Confession, I am a Valentine's Day Scrooge. There, I said it! Why do we have to have ONE defined day where we are supposed to tell someone we love them? I find it more meaningful to receive a love offering on an ordinary day than the one day you are expected to receive a gift.
Why this talk of Valentine's Day in January? First, virtual schooling means dropping off Valentine's this week so Valentines bags are ready for pick up in two weeks. Second, the candy heart graphics in our current sermon series, Love Does. Just looking at them, I crave a box.
Our Love Does series though is not about how to love on one special day, but rather ways to show love on all days. This Sunday's focus is Love Builds Up and I can't help but think of all the ways we are striving to Build Up each other and the work of United Christian Church. Specifically through the work of our Holy Conversations.
We are nearing the end of these conversations and we want to ensure that everyone has had an opportunity to participate. We invite EVERYONE to complete this form on Vision (even if you participated in Holy Conversations). There are additional questions that will help our complete our church profile as we prepare ourselves for what comes next. Questions and summaries from previous Holy Conversations can be found on our website.
Thank you for all the ways you continue to be love in our world.
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one candle.”
On Christmas Eve each year, year after year, we end our service by holding up candles in a darkened sanctuary and singing together “Silent Night.” What’s more, the light from all of our candles originates from the single Christ Candle at the center of our Advent Wreath, spreading across the entire sanctuary as we pass it from one candle to another until the entire sanctuary is bathed in warm candlelight. Thus a single flame grows and grows until it banishes the darkness of our great hall with light and song.
Last year, as we carried out this tradition as we had done countless times before, none of us would have ever imagined that this year we all lit our candles in our homes. A year ago, we would have never imagined that we would still be without a settled minister, that we would have to disband our choir for a year, that our Vacation Bible School and Pageant would have to be 100% virtual, and that we would have to forgo beloved traditions like the pumpkin patch, trunk-or-treat, potlucks, and caroling.
Even so, amid all this darkness, we would have never dreamed that we would now be strategically allocating a $100,000 surplus. We never would have guessed that our church had such creative talents in music, video editing, music mixing, graphic design, movie-making, and liturgy. We would have never imagined that seeing the pageant in a new way through zoom would touch our hearts like never before. We would have never enjoyed a committee meeting in our pajamas, or gotten to meet Rev. Nikki’s cats.
Last Sunday we sang the Christmas Carol, “Who Would Think That What Was Needed,” which has this line in it: “God surprises Earth with Heaven coming here on Christmas Day.” Christmas is all about surprises. Jesus was quite the surprise savior. And God has certainly surprised us by smashing all our Christmas idols this year. All that is left seems to be the manger.
It’s been a dark and difficult year. But for me, however, this church family has been, as St. Francis describes, like a single candle: all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish our light.
Darkness cannot steal our hope.
It cannot disturb our peace.
It cannot rob our joy.
It cannot squelch our love.
And it certainly cannot undo what was done in Bethlehem, when God became the Christ Child and lived among us.
This is the light: Emmanuel, meaning “God is with you.”
One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is the privilege of holding stories. From my various calls in ministry over the past decade, I have been humbled to be entrusted with incredible stories of many saints along their journey. Each story bears the image of God.
Layered upon these stories are the stories of our ancestors of the faith -- the stories we come together each week to hear, Sunday after Sunday, season after season, year after year. Our stories become intertwined with their stories, until we become part of God’s one sweeping arc of redemption.
For example, when we face an unknown future, we find strength in Mary’s trust in God. When we want to cut and run, we remember Joseph’s courage to stay by her side. When we tremble with fear like the shepherds, we hear their consolation from the angels: “fear not.”
Narrative theology holds that Christian theology should blossom from the stories of our faith and the great narrative arc of God’s redemption, rather than from a set of propositions or doctrines. Basically, narrative theology says, “look beyond the literal meaning of the text, down to the deeper meaning of the stories.” It emphasizes Biblical storytelling and the use of parables as the strongest tools for spiritual formation over reasoning and indoctrination.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been telling stories as sermons for the past three weeks. Through these stories, I have been amazed how you have easily been able to make connections with your life, your faith, and this strange world we are living in now with so more theological depth than I could ever do for each of you personally. And you will have an opportunity to do this again on Sunday, as we will hear the Christmas story again in a new way through our children in our first digital Christmas pageant.
Stories. Songs. Art. These are the angels getting many of our Spirits through a Covid Christmas.
And the days we are living in now will one day be stories told by generations to come. So let us make them good stories.
Rev. Anna Humble
Friends in faith,
We are once again in the season of waiting and the season of giving. United Christian Church has a very long history of giving time, talents, and funds. This year, our Christmas Eve service collection will be going to Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM). The United Church of Christ (UCC), in partnership with the Disciples of Christ - Christian Church (DOC), help support Global Ministries (GM). Global Ministries is a project that involves over 270 partner churches and organizations and is involved in 70 countries. The OCWM and Global Ministries support many functions within our denominations. It promotes local church ministries to encourage licensed, ordained, and commissioned ministers to strive for ministerial excellence. Congregations are nurtured by Local Church Ministries through the educational materials that Global Ministries and Our Churches Wider Mission help provide. These funds also help support the Justice and Witness Ministries to encourage a peaceful and compassionate world that honors all of God's creation. Part of these funds are set aside for disaster relief. The OCWM/Global Ministries (OCWM/GM) responded with assistance in Puerto Rico after the earthquake and the following hurricane. They responded with financial aid and supplies immediately after the hurricane that devastated south Texas.
The Justice and Peace Action Network is a UCC grassroots advocacy effort to educate and engage church members and friends to shape public policy. These are but a few of the benefits of the OCWM/GM. There are many bible verses about why you should give, but it comes down to one simple reason. Love. Love of your neighbor, love of the world, love of others, love in Christ. 2020 has been a year when things have been stretched for many families and may continue to be so. My prayer is that you will search your heart and find what you can give to our denomination's vital mission on Christmas Eve.
Prayers and blessings,
Last Sunday, Rev. Anna told a story about a pastor who was less than thrilled about entering the 2020 Advent/Christmas season, and of a congregant, Connie, who gifted the pastor with a handcrafted Advent calendar. The calendar was filled with daily gestures of hope and kindness, some for the pastor to receive and others for him to offer. During the waiting time of Advent, the calendar served as a lifeline of hope for this pastor who, after weathering everything 2020 had to offer, really did not start off the season with much hope. At the conclusion of her story, Rev. Anna posed the wondering question "I wonder what it means to wait well during this season of Advent?"
This question has been on my mind a lot this week especially as we (clergy and staff) continue to re-imagine how to mindfully live well into the season Advent and tell the Christmas story in 2020. How do we hold the grief of what cannot be safely experienced this year while also tapping into the excitement, anticipation and even celebration of the coming of baby Jesus?
A related wondering question that seems particularly salient this year is "what does it mean to live well?" My social media news feed is full of comments like "I refuse to let this virus keep me from living," or "I will not live in fear." So, I wonder if part of contemplating what it means to wait well during this season also includes what it means to live well?
For example, my advent wreath this year may be made with toilet paper rolls, construction paper, and hot glue but that does not diminish the meaning around this holy season. I can still tape my construction paper flame each Sunday of Advent and maybe, just maybe, hear new meaning or assurances of hope, peace, joy, and love.
My children won't get to participate in our usual annual Christmas pageant, but they will be able to tell the story in a new way in the Greatest Digital Christmas Story Ever!...and maybe, just maybe, hear something that they never have before.
And even though I miss the Christmas carols in church, I have the opportunity to ask myself what about them is so special to me anyway? -- other than "we always sing that at Christmas." There is the bonus of being introduced to other variations of these beloved hymns online and in worship. In both thinking about the why and being exposed to new arrangements and sometimes even words, maybe, just maybe, I might wade deeper into meaning to these Holy Days.
So I guess, when people say things like "I will not let this virus keep me from living" my answer is "neither will I!" It just looks a little different this year, and just because it is different does not mean it is not good. In fact, maybe, just maybe, in some ways, even better?
I recognize that this can be a time of immense grief and loss - even more so this year. But even in hard times, we can focus on what it means to wait and live well. To that point, I hope you consider attending our Longest Night Service on Monday, December 21. Pastor Arlene will be leading this set apart time with liturgy written by Rev. Elsa Cook that names our grief and sadness even in the midst of what is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year."
Friends, I encourage you to seek out ways to both wait and live well during this season of Advent. Whether it be through one of our church activities (Advent at the Movies, Stations of the Nativity, Reflecting on Advent Devotionals or Advent/Christmas worship services) or through your own re-imagined traditions, I pray you do it well.
With you in hope, peace, joy, and love,