September 12th

While we may come from different places and speak in different tongues, our hearts beat as one.

Albus Dumbledore

Today is September 12th. While our nation grieved together yesterday as we somberly remembered the events of September 11th so many years ago, today deserves a celebration of equal weight.

Today is the day that we found our common humanity. It is the day we stopped fighting over our differences and remembered that each other person in our midst is as essential to our life as we are.

People pushed bravely into shadows to rescue one another. Families of faith set up spaces so that we could all pray to God together – across religious lines. Dogs searched tirelessly in places that humans dared not go. And hugs were given across every line we so purposefully draw between one another most of the time.

It was a beautiful day. An important day. It was a day we shone a bright light into our shadow-filled world.

Unfortunately, as such wonderful moments do, this one abated all too quickly. Hate returned in full force all too swiftly. People again remembered their differences and started to fear one another. And though we remember the terror and tragedy, we usually forget that moment when we became the very best of who we can be.

Here is why this matters to me as a pastor: that vision of seeing our common humanity, realizing that we are all intertwined children of God – that is precisely the life to which Christ has called us. September 12th is an incredible illustration of how we are meant to be in this world.

You will find, as we continue to get to know one another, that I am quite “Harry Potter” obsessed. Especially with the words of Dumbledore. That sage headmaster of Hogwarts (Harry’s school) spoke words of wisdom in every situation. The quote above comes from the funeral of one of Harry’s friends in the fourth book.

When the all seemed lost and light seemed snuffed out by the rise of terrible powers in their world, Dumbledore speaks these words to the young people in his midst: …we are only as strong as we are united… Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open. Paraphrased in the movie version, the essential point is this: our hearts beat as one.

This is true of the Christian family of faith. But it is also true of our human family.

Remember that God made all people in God’s image. We cannot know the true ways of the Creator of the universe. What is more, Christ has told us not to worry so much about whether a person believes rightly or even acts rightly. We are to love them. Period. To stand together. To reach out across the lines that divide. And to find our way forward together.

So celebrate this day. And then join us in worship on Sunday we discuss Jesus’ instructions on how we are to choose in this life.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Apples for Everyone

This Saturday, September 7, we will host our annual festival at 4:00 p.m. This year the festivities will center around that beloved harvest fruit: apples!

Brought to our shores by the early 1600s, apples have been a vibrant part of our nation’s history from the very beginning. They come in over 7,500 varieties around the world. And they can be cooked in countless ways or be enjoyed fresh from the tree.

This year, we have been blessed to have the opportunity to combine our annual fruit festival with the beginning of our new program year at FPC. Sunday school begins on Sunday morning and JAM (Jesus and Me) begins on Wednesday evening.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick lesson for you: though we have been taught for generations that it was an apple tree from which our progenitors ate in the Garden of Eden, scholars now believe it was actually a pomegranate. Apples were not native to the Fertile Crescent region. However, the word for apple in Latin, mala, is oddly close to the word for evil, malus. So we can blame the translators’ bad joke for this centuries-old misunderstanding.

So, as you can see, there is no reason you should not come celebrate as we get this new year going!

Because our theme this year is “First Welcoming All”, we are asking every single member of FPC to invite someone to our Apple Festival (which is free) this Saturday. We will have supper, games for children of all ages, and special music by our very own Raining Blue. We hope that all of our members will bring their favorite apple dessert to share.

There will food, fellowship and fun – so the more the merrier!

We hope to see everyone Saturday afternoon and in the days that follow as we kick-off all the incredible things we will do together this year. God goes with us, before us and behind us, and wherever we go, God is already there.

Blessings, Janie

First Welcoming All

Welcoming all into the community of Christ.

As the new program year begins, it seems an appropriate time to examine and celebrate our mission together as Christ’s church.

We at First Presbyterian Church of Hollidaysburg have been blessed with a long and storied history of generations of those who faithfully followed Christ. Our church has seen the signing of the US Constitution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, two great World Wars, and all of the other struggles of the 20th-century. Through all of these things and even more, our family of faith has stood the test of time.

As we continue on further into the 21st-century, it is time to look to the future. We honor who we have been, but we do not rest upon our laurels. There are new challenges facing us now, as well as some struggles that have never disappeared. There is much work to do for God’s Kingdom in our midst.

The question still remains, who are we going to be?

I believe that our mission statement can give us our rallying cry: welcoming all.

Not only are we First Church, who desires to welcome all who would come into our doors. But we also are a part of the body of Christ that will be focusing our vision around the principle that first, we welcome all.

Why? Because, as our children’s theme for the year will teach us, God welcomes all. In fact, God is always more inclusive than we can even fathom. Christ was always making the religious folk of his day uncomfortable with how well he embraced the displaced in his midst. And even now the Holy Spirit pushes us to live fully into our mission at this time and in this place.

Welcome looks like many things. We will explore them as this year progresses. However, my encouragement as we begin is to seek to add “welcome” to your daily vocabulary. Ponder what it was about First that made you feel welcome. And pray that God will open your eyes and ears to all those who are looking for God’s gracious welcome in our community.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Photo Credit: Tom McLaughlin

Blessing the Backpacks

Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

The time has finally come: the new school year is upon us! This week teachers and administrators in our community are diligently preparing for the essential work that lies ahead of them. And next week, students will flood the halls of schools around our county.

It is an exciting time. A stressful time. A busy time.

Learning is a quintessential part of being human. It is also crucial to the life of faith. Jesus spent much of his earthly ministry teaching his disciples. John Calvin (one of our theological ancestors in the faith) knew that if everyone in the community was educated, then they would all be contributing members in the work of God’s Kingdom.

Because cultivating our minds and bodies, passing key knowledge on to the younger generations, and growing together are such an important part of how we live our lives, we at FPC want to mark this new beginning with a special moment in worship.

We understand how crazy this time of year is for everyone involved. Nevertheless, we hope you will embrace the chance to come and rest together for just a few minutes in service this Sunday as we bless all who will be taking part in our schools this year.

As you do, we invite you to bring one item for every member in your family who will be involved in education – a backpack, a lunchbox, a thermos, a book, even an apple. Something that is part of your educational process. Bring it to worship and place it by or on the Communion Table. We will have a blessing for the owners of these items (and everyone else in our community who are part of our schools) during both services.

When you leave worship on Sunday, we also will have a gift for all of you. Whether you are just starting preschool or are decades removed from your final class, we want everyone to hold tight to one of the essential promises of our faith as we enter this new school year.

That promise is that no matter where you go, God is with you. God goes before you and behind you. Inside you and beside you. And God will be present in all that is to come.

We look forward to seeing everyone in worship this Sunday and all the fun, fellowship, and fascinating enlightenment that will come in the year ahead!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

The Race Before Us

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

This past Sunday was a wonderful celebration – and I am truly grateful to all who were involved!

It was a time for us to celebrate all that First Presbyterian Church of Hollidaysburg has been over its long and storied history (over 230 years to be exact) and to look with great anticipation to the story unfolding before us.

For this coming Sunday, the lectionary has set this rather famous passage as one of the readings. It is proceeded by a litany of all the wondrous things people of faith have accomplished throughout the biblical witness. Then the writer points out that though much has come before, Christ calls us to look ahead.

As our speakers said on Sunday afternoon, there is still much work to do. It is the work of loving courageously – God, one another, and our community. And it will take all of us working together to see the future that God has in store.

Though the summer is ending, a new school year is almost upon us and brings with it a sense of joyful expectation. Because there are incredible days ahead of us. Wonders. Miracles. And always good fellowship to be had.

So come and join us as we continue to walk this path together!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

The Next Step & A New Chapter

Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

This weekend we will celebrate the Installation of First Presbyterian Church’s eighteenth pastor. In over two hundred and thirty years of history, there have only been eighteen individuals who have served this congregation as its senior pastor. And as of Sunday, I will join their ranks.

Calling a pastor to stay with you for an extended period is a big deal. Though there are many kinds of pastors who serve, having a pastor installed to work with you in ministry sends a powerful message to the community: we are looking to the future. There is no such thing as a “permanent pastor,” but an installed senior pastor means that we are planning to be here for a while.

One of my favorite preachers once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” That is what this weekend signifies in our church’s life and history. A new step. A new day. A new chapter.

We have been blessed with a long and storied narrative in this congregation. Though we cannot see where this next chapter will lead us, we know that just as God has been with us from the very beginning, so God is at work among us now, breathing life into these hallowed halls and loving church family.

Every time an officer of the PCUSA is ordained or installed they are asked a series of questions. They are vows, of a sort. And the one above is by far my favorite.

My question for you is will you join me in this new work we are beginning? Will you pray for us? Will you bring the very best of your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

Just imagine what wonders God will provide when we do.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Stand Your Ground

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

Something we have spoken of before during our #summersermonseries on the Beatitudes is what Jesus meant when he tells us to turn the other cheek. Though many have abused this passage, he was telling his disciples to nonviolently protest the evil in their midst.

Remember that in the ancient Roman world, everything was about domination. Slaves beat up weaker slaves. Women beat up slaves. Men beat up everyone under them – all the way up the proverbial food chain.

When someone was to be beaten, they would be struck across the right cheek with the back of a right hand. Because that’s how it’s done. And that’s what’s right. It’s what’s proper. So what happens if you then offer your left cheek? It throws your oppressor off-kilter to make a point.

I’ve had people suggest to me that Jesus told us to run away from evil people. However, that’s completely untrue. Paul may have, but Jesus never did.

Instead, Christ taught us to stand up to those who would do evil (including ourselves). To fight back. But to fight back the correct way.

As one of my professors at Divinity School, James Lawson, once said, “Love is our only weapon.” It is not weak. It is not powerless. It is a force stronger than death. It speaks truth in the face of ignorance. It offers God’s justice in the face of retribution. It offers mercy that will shock people right off their thrones.

So, as we prepare to hear the seventh beatitude this weekend, the one about peacemaking, I encourage you to consider the radically different way Christ has called us to view and to approach the world. Never as a doormat. However, always present and ready to turn its mores upside down.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

See Through Light

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart! Naught be all else to me, save that thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night. Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light. (trans. Eleanor Hull)

One of my favorite hymns, of ancient Celtic (Irish) origin, this beautiful song will be part of our worship this weekend in our second service.

It is a classic, for so many reasons, and beloved by traditional and contemporary musicians alike. For its lyrics remind us that of all the things that can light up our lives, it is only God who will be the true Light through which we will find the life that we are meant to have.

One of of the reasons for this selection is that, as part of our series about the beatitudes, we will be talking about “thin places.”

This is another Celtic concept, originally introduced to me by the head of one of our national conference centers. A “thin place” is a location where heaven and earth come so close together that we can see God.

Often this happens in the form of a mountaintop experience. Sometimes it’s when we find comfort in the valleys of life. But always, there is a common thread that we see some small glimpse of the kingdom that illumines our lives and gives our hearts the push forward that we need.

As we move toward the new school year, my Installation, and all the wonders of the year to come, my prayer for us is that FPC will become a “thin place” as we are seek Christ together and that God will give us the push we need to see the future God holds.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Who Is My Neighbor?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25)

This weekend we will be continuing in our series on the Beatitudes. As a part of that conversation, we will be considering the story of the “Good Samaritan,” for which the quote above is the introduction.

There is a legend that comes from one of our Presbyterian seminaries that on the day of their final exam the students were told to be at a certain building at a certain time, in a very specific room. Upon their arrival at that place each would find a sign on the door that said that their exam is in a different room on the far side of campus. Desperate to do well on their final and with hardly any time to spare, the students would run off toward their new destination. As they did, all of them passed by a person in the middle of the sidewalk, clearly hurt, unconsciously lying there in need of help. When they arrived at the far building, their professor then lead them in an oral examination on the topic of the Good Samaritan.

For many of us within the Christian tradition, we have heard this story so many times that we forget how controversial it really was. Samaritans were foreigners, in this case residing in Jewish territory, and were considered second-class humans, if not even lower. On some level, we understand that as the two priests pass him on the other side, we are witnessing the religious establishment ignoring those most desperately in need out of fear for protecting their “piety.” And all of this was in response to the lawyer’s question of Jesus, but really “who is my neighbor?”

The question we should ask ourselves is where are the people we pass over? Ignore out of fear? When do we turn our eyes and ears away? Pretend they don’t exist?

It’s important to remember that following Christ was never meant to be comfortable. It’s supposed to push us. Stretch us. Transform us – because only then can we become more like the Triune God in whose image we were made.

Let us not miss Christ’s message from this parable: we will be held accountable for how we treat others. Jesus spends more time on the importance of living out our faith in tangible acts of mercy than almost any topic. Instead of telling us to run from “evildoers,” he consistently points to the ways we must choose to overcome the evil in ourselves, with God’s help of course. It is not ours to choose who is worthy of love; it is our job to simply live out love in as many ways as we can.

I look forward to further conversation with you about this parable and the next beatitude this weekend. And I pray that God will continue to open our eyes and ears to those in desperate need of our help, and that we will finally hear God’s lesson that the relief and help for these people will come through us.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Child of God

Remember, you are a child of God.
And God loves God's children!
How much?
Very much!
Will it stop?
Never!

This week is “Traveling Day Camp” here at FPC and our campus is alive with children laughing, learning, dancing, and growing in their faith.

Our counselors from our Presbytery’s Camp Krislund are doing great, as are our friends from Providence PCUSA and, as always, our amazing leadership team here. And the kids seemed excited to meet their new pastor this week (and her twin sons, who finally showed up this morning).

We’ve covered topics from God’s creation to God’s desire to make us new to our desire to be better. There are countless things these fifty children are learning in the midst of songs, crafts, games, bible studies, and so much more.

Something that every pastor wonders is what is the most essential message we want people to hear and how do we communicate it.

When I arrived here a month and a half ago, we added this line to the charge and benediction at the end of worship: Remember you are a child of God – And God loves God’s children. I cannot take credit for this line, as I picked it up from a colleague during a youth conference at our national PCUSA Conference Center, Montreat. But it has become an essential part of my ministry.

Here’s why: as I told the children this week, a church is a family. And every family has their own special language – key phrases or gestures that are special to them and how they live life together. Whatever else I may ever teach anyone here at FPC, from age 1 to 100, this is the message I want to make sure every single person hears. Learns. Knows, all the way into their bones.

Children, however, need to particularly know how special and important they are, in order that they can be empowered to be the people God intends them to be. So, this morning, we added a few more lines – just for them. (You can check them out above.)

Once you get to know me better you will find that I have one favorite scripture passage that beats out all the rest (though I do have a long list of favorites): I am convinced that… nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). This is the heart of the gospel. This is a message that everyone on this planet needs to hear – that they are loved. Fully. Completely. Just as they are. No matter what.

Our children need this message, but so do all of the “big kids” (i.e. grown-ups), too. So I encourage everyone to learn this benediction well and take it to heart – just as your kids are learning their own chant this week. Once we know that we are loved it is remarkable how everything else about us will fall into place.

Blessings, Pastor Janie