“Authority”

This weekend we will be continuing on in the gospel of Mark, following Jesus into his early teaching days in the synagogue. In our encounter on Sunday, which follows directly after last weekend’s call of the disciples, we will see him cast out a demon who knows who he really is. And Jesus rebukes him.

Nevertheless, the thing the people cannot get over is that he is doing everything, teaching and healing, as one with “authority.”

Now, authority is a word that makes us all very nervous, doesn’t it?

When we hear that word, many of us worry that we are going to see someone “Lording it over us,” as some of our Hebrew texts say. However, that is not what Jesus or God has ever been about. It is not about dominance. It is not about earthly power. The authority Jesus wields is about something else entirely.

And what that is is something that you’re going to have to come (or watch) on Sunday to find out…

What I will tell you is this, the way that Jesus wields power is the same way we are intended to. And it is not the way the world tells us to. It requires an entirely new way of seeing things and being in the world.

So, stay warm, be safe, and we’ll see you soon.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Gone Fishing

This weekend we are jumping back into our lectionary gospel of Mark with both feet.

We begin with the call of Jesus’ first disciples by the Sea of Galilee. A relatively famous story, it ends with him telling these, likely young, men that they will become “fishers of humans.”

Now, I do not think that our Lord was suggesting that we lure people in, whatever way we can – hook, line and sinker. However, I do believe that reexamining our call as Christ’s disciples is always worth at least a few moments of our time.

Can you remember a period in your life when you truly felt Christ’s call? A time when it felt sure? Perhaps there was even an easiness to your confidence…

For me, that time was during my second year of college. All seemed right with the world and walking with God was simple. I loved diving deep into the scriptures as I read chapter after chapter for hours on end. I adored singing praise songs in worship three times a week. And even now, there are times that I miss those straightforward days.

But the honest truth is that life, real life is what happens in the valleys of life – not on the mountaintops like my college days so long ago. Real life is messy and muddy. And faith will always be tested, because life in this world is not easy. Not by a long stretch.

The good news is that the same God who walks with us as we enjoy the wonders of our mountaintop faith experiences is the same God who holds us close as we can barely breathe at times during this earthly journey. Christ never leaves. Jesus is always there.

Our discipleship is the ways that we awake to God’s presence and choose to follow the loving prodding, shaping, molding, nudging that is happening day after day as we are ever more being molded into the image of Christ.

God will never leave us. That is a promise we can rest assured in. The question we must ask ourselves is: how ready are we to commit ourselves to God?

See you in worship!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

What is a “legacy”?

It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Next Monday we will remember the legacy of a man who was able to do a great deal in his short thirty-nine years on this earth – though many will rightly argue not nearly enough before those shots rang out through the Memphis sky. Even to this day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory is still tossed about in so many ways that sometimes it is difficult to gain a clear picture of the man we stop to honor every January.

Quite often, he is quoted in uncomplicated ways. Comfortable ways. Agreeable ways.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

I have decided to stick with love. Hated is too great a burden to bear.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

These are good statements. All of us can agree to these statements. They do not challenge our sensibilities in the slightest, for we are Christians – born of infinite love and hope. We know that we must strive forward toward a better tomorrow.

And yet, when we remain in the consolation of these undemanding passages, we forget that Dr. King was far more than merely some preacher of the Gospel who cherry-picked verses of scripture to make his congregations feel happy.

He was a prophet – speaking God’s truth into the world. He was a leader of justice and change. So to truly understand the legacy, the gift of objectives and dreams that he has passed down to us, we must go far beyond the consolation of painless words. We must listen carefully for the fuller strands of his song that still sings…

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Quite frankly, those are some mild passages. Like every prophet, God’s voice through him only gets stronger and more fiery from there. Why?

Because he was honoring another legacy. A legacy far more ancient than even three or four hundred years. The legacy Dr. King honored was two thousand years old, and even thousands of years older beyond that.

Make no mistake – Dr. King was a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ. He knew the Jesus of the gospels. The Living Word of God who became flesh to lift up the lowly and topple the powerful from their thrones. To fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. To bring good news to the poor, releasing the captives, and making the blind see. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And to fight for a world where God’s justice rolls down like a river and God’s righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So this MLK Day, as we stop to honor the memory and legacy of a man who did so much with so little time, take the pause as an opportunity to learn from his words. He spoke far more often than simply once on the Lincoln Memorial steps – including at our very own Presbyterian Montreat one summer.

And if you are wondering about a good place to begin, start with the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. It is one of his central works and is easily available online for free. It is an excellent start.

As for me and my house, we will be honoring Dr. King’s legacy by working on the Little Giants’ education about the history and current state of systemic racism (if you have young children, I have some great books I’d be happy to show you). And we will be continuing my daughters’ and my own education about Dr. King, the state of racism, and how we can actively fight it.

Because, my friends, we still have a long way to go until racism is fully eradicated from our world. And it is our job, as followers of Jesus Christ, to take responsibility for being a part of the positive change for the better. Just like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

January 7, 2021

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Like so many of you, I have been deeply saddened by the events of the last twenty-four hours. Violence is always objectionable, but an attack on the core of our very way of life is beyond disheartening. I hope that you will join me in praying for our nation in the days and weeks ahead as we look to God for both healing and guidance.

It is remarkable that we are only seven days into 2021 and things are already so conspicuously veering off any sort of normal course. We were all setting our hopes that we might find some rest in this new year and many are now feeling that their dreams have been dashed against the rocks. And yet, I have no doubt that God is still right here with us, hard at work in our midst.

One of my favorite mentors often reminded me of her favorite passage: we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28). I would suggest that calling falls on all of us. I am thoroughly convinced that God is among us, stirring up a ferment the likes of which we can hardly imagine, to bring wonders we can scarcely dream of. It is understandable to have fear, but do not hold onto it too tightly.

God is here. God is working. God is doing the unimaginable even now.

One last thought for today, and it is one I always harken back to whenever I or any of us face times of trouble. My grandmother Lillie, a woman of faith like few others I have known, used to remind me of this whenever I was facing tribulation in my life: “It is always darkest just before the dawn. Lift up your eyes.”

So, I leave you with my favorite psalm this day, Psalm 121. May it bring you comfort and peace, even in the midst of all we may face in the chaotic world around us…

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Pause a Moment

And so, Christmas Day has come and gone. Though Christmastide still has many days left, most of us are already looking towards New Year’s Eve and all that lay beyond.

Nevertheless, it may be worth pausing for a moment to stop and take stock of what has transpired throughout this past year.

Yes, it has been a year full of losses unlike many others. Not only have we lost superheroes, secret agents, and heroes of the people alike, but many of us have lost family members and friends along the way. And the world will never be the same. We have lost times together, experiences, and celebrations. Some are facing financial difficulties, losses of businesses or jobs, and hardly know how they will make ends meet in the next few months. Others are facing cancer diagnoses and heart disease and lung diseases, because none of that has disappeared just because we’ve all been facing a global pandemic. People are weary. Worn. Tired in ways that 2020 has brought to light that have always been present. In so many ways, this has been just a really, really, really, really bad year.

But it has also been a year that has seen some of the very best of humanity, too. People have been looking to the needs of their neighbors again, many for the first time in decades. Others have been finding new and creative ways to ensure that their families can “see” each other, even if they could not put their arms around one another. There have been incredible moments of human beauty – like that times in New York and Italy when people began singing spontaneously from their apartments and the music spread. Many have spent the year standing up to and calling out bullies. All of us have begun to realize who our real essential workers are – of course first responders, our nurses and hospital workers, doctors and surgeons, but just as important are all the people who keep our infrastructure functioning. The appreciation we have for our trash collectors and sanitation workers, delivery persons, and utility workers, (just to name a few) is through the roof. And the vast amount of creativity we have seen from people in the caring professions and those working with people, doing everything in their power to ensure as much normalcy as possible for those under their care, has been beyond remarkable.

It is true that 2020 has been a year like no other. We have seen the very worst that humanity has to offer, that is certainly true. But we have also seen the absolute best.

And now we come to a brand new year – what shall we do with it?
Well, it’s always a good time, at the turn of the new year, to return to the classics. So allow me to share my absolute favorite poem by Howard Thurman. It is entitled, The Work of Christmas, and it is how we should begin 2021 and all the years we have ahead:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Christmas Is Come

Tonight is the night.

Tonight the world stopped on its axis as the stillness was broken by the cry of a newborn. The stars watched. The universe waited with bated breath. And then… the world continued as it always had. But not for everyone.

On the night of his birth, the same angel that had visited his mother and stepfather went to some shepherds and showed them the way. The lowest of the low, short of slaves. Stinky and poor. Humble and unwanted. They were the ones that God invited into the nativity scene.

And the magi haven’t arrived yet… remember, the twelve days between this night and Epiphany (their arrival) begin tomorrow.

The original scene was the newborn’s parents, tired and worn from the birth, the animals in the stable, and the world’s unwanted – all celebrating the arrival of God’s Messiah. Quite a contrast to how we often portray it in our plays and movies (as much as we love them all).

But here is the part that many of them do get right: the significance of that night is that Love came into our midst. The Love that has been moving since the very beginning of creation, breathing life into the world throughout all of history, speaking through prophets and sages throughout the millennia, that Love became flesh and lived among us. And everything changed.

That is why we will look at the wonder of God’s salvation story that is coming into being at Christmas by beginning with Genesis tonight. We will begin at the beginning and end with Christ’s arrival – for that will be enough. Holy Week still looms on the horizon, but that is work for another day.

Tonight we will look in wonder at God choosing to live among us so that we might be reconciled to the God that created us. We hope you will join us in person or online. But remember, if you are joining us in person, do be sure to get there early – we will have limited capacity at each service.

No matter how you worship tonight, may you and your family have a very Merry Christmas tomorrow and the eleven days that follow!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Love Never Fails

This weekend we will be premiering our annual Children’s Nativity Play. This year it looks a little different than usual. Given the global pandemic, we moved the entire thing to Zoom. However, we took this change not as a setback but as an opportunity. Nineteen of our children have been hard at work this past week recording this re-telling of the classic story of Christ’s birth. So we hope everyone will get excited as we continue to move closer and closer to Bethlehem and Christmas Eve next week.

I know everyone is tired. I know everyone is weary and worn. It has been a very long year. Everything has been topsy turvy since March, or earlier. And things only seem to be getting crazier as the year progresses.

If anyone knows this, it is your pastor who has lost her mother-in-law, her husband (who had already almost died once this year over the summer), and now her last remaining grandparent over the weekend.

Trust me, I understand. I’m not one of those young pastors who really doesn’t get it. I do get it – in spades.

What we all need right now is for everyone to show as much grace as is humanly possible.

Try to remember that we are all trying as hard as we can. Many of us are barely making it by the skin of our teeth. We are trying to make this season special for each other. Some days are easier than others. And some days are downright near impossible to get out of bed.

Joy was a bit of an ironic candle this past Sunday, I must say. But I do believe that someone knew what they were doing when naming the candles because they saved the most important and very best for last.

This weekend we will light the love candle. At the end of the day, it is all about love. At the end of the day, at the end of the year, even years like this, the hope is that we are all in this together. Love is what should be left when all else fails, because love never will.

So, come to worship, in person or online. See the wonder of what our children have accomplished. Show grace every way you can. And know that no matter what may happen you are loved more than you can imagine.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Joy, Joy

This Sunday is historically called “Gaudete” Sunday because it is the third week in Advent, the week that everyone got to take a break from fasting. As Presbyterians, we don’t really do the whole fasting and penitence thing, at least not in the traditional sense. So why do we still call the third candle “Joy”?

Well, we are preparing ourselves for God’s good news of great joy for all people that comes at Christmas. The arrival of the Christ-child who turns the world upside down and right-side up. A change that means peace, hope, and love for a world that is so desperately in need of it.

As we are in Advent, we need to remember that we are not only looking for the star of Bethlehem, but also the return of Christ that is still to come. Though our world likes to focus on the little baby in the manger, we do know who that child was, is, and ever shall be. And we know the kingdom of God that his death and resurrection brought into being. It is already here even if not yet fulfilled.

The kingdom in our midst is a bit like waiting for a letter to arrive. If you have ever had a family member or friends in the military, or served in the military yourself, you know that the time it takes to get letters from here to yonder can take weeks, sometimes even months. And there are times when modern technology cannot give you the respite you seek in connecting you with those you love. You know they are out there, but they are just beyond your reach. But oh that moment when that letter does find its way into your hands. That glimmer of hope, peace, love, and, yes, joy. For one small sliver of time, you know all is as it should be.

That is like the kingdom we are waiting for. The one we are working for. Patiently. Compassionately. With determination. Because when we find it, oh the joy it brings.

And that is what we celebrate on this, the third Sunday of Advent. So come and worship as we continue on the journey of welcoming God’s love into the world, with open arms, and into our hearts.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Season’s Greetings!

It’s finally here – my absolute favorite time of the year! There is nothing quite like Advent (the season leading up to Christmas) and Christmastide. Even this year, with all the differences we are seeing, the world is aglow with lights and candles everywhere. It is truly a wonder to behold.

Now, it is true that this year’s holiday season will be one unlike any other.
For some of us, it will be a new experience – one without something or someone that we have known for much of our lives. It will be different. It will, in many ways, be difficult. But as Judy Garland once sang, we’ll have to muddle through somehow. And I am convinced that somewhere, even in the midst of what will certainly not be an easy season, we will still find moments of hope, peace, love, and yes, even joy.

For all of us, this December will offer us the unusual opportunity to experience the birth of Christ in a brand new way. As I said this past Sunday, we know the story. We know the costumes and the lines. We know the songs and the melodies. But what if having to sit outside of our normal seats or listening behind screens somehow forces us into just enough discomfort to pay a bit more attention to the words that we have heard so many times before? What if the children’s new telling of the nativity later this month on zoom brings out the joyous hot messiness of this beautiful life that God entered into on that quiet night in Bethlehem? What if stepping out into the night, with candles lit on Christmas Eve to sing Silent Night becomes our new favorite tradition?

No matter what may come, no one can cancel Christmas. It will happen. The baby’s cry will break the still night in Galilee. The night sky over Bethlehem will fill with the heavenly host. Do not be afraid. The good news of great joy will still ring out. God with us is here. Born in the flesh.

My encouragement to you is to look at this strange new world we live in not as King Herod did – as one who could lose everything he has ever known. Instead, take the view of the Magi – look for the chances you have before you to be creative, to use your imagination, to listen for God’s voice in the midst of a hurting world, to offer all that you have to see it grow brighter.

We will still be welcoming God’s love in whatever shape or form it may arrive or however we need to do so. Because that is what Christmas is truly about. And that will happen no matter what.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Come, Come Emmanuel

And so it begins…

The season of Advent begins on Sunday. The first of four Sundays of preparation for Christ’s arrival in Bethlehem will start with the classic hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel as we enter again into the official holiday season. And in many ways, it’s all downhill from there.

But as we enter into these four weeks, we must also remember what this season is truly about.

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers and the social media memes of “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas.” But how do we truly do that?

It’s not about how many times we say Merry Christmas. Nor is it about how much we talk about how much more important Christmas is than all the other holidays happening during these next six weeks. Nor anything else in that same line of thinking. All of these ideas all miss the point.

To keep Christ as the center of our celebration of Christmas means to remember that Christ is in the face of every other person we will meet. That means that how we treat them, how we care for them, how we welcome them, how we create magic for them – all of these are how we interact with the Christ-child.

Every year, about this time, I like to pull out Howard Thurmond’s classic poem, The Work of Christmas, because it helps to keep our focus on what this season is truly about:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurmond

If you want to put Christ back into Christmas, that is how we do it.

And this weekend we will begin with gusto by dedicating thirty-eight toys plus clothing and stocking stuffers for over a dozen children in our community who otherwise would not have the Merry Christmas that our families will enjoy. That is something you have done. That is you bringing gifts to the Christ-child, make no mistake about it.

So come, come Emmanuel. And come all ye faithful – it is time to prepare our hearts for all that is to come!

Blessings, Pastor Janie