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Where am I in my journey with Christ?

I have spent half the morning looking for a note that I received this fall shortly after my mother passed away. It was a note from Dr. Ellsworth Kalas, a pastor and a longtime family friend. You may have heard me talk about Dr. Kalas before. He has preached at my family camp meeting every four years since 1964 and is one of the best preachers I have ever heard. More than that, though, he has been for me a mentor and an example of what a disicple of Jesus Christ looks like.

When I called him and his wife to let them know about Mom’s death, I left a message on their answering machine. A couple of weeks later, I got a note from him saying that they had been out of state and were so sorry to have missed my call and Mom’s service. Of course, I set the note aside in a special place so that I could read it again, and this morning I can’t remember where that special place is. Please tell me you do that, too.

Anyway, there was one sentence in his note that really struck me. Since I can’t find the original, I just have to summarize what he said: “As I reflect on my years as a pastor, I realize that the most important work that we do is to help God make saints.” After nearly seventy years of ministry (he is in his 90’s now), he has come to the conclusion that the primary job of the church is to make people more holy.

As I reflect on Dr. Kalas’s words, I realize he doesn’t mean that we are supposed to churn out people who are “holier than thou.” Our job is not to set ourselves up within the church as more saintly than people outside the church. The job of the church is not to draw perfect people inside its walls so that they can stay there. No, the point of the church is to help people become more like Christ. To become his disciples and not just church members. Holy people make a difference in the world. Saints are not saints for their own sake but for the sake of the world. That means that what matters most in the church is not growing numbers and higher budgets but greater humility, justice, compassion, kindness, hospitality, generosity and love.

In worship this past Sunday we blessed twenty-four young people who are beginning the journey of confirmation together. Over the next few months they’ll be studying Scripture, learning about the teachings of the faith, growing in relationship with each other and going out into the community to love and serve. They are on a path of spiritual growth. What about you and me? Shouldn’t all of us be on the path toward sainthood?

As we head into a new year together, I invite you to ask yourself, as I will be asking myself, “Where am I in my journey with Christ? Am I growing? Am I learning how to be a disciple and not just a church member? What would help me to go deeper?” Let’s begin asking these questions of ourselves and of our congregation and see where God takes us next.

 

The Light Within

Early in September, right at the beginning of my renewal leave, I traveled to the Isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Actually, it’s off the coast of the Isle of Mull which is off the coast of Scotland. It is remote, to say the least. It took two planes, a train, a ferry, a bus and another ferry to get to this holy place where Christian monks first built an abbey in the fifth century.

Today there is an ecumenical group of Christians who live at the abbey, and every day they host worship services for anyone who would like to attend. On the first night that I was there, I decided to go to the 9:00 p.m. service. I left the Bishop’s House, the small retreat house where I was staying, and trekked up the hill to the abbey. The sun was still setting and the cows watched me placidly as I made my way through their field to the abbey’s back door.

When the worship service was over, I stepped out into the night. The weather had been cloudy all day, and now it was nearly pitch black outside. I hadn’t even thought to bring a flashlight. I mean, when in our day-to-day lives do we need a flashlight to see at night?  We have so much ambient light in our neighborhoods and streets, so many cars coming to-and-fro, that we rarely experience pitch black. I admit I was a bit scared. In my head I knew that no “boogie men” were going to bother to take a train, two ferries and a bus to get to Iona. There’s probably no safer place in the world. But walking in total darkness, no matter where you are, is scary.

Then I heard a voice behind me. It was one of the women who had checked into the Bishop’s House at the same time I had that morning. She had remembered a flashlight. She called my name and asked if I wanted to walk with her so that we could together see our way through the cow pasture back to the house. I was so grateful, not only for her company but for her light.

The prophet Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” There are so many different ways to “walk in darkness.” We’ve all had seasons of our lives that have felt dark, when we could not find our way and weren’t sure where the next step was. No matter where you are, walking in darkness is scary. And when you’re in darkness, even a little light can make a huge difference.

During the season of Advent, we watch the light grow among us. We light one more candle as each week passes. We sing, “I want to walk as a child of the light” at the end of each service. And on Christmas Eve, we will light the Christ candle and watch the light spread around the sanctuary. That’s not something we do just because it’s beautiful. We do it because Christ’s light is given to each one of us, and we are meant to take it out into the world.

As you hold your candle in your hand on Christmas Eve, I invite you to ponder how you can bear the light of Christ in the world. Even a small flame is enough to dispel the darkness. It’s amazing how one little flashlight made all the difference for me on that dark night in Scotland. There may be someone in your path who is walking in darkness, who is scared and unsure where she is or where to turn. It just might be Christ’s light in you that can help her find her way.

 

Holy Moments

Every Sunday in worship, God gets my attention. There’s always something that touches me or hits me over the head. Or both. It usually happens several times a Sunday. Sometimes it’s the choir anthem. Sometimes it’s the Prayers of the People. Sometimes it’s a phrase of the Scripture that I hadn’t quite noticed before. But always there are unexpected, holy moments in worship.

One of those holy moments came this Sunday when we were starting to pray the Lord’s Prayer together. From where I was sitting up front, I could hear the voice of a child saying the prayer, just a millisecond ahead of all of the grown-ups around her. I don’t know who  she was. In fact, I’m not even sure that it was a little girl because I couldn’t see behind the Advent wreath. But her voice led me in that prayer. Isaiah had just said in the scripture reading that “a little child will lead them,” and it touched me to know that a child that small would know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and recite it with such clarity and confidence.

During the three months of my renewal leave, my family worshiped most Sundays at home. We visited a couple of churches, but most of the time, if we were in town, we practiced “home church.” One of the kids would light a candle. Another child would pick our opening hymn and I’d struggle through it on the piano. The next thing for us to do, of course, was to say the Prayer for Illumination before reading the scripture for the day. Then we’d hear the scriptures and talk about what we thought they meant. We’d pray together and then I’d try to play “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” like Jon Calvin. (Believe me, it just wasn’t the same. I only did it once.)

Several things struck me in those times of “home church.” The first was that our children knew the pattern of worship. They knew by heart the Prayer for Illumination. It felt natural to them and to all of us to pray for others after exploring the scriptures. The pattern of worship has sunk into them and shaped them, not because they have sat in a classroom and learned about them but because they have practiced them, week in and week out. For now those prayers and practices may seem like rote, but one day, I’m sure, one of them will stop and think about what it means to open your heart and mind to what God has to say. One of them might find comfort when the phrase “give to us our daily bread” comes unexpectedly to mind. Practicing “home church” made me realize more deeply how important patterns and practices are in shaping our lives in the faith.

Another thing that I learned was how much we missed being part of a worshiping community. Doing church at home was different and fun and good for us in a lot of ways, but we realized how much we love and need the church. After visiting another church in  the area, one of the kids said, “Can we go back to our church, where we know people?” Yes, it seems, it is about relationships.

As a parent, it was a gift to see how our practice of coming to church every Sunday (and Wednesday) has really formed our children. How coming together with other believers every week to worship God and love one another has shaped them. Wow! Revelation! Going to church matters! Of course, going to church every week doesn’t make you holy. We know that. But, maybe there’s more to it than we thought.

 

Thoughts from Carol

As we gathered in the Fellowship Hall Sunday morning for the Welcome Home reception, I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude and love. In fact, I was almost speechless, and I’m afraid the few words I spoke were disjointed and inadequate. My gratitude to the staff, my happiness in reconnecting with all of you, my nervousness in playing the banjo, my excitement over what God has done and is doing among us—no words seemed sufficient. Still, I hope you all could feel my joy in returning home to Christ UMC.

I’m afraid words will continue to fail me as I try to share with you what my time away this fall was like. Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be finding ways to tell you about it, but it won’t all come out at once. I don’t think I could write a cohesive essay on “What I Did over My Renewal Leave.” There were many experiences, many moods, many revelations, many ordinary days, many derailed plans, many prayers and many emotions that I’m still unpacking. There was peace and serenity, joy and laughter, pain and grief; but the gift was that I had time to walk through it all at an unhurried pace.

If you remember, one of the first things I did on my renewal leave was travel to the Isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland. It was a time of solitude, prayer, rest and reflection in one of Christianity’s most sacred sites. Believe it or not, the first day that I was there, my watch stopped. Just stopped. I took it as a sign and decided to leave the watch off for the entirety of the fall.

So much of my life is governed by the clock. You could even say “dictated” or “tyrannized.” It’s not the clock’s fault. It’s just a mechanical thing, after all. It was my attitude toward it that was the problem. Being on time is a good thing. It’s a way of being considerate to others, whom you don’t want to keep waiting. Even John Wesley instructed new pastors to “be punctual.” But too often that punctuality becomes hurry, which becomes anxiety and stress. When I’m in a hurry, I don’t notice the people or the world around me. I’m not present.

While I was on renewal leave, I didn’t have to hurry to do anything. And as I reflected    on that, I remembered that Jesus was never in a hurry. Then I remembered something my mom used to say. When she passed away in October, I took some time to write down some of her old sayings: “Sally Sayings,” I like to call them. As I shared at her funeral, about half of those sayings were just different ways of saying, “Kiss my foot,” but another thing she said often was, “What’s your hurry?” When she interviewed for her first job, she told the interviewer: “There are two things you need to know: I have to have a week off for Camp meeting every year, and you can’t hurry me. I’ll get all my work done, but don’t hurry me.”

In the days since my mother’s death, I’ve been repeating her words to my soul: “What’s the hurry?” Most things in the spiritual life don’t happen in a hurry. Grieving certainly takes a long time. Healing takes time. Forgiveness, reconciliation, discernment, mindfulness–they all take time. We live in a world of instant gratification: I want it done now! I want to be healed now! I want to finish grieving now! I want God to answer my prayers now!

I want to understand where God is in my life right now!

But what’s the hurry? There’s so much to learn along the way.

I have a new battery in my watch and it’s back on my wrist, but I am asking God to help me guard against hurry in my life. Don’t worry. I won’t be thirty minutes late to the Trustees meeting, but I will, I hope, be more patient, more open, more at peace and more present. Mom would like that, I think.

 

Sabbath Part 2

Several years ago an article came out in Time magazine about the importance of siblings and birth order in shaping our personalities. Of course, the article could only deal with generalities, and there are always exceptions to every rule, but many of their assertions rang true for me. In general, the article said, the eldest child (or in some cases the only child) grows up to be a high achiever. Middle children are often peacemakers, and youngest children are often laid back, easy going and creative.

In my own family I am the youngest of four children. My siblings and I don’t fit into all the neat categories that the Time article predicted, but I do think the birth order in our family shaped each of us. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into the psychological  inner workings of my nuclear family, but I do want to reflect on one aspect of my growing up years that has shaped me because it has to do with Sabbath-keeping.

As the youngest in a big family, I arrived in the middle of a story that had been going on for a long time. I was born into a crowd that already had its patterns, its schedule and its dynamics. To put it another way, I was born into a noisy family. I don’t mean that everyone was yelling or that the noisiness was a bad thing, but with five people already established in the home there was just a lot going on. My job, at least early on, was to adapt and roll with it.Somewhere along the way in my growing up years, as crazy as it may sound, I actually made a conscious decision to be a good listener. And that one decision has shaped me my whole life. In fact, I remember writing one of my college essays on listening. (I’d give anything to find that old essay, written by my 18-year-old self, but it was typed on an Olivetti typewriter before the days of hard drives and The Cloud.)

All of this is to just to share with you how important to me the practice of listening has always been. Listening deeply to someone is the best way I know how to show love.  As I shared in the benediction on Sunday morning, “Truly listening to someone is so close to love that most people can’t tell the difference” (Dr. Jan Love).

If you were here on Sunday, you know that listening was the focus of our worship together. What I didn’t address in the sermon were some tools that we can use to help us listen to God and to each other. One of the best ways I know to listen for God is to read scripture. Do what Bishop Pennel suggested when he was with us this fall: pick a passage and read it slowly. (Psalms or parables of Jesus are good places to start.) When a word or   a phrase jumps out at you, stop. Ponder it. Ask God what that word or phrase has to teach you. Try going to the scriptures without an agenda, without expectation, and see what speaks to you.

Another practice is to try carefully to listen to other people in your daily life. When you are in conversation, pay attention to what the other person is saying. Do you feel yourself thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next? Notice that, but then let it go. Take a deep breath and let the other person speak, even if you react to or disagree with them.

Listening is not a gift that some people have and others don’t. I really believe it’s a skill that we can all learn and practice. The world needs more people who know how to listen. May that be just one more way that we show God’s love to a hurting world.

 

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