The Candle Burns

Westminster has a tradition of the Paschal candle which burns in our sanctuary during Lent. The word paschal which Christians use to talk about the sacrifice of Christ comes from the word for Passover, the sacrifice of the spotless lamb in the Passover story of God’s liberation of our spiritual ancestors.

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The candle represents Christ, and is adorned with many special symbols including the Greek letters Chi Rho, a triangle representing the  Trinity and the Alpha and Omega, reminding us that God is the beginning and end of all things.

The candle reminds us that Christ is always keeping vigil with us. He dwells in our hearts, and he sits at the right hand of God making intercessions for us. Christ walks with us in the fearful, confusing, painful moments of our lives. Christ looks on us with the eyes of love as we live out our days.

During Holy Week we make a point to vigil with the Christ candle as we would vigil with Christ. Like the disciples who slept while Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, we might find our spirit is willing but the spirit is weak. Still, we do not despair of our human frailty, but look to Christ to strengthen us.

As Holy Week continues,  we will be burning the Paschal candle throughout the day in our prayer chapel (whenever someone is present in the church to make sure it is safe). You are welcome to come by between 10am and 3pm Monday through Thursday this week to pray in the chapel. You can also come before our Good Friday service on Friday which starts at 7:00 pm. By the end of our Good Friday Service of Shadows, the candle will be burned low and then extinguished. The candle will be carried out of the sanctuary in silence and placed at the foot of the cross in a prayer garden we will create in the narthex. On Easter Sunday morning a new, perfect candle will be carried in and lit to help us celebrate the glory of the Resurrection.

Signs of Hope

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Today I found these three nests—hornet’s nests, I think— stacked up neatly on the ground outside the church. I don’t know how long they have been there, but we have had several good rainstorms lately and these humble dwellings have been sturdy enough to withstand them. I am assuming they did not fall out of a tree or get dislodged from the eaves of the roof and land with just this precision. My guess is someone found them, maybe during some termite treatments we had, and set them aside. Still, it has been two weeks of snow and rain and there they are, like a little fairy house, a condo for small beings.

These nests seem to me to be signs of how our lives are fragile and yet resilient. Today in our morning Bible study, someone remarked that the clay vessels of antiquity were easily broken and yet their shards remained for thousands of years for us to dig up and study as relics of their age.

Last month I said I would follow up that post with some suggestions of books to read for spiritual support during times of fragility. One of the books I recommend a lot is Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. Rohr is a Franciscan brother, and a teacher who draws on nature, poetry, Christian teaching and mysticism of many kinds. Falling Upward begins with the idea that the values you need in the first part of life—drive, determination, assertiveness: all the things that help you build a bigger nest—are not so useful in the second part of life, when our nest is built, but emptier, when more degrees or titles or flashier cars don’t seem to fix the ache we have inside. Many of us come to this place because we fail in some way, our marriage fails, our career dead-ends, and this falling seems like loss. Rohr tells us that these failures might be just what we need to find the values we need for the next bit of work we have to do, to find our spiritual self and give back to the world.

Another book worth checking out is Beginner’s Grace by Kate Braestrup. The author is a chaplain in the Maine Game Warden’s Service who writes with refreshing honesty about her own difficulties with prayer. Ideas about how to pray, when to pray and what to pray are offered alongside her experiences.

Or if you want to make the classics of spirituality a part of your Lenten path, you might try The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence. A 17th century monk, Brother Lawrence learned how to find God in every moment, even washing dishes in the monastery kitchen. While not written in modern terms, the desire of the monk to find God will speak to every seeking heart. You can read the book online here.

You can also make the world your book, and look at  the way nature shines forth the trace of its creator’s hand. It is visible in the stormy skies of not-quite-spring, in small green things poking through the leaf mold, and in empty hornet’s nests stacked in the grass.

Re-resolve

Have you given up on your New Year’s resolutions yet? Congratulations. For most of us the annual resolve to lose some weight, get to the gym, pay off our debts, or clean out our closets is an exercise in living for a short time with an impossibly harsh daily plan to reform ourselves. It almost never works because the real problem isn’t the stacks of paper in the closet or the lack of ripped abs. The real problem is that we think we ought to be in control of our lives and ordering up new habits should be as simple as ordering up new tires for the car. But really, being a human is more complicated than that. We aren’t in control, not completely, and sometimes those things we feel bad about, our bad habits, are symptoms of a problem, not the problem itself. Our unconscious self, our deep self, is trying to alert us to something we keep trying to ignore. “Hey over here!” it is yelling. “We’re not doing so great. We feel ignored. We are tired. Why don’t we have a serious talk about our life?”

And for many of us, that talk is something we want to avoid. We don’t want to admit that we are not as happy as we want to be, that we have made some questionable choices, that life is not at all what we had planned back when we were young and idealistic. But changing all that, asking hard questions about our job, our marriage, our faith—we do not want to go there. So we go everywhere else: to happy hour, to the junk food aisle of the convenience store, to that gray zone in front of our screens where we can float along in numbness.

That’s pretty grim, isn’t it? Well, the good news is that there is some good news. Having a spiritual life is a way to get in touch with the scary down-deep parts of yourself. If you start from the point of view that you are a beloved child of God, and your mistakes or bad choices are the things that tend to obscure that identity, then changing those things might be less white-knuckling and more removing the roadblocks to your true identity. And maybe you might even decide that ripped abs are not so important as finding ways to express your spiritual priorities with your free time.

So, congratulate yourself on being a human. Despite all our problems, it’s really a pretty good deal: God loves you and you have been given a unique, holy, and irreplaceable place in God’s world. If you want help with being human, there are some sources of assistance. In my next blog I will mention a few books that have been especially helpful. But during this month of resolutions and perceptions of failure, I suggest you meditate on these wise words from St. Benedict: If love is your goal, failure is impossible.  

Blessing and Blessed

Our St. Francis Day bloomed as a sunny day, one of those days at the beginning of fall when the sky is impossibly blue and the trees are giving us one last pulse of green before they begin to change. We pitched a shelter on the lawn and wondered who would show up, with what types of animals. Some friends came by and we sang a verse or two of that great hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” that includes this stanza

For the joy of giving love,

brother, sister, parent, child,

friends on earth, and friends above,

for all gentle thoughts and mild,

Lord of all, to you we raise

this, our hymn of grateful praise

Certainly the joy of giving and receiving love comes from our animal friends, too. The animal friends showed up as small dogs and large dogs, including one dear boisterous friend, Moxie who was so bouncy she mostly had to watch from the sidelines, but she clearly relished being part of the day.

As the afternoon went on the breeze picked up into a wind that sometimes threatened to lift our shelter and blow it away. One of our stalwart members spent a good part of the afternoon holding onto one leg of the shelter just to make sure we stayed grounded. Well, our church sign had recently said the Holy Spirit is on the loose, and today it seemed so.

Then we saw two neighbors from up the street, Kathy and Mike, walking our way with two dogs and what looked like a tiny mesh playpen. What was in that, we wondered. Hamsters? Hens? Iguana? Turns out the residents of that small enclosure were five Monarch butterflies who had just recently emerged from their cocoons. Kathy explained that she has been part of an effort to help preserve Monarch habitats that have been eroded due to development reducing the milkweed that sustains them. She shared information with us about how folks in the path of monarch migration are helping these majestic creatures by planting milkweed and keeping the cocoons safe. We said a prayer, blessing the butterflies on their long journey to Mexico, and hoping future generations will grace us with their presence. Then Kathy took the carrier into the middle of our labyrinth, a path that suggests a spiritual journey, and released the butterflies, and we saw them rise and fly away.

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At the end of the day we totaled our attendance: 15 dogs, 12 humans, and five Monarch butterflies. Next year, we began to dream of, we can plant some milkweed. And maybe someone will ride over on a horse.  Or bring us a sheep or a goat to bless. The Bible does have some special things to say about that peaceable kingdom, where lions and lambs will lie down together. We caught a glimpse of that kingdom in the blue autumn sky as puppies and butterflies and people basked in the glory of being alive. 

The Story of the Bible in (about) 15 Minutes

You will often hear the Bible referred to ask the “Word of God.” When some people hear that they think it means that the Bible is God’s words, dictated to a scribe who wrote them down. Most Presbyterians don’t mean that when we speak of God’s Word. We believe the Bible was written down by a lot of people over centuries. We believe they were inspired by the Spirit to write as they did, and we understand that they were also humans, formed by their own social and historical context. They were capable of error in relating that history, or the scientific or social beliefs of their time. But the way they responded to the God who called them to write is deeply true: an amazing, moving, reliable record of how human beings encounter the divine.

 The Hebrew word, davar, often translated as “word” also means idea, message, concept, the subject about which one speaks. The Bible is God’s davar, God’s message. The Gospel according to John adds yet another dimension for Christians in saying that Christ is the Word made flesh; that the message of God became the messenger.

 One of the things that I find most compelling about the Word of the Bible is that it does not come to us primarily as a set of rules, or as theory, though there are rules and theories in the Bible. The Bible begins as story, as a message told through the lives of the men and women in its pages, through the Old Testament story about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David and Ruth, and in the New Testament story about Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. Each individual story adds up to tell one big story, the story of God choosing us as partners in the creation and redemption of the world and sharing with us the saving power of the gospel in order to make that mission possible. It’s a big story, a wonderful story, a challenging story.

This Sunday, I am going to attempt to tell that big story in place of the regular sermon. I will begin with “In the beginning,” and tell the big and important highlights of the story in about 15 minutes. You are welcome to join us for this experience, one that will celebrate God’s message and possibly inspire some new chapters in the ongoing story we are living together. 

How Our Garden Grows

This spring we thought it would be a good idea to plant a community garden at Westminster. One thing we are amply blessed with is space—wide lawns, a big outdoor labyrinth, lots of sun. So we talked about who might want to join us in the project, about inviting others from the neighborhood who might not have a patch of land for growing—residents of the apartments down the street, or folks who live at Elmcroft. As we talked, we had some insecurities about the idea—What if no one came? What if everyone came? Did we know enough and have enough hands for the labor of building a lot of garden spaces? We got kind of stuck in that phase, which is where a lot of good ideas go to retire. 

But a happy serendipity came to pass when the leaders of the Boy Scout Troop we host ran into a church member and reminded her that scouts are always looking for service projects. One of the troop members who wanted to go for his Eagle Scout, Alex Hargrave, ended up working with us to build some handicap-accessible raised beds, and he did a fine job. He also helped us set up several straw bale gardens.

Still, it was a bit late in the season when we finally planted and so instead of making a big noise we decided to plant the spaces we had as a learning project which we can expand next year. We have some nice looking tomato plants, some promising okra, and some lovely zucchini just putting out slender babies. We also had a few losses. The shy deer we sometimes see peeking out from our labyrinth are apparently big cabbage and pepper fans. Well, we did say we would invite everyone. . .

We are going to plant some kale and other fall crops to replace our lost plants. And we are going to keep trying. Because the point of the garden is not so much to make a flawless harvest of food, but to be in touch with God’s good earth, to connect with nature and with one another, and to learn a bit about our environment here. So far, all that is growing nicely. The spiritual fruits that come from sowing seeds of patience and gratitude can’t fail.

If you have any gardening tips or spiritual questions, drop by. We are always in the growth business. 

Signs and Wonders

If you have driven by our church on Old Springfield Pike lately you have noticed that the sign says, “The Holy Spirit is on the loose!” Curious? We hoped so.

Recently we celebrated the special Sunday of Pentecost, the day in the church year some call the birthday of the Christian church, a day when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the assembled followers of Jesus after his resurrection. The Spirit inspired those believers to do amazing things: heal the sick, feed the poor, and create an intimate community where they shared their possessions and their spiritual lives. It was a time of intense questioning about what this Jesus movement was going to become, and the story told in the biblical Book of Acts about this period is like a theological action/adventure movie, with dramatic conflict, miracles, journeys, visions, imprisonments, shipwreck, conversions of enemies into friends and much, much more. It was a time when the barriers of who belonged got tested and broken down, a time of hope and more than a little anxiety. In fact, it was a time very much like now.

I am convinced that the current followers of Jesus are going through a time much like the book of Acts as we are confronted with questions that will define our time in history, often questions about who belongs and what wild and unpredictable things the Spirit might be asking us to do in order to spread the love and mercy of God in the world God loves.

Over the last few weeks we have been reading the books of Acts in our weekly Bible study on Wednesdays at 11am, and in worship on Sunday mornings. If you are curious about what the Spirit might be doing on Old Springfield Pike, you are welcome to drop in and check it out.

What is Healing?

Trying to be a follower of Jesus involves patterning our lives after the life of Christ. We study the things he did and said so that we can grow into people who experience and share the love and mercy Jesus shared. We feed the hungry and house the homeless and visit the imprisoned. We pray the prayer he prayed. We sing the song, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus.”

 One of the things Jesus did was to heal the sick. Some of the first public acts of Jesus were miracles of healing. Jesus put his hands on the suffering; in one case, he mixed his spit with the dust of the ground to make mud and used that mud to heal a blind man.

 Followers of Jesus are called to respond in a Christ-like way to the suffering we see around us. But few of us have the gift of supernatural healing that Jesus seemed to possess. I am not sure if that gift does truly exist today. Perhaps as human culture developed the ability to understand scientifically how to treat disease, God poured those gifts out in more abundance so that more people could be healed.

 But despite our many remarkable medical advances, people still suffer. We all know what suffering is. How pain can grip your entire existence until you can doubt for a brief time if living is worth it if you have to endure more pain. How an illness can dominate one’s sense of being, how an addiction can take over an entire family and leave it empty and broken down. Suffering feels so lonely that one can sometimes understand why Jesus felt God had forsaken him as he experienced the torture of the cross.

 And though most of us cannot change the course of an illness in a miraculous demonstration of supernatural power, there are things we can do to bring release from suffering. We can show up and let people know they do not suffer alone. We can tend to the physical and emotional needs of the suffering. We can hold their hands and bring them soup or send a card and say, “you are not forgotten.”

 And those things are healing things, because what suffering does that is so awful is to reduce us to our pain. When we are suffering we often cease to think of ourselves as whole people; we become a lump of pain. As if we are only our source of pain and not also mothers and sons and artists and gardeners. So sitting with a friend in the doctor’s office is a way to say, I see the person you are, I will help you get back to being that person. And that is a step back from suffering towards wholeness.

 Prayer is a powerful healing act. Wherever I go, people ask me to pray for them, even people who are not religious. They do that because they believe that prayer is powerful. I know prayer is powerful. I have seen prayer at work in hospitals and nursing homes and in homes and offices and in prisons. I pray because I have been healed by prayer; healed of my despair and anger and self-righteousness. I have seen people cry out to God for help and receive a sense of presence that helped them change their lives. And that is a miracle.

 It doesn’t take a lot to create a healing moment. Prayer, touch, caring, hope. What we hope to bring in our monthly healing service is a chance to dwell prayerfully in God’s grace, God’s invitation to have life, and life abundantly. To claim for those among us who suffer that God’s will for us is wholeness, and that God has not forsaken those who suffer, but will be with us in our pain and will send us the gifts of the Spirit—patience, endurance, and hope—to guide us from suffering to wholeness. 

The Blessing of a New Year

We get the word January from the Romans, who depicted the god Janus with two heads, one looking forward and one look back. Janus was often depicted around doorways and openings, and was associated with change, time, and transition. At this time of the year, we look forward and back. We take one last look at 2016 and all the tumult it brought, and we look ahead to 2017 and the hope it represents.  

Here at Westminster we have an extra set of new beginnings to add to the New Year’s hope. On January 1, at 3pm, I will be ordained as a Presbyterian minister and installed as the pastor here. This represents quite a moment for me, the culmination of over twenty years of wandering, struggle, and hope for a call to ministry. It is also a new beginning for our congregation, the culmination of a search process and of our hopes to find new ways to do ministry in our community.

But that is not the end of it. On January 8, we will ordain one of our newly elected elders, Cyndi Fevang, to that special role, and begin a new year of work in the session, the form of representative democracy that Presbyterians follow as a way to order our life and work together. And on Jan. 15, the Sunday we will observe the Baptism of the Lord, we will all renew our baptismal vows to renounce evil, trust in God’s gracious mercy, and live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, showing his love in the world.

Those vows, which in some form will be part of all three services, make a good plan for any new year. They represent ideals more lasting than resolutions to exercise or recycle (though we are in favor of both those things!) Living the Jesus way is a process we work toward our whole lives. Sometimes the path is easier; sometimes we see the way ahead and think we understand why some of the path behind us was difficult. It’s easier not to walk that path alone, which is why we gather week in and out to be with other believers who share the same vows and the same struggles.

As we celebrate these significant milestones, and look to the year ahead, our new year’s blessing might be part of the liturgy of the baptism which includes this prayer:

O Lord, uphold us by your Holy Spirit.

Daily increase us in your gifts of grace:

The spirit of wisdom and understanding,

The spirit of counsel and might,

The spirit of knowledge and the awe of the Lord,

The spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. 

While We Wait

Advent is a season of beginning, of our expectant waiting for the Christ child to appear, born anew into our hearts. What we are celebrating at Christmas is the incarnation, a traditional doctrine which teaches that God took on human flesh and lived as one of us in order to reach out to all people with a message of grace and love. That idea, of God made flesh, is so huge we really can’t take it in all at once. So each Advent, we set aside four weeks to wait and watch and pray and ponder.

Most of us, honestly, aren’t very good at waiting. We value convenience and speed these days. We zap information into the air and it bounces our messages and transactions and cat pictures where we want them to go in mere seconds. We can have our groceries delivered and can deposit checks with our phone. Who knows what will come next that will make life more convenient?

But sometimes that very convenience makes us think we have to be in control, and that faster is better. Sometimes slow things, like planting a seed and watching it grow, are a good antidote to the pace of modern life. Prayer, conversation, acts of compassion are some of the ways we can slow down our lives and stay in touch with our deeper values.

Come join us as we practice waiting. We will light candles, pray, sing, and take our time as we wait for Christ to be born among us, in us, and for us.