Stop And Take Notice

Dear Saints,

Recently we’ve had a few wonderful and unseasonably warm days for February or even March! It’s amazing how sunny skies and a break in cold temps can lift one’s spirits. Perhaps you also heard Cardinals changing their tune from the winter chirps as they seek food/water in deep winter to a joyful song when warm breezes begin to blow. It’s also fun to see how little warmth and sun it takes for the brown grass to start greening again.

Throughout the Millennia, Christian spiritual leaders have suggested that in times of spiritual drought one reliable way to connect with God is in paying attention to creation. Nature is filled with signs and metaphors of God’s activity, given to us by our Creator that can give us HOPE in the midst of the cold and dark days of winter even as we begin Lent. The only catch? You have to take the time to notice. 

In the midst of the same cold and dark days of the last two months, our leaders and staff have been working faithfully to create and prepare plans for a meaningful Lenten season. Like the subtle signs of creation during a preview of a few warm days, these Lenten offerings are also here waiting for you to TAKE NOTICE.

We have our daily Lenten devotional to help you on your journey, in print, and on our Webpage. We are offering Lenten Wednesdays which will not be an “old fashioned soup and bible study” but a modern gathering of conversation about HOPE in scripture and faith over soup/salad and breaking of bread (communion). The last of these will be April 1st which is a family night of make your own pizzas and a Lenten scavenger hunt. We have also created and updated special worship services throughout Lent to enhance your worship and Holy week experiences.

It is all waiting here for you. So stop and take notice of where God is inviting you to seek your future with HOPE.

Watching for signs of HOPE with you,

Rev Jen

Listening, Noticing and Loving

Dear Saints,

You may or may not have heard that our monthly worship and ministry theme, is “Loving through Deeper Listening”. WAIT! Before you scroll down or away from this missive, don’t worry. I am not expecting that we’ll be working on all sorts of esoteric contemplative practices (unless that’s your favorite method – to listen). But I DO hope that you’ll be open to learning different ways to listen more deeply. This means listening more deeply to scripture, more deeply to God in prayer, in worship and as you go about your day and your life. But we all get busy, especially when we’re under deadlines.

A few weeks ago, I was in my office working on the readings for the Lenten devotional. This is no small undertaking and takes tremendous focus. I was so intent on finishing this project I hadn’t even realized it was getting dark especially because my office faces east. When I got up to get some more water from the library, the pink hue in the eastern sky was stunning.

I ran into Sandy’s office (which faces south) to see the most extraordinary sunset which lit the south and west in a palette of pink, oranges, and purples. It took my breath away. I was all alone in the delicious quiet of the end of the day. There I stood, trying to drink it all in. It just kept getting bigger and brighter and deeper. It quieted my heart, calmed my tension and eased the pressure I had been putting on myself. Only then could I allow God to cut through the noise and speak to me in the way I needed. That can happen to all of us, but it helps to pay attention.

Listening, noticing and loving more deeply with you,

Jen

New Beginnings

Dear Saints,

Happy New Year! I pray this letter finds you all: peaceful, hopeful (as well as rested) after such a rich Advent and Christmas season. I want to thank all of you for every effort brought forth to make this season so rich and meaningful.

HOPE was our worship theme for December. Tied very closely to that theme is “New Beginnings”, our theme for January. 

Historically, a new year invites us to a fresh start, turning over a new leaf, creating new resolutions and dropping bad habits. Yet, in recent years I’ve heard more and more people say that they no longer create New Year’s resolutions because it’s futile. In part they’re probably right. I’m sure gym membership statistics can confirm the high percentage of people who join a gym or a weight loss plan in January and then ultimately stop using the membership by early March, or earlier, especially in the coldest and snowiest months of the year.

I wonder if there isn’t another way. Actually, (spoiler alert), there is another way.

The first Sunday in January this year aligns with Epiphany, when the Three Kings (wise men) go to see the newborn King.  In itself, it’s a treasured story for children and adults alike, but hidden in plain sight is a clue about New Beginnings.

The reason WHY the Three Kings go to see baby Jesus is because of God’s activity precedes their trip. They see (NOTICE) a star, (His star) rising in the East, they DISCERN what this might mean and then they travel. Not the other way around. They don’t call upon their own will to do something new, hoping for a better, different outcome. First there’s a sign, that signifies an event; a new beginning.

Imagine if that’s how we started the new year. Paying attention in our lives for God’s activity inviting us to watch and see God doing a new thing. Isaiah 43 is one of many texts that helps us see and trust God’s activity. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

The latter part might sound a little harsh: “do you not perceive it?”, except that Isaiah goes on to prophesy that God will “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Whether literally or figuratively, and we can use both, these are helpful promises.

It means that God is still active in our lives. It means we do not have to muster all the strength, courage and discipline to make important changes by ourselves, because God goes before us.  But it DOES invite us to WATCH, NOTICE and DISCERN what God is doing so that we can have the full benefit of what God has just done in bringing LOVE down to earth.

Watching for NEW BEGINNINGS with you,

Jen

Finding Hope

Dear Saints,

The theme for our Advent worship this month is HOPE. This seems like a logical theme for Advent but the fact of them matter is, Advent can be a very difficult time of year and for many, HOPE is hard to muster. It may be that we are feeling a little blue because of the waning daylight. It may be because of the recent loss of loved one, an illness that just won’t quit or a painful family relationship, the loss of a job, the constant struggle to make ends meet.

Paul tell us in Romans that “hope that is seen is not hope. But if we hope for what is not seen, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom 8: 24-25). Ah yes, Patience. I believe patience, hope and trust are all cousins. It’s hard to have one without the other two.  Paul goes on to say in chapter 8 that the “Spirit will help us in our weakness”. This is excellent news and rather reassuring. When we are struggling to have HOPE, especially in Advent, while being bombarded with all sorts of media painting the ‘perfect Christmas’, we are often afraid to admit some of our hopelessness. We all need reminders of God’s promise and eventual delivery of HOPE most supremely found in the arrival of Jesus, the Christ.  

God’s promises to reign down mercy and grace can only be seen and enjoyed in the waiting and the hoping and the trusting. A few weeks ago, you probably know that Loaves and Fishes was seeking frozen turkeys so that every family could be given one before Thanksgiving. Since over 50 families seek hope of food each week, getting 50 Turkeys was a tall order. Initially the stream of turkeys was steady but then it slowed significantly. A 2nd appeal came. Commitments were made but still not enough turkey…

And then, 6 more turkeys arrived. Then 6 more turkeys. Then another 6 more! Then it started ‘raining’ turkeys!!! Now the challenge was where to store all the overflow. Not only will all families will have a turkey for Thanksgiving but now there’s a strong start for Christmas! God’s reign came from not only your generosity but from people in town who volunteer at Loaves and Fishes or who know about it!

So, whether you’re already seeing HOPE in this crazy-busy and challenging season, or you need reminding of God’s goodness, keep looking and trusting and waiting because God does not disappoint. God’s grace will reign down upon you for the bible (and turkeys) tell us so.

Waiting, watching and HOPING with you,

Jen

True Gratitude

The monthly theme for worship is November is Gratitude. I’m sure this is unsurprising given that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Although Merriam-Webster generally sees thankful and gratitude as synonyms, there are some small but significant differences. Thankful, says Merriam-Webster is “conscious of the benefit received” and grateful as “appreciative of benefit received”.

Perhaps I am splitting hairs but I do think there’s a difference between naming the ‘things’ we are thankful for around the dinner table or the ‘suped-up’ version on Thanksgiving Day and the felt and lingering experience of gratitude. Writer Nick Genovese states “True gratitude expresses “thank you” not only from our mouth but also from our hearts.”

Think about a time when you received a compliment, a thoughtful and/or generous gift or an act of care. Likely you responded, “thank you!”. That’s being thankful. But…to sit and ponder the thoughtfulness, the care, the effort and the person or people behind that gesture that’s when the gratitude kicks in.

In that vein, I want to thank you for acknowledging and celebrating pastor’s appreciation month along with gift, card and flowers. They are all still on display in my living room! I am also grateful to be sharing mission and ministry with you; for your humor and your heart, for sharing the worry and the work, for your insight and your imagination and for your faithfulness day in, day out.

As you are probably aware by now, Thanksgiving is very late this year, so we’ll have 28 days to practice not only being thankful for all God has done, is doing and will do. We’ll also have the opportunity each day to sit with, and let the generosity of God’s sustaining love, sink in so that whatever Thanksgiving brings; funky relatives, dry turkey or not-your-moms-apple pie, you can be thankful and deeply grateful that you are loved fully and completely for eternity.

Grateful for God’s love with you,

Jen

Serving Bread

Dear Saints,

This coming Sunday, October 6th is World Communion Sunday. This special day which is celebrated by many churches and denominations around the world was conceived by the Rev, Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, a Presbyterian minister, who was at the time also the Moderator of the General Assembly (our national church conference).  Dr. Kerr had a vision that if every church around the world, regardless of the regular rhythm of their communion schedule, would celebrate it on the same day, that it might further Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation. That vision was in 1930 just a year after the stock market crash of 1929.

Ironically the concept was furthered by the ‘’Division of Stewardship” at Shadyside Presbyterian in an attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information, and above all, to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another. (Incidentally, Rev Sherm Skinner’s father was also a pastor in the 1960s!) 

While it might seem counter-intuitive to see stewardship and communion as partners, indeed, “Bread Holds Everything Together”. This is our theme for this year’s Generosity (stewardship) Campaign.

Bread in all its forms is a gift from God.  Unleavened bread was and still is a sign of God’s protection and deliverance to the Israelites during their escape from Egypt. Manna from heaven was delivered to the Israelites while in the desert. In the New Testament Jesus feeds the 5000 with bread, becomes for us the Bread of Life, and institutes bread as a symbol of his body broken for us.

As the saying goes “Bread makes the world go ‘round”. The giving of bread, which is a form of stewardship help us unite and feed our brothers and sisters. Bread is the gift of recognizing we are fed at the table from and by Christ and that no one should be turned away. Bread is also the slang for money.

Our generosity through stewardship can continue to make the work and the church go ‘round.

So come to the table, bring what you can so that everyone can have a taste of Heaven.

Serving bread with you,

Jen

Come, Get Plugged In!

Dear Saints,

We’re (almost) back in the saddle. There are many blessings (hidden and obvious) in returning to routines that, by and large, most people and especially children thrive in. However, getting there is easier said than done especially after a season where there is a much more relaxed pace with less rhythm and schedule. This is true of our church activity and formal faith development as well.

Some of you may remember a time when “back to school” also meant “back to church”; when  “Rally Day” was not a congregation-wide road race (which is what I thought it was when I was a teen) but a concerted effort on the Sunday after labor day to involve as much of the congregation as possible in Sunday school or other Christian formation opportunities.

While some churches still do this warm turnout, we have realized that ‘returning to church and faith formation opportunities’ grow more organically than flipping a switch. But maybe it should be.

A few months ago, the overhead light in my kitchen starting acting up. It would hesitate before it came on completely and it seemed to be ‘growing in weakness’. Eventually, it failed completely. This wouldn’t be so bad except that my kitchen is an ‘interior’ (i.e., no windows, no natural light).

No problem. I’ve replaced the 2 fluorescent circular bulbs before. I can do it again. No such luck. It’s not the bulbs, it’s the ballast that needs replacing. Whilst waiting for the electrician to come, assess, quote and schedule the repair, how many times do you think I walked into the kitchen day and night and flipped the switch even before I remembered the light was out? I have actually lost count.

My muscle memory was so strong, that before I could even remind myself that the light was out, I had already flipped the switch.

“Muscle memory” can be either for good or unhelpful routines and habits.  Neurologist Dr. Daniel Amen talks about the brain and muscle memory frequently including that daily habits build muscle memory. Regardless of whether the habit is ‘life-giving’ or ‘life robbing’ (my terms), he says “The brain is very susceptible to repetition”.

It occurred to me that as fall arrives, we all need to build back up our muscle memory and routines for faith formation. Some of this is committing to daily prayer, regular attendance and mission. Some of this is being open to the new ways in which we as a congregation, are seeking to develop faith formation for kids and adults alike.

If you wanna flip the switch to get the light, you gotta have a fixture that actually works and is plugged into the right power source. Come get plugged into the light that no darkness can ever overcome.

Seeking the light of Christ with you,
Jen

Christ – Strengthen Me

Dear Saints,

By the time you read this and/or return to church for the first time after being away, you’ll see the nearly completed church offices renovation.  I am deeply grateful to the Kelly and (William) Birch families for their generosity to fund this endeavor. We are still completing the finishing touches but already it is a tremendous improvement in cheer and function! We are indebted also to Charlie Maraziti who did the yeoman’s share of project management (without ever being asked), Thanks also to Amanda and Lorrie Skinner who helped break down our offices and throw away a lot of junk along with John Crozier who literally watched paint dry, and the Whipple, Yanez and Ambrosiani men who literally did all the heavy lifting. I can’t wait for you all to see it.

More importantly, though, I am really glad you were not here to witness the upheaval and all of the emotional swings we went through for the last month. For those of you who have moved, especially recently, or are preparing to move or…send a student to or back to college or housing, you KNOW how stressful it is.

While some of us handle change better than others, very few of us function at our best when our living or working space is in turmoil. And there are always surprises. Unplanned changes, blunders, miscommunications and the like also add another layer of spice to the experience. I’d like to say I was well-prepared, patient and flexible throughout the entire process but there’s little truth in that. I wish I had acted more like the scriptures in the artwork on my walls; but alas they were packed away.

So how do you handle the planned and unplanned chaos? What words do you turn to when you’re wide awake at 3 AM worrying about all the things you can’t control? The one verse that I kept saying to myself (and Sandy and I said to each other) was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

So whatever you are facing or worrying about, choose a scripture that you can repeat and then release all that worries or distracts especially when you are discouraged. I know you do that already but it’s a gentle reminder, Christ is with us especially in our places of our lowliest state.

Finally, as you know, each time we return and read scripture, we learn something new. When I looked up the Philippians text, I laughed out loud. Verse 13 says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Verse 14? And I quote; “In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress”. God is hilarious.

Sharing chaos and new beginnings with you in Christ,
Jen

The Bean Pot

Dear Saints,

July is gloriously upon us! But before we depart for travel, vacations and family events, let’s revisit what an amazing June we’ve had! We celebrated The Lowther Scholarships, and graduating seniors, presented bibles to our newest disciples and gave “Lord’s Prayer plaques” to all the students who learned the learning the Lord’s Prayer last fall. We also recognized the years of service to all the Chancel and Bell Choir members and honored the Sunday School teachers and youth leaders . Lastly, we commissioned our 4 seniors to Youth Triennium. This was just one Sunday!

June also saw the celebration of Pentecost/Confirmation Sunday when we celebrated our 7 new members. We gifted them with special “Jesus-Baby” tee-shirts that also donned their individual spiritual gifts. We also gave them individual ‘bean pots’ from the main bean pot which has been growing new bean shoots unsuspectingly since our Ash Wednesday ritual.

Last Sunday afternoon I came out the Handicapped entrance to lock everything. I was both exhausted but thrilled after leading our next new members class with the Skinners.     

I looked at the bean pot and it desperately needed water. Back in I went to the flower room, filled up 2 pitchers with water and watered the pot. In the oppressive humidity I was eager to get into the A/c of my car. But then I saw not one… not two… but about six long beautiful bean pods and more baby ones on the way!!! I was ecstatic. I don’t know why I was so shocked but probably because I have never grown vegetables. I think I was also surprised that they seemed to have showed up ‘overnight’. I have been watering the pot when able but not as ‘faithfully’ as maybe if they were in my home garden.

The joy of seeing new growth come from the seemingly dead, dried, hard kidney beans we all sank into dark soil on a cold night in March was thrilling. Then I heard Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3: “ I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth…the one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose…for we are servants of God, working together, you are God’s field, God’s building”.

God is clearly giving the growth at the corner of Church and Birch. Not only have we added seven fine young men to our membership, but we are about to add 13 (!) new members as well. They are all amazing people who are eager to add or who are already adding to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.

So, this July as you tend to your own gardens, begin vacation and family plans, don’t forget that God has laid a foundation here and because of you, your care, your efforts and your faithfulness we are adding more bans to the pot.

Watching God’s growth with you,
Jen

CELEBRATE all that God is doing here

Dear Saints,

I know this is such a busy time of year with Proms, college and high graduations, winding down the school year, planting our gardens and making summer plans. Our church life is equally as busy and exciting. Each Sunday in June has something special and meaningful to offer. Scout Sunday 2ndPentecost and Confirmation Sunday June 9th, Education Sunday June 16th, New Member’s Class June 23rd and at least half of the new members class (a total of 14!) will be meeting with Session on June 30th to be received into membership!

This is a testament to how God is blessing us and how we are responding to God’s numerous invitations to love and serve.

Last week I preached on grace. I shared one of my favorite quotes from theologian Karl Barth : “God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves”. This has numerous iterations; it means God gives us courage beyond our ability. God gives us hope beyond our own believing. God gives us peace beyond our own anxieties. God gives us community when we feel like we are alone. God gives us resources beyond our own efforts. There is far more to say about Grace than what any one sermon can cover but I encourage you to continue to Pause, in the spin of all that’s on your calendars, and all that you have planned and recognize that as hard as we work in our jobs, as loving as we are with our families and as faithful as we are in our faith community, what God is doing here, is PURE GRACE.

Come CELEBRATE all that God is doing here; in the lives of our children, our youth, our confirmands, our choirs, new members, our leaders, and our food pantry.

To quote another one of my favorite theologians (the band ZZ Top) “the future’s so bright (we’ll) have to wear shades.

Celebrating God’s Grace with you,

Jen