Living into our Lenten journey - Pastor Eric

      Lent is nearly upon us. I’m perennially surprised by how this time, set aside as preparation for Easter, seems to arrive before I’m mentally ready. We are busy dealing with snow and winter, and Easter is surely about Spring!

Most of you know my attachment to the liturgical year as a structure that maintains a spiritual rhythm through the ages… whether we’re fully ready or not. Lent recalls how Jesus' first act of ministry was to go and face temptation in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, a seemingly interminable time. Those forty days of preparation and discernment are what we mirror in the structure of time with our Lenten Journey. But often Lent seems too easily disconnected from conversations of discerning how best to live in our relationship with God. Perhaps some of the challenge is that often the language within the Church focuses on our having the right understanding instead of discerning the actions of faithfulness.

My soul has always resonated with language of journey- for when we are focused on the journey, we are paying attention to the present moment instead of merely the destination ahead. Journeys can be grace-filled places, but they can also be places of anxiety - for sometimes we just want to know when we will arrive… or what the right answer is. In that space, I want to loudly whisper that arrival is a state of being, not a destination.

How would we read the Church’s stories if we focused on that relational journey with God instead of merely seeking the right answer? In part, we might ponder the way that we tell our story.

Luke proclaims: “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry.” (3:23) Last week there was a devotional from Mary Luti that got me thinking about how we talk about our journeys of discernment. The devotional pondered what Jesus was doing from birth to 30 years old (scripture only records one moment in the story, when Jesus slips away from his parents and makes an appearance in the temple). Mary Luti imagined Jesus working hard in his father’s woodshop, curls of wood in his hair. And somewhere in that work, Jesus must discern his path. She writes: “Each of us has our work, too. A purpose we find in the overlap of who we are, what we're good at, what we love, and what our human neighborhood is needing. Work that generates motivating joy as we lend ourselves to it. Work that makes us more fully who we were created to be, as we give ourselves away in doing it.

Sometimes our work coincides with our jobs. Sometimes it doesn't; it disrupts and uproots us. Sometimes it leads to great public achievements. Often, it's as hidden as Jesus was in those first twenty-nine. Whatever it is, we're meant to seek and find this work that is seeking us. We're meant to turn thirty, which we can do at any age. The important thing isn't how old we are when we find it. The important thing is that, like Jesus, once we find it, we step out in trust and do it.”

We know what stepping out looked like for Jesus’ ministry. For three very full years, Jesus’ passion overflowed with teaching, preaching, healing, feeding, and helping people to grow in their relationship with God in nearly every way imaginable. That’s the journey into which we should be leaning – the living relationship with God, not the static, right-answer kind of faith. Have you ever wondered why our Creeds manage to render that passionate journey of ministry for Jesus as: [he was] “born, suffered, was crucified, died, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven…”? The Church’s creedal certainties speak nothing about what Jesus did; they just answer who he is from a doctrinal standpoint. The Jesus who inspires us to want to follow or emulate his ministry, vanishes into a series of answers to some of the church’s internal questions from a particular moment in history.

I believe our faith is always calling us into a deeper relationship with a dynamic God who will always transcend our limits. This is a God who chooses to journey with us in the unnamed spaces, the 29 years, the 40 days, and the lifetime of celebrating every moment as opportunity to be surprised again by the love and wonder of God.

This Lent we will once again journey on Wednesday nights with our 9th grade confirmation class sharing some of their reflections. We’ll journey together in the questions, not the answers. We will gather in beloved community and sing Holden Evening Prayers and see where it is that God is still speaking to our souls with new life. I believe this is the true Lenten journey to which we are called. Blessings on our journey together,

A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

Greetings from North Carolina! As part of the four-way covenant, the agreements made in my ordination, I committed to sharing my thoughts with you in the “Tidings” on a regular basis. This month, I am excited to be starting a multi-month series on how to best support people in difficult medical situations, including people facing loss, people who are sick and dying, and people who are caregivers. The information shared in the next several articles is a combination of research around these topics, my personal reflections from my training in Clinical Pastoral Education, and my experiences with families who have someone at the end of life. So, to begin the series, I want to review the Top 10 Things NOT to Say to people who are sick, grieving or faced with loss.

The NOT Top 10!

1.     “At least…” According to Brenè Brown, research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, “Rarely, if ever, does an empathetic response begin with at least.” [1] These statements minimize the person’s feelings/situation they have shared, while trying to put a silver-lining around something incredibly painful. For example: “my son is failing out of school… At least your daughter is a great student” or “I just had my 3rd miscarriage… At least you know you can get pregnant.” Can you see how “at least” statements divert the focus, and dismiss the painful and vulnerable reality?

2.     “We statements” We statements such as “We will get through this round of chemo together” or “we will get your son back in school” put you in the middle of the other person’s crisis. Unless the person you are speaking to is your spouse or child, you will likely not be with them every step of the way. Reminding your friend that you are here to help, or offering concrete ways you can actually help the situation (like a professional referral to a physician or tutor) would be much more beneficial than we statements.

3.     “Just try…” or “I’ve done some research and…” Both of these statements suggest that there is an easy solution that the person who is sick or experiencing a medical crisis such as infertility hasn’t yet explored. Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and cancer survivor sarcastically shares “I thought I should listen to my oncologist and my nutritionist and my team of specialists, but it turns out that I should be listening to you.” [2]

4.     “Let me know what I can do for you.” While, on the surface, this seems like a helping statement to someone who is sick or faced with loss, it actually puts significant pressure on the person who is grieving or in crisis. A statement like this puts the responsibility of follow-up and follow-through on the bereaved. It will likely not happen, which is unfortunate, because they really need your help. The grieving or sick person is likely overwhelmed with numerous details (funeral plans, choosing a new course of treatment, figuring out life in their new normal, etc).

5.     “When I…” Similar to we statements, statements that begin with “When I…” shift the focus from the person who is vulnerable, and instead puts you at the center of attention. I think we use statements about ourselves to try to relate to the other person’s struggle. Often sharing our own stuff does nothing for the person who is sick/grieving, but instead lets us explore a similar pain that is being stirred up. “When I” statements could be appropriate if the bereaved asks you a specific question about your experience. Ex. “When you did chemo, did you get a wig? How did you get a death certificate after your husband died?”

6.     “It’s God’s Will/Timing/Plan” I think we make statements like this because there is no tangible or concrete explanation for why bad things happen to good people. But if you think about the statement, it really is counter to our theology. Did God really want someone’s child or spouse to die… or for someone to lose their job… or for a woman to have a miscarriage? If you say something like this to a person who is grieving, it is putting a theology on them that implies God wanted this awful thing to happen. Instead, remind the bereaved that they are loved by God and that God will never leave them!

7.     “Everything happens for a reason.” A statement like this suggests that you know the reason, yet the reality is that some things just can’t be explained. Statements like this stifle the conversation the grieving person is trying to dive into. This statement leaves little room for the bereaved or sick to explore their own feelings and faith perspective around what is happening and why. “When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver, is handing them a reason.” [3]

8.     “You can use this experience to…” Yes, someday a person who has lost a child might be able to write a book, or a person who survived a trauma may become a motivational speaker to others with similar experiences. But now is NOT the time to remind them of this. When a person is in crisis or is grieving, they want support in the here and now. They don’t want to (and really don’t need to) think about how this experience will help them in the future.

9.     “I know exactly how you feel.” Simply put… no you don’t! You may be able to image how they feel, or imagine how difficult a situation might be for them, or what a situation might feel like if you were in the middle of it. But you can never know exactly how someone feels because no two people’s experiences with grief and loss are the same. Two people may have lost a parent, but their experience with death will be different, because their relationship with their parents is unique to them, their relationships with their surviving family are unique, and their experience with death in the past is unique.

10.  “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.” As Dr. Alan Wolfelt, author, educator and grief counselor, might say, “True, but not helpful.” Sickness, grief and loss affect all aspects of our being: physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual. [4]  When we walk with the bereaved, we need to honor their darkness and let them work through it, not feel the need to push them into the light or future if they aren’t ready.

After reading this list, please don’t fret if you have said some or all of these things to someone faced with grief or loss. Give yourself some grace that you were doing the best you knew how to do. I hope that the next time someone is vulnerable with you, you’ll remember this list and do your best to avoid the NOT Top 10. Be on the lookout for next month’s article that will offer some suggestions of what TO say and do when supporting someone who is sick, grieving or faced with loss.

[1] Brenè Brown on Empathy,

[2] Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Random House, New York, 2018.

[3] Bowler, Kate. Ibid.

[4] Alan Wolfelt, The Art of Companioning the Mourner; Workshop hosted by Hospice of Davidson County, 10/17/18

We all have a part to play

 “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? […] As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (from 1 Corinthians 12:12–20)

One of the great gifts that Paul offered to the church was this image of the Church in all of its diversity being the body of Christ. It’s easy for some to forget that each and every one of us is an integral part the Church.

I just returned from our Young Adult Habitat trip to New Orleans. We were graciously hosted by a church that was trying to rise to new life. A few years ago, it had dwindled to six members (and some of the behavior among those six sounded profoundly unhealthy). But, something in the spirit of the church wanted to live. The congregation now has had as many as 52 people in worship, but the core remains a relatively small group. When a church is that size it’s very easy for everyone to know how every other person is sharing in the ministry of life or death for the congregation. Most parts of the body are well known to the rest. It’s not unlike our mission team of 10, each with their wonderful unique gifts. We quickly learned on the job-site that not everyone was cut out for every task. Some were very clear about their relationship to ladders, others found that sometimes the nail that they pounded with the hammer was attached to the end of their finger… Indeed, there was more finger pounding than I’m used to on a job site. But the good news was that we had a hundred fingers among us, so any one or two at a time being pained still left the body of the group fairly dexterous. One of the profound gifts of going on a mission trip is living in a small community and learning to celebrate all the diverse gifts among us. They’re always there in every group, but sometimes we fail to notice.

Our congregation of about 500 allows many people to be less obvious with the ways that they may live as a part of the body of Christ. I see the mission of the church lived out with one praying, one serving, one sending cards, one caring for our buildings and things physical, one listening to the needs of another… and the list goes on. I’m sure that I don’t always do a good enough job of voicing my appreciation of all the myriad ways that the diverse parts of our church give it life and breath. But what I can see regularly is a place that often knows how to let the spirit work through it. Note that I say “often”, for there are certainly times when it seems that some of the critical appendages are suffering from the pins and needle numbness that comes when a limb “goes to sleep.” In those times it may be necessary to move and restore a little spiritual circulation.

There is an announcement in this Tidings that our secretary of 27 years will be retiring at the end of May. Diane has done an extraordinary job of coordinating lots of the ministry which takes place within our church home. She has certainly tirelessly ministered on the phone and in the office with her humble presence. It is hard to even begin to access all the ways that she has been an integral part of our church. We will celebrate the next chapters of her life even as we will profoundly miss her presence among us.

This change will be another time when we are called to step up and be the church. All of us will need to think about those who surround us and make our church come to life. Together we will continue to do great things… but the changes will also be extraordinary.

What is your role within the body of Peace Church? Have you thanked the hands and feet and heart that are at work in the multitude around you? Have you thought about what part of your own gifts you may need to shake out, wake up, and invite to dance with the rest of the body?

May God bless us in the ongoing witness!

Christmas Ponderings: December 2018 - January 2019

“Away in the manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…”

There’s something magical about Christmas, whether it’s the lights, or carols, or the way that children’s faces shine with excitement. There is joy at Christmas. And there is also something wonderfully familiar about the rhythm of the season. I still tell the story about the year that my home church changed the Christmas eve service to preaching and a choir cantata and almost no opportunity for the congregation to sing the beloved carols… I felt cheated! Christmas carries its message of love and joy in part in the power of cultural traditions, in the expected repetition of the story. So, it’s a little stunning for us to stop and remember what scripture’s story of that first Christmas must have sounded like. Everything about the narrative is shocking, disruptive, perhaps even offensive!

Hear those words from the second chapter of Luke: “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” and then remember that those words were proclaimed to the shepherds and not to the kings. Shepherds were nobodies, they get described as smelly ne’er-do-wells, or as outsiders in the community. What’s clear is that this is not the group of people to whom anyone would expect this divine proclamation to be offered. That they are the ones travelling to pay homage to the messiah born in a cave to a scandalous young couple and laid among the animals should be a story that invites outrage or shock. Or maybe, if you can have a good sense of humor about such things, uproarious holy laughter. The Christmas story, like the Easter story, should turn our understanding of the world upside down.

Ironically, we live in a culture that much more closely resembles the powerful empire that Jesus was trying to transform than the community to which the Christmas story was made real. We take the message of a different way of being and turn it into a cute commercialized holiday that challenges none of our ways and only reinforces the brokenness of the world – the haves and have nots are cast in stark light yet again.

We should hear the proclamation that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” as a word of profound hope in a world that continues to be wracked with discord, distrust, and fear. That little child is born in all the wrong places proclaiming a different way. That light is Love that is humble and giving, that sees in the other not fear but hope and promise. The Christmas story is a gift that God offers us to draw us out of our cultural comfort zone to welcome the unpredictable divine.

For some months at church we have been talking about what God's radical hospitality looks like. One group with great passion has been challenging us to look at others through new eyes. The Inclusive Church Initiative has been asking all of us to journey in prayer with those whom the church and society have too often dismissed as being confused, sinful, or unwelcome. These conversations have caused great tension for many as we have been challenged to affirm the value of each person so that we can continue together on the journey of drawing all our lives closer to God. Unfortunately, even as the Inclusive Church Initiative is encouraging us to open our hearts and souls to the LGBTQ community, there are those who are feeling that this welcome means that there is no place for them and their values. We will lose a great deal as a congregation and as a witness to God's love if we don’t recognize that all our perspectives are valued as a part of the journey.

There was an inspirational segment by Ram Dass that crossed my desk speaking to my hope: “When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree, and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.  

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘you are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. and so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

As we come into this season of Christmas and celebrate God's love being born among us, I wonder if we would be willing to open ourselves to God's wonder just the way it is? Will we find room for Jesus to be born in our hearts if it means that we accept ourselves as loved not because of what we’ve accomplished or how much we’re worth, but merely because we are a beloved child of God? Will we accept ourselves and the other as a reflection of God no matter what, even if the encounter feels like it leads us to a feed-trough among the animals? Or how about if that’s the neighbor whom we’ve never met? Are we willing to let God's grace break through our cultural barriers and expectations? As we sing our carols and light the lights and smile at the children, I pray that God's love might break us open in unexpected ways this season.

God's Christmas message is love, period, go tell it on the mountain… and everywhere!

Pastor Eric