Standing in Awe

In my first job out of seminary, I spent my summers sitting with a group of college interns, helping them to sort out their experiences serving their city’s most vulnerable citizens.

Most of these young men and women had grown up worlds away from their neighbors who experienced homelessness, joblessness and food insecurity, but in this particular summer they were up close and personal to the suffering.

As part of their program, we read books together; great books; books about compassion and faith and suffering and hope. One of those books was Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder/executive director of Homeboy Ministries, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles. It’s this book that I have been thinking about a lot lately.

In an essay on compassion, Boyle writes “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

These days, it isn’t just the poor that we need to have compassion on, though that is always the case; it is each other. Our leaders, our neighbors, our families; our very selves.

We are in uncharted territory in this pandemic, trying to figure out how to do work and school and ministry and all of life without the physical communities we have grown used to, without the ability to venture out normally, without our usual safety nets.

If you look closely, my guess is that you will be hard-pressed to find an area of your life that hasn’t been impacted, even if only for the short-term, by COVID-19.

One of the many negative effects of the stress and change is this: I am witnessing far more criticism in our society – on the radio, the television, on my news feed. I read about people ridiculing each other for going to get takeout, or wearing a mask to the grocery store. I see rants posted on my Facebook feed about new restricted store hours or limits on items. I hear people venting their frustration on each other…and I keep coming back to Boyle’s words.

What we seek is a compassion that stands in awe at what we all carry.

In awe, at the person who lives alone and has to deal with this strange, worrisome time on their own.

In awe, at the nurse who cannot stay home, but dons the same N95 mask every day to care for patients, praying she doesn’t bring the virus home to her family.

In awe, at the grocery store workers and mail carriers who keep showing up every day.

In awe, at the teachers who have learned an entirely different way of instruction and are burning the midnight oil to revise their lessons and make sure their students don’t miss a beat.

In awe, at how we, ourselves, are managing not to lose our hope or our sanity every day.

After all, as a friend reminded me: this is your first pandemic. You’re doing great.

Here is your invitation: on top of all the other things you may be feeling right now, don’t add judgment to the list. Seek, instead, compassion.

Aim to stand in awe of what everyone around you is carrying. Marvel at the losses they have sustained and the way they keep on going, at the disappointments and the worries they are holding, and still getting up every morning.

And extend that grace, dear one, to yourself.

-Pastor Jen


Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (Covenant Hymnal, 31)

This great hymn was written by Lutheran Pastor Martin Rinkhart, serving in the walled city of Eilenburg, Germany during the horrors of the thirty years war, 1618-1648 — a most brutal span of years filled with war, famine, and the Black Plague. There were four ministers in the town: one abandoned his post, and pastor Rinkhart officiated at the funerals for the other two. 1637 was the year of the Black Plague. As the only pastor left, he conducted an average of 40 funerals a day, and 4,480 in all. In May of that year his own wife died.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;

and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

Wanting to give his children a song to sing to God in thanks at the dinner table, Rinkart sat down and composed what would become a beloved thanksgiving hymn. While living in a moment dominated by death, Martin wrote this timeless prayer of thanksgiving for his children.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven,
the one eternal God, whom earth and heav’n adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. 

All is well, friends, even in these deadly days. Gratitude comes from faith in God’s presence and promises, that even this world’s dark tragedies cannot touch. Love wins, life wins. “NO!” we shout into the face of what we face: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37). 

We join brother Martin in the song which will get us through these days.

-Pastor Pete

You Are What You Eat

This phrase comes from the 1826 work, “Physiologie du Gout, ou Medetations de Gastronomie Transcendante” in which French author, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

Now the point of that first paragraph was not simply to type out a bunch of French words, but more importantly to have us realize that people for centuries all over the world have viewed this idea as valuable and important.

I would suggest this phrase has never been more true than now during #Quarantine2020.

Not just when it comes to our physical nutrition, although that is important, but more so when it comes to our mind & our spirit.

You are what you eat from your head to your feet.

What are we feeding our minds during this time of social distancing & sheltering in place? What are we seeing, hearing and thinking about?

It’s so easy to be surrounded by noise all day.  From keeping up with the ever-changing news cycle to binge-watching T.V. shows, to scrolling on our phones for hours at a time- time can fly by so fast!

What is all that content doing to us?

We can get sucked into a rhythm where we aren’t aware of what we are consuming.  Are we consuming fears, anxiety and negativity?  Is that why we are becoming afraid, anxious and downtrodden?

What if we consumed the Fruits of the Spirit?  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?  What would we be like then?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.”

Today friends, I hope you are what you eat from your head to your feet. I hope that you are a wonderfully healthy version of yourself as a disciple of Christ!

-Pastor Joel

Praying Through

This week, I’ve been talking a lot with others about prayer. About who we are praying for, and what, and how, and why. About the enormity of the problem around us and throughout our world, and how helpless we feel, and scared and frustrated.

It’s been hard to know what to say, exactly. To them, or to God in my prayers.

And so I have gone back to an old standby of mine, a little volume called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott. It has gotten me through more than one hard season, by giving me words to pray when I didn’t have any, and reflections that read like poetry, telling me why sometimes even one word is all the prayer I need.

I thought I would tell you today about “help,” because that’s the prayer that it seems like this pandemic demands.

Help, I’m afraid for my loved ones. Help, our hospitals are filling up. Help, we don’t even know who has COVID-19, and who is spreading it, and how the number of cases will increase going forward. Help, I miss and long for my family but I can’t see them right now, for their safety and mine. Help, I can’t gather with my community, who would normally help me get through this. Help, doctors and nurses are putting themselves in harm’s way every day and we need them and fear for them and there aren’t enough of them. Help, we’re running out of masks and ventilators. Help, people are dying.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a time for all three of Anne’s prayers.

This is a time for “wow,” too. Wow, as Anne writes, “is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. ‘Wow’ means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Center towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. ‘Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.”*

Wow is for the good times and the bad – whatever astounds us and puts our lives into perspective.

And so I am praying “wow” a lot these days.

Wow, we are all so much more connected than we realized. Wow, people all over the world are showing up to help each other, to care for the elderly and the sick, to go to the grocery store and deliver medicine. Wow, schools are still finding ways to feed kids two meals a day. Wow, teachers are moving their entire classes online and spending tireless hours reworking lessons to fit. Wow, we really do need each other.

Finally, this is still a time for thanks. I tell people a lot about my gratitude journal, a little list of three items every day that I can still be thankful for – and how the days when I least feel like writing are the days I need to the most. This season is no exception.

Thanks, God, for Zoe; this little rescue dog who turned my life upside-down in the best way, but who is my constant companion and comfort these days. Thanks, for reliable internet and ways to connect with others through Zoom, Facetime, Skype, text, calls, email. Thanks, for signs all around me of spring on its way (See also: wow; resurrection always comes whether or not we get to gather for Easter this year).

Thanks, for this community of faith that I can feel around me even when we can’t be together.


If you have the words to pray right now, then by all means use them. But if you don’t, may these be a comfort to you. May you use them as I have, and find that three little words are more than enough.

-Pastor Jen

*Lamott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When Deep Sorrow Comes

This is a newsletter article from some years ago I wanted to share.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

I am feeling this way on a gloomy afternoon. Unexpected, sad news comes my way. My spirit feels crushed, my heart broken, aching. I know you know the feeling. You have been there many times, maybe even as you read this! Life, as wonderful a gift as it is, can sorrow us deeply. Such is the risk of loving and being loved.

In these moments there is nothing else to rest in but this, first that the LORD is near, close, in proximity, with me in my sorrow, and second, that God saves me, sustains me, delivers me, somehow keeps a crushed spirit alive. So when deep sorrow comes, there is a healing balm, and that is the presence and healing activity of God.

I’m remembering as a boy when I witnessed the death of a beloved pet, at the hands of a passing car. Frank Odell, the tallest man in the neighborhood, came and sat down with me, leaning against the garage door, and for a long, long time, just sat there in silence with me. After a while, he got up without saying anything, to leave I thought, but came back with a slurpee from 7-11. He just sat there with me, so that I could grieve with someone else. He acted on behalf of God there. He set his life aside to come and dwell with me in my sorrow. He put himself near to me, without trying to dwell in platitudes. I don’t remember if or what the words we shared were, but I’ll never forget his presence.

The important lesson is God’s repeated pattern of coming close when things are most difficult, when life seems to fall in on us. The writer of Hebrews quotes God, who says “I will never leave you or forsake you.”(13:5). Last week we sang this unique hymn in which it is God who is singing:

Go, my children, with my blessing, never alone.
Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river, I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing, you are my own. (Hymnal, 676)

Sometimes God’s presence and promises are all we have. And it’s enough!
And we cling to the one who will never let us go. Thanks be to God.

– Pastor Pete

Could you imagine what 40 years would have felt like?!?

Joshua 5:6a, “The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died,”

Good morning friends,

I saw some of you a week ago.  We had our Wednesday night programming like usual.  Chicken cacciatore was served for dinner.  The worship team played, “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.”  I even took the youth to Homer’s Ice Cream for a special treat!

Tonight will look a lot different at Winnetka Covenant Church.  A lot has happened in one week & it feels like each day brings about new information & new changes to how we are navigating the world around us.

At times in the past week, I have felt like I was wandering.  Not sure how to word emails to our youth group parents.  Not sure what questions to ask our youth when I text or call them.  Not sure what to buy personally when I grow to the grocery, because I don’t want to hoard, but also don’t want to be underprepared.

It has been draining living in all the uncertainty and unknown.  And it’s been one week.

For my devotions this morning, I read the story from the book of Numbers about the Israelites wandering for forty years. Forty years!!!  I’m twenty-nine! That means I would still have eleven more years of wandering- not knowing where I am going. I literally cannot even fathom what that would feel like.

Amidst my wandering, amidst my fears, amidst all that is going on around us, I have tried to remain grounded and rooted in a verse that I wrote on a canvas and gave as a gift to my Grandma when her husband passed away in 2007.

Joshua 1:5, “No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us, is among us!  God was with Moses for forty years of wandering.  God has been with us in our wandering.  God will never leave us, nor forsake us.  May the peace of Christ be with you today, wherever you are.

By Pastor Joel

What We Know

Several years ago, in preparation for a staff retreat at the church where I was serving, I took an assessment called Strengths Finder.

It told me what I probably could have guessed: that two of my top strengths are “input” and “learning.”

I love to read, and I love to learn. My mom teases me that my grandmother used to say “You can never have enough books,” but that I might be an exception. For years, my bedroom and living room have been littered with stacks of books, overflowing from the shelves and onto the floor.

When I discover some new hobby or project, like sourdough baking, or capsule closets, I head first to the library or the internet, and read all I can about it before doing anything.

I love to learn.

As you can imagine, that is both a blessing and a curse in times like these.

There is no lack of information out there, which I can and have spent hours upon hours devouring. Every few minutes, it seems, there is another headline, article, press briefing, or tweet about coronavirus and COVID-19. Some of the information is reliable, some of it is hype, and a lot of it, at this point, seems to be educated guesses. We don’t know the extent of the virus’ spread in our community at this point. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know when schools will reopen, or restaurants, or when the markets will start to return to normal. We don’t know what that normal will look like, though we can guess it will be different, after having lived through a pandemic, something that not even my grandparents ever experienced in their lifetime.

For many of us, the not-knowing is one of the hardest parts of all. I know it is for me.

It’s enough to make me feel really off-balance, like the world under my feet isn’t so steady anymore.

But there are things, I have to remind myself, that I do know. Things that, as a person of faith, I can still hold onto even as the world around me is in crisis.

Here are a few of them:

That the people I love and care about are still here, right now. And even if I can’t be with them physically, or I am choosing not to for their health, I can still be with them and for them in other ways: still pray for them, still talk to them, still write to them and think of them and maybe even Skype while I drink coffee with them.

That we are, none of us, alone in this. It’s tremendously easy to feel that we are, locked in our apartments, self-quarantining in our homes, but the reality is that we are so much more connected, and reliant on each other, than we even realize. My well-being is bound up with yours, and yours with mine. Coronavirus shows us that in a harsh way, but it also makes clear to us what we so often forget: we need each other. Not just for grocery runs and sharing our toilet paper when a neighbor’s supply runs low, but for fellowship and laughter and presence and strength.

That even though the church cannot, and probably should not, gather physically in a time like this, it is not a time to tune out of our community of faith. No, it’s a time to lean in: to call more often, to pray, to find ways to study scripture and learn together and serve others ever more creatively. I’ll be reaching out soon with ways that we can do that as WCC, but I hope you think about how to do this in your neighborhoods, your families, and your other communities of work and play.

It’s a scary time, friends, and a lot feels uncertain and unknowable.

But instead of letting it pull us deeper into anxiety, into fear, into alienation, let’s hear the invitation to be drawn closer to God and to each other. To remember that God goes with us, behind us, and before us every step of the way, and that even though our future is uncertain, God is already there.

Love and peace to all of you,

Pastor Jen