On Waiting

Several years ago, I was given the task of explaining the liturgical year to the second graders in my church – in about ten minutes. Since that’s something which many adults could use a refresher on, I was stumped about how to translate and consolidate this down to the seven-year-old comprehension level, and then I struck on it: colors.

Surely, they would have noticed the colors draped across the ministers’ shoulders, or across the communion table and pulpit: the white and the green and the purple, the one day of bright red for Pentecost. White was for days and seasons of celebration, green for ordinary time, and then purple was especially important. Purple, I told the kids, was our waiting color. When they saw purple all over the church, it meant we were waiting, getting ready, either for Christmas or Easter.

At the very least, the lesson stuck with me, so that every time I spot purple clothes or vestments or decorations, I think: our waiting color.

As an impatient person, I like purple a little less now, because of that ever-present reminder to wait. To be patient. And it bugs me especially during Lent, a time when we are not just waiting for Easter Sunday, but for springtime and warm days, for new life budding up from the ground and bubbling up in us. During Advent, I know I am waiting, but the Christmas cookies are here now (no waiting required), and there’s always so much to do before the 25th that I scarcely notice the wait.

But Lent…Lent is bare, empty, stripped down, and waiting. Bare like the tree branches and the brown, brittle lawns in my neighborhood. Bare of snow, but also of bloom.

I want to sprint through Lent, I want to get to Easter now, but Lent is long. Six weeks long, and with that kind of timeline, my only option is to wait, patiently. To travel slowly and deliberately, to listen for what God is trying to tell me in this season; what God is teaching me in the in-between.

This year, it’s a lesson about simplicity, about having, doing, being less; and savoring it all. About not rushing between things, or on to the next thing. About the grace and beauty I can find when I am really, fully present to my life.

And I’m a slow learner. So I’m coming to be grateful that Lent is long, and God is patient, and I have the gift of time to learn deeply and well.

Jen Christianson

Stuck in the Middle

From The NetworkFebruary 2019

This year, I’ve returned to an old favorite for my morning devotional. It’s a collection of reflections by Shauna Niequist called Savor (find it here) and this week one of her writings hit at something that I feel about this time every winter.

In any journey, she writes,

“At the beginning, you have buoyancy and a little arrogance. The journey looks beautiful and bright, and you are filled with resolve and silver strength, sure that you will face it with optimism and chutzpah.

And the end is beautiful. You are wiser, better, deeper. The end is revelation, resolution, a soft place to land.

But, oh, the middle. The middle is fog, exhaustion, loneliness, the daily battle against despair and the nagging fear that tomorrow will be just like today, only you’ll be wearier and less able to defend yourself against it.

All you can ask for, in the middle, are sweet moments of reprieve in the company of people you love. For a few hours, you’ll feel protected by the goodness of friendship and life around the table, and that’s the best thing I can imagine.”

To a degree, this is how I feel most Januaries. In November and December, when the temperatures start to really drop, when snow becomes less of a dream and more of a reality with salt-scattered sidewalks and icy car windows, at least there is the comfort of harvest celebrations, of Thanksgiving pies and Christmas holly. But in January, when the snow keeps piling up, and I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel the tips of my toes, I start to grow weary. Weary of the constant winter colds, weary of snow finding its way into my boots and down my sleeves, weary of puddles from melting ice dotting the floor near my apartment doors.

In time, I know, the crocuses will sprout. The slush will turn into muddy rivers that run down the gutters, the grass will turn green again and I can start shedding the extra layers of thermal clothes. But in the middle, here, in the dark of winter after the brightness of the holidays, I think Shauna is right. All we can ask for is reprieve for a few hours from the cold and the dark. For tables to gather at with friends, for rooms which are so full of love and light that it burns off the frost around our weary hearts.

I feel that every Sunday when we gather together, and every Wednesday night when we share supper, songs and study. I feel that in the warmth of our fellowship, the laughter over coffee hour, the brightness of our sanctuary windows and the deep reverberation of the organ pipes. Something warm, and welcoming, and invigorating. Sacred.

Shauna wasn’t writing just about church in this passage, but she may as well have been. It is, after all, a place that reminds me so often about the “goodness of friendship and life around the table.” For that, and for each of you, I am so deeply grateful. Grateful, even, for this season of being “in the middle,” since it shows me how richly blessed I am.

Jen Christianson

Holding the Light

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

Every year, about this time, I get a little sad when the Christmas lights go down. And this year I’m noticing it much more because, for the first time, I’m outside a lot more: three times a day, rain or shine, wind or snow, walking the rescue dog I brought home in October. It was a lot easier to walk her in December, when it seemed as though almost every house had a candle in the window, or a tree all lit up, something glittery hanging from the gutters or adorning the bushes in the yard.

I found myself, more often than not, bundling up and excitedly taking her out for our evening walk, anticipating the comforting glow of all those lights.

 

Now, there are only a few lone houses in our neighborhood that have decorations still up. Not that I can begrudge anyone their dark and empty windows – after all, this weekend I joined everyone else in reluctantly pulling boxes out of storage and putting away the wreaths and the ornaments for next December. But there was a lingering sadness this year, because – quite simply – I feel jipped. Shortchanged. Deprived.

My family, you see, spent Christmas Eve, and Day, and several days beyond, surrounding one of our own in the hospital as she struggled with a nasty parasite. We tried to be of good cheer when red Gatorade was the most festive food on her menu, when we carted bags of presents into her room to open over the course of the afternoon, taking breaks for naps and interruptions by the nursing staff.

I recognize that we were lucky, in all of this. Lucky that she got the care she needed, and her body is again strong and well. Lucky that I live amazingly close to this hospital, lucky that my parents were in town to juggle caring for my dog with taking shifts visiting our patient. Lucky that we had each other, and the prayers of so many, to support us through a hard week. Lucky that this was our first holiday in many years to be spent in this way.

 

But I’ll be honest: not much of that helped, on Christmas Eve. When I had been looking forward to it all year, to the gift of having family with me in my new ministry setting, of celebrating that holy night with my new church family. No, I could not see the light for the darkness. Could not feel the joy of Christmas for my worry about my family, for my exhaustion, for my fear.

I dressed for our services, pasted a smile on my face, and steeled myself to try and be merry. And then, something incredible happened. In the midst of our evening service, during our candle-lighting ceremony with quiet singing of Silent Night, I saw the light.

I saw it in a way that reached straight through me, that broke through my sorrow and my hurt. I saw it spread from person to person, felt it catch within me and grow. I watched as people whom I have grown in just a few months to know and love, turned to one another with a smile and shared their light. I saw it grow enough to flicker across the panels of stained glass on the sanctuary wall, felt it warm me through and through.

I realized, in that moment, in a way that I desperately needed to be reassured: the darkness cannot overcome the light. The light is here, in us, and we can carry it for each other, share it with one another, hold it out against each others’ darkness. No matter what I, or any of us, is going through, there is light enough for us. Light enough to burn away the darkness and the cold; light enough to give us another bit of faith and hope. Not just at Advent time, but all year round. When I see the lights going down in my neighborhood, I remember this, and I am grateful. Grateful for a church that holds the light for each other, and for their pastors too.

by Jen Christianson

Sabbatical Time

From The NetworkJanuary 2019

Our senior pastor Pete is on sabbatical for the months of January through March, and in recognition of that he shared this poem of his creation in the church newsletter.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and
sisters. Amen (Galatians 6:18)

Sabbatical Time
Brothers and sisters we are,
bound together by days and years
of experience and emotion.

Knitted together by our Christ,
and by God’s Spirit,
brothers and sisters we are.

Grace the noun, and the verb,
what we share and
bless each other with along the way.

We journey now for a time apart,
yet in deepest reality we are
connected most deeply to each other.

How is it? How can it be
that this prayer holds us
close in the grace of God

When we don’t share
Worship and sacrament
Coffee and conversation?

It must be more, God, of your
Holy handiwork, for
Brothers and sisters we are.

So May the grace of Christ
Be with your spirit
In the days to come.

Let it be so! Amen.
Peter Hawkinson

Come, Then, Come

From The Network, December 2018

“Behold, I Am Coming Soon!
(Revelation 22:7)

With inward pain my heartstrings sound, my soul dissolves away;
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
And bring, and bring the promised day, and bring the promised day.
(Early American Hymn)

And so again, advent is upon us, the beginning of a new Church year and the renewing of our longing for the Promised One to come, Jesus, Immanuel, God With Us. Did you catch it? OUR LONGING!

Advent is a present activity for the Christ Community. While the culture in which we live settles in for an extended holiday celebration, we Christians are those whose advent lacks sentimentality, because the pain of waiting long for our life’s most important promise inaugurates yet another year. Israel waited for hundreds of years; we are into the thousands! Thousands, since the risen Christ left his disciples with a promise to return, since in a holy dream he said to St. John the Revelator the same. Christ has come, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again is what the early Christians said. And nothing yet has changed in this regard; this advent we are bid to say by faith the same.

So what of the choice of Jesus’ word SOON? This is what we ponder anew, and what we remember, that our Advent is not a kind of Currier and Ives remembering of the first Christmas as it is a time of deep longing for Jesus to come back, as he promised he will, and of much pain along with another year passed to threaten the diminishment of our faith – and what must be a stubborn and almost defiant unwillingness to let go of that promise, and our hope.

The early Church was sure that Christ the King would return in their lifetimes. SOON was a word that seemed to fit, to make sense. Now our sentiment seems to be sarcastic, and our waiting inactive; the truth is that time has numbed us to the promise. SOON makes little sense. We roll our eyes and say under our breath, “Sure, Okay, Whatever.” And the truth is that a SOON lasting 2,000 years makes little human sense. It’s hard to watch and wait and prepare and be ready and keep our lamps lit for so long. Maybe that’s what some hymn writers had in mind a few hundred years ago when they wrote and sang about inward pain and prayers for the SOON to happen after all.

Yet with longing, with a pleading faith, we hold out hope. Maybe this is the year! Come, then, come Lord Jesus. Blessed advent.

Peter Hawkinson

Heart Issues

From The Network, November 2018

“For your heart will always be where your riches are.”
Matthew 6:21 (Good News Translation)

We get to November, and we say to ourselves, “It’s that time of year again.” Stewardship time, with budget time on the horizon. But that thought process won’t do! It’s only evidence of our heart issues. The real truth, of course, is that it’s always “that time of year.” Every day of our lives is a stewardship moment, a stewardship sermon, sure as our hearts continue beating: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Ps. 118:24)

The words of Jesus challenge us. What’s happening with our money reflects what’s going on in our heart, what’s at the center of our lives. He goes on in his sermon to explain, to unpack his thesis. He says “Give first place to God’s kingdom and to what he requires, and he will provide you with all these other things.” (6:33). He says, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” (6:34)

Henri Nouwen says this: “To set our hearts on the Kingdom therefore means to make the life of the Spirit within and among us the center of all we think, say, or do.” (Making All Things New, p. 43). The lingering stewardship question is not about money, or giving, or pledging, but about where our heart is, what it seeks after. Our use of money answers those questions of the heart more than our words can say. The tale of the tape (changing little over time) is that the average American citizen gives 2 percent of their resources to charity, while the Christian population gives 2.5 percent. During the great depression the giving rate was 3.3%.

We need to reflect deeply on the sermon of Jesus, and our heart issues, every day, every day. We need with faith to set our hearts on God’s Kingdom, to seek first the life of the Spirit within and among us. “For your heart will always be where your riches are.” With all love and goodwill, and asking myself, I ask you now: what is your heart seeking after?

Pray about this as the stewardship letter soon arrives.

Peter Hawkinson

Honesty, All Around!

From The Network, October 2018

All over the gospels, there’s a common occurrence, when Jesus, who claims to be the Messiah, is eating and having fellowship with “sinners” – Grumbling, Grumbling. And Jesus is trying to get the religious folk to understand the grace of God, and that it’s only by grace that they can find life with God, and that by grace they CAN find life with God!

In our early Covenant Church days, there was a man in 1871 identified only as “L. Peterson from Princeton, IL,” who ruminated on this gospel moment that comes frequently, in a letter to a friend, as they were considering grace together. The letter ends with this prayer:

May God,
from whom all grace comes,
fill our dead, cold, lukewarm,
empty, narrow, sluggish,
careless, false, hypocritical,
unfaithful, doubting, frivolous,
erring, godless, corrupted,
dispirited, depressed, sorrowful,
GLAD hearts.

I’m struck by that prayer, how it seems celebrative and hopeful, even though it contains an exhaustive and exhausting list of confessed sins. Guilty as charged! Honest to the hilt! Yet gladness remains, a glad heart, only because of grace, and the activity of the God from whom all grace comes. I have experienced it in others, and myself have struggled mightily with the nature of grace, that it can only be accepted, never earned, that it can only be received through an honest confession of utter undeserving, and that it is precisely this honest confession that makes grace understood and thus gladden the heart.

I knew another old man a hundred years later in 1971. I’d watch Milton during the weekly time of congregational confession for an obvious reason, because the same thing happened every week: he’d lay his head down on the pew in front of him, hands folded above him, often with tears, as if in agony, and then raise himself up just in time to hear the pastor’s words of assurance – “In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” – suddenly smiling broadly as if to someone up in the rafters, taking a deep, deep breath. Just like that, every week.

Honesty, I think, gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to being honest with God – God is, after all slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and more than anything else, filled with grace. As my maternal grandmother used to say, “Sometimes a good cry is the best thing!” So consider a brutal honesty before God as the way to a Glad heart.

All Thanks be to God!

Peter Hawkinson

Family Dinner

From The Network, September 2018

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their
possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day,
as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their
food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the
people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Acts 2:43-47

The professor of my Church History 101 class, my first year of seminary, loved this passage. He began each class session by reading it aloud to us; these verses were his prayer, his agenda, his benediction. For him, this description of the early church in Acts was the goal and the dream for our fellowship today.

Now, I’m still not sure how to interpret the bit about common property – we can tackle that another time – but I am drawn to this image of common life, of praying and praising, working and worshipping together. And in just a few weeks here at Winnetka Covenant Church, I’ve seen that you love and value this too. It has been a great delight for me to see how much you enjoy each other; how committee meetings start and end with conversation, with prayer requests and follow-ups; how worship spills out into the narthex with coffee and donut holes and hugs and laughter well beyond the last tolling of the bells.

All of this, in the quiet weeks of summer before our program year kicks off – and it has me eagerly anticipating the months to come, when we will have many more chances to learn and grow and serve together.

Yet, I’m reminded by this passage how there is so much more of life that is lived beyond these walls; how those early believers broke their bread together as well as worshiped. And that is my hope, in my first year here at Winnetka: that I will have a chance to break bread with all of you. I was part of a small group at seminary who met each week for what we called “Family Dinner”: a chance to tell our stories, to multiply our joys and divide our sorrows, to share our food while telling of our hopes and dreams. I’d like to do the same with you, my church family. You may have already heard that I love to bake…

So here is my offer: let’s eat – together! Let’s drink a cup of coffee while your kids play in the park or grab a slice of pizza after a long day at work. Let’s meet at your favorite neighborhood spot (including the Covenant Village Bistro!) or cook a family recipe together. I’ll bring dessert. Here’s how: send me an email or call me, Sunday to Thursday, at the church (847) 446-4300, ext.14.

With joy and anticipation for this time together,

Jen Christianson

The Journey Begins

Friends,

Thanks for joining us on this new journey! We’re excited to debut the new Winnetka Covenant Church blog, a place where we can share writings from our pastoral staff and members about what’s taking place in our church, our community, and our hearts. We’ll share each month the cover piece from our church newsletter, the Network, as well as various other reflections written by the pastors and others in our church.

We hope and pray that this will be another space for us to grow together as a community, and welcome you!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.
Izaak Walton