Love is Growing at FPCH

Here we are – already a month into 2023. It is difficult to know where those first weeks have gone, since the whirlwind has moved so quickly. 

Nevertheless, as we approach this next month filled with hearts and also the beginning of that season when we will explore the remarkable depth of God’s love for us, I find myself reflecting more than normal upon what it means to truly be God’s family here on earth.

This past Sunday, I reflected during Joys & Concerns that there are many things weighing heavily upon the hearts and minds of our neighbors within our Hollidaysburg community and our broader national community right now. Difficult things. Battles rage – none of which are new, yet they are painful and can devastate so many. We cannot truly know what our siblings may be going through, which means it is so incredibly important to be as kind and as gracious as we can possibly be.

Many people just need a safe place to decompress. To think. To breathe. To be themselves. 

We are so very blessed that our church family at FPCH has created an environment where that is the case. Our members and friends, young and old alike, are safe to ask any question or to wrestle with the challenges of life among a loving family who will walk with them through whatever is coming. Love grows here. And ALL are truly welcome to see how God is working in our midst.

Having lived through many battles, both within the church and within the world, I personally know that is not always the case. I have seen the hurt and the harm that can be done when we forget that Christ told us the only way people will know we follow him is by the way we love.

This is not the romantic love of cupids, nor even the brotherly love of that team that will be going to the Super Bowl in two weeks. No, this is God’s love. Agape love. It is unconditional. Extravagant. Merciful. Yet seeking equity for those it loves. Willing to give of itself to the utmost so that another can find flourishing in this life. 

That is the love that has been and continues to grow in our midst. 

It is ours to join in the fervent work that God is already stirring up.

Blessings,   Pastor Janie

Strength Through Three Things

This weekend we are continuing with Jesus in our #minisermonseries on the Sermon on the Mount. In one single passage alone we will see three familiar and essential sayings to Jesus’s ministry.

The first has to do with salt – that we are meant to be the salt of the earth. There to provide flavor and liven things up. To create sustainability for the long-haul. To help clean up the messes. But if we lose our saltiness – our connection to our truest self and purpose – Jesus warns there may be a point where we are beyond help.

The second saying has to do with the obvious: no one lights a light-source and hides it. They let it shine. This will be a key focus for our worship this weekend, so I’m not going to focus much on it here, except to say that just as salt has remarkable strength in this world, light has even more. Something to ponder.

The third and final saying is that Jesus has come not to throw out the old laws but to fulfill them. He says that we will have to be better at keeping the commandments than all the big-to-dos in the religion of his day if we want to get into heaven.

But how are we going to do that? Anyone else feel like we’re being set up to fail?

Well, here comes a little pop quiz: on what did Jesus say to hang all the law and the prophets?

If you can answer that, you will know why we have the power to move mountains. To do greater things than we can imagine. That the third strength Jesus refers to this weekend is the one that beats them all. It’s flashes are flashes of fire. A passion and power stronger than death. But often it gets overlooked for sentimentality.

Remember yet?

See you soon!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Not Jacob’s Ladder

This weekend we begin our mini-series on the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew. This will take us right up until Transfiguration Sunday and the Season of Lent. Which means for the next four Sundays, we will be looking at some of the most famous things Jesus ever said.

And sadly, we will only be getting into the first chapter of this very long sermon (it’s actually three chapters). But it is so rich and full of wisdom for our faith journeys that there is absolutely no way to dive into the remainder in the time we have.

This weekend we start at the beginning of the sermon: the very famous Beatitudes.

My first summer here, we spent the whole season looking at each entry on the list one by one. Taking time with this well-known and often considered inventory for the faithful.

What most forget, however, is that it is not a checklist. It is more of a ladder.

The early entries are those things that happen most easily or most often in human life and give us insight into the life of faith. Make space for us to enter into our relationship with God without much thought.

But as our journey gets more complex, as life continues to grow more intricate and convoluted, so the rungs on the ladder become more challenging to reach. They take courage and gumption. A willingness to put ourselves out there and to stand with tenacity in a world that may not like what our God has to say. A world that would much prefer the serene simplicity of maintaining the status quo.

But God does like a good shake up.

So come this weekend and learn more about what this ladder of faith really looks like as we begin our look at one of Jesus’s most famous sermons.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Numbers, and Followers, and Fishermen – Oh My!

We are finally in ordinary time.

I remember as a child that always sounded so boring. Why would we want to be there? Nothing ever happens. And perhaps it can be rather dull.

But believe it or not, it is not named for being normal or regular or some other synonym of ordinary, but rather because the weeks are counted with “ordinal numbers” between the “high holy seasons.” Truly, I’m not kidding. The more you know, right?

Well, this year, we are going to be spending this shorter section of “ordinary” time with Jesus as he begins his ministry in the gospel of Matthew.

Following his baptism by John in the Jordan and being tempted in the dessert, Jesus returns to Galilee and starts off by calling his first disciples. And rather than beginning with scholars, or rabbis, or the sons of princes, Jesus chooses ordinary folk: fishermen.

Jesus tells them to follow and he will “make them become fishermen of people” (a more literal translation than we usually see). And while countless sermons have been spent discussing the meaning of this quite fascinating concept of how we fish for humans, and what we really shouldn’t do, there is a far more important word we often gloss over.

Follow.

There is more to this word than meets the eye. It is not simply about physically trailing after someone like a fascinated puppy. Nor is it about a specific set of beliefs. It is about a way of living that requires a full commitment of everything we have – in this life, not just the next.

Something to ponder as we head to the lakeshore this weekend. See you soon!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Wade in the Water

Back in high school, my very first alto solo was to an African-American spiritual entitled Wade in the Water. I had (and generally continue to be) a high soprano. And I gave no one any warning, outside the choir of course, that I was singing something different. Which means that it took all of the parents, including my mother, nearly the entire stretch of time I was belting out the heartfelt melody to figure out where the sound was coming from. Priceless.

The lyrics I sang were simple: Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water – God’s gonna trouble the water. Something I still remember to this day.

This weekend we are celebrating the Baptism of Christ. When he was thirty years old, Jesus suddenly gave up whatever life he had previously had and appeared at the edge of the River Jordan where his slightly older cousin was baptizing the whole countryside for the forgiveness of sins. You can almost picture the scene out of O Brother, Where Art Thou, with perhaps slightly more ancient attire.

And even though he was without sin, Jesus still entered the river and asked for the same baptism as the rest of us. Taking on our mess. Our brokenness. All the ways we continuously fall short.

There is a whole lot we can unpack about the meaning of Jesus’s baptism. A bunch of it has to do with prefiguring his death, because baptism by blood is very much a thing.

But something to note is that in the midst of this huge crowd of people, God showed up right where no one expected. And, as always, stirred up some really good trouble.

If we learn nothing else from this story, remember this: God will always trouble the waters and show up when and where we are least expecting. So maybe it’s time to start looking in all the unexpected places.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Sing a New Song

A wise mentor once suggested to me that I should keep a record of my life in song. He noticed that I was doing this early on during my college career and told me to keep at it. For music has the power to elicit memories and evoke emotions that we associate with time and place, but also the resources we called forth to endure what has already come down the path of life.

This is why every New Year’s Eve I now spend time creating a song list for the year that has just occurred. A way to catalogue the events and reflect on the Spirit’s movement throughout the months and days. Because music does one thing more: it reminds us of our faith through the journey.

Looking toward the new year ahead, perhaps a question we have not considered is: what song would you choose to guide your path? Or what song would God choose for you?

Would it be a resolute muster of faith from A Mighty Fortress is Our God? Or perhaps a desire to refocus with Be Thou My Vision? Are you barely holding on and having a year when Previous Lord, Take My Hand will need to be your escort? Or maybe you’re wanting to make a difference and the uninhibited exuberance of This Little Light of Mine can’t wait to burst forth from your chest. 

And those are just the traditional songs of faith. Maybe you need to kick off the new year with a traveling song like Lady Antebellum’s Compass. Or, if you’re feeling lost or overrun, there’s Ben Platt & Lin-Manuel Miranda singing Found/Tonight. Perhaps you are just trying to push through and you could use Andra Day’s Rise Up. Or maybe you and God just need to go dancing to a little classic Stand By Me, by Ben E. King. 

No matter where you are in your personal walk of faith, there is a song that will feed you as we turn the corner into this new chapter in our lives.

And speaking of which, as a community we are heading into our 235th Anniversary in 2023. So much history. Such a long story of this family of faith walking together through the joys and challenges of life. Our body stands as a remarkable testament to God’s presence in our lives and in the life of our church.

As a reminder to us of all God has done and all God is still does in our midst, let the song guiding our entrance into the New Year be Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. It is a hymn and a prayer. A healthy reminder that God is always at work and never finished, binding our hearts to Christ and to one another. 

Happy New Year and may God continue to lavish blessing upon blessing onto your families and our church in the months ahead.

Blessings,   Pastor Janie

Prepare Some Room

We are on the downward slope everybody – raise those hands high. Keep your eyes open. It’s perfectly fine to whoop!

Seriously though, we are in that final countdown before the big day. Which means that this weekend, the fourth Sunday in Advent, brings with it a service focused on one of everyone’s favorite annual traditions: the Children’s Nativity Play!

Now, as of today, we have twenty-three of our children and youth who will be retelling the story of God’s arrival in Bethlehem from the prophet’s foretelling through Magi’s gifts. It will weave together the stories of Luke and Matthew, as they share how the people prepared for God’s coming, along with the basis for the beloved Christmas hymn, Joy to the World – Psalm 98. It should be a fun time for all!

And even better, we get to sing a whole lot of first verses of favorite carols to help our young actors along!

The real question to ponder for all of us is: have we prepared some room in our hearts for our God to take up residence? What if it means life will change? But what if it means something wonderful?

Come to worship and support our young people as they help us all to look at the story of the Christ-child’s birth with new eyes!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

That Joy

Somehow this Sunday is already the third Sunday of Advent. I’m really not sure how we got here – meaning, how we are so late in the season. It feels like just yesterday we were celebrating Thanksgiving… and tomorrow the Jolly Old Elf will be sliding down our chimneys (Yikes!).

All joking aside, though, we are definitely in the thick of this beautiful season of comfort and joy. The journey that began with hopeful watching for the Second Coming of Christ and moved through the River Jordan in the arms of John the Baptist looking for the wholeness of God’s peace, now moves us to something far more familiar.

This Sunday’s theme is joy. Specifically, it is the joy of the Child who is coming. The joy of Mary his mother. The joy of the people who have waited so long. The joy that lives even as bare embers in our hearts when all the world descends into shadow.

You see, God’s joy is quite different than happiness. Happiness is fleeting. It depends on so many things can can so easily be smashed, snatched up, or ripped away.

The deep abiding joy God offers is one that rests upon the knowledge of God’s love for us. That we are God’s creatures, made in God’s own image, and loved beyond all measure. And when we finally find that joy, there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can take it away from us, no matter how small it may seem at times from the pummeling life gives it.

That joy bubbles up as laughter and song, stories of promises fulfilled and dreams for a future filled with incredible hope. Especially for those who have been overlooked or broken down or crushed under foot. That joy that we’re talking about, Mary’s joy in her song which is our passage this weekend, can stand strong in the face of anything that comes because we know that God’s love will win in the end. A force stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave, with justice and equity that will finally see the wholeness of life for all God desires.

From the very beginning, Mary knows who she is carrying and what this One will mean for the world: Joy that cannot be taken away.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Artwork: “Mary’s Song” by the Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, LLC

In the midst of it…

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Or could we say that everything is pure chaos? At least that’s what it feels like for many of us in the midst of the hustle and bustle of this festive season. There are parties and concerts and plays and presents and cookies and it’s enough to work ourselves into a Christmas tizzy. Christmas is still three weeks away and yet it already feels like it is tomorrow because it will be here before we know it. 

There is always this odd conundrum this time of year because while the whole world seems to have lost its mind with Christmas cheer, the church is telling us to Wait! Watch! Get Ready! And no, it is not because your pastor wants to see how long you can last with delayed gratification. There is actually method to this madness, much in the same way we all make our children wait until Christmas morning to open most of their presents. 

You see Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” It refers to not just the Christ-child’s arrival in Bethlehem, but also when Christ shall return and all of God’s promises will be fulfilled. During this season we pause to remind ourselves that there is more happening here than simply the opportunity for glutinous overspending and overeating and frenzy, as the nay-sayers would suggest. This is about a much bigger story and much more important things at stake.

Advent and Christmastide are proof that even in the most shadow-filled time of the year, when dusk comes early and night lasts so long, even then there are forces at work that bring life and light all around us. A world-wide conspiracy of love when we share what we can with our neighbors, some of whom we may not even notice the remainder of the year. We begin to see the world through heaven’s eyes as we remember that in every face there may not only be an angel in our midst, but perhaps even the Christ-child himself.

This season is about God’s expansive view of what family really means – a place for everyone at the table and a welcome no matter who you may be. That included smelly shepherds oft ignored by their community. That included remarkable men of science and faith who traveled from distant lands seeking that which they could barely name. That included a teenage mother and a bonus dad stepping up to help raise a child that was not his own. But that also can include you and me and everyone else who needs a home filled with love as the cold winds of this world howl around us.

So yes, do all of the fun and the crazy this season. Just don’t forget that in the midst of that you will often find that God comes to us in the unexpected ways. In the people who miraculously cross our paths. And in those moments when love wins even in the bleakest midwinter.

Blessings,  Pastor Janie

Preparing, Preparing…

A holiday weekend and the church calendar begins anew.

It’s all a bit odd, in a way. Right between Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday, there’s this little extra day stuck in there – oh yes, the first Sunday of Advent. Knew there was something we were supposed to do.

All joking aside, it is the New Year in the church’s worship calendar, which brings with it special music (some of our Music Director’s favorites, in fact), special liturgy, special cover art, and special readings. Special everything. Why? Well, we are in the season of preparation.

You see Advent means “coming.” It is the season when we prepare not only for the celebration of the first coming of Christ at Bethlehem, but also for the final arrival of Christ at the end of time. For we live in the time “in-between,” between when Christ first arrived and when Christ shall come to bring all things into their final fulfillment.

And yes, that does mean a good bit of waiting in the meantime. However, we do not wait with twiddling thumbs. We actively bide our time following the commands the Christ has given to us. They aren’t overly complicated either, but they aren’t always easy.

Nevertheless, it is certain that when we all get to heaven, the question Christ will ask us will have more to do with how well we loved our neighbors than anything else.

So come to worship this weekend and learn what Jesus has to say about how we can prepare our lives for Christmas this year.

Blessings, Pastor Janie