Better News?

My friends, we find ourselves in a very strange period of time. This specific February is unusual for some very particular reasons. 

First, we find ourselves in a remarkably long stretch of “ordinary time” before we head into the season of Lent. Now, normally in February we mark Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday as we begin the process of preparing ourselves for Holy Week. However, this year, we do not see even a glimpse of purple in the liturgy until March. And “ordinary time” can definitely leave us dragging when all we are wanting to do is find some sort of way to see time hopscotch forward.

Second, I think the pandemic is beginning to interact with us on a far more day-to-day basis now. With these new strains of the virus being so contagious, even the longest-standing holdouts are falling prey to the malady. What is more, all of us are desperate, desolate, discouraged, and disheartened every time we finally begin to make plans and that glimmer of expectation collapses into a John Deacon chorus.

So then, what do we do in this gloomy stretch of dust-filled, monotonous boredom? 

First, if anyone is needing a moment to actually revel in the pit of despair, I think it is fair to take it. It is okay to not be okay all of the time. Perhaps we should take this extra “down time” to give some space to those who need it to cry or scream or stomp or whatever will let out all those big emotions we grown-ups like to forget we actually have (kids haven’t learned how to suppress them yet).

Next, let’s take a look at where we actually are. Gloomy and shadow-filled – God is still there because there is no place where God cannot and will not be. Monotonous – God likes to show up during our regular, everyday lives and shake things up a bit when we’re least expecting it. Boring – could it be that it’s time for a nap and a snack like God often prescribes for the worn out prophets? And dust – well, our God is an expert at dealing with dust. In fact, our God does some of God’s best work with dust. Makes beautiful things out of dust. Human beings, for example. 

So, if we are in a place where God resides, will definitely stir things up, after we’ve taken time to have a rest and to rejuvenate, and God will raise us from the dust – what better news is there than that? 

Sometimes it’s a matter of turning your perspective around to see it, but hope is like the eternal flame. Even if it’s an ember dimly glowing, it’s still there. 

And God is still here. Still working. We will see what is happening in our midst in the coming days and into the coming months. Of that we can be certain.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Cliff Diving

This weekend we are journeying home with Jesus to Nazareth. In fact, we are going to his home family of faith. For weekly worship. Just imagine how proud they must all be to hear this son of their own synagogue who is making a name for himself.

What? They’re surprised to see him in this role? They still see him as a little boy? They try to push him off a cliff?!?

Yeah… Things don’t go overly well for our Messiah when he goes home. Nevertheless, we do get to hear the center of his call recited from the prophet Isaiah. That is always worth reading again.

More importantly, here is the part of the story that many of us like to forget: when we really start understanding the message of Christ, and more than that, when we really start following it – people can get really, really, really uncomfortable.

Maybe they won’t automatically shove us off of high places right away. However, they might start shunning us. Or shaming us into thinking we’re doing something wrong for caring about people. Or perhaps they’ll simply kick us out of house and home for living into a life we are meant to live.

You see, worrying about the vulnerable and the oppressed, the poor and the outcast, the overlooked and the undervalued – or even more importantly, seeking them out, including them, empowering them, truly loving them – that challenges the world’s value system. It pushes the status quo. It changes the dynamic and that can be quite scary for people.

Yet that is precisely what Christ was called to do. And did. And it is what we are called and meant to do, too.

See you in worship!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Gathering History

This weekend is our Annual Meeting of the Congregation. It is a time when we gather as a family of faith to reflect on all that has happened in the last year, to give thanks for the lives of all we have lost, and to pray for God’s guidance as we continue on into the year ahead.

Especially during such uncertain times as these, our annual assembly is perhaps even more important because it reminds us of this central truth: Christ has called us together for a purpose.

We are an historic church, to be sure. With quite a long narrative, reaching back to the very beginning of our nation, with roots before the founding of the city in which we are located. Yet, in the midst of such a storied life together it still remains up to each successive generation to find our own voice to add to the chronicle.

The passage we will be examining on Sunday is quite appropriate for the occasion. Though most will remember it from countless weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 was actually Paul’s great treatise on how the body of Christ was meant to live together: in love.

A Love that bears all things. Believes all things. Hopes all things. Endures all things.

The Love of God that built Christ’s church in this place, at the corner of Walnut and Penn, is one that never ends and is still at work among us. It binds us together and gives us faith beyond sight in such a tumultuous time as this.

That is the faith. That is the hope. That is the Love in which we live and move and have our very being. That is where we will find our voice. Our story. Our next steps forward.

Come to the gathering. Honor where we have been. Remember who we are. And see the next piece of our journey into God’s future.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Always Has. Always Will.

This weekend, we begin a mini-series on a very familiar section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Next week’s portion will cover everyone’s favorite wedding passage. However, this week’s piece is no less important.

Sunday’s verses give one of the key answers to the question: why are the followers of Christ so counter-cultural?

Our world prizes the strong. The beautiful. The powerful. The wealthy. The perfect. Always has. Likely always will.

However, those are not the things that our God prizes. From the beginning, God has displayed an unabashed temerity in choosing to ally Godself with the weak. The unwanted. The merciful. The poor. The gracious and faithful. Always has. Always will.

And our passage this weekend is Paul’s commendation to the church to do just that. In his treatise on the body of Christ, Paul reminds the church that we cannot be without our weakest or most unwanted or perhaps we should say most unlikely members. They are to be given even greater honor. For that is how God does it and therefore how we are to do it. We are always stronger together. For that is how Christ changes the world – through us, all of us as one.

Just a few things to ponder before we meet again.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

God Sightings

Welcome to a New Year!

Feels a bit like the last one, doesn’t it?

Probably because the pandemic continues. Plus we are entering ordinary time in the church calendar, which always feels… monotonous. A bit boring. Sort of just, droll. What’s worse, Lent doesn’t even begin until March 2nd, so we get an even longer mini-ordinary time than normal this year. So, as Monty Python would say, “And the people rejoiced. Yay”

Yes, feels a bit like Groundhog Day. Nevertheless, most of our faith lives are actually lived in the everyday. Oddly enough. What is more, God loves to show up in the midst of our day to day experiences. As always, when we are least expecting it.

This weekend, we will remember when Christ was baptized by John in the Jordan River. It is a sort of “high Sunday.” Nevertheless, it is meant to gently bring us down to earth before we are plunked back onto the daily road. Remember, for John it was any other day at work. How was he to know that his cousin was going to show up and stir things up?

My challenge for all of us in the days ahead is to look for God showing up. Perhaps in a stranger showing kindness to you. Or in an old friend saying just what you needed to hear. Or in some other way that you find grace or peace that you were not expecting but needing just at that moment. Or maybe you can even provide it for someone else. I promise that if you are looking for it, God-sightings are far more evident than you might think.

See you soon!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

The Road Ahead

New Year’s Eve was always a very big deal in my house growing up. We gathered together with our best friend’s family, who had boys about my age, alternating houses. We would eat and play and watch movies and do everything we could to stay up until midnight (with sleeping bags waiting in the wings, just in case). And when the clock struck twelve, we would gather to sing that classic tune, for auld lang syne.

Even as a child I understood what it meant – days gone by. We’ll raise our glass as the year leaves us, as the old Scottish poem suggests. Young as I was, we had already lost relatives within our close ring of family and I understood that we were not just referring to traditions that were being handed down, but also people’s legacies.

There is this funny sense to January, which was named for a two-faced Roman trickster god. Especially as we enter into 2022, many of us want to walk into this new year with our arms raised in surrender and not make any declarations that might jinx us prematurely. After the last two years, we don’t want anything pulling out the rug from under us… yet again.

However, we are not followers of the ancient pantheons of long, long ago. And though we may have our momentary superstitions, we do, in fact, know who holds our future. While we may not yet see where the path may lead or what the precise ending is, the honest truth is that it does not matter. For ours is a God of journeys, far more than destinations – at least in this life, it would seem.

2022 is a new chapter in our journey together. Some parts may look much the same as the last chapter. Yet, I cannot imagine that our God would leave us treading water much longer. Lent is just around the corner and the Empty Tomb beyond. And we do know how our God loves a good cliff-hanger. 

Now, it is true that I cannot make a promise that everything will be perfectly returned to how it was before the world fell apart nearly two years ago. Largely because there is no way to go back. 

What I can promise is that it will all be okay again. We are just not quite sure what okay will look like. But I do know that it involves every single one of you. Of us. Together. God’s family in this time and place. 

So raise a glass and bless the old year on its way. Give thanks for all the times that have gone by. The people who have made us who we are. And then, well then, let us bless God for all that we have and give thanks for all those who are in our midst here and now, as we take our next steps on the road ahead.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Home at FPCH

And so the time has come at last… Christmas Eve.

But before the visions of sugarplums arrive or we set off to dream of mouse kings and nutcrackers at play, and even before we gather for worship tonight, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider all that we have done together throughout this season of Advent.

From the very beginning of this holy season, we have been hosting events for our community in the Sanctuary, including three special concerts for the Blair Academy of Sacred Music, the Altoona Brass Collective, and Fantazia & the Chamber Strings Orchestra from Hollidaysburg High School.

We adopted eighteen young people for American Rescue Workers this year, which is 150% of what we did last year. That is over fifty gifts in total for children ranging in age from several months to teenagers. Some were enjoying their very first Christmas with their family and some their last as children.

We had twenty-three children from nine families participate in our annual Nativity Play, which the younger children actually helped to write this year. And the older younglings very willingly rolled with acting out whatever they needed to in order to fulfill the wishes of their younger counterparts.

Our children met with Santa Claus. Those who needed it found hope at Blue Christmas. All of our musical groups have been working diligently and leading worship nearly non-stop. And we had a new member join on Advent II.

All in all, not a bad beginning to the new liturgical year.

What has brought me more joy than anything, however, is seeing our members and friends continue to grow as family of faith together. Whether it was the way the children interact with one another. Or the adults gathering to speak during the concerts. Or the families who are returning throughout the holidays reuniting on Sundays. There is nothing more wonderful than to see and hear our church family reconnecting after so much separation.

As we gather tonight to celebrate the wonder of God coming into our midst, may we all remember that our God has never left. God is still here. And the Love we celebrate on Christmas is still among us, ready to be let loose in the world.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Experience the Wonder

We continue to move closer and closer… And as we do, it feels like time is moving faster and faster and faster. Or maybe that’s just me.

We are already on to our Third Sunday of Advent this weekend – and I am looking at my calendar wondering where the time went. Nevertheless, we will be having a celebration of two wonderful things this weekend. First, the remarkable figure of Jesus’s mother, Mary. We will be looking at the song that she sings when the Christ-child is still in her belly and the extraordinary prophet she is in her own right.

And second, speaking of music, we are going to be bringing in all of our special music groups within the church right now. Our choir has a stunning anthem. Our band is leading most of worship and has their own anthem. Plus our handbells will be playing the main prelude. It will be a Sunday you will not want to miss!

Yet, Sunday is not the only thing happening at FPCH this week. Oh no, we have four more events we hope you will put on your calendars and join us for:

  • This Saturday, December 11 at 7:00 p.m.: The Altoona Brass Collective Holiday Concert
  • Next Wednesday, December 15 at 6:00 p.m.: Blue Christmas Worship – A service for those who need space to not be perfectly holly or jolly during this holiday season
  • Next Sunday, December 19: Our Children’s Nativity – Do You Hear What I Hear? – will premiere in Worship
  • A Week from Monday, December 20: Fantasia & Chamber Strings Holiday Concert in our Sanctuary

In other words, there is a whole lot happening at FPCH this season. So much to be excited about and so many ways to experience the wonder of it all.

And speaking of that wonder, we do want to give a great big thank you to everyone who made our Mini-Advent Fest such a huge success last weekend! Our younglings and their families had a great time fellowshipping and making merry.

Mini-Advent Fest 2021

As we continue to get closer and closer to Bethlehem, remember, keep your eyes open for God’s wonders and your hearts open to the love that is all around us. See you soon!

Blessings, Pastor Janie

Prepare Our Hearts

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Andy Williams’s timeless words ring through the air this time of year. Repeatedly. Because, ready or not, it is time to prepare ourselves for the arrival of the Christ-child once again.

The church invites us into a different method of preparation, even as we all make ourselves dizzy baking and wrapping and writing and everything else for the rest of the world. We are asked to slow our frenzy in order that we might prepare our hearts – as the classic hymn says, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. And we do this in two ways.

The first way is to pray. However, not only to pray with our eyes closed and heads cast low. The great mystics would remind us that prayer is meant to be enacted. As our hearts become more aligned with God’s purposes for our lives, our actions will more tangibly reflect God’s work in the world. In other words, as we pray with our words, we should also pray with our actions.

This season, FPCH is offering three key opportunities to do this. First, we are selling poinsettias and a quarter of each plant’s sale will go to support Presbyterian Disaster Relief as they work in communities that are recovering from all the natural disasters this year has seen. The remainder will support our local Warner’s Florist.

Second, on Christmas Eve we will take up the annual Christmas Joy Offering, which goes to support historic Presbyterian Schools of Color and to support the Clergy & Missionary Emergency Relief fund.

The third opportunity is our participation in ARW’s annual Christmas4Kids Program. We began our year adopting the same number of children as last year, which was a higher number than ever before. However, as we have continued on, more and more of you have come forward still wanting to adopt. Several families have taken not only one or two tags, but two or three entire children. In the end, we have adopted a record eighteen children. If that is not prayer enacted to welcome the Christ-child, I am not sure what is.

In addition to preparing our hearts through prayer, enacted and otherwise, we should also prepare our hearts by watching for God’s wonders. Wonders like how many of our members have come forward to adopt children with Christmas gifts, of course. But also those incredible marvels that come directly from God’s own Self – even if they appear through those around us.

Advent and Christmastide are the seasons of miracles. Some are small. Some are awe-inspiringly large. You never know when you will find one. This is the time that is wonder-full. So prepare your hearts. Lift up your heads. Our God is drawing near.

Blessings, Pastor Janie

The Unexpected Season

So the season begins… the crazy, cookie-filled, upside-down, right-side-up, non-stop music, wacky, zany, can’t see straight for all the lights season is upon us. Some have been celebrating since Jack Skellington came down their chimney on Halloween night. Others are still not ready to begin the gauntlet. And the rest of us are probably somewhere in between.

Church offers us a different kind of season compared to the one we see in the world around us. While everyone else devolves into a frantic frenzy, we are invited to stop. To breathe deeply. To listen in silence. To welcome God’s coming presence. Most importantly, we are asked to keep our eyes open for the unexpected in our midst.

You see, when Christ entered the world, it was not as everyone thought God would appear. Who would expect phenomenal cosmic powers to arrive in a helpless baby of little means? What God chooses to do that? What God selects an unwed teenage mother to carry this baby? What about selecting shepherds, the next worst thing to slaves, to be the first to receive the good news so they could visit? Or allowing foreigners of other religions to worship God-made-flesh? Then let the baby and his family have to flee a child-killing tyrant and become a refugee?

The road to Bethlehem is filled with shocking stories. As is the aftermath of God’s arrival in this world. Because God does not act the way we expect – God’s ways are not our ways, nor God’s thoughts our thoughts. God always appears where we least expect, partially because we have keep our eyes so focused on what the world expects God to do.

This Advent, I invite you to enter back into God’s salvation story with new eyes. New ears. A new heart, flung wide open that you might begin to truly understand more of God’s true purposes here on earth. Perhaps then the unexpected will become far more visible and tangible in our midst. And then, well then we can really see where God wishes us to continue the ministry of God-with-us, the Christ-child himself.

Blessings, Pastor Janie