christian Worship”

Yesterday I attended a seminar put on by the Presbytery of North Central Iowa called “Taking Your Worship to the Next Level: A Seminar on the Meaning & Practice of Christian Worship” led by Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Tewell & Rev. Dr. Gray Norsworthy. Here are some of the highlights:

“Passionate Worship is not restricted to any particular style; it can be highly formal, with robes, acolytes, stained glass, organ music orchestral accompaniment, and hardwood pews with hymnals on the rack in front. Or, Passionate Worship can take place in an auditorium, gym, or storefront, with casually dressed leaders, images on screens, folding chairs, and the supporting beat of a praise team. Authentic, engaging, life-changing worship derives from the experience of God’s presence, the desire of worshippers for God’s word, and the changed heart people deliberately seek when they encounter Christ in the presence of other Christians. Worship leaves people challenged, sustained, and led by the Spirit of God, and it changes how they view themselves and their neighbors. An hour of Passionate Worship changes all the other hours of the week.” Robert Schanse, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Pg. 39

Worship is not about style it is about connecting with God. Worship is about remember what God has done (Deuteronomy 6:4-12). Worship is about experiencing forgiveness and being transformed (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Three Spiritual Principles of Worship

  1. People are starving for authentic experience of the worship of God. Our worship should connect to the lives of people.
  2. Worship is the central act of the people of God, everything else flows from worship. We need to take time and effort to prepare for worship because it impacts all in the worshiping community.
  3. In worship we remember that God is sovereign and we are not. Worship is not about us it’s about God. Worship is about getting our will in tune with God’s will. The point is not to evaluate, it’s to be transformed. When we experience God our world becomes bigger

“People have a point of view, God has view” – Madeleine L’Engle

“We need to remind ourselves that even when Christian worship is at its best… it is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love” – Thomas Long, “Beyond the Worships Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship”

Quotations from The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton, 2007

“Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary. Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.”

Bibliography of References at Seminar

Mark Labberton, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”

Thomas Long, “Beyond the Worships Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship”

Robert Schanse, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”

Craig Barnes, Sermons at Princeton Seminary

Shannon Kerschner, Sermons at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church

Gray Norsworthy, Sermons at Johns Creek Presbyterian Church

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

One year Pastorate-versary!

This Sunday I celebrate one full year as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA. It has been an incredible year, and to sum up all that has happened would be impossible, so I will simply offer up some highlights:

September 9: Arrived in Jesup

welcome

Welcoming Sign on Front Lawn of Manse

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Welcome Sign at Church

September 10: Officially voted in by the Presbytery of North Central Iowa to serve at FPC Jesup

September 16: My first Sunday at FPC Jesup, preached “What’s in a Name?”, Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22

October 9: Adopted Bailey, my sweet yorkshire/rat terrier dog, his story is posted here

October 21: Ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament at my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, OH, reflection post here

ordination

My Ordination at First Presbyterian Maumee

October 28: Installed as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA, sermon preached by my mentor, James York, is posted here

December 16: First Baptism, reflection post here

baptism

Morning of First Baptism

December 31: First Wedding Officiated, sermon posted here

February 6: Led First Funeral in Jesup

March 18-19: Attended Barnabas Cohort Retreat at the Presbyterian Camp, Continuing Education with Northeast Central Iowa Presbytery

March 24-31: Holy Week

Created this video for Good Friday Worship:

April 12: First date with David

May 5: Blessing of the Tractors Service, sermon here

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

May 13-17: Festival of Homeletics

At the Festival of Homeletics in Nashville with dear friend, Patricia

At the Festival of Homeletics in Nashville with dear friend, Patricia

July 1-5: Massachusetts Vacation with Family

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

July 11-13: Jesup Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

July 21-26: Synod School

Synod School

Synod School

September 7: St. Louis with David

At the St. Louis Arch

At the St. Louis Arch

Feeling so blessed at the end of this difficult and wonderful first year as pastor. I am grateful for the support not only of a great congregation, but also of colleagues, mentors, friends, family, pastors, and professors who have provided resources, support, and a listening ear as I have navigated this first year of ordained ministry. Thank you also for your support, reading this blog and taking this journey with me. I am looking forward to many more years as a pastor to come!

15 Reasons I’ve Never Left (The) Church

Given all the recent posts about millennials leaving the church, I think it is time for a reposting of this blog entry I wrote last April. I pray that it will speak to you.

Presbydestrian

In conversation with Rachel Held Evans’,”15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” 

As a 25 year old growing up in America today, I am part of a significant minority of people who have weathered high school, college, and young adulthood with consistent mainline denomination church attendance and membership. I’m not saying this as a point of pride, but rather out of a bit of surprise. Christ’s Church has been such a cornerstone to my life, that it’s hard to imagine my life without it, even for a short while.

Within the candidacy process (for ordination to ministry in the PCUSA) I was asked how I could know that God was calling me to minister in the church if I haven’t tried anything else yet. That question caught me off guard. But then I realized, I had tried other things. In high…

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Presentation of Bibles

Here’s is a rather belated posting. I have been working on getting past sermon audio recordings onto YouTube and when I was working on the sermon from May 12th I realized I hadn’t posted this part of that service yet. I hope that it will be a helpful resource for others who are putting together presentations of Bibles.

We gave our students the Spark Bible by Augsburg Press. It is a phenomenal Bible for children with accessible explanations of the text and elements for interaction (including stickers…the third graders were excited about that!). Most importantly, it is a full NRSV version, so it can be used throughout their lives. So great!

Below is the script of what was said and done. We did this in the service during the Time for Children.

Presentation of Bibles

BibleToday we have a very special present for our third graders, and I bet you already know what it is. Bibles. Bibles are an extra special present because they are so many things. As we talk about the different parts, I’d like to peel away one layer of paper at a time.

vineOur first layer of paper is this green paper with the vines. John 15:4 says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” God wants us to be rooted in scripture, to go back to it when we’re searching for answers, to grow from learning more about God’s great love for us. Vines also show how we are all connected to one another. Though we can read the Bible by ourselves, it is important to have other people around who can help you to understand it. As a church we are all connected through Christ’s vine, and as you have questions as you read, we hope that you’ll come and ask about it. Alright, let’s pull of that layer of paper.

construction Next we have paper with all sorts of construction machinery and symbols on it. Scripture tells us in Jeremiah 23:29 that the Word is: “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” separating good from bad; like our construction symbols the Bible cautions against the harm that can come from not following God. As the Bible teaches us right from wrong we are built up in our faith and strengthened. Okay, now you can rip off that layer

CupcakesNext we have one of my favorite layers, it is a paper with cupcakes on it. In Jeremiah 15:16 scripture tells us that God’s Word is food for the soul, a “joy and delight.” In Psalm 19:10 scripture is described as “sweeter than honey.” Scripture can be sweet because it carries a message of God’s love for us. Reading it is a celebration of the many ways that God has taken care of God’s people throughout history. Okay, let’s rip off one more layer.

Hologram circle (3)Our next layer is this sparkly gold paper. It stands for the light of scripture. Psalm 119 says in verse 105 that “[God’s] word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In Proverbs 6:23 it says, “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light” In John 1, God is described as the Word, which is a light for all people.  When we feel like we are in darkness, God’s message of hope and love can light up our lives with joy and grace. This is not a light we’re supposed to keep to ourselves, but to share with others. As you read these Bibles and learn more about God, that is something that God calls you to share with others.

Please pray with me by repeating after me: Thank you God for your Holy Word. With these Bibles help us to be connected to the vine of your loving church and be built up in our faith. May we enjoy the sweetness of your joy and share the light of your Word with others. Amen.

“Praise for the Singing” and “Everything That Has Breath” Psalm 150; June 9, 2013, FPC Jesup

Sunday June 9th was a special Sunday in the life of our church with a Hymn Sing in the morning service and a special 6 pm Worship in the Park (that ended up being inside because of a forecasted thunderstorm).

Here are some of the resources I found helpful for these services:

Call to Worship on Psalm 92 and 92

Prayer of Confession for a Music Sunday

I adopted this music based communion liturgy into an Affirmation of Faith utilizing the form of the Apostle’s Creed:

Affirmation of Faith

One: Together let us confess our faith. Do you believe in God, our creator?

All: I believe in God, creator of all things, whose heavenly song sent the planets into motion. Even when we go astray, God calls us back, showing us the fullness of life and giving us new songs of praise for each and every day.

One: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

All: I believe in Jesus Christ who lived for us and among us, healing the sick, easing the burdens of all people, and teaching us the new song of God’s kingdom. He showed His love for all God’s children in His death and the hope for eternal life in His resurrection.

One: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

All: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of life who sings God’s grace through all time and space. I listen for the Holy Spirit through the history of songs sung by all the communion of saints and through the unwritten songs of all who are to come in the future. I believe that God has a song for my life as well. Amen.

Here are the short reflections on Psalm 150 that I shared in each service:

“Praise for the Singing”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 10 am, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1What a joy it is to sing with you this morning in worship. Singing has been a part of the history of our faith from the very beginning, with the Psalms as the original hymnbook. Our faith is a faith of stories, often sung as a way to pass them on to the next generation.

Slide2There’s a great beauty in the comfort of old hymns, the songs that don’t really require the use of a hymnal. About once a month I lead a service at the Nursing Care centers in Independence and I love seeing how so many of the residents know all of those songs by heart. The hymns of our faith sink into us in a way that even the scriptures do not, reminding us of the larger community faith, over many many years.

SLIDE 3 - Morning Has BrokenOur opening song “Morning has Broken” has been one of my favorite hymns for a long time. When my sister was little, and I was even littler, she danced to it in a ballet recital. I remember her costume red and white with a red tutu.

Slide4One of my favorite parts is the line “Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.” I love how the very ground itself becomes complete through it’s interaction with Jesus’ feet. I can picture the dew. I can picture the flowers coming into bloom opening to the light of God’s own Son. It makes me think of the ways we become sprung in completeness by living a life of interaction with Jesus.

Slide5Mainline Protestant traditions have a bad reputation as being the “frozen chosen” for our love of tradition, our desire for everything to be “decent and in order,” and the value we place on everyone being an informed participant in the “priesthood of all believers.” Somehow in the midst of this we have forgotten the call of Slide6Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Loving God with our heart, soul, and might is allowing ourselves to be enveloped in God’s goodness, to be bathed in the light of God’s joy. How might we become complete in sharing in God’s presence? How might we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might? How might our lives spring into completeness?

Slide7One of the ways is through revealing the joy God brings us, through our own sort of blooming, our own sort of springing into completeness. One way to discover the potential for blooming is to think about the places you feel incomplete. Are there relationships that need mending? Forgiveness that needs to be offered or received? When others are telling the stories of faith, do you stay silent? Is there a family member or neighbor you could share God’s love with?

Slide8For me, I feel like I bloom best when I am able to share the stories of our faith, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through singing, sometimes simply by being in relationship. As we continue to sing together today and go out into the world singing our faith, may each of us prayerfully consider how God is calling us to spring in completeness. Amen.

“Everything That Has Breath”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 6 pm, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When I was in seminary I led a children’s choir called the “Joyful Noise” choir. Each week I would get together with this group of 10 to 15 elementary age kids and we would sing songs, play instruments, do dances, and hand motions. We had a blast and it was a wonderfully exhausting worship filled time. While I can’t always say that we made music per say, we always made very joyful noise.

At some point in our life we stop being willing to make these joyful noises. Our noises get squelched out by others. Self-doubt creeps in about our abilities. Desire to blend in makes us quiet our voices. This is not what God call us to. God calls us to praise, to make loud noises, to lift a joyful noise.

Our Psalm today tells us that everything that has breath, all created beings are called to worship. It also lists many different ways to offer praise, through trumpet sound, lute and harp, tambourine and dance; strings and pipe, clanging and clashing cymbals.

When I look at that list I see that each instrument requires a different sort of skill. Though I can goofily make fake harp noises with my mouth I’d have a tricky time of trying to play a harp. And I’ve tried to play a bagpipe before and could only get it to squawk. We are not all called to play each of these instruments, but we are called to praise God.

When we join in with the heavenly chorus you will likely be picking up a different instrument than the one I pick up, but each of us can use whatever instrument we have to worship God. When we use these instruments in the spirit of love of God we are making a very joyful noise indeed

In the Hebrew Bible the Spirit of God is called Ruach. It can also mean breath or a rushing wind. This breath of God swept over the chaotic waters at the very beginning of creation. This breath was breathed into our lungs and pumps through our veins. We are filled with the very breath of God, that powerful, awe-inspiring, amazing breath. And as long as we have air in our lungs, we are called to breathe it out in praise.

So what is your instrument? How does God harness your breath into a joyful noise?

The way that we live and work in the world can be acts of worship. Perhaps your instrument is an ability to create a legal brief, which allows justice and care to be shown towards someone in a complicated legal situation. Your instrument may be plumbing for a house: whereby you allow a family to live comfortably. Your instrument may be your ability to teach, managing a classroom, creating curriculum. When we are able to use the instruments God has given us, it is a worshipful response to our Creator. Creativity is the language with which we can speak to God who created us.

You, in your life, in your abilities are called to make a joyful noise. To breathe God’s breath into this world. May we do so with great joy! Amen.

Technology: the Future of The Church?

church-technology1I was interviewed today by a woman who is discerning a call to ministry. I love conversations like this because it helps bring me back to who I am indeed called to be, helps me touch base with the excitement of my eighth grade self and helps remind me of all the amazing people that both affirmed and challenged me in this call along the way. Bottom line, I am beyond blessed to be living the life to which I have been called.

She asked a question today that inspired me to give an answer she wasn’t expecting and I didn’t realize I so strongly believed until the moment I gave it. She acknowledged my use of technology: using in film in worship, using a Kindle while preaching, utilizing the social media, etc., and she asked if I think that technology is the future of the church.

I gave her a resolute “no.”

And so I feel like I need to explain myself.

When I was in college studying film production one of my production teachers showed us a video that was a grainy news story about a man who lived off of what people had discarded in dumpsters. After he showed it to us he asked us what we thought about it. People said how compelling the story was, asked questions about how the producers happened to find this man, how the story came about. We questioned the system that brought him to this point in his life, wondered about his future, wondered about the American culture of waste and consumerism. And then our professor asked about the quality of the film production. We all acknowledged that it was grainy, the audio was bad, and the camera was shaky. But we all agreed it was still a worthwhile story. The story was heard louder than the medium.

He said that he will teach us the technical aspects of film production, but those will all change in a few years time. What he really cared about was teaching us about storytelling. How to find a story, how to get people to share their lives on camera, how to make the audience care, these were the things that mattered.

This is exactly how I feel about the story and the methods of ministry. Technology is not the future of the church. Living an authentic witness to the truth and joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the past, present, and future of the church. The methods we employ to do this can and should change over time. When we are called to share the Word of God with people in a specific context, we are called to share in a method that will be accessible to people in their various abilities, learning styles, and cultures.

Bbibleand-MouseTechnology is a language that we use to convey God’s story, our story, and God’s story for all of us. Technology helps us to speak to people who are used to hearing many different aspects of life through technology. Film and pictures in worship services allow us to share God’s story to people who best receive information visually. Utilizing a Kindle allows me to preach in an ecologically friendly and fluid way without printing lots of papers each week and then shuffling them around in the pulpit. Utilizing Accordance helps me to get into the original Hebrew or Greek text, compare various translations, and spend some in depth time uncovering the way God has spoken to people throughout time. Technology is a phenomenal tool for sharing the ministry and mission of our church through Facebook and our church website. Technology enables our church to update our calendar and send out updates and announcements in a very immediate and accessible way. Technology allows visitors to actually find the church and figure out when to join us for what. Technology makes me better at ministering in the way that I both receive God and am able to convey God. 

Technology is very much a part of my ministry, but I am absolutely firm in my belief that not all are called to minister in the way that I am called to minister. I am also firm in my belief that while it is a very valuable tool for ministry, it is not the end all be all when it comes to being the church. Bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ through a community of people who love God and one another is how to be the church. How that happens in your church context is the future of your church and thereby the future of the Church universal.

“Witnessing the Resurrection”; John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43; Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Witnessing the Resurrection”
John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Video shown at the beginning of worship service:

Audio and slides of the sermon:

 Slide01Try to picture the scene: It’s early. The grass is still wet with dew, which darkens the hem of Mary Magdalene’s clothing as she makes her way to the grave. Her sleeve is similarly damp from wiping away the tears that have slipped out as she’s hurried on her way past a few stationed guards and vagrants scattered among Jerusalem’s streets, quiet in a Sabbath rest.

Now she is before the tomb, but things are not as they should be. The stone closing the chamber where Jesus laid is pushed away. She is in shock, assuming the worst: grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body.Slide02

Though an empty tomb was not what she had expected, it makes me wonder what she was looking for. She knew that he had died. She saw him mocked, tortured, and hung on the cross. The man that she loved was gone. She knew, or at least thought she knew, that she would never talk, eat, or laugh with him again. But yet, she came to his tomb.SLIDE 3 - Mary and Disciples

Maybe she just needed to see it for herself for it to be real; the giant stone as a final punctuation to the drama of the past three days. That stone would serve to separate and sever Mary from the man she was never too far away from in life. But with the stone removed and the body gone she wasn’t able to have that kind of closure. Though at this point she surely did not picture Jesus as supernaturally exhumed, she knew quite clearly that the open tomb meant that the story still had not ended.SLIDE 4 - Mary Empty Tomb

In the shock of the empty tomb Mary takes off running towards the disciples. Of anyone, surely they would understand her grief, her confusion, her frustration. She runs to them, likely telling them the details of the situation through panting frantic gasps.  They do not seem to wait to comfort her, or to form a plan of how they might deal with possible grave robbers, or to pause to consider that Jesus might have actually meant all of those things he had said about eternal life. No, they simply run, breaking into a race.

In this way they seem like young boys, propelled, partially by curiosity, partially by righteous indignation, eager to see what has happened. I can also see them in their running, looking over their shoulders, making sure to keep an eye out for any legal authority that may recognize them from the crucifixion three days before.

SLIDE 5 – John and Simon Peter at TombThey arrive at the graveyard, the “beloved disciple” first, who seems to peek into the tomb, but not fully enter. I can see him sheepishly grinning at the door, like a child at a funeral too young to really understand the weight of the day’s events.

He lets Simon Peter go in first. Peter goes in and surveys the scene. The burial cloths are rolled up, which is just enough evidence for him to see that, wherever Jesus’ body is, this was not the work of grave robbers. We are told that the “beloved disciple” enters as well, sees, and believes (though we’re not told exactly what it is that he believes).

Slide06This is enough for the two of them, and they run back to their homes. They do not wait to see what has really happened, they do not try to gather more evidence, or to care for Mary. It seems that their mourning is a sort of selfish grief. As a child too young to understand the scope of grief and loss, they are concerned with simply how the death will affect them in their own individual lives. Things are changed, and that is what upsets them, but the tomb doesn’t hold any more answers than they were able to find at home.

This is not enough, however, for Mary. She still does not have any answers, and now she has lost her support as well. She breaks into tears, overcome by the compounding losses. She looks towards the tomb and there sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been.

Slide07I imagine that this scene would be shocking: two angelic figures, appearing out of thin air; two figures framing where Jesus had laid. I wonder if Mary knew they were angels. Were her watery eyes blurring her vision? Or maybe she thought they were merely others at the tomb to pay respect, mourn, or indulge their curiosity. Whatever the situation, Mary does not react to their appearance in our text, but the angels react to her.

Slide 8 - Mary Crying“Why are you crying?” they ask. I can see Mary getting frustrated at this. She was at a tomb after all. If one cannot cry there without having to explain it, where can you cry? I can see her nearly yelling her response back at them in between sobs. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Some have translated the Greek phrase in this text “τον κυριον,” which I have read as “my Lord” as “my husband.” Though there’s ambiguity in translation whether her relationship is read as something authoritative like “lord,” or “master,” or temporal and intimate like “husband, “ what is important here is the closeness she felt towards him. Jesus was likely the man to whom Mary was closest. He helped her make sense of the world, and accepted her just as she was. She lived her life in the context of his, not out of obligation, but out of devotion. To see such a man die, and not only just die, but to be crucified had to evoke the deepest kind of grief.

Slide09It is in this moment of overwhelming grief that Mary turns around, away from the tomb. Maybe she too, like the disciples would’ve broken into a run and left this place of sorrow, which, as the dark morning turned to day, was quickly becoming crowded by others who did not, could not, understand the depth of her pain, but there was someone standing in her way.

SLIDE 10 - Mary and JesusIt’s a man. We, the readers know that this man is Jesus. The gospel writer tells us this plainly. Mary however, is unable to see this at first. To her, he is simply another person who disrupts her. She assumes him to be the gardener, and he too frustrates her with his questioning, mirroring the angels’ questioning, “why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?”

Slide11I can see her, at this point quite visibly upset, still wiping tears away with her now deeply tear-stained clothing. The dawn has come, the city is now likely abuzz with the gossip of the weekend’s events as people make their way to the Sabbath worship. Most everyone else walking about on this morning has dressed in their best clothing, washed, and prepared for the day. They may have felt some ripple effect of the crucifixion, but that doesn’t stop them from carrying on with their Sabbath routine.

In the midst of this morning, this Jerusalem, Mary is mess. Perhaps this is why she is unable to recognize the man she knew so closely. He is separate from her experience. He is put together. He is composed. How could he have anything to do with her situation? To her, he is just another suspect. She pleads with him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Albert Edelfelt 1890“Mary,” Jesus says. “Mary,” not “here I am,” not “why could you accuse me?” not “silly woman.” “Mary,” Jesus says. This, she finally understands. I can see her eyes light up, her shoulders relax, and she cries, “Rabbouni!”

I can see her now wanting to collapse into his arms, and Jesus anticipates this too, saying, “Do not cling to me.” It’s hard to imagine her not being hurt by this command. Do not cling to me? Here is a man whom shared much with, whom she thought was dead, now alive in front of her, but yet she cannot be close to him. The relationship has changed. It is still intimate, to be sure, for after all Mary is the first of all of Jesus’ followers to see him in this state and it is intimate as well that he calls her by name, but, still, there is a new distance here.

Instead of enveloping her grief in his embrace, he directs her outwards. Out of the graveyard, out of her grief, to go to tell the disciples that he is ascending to God the Father. And what’s is truly surprising, she goes. The text gives us no sign of any hesitation, there’s no further dialogue between the two. She simply goes. She tells the disciples what she’s heard and seen and all of history is forever changed as a result of it.

This is what shows us the selflessness of her grief. If her tears were for her own loss, she would still be crying, for Jesus’ reappearance at the tomb does not mean a return to life as it was. She will never be close to Jesus in the same way again, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The loss of her relationship with this man is not what matters to her. What matters to her is that in returning to life, Jesus has made real the promise of resurrection. What was once the theme of many confusing parables is now a lived reality. It is in this, Mary is brought from deep grief to deep joyous peace.

SLIDE 13 - Flower at TombNow take a moment to think. Where would you be in the scene? Are you Simon Peter: running to and fro, curiously searching for tangible evidence of what really happened at the tomb? Are you the “beloved disciple”: wary of the tomb, confused by the loss, but believing still? Are you a citizen of Jerusalem: intrigued by the gossip, the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion, but not sure that it has anything really to do with you? Or are you Mary: deeply grieved at the loss of this intimate companion but propelled into the world by the greater news that the tomb cannot contain the Christ?

On this Easter Sunday, I invite you to take a place in the scene with the resurrected Christ. Maybe your place isn’t as close, or as passionate, as you would like it to be. Maybe you’re still standing nervously outside the tomb. Maybe you want simply to run in the opposite direction of all the crucifixion drama. Wherever your place, I pray that you may be close enough to hear and bold enough to listen to Jesus speaking your name as well. We’re all invited to know the joy of our Christ resurrected and to speak that joy into the world. Amen.

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist

cross-silhouette1

Here are some of the songs that have been buzzing around my brain this Holy Week. They’re not all direct reflections of the gospel, but for me have evoked the emotions of what this week is about. I hope they might bring similar reflection for you:

Palm Sunday

“Passion Song” by Sean Carter

I was with him when he rode into town
And crowds gathered round him like a king
Their smiling faces, joined a sea of branches waving
Thou they were masquerading in the end

And my heart rose in my throat
When I heard them sing
Hosanna, in the highest

Maundy Thursday

Last Supper

“Bread and Wine” by Josh Garrels

Of the places we left behind,
No longer yours and mine
But we could build a good thing here too
So give it just a little time,
Share bread and wine
Weave your heart into mine

If I fall, I fall alone, but two can help to bear the load
A threefold chord is hard to break
All I have I give to you if you will share your sorrows too,
Then joy will be the crown upon our heads
My friend

“Forget Me Not” by The Civil Wars

Forget me not my dear, my darling
Forget me not my love
I’m coming home real soon

“Break Bread” by Josh Garrels

Let us break bread together on our knees
Let us break bread together on our knees
When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.

“Timshel” by Mumford and Sons

And death is at your doorstep
And it will steal your innocence
But it will not steal your substance

Garden of Gethsemane

“Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars

Run fast as you can
No one has to understand
Fly high across the sky from here to kingdom come
Fall back down to where you’re from
Don’t you fret, my dear
It’ll all be over soon

Good Friday

“Good Friday” by Josh Garrels

I didn’t recognize that look in his eyes
When they cried
With a sorrow that no man has ever known

Hang him high, watch him die, hear the cry
Crucified up on that God forsaken tree

“Free Until They Cut Me Down” by Iron and Wine

When the men take me to the devil tree
I will be free and shining like before

Easter

“Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford and Sons

That’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

All sorts of great Easter music free from Noisetrade: https://www.noisetrade.com/goodmorning

“What Has Happened Here” by Kris MacQueen (Good Morning. Happy Easter. 2)

I went to the place where I knew he was
But I did not find what I thought I would
An empty cave discarded clothes
No trace of the flesh that had contained my Lord.

Anger and rage, feeling misused,
Were the first things I felt, when I heard the news
His body was taken, his grave was defiled
Was there some other tale of wonder or woe?

What has happened here?
Do I dare believe?
What has happened here?

“Awake My Soul” by Derek Webb

‘Cause no one is good enough to save himself
Awake my soul tonight to boast nothing else

I trust no other source or name
Nowhere else can I hide
‘Cause this grace gives me fear, and this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides

“Kingdom of Heaven” by Jenny & Tyler

Set your mind, your mind, your mind, on things above
Set your eyes, your eyes, your eyes on the risen Son

Where there shall be no night
Nor need for sun to shine
The Lord Himself will be the light
In the Kingdom of Heaven

Photo a Day Lent – Day 43: Help

“Help”

3 27 Day 43 Help

Today we had our final program for the term for our WOW (Worship on Wednesdays) after school program. I am so very grateful for all of the volunteers that help make it happen each week. Here’s the thank you note the kids gave the volunteers after the program tonight.

Letter for Annual Report

Grace and Peace to you!

What a year this has been in the life of this church! There have been many transitions: from saying goodbye to Pastor Kristy, to ministering with Pastor Christine, to welcoming me as your pastor there has been quite a lot to adapt to as the year has gone on. While my involvement with this church only began in September, I cannot say enough about how blessed I have been to serve God with you these past few months. A year ago at this time, none of us could’ve predicted that Pastor Kristy would be leaving, or that I would be coming to this church, but through God’s grace we find ourselves together now.

As I reflect back on this year in the life of this church, I immediately think of the hard work this spring and summer of your Pastor Nominating Committee. They are a devoted bunch of people who love this congregation and love God. They were tremendously welcoming and allowed me to envision that this was a congregation and community that I should be a part of. I truly believe that God worked through them to bring us together.

When I started in September I was greatly impressed by the many ways that this church was already in motion, with planning for WOW in place, Sunday school already going, and all of the ongoing groups continuing to meet. I have been so pleased to see the many ways that everyone has kept up the momentum of this church; all while the leadership of the church was changing.

With all of the change that has happened here over the past year, there are many things that haven’t changed: the great number of people devoted to ministering to the children of this community through WOW and Sunday School, the warmth of fellowship at Bible studies and Mission Sewing groups, and the willingness of this congregation to show up each week to worship God in community. In these past few months I have witnessed a wealth of fellowship, a generosity of time and contributions towards mission, and a congregation willing to see the many new ways God is moving in our midst.

This congregation is also blessed with strong leadership. The elders and deacons show great care towards this church and community. They genuinely enjoy serving God together and work well with one another in decision-making. But they are not the only leaders, each member of this church leads in their own way: by offering a hug or handshake of friendship, by seeking opportunities to provide comfort to someone hurting, and by stepping up and helping out when needs arise. The Body of Christ is certainly moving through each of your actions.

I am excited to see how God will continue to use this church to speak hope, love, and joy into this community in the years to come. I am ever blessed to be here with you!

 

In Christ,

Pastor Kathleen

Letter for February Newsletter

Grace and Peace to you!

As I write this, the wintery weather is keeping me inside, canceled Jesup schools for the day, and canceled our worship service on Sunday. When it is so cold, so icy, or so foggy outside, we sometimes have to choose safety over community. Though a necessary choice, this weather can be isolating. Add to that the darkness of the short days of winter and it can seem pretty gloomy in this season.

Here in this time of slushy weather, flu season, and darkness, it is no accident that it is also the time that we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day to bring us out of our introspection and melancholy, a day to celebrate love. While every store you walk into is eager to sell you some way to commemorate this holiday of love, as the Church we are able to offer a priceless gift in this season: the gift of God’s grace, which we encounter through Lent. Lent begins the day before Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday. It commemorates the forty days before Easter (Sundays are not counted as part of Lent) and is a time of considering the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This is the ultimate gift of love, which cannot be contained to a Valentine’s Day card, or box of chocolate. Christ’s gift of love was the gift of his life, given selflessly for all of our sins.

Lent has been historically celebrated in Christian traditions through fasting, which is translated into present day by giving up something like chocolate, pop, or junk food. The idea of fasting is to temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In Ephesians 3:16-20 Paul offers a prayer of love that I echo today:

“I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

May you know the love of Christ and share it will all you meet!

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

Wedding Message for Ami and Bobby; Amos 3:3 and Ephesians 4:1a-4; December 31, 2012; FPC Jesup

Wedding Message for Ami and Bobby
Amos 3:3 and Ephesians 4:1a-4
December 31, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today as we stand here on December the 31st at the wedding of Ami and Bob we are standing on the cusp of new beginnings. All around the world people are counting down to the start of the New Year. When the clock hits midnight fireworks will go off, a crystal ball will drop, and where my parents are at Lake Erie, a walleye will drop. There’s an energy to the start of the New Year: the countdowns, the celebrations.

We are also standing here at the beginning of Ami and Bob’s marriage. Many of you have been counting down to this day with excitement and anticipation. Today their marriage begins! Today they join hearts and names and families! We won’t be dropping a crystal ball or setting off any fireworks, but there is a similar energy: it’s the start of something new!

Tomorrow, when all those partygoers wake up and clean up the confetti and streamers that marked the occasion, what will be different? Sure we’ll change our calendars and start writing 2013 instead of 2012, but most of our day-to-day life will be unaffected.

At first glance it’d be tempting to say that Ami and Bob’s relationship won’t be too affected by this brand new thing that is happening today. They’ve known each other for many years. Over the years they have supported each other through job changes, relocations, and all the day-to-day work of loving one another. In just a short while I will pronounce them married and Ami can start to write Liebsch behind her name instead of Merkle, but what else will change?

Unlike the dropping of the crystal ball in Times Square, the nature of this relationship does not change with flip of a switch, or with the turning of a calendar. It changes through the covenant they make here together today. Today they vow their faithfulness in marriage. They vow to be each other’s spouse, each other’s partner. The nature of this covenant of marriage reminds me of a favorite song of mine: Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.” The chorus to this song goes,

“Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”

Though their relationship may have the same geography from today into tomorrow, this covenant changes everything.

When we were discussing possible scriptures to lift up in this service as a reflection of this marriage both Ami and Bob were drawn to our passage in Amos, which asks a short simple question

“Do two people walk hand in hand if they aren’t going to the same place?”

This is what the covenant of marriage does, unites their hands, unites their hearts, and allows them to move forward together. The day-to-day nature of this relationship will not be dramatically altered by this covenant today, but the intent of their life together is forever changed. They are bound together by a covenant.

All throughout scripture there is instruction of how we are to live life with one another. In our New Testament passage today we heard a summary of a way that this is done. We read:

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ami and Bob’s relationship has required and will require humility, gentleness, and patience. Each of these things takes work, at some times more than others. It is difficult to be humble when you feel like the other is in the wrong and you are in the right. It is difficult to be gentle when the other has does something that has upset you greatly. And it is difficult to be patient when the other is just not getting what has come quickly to you. But, by focusing on the love in our relationships we are able to do these things. The Holy Spirit unites us in the bond of peace, but that does not mean that it will always be easy. It will take work. As Ami and Bob enter this covenant today they commit themselves to this work, and pledge that they are now taking one another’s hands and walking forward together.

There’s another important covenant that we acknowledge today. God also promised to walk beside us into our lives and sent Jesus Christ to enact that promise. We are not perfect, and often the deeper we get into a relationship, the more we discover the imperfections that take root in each other’s lives. But because Christ offered His perfect life to pay for our sins, through Him we see an example of perfect love. Christ models selfless love and calls us to love each other in this same way. When we love with humility, gentleness, and patience, God is glorified through our relationships.

In this service of worship, we affirm both of these covenants, the covenant of marriage and the covenant of God’s grace for us in this gathered congregation. We promise to uphold Ami and Bob in their marriage, to demonstrate Christ’s love to them, and to enable them to draw closer to God’s desire for their lives and their relationship. They covenant to be faithful to one another, but they are not alone in this promise. As we surround them today with our presence, we and many others who together are the Church surround them with our continued support throughout their lives.

Today, we are on the cusp of a new year and they are on the cusp of a new relationship. Tomorrow as we wake up from the excitement of this New Year and this new relationship we will know that:

“Something unstoppable [was] set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”

May we look towards the new things that God is calling us to do in our own relationships. And may we celebrate with Ami and Bob the joy of this new beginning. Amen.

“Birds of Bethlehem” by Tomie dePaola

"Birds of Bethlehem" by Tomie dePaola

“Birds of Bethlehem” by Tomie dePaola

For the Christmas Eve service at FPC Jesup I read Tomie dePaola’s “Birds of Bethlehem.” This book tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of birds observing the action taking place. The birds give vague descriptions of the action, which allowed room for the kids to fill in the story with their knowledge of the nativity story through scripture.

In the book each part of the story is told by different colored birds. I made paper cranes in each of these colors and wrote a phrase summarizing the scripture to which the birds were referring on one of their wings.

When the children all came up for the message I passed around the birds so that each kid had one. After we read each colored birds’ story in the book, I had a kid with the same colored bird read their corresponding phrase from the bird’s wing.

The kids seemed to love being a part of the story. When I asked for a volunteer who had a green bird to read the green bird phrase, one girl (who’s a little young to be reading quite yet) said proudly that her bird said, “Jesus loves me!” Though of course that was not the phrase written out on bird, I told her that she was right and that we hear all about how Jesus loves us throughout this story. Then I asked for one of the other students to read their green crane to see if it said something different and they read the phrase.

Later on when I was asking for volunteers for another colored bird, the same girl raised her hand and I told her, “No, yours is still green.” Gotta love the enthusiasm!

Green Bird

"A census was taken. Everyone went to be registered. - Luke 2:1-4"

“A census was taken. Everyone went to be registered. – Luke 2:1-4”

"There was no room at the inn for Joseph and Mary. - Luke 2:5-7"

“There was no room at the inn for Joseph and Mary. – Luke 2:5-7”

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"Mary gave birth and laid her son in the manger. - Luke 2:7"

“Mary gave birth and laid her son in the manger. – Luke 2:7”

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"I bring you tidings of great joy! - Luke 2:8-12"

“I bring you tidings of great joy! – Luke 2:8-12”

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"Glory to God! - Luke 2:14"

“Glory to God! – Luke 2:14”

"A child is born - Isaiah 9:6"

“A child is born – Isaiah 9:6”

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Remember Your Baptism

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing my first baptism. I’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. I’m grateful to this dear boy for not crying or fussing. I’m grateful I didn’t mess up the words or drop my Kindle in the font or trip down the aisle. I’m grateful for his dear family and the joy and pride in their faces for their sweet son. But most of all, I am grateful for the way he looked at the water as I said the words and the water washed over his forehead. It was a look of innocence and of inquisitiveness. He was fully engaged. We walked down the aisle together and I told him how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for him. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.

We say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and this sweet boy included, we are not able to remember the exact moment we were baptized. I can’t tell you whether the water was warm or cold. I can’t tell you if it had been rainy day or how many family members showed up. But, I can tell you about seeing the baptisms of many others over the years, and hearing pastors say, “remember your baptism.”

“Remember your baptism.”

The echo of those words across the years and from my lips yesterday are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of your baptism. Remembering the promises of your community to support you as you grow into faith in Jesus Christ. Remembering how you too have promised to support others as they seek to know and follow Christ. Remembering how you are part of a Christian family so much larger than all the Christians you could possibly meet in your lifetime. You are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in God’s family.

“Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s promise of cleansing us through Christ. Remembering how Jesus, God’s self was baptized by his cousin John. John who was very human. John who endeavored to proclaim God’s desire for relationship over and over again. Jesus submitted Himself to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Him in His baptism. In our baptism we acknowledge that Christ’s story is our story. That Christ came and lived and breathed and cried and died for us. Even as an infant, the water washes us clean from sins we have yet to commit. The water washes our whole lives behind and before us clean because they unite us with the only One who could ever live so sinlessly. His atonement is our redemption.

Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s desire for good in our lives even when and especially when we feel removed from the innocence of that font. Remembering that grace trickled down our own foreheads. Remembering that God has promised to be with us always and does not abandon us when the world seems out of control.

Watching the news reports on Friday of a man in Chengpeng, China stabbing 22 children and one adult and then a man in Sandy Hook, CT, shooting 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life, it was hard to remember what grace felt like. The stark contrast of such innocence with such violence seems unfathomable. These are children.To the stabber and the shooter they were nameless. Now these communities and parents cry our their names in prayers, petitions, and eulogies. We know them as children created and loved by God. God’s grace was manifest in Christ for them. As so many parents, relatives, and communities members morn, we draw our families in closer to us, say more “I love you”s, and pray for protection for this hurting world of ours.

“Remember your baptism.”

As hard as it is to recognize, God’s grace also came for these two men. Christ came for the redemption of the evil that took root in the actions they committed. The darkness of mental illness leaves us with so many unanswerable questions as to the “why” to these events. I urge you to read this article on mental illness from a mother’s perspective: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” We live in a complicated world with much pain, but if we are to truly remember our baptism, the grace of our own atonement compels us share the grace that we have received. We can and should be angry when there is violence and injustice in this world, but we must also live into the hope that evil never has the final word.

 

The video below is one I created in collaboration with Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Preaching and Worship Professor, Beverly Zink-Sawyer. The images were collected from various online sources. The song is “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by fellow UPSem students, Laura and Jamie Thompson. We showed this in worship this Sunday before the baptism.

“A Morning Well Spent”: Poetry of Advent and Anna

This morning I led the devotional time at the Buchanan County Health Center. Leading worship at the various care centers around the area are always, as one resident this morning put it, “a morning well spent.” Since this was the only time I’d be visiting with them before Christmas I shared with them two different poems that bookend the Christmas experience. One speaking of hope and the other of hope fulfilled:

“First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle
God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

“Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi
from “Sisters and Prophets(Luke 2:22-38; Matthew 5:8)
Her laugh is simply happy

The prescribed pair of turtle doves,averse to captivity,
refrain for the moment
from their soft, plaintive moans.

From their perch
they lurch forward
to take in The Occasion.

Exuberantly,
Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.
She talks of him in no uncertain terms!
Her particular words are shrouded,
but Delight registers profoundly
under the veil of widow-black.

A lifetime of focus
is all in her eyes.
Thanks be to God!

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

Her passage of scripture
the follows the heralded Word of Simeon,
reads:

“There was also a certain prohetess,
Anna by name,
daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
She had seen many days,
having lived seven years with her husband…
and then as a widow until she was eighty-fourt.
She was constantly in the temple,
worshipping day and night
in fasting and prayer.

“Coming on scene at this moment,
she gave thanks to God
and talked about the child
to all who looked forward
to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Anna comes to Her Moment laughing,
her face the free expression
of all that’s inside.

Her life of late
seems to have staged
an ongoing soliloquy.
That heavenly smile authenticates Anna.

She is the Recognized Prophet
who came and confirmed
the word of a brother who said,
“‘My eyes have witnessed your saving deed
displayed for all the peoples to see…'”

As prophets do,
Anna ensured that the message
would get beyond temple precincts.

She probably heard Simeon speak,
and may have embellished
his Inspiration
by extending her hugs to the Chosen parents.
Very tenderly.

Anna had seen it all.
Grown-ups talk anxiously
about fulfilling the dreams of children.
Anna’s Jesus-Moment
is an elder’s consummate Belief
in a dream come true.

She speaks truth beautifully,
naturally.
The gift of prophecy is backed
by her life/prayer of eighty-four years.

Stretch marks
from solitude and solicitude and solidarity
show in The Wrinkling,
giving her face its certain Lift.

Anna of the free Spirit
is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby,
as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely,
absorbing his softness,
his heartbeat,
his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years
between them.
This is Manifestation embodied.

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

Years later,
words of Jesus would Beatify her vision:
“Blest are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.”

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

“Constantly in the temple,”
the temple of her heart,
she became familiar
with every inch of her living space
—including its limitations—
and the Beneficence of Sister Wisdom
dwelling therein.
Anna liked the view from her window.
And a comfortable chair.

In “worshipping day and night,”
she had spent her Vitality
on an extravagance of prayer,
and discovered she was strong.

Life with Wisdom was a trilogy
of faith, hope, and love.
In Anna’s everyday Essence,
love of God and faith in a people—
and
faith in God and love of a people—
were instatiable and inseperable.
And her fasting produced
a Gluttony of hope.

The disciplined disciple,
never withdrawn,
stayed in touch with the world
and kept finding God.

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet:
she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet,
is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents,
who also have dreams.

Anna.
Dimming eyes,
still forward-looking,
crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.

She is an Image
of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose
at any stage of life.

Hers is the Holy City.

Solitude
as Anna lived it
lessens fear of the death-moment.
With God, one never stops saying
“Hello!”

I absolutely love that account of Anna. This morning’s assembled congregation of 30 people, mostly women, mostly grandmothers, responded well to it too. After the service I went to the room of a congregation member at the center and read her the account of Anna as well. She said, “I could listen to that for hours.” We both agreed that we love the phrase, “Gluttony of hope.”

It is my prayer that you too may be a glutton for hope in this Advent season!

“Simply Hoping,”Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6; December 2, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Hoping”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6
December 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Journeys of SimplicityThere’s this book I have called, “Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light.” In it are accounts and inventories of many well-known individuals, some historic, some contemporary, including: Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau. Each account acknowledges a simple collection of possessions.

When someone chooses to live meagerly, what they do have reveals quite a bit about what is important to them. This is choosing to live with your answer to the question, “what would you bring with me when stranded on a deserted island?” Taking what is special, what is precious, what is essential. Things made sacred by intentional scarcity.

Slide02Thomas Merton had a broken rosary and a wooden icon of the Madonna and child. Gandhi had three porcelain monkeys and spittoon. Annie Dillard had bird skeletons and whalebones. Henry David Thoreau had a jug of molasses.SLIDE 5 - Molasses

Many of the contributors held onto words. Books of the movements of Catholic worship, Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Websters Unabridged, and Tolstoy.Slide06

Some of the items are sacred not by their functionality or identity alone, but by their origin: furniture built by husbands, technology gifted by sons.

In the church we acknowledge the season of Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends on Christmas day. There are four Sundays in Advent, no more, no less, every single year. In the liturgical year, the season of expectation is restricted to these four weeks.Slide07

Anyone who has turned on a television in the past two months will have heard: Christmas is coming, Christmas is here, there is shopping to do, there are so many days left, there are only so many of that special toy available, there are only so many of that new gadget in stock. We must hurry, we must rush, we must buy.

In the Church, the season of Advent actually begins today. There’s sacredness to this allotted time. There are things to do this month to prepare, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Black Friday or Cyber Monday or 50% off on Christmas things even before Thanksgiving. They have to do with coming to worship, seeing those without, and living in the hope of a Messiah come to earth who lives on through us even now, more than 2000 years since his birth.

I’m not saying that you can or should turn on and off your excitement for Christ’s presence by looking at a calendar. But let’s treat these weeks as special. Let’s treat this month as more than a to-do list of shopping, baking, and decorating. This time of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of remembering the gift of Jesus Christ, the rarity of his birth, and the exceptionality of his life.

SLIDE 8 - Thoreau2Henry David Thoreau is writer known for his poetry, but is equally as famous for the way that he went and lived out in the woods as a recluse and a hermit. Thoreau once wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

I’m not suggesting we should all become Henry David Thoreau, go out into the woods and strike out on our own in order to get right with God. But there is great value in living lives deliberately focused on the hope and expectation of God incarnate in this world. And it is very possible to live deliberately within the lives we currently inhabit.

Holiday dream-3As a young child I remember trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, electric with the excitement that tomorrow would bring and specifically thinking, “tomorrow something could happen that would change my life.” I wasn’t delusional enough to imagine that I would be receiving a pony or a car or my own mansion or anything else extravagant, but I remember the distinct hope that Christmas offered: the chance that something new would enter my life that would make things a little bit more fun, or a little bit easier, or in the very least, something that would make me a little bit more fashionable.

Over the years there were gifts that changed things for me: as an eight year old there was a piano keyboard that allowed me more flexibility in my budding musical skills, when I was eighteen there was a computer printer that allowed me to print my assignments all throughout the school year, two years ago I received a financial contribution that helped me travel to Switzerland and Rome. Each of these things enabled me to live just a little bit differently, made my life just a little bit easier.

Not every gift that we give and receive this year will change our lives, and I don’t think that’s necessary, but it does help us to have perspective of the one gift that always does, Christ’s presence in our lives and in this world.

SLIDE 10 - Baby JesusThroughout the Biblical accounts, prophets speak with excited hope about the coming Messiah: In our Old Testament passage we hear the promise that justice, righteousness, and salvation is coming. In our New Testament passage we hear that when the Lord comes “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Talk about life changing. This amazing gift, the promise of our Messiah come to earth, is far more than the gimmicks of commercials, far more than that keyboard piano to my eight-year-old self. “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[1] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] These are not empty promises, these are real and true guarantees of the salvation that accompanies the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom in this world.

We can make a decision what we bring with us into this Advent season. Will we bring our to-do lists? Our anxiety at failing to meet expectations? Our anger towards disconnected family members? Our fear of what may come in approaching year?

Or will we bring our openness to God’s movement in our worship? Our expectation in Christ’s life changing presence? Our hope in Christ’s power in this world? Our contentment in the promise of God’s grace?

Whatever we bring with us will inevitably shape our experience and color our emotions. We have a choice of what this Advent will be.

SLIDE 11 - Simple GiftsOne tool that our church is giving to each of you this Advent season is an advent calendar called, “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. As we take our offering today, we will also be handing out Advent calendars. There are plenty for each person to have one, so please feel free to take one for yourself and someone else you think would be blessed by it, but if you are able to go through the calendar as a family, you are welcome to take just one for your family.

This is a calendar for your own devotional experience with Christ. Your salvation doesn’t hang on your ability to read each entry on the calendar or accomplish each simple gift action it suggestions, but it just might enrich your experience of God in this Advent season, it just might change your life.

This year, allow yourself to quiet your mind, clear out the clutter of what the world expects you to accomplish this season. Allow yourself to receive the gift of Jesus Christ come into this world. Allow yourself to hope that Christ’s presence in your life will change your life.

I’d like to close today with a poem by an author best known for her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle[3]. Please listen for what God is saying to you today in this message of expectation and hope:

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, and God’s Light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen


[1] Jeremiah 33:15b

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] This past Thursday, November 29th, would have been Madeleine L’Engle 94th Birthday.

Letter for December Newsletter

Grace and Peace to You,

As winter approaches, the cold weather makes us bundle up, draws us in to the warmth of our homes, and draws us towards each other. In this same way, the Advent season draws inwards for fellowship, reflection, and reconnection with God.

Throughout this Advent season our worship will be centered on practices of simplicity. Simplicity is an unpopular thing these days, with all the many places and things vying for our attention. In preparation for Christmas it’s easy to get bogged down by the work of Christmas rather than enjoying the gift of Christ’s birth. As we seek to connect with God in this time, we are called to quiet our hearts, listen to God’s story lived out in the Bible and in our world.

Simple GiftsTo help us turn towards simplicity in this Advent season we are utilizing an advent calendar called “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. Please be sure to pick up your copy in the back of the sanctuary.

As we are drawn inwards let us not forget those who do not have warm homes, warm families, or warm churches in which they might find comfort. We can help keep people warm through gifts of hats, scarves, and mittens on our mitten tree. We can help people to have a good meal through our gifts of food to the food pantry. We can help create sustainable economies in impoverished communities through our monetary donations to Heifer International. We can welcome people who may be disconnected in this season into our church.

As we prepare for Christ’s birth, may we live expectantly for God’s will in the world and God’s action through our lives.

May God bless you and keep you throughout this expectant Advent season,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

Prepare/Enrich: Marriages and our Relationship with God

Yesterday I attended a day long training from Prepare/Enrich for premartial and marriage education. It was a very positive experience all around. Though there were only three participants, each of us were coming from very different sorts of calls: a minister in a second call who serves alongside several other ministers, a college chaplain whose chapel sees 50 weddings a year from students and alum, and me, a pastor in her first call. Because of the varying experiences a lot of great questions were asked that I probably would not have come up with on my own.

The Prepare/Enrich curriculum is structured around an assessment that the couple takes that asks questions about many facets of relationship. Based on the results of that assessment there are various exercises the couple and minister can go through to address strengths and concerns about the relationship. I would highly recommend this training to any counselors or ministers looking for a structured foundation to marriage eduction. I found it particularly helpful as it gives me a foundation and resources to draw on when speaking to couples about marriage, since I am single and do not have personal marriage experience to draw from.

Aside from the actual training in marriage preparation and enrichment, the big takeaway for me was how so many of the exercises of the curriculum can and should be applied to our relationship with God:

  • One of exercises encourages a daily check-in, nearly identical of the Examen process we engaged in throughout Project Burning Bush. The P/E check-in involves talking to your spouse about the days highs and lows, and PBB’s Examen involves thinking back on when we feel closest to and farthest from God within the span of a day. Each of these exercises help us to be in touch with how were are affected by the other and requires us to articulate our desires for that relationship.
  • We also talked about active listening skills, and how we need to understand what someone is saying before we respond. Applying that to our relationship with God we can listen to God in scripture, in God’s activity in our lives and the world, and throughout history before we go about the business of asking God for what we want. When we continually listen to God (or a spouse), we become more aware of the desires of God’s (or a spouses’) heart and can tune our hearts to those desires as well.

Letter for November Newsletter

Grace and peace to you,

It is finally official: I am now the called, ordained, and installed pastor of First Presbyterian of Jesup! I am grateful for the Pastor Nominating Committee, my ordination and installation commissions, and everyone who’s been a part of making me feel at home here in Jesup. As Thanksgiving Day approaches, there is so much for which I am grateful, but I’m also acutely aware that for many this move towards gratitude is a hard one.

There are many for whom this is a difficult season. Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, can be reminders of the family members that are not celebrating beside us this year. We have to learn new ways of being family to one another.  We might need to establish new traditions or at least alter our old traditions.

For thousands on the East Coast, this holiday season is particularly difficult in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Many have lost their homes, transportation is difficult, and resources are low. Approaching a holiday based on gratitude, family gatherings, and feasts, can strange in light of their circumstances.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. In Deuteronomy 31:6 we read, “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread… because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” God is always with us and calling us out of our particular circumstances and into hope. So in this time of natural disaster you can:

Give. Provide financial support to aid Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in recovery efforts. You can give $10 now by texting PDA to 20222 or mail your gift referencing DR000187 to P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA.

Read Scripture. The Psalms are a great place to start for songs of praise and a big picture look at God’s faithfulness over time. Luke 12:6-7 and 22-31 are also good verses to remember God’s care for us. When our knowledge of God is rooted in scripture we can see our God present beyond even our current circumstances.

Pray. Pray for families who lost homes and loved ones. Pray as they face power loss and other challenges. Pray for those seek to provide physical, emotional and spiritual comfort. Pray the hope of Christ will be evident in the response in their communities.

May we approach this season of Thanksgiving with gratitude for our great God who loves us and promises to be with us in all circumstances.

Blessings,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

“Abide in God;” John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30; James York; Installation Service October 28th; FPC Jesup

Today’s sermon preached by James York at my Installation Service:

Abide in God
John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30
James York
Installation of Kathleen Sheets, October 28th
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There once was a grape branch that was very proud of the grapes it produced. The grapes were beautiful, plump and were emitting a delicious aroma. The branch was overwhelmed with pride in producing such wonderful grapes. The branch thought wouldn’t it be great to produce even more grapes I bet if I detach myself from the vine then I can produce grapes from both ends of the branch. The branch had no intention, nor desire, to be anything less than a healthy, productive grape branch. It just thought that it could produce more grapes detached from the vine.

So the branch detached itself from the vine and before long the branch no longer felt strong and vigorous. In fact it felt utterly drained and limp. Its grapes withered and dropped off. Eventually it became just a stick on the ground. The other branches remained attached to the vine and were nourished producing a bountiful harvest. The other branches realized that without the vine, they could do nothing.
Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.

Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – John 15:1-11

 

Kathleen I am inspired by the way you first strive to abide in God then let God’s blessings flow through you blessing others. In confirmation you made getting to know God through prayer and scripture reading your priority. Your delight in discovering God’s will and blessings produced fruit, an inspiring personal statement of faith.

 

 
As a teenager you founded G.I.R.L.S. group which stands for Grace In Real Life and Service. Your desire was to discuss your faith, share God Sightings and grow closer to God and your peers. The G.I.R.L.S name reveals your passion to abide in God. First you abide in God’s grace, you name and celebrate God’s activity in your daily life and the lives of others. Filled with God’s grace you joyfully, graciously serve. You discipled, helped younger girls perceive God and abide in God. You started the Box City mission by sharing devotions that helped you abide in God filling you with the compassion to serve.
You worship with great passion giving all praise, honor and glory to God. You were so nourished through Taize worship that you came back to church eager to share, to lead a Taize worship service. When I ran the idea past the worship commission they were reluctant. Then you talked to them, a teenager, soaring from your experience of God. Upon hearing you speak about your connection with God their posture straightened, they smiled, and asked. “What can we do to help you lead us in Taize worship?”

 

At Workcamp you did not let the project get in the way of devotions or perceiving God. You were eager to talk about what God was doing, how you saw a facet of God in the person being served, how God was renewing people. You first abided in God, which then fueled your service to get the project done.

 

As North Presbyterian’s summer seminarian intern I marveled in how you have grown in abiding God. Your wonder in God’s creativity inspires you to create all sorts of beautiful things. You saw God in children running through a sprinkler and in a song so with delight you created and shared it as a video. You sense God’s longing to connect with every person so you were inspired to create the “Be Our Guest Ministry”.

 

 

Your awe of God’s joyful playfulness enables you to connect children with God. Your sermons are a reflection of your wrestling with God, your delight in being with God, the nourishment you receive from God. Your time in prayer with God has filled you with compassion and peace that comforts us.

 

 

Your delight in savoring God’s love overflows you with love for all of us. Your awareness of God’s abundance overflows you with generosity.

 

Jesus says that when we abide in God we are filled with joy. Kathleen thank you for abiding in God, for sharing God’s joy through your great sense of humor, upbeat personality, warm smile and contagious laugh.

 

 

God urges us all to abide in God. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and love in many forms is the fruit. Jesus gives us our top two priorities. Number one to abide in Jesus. Number two producing the fruit of love. If we do these two things in order then we are friends of God, are nourished by God and we will have abundant joy.

There is so much to do, so much clamoring for our attention it is easy to live like the branch who disconnected himself from the vine in hopes of bearing more fruit. It is easy to switch priority 1 abiding in God with priority 2 producing the fruit of love. If we are not intentional in daily abiding in God we will dry up, burnout, become exhausted and overwhelmed.

The dilemma for us is if we focus to much on producing the fruit rather than nourishing ourselves by abiding in God then we have nothing to give. One can easily fall into this downward spiral. It starts subtle with a busy season of urgent demands. One shaves some of the ways they abide in God to complete the tasks. With less nourishment from God one has less energy, love, creativity and inspiration resulting in the person needing to spend more time completing these tasks taking even more time away from God. Now the person becomes fatigued, a little under nourished with love, therefore they say a harsh word, they regret, which causes damaged relationships which now will take time and energy to heal and soon the downward spiral spins out of control. Without Jesus we burnout. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus was well aware of our human dilemma and stressed the utmost importance of abiding in God.

The word abide appears eleven times in the scripture reading. Other translations use remain in God, be in God at all times, live in God and be joined to God. Our number one priority is always to abide in God. We are productive and thrive when we are firmly joined to Jesus.
Half of the abides in our scripture are reciprocal; Jesus abiding in us. God is doing 99.9% of the work. God is the vine grower providing everything for abundant growth the soil, rain, sun, seed, and nutrients just as God has created everything and given everything to us as a blessing. Jesus is the vine the source of all love and nourishment. God knows we will have bad days, do bad things and get our priorities all mixed up but if we can just hang onto the vine even by the smallest thread, even if all we can do is just pray, “God help me”, then God will forgive us, nourish us and infuse so much love into us that we will become vibrant and joyful again.

 

Kathleen my hope and prayer for you, for all of us, is that we make abiding in God our priority. I will confess that there have been seasons, as a pastor, when I have failed to adequately abide in God. Times when I cut my time with God to attend to to many well meaning people’s good, loving ideas. Gradually I became fatigued and my entire ministry suffered. This is a really, really, hard part of ministry, it is a hard part of life, prayerfully with God’s help we all must prune some wonderful aspects of our life so we can abide in God.
Thankfully God has filled my life with a wonderful family, a spiritual director, a great personnel committee and a faithful congregation. Since I regularly share with them ways I abide and am nourished with God they lovingly help me abide in God. The congregation knows that when I ride my bicycle I am praying, being nourished by God through the beauty of creation.

 

My Spiritual Director often tells me to go on a date with Leslie and play with the kids. Leslie tells me to get out into the woods. Two years ago the congregation sent me to the Presbyterian Credo Conference.

 

 

They paid for me to go a week early to climb Mount St Helens and Mount Rainer. My time abiding with God on the mountain inspired a series of sermons. After one of them one of the personnel committee members told me that they knew the whole congregation would be blessed by sending me into the mountains to abide in God.

 

 

 

I believe I have been called to be a lead listener, to hear each person’s story, to listen until we are able to see how God is inviting them to abide in God. I keep listening to their story and whenever I hear that they are becoming worn out I encourage them to abide in God.

As a family of faith all of us need to listen to each other and encourage each other to abide in God. Kathleen I hope you will share with these people how you abide in God, how you are pruning to nourish your relationship with God.

How you are searching for a spiritual director, pray through knitting, are rejuvenated by family, friends, music, art, media, a coffee shop, and sunsets.

 

Kathleen I hope you will listen to their stories and encourage them to abide in God.

 

 

You listened to your mom’s story how she experiences God’s joy by playing with Abigail and Spencer so on Mother’s Day you paid for an airline ticket to send your Mom to be with the York family because you knew it would rejuvenate your mom.

A man was working in a remote jungle and had a portable generator that ran a single light that hung from the ceiling. The native people marveled at the light and begged for a light bulb. Communication was difficult therefore he was unable to explain the need for electricity for the bulb to shine. They persisted in their desire to have a light bulb so he reluctantly gave them a bulb.

 

It became a great source of frustration for the native people as they hung the light bulb by a variety of strings but it never shined.

 

 

If we are to shine we must be connected to God. When others enjoy our light may we always point them to God the source of all light, joy, hope, peace, grace and love.

 

 

God’s renewing grace, desire to nourish us and love for each of us is amazing. Jesus knows even with our best efforts, even with the support of family and friends even with our entire family of faith encouraging us to abide in God there will still be times when we become exhausted, make mistakes and overwhelmed with some burden.
Jesus said:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” -Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be in your skin. Jesus is eager to partner with you, not for you to take the lead and try to do it yourself, neither to hold back and relay on Jesus to do all the work. Rather to live, play, work and rest in harmony, a partnership with God. God created all of creation with rhythm. God created you with a unique rhythm that Jesus is eager to match as Jesus walks with you. Jesus is inviting you to discover the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus is inviting you to let go so you can let come. Jesus is inviting you to enjoy time with God so that you will recover your life and overflow with joy.

All of us are called to show the world how to abide in God, to partner with Jesus, so we can bear sweet, abundant fruit, so we can fill the world with God’s renewing love. Amen

Ordination Day!

Today I was ordained and officially became the Reverend Kathleen Sheets. I am so grateful for all of the people who made this day so special.

My sister and parents at my ordination

My family at my ordination

Ordination Commission

Laying on of hands by ordained pastors and elders

 

 

“A Request,” by Ursula Le Guin

 

This poem was featured in The Writer’s Almanac today. It seems a fitting a thoughtful reflection on pastoral care and visitation to those who have lost the ability to communicate.

A Request
by Ursula Le Guin

Should my tongue be tied by stroke
listen to me as if I spoke

and said to you, “My dear, my friend,
stay here a while and take my hand;

my voice is hindered by this clot,
but silence says what I cannot,

and you can answer as you please
such undemanding words as these.

Or let our conversation be
a mute and patient amity,

sitting, all the words bygone,
like a stone beside a stone.

It takes a while to learn to talk
the long language of the rock.”
“A Request” by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

 

“What’s Stopping You?;” James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50; September 30, 2012; FPC Jesup

“What’s Stopping You?”
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There’s this great home video my family has of my sister and I dancing together when we were little. She’s around three and a half years old or so and I’m just about two. This picture is from a few years later, but gives you a bit of an idea about how my sister and I enjoyed dancing. In the video we were probably dancing to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a favorite of ours at the time. I’m sort of moving every which way and she is running around in circles. She stops me and says, “you’re not doing it right… like this!” And I happily follow her, running around in the same direction that she’s been running in.

This is the image that comes to mind for me when I read our passage in Mark. The disciples had a great idea of how to follow Christ. My sister had a great idea of how we should be dancing. And then here comes someone else that’s just not doing it right.

The disciples have been walking with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. If anyone knows the right way to do things, it would be them, right?

When the new believers of this time began following Christ they were most often responding to an experience they had with Him. A healing they had witnessed, a transformation they had encountered, a sermon that spoke truth to their very soul. Many of the gospel stories end with people believing and going off to share with others. Many of these conversions do not come with a lot of instructions on how to be a Christian, because that word didn’t exist yet. These people simply knew that this man named Jesus had come for the sake of each person. He preached an upside down, backwards is forwards revolutionary message of loving others that society would deem unlovable. And that was enough for many. They decided to follow Jesus, often giving up their own way of life, their families, and their possessions.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the start. They’re the veterans. Anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling or become an upperclassman has a bit of an idea of how these disciples felt. Sure they wanted to bring in new believers, expand the Kingdom of God, but did that have to be at the expense of losing the closeness of the original community surrounding Jesus? These people didn’t really get it in the same way. These people weren’t doing it right!

Our Mark passage today talks about stumbling blocks in faith. The word often translated as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is from the Greek verb skandalizein. This word and its English cognate, “scandalize,” carry a meaning closer to “causing one to be so horrified that they are no longer able to continue in the same direction they’ve been traveling.” This is much more severe than a simple stumble. This is a fall flat on your face and never come back sort of fall.
I know people who have had this sort of experience with church. When they needed a community of believers most in their lives they were called sinful, deemed unworthy, or even just ignored. To them, church is just a place where people will tell them that whatever they are doing, they’re doing it wrong. Being told you are dancing the wrong way when you are two is something that you can get past. Being told that you are an unworthy sinner by the very people you seek out for love can create wounds for a lifetime.

It is a genuine concern to desire for the church to speak not an easy truth, but an authentic witness. It is important for the church to acknowledge the history of those who have gone before. But when our desire for the way things have always been gets in the way of someone experiencing the love of Christ, we are that stumbling block, we are the scandalizing ones.

Sometimes we get so frustrated in the way that others present Christianity that we’d like to tell them, “you’re not doing it right,” and direct them in the way that they should go. I do believe that God calls us to cry out against injustice and anyone speaking a word of hate claiming it is in the name of God.

But, aside from acts of injustice or hatred, those who simply worship Jesus in a different way, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ and we should stand beside them. The image of the church in our community and our world needs to be one of love, not of division. As Christ says in our passage “anyone who is not against us is with us.”

This is a prophetic word for a world of political, social, and religious polarizing. We are told that there’s “them” and there’s “us.” And if you’re not an “us,” then you’re a “them.”

The disciples, too, felt this desire for categories. These new followers were the “them,” the disciples were the “us.” How could the disciples sit idly by while they professed to be driving out demons in the name of Christ?

Listen carefully to the words again: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They weren’t stopping this man who was doing work in the name of Jesus because he wasn’t doing good work or because he wasn’t doing the work of God, they came because he was not following “us.” He was not one of the in-crowd of disciples. There also may have been a bit of jealousy involved in the disciples’ disapproval of this man.

Earlier in Mark chapter nine we read of another incident, where scribes were arguing with the disciples.  Here’s how Mark tells the story: [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”  Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak;  and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” [Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” [Mk. 9:28-29]

So when they are angry with this nameless disciple for casting out demons in the name of Christ they’re not just angry because it might’ve been “unauthorized.” They’re angry because this had been done by a man who wasn’t even a part of the original disciples. Their complaint is based solely on their desire to have exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  And even more frustrating, the disciples were not even successful in stopping this man!  “We tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus.  The work of God went on in spite of the disciple’s interference.

“Jesus said, ‘Do not stop [them]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

Jesus wants to work through this nameless follower, as misguided as the disciples thinks he may be. This is important to keep in mind on several levels. If we seek to do the will of Christ in this world, Christ will work through our efforts. If we invoke the name of Christ in blessing, Christ will indeed bless. When I endeavor to speak Christ’s truth from this pulpit, Christ will be the One to impart truth.

Jesus continues on in his lesson to the disciples, almost in the same way I can imagine a parent talking to a child when a new sibling is introduced to the family or the way upperclassmen may need to be lectured against bullying new students. This is a “don’t mess with the little guy,” type of talk.

Jesus says, “If any of you [scandalize] one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Wow. That seems quite threatening coming from the “Prince of Peace.” Surely as Christ desires peace, Christ desires the strength of the Kingdom even more so. Though the text of this passage seems like a call for physical violence and self harm, we can think of this more in the context of the church as the body of Christ. Separating from those causing harm to the church is like separating out a body part, painful, but necessary if it will allow you to survive. And so, even these very essential, very involved disciples may need to be separated out of the body of Christ if they are causing harm to other believers.

When I first began working on this sermon, I gave it the title, “what’s stopping you?” but these verses also point to perhaps a better question, “who are you stopping?” We are called to be the body of Christ in this world. God’s own hands and feet in this community. We are called to speak the love of Christ louder than we speak of division and politics. We are called to affirm Christ’s claim on each and every life. We are called to empower others to do Christ’s work in this world.

Our passage in James today gives us instructions on how we are to care for one another it says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

In all occasions we are called to pray for one another, for as James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

So who are those that you are called to pray for today? Who are the “suffering?” Who are the “sick?” What is stopping you from praying for them? I would say the first step in knowing who to pray for, is acknowledging those around you. Like in the book we read in the children’s message today, the important time do to things is now, the most important ones are the ones around us, and the more important thing to do is good for those around us. God has called you into this life you are living and desires to work in and through you. This is a work that can only be done when we live lives steeped in prayer. The Kingdom can only be built when we open our doors and our lives to those who we might not recognize as the in-crowd. For Christ came not only for “us,” but for “them” as well. Amen.

Letter for October Newsletter

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Happy Autumn! For me the beginning of October always brings the sound of crisp leaves crunching under my feet,  tastes of apple cider and pumpkin flavored everything, and scenes of red-orange-yellow trees where ever I look. Perhaps for you it brings up memories of family hayrides or corn mazes. Maybe you have traditions of apple-picking or pumpkin carving. As we see the leaves changing outside we are also aware of the many changes happening in our lives. For me this has been a major time of transition: moving to Jesup, starting work here at First Presbyterian, and getting settled into the community. What an amazing few weeks this has been. I am overwhelmed by the hospitality that this community has shown me as I begin here. A great big thank you for:

  • Everyone who worked so tirelessly on preparing the manse for my arrival. The house looks great. When I arrived I walked around the house in awe of all the work that had been done. It’s really starting to feel like home!
  • Everyone who helped to unload the moving truck. The crew unloaded a 20 foot moving truck (including an upright piano) in just 30 minutes!
  • The lovely housewarming shower. I appreciate all the gifts you have given me to help me get started here in Jesup. Thank you for your kindness and generosity.
  • A very special thank you to Kathy & Rich Bucknell, Dean Zuck, Gary & Gladys Rowley, Paul Nagle, Bruce Miller, Barbara Meister, Judy Fratzke, Bob McInerny, Dyrk Dahl, Mike & Donna Schares, Rob & Rachel Thomas family, Rick Zuck, Justin Zuck, Trent Zuck and Eric Zuck. Each of these people went above and beyond with their help in working on the manse and helping with the move (my apologies if I left anyone out!).

For each of you there are likely other transitions in your life: adjusting to the rhythms of the new school year, adjusting to an empty nest with kids gone to college or to new jobs, adjusting to being newly retired, or adjusting to a new family dynamic in the wake of a new marriage, a new life, or a new death. As the old axiom says, “the only thing constant is change.” Or, to tap into our Presbyterian roots, we are to be “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” As people of the “reformed” faith, we are particularly charged not to avoid change but to embrace it in all the possibilities that it brings. We know that as the leaves fall to the ground, they give way for new life to begin again. In an ever changing world, we have hope in the new life change brings. May it be so in all of our lives.

Blessings,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum

“What’s in a Name?”, Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22, September 16, 2012, FPC Jesup

“What’s in a Name?”
Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22
September 16, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When you meet someone for the first time, what do you say to them? More often than not you likely say something along the lines of, “Hello, my name is Kathleen. What’s your name?” Names are often the very first thing we tell one another about ourselves, and the very first thing we ask to know about someone else. We want our names known and we want to know the names of others.

Many of you are probably familiar with the TV show, “Cheers,” that was on in eighties and early nineties. Even if you aren’t too familiar with the characters you could probably sing the chorus to the theme song with me, “Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.”

As a brand new resident of Jesup, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of naming in this town. When you hear the name of someone who has lived here for most of their lives, you can likely tell me a bit of history about that person, who their relatives are, perhaps where they worked and who else they worked with.

Naming is an important part of how we relate to one another. We want to be known, to be recognized, and have people remember our names. Our names are important to us, for to be named is to be known, and in this knowing there is story and relationship.

This is not a modern idea, but rather stems from the very beginning of human history. In Genesis we read of God creating a creature in God’s own image. This creature is called “Adam,” also the word for “humankind.” Adam calls his wife, “Eve,” which is the word for “living,” stating that she is so named because she will be the mother of all the living.

God separates sky from land and land from water and creates living things to populate each place. Once everything has been created God turns it over to Adam for him to name. Genesis 2:19 tells us, “Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. “

In our Old Testament passage today we read another important story of naming. Exodus 3 tells us that Moses was out beyond the wilderness taking care of his father in law’s sheep. If you’re familiar with the Exodus narrative, or have seen the cartoon film, “Prince of Egypt” a couple of times, you’ll know that this story comes to us shortly after Moses had killed an Egyptian. The Egyptian was beating a Hebrew man, and Moses could not stand idly by, so he killed the Egyptian. The man that Moses killed had been working on behalf of the Pharaoh, so when Moses killed him, the Pharaoh was quite upset. Now in our story we read of Moses out alone, out beyond the wilderness, trying to escape the place where everybody knew his name. He didn’t want to own up to the responsibilities that came with being found out.

How strange it was then, out here, out beyond even the wilderness, that he should hear his name shouted, “Moses.” And his name didn’t come from a fellow wanderer or fugitive, it came from a bush that was on fire but somehow, was not burning up. I can imagine him staring at this bush, head to the side, wondering if he were imagining things. But he hears his name a second time, “Moses!”

This strange bush-on-fire was calling out his name. The voice tells him not to come any closer, but to take his shoes off for he is on holy ground. The voice identifies itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God does not identify God’s self by a name, but rather by a relationship.

God continues, saying that God has seen the misery of God’s people and has come to deliver them. And God has plans to do these things through, of all people, Moses, the fugitive.

It is not quite enough for Moses that this voice knows Moses’ name, or that the voice has identified the relationships of being God to all of these great men, Moses wants to know God’s name.
In Exodus 3:14-15 we read: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

God cannot be contained to a simple one-word name, even in naming God is a God of relationship. God is “I am.” God is eternal. God is forever the God of people. God has no desire to exist outside of relationship.
Jewish practice encompasses some of the weight of the significance of this in the way that they treat God’s name.

The Hebrew alphabet is made up of consonants, but give it’s pronunciation by vowel markers. Some texts are written without the vowel markers, and people are usually able to infer the pronunciation based on context.

But one word that is never given vowel markers is the word for God. God’s name is purposefully unpronounceable. When reading scripture, Jewish readers will instead say Lord, or Adonai, instead of trying to pronounce the unpronounceable. However, in Christian reading of Jewish scripture we have taken the Hebrew letters Yud Hey Vav Hey and translated them to Yahweh.

Also in the Jewish tradition, the name of God written out becomes holy. This stems from the commandment not to take God’s name in vain.  If God’s name is written on even a scrap of paper, it is not to be erased, defaced, put on the ground, ripped up, or destroyed in any way. Anything containing God’s name is to be respected, and if need be, ceremoniously buried by a rabbi.

However, it’s good to note that this slide up here would not be in violation. Orthodox rabbis have ruled that since writing on a computer is not a permanent form, typing God’s Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God’s Name in them does not violate the name of God.
All of this is the way that Jewish tradition recognizes God as one who cannot be contained by human conventions, but who is inextricably a part of human experience. God is a God of the people. God is a God of relationship.

Though we most often introduce ourselves by our given names, there are other names we answer to as well. These names are not given at birth, but acquired along the way. Some of you are called mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter, or son. These names do not exist in isolation, but tie us together, framing our relationships.

These names indicate a way we are supposed to treat each other. In some cases they indicate a vow, as between spouses, or household rules established by our parents. Relationship carries expectation. Being known requires a response.

I received a new name this week, the name of “pastor.” I am excited by this name and motivated by what such a name means, but upon reading some definitions perhaps also a bit daunted. Around 400 AD, Saint Augustine, a prominent Roman bishop, described a pastor’s job: “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.”

Wow. What a list of expectations that is! I will try, as much as any one person can, to do those things, but it will help us all to recognize, that none of those things can or should be done in isolation. A pastor exists only in relationship. That is why I am not quite yet ordained, one can only be ordained when there are people that will be served by that title. At my ordination and installation services next month we will both make promises to one another about what that relationship is to look like, and how we will serve God together.

God desires to name us as well. Though we do have the names our parents have given us, God also gives us the name of child. In our New Testament passage today, we read of the relationship granted to us by God coming to earth and living among us as Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:19-20, we read, “[we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone”

To be called stranger or alien is to be unknown, to be isolated, to be disconnected. Through Jesus Christ we are all joined together and claimed as Christ’s family members. We are members of the household of God.
We too have responsibilities in this household of God. First and foremost we are commanded in the last couple of verses in the Gospel of Matthew to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We are tasked by Jesus over and over again to build up the Kingdom of God, by putting God first and foremost in our lives, showing special care to those who feel disconnected. We are responsible to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

So, let us know each other by name, but let us also know each other as family. And as I am learning my way in time of new beginnings and new relationships, you may need to remind me several times over of your given names, but I promise to always strive to know you first and foremost as brothers and sisters in the household of God. Amen.

Officially the new pastor of Jesup, IA!

I am delighted to announce officially that I am now the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA!

I am so excited to serve with this congregation. This church is full of people who are family to one another, sometimes by blood, mostly by the love they have for each other. They have welcomed me with open arms and have been incredibly hospitable every step of the way. Members of the congregation have spent the past week and a half getting the manse ready for me to live in it and it looks beautiful.

The church seems excited by my passions for using technology in church life, especially in worship. It’s a very relational church and as I am a very relational person I think that it will be a very good fit!

Here are some other things people have been asking me about:

  • There is one worship service each Sunday and the worship style is blended with contemporary music every other week.
  • The town of Jesup has a population of about 2,500.
  • Average worship attendance is about 80.
  • Waterloo is the closest bigger city, only about 15-20 minutes away.
  • Cedar Falls is about 30 minutes away and has a street with a great coffee shop, knitting store, and bike shop all in a row. I think I will be spending a lot of time on that street!
  • Cedar Rapids is about 45 minutes away with all sorts of things going on there.

A big thank you to everyone who has been so supportive of me, praying for me throughout feeling a call to ministry in the 8th grade until finding this call. It’s been a long journey to get to this point and I am so very excited to see what God has in store for me in this exciting new beginning! Your continued prayers would be appreciated!

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4

“As God Sees,” 1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17; June 17, 2012; First Congregational Church of Williamstown, MA

“As God Sees”
1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17
June 17, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

by Salvador Dali

Time for Children

Who can tell me what you see in this picture? [Old couple, vase, people playing instruments] What else? Did you see the picture differently when other kids suggested something different? How about in your life…are there people that seem different after you know what someone else thinks about them? In our scripture today we were told that God looks to the heart of a person rather than to their appearance. This week as you talk to your family and friends I’d like you to think about how you can look to someone’s heart, the way that they show love and care for other people and think about people differently because of it.

“As God Sees”

Who should lead? This is the question of our passage in Samuel and quite frequently the question in our day-to-day lives. Millions of dollars are spent on ad campaigns telling us who would be the right candidate for any given office: mayor, senate, congress, president. We are told why they would be the right person for the position and why their opponent would be the wrong person. Anyone who has turned on a television in the past year has undoubtedly seen many of these ads, particularly for the presidential race. Though there are discussions based on experience, and platforms, there is also inevitably discussion of who “looks more presidential.”

Some argue that John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was due in part to his ability to look better than Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential election debates. In fact many who had listened to the debates on radio said that Nixon was the better debater, but those who watched on television thought Kennedy was more successful in the debate. As Kennedy was the one elected, it’s hard not to think that his presidential appearance was a factor.

As in Samuel’s day, we have expectations of who will lead us. We feel like we know what they should look like, what sort of background and qualifications they should have. In our Old Testament passage today we read that Samuel initially goes along with these expectations, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Samuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The anticipation built in this passage likely carries a different meaning for a reader of Paul’s time, because they know two things:

First, someone out keeping the sheep could be quite far off, taking perhaps a few hours to be reached and brought to the place where Samuel and the rest of Jesse’s sons were gathered for a sacrifice. I can also imagine the frustration of the other brothers in first being passed over and then being made to wait for their youngest brother, who was not important enough to even be present at the sacrifice. Though the text says nothing of the brother’s objections, I can’t help but compare this image to that of Cinderella’s step sisters trying to dissuade the prince from searching for their step sister turned maid when he came searching with that glass slipper.

Secondly, in Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

When the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

This is the one. I don’t know about you, but I envy the clarity of this declaration that the Lord gives to Samuel.

Though I do defer to God’s will in prayer, God’s desires for my life are rarely as clear as a direct “choose this, not that.” Still, this passage contains an important message that is applicable in our lives: we are told that the Lord focuses on the heart, rather than the outward appearance.

In the Hebrew, this word leevahv that is translated most often in English as “heart,” means something different from how we know it today. Leevahv can also be translated as, “the mind,” “inner soul,” or “determinations of will.” To look to one’s heart is to truly examine a person’s being, intentions, and desires. So what was it about David’s leevahv that made him so desirable as a leader?

Tony Cartledge, an Old Testament commentary author tries to answer this question. He wrote:

“Consider the significance of David’s openness—his spirit of adventure, his delight in trying new things, his willingness to let God work through him. David’s heart was not closed because his mind was not made up and he made no claim to having everything figured out. The impression we get is that David’s heart was open to the future, open to new possibilities, open to mystery, and therefore open to the spirit of God. As David remained opened to the spirit’s presence and leadership in his life, God’s spirit remained with him from that day forward. As a result, God accomplished great things through David.”[1]

Notice that David did not suddenly become older, or more scholarly, or wealthy; he was still a young, naïve shepherd boy. But God saw through the unassuming exterior and sociological context into the midst of who David was, and deemed his will enough to serve God as the anointed leader to supersede the now disgraced Saul. If we read ahead in scripture we know that David indeed has his own failings, but he was still called and anointed for God’s service. And though he was human and therefore fallible, he was still used for God’s purposes. God’s will was still enacted through David.

My sister, Amy, teaches fifth grade language arts. In order to help her students get in the right mindset for revising their papers, she has students put on “Re-vision” glasses. These are made from 3D movie glasses with the lenses popped out. She teaches that when you revise something you have written you are supposed to look at the paper with new eyes, as “revise” means literally to look at again. This is what God asks us to do, to look again, to “revise” our perceptions of one another, looking not at the external markers of how someone has been cast in this world, but rather to their heart, to their intentions, into the midst of the will of that person.

Our New Testament passage today offers us a new lens through which we may see to the heart of one another, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us listen to God’s Word together as we are reminded of our New Testament passage today from 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verses 11 through 17:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

This passage invites us, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to look not to what we profess about ourselves, but to what God professes about us as a part of a larger new creation. Through the example of Christ’s life, we are shown what it means to love, what it means to show care for our neighbor, and we are given a glimpse of the limitless grace of God. This call to regard one another through looking to the heart is a call for us to glimpse Christ’s transformative powers at work in one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.

What would your life look like if you regarded the people you faced day to day in light of God’s grace? How would that change the person in front of you in line at the post office or grocery store? How would that change your family? How would that change this congregation?

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes,

“reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

This sort of reverence is what God desires when we look at one another, to look not at outside indicators of affiliation, class, or profitability, but to look to the heart. My seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson was known for a blessing that he pronounced at the end of class. It goes something like this:

We should offer each other all that we have to offer, but if we base our care on what we have to offer there is no future. We should strive not to fail each other, but we do fail each other, so if we base what we call love on the fact that we haven’t failed each other yet, we don’t have a future. There are communities that present compelling intellectual and heartbreaking emotional evidence that the claims we find ourselves belonging to are falsehood. Those communities must be heard. Love must first listen, it doesn’t have to agree, but it has to listen. However, nevertheless having listened, we do find ourselves included in, drawn to, lifted by the claim that there is a love in God’s own heart that has been given to us and that even in the failures and confusions of our own lives corporate and person, this love never fails and this love never waits for a cause. Therefore, beloved, may joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.[2]

This blessing speaks of a depth and breadth of love that God calls us to grant to one another. A love based not on a person’s worldly worth or perfect record, but on the beauty of lives and hearts transformed by God’s redemptive power. It is my prayer today that we all may seek to re-vision this world and each other in light of God’s great grace. Amen.

[1] p 204 Smith Hewly’s Bible Commentary

[2] Blessing by Professor Carson Brisson.

“If you stay around here long enough you will be changed forever”

“If you stay around here long enough you will be changed forever.”

When I was at choir rehearsal last night, one of the women leaned over and said this to me as a way of explaining the camaraderie and sense of humor of the group. It is indeed a group that delights in one another and in sharing a good hearted joke. They have welcomed me graciously and I am enjoying getting to know them.

Her comment stuck with me. As a musical theatre fan I can’t help but hear echoes of “because I knew you, I have been changed for good,” from Wicked. And as very dear friends are graduating from Union Presbyterian Seminary this weekend, I can’t help but be caught up in the nostalgia inevitably produced by this season of graduations, it’s endings, and new beginnings.

You, First Congregational of Williamstown, are changing me. You challenge me to be ever more aware of who my neighbor may be, how I may serve and support them through pursing social justice and responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources. Your balance of intelligence and humor are shaping the way that I approach God’s word and will work to bring it to life in my ministry among you.

You, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, haved changed me. Though I ended my employment at FPC Maumee just under a month ago, my history with FPC started back about 20 years ago when my family joined the church. FPC raised me in the faith, helped to foster and support my call to ministry, and provided a second family to me throughout it all. In our ministry together I discovered much about who I am as a minister and how I hope to serve in the future.

You, Union Presbyterian Seminary, haved changed me. I am privileged to call this institution my alma mater and was blessed to call it home. Through my three years in seminary and three years in Project Burning Bush in high school, you opened up God’s word to me in invigorating and challenging ways. You challenged me to work harder academically and deeper spiritually than I had ever worked before. Most importantly, I am blessed by friendships with many classmates, professors, and staff. You provide crucial love and support, truly understanding the joys and challenges of ministry.

And you, friend, family, colleague, or blog stumbler-upon, change me through your desire to enter into conversation. I am grateful to have this outlet for sharing inspiration, musings, sermons, and stories. It is my prayer that you too are changed by what you read, see, and hear as we navigate through life and ministry together.

“All Things in Common”

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. – Acts 2:38-47

Yesterday we celebrated the founding of the Christian church, Pentecost. We read of the Holy Spirit descending upon a gathering of people and though all are speaking different languages, the Holy Spirit enables them to understand one another. And, “all who believed were together and had all things in common.”

All things? Really? We’ve been told that they come from a great many different places, with a great many different native languages. Surely each place had their own customs and varying experiences of life. I bet some were farmers, some were shepherds. Some came from pagan traditions and some were Jewish. But still…we are told that they had all things in common.

As the Christian church has continued over the centuries would we still say that we have all things in common? Throughout the horrors of the Crusades, when Martin Luther called the pope, “the devil,” in the ongoing tragedies caused by those who read God’s Word and decide that God hates anyone, our history is littered with many and terrible examples of ways we aren’t united.

A lawyer asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 22:36-40

These two greatest commandments, identified by Jesus himself, must be the foundation for our faith in order for us to achieve any sense of unity. Having “all things in common” is not about unity in demographics, life experiences, or cultural worldview, it is about having love of God and neighbor in common.

This past week was my first week at First Congregational. Though it is a UCC congregation and I myself am Presbyterian, I find that denominational issues differences are not any sort of a problem, but rather a great experience for me to learn about the different expressions of the Church. These are a kind and caring people who love God and neighbor through striving for justice, providing homes for the homeless, and welcoming any who who enter the church with open arms. There’s a lot that could be argued is different between us, but in the things that matter, we do seem to have “all things in common.”

A Letter to FPC Maumee

This week in the office finds me tidying up loose ends: finishing this year’s Seedling you will receive this Sunday in worship, putting final touches on our wedding brochure with our (relatively) new wedding policy, and getting publications in place for the Capital Campaign. Each of these projects shares one common goal: making way for the future of FPC Maumee.

Back in 2008 when we were just beginning to discuss the possibility of a renovation for our building I remember overhearing one of our elder members in discussion with one of our youth. While the elder member was asked what changes could and should be made with the generous bequest our church received, the elder member differed to the youth, saying, “ask them, they’re the ones the church is being built for.” Each of us, in our own participation in the life of the church plays a role in what this church will become. We are building a future for the community of Northwest Ohio through the renovations we have made to our building and to our perspectives of how it may be used to further God’s Kingdom. We don’t renovate for the sake of those who are already well established in the church, we renovate for the future of the Kingdom.

This generous attitude of our members built me up as well. These past twenty years, you have made room for me to grow in faith

and allowed me to see the role that God has for me as a minister in the Church. This church has formed me into the Christian I have become and minister I will be in the future. I am grateful for the many ways you have renovated my life: providing Biblical instruction through Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Youth Group; lending a listening ear and open heart as I preached and we worshiped together; and giving encouragement all along the way.

As I step out in faith to serve the greater Church in a new capacity, I do so with a solid foundation built by this congregation, my family, and Union Presbyterian Seminary. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve alongside you and I look forward to the future God has for all of us.

Written for FPC Maumee’s FYI Newsletter, May 1, 2012

Commissioning

Today I had my last Sunday as Pastoral Intern at First Presbyterian Church of Maumee. It was a bittersweet day, as I will miss serving and worshipping alongside my home congregation, but I am excited to see what God has in store in Massachusetts. Within each of the three services, the congregation thanked me for my ministry with them and prayed for my future ministry. In the same part of the service, Pastor Clint acknowledged how God’s call on my life is also a reflection of the ministry they have all done. The congregation of FPC Maumee provided a place for faith to take root in my life and imagine a future of serving the church as a minister. In two of the services, members prayed for me through a laying on of hands.

There’s something about a laying on of hands that stays with you. Last week the elders laid hands and prayed over the confirmands. We commissioned them for service to the greater church and to membership in our particular church. I remember this commissioning as an eighth grade confirmand, the weight of those hands on my head and shoulders. That was the year that God called me into ministry.

Now, eleven years later, feeling those hands (many of them the very same hands) upon my head and shoulders, those two events seem to be some sort of bookends of my preparation for ordained ministry. Even when I’m not in direct contact with them, I know that this congregation is supporting me, sending me out to serve the greater church.

“Many Voices, One Song”

On March 18th First Presbyterian of Maumee sang “Give Thanks to God Who Hears Our Cries,” along with many other PC(USA) churches across the nation. This was part of “Many Voices, One Song,” a national hymn sing by the Presbyterian Hymnal Project in anticipation of the release of a new Presbyterian Hymnal in Fall 2013.

I love this project because it gives a very tangible example of what a denominational hymnal is all about: joining in song with fellow Presbyterians where ever they may be. By encouraging all particular Presbyterian churches to sing the same song on a Sunday, we are singing not just as our own congregations but as the larger Church.

Check out the video of both the Chapel and Sanctuary services singing this song together:

See more information about this project at: http://www.presbyterianhymnal.org/manyvoices.

15 Reasons I’ve Never Left (The) Church

In conversation with Rachel Held Evans’,”15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” 

As a 25 year old growing up in America today, I am part of a significant minority of people who have weathered high school, college, and young adulthood with consistent mainline denomination church attendance and membership. I’m not saying this as a point of pride, but rather out of a bit of surprise. Christ’s Church has been such a cornerstone to my life, that it’s hard to imagine my life without it, even for a short while.

Within the candidacy process (for ordination to ministry in the PCUSA) I was asked how I could know that God was calling me to minister in the church if I haven’t tried anything else yet. That question caught me off guard. But then I realized, I had tried other things. In high school I worked with the yearbook and newspaper and thought I might be a journalist because I like shedding light on stories people might not know otherwise. In college I studied film production because I like being enabling people to tell their stories and show what the world looks like from their point of view. The funny thing is God finds a way to use every bit of who we are towards ministry. I am a journalist through newsletters, bulletin announcements, directories, and websites. I am a film producer, sharing the stories of the church through film.

Through ministry, God enables me to be the best parts of myself.

So here are 15 (of many) reasons why I’ve never left The Church (or church):

1. A weekly corporate prayer of confession. There’s something beautifully vulnerable about standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another. Imagine going out to other places and relationships in your life and confessing this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship.

2. A delightful 97 year old member of our church whose love for God and God’s church fuels every aspect of her life. Our weekly conversations about how the church can be strengthened show me that Church membership is not about showing up each week as if attending some performance. Membership is about being a part of things, actively engaging and participating in whatever capacity you are able.

3. 1 Corinthians 12: This passage reminds me how each of us has a role in doing God’s work here on earth.

4. Barbara Brown Taylor. Yes she is Episcopalian, and yes her faith journey has taken her back and forth from active participation in the Church, but the poetic honesty that she offers in every sermon and piece of writing have given me a resolute peace in God’s call on my life to be a minister.

5. Hearing the statements of faith of newly confirmed members. I first felt God calling me to ministry while I was in confirmation class in the 8th grade. Knowing the impact of confirmation first-hand, i delight in hearing where these new members are in their journey of faith.

6. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12This passage speaks in a direct way of the strength we have through unity.

7. Project Burning Bush. Sadly, this program has ended, but it’s 10 year existence gives me hope not only for the future of the church, but for its present reality. Throughout my time with PBB as both participant and staff, I met a great many wonderful people who genuinely delight in being the Church.

8. The community of Union Presbyterian Seminary. The faculty, staff, and students of this beautiful institution have taught me so much about what it means to be the Church. In agreement and in conflict, these people’s tangible passion for improvement strengthened who I am and what I am willing to fight for to allow God’s Kingdom to be manifest.

9. Matthew 18:20 Through our Church community and the relationships we share with one another, we invite God to be present among us. God shows up in the ways we care for one another.

10. Communion. In communion we are reminded of Jesus Christ’s great sacrifice for us, but also of the meal that he shared with His disciples in the Last Supper. We can be sure that this was one of many meals they shared, but this one was different. Before the meal Jesus knelt down in front of the disciples and washed their feet. In breaking the bread he introduced it as His body, speaking of how He could nourish them like no earthly bread could. He also spoke of how the wine as His blood gives life. He asked His disciples to specifically eat bread and drink wine as a way to remember Him.
When we join in communion we are making ourselves present to the events of this meal. I picture everyone in our congregation, sitting down with every other congregation, sitting down with Jesus and His disciples.

11. First Presbyterian Church of Muncie. I am grateful for my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee and the ways they have all blessed me throughout my life, but First Presbyterian Church of Muncie holds a special place in my life. While FPC Maumee has had the opportunity to get to know me through relationships with my family and by watching me grow up throughout childhood, FPC Muncie knew me only while I was in college. Still, FPC Muncie welcomed me heartily, welcoming me into their choir loft and into their relationships like I had been there for years. I will never forget how much a part of the Church I felt when being a part of that church.

12. Deuteronomy 31:6. This passage tells us that God will always be with us. Even if I did leave a particular church, I know that God would always be present with me. However, this passage is not about striking out on your own to worship God alone as you may please. This passage comes in the context of Moses speaking to the people of Israel as they are about to head into the promise land. They travel as a large group and are strengthened through their faith in God as they have experienced God in community. They could not have made it to that point alone and God never intended them to. God will never ever leave us or forsake us, but that does not mean that we should intentionally create distance between ourselves and those who are eager to help us have a relationship with God.

13. Funerals. When someone dies I know I often find myself thinking about what will be said about me when I’m gone. I think about how long I will live and the experiences that I will have throughout my lifetime. If left to my own devices I think I would probably spend more time thinking about how I’ve been affected by someone’s death than the effect they have made with their life. Funerals work to bring us outside of that, focusing on the greater picture: the comfort of our common hymns, scripture telling us of God’s plans for us in heaven, and proclamations of the promise of resurrection.

14. Church meals. Child development experts can tell us the value of family dinner. Eating meals together fosters healthy habits and relationships. The same can be said of church dinners. When we eat together we approach each other on common ground. We all need to be fed physically, spiritually, and relationally. Meals with our church family allows for that to happen.

15. Baptisms. My favorite moment of the baptism is when the congregation affirms their role in the life of the person being baptized. In baptism, the person baptized becomes a part of the church family. We all take on the responsibilities of discipleship and Christian education. We promise to nurture this newly baptized person as they grow in faith. Simultaneously we are reminded of how we have all promised these vows to one another. Being the Church means saying: “I am here to travel this road with you. I will know God better through God’s work in your life and you will know God better through God’s work in mine.”

Doubting Thomas

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
– John 20:24-29

As we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on this day after Easter, I am reminded of the stories that follow Christ’s resurrection: the empty tomb, Christ’s appearance in the garden, and one that is particularly on my mind tonight, Thomas’ doubt of Jesus’ resurrection.

I get why Thomas wanted to see Jesus and touch his wounds: he wanted to know that Jesus’ resurrection was real. He wanted to know that this Jesus to whom he had devoted himself was truly much more than simply human or a apparition or a hoax. 

Jesus obliges, offering his hands and side to Thomas for inspection. Jesus, the resurrected, incarnate, God allows himself to be poked and prodded for Thomas’ doubt to be satisfied.

Jesus doesn’t leave it at that though, but questions Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” He admonishes him saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Belief in something you can see and feel is simply an understanding of the tangible, unquestionable, entirely fathomable facts. However, God is so much greater and more complex than anything that can be explained by reason. Only through faith can we fully welcome all of God. Thomas understood the basic facts about Jesus’ resurrection, but without mystery-welcoming faith, he could not fully embrace what that resurrection truly meant for our salvation and the Kingdom of God.

Nickel Creek’s song, “Doubting Thomas,” speaks with great vulnerability to this text.The lines, “Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie,” speak directly to the fear of any of us seeking to teach other’s about God. But that’s exactly where faith comes in. Trusting in God means being open to even the confusing, scary, or complicated parts about God. The very nature of Divinity is the beauty of inexplicability. Accompanying inexplicability with trust in it’s dependability is a frightening thing to do, but in doing so we free ourselves from self-sufficiency and are able to embrace grace.

A favorite StoryPeople story says:

“Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.” – “Belief,” Brian Andreas

Here is a beautiful cover of Nickel Creek’s, “Doubting Thomas.”

“Doubting Thomas,” Nickel Creek

What will be left when I’ve drawn my last breath
Besides the folks I’ve met and the folks who’ve known me
Will I discover a soul-saving love
Or just the dirt above and below me
I’m a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
But I do not feel safe
Oh me of little faith

Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face
Then I beg to be spared cause I’m a coward
If there’s a master of death
I bet he’s holding his breath
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power

I’m a doubting Thomas
I can’t keep my promises
Cause I don’t know what’s safe
Oh me of little faith

Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die

Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted

I’m a doubting Thomas
I’ll take your promise
Though I know nothin’s safe
Oh me of little faith