Asking the Right Questions

We’re back! Back to school, back to work, back to church.

Back to mask-optional and in-person meetings; back to coffee hour and passing the offering plate and sharing Wednesday dinners together.

And it feels really, really good.

Not to say that COVID is over – of course not – but that, thanks to a whole variety of reasons, we are largely able to resume the kinds of fellowship, learning, service and worship together that we have always had, and have missed so dearly over the last two and a half years.

I’m grateful for it. Grateful to see and be with you again, to give and receive hugs, to share meals, to sit in our homes and to talk with less anxiety about what unknown germs we might be carrying.

In the midst of my gratitude, though, I’m noticing that the switch back to something-like-normal isn’t immediate, or without its bumps.

We are coming back together carrying all sorts of things: grief, frustration, anger, sadness. Continued anxiety about the present and future. Relationships that were interrupted, or severely damaged, by our differences over COVID, over our discernment process, over politics, over a host of other things.

We are coming back together, which is the important thing. But we are coming back as complex people with complex experiences and feelings about what we’ve been through. And it makes for some friction.

I noticed this last fall, when I went on an annual retreat with several seminary classmates, now old friends and colleagues in ministry of mine. We met early in 2020, in February, just weeks before everything exploded, and then gathered again some twenty months later in October 2021. And we had some bumps. Some moments that went awry. Some tears and aggrieved silences. Some lingering difficult feelings.

I went on that same retreat this weekend, and I admit to feeling lots of trepidation about it this year. Would the same friction rear its head? Would I come home rested or depleted, feeling built up or worn out?

Overall, it was a great weekend. Wonderful food, long slow hours of visiting, devotional times and afternoon rests and walks in the crisp fall air. And also…there were still bumps.

But when we encountered them, I tried something different this year. Instead of retreating internally, to sulk or nurse my wounds, I leaned in. I asked some questions. I tried not to let my assumptions or interpretations of a conversation be the only information I took in, but I interrogated things. I tried to do so gently, and with humility, but also with some courage.

I said things like, “I’m sorry if my words came across this way” or “Here is what I was trying to say.”

I tried to learn more about a situation. To understand why something said or done created an immediate, sharp reaction instead of internalizing it, deciding I was bad or stupid or disliked.

Let me tell you. It wasn’t less tiring.

But it was so much more helpful.

I left those few days of intense, intentional relationship building feeling more connected, feeling at peace, feeling reflective and cared for and centered.

And I am thinking about that all this morning. Wondering if I stumbled, with the help of God and a good therapist, upon some tools that might be useful for all of us, as we come back together.

Not magical fix-its, or easy buttons. But assists. Ways to lean in towards each other, instead of further away. Ways to try and break down some walls, instead of adding to them bit by bit.

I’m going to try this again, and I invite you to join me. The next time you’re with a friend, or in a group, and that friction rears its head…think about some questions you might ask. Some ways you might work toward understanding each other better. Some information you might seek out that brings clarity.

And I hope you’ll also find that the right questions help us find our way back to each other.

yours,

Pastor Jen

Sea Billows Roll Today

On this holy day we have lost two dear friends, John Couleur and Patty Frazer. Today the sea billows roll, not only where the hurricane Ian is taking hold, but here in our midst, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death together. Fresh from the memorial services for Vivian Edstrom, Everett Jackson, Arnie Bolin, Mary Olson, Joan Erickson and Howard Geake, and awaiting the home-goings of Marion Christensen and Mary Koules, Kathy Davis, and Bruce McClellan, oh! How the sea billows roll. Even though we have hope in the bright shining glory of God, How hard it is to lose sisters and brothers!

Hope remains, defiantly: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me….surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

In this rather overwhelming time of loss, and clinging to hope, I return to the poetic words of my grandfather Eric, which he wrote on his 40th birthday, April 28, 1936. I dedicate it’s expression today to all these saints who have and are leaving us. May their memories be a blessing, and may the Holy Spirit of God comfort their loved ones.

WHEN I AM GONE

I want no pomp, I want no state,

I want no colorful debate

Of what I was, or could have been;

Just take me out and tuck me in,

In Mother Earth beneath the sky.

‘Twas good to live, but good to die,

Just leave me in the wind and rain

With flowers that bloom and fade again,

‘Neath winter’s snow and April shower,

In calm repose ’til waking hour,

Just tuck me ‘neath the sod

With friendly hand, but speak of God.

With grief and hope,

Peter Hawkinson

What I Hold in My Hands

“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game very day, and that’s the way baseball is.” (Bullet Bob Feller).

Everyone has a really weird habit — some more obvious than others. One of mine is that just about every day of my life I hold onto a baseball. This one has been with me for the last seventeen years since I caught it in the bleachers of a St. Louis Cardinals game. I’ve never stopped to consider the reasons why I hold onto it while I work everyday. Here’s my chance!

Certainly, and most obviously it bears the marks of my stresses and anxieties. Fingernails have found their way repeatedly into and under the leather. I also love it’s feeling in my hand, which help me think better about whatever I’m doing. It’s a little bit like a pacifier for an ADD affected guy like me, no doubt.

More importantly, the ball (and the game) hold deeper levels of sacred memories for me. In little league at River Park, I was a good-fielding third baseman and average at best at the plate. I blended in, and more often than not didn’t come through in big moments, except one day, one life-changing day when our game got moved to thillens stadium which had a real, lit up scoreboard, bleachers, a snack bar and lights! In the top of the seventh, I stopped a hard hit ball and we held on to a tie. Bottom of the seventh, I closed my eyes and pulled one down the line and drove in the winning run! That night remains for me a holy moment. Mom and Dad took me in their arms and the team over to the dairy bar for ice cream. Baseball!

Other memories come as I scratch the seams, this one of my first trip to Wrigley field with my cousin Tom — walking up the stairs and seeing that field for the first time, and being so excited when Tom told me his father saw Babe Ruth there years ago. Or the time I broke our neighbor’s window while we were playing running bases in the alley. The endless long slogs through summers with the cubs, and endless games of wiffle ball and “pinners” against the garage door. Watching my high school buddy Israel Sanchez (who eventually became a big leaguer) strike out fifteen in a row. Seeing “Field of Dreams”— and sitting in a puddle of tears longing to play catch with my dad. Playing catch with my girls — and waiting 2 hours in line with Hannah to get an autograph from Aramis Ramirez, who left just before we got to him! Church softball with Steve Fogel waving me around third. And always, always, Barnabys afterward! One hundred years of “lovable losers” until late one night in 2016 when we jumped for joy around the room.

Most of all, though, it’s the steady nature of baseball, how it holds the days of our lives, our “coming in and going out” as the Psalm says it. As Bob Feller (who I met and sat with in the stands) once said it, “Every day is a new opportunity.” Or as Terence Mann said to Ray in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”

The well-worn and scuffed up ball on my desk and in my hands holds my story. Like the game is life with all its ups and downs — tragedies (think black cat, 1969 Mets), Glorious days (think cubs beating Phillies 23-22 in 1979) when warm summer breezes blow from the south, rainouts (do-overs, that’s grace), double-headers (“Let’s play two” Ernie says!) and always, always opening day, when we’re in first place!

The baseball is a good friend, a steady companion like the game. And this, a metaphor for how I understand God’s presence through life’s journey.

Go, Cubs, Go!

PETER HAWKINSON

Time To Laugh!

John Daniels was an early Covenanter I only wish I had the chance to know. A member of First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, he invented and patented all kinds of traps, even some that caught pigeons on the church eaves.

He had one other “preacher trap” in mind, as recalled by Herbert Palmquist in his book “The Wit and Wisdom of our Fathers” covenant press, 1967:

“One of his (Daniels) most ingenious ideas had to do with the length of the sermon. It was his belief that most sermons are much too long. Whatever was said after twenty minutes was wasted, and here preachers kept on for an hour or more! The congregation ought to have a voice in the sermon’s length. For this reason every seat should be equipped with a button. When the listener felt that they had had enough, they would merely press the button; when a majority of the buttons had been pressed, a trap door would open and carry the preacher and the pulpit down into the basement of the church. But in order that the preacher might not be embarrassed overmuch and so be tempted to lose heart, there should be someone down there ready to comfort the preacher with a cup of coffee.”

That story remains an important reminder that humor and laughter is such an important aspect of coping with the stresses of our lives, lest we take ourselves too seriously, and our challenges as though no others before us faced their own. As my father was prone to remind me when I was over-burdened, “The Kingdom of God was here before you came along, and it will remain after you are gone. Relax, take a deep breath, and do what you can!”

Good to laugh. Remind me of that and I’ll do the same for you. Now I need to finish this little blog and go and check out the pulpit floor!

Love from here

Peter Hawkinson

The Manager and the Questions

This week, I’m revisiting an old and familiar text as I prepare to preach on Sunday.

Luke’s “parable of the dishonest manager,” as the NRSV calls it, is about a manager who is called to account by his master, for his unscrupulous business practices.

This was the text of my senior sermon at seminary, an opportunity offered to all graduating students to share a word from the pulpit of our beautiful Miller Chapel, addressed to our peers.

I remember well my nerves in studying this passage, having taken one measly semester meant to teach me both how to prepare and deliver a sermon. (I think we spent one day on preparing.)

What I came up with was this: the manager, having had grand ambitions of making himself good money, cheating his master and getting away with it, is caught. And he begins to reassess, very quickly, what he actually needs. What is enough.

It worked. It preached. And on a campus of high-achieving, anxious, students, it might have been the right message for that time.

But, eight years later, I am coming back to this story and discovering new things about it (the gift and the challenge of a living word).

I am wondering about how this manager is commended for his actions. How he didn’t actually abandon any of his unscrupulousness, but changed its orientation; he went from trying to make extra money either for his manager or himself (the text isn’t all that clear) and towards trying to help out his fellow people. Recognizing, surely, that their goodwill was all he would have to go on after losing his position as manager.

I am wondering about how Jesus commends the man for acting shrewdly, for using money to “play the game” but to play it well.

And I am wondering how this might apply to us – people, it must be said, of considerable means. Even with inflation, even with rising expenses and growing financial concerns, still we are overwhelmingly fortunate. Privileged. Rich, even.

I’ll continue to mull all this over in the next few days. And I encourage you to do the same! Let’s prepare together for Sunday by reading Luke 16:1-13 and asking ourselves these questions (as well as others that come to mind):

-How am I using my wealth?

-Who is it connecting me to?

-How am I serving God or money? God or wealth? God or stuff?  

And if you have any brilliant insights, I trust you’ll share them with me before Sunday 🙂

-Pastor Jen

Marking Up Books

One of my very favorite things to do is mark up books. I always hope for a few mostly blank pages near the beginning which allow me as I read to collect the delicious and challenging quotes in the front, so that when I take it off the shelf someday I can collect the gist of the book, and find the quotes I kind of remember but want to find again. A marked up book evidences its value, that it somehow connected with me and/or challenged me.

The late Rachel Held Evans book “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church” is all marked up. The fourth blank page holds two quotes that captivate and challenge my view of the church at the same time. The first comes from Pope Francis, in his encyclical from 2013 entitled “The Joy of the Gospel”:

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty, because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security…More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, “Give them something to eat.”

The second, from Rachel Held Evans:

The Gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out…It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy. This is a kingdom for the hungry.

How are these thoughts comforting, and how do they challenge us?

Love from Here!

Peter Hawkinson

Vocation

As we come to summer’s end, Labor Day and a new cycle of work and school, it’s good to reflect a bit on how we understand our vocation (latin, “calling”).

More than likely on the golf course if someone wants to get to know me a bit they will ask first my name, and second, within a couple of minutes, “so what do you do?” This reflects a modern cultural understanding of my identity being bound up primarily in what I “do”. Vocation is my career, what I do.

A bit of a quick history lesson helps understand how we’ve gotten here. Back in medieval times, vocation was seen narrowly as a call to a monastic life as a monk or nun, or to serve the church as a priest. These were the special callings of some. Martin Luther and other reformers changed all that with the call to see the primary understanding of vocation as “christian” and that this calling was to be lived out by all christians in their daily tasks. Vocation here is WHO I am (christian) and that affects HOW I do my work, whatever it happens to be.

An example would be a first grade teacher who roots her work in her own experience of the love of God, and extends that love to each of her students, thinking the best of each one and seeing the rich potential in each child. She engages students and families with respect, care, and compassion. First seeing herself as a disciple of Christ, she then is able to live for God’s glory and neighbor’s good in her classroom, and with her colleagues. She lives out her relationship with God (her vocation) in her work as a teacher.

This seems a proper corrective of these two other understandings of vocation as “a career” (what do you do?) and vocation as a special calling for a few (monastic life).

The lat archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, said it well: “How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work, their job is a priestly work, that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office! How many cabdrivers, I know, listen to this message in their cabs; you are a priest at the wheel, my friend, if you work with honesty, consecrating that taxi of yours to God, bearing a message of peace and love to the passengers who ride in your cab.”

So for every follower of Jesus, our vocation is the same: Christian, minister of grace. The work we do at our job or in school is how we live out our call to be a christian witness. It’s a helpful and important distinction, I think, to root our vocational understanding in who we are, first, and then how who we are shapes what we do day by day.

Writer Frederick Buechner, who recently left us, had a favorite saying, that “Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” That’s an invitation to relationship with the world and those we meet in it that flows from our New Life in Christ. That makes us all ministers and priests.

Contemplate these blessed realities as you take a deep breath and jump back into a new year!

Love from here!

Peter Hawkinson

Blessings

(Our guest blogger today is Denise Johnson. Thank you Denise! Friends, please send along your guest blog posts, we love them!)

Blessings have been on my mind lately. I found myself drawn to them as a way
of coping with the nonsense and chaos of our present moment.
Once on my mind, I then decided at the close of each day to record what
blessed me. This way I would end on a happy note and fall blissfully asleep.
Hasn’t exactly worked as planned. I forget many nights, have trouble sleeping
and wake up annoyed at both my negligence and the world.


In the introduction to his book, To Bless the Space Between Us , author John
O’Donohue writes: “It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to
bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing is invoked, it
changes the atmosphere.”


If we can say anything about these times, it’s that our atmosphere certainly
needs changing. From the atmosphere surrounding our toxic words to our
toxic behavior to our toxic climate, change is needed. So perhaps we can start
by blessing each other. A simple way to honor the ordinary in the life we share
together. A small act to open a better way forward.


O’Donohue goes on: “Whenever you give a blessing, a blessing returns to
enfold you.” These are words we’ve often said ourselves. When we bless, in
even the smallest way, we always receive more than we give.


One of my favorite blessings comes from Psalm 121:8: The LORD will keep your
going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. Simple yet
profound. Acknowledging the holy in the ordinary activities of life. May these
ancient words enfold you this day and may you pass them on to others.

Denise Johnson

Buechner, the Sage

Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister, writer and theologian, died this week at the age of 96. His novels (try Goodrich and Brendan) are filled with spiritual yet earthy wonderings, his autobiographical trilogy (The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets) is heart-breaking yet hopeful. His collections of sermons (The Clown in the Belfry, A Room Called Remember) are rich devotionally, and he writes short reflections on biblical characters (Peculiar Treasures) and theological words (Wishful Thinking, which are my favorite of all (Wishful Thinking, Whistling in the Dark). I have them all in my library, so stop by and I’ll get you going!

When I arrived at Winnetka Covenant Church now 33 years ago to begin as youth pastor, Pastor Bob Dvorak promptly took me to lunch and handed over a few of Frederick’s treasures with the caveat, “Read em, and we’ll talk.” And I did and we did, and my pilgrim journey with Frederick Buechner began.

His premise through all his work is that “At it’s heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography…that is to say, I cannot talk about God or sin or grace, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas become compelling and real.” (The Alphabet of Grace)

And grace abounds. I must share here my favorite lines of all his tomes, which his little reflection on “GRACE” from Wishful Thinking:

“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with Grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.

Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

Rest In Peace and rise in glory, Frederick. Thanks be to God!

Peter Hawkinson

From This Side of COVID

Well.

After two years, four months, and several odd days of fearing it, preparing for it, guarding against it, and wondering if I had it…finally, COVID found me.

And while I can confidently say that I am one of the lucky ones, in that it hasn’t sent me to the hospital, prevented me from caring for my dog, or really and truly debilitated me – I can also just as confidently say that it has been rough.

Getting COVID is a surprisingly emotional experience – at least I found it to be so. There are the ordinary emotions of feeling sick, weak, humbled and unable to carry on normally – the things we feel when we have a bad cold or a stomach flu – but with COVID these are also coupled with a good deal of lingering trauma from the last couple of years. Many people have gotten this and died – will I be one of them? It’s scary to get sick, but even more so without the protection of vaccines and boosters, or the promise of antiviral treatments – what must it have been like to have COVID under those conditions?

I texted with friends of mine the day I got that first positive test result, and we talked about the rollercoaster of COVID feelings. I cried a lot that day, from the overwhelm and uncertainty, the pent up anxieties of trying to avoid this exact scenario for so long, and the fear of what this diagnosis had meant for others and could mean for me.

But by that evening, I was crying for other reasons. (My friends and I have agreed: tears should be added to the list of likely symptoms by the CDC).

It was because I woke up to a phone call telling me that there were bags of groceries in my condo lobby, homemade soup and fresh bread, sports drinks and fruit.

There were friends who got my medicine from the pharmacy, friends who took my dog for a walk or an afternoon, friends who saw my name on the prayer list and emailed or texted: do you need anything? what can I do?

One sent a Door Dash gift card, so I could unapologetically order to my door whatever sounded good or necessary.

One showed up with both popsicles and Panera chicken soup when I said that either sounded amazing.

One asked if I needed trashy magazines (it made me laugh then, which I badly needed, and still makes me chuckle today).

And all of them, in their own way, reminded me: I don’t have to get through this on my own.

There will be help, and prayers, and check-ins, even after the initial days of isolation, while the fatigue lingers on and the cough won’t quit.

I cannot tell you precisely what that meant to me. What that means to me.

The truth is that I’m on day ten now, the last day that the CDC offers much guidance for what to do if you’re sick, the last day that you have much to grab onto in terms of: what do I do? What happens next?

And I still feel crummy. Not awful. But tired and congested and not my normal self.

This next phase, days 11 and onward, feels uncertain. How long until I get back to normal? When do I safely take a mask off with close friends? When am I no longer a risk to people I might visit?

These questions are swirling, and they can threaten to overwhelm me. But I keep coming back to you all, and your love, and care, and how God has shown up for me even in the midst of this.

And it’s enough, more than enough, to keep me going.

With a heart full of thanks,

Pastor Jen