I think we can safely say that the last year has been one of disaster and enlightenment, pain and joy, selfishness and giving, hate and love, and blaming and forgiving. We have seen the most comprehensive spectrum in our society this past year. We experienced political unrest, a worldwide pandemic, and weather that left people in the dark, cold, hungry, and thirsty. We had a political system that showed us its worst and communities who stepped forward to fill the same political system void. We experienced a worldwide disaster (and somewhat still are) and a system failure to help those most in need. We saw again a community come together to fill the void and help people they do not know. While some on social media shouted hate often based on untruths, many came forward to show love and protect those in need and at risk. We have again seen leaders quick to blame and a bit slow to offer solutions. We have seen individuals, business owners, corporations, and neighborhoods join together to create solutions where needed. Many times the helpers did not know or have never met the ones in need of help. These individuals, businesses, and communities shared food and water with strangers.
Sometimes we wonder where God is in all this messiness of life. Just look around. In Exodus 33:20, the Lord speaks to Moses and tells him, “But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!”. Here is one place I have to deviate from what some bible purists would say is true. I have seen the face of God. I have the face of God in those with very little giving part to someone else. Someone with only a little water, heat, or food, sharing with someone who has none. If you wonder where God is? Just look around. And … sometimes the face of God is you.
Peace and Blessings my friends,
I am praying that this letter finds you warm and safe. By the time you read this letter tomorrow, may the ice begin to thaw, may your home be filled with warmth, may the streets again be safe for you to go out to get food, and may this deadly week loosen its icy grip on us.
Friends, know that I am praying for you all the time. I wake in the middle of the night, and I pray for you. I pray for you as I buzz about the house -- I just can’t sit still. I pray as I boil water, I pray as I poke the fire, I pray as I blow dry the faucets… as I check my phone... as I read the news - I pray, pray, pray. I pray until I wonder if there really is a difference between worrying and praying, and then I think perhaps sometimes praying is just worrying before a divine audience? I don’t know. I should be able to relax knowing that my family is safe and warm, but I cannot. I cannot because you, my church family, are not all safe and warm.
So I repeat to myself the famous words of Julian of Norwich:
All shall be well,
All shall be well,
And all manner of thing shall be well.
Part of me thinks her words sound naive, but then I remember she lived through the plague, a peasant revolt, and troubles our modern minds can only imagine. So I ask myself, can I trust God, like Julian did -- that God will ultimately make all things well? Can I believe that God loves us so much, even more than the sparrow, and so will take care of her children?
In this season of Lent, I want you to bring all your worries, all your sorrows, and all that weighs upon your heart to worship. Forget self-discipline, self-flagellation, and self-denial this Lent. You won’t be giving up sugar or carbs this year. We’ve given up too much that brings us joy and comfort already. This Lent, we are letting go of our sorrows, our worries, our regrets, and our grief.
Stay safe and stay warm.
‘Arise my love, my fair one, and come away ...
the time of singing has come.’
- Song of Songs 2:10,12
“The Song of Songs describes a lover standing at the latticed window of a house, calling to their beloved to come outside and share the delights of a beautiful garden. It is a love poem, a form that mystics throughout the ages have used to speak of the soul’s relationship with God. That call, ‘Arise my love, my fair one,’ is addressed to each of us, and the ‘singing time’ is now.
The Song of Songs continues, ‘... the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom ...’ (S of S 2:12-13). That special song is the natural chorus of creation, life itself, in which we have our own part. It is the definitive love song that enlivens us as we grow in the womb, that sits on the tip of our tongue throughout our lives, and serenades us as we pass through the veil of death.”
The Healer’s Tree by Annie Heppenstall
This Sunday is Valentine’s Day, and our five week worship series “Love Does” will culminate in an Agape Feast on readings and hymns celebrating God’s divine love. We will hear, in particular, how that love became visible in the story of Christ’s transfiguration. Love, and her other face, awe, illuminate us with Christ.
Even so, quick on the heels of this Feast of Love will come our liturgy of Fire and Ashes on Wednesday written by our dear Rev. Elsa Cook. (Find her meaningful fireside Ash Wednesday liturgy by going to uccaustin.org/ashwednesday.) You may also join us at 6PM online as we together welcome in this holy season of Lent and prepare for the liturgy of Fire and Ashes.
A celebration of love on Sunday immediately followed by a liturgy of loss on Wednesday! Love followed by loss. This comfort and grief are almost too much to hold together in the same week. And yet, perhaps true love and deep grief are simply two sides of the same coin; it is said that these two forces - love and suffering - are the only paths to spiritual growth. True love of God and neighbor always leads to the cross.
Even so, take comfort in knowing that we worship Christ who knows what it is to both love and suffer. What’s more, never give up hope, knowing our God is a God of resurrection. Just when grief, pain, and ashes seem to be closing in, God rolls away the stone, shining in a new day.
As we continue yet another week in our homes, with lives mostly still disrupted, a prayer poem for you by Terri C. Pilarski.
In a world that is simultaneously
Help us to breath in a steady rhythm
in and out
that the expanding may helps us grow
and the contracting will not make us smaller
Help us to see You
In and Out
In all ways
In the rising sun
In the birds that fly
In the changing seasons
In the vast diversity of human kind
all the many ways we are
made in your image
a reflection of you
in the world
made to love
made good to do good
may our expanding
be a gentle rhythm
like a breath
of fresh air
instead of gasp
in fear for life.
The Jesus story has been hijacked. Now, I know: this isn’t news to you. For decades now, a particular version of the Jesus story has dominated, and I’ll spare you the retelling of it one more time. You might have grown up with this version of the Jesus story. For many of us, our pulse quickens as we hear it -- it’s the version where those who are lucky enough to get a pass through the pearly gates, and the rest of humanity is subject to eternal fire...
A few weeks ago, a few from a far wing of this fiery theology raised the heat even further. Christians around the world were sickened as we literally witnessed the horns of evil forcing its way into our nation’s capital, whipping Christian flags in the air, pumping signs bearing Jesus’ name, and even wearing apparel with phrases like, “God, Guns, and Trump.” We watched in horror that despicable scene and said to ourselves -
“These people don’t know the same Jesus story I know.
I know a story where Jesus commands us to love above all else.
I know a story that tells us that God is love.
And this is not what love does.
This is not what love does.”
On a gut level, what you and I were feeling was an innate sense of St. Augustine’s famous Rule of Love. St. Augustine articulates this rule in his first century writing, On Christian Doctrine, saying “So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up a double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”
In other words, any interpretation of scripture -- or any theology -- that does not produce love of God and neighbor, simply cannot stand. This Rule of Love is the litmus test by which we can judge all our Biblical interpretation. If our theology leads us to shame our neighbor, it does not stand up to the Rule of Love. If our reading of scripture causes us to back away from God in dread, it does not stand up to the Rule of Love.
This week, our country inaugurated a new administration into the White House. It is my deepest prayer, no matter our political affiliation or opinions, that this administration follows this Rule of Love. I pray that these leaders might hold up their words, actions, and policies up to this litmus test: are we duly increasing our country’s love for God/Universe/Creation and for neighbor? Or are we instead increasing division, strife, and fear?
Please dear ones, pray for our country -- that it be filled with more love in the days ahead, and pray that this love begins with us.
The late Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Love is the most durable power in the world.” Love is “durable” you say? In our world today, love can often seem like a fragile thing. Couples break up, marriages end in divorce, friends fall out, church members leave, and family members no longer speak. An acquaintance of mine who works in the office that processes divorce filings in Houston says they are busier than ever -- one can only assume due to the stresses the pandemic and political unrest have layered onto marriages. More than ever, we long for a love that endures.
The Apostle Paul however, tells us that love, however, “never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). True love cannot possibly end because we know that God is love (1 Jn 4:8,16), and we also know that God is eternal. Think about these truths for a moment: God is love. God is eternal. If we believe these statements to be true -- if God is love -- then by the mathematical law of inverse operations, that means that love is God, and if God is also eternal, then love too must be eternal.
But what kind of wondrous love is this, that endures eternally? What love is this, that in King’s words is the “only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend,” of “driving out hate,” and “the very key to the problems of the world?”
This is the love that is God. It is not the kind of love that is a sweet, syrupy sentiment. This love is not a fuzzy feeling. It is not something you just “fall into.” True, divine love is something you choose. It is something you do. It is a strong, active verb. It is the hard work of deep listening, forgiving, showing up, speaking truth, giving, serving, thanking, apologizing, appreciating, letting go, sacrificing, and caring. This love is the very heartbeat of Creation.
And this love is the only path to real joy, yet is also the surest path to grief. So many of you, dearly beloved, are feeling grief right now. You grieve because you have loved someone or something you’ve lost. I know your hearts can’t seem to hold any more right now. If you’re like me, you may feel like you don’t have the heart to do a whole lot more loving right now.
So beginning this Sunday and for next 5 weeks, in our worship series “Love Does,” we will envelop ourselves in the active and divine love of God. Because what has the power to bind up our broken hearts? Love does. What has the ability to bring enemies together? Love does. What has the answers we need to the world’s problems? Love does.
Like you, I too am still in shock and disbelief over what we witnessed unfolding at the capitol building on Wednesday. Mobs of people destroying property; intimidating our Congressional leaders, their staff and other capitol employees; clashing with law enforcement officers; and waving flags that stand for hatred and the oppression, or even outright elimination, of others.
And although I appreciate the restraint of law enforcement during this volatile situation, I cannot deny the white privilege that was on full display given that more peaceful events by our Black friends and neighbors have been met with greater police action -- and in many cases, excessive action. I sat there and cried for our Black American siblings who were being told, yet again, through disproportionate responses that they are not as important as these White Americans. Being told that they don't matter.
Just as I sat and cried earlier this week after talking to several of our members who are nurses and my brother who works IT for one of the local hospital systems. Cried for these and other brave medical and medical support individuals who put their lives on the line everyday during this pandemic. Cried for what it must feel like to be told through the actions of others (like packing 6th street on New Years, not wearing masks and socially distancing, gathering outside of safe agreed upon bubbles) that your life doesn't matter. How that must feel like a slap in the face.
Friends, I don't pretend to have all the answers. In fact, most of the time I feel rather small and unimpactful. Sometimes I have no idea what to do other than to continue to come back to the well of Christ, the well of our faith. To come back and draw in love and hope, peace, and yes even joy. To try seek new and ever changing ways in which God's spirit is calling for action, calling for peace, calling for love. And trusting that any action, even small like the mustard seed parable, works ultimately towards the kin-dom of God.
As we approach Baptism of Christ Sunday, I invite you to have ready some water to play with as we take time to remember our baptisms and/or the meaning of baptism. I pray that we are able to do so in light of the events happening in our world today. And following the service, may we share together through our Holy Conversations our vision and dreams for United Christian Church.
Friends, until Sunday (and always), take care of yourself.
Happy New Year! This New Year comes with it a particular sparkle of hope as we say “goodbye” to a year of grief, and we spy the glimmer of hope on the horizon: the reality of a vaccine is setting in. Still, our hospitals are bursting at the seams, two of our dear elder members have now fallen ill -- we must stay vigilant as our city’s exhausted first responders work under stage 5 conditions. We spy the light of hope, but we are still living in dark times indeed.
You, my church family, have been that light to me. On Christmas Eve, I watched on gallery view as you held your candles to your cameras and sang “Silent Night,” and though I was alone in our sanctuary, I felt surrounded by God’s light and your love. Who would have ever thought Zoom could become such holy ground?
And we have an opportunity again to come together and heal our weary hearts. This Sunday our youth will be presenting an Epiphany drama, and together we will chalk our doors to welcome in the New Year, and hopefully, prepare to welcome more guests in person this year than the last. Chalk was distributed last month in blessing bags, and will be distributed tomorrow at the blessing bag dropoff between 11:30 and 1 as well, or you can just grab some chalk from your home. To learn more about the practice of chalking doors, go to uccaustin.org/epiphany.
And I’m so excited for our third and final Holy Conversation this month, which is the most fun conversation of all. It’s all about our dreams for the church. I encourage you in these conversations to not be limited by the bounds of practicality or feasibility, but to instead dream big audacious dreams, cast sweeping bold visions, and make inspiring wishes for the future of our family of faith. Questions will be posted soon at uccaustin.org/holyconversations. To see what comes next after Holy Conversations, go to uccaustin.org/road-map-of-interim-tasks.
Friends, I am praying for you always, and wishing you a New Year filled with more hugs, more big family dinners, more singing, and more nights of deep peaceful sleep.
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.”