Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

Catching Faith in a Sea of Doubt
Text: Luke 5:1-11
Rev. Julie Emery
Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
February 7, 2010

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

The year after I graduated from college I spent volunteering as a youth minister in Juneau, Alaska. Juneau is the capital, and was built on the site of a summer settlement for the native Tlingit tribes who fished the thin waterway that flows between the mainland and Douglas Island. Folks who live there joke that the natives knew better than to camp there in the winter, when the winds howl between the mountains and what little sun appears hides behind the peaks for most of the day. Juneau is land-locked by Mendenhall glacier flowing from the Juneau Icefield, which is the fifth largest icefield in North America. This means that there is no way to build a road to Juneau – if you want to see it you must fly or take a boat.

The layout of the city of Juneau is something like the capital letter “H” There is a long road that extends up and down the mainland, and a long road that extends up and down the coastline of Douglas Island and a short bridge that connects the Mainland to Douglas Island. In addition to the glacier, the town of Juneau is shrouded by mountains on all sides both on the mainland and on Douglas Island. If you see a picture of downtown, you will see how the homes and buildings are nestled in between these three towering mountaintops.

I take such time to describe this place where I lived for a year because it is hard to imagine if you have not been there. Pictures don’t seem to do it justice. In my time in Juneau I lived in a handful of different places; One of which was a home on Douglas Island. Since I did not have a car I learned quickly that if I had the time, walking got me where I wanted to go – so every morning I bundled up and walked across the bridge to the church where I was working.

At the center of the bridge, if you turn and look south…the view is breathtaking. In some ways I am reminded of this view when I cross the various bridges in our neck of the woods – most often the Tappan Zee. But the bridge view in Juneau is beyond imagining. Looking south, with mountains on both sides, your eyes follow the thin passage of water south towards British Colombia. The water continues as it weaves through islands scattering throughout Southeast Alaska – some inhabited and some not. Some of them dusted with snow-peaks; all of them falling dramatically into the ocean.

Every morning when crossing towards downtown I would stop at the top of that bridge. It was a view not many could enjoy – the cruise ships could not come that far into the channel because it was too shallow, and cars passing over the bridge sped too fast to enjoy it. It is the kind of view that forces you to acknowledge your own smallness in the face of such vast and powerful greatness.

“Woe is me!” Isaiah says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” Peter says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Each of these men has just had an experience with God that is so powerful that they cower in reponse.

Isaiah has seen a vision of a God so enormous that the hem of his robe fills the entire temple. He is awestruck by the sight of flying seraphs with six wings and the building that shakes and the voices resounding with singing and then the whole place filling with smoke. The fear that Isaiah feels is overwhelming but even more overwhelming is Isaiah’s sense of his own small self. “Woe is me!” he says, ‘I am unworthy of this.’

Simon Peter too is faced with something so amazing and powerful that he is overwhelmed with his sense of smallness. He has been up all night fishing with James and John – exhausted and frustrated with a night catching nothing but seaweed. Jesus is there too, preaching what Luke calls for the first time the word of God. The crowd that gathers is so big that Jesus decides to push out onto the water in one of the boats, to help amplify his voice so that all can hear.

Whatever was preached that morning, Simon Peter is moved. So when Jesus tells Simon Peter to cast his nets, he balks only slightly before he obeys. Simon warns Jesus of his unsuccessful night of fishing, but then says; “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When the fishermen cast their nets one last time they witness only what one can call a miracle. They use nets meant for night fishing, after a night of empty casting – with this set up they should not catch a minnow. But in following the will of Jesus they come up with such abundance that the nets creak under the weight of fish and the two boats used to haul the fish in begin to fill with water from the pressure of the filled nets. It is after this most amazing event that Simon falls to his knees – his view of the catch only emphasizes the contrast between his sense of smallness in the face of the greatness of Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” “This is too much for me!” he seems to say, “I am to little for you!”

Our own sense of unworthiness does not always show itself so plainly as Isaiah’s cry in the face of God. It most often shows itself in our lives as doubt. Doubt in ourselves and in others, doubt in our ability to accomplish what we hope to, doubt in our own certainty about life, parenting, truth, God. We believe ourselves to be unworthy because we are uncertain of so much; Uncertain enough to doubt our ability to care for those who need us, uncertain enough to doubt our ability to make the best decisions instead of the easy ones. Uncertain enough to doubt whether the decision we have already made will carry us through to safety.

But doubt is not negation of faith. Like the young Mary who responds to the angel’s announcement of her pregnancy, “How can this be?” and then later, “Here I am, servant of the Lord,” there is a certain leap of faith taken when one answers “Yes,” when one thinks and feels “Are you kidding?” Like confirmation faith partners who say, “I don’t think you really want me… but I would love to be a faith partner,” or any of us that think “this person does not know all my faults,” but say, “I will serve,” there is a trust in God instead of a trust in ourselves that allows us to do follow and serve. There is a belief in the idea that something bigger than ourselves is at work in our midst.

In her book “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor describes how in her early years in parish ministry, she conceived of faith as the core certainty about God and godly things that equipped her for ministry. She describes how she had reasonable answers for all the questions of life that confronted her along the way. It was not until she experienced the slow loss of her father to cancer that she began to feel her way into a different concept of faith. As she describes her experience sitting by his bedside in Hospice Atlanta, she says this:

“(My dad) and I were past talking by then, which meant that I never found out where he was with God. All I found out was how helpless love can be, with nothing left to do but suffer alongside with the beloved. Marooned by my father’s bed day after day, listening to him whimper in the night, unsure what he believed about God, unsure that it mattered, wanting to pray, for him and for me, without managing anything much beyond “Please,” I discovered that faith did not have the least thing to do with certainty. Insofar as I had any faith at all, that faith consisted of trusting God in the face of my vastly painful ignorance, to gather up all the life in that room and do with it what God alone knew how to do.”

“Since then,” she says, “I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place.”

I find it fascinating to realize that in our text for this morning the doubt of both Isaiah and Simon Peter come before the call. In both of our stories this morning the call comes after admission of sinfulness and unworthiness. Isaiah says, “I am an unclean man,” Simon Peter says, “I am a sinful man,” and Jesus says “Follow me, and you will catch people…”

As we turn from Simon Peter’s view to the response of Jesus we notice that Jesus does not even acknowledge Simon Peter’s confession and humility. Jesus does not forgive him or heal him, he does not tell him to repent of his doubt. Instead Jesus puts him to work. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” And as Simon Peter leaves all his belongings behind he chooses in that moment to follow in spite of his doubts about his own worth. He chooses to follow because his smallness is embraced by Christ’s immense greatness.

“Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.”

The response that Jesus gives to Peter’s doubting heart is not to erase his doubt in himself, it is not to convince him so that he is clearly sure of himself for the remainder of his journey. Instead Jesus only says, “Do not fear,” and asks Peter to join his journey even in his doubtfulness, and to ask others to join this journey as well. Jesus says, “Do not fear, but come with me anyway. Bring your doubt, your questions, bring others too; I am not about certainty. I am about hope.”

“Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.” And perhaps the idea of catching people even as we doubt our faith or ourselves seems hypocritical or confusing. If catching people means being certain of every thing we believe about God or Jesus then we are sunk.

But if catching people means that we invite others to join us in our uncertainty then there is hope. If catching people means that we ask others to celebrate our lives together – both the good parts and the difficult parts without trying to explain them away then there is grace. If catching people means that we invite our neighbors to labor together to leave this world a little more like the kingdom of heaven, well the Church just might be a place of wholeness.

The community of Christ embraces our doubt and our shortcomings in order to do the work of the Kingdom. And it is because we do this work – the work of healing and feeding and serving and hugging – that the church grows. It grows because we are excited about the work we do here and we want to share the excitement. It grows because a loving community is sure to attract people seeking to love and be loved. It grows because we are willing to live with uncertainty, trusting God in the face of our smallness and God’s expansive greatness.

You are a part of the catching greatness of God. “Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.” Amen.


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Our Epistle lesson comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12. Today we will be reading the passage that precedes the one we heard last week, When Paul describes the church as a body with many members. In Paul’s introduction to that great and well-known metaphor, Paul reminds the Corinthians of some of his basic teaching about Spiritual Gifts – who has them, what they might be, and where they come from. Let us listen to these words to us this morning:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another interpretations of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…

This past week, we celebrated my youngest son’s second birthday. Amidst the busyness of our families many activities, we squeezed in a visit to the Aquarium in Norwalk, and a birthday dinner on the day complete with a balloon guy and singing waiters. Watching Chase tear open presents I smiled as I remembered the sign posted on the LAC Preschool office door: “All children are gifted, some just open their packages earlier than others.”

Gifts and giftedness is what makes us who we are as individuals – and it is wonderful as a parent to see those gifts come alive as they grow and learn. This one has an affection for music, this one for sports, this one is brilliant at math or science, this one at writing. As parents and teachers, we look for those things that our kids are good at, prone towards, knowing that as they grow older those things are pieces in the puzzle that may one day guide their vocation, their heart’s delight, their calling in the world.

We also notice where they struggle, perhaps even a bit easier than where they thrive. We see how they may fumble through relationships, or battle with homework. We see how transitions seem to trip them up, or how certain teachers rub them the wrong way. Even more these days in our psychologized we see those stumbles and perhaps we wonder: is this a little struggle? Or a big one?

A few days ago, an article was placed in my hands by a well-intentioned congregation member appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It is an article that will be a jumping off point at a discussion gathering in a few months, and so in some ways I am reluctant to say too much about it here, this morning. And yet as I read, it seemed to converse with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in a way that is too irresistible to ignore.

The article is about “orchid children,” and describes some new interpretations of the scientific evidence that certain variants of key behavioral genes make people more vulnerable to certain mood, psychiatric or personality disorders. This idea has been gaining steam and influence over a number of years – so much so that in some ways it is assumed: certain genes make people more vulnerable, and in challenging environments you are more likely to struggle or even fail.

What is interesting, though, is that as some scientists are looking at the studies, they find that those “vulnerable” genes may also be “possibility” genes. That is to say – given the right environment and care, children with these genes have a propensity towards skyrocketing success – even beyond children without the gene. In a twist of perspective, what was in one situation a risk becomes possibility in a different context. “Vulnerability here becomes plasticity and responsiveness there.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians does not bring up the science of gene variants, but here in the 12th chapter he deals heavily with the issue of diversity, and it struck me as I read about gene testing and studies with monkey communities that Paul knew what these scientists are working on even back in 56 CE, that gift and struggle are inexplicably intertwined.

As we read our text for this morning, we notice clearly: Paul has a problem in Corinth. It’s what the commentaries say at least. And a good reader can detect his tone throughout this letter – a bit strident, more than a bit directive. He is annoyed. He is miffed. We get hints at what gets his dander up a bit earlier in the letter – it seems the community at Corinth is filled with surprising diversity – demographic and otherwise – and they don’t see it as an asset.

The wealthy folks aren’t sharing well – at the Lord’s table or otherwise, and there seems to be a infection of pride sweeping through the community. There are people who seem to have some amazing and shining gifts for ministry, and then there are people whose gifts are not quite as noticeable. The shining stars, likely those who are speaking in tongues, are putting the others down, making it sound like their gifts are greater, better, than the others. And these others, are quietly agreeing.

Our community here at LAC is diverse as well – perhaps similar to the metropolitan Corinth. We may be quite like that small early church community – a gathering of people from varied backgrounds and countries, with different means and professions. And while certainly each of our members has unique gifts and talents, for the most part no one holds their own gifts above another’s. For the most part we don’t struggle right now with disunity quite like what the Corinthians experienced.

If anything – we find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum: downplaying ourselves for the sake of lifting up others or protecting our energy. We are perhaps doubtful that our gifts are worthy for the work of the church. We are suspicious that others are better suited, better able to serve than we are. We see the ways we are inadequate, rather than the ways we are gifted.

In this month of New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t know about you – but when I survey the demands on my time and energy it is way easier to see the liabilities than it is to see the assets. It is way easier to see what time I need than what time I can give. My life is filled with vulnerabilities – those things I could do better, those things I want to change, the time I need to create for myself, for my family.

It is not an easy thing, agreeing to serve. As a working parent I am all too aware of the push and pull of family and work, and the constant feeling that there is not enough time to do everything that needs to be done. With every “yes” comes an equal and opposing “no” that frames the time needed to protect that commitment. If we say yes to being on this committee, we may need to say no to coaching our kid’s soccer team; If we say yes to this board, we may have to say no to that dinner invitation.

So I am always quite honored by those who agree to serve on one of our three boards, like those who were ordained and installed just a bit ago. I am always impressed by those who step up and volunteer every week at HOPE Community Kitchen, or who faithfully attend committee meetings. It is hard to say “yes,” when saying “no” might mean more time for family or leisure or work.

Fredrick Buechner is known for saying that our vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need – but sometimes it can be difficult to see how living out that vocation might be sitting around a board table and making decisions about church property or finance, or worrying about who will help with coffee hour.

These are the age-old questions that last for a lifetime: what are our gifts and how should we use them? What are our deepest struggles and how can we overcome them? How do we live these gifts out in community – supporting each other through our struggles as well as in our giftedness?

What perhaps ties all of this together: gene studies and Corinth and giftedness and vocation – is community. The thing that Paul is getting at is also the thing that these scientists are asserting: context is everything. Our gifts, our vulnerabilities, they are meant to be lived out in a community that supports us through them all, allowing us to respond to those gifts with a sense of possibility and hope. The Church community is meant to be a place where we live this out: lifting up each member of the body to act out it’s fullest and best potential.

Perhaps the first step in this is one we have already taken this morning: ordaining into leadership those willing to share their gifts for “the common good” as Paul writes. Perhaps it is up to the community to see those vulnerabilities as possibilities? Perhaps it is for us to show how a “no” might become instead “yes”? How can we create an environment that leads us to see our vulnerabilities as assets – in time, in struggles, in gifts of the Spirit.

How can we lead in ways that make others want to join in? How can we teach in a way that helps others see what they have to offer? How can we serve in a way that invites others to offer what they have however small (time, resources, energy) so that who they are becomes bigger than what they have? How can we live out our calling, offer our gifts, so that the gifts of those around us grow and bloom as well?

All of this because we are already the body of Christ. Because it is the same Spirit in all, the same Spirit calling you, too. Amen.

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Wow. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything – which says something about how my last month has been both at home and at work, but I thought I’d come back with a Friday Five post to get me going. Sophia at RevGalBlogPals posted this on dreams:

With the beginning of my college teaching semester I have been having some unusually intense and memorable dreams lately–especially related to my Women and Religion class. With the beginning of a new calendar year many of us are engaging with dreams of another kind: planning, brainstorming, setting intentions or resolutions, etc. And many churches will celebrate the baptism of Jesus this Sunday, reading the Gospel account of his vision of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the “beloved child” words of Godde that set him off on his mission sharing Godde’s dream for the world. So let’s take a few minutes on this (where I am at least) lovely snow-blanketed Friday morning and share about the many different dreams and visions in our lives.

1. Do you tend to daydream?

I have always had my head in the clouds – from childhood into present – I find it sometimes challenging to pull myself down and get to work, so yes, I still daydream as much as possible. The daydreams that come most often and easily are of the *hopefully* near future when we might find some family stability, but I also dream of travel, opportunities to explore my creativity, exciting new endeavors for church and home. Just about anything could get my mind to wander off the beaten path and into new territory… care to join me?

2. Do you usually remember your night dreams? Do you find them symbolic and meaningful or just quirky?
I don’t often remember my night dreams, but when I do they have been usually quirky and strange. Very occasionally I find that they are meaningful, but those often are meaningful warnings: fearful or anxious dreams that are signs of what might be going on for me during my days. Those mornings are good, in that I often don’t realize how worried I am about something until I dream about it. And I see those dreams as a signal to move back to a place of love and faith; to learn to let faith guide me rather than fear.

3. Have you ever had a life changing dream which you’ll never forget?
I can think of one daydream that was life changing. I was riding in the back of a truck after a beautiful fall day in Haines, Alaska. The day was exquisite, the leaves were yellow and circling up behind our truck, and I found myself thinking of my *then* boyfriend (I was very much in love). We had been living out a long-distance relationship for almost 2 years, and I thought of him often. And for some reason, with the season and the colors and the day, I dreamed that he would be my husband, and I dreamed we would get married in the fall. (As I write this I realize it is totally completely cheesy! Blech!) But the thing is – I wouldn’t be writing it unless it became true. And now we have two beautiful boys and are living out that daydream… I’d say it was life-changing…

4. Share a long term dream for one or more aspects of your life and work.
I have lots of dreams for my life and work, but I’ll share only two. I dream of travel – both for life and work. I dream of going to exotic places for ministry and vacation, learning about different cultures, exploring places I read about in books. It’s a dream I hold lightly – since I have small children and no money, but I dream of it nonetheless. I also dream of seeing my name, however small, in print, on paper, in a book. (don’t we all?)

5. Share a dream for 2010….How can we support you in prayer on both the short and long term dreams?
I dream that 2010 will be a flagship year: for home – that hubster will finish that awesome dream of his (the doctorate!), that we will settle ever more in our new home, that we will find a community of friends. I dream of *just a little bit* of stability, so I can delve into this writing thing a bit more. I dream of more time outdoors, away from it all. I dream of health for my family and time with my friends.

Bonus: a poem, song, artwork, etc. that deals with dreams in general or one of your dreams:
This poem is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. Perhaps it is about dreams – the desires and dreams we have for ourselves – perhaps I just love any excuse to share it. It speaks to me often and much, I hope it will to you too…

by Mary Oliver

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

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In the Dark
Text: Luke 1: 39-45
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
December 13, 2009

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

A girl sits crowded at her desk, her head weighted against her propped arm, hand poised to write. Around her, a small class of misfits – each a young teenage girl who has been expelled or dropped out of other schools, each writing furiously their hopes, dreams, events of their day. But today, this day, this girl, doesn’t feel like writing. She has been able to scratch out only two words, “Why me?”

The girl is Clarice Precious Jones, the lead character in a new movie in theatres now titled “Precious,” based on the novel “Push” about the author’s experience teaching literacy to young girls in Harlem in the 1980’s. To be fair, by the time we reach this point in the movie Precious has borne more than any human should ever have to bear, let alone a young teenage girl. At this point she has recently given birth to her second child at age 14, she has been abused in the most awful ways by both her parents, she is morbidly obese, homeless, battered, battling illiteracy.

And on this morning, she has learned about one more shattering thing, one thing that feels like the last straw in a series of let downs and insurmountable obstacles. “Why me?” she asks, and when her teacher continues to push her to write it all out – write out the pain and sorrow, the abuse the affliction – the scene culminates in a confrontation about the true nature of love and whether or not there is any hope in the darkness which surrounds us.

Our story this morning is another story of questions – although it happened in a time and place very different from the story of Precious Jones. Still, in it we meet another pregnant teen who wonders at her predicament: “How can this be?” She asks Gabriel. Mary’s wondering is weighted with the cultural dynamics of her own time; even then a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock was a situation of struggle and pain, confusion and despair. With no power of her own, a young woman cleaved to her husband or father for both financial and physical protection. A woman found to be pregnant before her marriage was subject to being cast out, even stoned for adultery. And so if we are honest about it, in the annunciation story, there is this brief, breath of a moment when Mary could receive the news as good, or as very, very bad.

Mary says, “How can this be?” and her question is different than the question Zechariah asked Gabriel in our text from last week, “How will I know that this is so?” Zechariah’s question smacks with a tone of arrogance as he doubts the validity of Gabriel’s claim that his aged and barren wife is pregnant. Zechariah’s punishment is 9 months of silence, giving him time to think over that initial response.

If Zechariah’s question was out of arrogance, then Mary’s question seems one of the soul. As Gabriel explains the power of the Holy Spirit, we can feel Mary’s mind turning, wondering, dreaming, coming to terms with this miraculous pronouncement and promise. Not entirely devoid of doubt, Mary must have been aware of the consequences of Gabriel’s message – both good and bad. She must have been filled with all sorts of questions – even if this is the only one she asks out loud: It must have been a liminal moment – hanging between dark and light, fear and hope.
Our own lives are riddled with questions during this Advent season: Will I get it all done? Will this busyness ever end? What do you want for Christmas? Can I afford it? Have I packed everything I need? Did I forget anything? It is a constant barrage of activity and action as we prepare, prepare, prepare for that wonderful and magical night.

But amidst the lights and festivities, there are other kinds of questions that linger in the dark, questions of the soul, that seem to move gently below the surface through this time: Why me? What would it be like if he were still here? How could she do this? Why didn’t it work out? Will the kids be okay? Will mom be okay? Will we make it?

Christmas is not always a season of cheer and joy for everyone. It can be a time of hard and profound questions for many of us, as we stumble along through these short days and long nights. Our joy is precarious – as we struggle to find balance between the hope of Christmas and the darkness of Advent. It seems that every year at this time we face more stories of beloved ones facing terminal diagnoses, stories of shattering loss and grief, hardships that are beyond reason or bearing. These times too bring up in us our deepest memories, of times that seemed and perhaps were simpler, more joyful, filled with ease and laughter – times for which we long in our heart of hearts.

The story of Clarice Precious Jones is haunting in some of the most terrible ways, and it is not for the faint of heart. In it we find questions of the darkest sort. But there is also a glimmer of light – as this young girl responds to her own pain and suffering with courage, hope, and responsibility.

In one of her most hopeful lines she describes how some people shine with a light that is both in them and apart from them, she says, “Some folks has a lot of things around them that shines for other peoples. I think that maybe some of them was in tunnels. And in that tunnel, the only light they had, was inside of them. And then long after they escape that tunnel, they still be shining for everybody else.”

It is only through that light and love that Precious finds her way out of that tunnel, somehow transforming the horrors she has experienced into something endurable by the grace of God. When these horrors come up against the nature of true and real love – the love of her teacher, the love of her own child, that love somehow pulls her from the pit and gives her hope.

When reminded of that love Precious finds her way through, saying “yes” to her calling into motherhood and her pledge to be a different kind of mother than the one she had. Saying “yes” to the path out of illiteracy, out of pain, out of sorrow and grief. She says “yes” without knowing the way forward, without knowing how it will end up, without knowing the end. But in that “yes” she proves that the darkness does not, cannot overcome the light of that love.

Mary, too, is caught in the question. She is perplexed by Gabriel’s words, she wonders “How can this be?” Her fear is palpable and very real: Fear of what would become of her, of what was happening, of how she would bear not only the hardship of motherhood but bear the Son of the Most High to the world.

Gabriel tells her, “Do not be afraid.”

In her answer she responds to her own fear and questioning with a hope and grace that marks a path for us going forward. “Here am I,” she says, and in holding both her questions and her calling together she finds strength and purpose. When Elizabeth sees Mary she says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed is she who said “yes” even without knowing what that “yes” will entail or where it will lead; Blessed is she who said “yes” to love and life, to hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; She who said “yes” to faith even in the midst of the hardest questions of life.

That “yes” which is the light shining in the darkness, illuminating the way through.

May it be so for each of us in this season of hope in the dark. Amen.

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It has happened to us… a bit too soon I might add. We have become part of the sandwich.

As a pastor I am terribly aware of the “sandwich generation.” That is, those folks who are mentioned in articles and sermons and commercials, who are in the middle of raising their young children and caring for ailing loved ones. In my few years as a hospice chaplain I was poignantly aware of this issue, caring for and praying with families who struggled between visiting newly born grandchildren and sorting through mom’s cancer medication. The strain is excruciating – a bit like the medieval torture where a criminal’s four limbs were tied to four horses and sent off in different directions. Okay – a bit graphic, but still… To be torn between two loves – the love for our parents who raised us and cared for us through scraped knees and hockey tournaments (which can be terribly complicated), and the love for our children and our children’s children (which is in some ways more pure and full of longing.)

As my husband spends the next week out of state caring for his father who has been in the hospital, we find ourselves squeezed between the needs of our parent and the needs of our young children. His dad is still very young – but this illness has been surprising and more intense than we could ever have imagined. The blessing is that we all expect a full recovery (doctor’s included), but we are aware that the journey to that recovery will be long and arduous, and require a decent amount of care. Out of this experience, we have gained a new empathy for those who are trying to balance the push and pull of this sandwiched lifestyle – how to prioritize, how to make choices between two people you love, two families who need you, two sets of circumstances each of which will suffer for your missing presence.

There is no clear path. There is no way to make an equal choice, no way to compare a beloved parent to a beloved child. There is also no family that is the same. While one family can easily share the load between many members, other families have fewer hands to help, or have family dynamics that prevent people from being supportive through it all. What may seem an easy solution for your family may be totally unworkable for mine. We do the best that we can. We cobble together what we need to stay afloat and offer what we can to be of assistance to the people we love. Sometimes that is a little, sometimes it is more than we even knew we had. And so it goes. Life is always a balance and this is no different, although the balance becomes weightier and more challenging to get right.

As we learn our way through this process we are learning new skills – how to have difficult conversations with family members. How to assert ourselves from a long distance (with doctors, family, friends) to get information, assistance, clarification. (carefully, cautiously…) What documents our parents should have in place and where they keep them. And the sticky wicket of family finances. None of this is easy, none of it is enjoyable. But it is the nitty gritty of “family,” and in some ways it is the absolutely essential lesson of what it takes to be in real relationship with one another through whatever bumps we hit along the way.

Through it all the thing that comes to mind most is this ethereal and changing thing called “community.” The concentric circles that surround us and spin outward seem to tighten around us in times such as these. People from our past suddenly stop by with soup or send an email with a word of prayer. This is such a blessing. As I have mentioned before we have learned firsthand the cultural shift away from community – as our generation tends to move often and live far from the town or city of our youth, it is harder and harder to maneuver through family crises or illness. The help that is offered makes it easier to choose both our children AND our parents in times such as these.

So I wonder – how do others of you “sandwiched generation” make your way through these crises? I wonder if more people are choosing to move back “home” so that they live closer to family? I wonder if anyone uses services that have helped them (we have found a great resource in www.caringbridg.org to keep family and friends informed)? I’ve also heard of patient advocate services that can be hired to help take care of mom or dad – does anyone use those? How do you make these choices that are so hard?

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Can I just say that I love my Director of Music?

I work for a church that is very traditional. We just recently completed the installation of a brand new, fancy expensive pipe organ. And I love it. I realize that in some ways this makes me a bit abnormal compared to others in my generation. In seminary I remember a conversation with one of my colleagues who found it completely bizarre that “someone like me” could like worship “like that.” I suppose it comes from growing up in a traditional church, infused with hymns, inspired by candles and liturgy. I suppose it comes from finding a value in tradition, ritual, history. And then again, perhaps it’s just preference and taste – not good or bad taste, just different tastes.

However, as someone who loves the old hymns, I also see the limitations of traditional worship music. I can understand that someone who did not grow up with the same background could experience that worship style like going to church in a foreign country. The language is strange; words like salvation, grace, sin are so loaded as to lose meaning altogether. I mean really, what would someone new to church think when they are expected to sing the words, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…”?

Unfortunately, I sometimes find (along with others) that more contemporary Christian liturgy and music lacks a certain theological depth. It often employs a God-is-my-friend theology that feels a bit hokey and lacks the reverence that I personally seek in worship. (I admit it’s not always that way – and I have experienced contemporary worship that is theologically deep, but it seems to be a growing edge.)

I recently heard an interview with a leader of an emergent church community who said he was looking through a hymnal and was surprised to see that the words had great theological depth. (I thought, “duh.”) But that he found the music to be a barrier. So he began writing new music for these older hymnal lyrics. (I thought, Aha!) And now he has this wonderful, very youthful church community singing these wonderfully theologically deep words. (Amen!)

There is this balance, then, in the old and the new. And I think it’s possible to bridge these two churches that we have – the older, more traditional church with the younger, contemporary church in new and exciting ways.

Which brings me back to why I love our Director of Music. This past Sunday, we had a guest musician, who is a congregation member and a jazz musician. He has at least one record out, and plays gigs regularly – very talented saxophonist. He brought with him a quartet – upright bass, piano, drums. The anthem they played, with the choir singing was a jazz rendition of “How Great Thou, Art.” It was awesome. Creative, a bit funky, tasteful, theologically rich. And did I say creative? With congregation singing along, tapping feet, swaying a bit, it was a joy to experience in worship. Now, if we could just help these white folks with their sense of rhythm 😉

With thanks to God for it all…

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I just posted the sermon I preached this past Sunday and I’m thinking back on what happened in worship on Sunday. It was pretty intense in a lot of ways. First, some context: I serve a mid-size congregation in a very affluent town in Westchester County, NY. Our congregation is in some ways very diverse ethnically, but also fairly sheltered, in that most people live in the upper echelon of financial status. It is a very educated congregation – as many folks graduated from ivy league schools to get to work in a job that might allow them to live in this type of community. It is a fairly moderate congregation theologically, with some members who are very liberal/progressive and some who are very conservative. Because of this education and affluence, people are almost always polite – accepting that they have differences of opinions and avoiding certain topics on which they might disagree. Worship is creatively traditional, and the congregation recently put in a brand new pipe organ to the tune of over $1 million.

The point I want to make is: worship tends to be that stoic, intellectual type. We have fun during children’s sermons and announcements, but music is listened to with a very educated ear, and sermons are inspected fairly closely. Let’s just say this is the first congregation that I’ve had my sermons quoted back to me accurately and my references checked.

So I preached this sermon on Sunday – the one that I posted below, and I went a little out on a limb. I pushed my own envelope a bit. I said some things that still sting in my soul a bit – it was almost a little more honest than I wanted to be, I think. I drove home thinking – did I go too far?

After the sermon, one of our paid soloists stood to sing the offertory anthem. It was a song called, “In Jesus’ name.” And this woman brought it. I mean – as she started, I could tell that this was going to be different. We’ve had some moments with music before – spirituals and jazz and guest musicians. But you could tell that she was putting it all out there during this solo – she was laying her heart and soul down for all to see. In the last line – she broke and started sobbing, she had to speak the last line of her solo, and return to her seat in the choir with tears running down her face.

As my director of music said – you could tell that was a different silence.

It was.

It was a moment that was scary – for me too. I felt like we had both put ourselves in very vulnerable positions – that we had revealed more than we had wanted. That in some ways we wished we could take it back, but in some ways it was some of the most powerful stuff that has happened in worship since I’ve started. I got more compliments about the service than I have gotten yet from this congregation, (who don’t give compliments too easily,) and I can’t express just how intense it was for me as well.

The act of preaching a sermon is so tricky. I’m an emotive preacher – I tell stories that I think will move people’s souls. I want them to feel something when they are sitting there in the pews. I want them to resonate – to hum like a bell – to leave the sanctuary feeling different. But I also worry about that desire – is it manipulative? Is it too much to pull on people’s heartstrings like that? Do I leave them in a better place or just all broken up inside? How far is too far when it comes to emotive preaching?

Well – here’s the sermon…I guess you can decide. What I can say is that the spirit was moving on Sunday – and it was a little scary and intense…

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