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

A Song In Between

This weekend is what some might call a “liminal space.” A time of crossing over. An in-between of sorts.

We will be ending the liturgical year – that’s the worship calendar – with Christ the King Sunday. It is a day to celebrate the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises when Christ will return at the end of the age. It is a bright light in our diary as the shadows of winter begin to fall.

We will also be looking to the upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving in worship with beloved hymns and a few decorations to remind us of God’s blessings at harvest time. Thanksgiving is its own transitional time from autumn into winter. And in the world at large, from pumpkins into Christmas cheer.

As we float in this peculiar moment in our calendars, the lectionary has granted us the gift of one of the greatest songs ever written into the Scriptures. And while we may be at the end of the year, we are going back to the very beginning of the gospel of Luke.

Picture this: A couple blessed with love and laughter. A long life together. One a priest for God’s holy Temple in Jerusalem. The other descended from Aaron’s own nieces (yes, that means Moses’s family). But they are getting on in years and have never had a child of their own.

Now, especially for people in their position, they were considered accursed by God. They were being punished for something in people’s eyes, though no one was sure quite what.

Until that day in the Temple when the man named “God Remembers” is visited by an angel while he was praying alone. He will have a son. A prophet. Even with his wife being so far along in years. For nothing will be impossible with God.

Hilarity ensues as this would-be father does what every follower of God has done since time immemorial and questions the messenger. It does not end well.

But nine months later, a bouncing baby boy arrives. They name him “God is gracious,” as the angel foretold. And his father sings a truly remarkable song of blessing to God and prophecy for his new son and the one he will prepare the way for.

It will set the stage for all that is to come in these exciting weeks ahead. So come and listen again to Zechariah’s song as we give thanks to God for our many blessings, most especially those two cousins born two millennia ago.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

A Promise

Tomorrow is our annual Stewardship Dedication Sunday. A day to rededicate ourselves to Christ’s ministry in this time and place at First Presbyterian Church of Hollidaysburg.

Two weeks ago, on Reformation Sunday, we looked at the long history of our church. At the ways our forebears chose and chose again to keep moving forward, in spite of remarkable challenges that continued to cross their paths. Our passage that morning, about everyone’s favorite Bible School Song character, Zacchaeus, reminded us that God calls us to keep our eyes and our ears open, that we may not only overcome challenges to get to where God wants us to be, but also that we may see the forgotten neighbors in our midst. Plus be ready for a new Reformation when God’s ready, too, of course.

Last weekend, on All Saints Sunday, we looked at some of the incredible things our church is doing now. From reaching out to our neighborhood with Halloween candy to “adopting” kids for Christmas to engaging our children in Confirmation and our annual nativity to housing a community exercise class, our congregation continues to find ways to extend our ministry beyond worship on Sunday mornings. Our paired passage from the prophet Haggai reminded us that we will never find what we are looking for in the past. Instead God pushes us to seek the future God holds and to have courage. To work. To remember that God’s Spirit abides and God will bring flourishing in our midst.

Tomorrow, we look to the future. While we cannot know all that it will hold, we do know Who holds it. Just as importantly, we know that we are in this thing together, as God has always intended us to be.

It is oh-so-appropriate, then, that our passage for the morning comes from the end sections of the prophet Isaiah. When the people had returned home after exile, the prophet gave a vision of a Utopia, of a world where God defines what prosperity and flourishing are meant to look like. And oh what a dream it is.

More than a prophecy, though, it is a promise. A promise that the God who has remained with the people through all they have experienced, the God who called out the wee little man and joyfully joined him for dinner despite what people said, that same God who has been stirring up a ferment here at First Presbyterian Church of Hollidaysburg lo these many years, who has been here long before any of us were born – our God will still be with us in the days ahead. (And even long after we have all been returned to the dust.)

So come and celebrate God’s family in this place. Your family. Come make a joyful noise as we entrust all we have been given back to the God of all creation.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Being Brave

Last weekend we looked again to the story of our forebears who worshipped God at “Blue Spring,” otherwise known as the head of Scotch Valley. How in 1788 they chose to form Frankstown Presbyterian Church, which would later be renamed Hollidaysburg Presbyterian Church. Even when literal fire and snow brought the buildings low, or the sparks of hatred and oppression drove us to use our tunnels to protect those escaping to freedom, or two pandemics a century apart pushed us to the brink – through it all, our congregation has and does still stand. 

Why? Because those who came before us made the choice to seek and serve God in this place. Not just once, but over and over again. Every major landmark in the history of our church marks one of those choices. Yet it was likely a daily choice for those believers who came before, just like it is for us today.

You see, the great cloud of witnesses to whom we will refer this Sunday – on All Saints Sunday – well, they were not so different from you or me. They lived regular lives. They faced challenging times. They found joy in unexpected places. They saw life and death come and go, just as we do. And in the midst of all of it they chose to remember that God was with them. Present. Active. A moving, breathing ferment. Just as God still is today.

God will always choose us. Scripture reminds us of this promise repeatedly, in both Testaments. I will be with you, God said to Moses. I will never leave you nor forsake you, God reminds Joshua. I have called you by name and you are mine, God promises Isaiah. I am with you to the very end of the age, Jesus assures his followers. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul prompts. God is always here. Already working in our midst.

When I teach little children the promises of God that we find in Scripture, I always focus on these three. The first is that God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. The second is that God is with us, wherever we are, wherever we go, no matter what. Now the third, this is where I want us all to pay attention: because God loves us and God is with us, we get to be brave. Have courage. Move mountains. Do all the great incredible things that people of faith have done before us. 

1 John 4:18 reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear. It may be difficult, be we need to cast it out. Let it go. Push it away so that we can look to where God wants us to focus.

For whatever challenges lie ahead of us, we are blessed that we can latch onto the strength and courage of our forebears who built this church from a tent into a log cabin. Then rebuilt the cabin when it burnt down. Then bravely bought property and built a cupola on a house of brick until the snow did it in. Then finally rebuilt a structure that stands today. They kept moving. Kept focusing on how God was working with them.

My friends, what we do know is this: the choice is ours now. To courageously step up and step into the future God has in store for us. Even if we do not know precisely what it will look like, we can be sure of one thing – God is already there. 

Blessings,  Pastor Janie

Just Three Things

Grace and Peace to you my friends!

Yes, my family and I are back from our travels across the southern half of the United States. We have seen a great deal of family, experienced the welcome of other places we call home, and learned in both life and study. I look forward to sharing much of the class from last weekend in the weeks and months to come for it was a joy and a wonder.

Now, this Sunday we will find ourselves in the midst of three particular points of interest for our congregation. The first is that our Session has decided to move our worship center further into the heart of our campus for the next month. Yes, we will be worshipping in our chapel where we can experience the cozy warmth of home and enjoy the delight of fellowship with greater ease during these colder months. Before you ask, yes, we will be in the Sanctuary for the glory and Glorias of Advent & Christmastide. Nevertheless, we on your leadership team here at FPCH feel this is one of the most responsible ways we can be good stewards of our resources and enjoy some heart-warming friendship at the same time.

The second point of interest this weekend marks is the last weekend of calm. Of normalcy. Of nothing much to see here. For once we get into next weekend it will be one big thing after another – from Reformation Sunday through to the Epiphany. Difficult to believe, I know. However, it might be worth coming to worship and enjoying the downtime together.

Finally, this weekend’s passage uses a favorite tac of Jesus’s in his teaching: the juxtaposition of opposites. In this case, in a rather odd move for Luke’s gospel, Christ tells a parable of two people with great power praying before God. And yet, their prayers could not be more of a contrast.

For a gospel that spends the majority of its time focusing on the lowest of the low and how God is always seeking to raise them up, this parable takes time to ponder the question: when you have what you need, how will you come before God? And the question beyond it: once you do, what will you do with all God has given you?

It should be a fascinating look into God’s own heart, as well as an opportunity for all of us to dive deep into our own walks of faith. Can’t wait to see you in worship!

Blessings, Pastor Janie