Ride The Wave

Dear Saints,

How did it get to be July???? Sigh.

Summer is my favorite time of year. It’s so rife with possibilities for fun and refreshment but this Summer? Not so much.

I’ve been pondering God’s invitation of how we deal with disappointment. We all deal with disappointment differently. Some of us ‘throw a fit’ and/or take it out on a spouse, child, neighbor, co-worker or kick the dog. Some of us just chronically complain to any and all who will listen. Some of us pout or just shut down. Some of us get lost in the internet, video games or binge watch. Some of us have healthier coping mechanisms and throw ourselves into a house project, advanced gardening, learn a new hobby or exercise.

Israel was also invited to learn how to deal with an intense level of disappointment when they were sent into exile in Babylon. They knew why they were sent there and knew they’d be there for an unspecified amount of time, which turned out to be 50-70 years. (The historical and biblical timelines don’t add up.)

We too are in an exile and we too don’t have any clue how long this time of worry, anxiety and disappointment will go on. Only that it will be ‘a while longer’. I think about Israel when they were in Babylon and how they dealt with their exilic displacement which was disappointment at a whole new level. They were displaced in a foreign land with different customs, language, terrain and no temple to worship in. At least we are sheltering in place our own country and homes, we can garden our own land and can eat our indigenous foods (like pizza and ice cream). But we certainly share the experience with Israel of having to learn new customs and life patterns, new habits and even a new language of “life in the time of Corona”.

The book of Jeremiah (especially chapters 29 9and 30) chronicle Israel’s experience with how to deal with intense and sudden change.  We explored Jer 29 many times throughout Lent. It was helpful then. It is helpful now. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. “(29:11) A big part of learning how to deal with disappointment is learn to adapt to things that happen to us and seek the hidden blessings.

A friend of mine who got her doctorate in Gerontology Exercise (at the age of 65) was a research assistant involved in nationwide study of all living Holocaust survivors. She did many of the interviews in person and always asked to see their tattoos; the system used to ‘identify’ each prisoner held captive in a concentration camp.  Her research experience was not at all depressing but actually invigorating and enlivening. I asked her was there a theme to the responses from the survivors who were thriving. She said “yes, they learned how to surf the waves.”

While we may not be able to or want to surf the waves or be in a pool this Summer, one thing’s for sure: God is with us in this. Who do you think made the waves?

Surfing all the waves with you,

Jen

Watching for the dawn

I was hoping that the June 1st updates from our Governor might shed some more light on the possibility of worshipping together sooner than later. As of today, indoor gatherings of up to 10 are now sanctioned as well as outdoor gatherings of up to 25. Both the session and the Covid task force, who have both “Zoomed” last 2-3 weeks, have been brainstorming what might be possible for future gathering/worship.

Concurrently, we have been trying to offer the most hopeful, life-giving and increasingly diverse worship experiences with great reliance on technology and skilled Media folks and a small group of people who you entrust to offer meaningful worship.

As of this evening, the state’s next level of opening, what I’m calling “Phase 2, sub-set a”, does not give churches permission to worship fully, either indoors or out. That is part of “Phase 3”.  Even if we attempted to organize in-person worship, indoors or out, both options would bring a different set of challenges and do not accomplish safe worship for ALL, (even without hand-shakes, hugs, passing of the peace and the hearing and singing of hymns.

In addition, when Phase 3 is exacted, there are still many logistics to sort out, including that every church within Newton Presbytery will need to submit and receive approval of their ‘re-entry plan’ before worship can commence. I think this is very prudent and wise.

So, we are in an interim time.

The Deacons met this evening via Zoom and I shared some excerpts from John O’Donohue’s book The Space Between Us as our closing prayer : “…you are in this time of interim, where everything seems withheld, The way forward is still concealed from you…The more  faithfully you can endure here, the more refined your heart will become, for your arrival in the new dawn.”

I don’t know how long we’ll need to gather, worship, teach and share fellowship apart, but I know THIS community of faith can sustain that as long as we need to, to keep everyone connected and everyone safe. Here’s why. When I was meeting with the PNC (Pastoral Nominating Committee) 14 years ago I asked about their sense of ministry, mission and their future. The youngest member, (who is now over 40 said), “if we couldn’t worship in this space for any reason, we’d find another place; the building doesn’t matter, the mission and ministry does. Nothing can stop us.”

We’re not stopping. We’re just missioning and ministering in smaller spaces until God brings us the new dawn.

Watching for the dawn with you,
Jen

Produce New Fruits of The Spirit

Dear Saints,

A few weeks ago, I was awoken out of a dead sleep to a rapid banging on the side of the house, literally right outside my (open) window. It was loud, lightning-fast, repetitive, and completely annoying. But then, thankfully it stopped. Then, it started again on the other side of my window. And then it stopped. Then it began again on the wall of the condo next door. Then it got a little more distant but no less annoying. Yes, “Woody the Woodpecker”, or probably his great-grandson, was pecking away at the vinyl siding.

He went at it for about 30 minutes which honestly felt like 2 hours. I tried to go back to sleep, to no avail. A few days went by and Woody returned. To my great delight this time, Woody the IV, decided to peck on a tree in the wooded area behind my house. The sound was actually far more natural and surprisingly soothing. I imagine it was also for Woody as well as far more fruitful.

I looked up Woodpecker behavior on the Cornell Ornithology site and learned a few interesting things. Both “Woody” and “Wendys” peck at trees. Their pecking is called “drumming” and they do indeed drum on a variety of surfaces including aluminum siding, but they only capture food (insects) when drumming on trees or the ground.

In this time of increasingly difficult sheltering in place, we are learning a great deal about our selves and our habits and our families, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Some of it may be helpful, insightful, and useful; and may produce new learning, skills, hobbies, and the like. Some of your experiences, communications, efforts may feel a little annoying and futile. Like…yup, banging your head against the wall.

Many of you are familiar with the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.” While few of us may be enjoying this time of sheltering in place there are always invitations from God awaiting us.

A dear friend and colleague who is an “empath”, (someone who feels things very deeply and intensely) has been increasingly overwhelmed with all the suffering and loss that the world is experiencing due to the virus. Her therapist helped her reframe her energy into becoming an active prayer companion for all those who do not or cannot find the words to pray. She has decided to let her heart become “ A fertile ground where God can plant new insights, grow her strength, and produce new fruits of the Spirit”. This may feel a little too esoteric for some but perhaps we can all use this time wisely to look at the places in our lives where we’re banging our head against the wall, unaware that it’s plastic siding where there’s no food, just frustration.

Seeking fruits of the Spirit with you,
Jen

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