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

I Will Arise

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore, 
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power. 
I will arise and go to Jesus: he will embrace me in his arms. 
In the arms of my dear Savior, O there are ten thousand charms.
Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome, God's free bounty glorify, 
true belief and true repentance, every grace that brings you nigh.
I will arise and go to Jesus: he will embrace me in his arms. 
In the arms of my dear Savior, O there are ten thousand charms.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden, lost and ruined by the fall, 
if you tarry till you're better, you will never come at all. 
I will arise and go to Jesus: he will embrace me in his arms. 
In the arms of my dear Savior, O there are ten thousand charms.
Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream; 
all the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him. 
I will arise and go to Jesus: he will embrace me in his arms. 
In the arms of my dear Savior, O there are ten thousand charms.

– Joseph Hart

I was first introduced to this hymn in the mountains of Montreat – where I will be a week from now. It is an old, haunting Appalachian tune that draws you into the promises of Christ’s forgiveness. A reminder of how much we need God’s love and how none of us have any ground to stand upon except upon Christ’s grace.

If you would like to sing this gorgeous hymn on Sunday, it is #415 in the purple Glory to God hymnal. Enjoy!

Many Blessings,  Pastor Janie

Love Looks Like

October is here! 

By far almost my favorite month of the year (December still takes the cake) and yet also one of the most difficult for me personally.

Pumpkins and spooky decorations are out in droves. Football is in full swing. Bonfires are thronging the air. Cackling can be heard from every corner – because Halloween is almost here. And with it, Reformation Sunday, of course. Because we good Reformed children do not believe in all that Hocus Pocus (things truly transubstantiating and all).

In addition, October is my birth month and I will turn forty this year. No small feat in my family. Yet October is also the month I lost both my mother and my husband. The two people in the world who were closest to me and provided my greatest support. And in great irony, one funeral was the day after my birthday and the other on Halloween proper. Good times.

At church, everything is coming alive! Our JAM (Jesus and Me) program begins this weekend, on Sunday, October 2nd, with learning and fun for ALL ages. Not to mention food, because every good Presbyterian knows: “when we meet, we eat.” There are parties coming and feasts, special worship services, opportunities to be our church out in the community, incredible ways to pray for one another, and some great fellowship times for our adults. 

In this midst of all of this vibrant life, I want us to keep our eyes firmly focused on God’s mission for us as a church family. This year our guiding words are going to come from a simple quote by one of the mystics, named Thomas Merton, that echoes Christ’s own commandments to us: “Our job is to love other without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” 

We never know who is going through what. We can never be sure the struggles that linger beneath the still surface of our neighbor’s calm visage. Nor can we ever understand fully the experiences of our siblings walking this earth, which is why Jesus commanded us to love. Period. No more. No less. 

Love takes many forms in our life together: a child feeling welcome and safe within our walls. When one of our more mature members takes a turn keeping nursery or teaching Sunday School to offer a much needed break and chance to worship to our young parents. A member of many years singing a longtime favorite hymn that evokes memories of days gone by. Giving generously to continue Christ’s ministry within our campus and far beyond it. Someone who cannot leave their home partaking in the Communion that reminds us we are all one in Christ. Sharing canned goods and other nonperishable items with American Rescue Workers to feed the hungry in our community. Connecting with new friends over a cup of coffee. Teaching our younglings about hunger in our own community through our support of Tiger Backpacks and taking a hunger walk. Ensuring that the work and worship of Christ’s church at First Presbyterian of Hollidaysburg has not stopped, though it may have transformed, come plague or high winds. 

Yes, love looks like many, many things. 

Our job, as Christ’s followers is to know how incredibly loved we are and then to share that love with everyone, whether we are within the walls of our campus or out in the world that God so loves. 

This October, as we all have so much to celebrate, be sure to show the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life by loving every way you can without ever stopping to inquire who deserves it.

Blessings,     Pastor Janie

The Other Lazarus

This weekend we are looking at the story of Lazarus.

No. Not that Lazarus.

This is not Jesus’s best friend. Not the brother of Mary and Martha, who lived in Bethany. Who died in Bethany. Who rose from the grave looking like a mummy coming from the tomb. The friend over whom Jesus wept.

This is a different Lazarus.

This is a poor wretch. A beggar who lives at the gate of a rich man’s estate. He is so poor that there is not even enough fabric on his body to protect him from the local dogs who come and lick the bloody sores on his body. He longed for mere crumbs from his wealthy neighbor’s table, but alas there was no one who would slake his hunger.

On the same night, both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus is carried away by the angels to heaven to rest in Abraham’s arms. The rich man is carried below to the place of eternal torment. And between them a great canyon is set up, but it is one where they can see and communicate with one another.

The rich man then begs Abraham to have the poor wretch Lazarus come and quench his thirst from the fires of Hell – not appreciating the irony. But alas, says the patriarch, it is too late.

The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so that they might avoid his same fate, in something of a Christmas Carol style scare up. But the wise patriarch says they have their warnings in the scriptures – no one rising from the dead will change their minds. (Per se even the Christ.)

Coming so close to his teaching about the shrewd manager, this parable offers many profound lessons to be sure. Key among them are how well are we paying attention to those around us? Our own neighbors? Our own garden gates?

Something to ponder – see you in worship.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Worldly, Wily, & Wise

This weekend we have a parable that jumps straight into the thick of it. Having finished his triple-threat on recovering the lost and welcoming all those who are unwanted into the heart of God’s most intimate community, Christ moves immediately into a conversation about money.

Yes. That’s right. The dreaded topic none of us want to talk about.

Even better, the Pharisees are still listening. And in the gospels, they are sometimes described as “lovers of money.” Interesting…

This weekend’s parable goes straight at it with the parable of the Shrewd Manager. This man’s about to be fired. So he goes about and forgives a major chunk of the debts owed to his master. In so doing, he earns his soon-to-be-ex-boss’s admiration. And Jesus’s, to boot.

Wait, what?

You read that correctly. Jesus actually applauds the shrewd manager in this parable. Then he goes on to say that if we do not know how to be good stewards of the dishonest wealth, how will we ever handle the heavenly riches? Because no one can serve both money and God.

Anyone else confused? (For reference, I’m raising my hand.)

All joking aside, this weekend’s story is one that requires a lot of unpacking so that we can dispense with our fears that Jesus has truly fallen into the briar patch this time.

What I will say is this: how we think about and use our resources – all of our resources – is going to be pretty central to the discussion. Something to ponder.

Blessings, Pastor Janie