Dreaming in Distress

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…Restore our fortunes, O God, like the water courses in the Negev.(Psalm 126)

I know you’re tired of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. The Psalms of Ascent (120-134) are the real deal. Shorter and profoundly earthy, these songs carry in them the experienced memories and present sorrows of Israel. These are the songs that were sung on the road up to Jerusalem when yearly festivals were at hand.

Psalm 126, created after the exile, remembers the joy of coming home, coming back to life — it’s joy and laughter, like the ending to a good dream. And the power of remembering God’s faithfulness to bring them home, to bring them through their distress, invites them to dream still, even as they sing in their present moment, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord”… here, and now.

I’ve found it to be true that just about every present moment of life’s journey carries distress and begs for God’s presence which heals, restores, renews, gives life. LIFE’S JOURNEY IS PAINFUL AND HARD! and wonderful too, wonderful too. More often than not it seems in the present moment that God’s presence is elusive, God’s activity distant. Here we cling for life to God’s promise to be faithful and lead us through, lead us back to home, whatever home is.

When I look back, I can trace God’s faithful leading and provision. Bonnie and I note together how we’ve been companioned by God’s faithful presence. It seems much harder to sense God’s presence here and now, in life’s present moments. This is why our memories of who God is and what God has done comfort us most profoundly in whatever is our present crisis.

We are invited to dream in our distress, dream about moments to come when we can embrace again, and gather freely, when laughter and joy will ride high on the sanctuary ceiling yet again. Keep the faith! remember that your future along with mine is in God’s hands. What is for us now will most surely pass, and the grief we carry from it will form us into a community of more depth and understanding, more love and gratitude.

So go ahead, dream in your distress, friend, for “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”


Please enjoy this post by our guest writer, and church member, Kitti Steiner. 

I feel suspicious of the weather these days, not joyful, or hopeful, or excited for the season to come, or comforted by the reliability of the cycle. It’s peculiar to feel this way, but I guess that is part of feeling anxious. I’m generally a cheerful person, able to look forward, and there is within me still a spark of hope. But, currently, this feeling of suspicion, as if I can’t trust the world any longer, is making me sad about life. It is difficult to explain and I certainly understand people who live with this feeling all the time. It feels to me that I won’t be able to do my garden, and or enjoy it, because I don’t know what is coming next. And I am afraid that whatever does come next will not be good.

We had quite the deluge recently; it’s spring, that happens. As is my habit, I check out my bedroom window to see how much water has accumulated in our prone-to-flooding back yard. This morning there was a lot. It stretched across the width of our property and across the width of the lot to our east. Because of this, we get ducks. We have a pair this season that returns after every little bit of rain. Even if there is a scant puddle, barely enough for a kiddie pool, there they are. It warms and lifts my heart. Skip named them Hansel and Gretel.


The flooding has been a source of deep annoyance over the years, so we took measures to mitigate the problem. Now, the excess water drains in less than a day out to the front of the house into the sewer. Yet we still manage to attract at least one tenacious pair after every deluge or minor shower. How do they know? And why don’t they realize that the water will be gone soon? I feel badly about our removing their habitat so aggressively, but if we left it, there would be mosquito families instead. Snacks for the ducks, but not fun for us. Or the neighborhood.

Still, there those ducks are, trusting in that water source. Surely there are more secluded places to raise a family. But the ducks know that there will be water, all it will take is a major downpour, and then they can fly in and swim to and fro, or snuggle or waddle around the perimeter. And I get to watch and be refreshed.

Now I’m empathizing with ducks! I trust that my comfort will come, despite the drought in my soul. It helps to have the reminder of the ducks on my temporary pond that God is in control. They don’t have to worry about what day it is, what activity they should get up to, when they can guiltlessly take their next nap. God has taken care of all their needs. All the ducks need to do is show up, swim a bit, fish for the bugs swimming under the surface, and find a place to nap. Life is good for a duck.

Life is truly good for me, despite our current limitations. God’s eye is on the ducks. I know He watches me.

The Way of Christ

“All Things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,”, but not all things build up. Let no one seek their own good, but the good of their neighbor.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Before long it seems some changes will come for us. Every state now is taking steps to open up in some way, shape, or form. And though we have many differing opinions about the unfolding plans, we say “Thank you Lord!” for small steps, even small steps back toward life as we knew it before. The word from Governor Pritzker is that we are on track to move from phase 2 to phase 3 of our state re-entry plan on May 29.

Patience will be the virtue for which we pray, as things will unfold in the church slowly, more than we would like. In Phase 3 gatherings are limited to 10 or less, and in phase 4 (a minimum of a month later) gatherings will be limited to 50 or less. It will likely be a while before we share that great joy of all being together again in worship. This we grieve.

Yet we might also see this intentional path as a way of deep caring for one another. Tuesday night on our executive board Zoom call pastor Jen shared that as we move from phase 2 to phase 3 we might do well to reflect on what’s lawful – vs – what’s beneficial. She had to be thinking about the scripture above, where Paul is talking with the early church about dietary laws. As the church becomes full of the world, as gentiles and pagans enter the community, how will kosher laws be kept? What happens when so called “unclean” foods are set before you on someone else’s table?

His answer is that in Christ we are set free to love and serve others. “Let no one seek their own good, but the good of their neighbor.” I woke up early this morning feeling that this is the answer to all our problems in the world, to this pandemic’s relentless hold on humanity, and also to our hopes and opinions for the best way to start back home to life again. It is the Christ move, the God way, the Spirit’s nudging that we might consider the good of others more than what our own rights and privileges are.

As we think about the Church — our hearts are full for our seniors, and for those with underlying medical conditions. We discern what to do thinking about those with depleted immune systems. As a community fully committed to choosing life, we don’t want to worship together in person if it risks the health and life of others. We differentiate between what we’re told we have the right to do and what in fact is right, best, and good for our neighbors. This causes us to have more patience and perspective in the social distance.

Our time will come! And in the meantime chances for small circles of fellowship will soon commence, albeit at a social distance.

As you watch the news, and read the papers, and talk with friends, and form your opinions about what is right to do in the world and in the church, do so as one set free not only from your sins but from the need to cling to your own rights and privilege. Embrace the way of Christ, and consider what is best for your neighbor. And be patient.

Maybe Paul’s word to the church is naive. But maybe not. Maybe this is actually the way to healing and life for all.

It Will Not Return to Me Empty

Isaiah 55:10-11, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return empty to me, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Now if that’s not the most beautiful, eloquent run-on sentence out there, I don’t know what is!

Water and rain are on my mind today as my Facebook feed is filled with people’s concerns over flooding basements and washed out streets.  Before I go any further into this blog entry, I want to say to all of you who are struggling with keeping water under control, you are in the thoughts and prayers of the pastoral staff at Winnetka Covenant Church.

Floods are an unstoppable force of nature; many of us know that far too well today.  These verses from the book of Isaiah remind us that water has a purpose & it does not go away until that purpose has been achieved.

The same can be said about our God.  Our Creator is relentless in pursuing us- diligent until the mission is accomplished.  It might not occur in the way that we are hoping or anticipating, but we believe that God will reconcile all of Creation in time.

Recently, I read about that time feels longer/slower when we are learning new things.  We are aware of so many details that need to be understood and we cannot go into “cruise control” through our own lives.  That is why the month of March felt so long for so many people because each day contained new elements of life to learn.

Time might feel like it is going slow right now, which can lead to us desiring even more for God to make everything right in the world and achieve the purpose of what our Savior set out to do.

With all that being said, my prayer for each of us today, wherever we are at mentally and whatever circumstances we are navigating today, is that we could have a quiet moment with our Lord to remember that God is achieving something during this time that is far beyond our understanding in the moment.  God has a purpose and we trust that purpose will be achieved, no matter what.  Through the good and the bad, we remain people of hope and faith, that Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead and we are brought to new life through Him.  Amen.

-Pastor Joel

Don’t Be Afraid

The guest blogger today is Hannah Hawkinson.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19, NRSV)

I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid.

COVID-19 has thrown our community, our nation, and our world into chaos. We’re doing our best to flatten the curve, but the number of cases continues to rise and the death toll continues to climb. And even as this pandemic dominates the front page, one look on page two reminds us that the virus is just the beginning. The fight for justice for Ahmaud Arbery only resulted in arrests after widespread public outcry months after his murder in February; the economy continues to plummet as unemployment rates skyrocket; a military exercise goes awry in Iran, killing nineteen civilians; obituaries abound for beloved figures like Little Richard and Jerry Stiller. We can’t even get a break from shark attacks. And all this on top of the immediate worries in our own lives—financial strain, waiting for diagnoses, job hunting, home schooling, caring for loved ones.

There’s more than enough fear to go around these days, that’s for sure.

And yet, over and over again throughout scripture, God’s people are commanded, “Don’t be afraid.” I used to take it as a given that they followed this command because of their exceptional strength, casting their fear aside and mustering a miraculous courage that they didn’t know they had.

But now I’m not so sure.

The author of 1 John famously writes that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

What if “Don’t be afraid” isn’t a command that we follow to demonstrate our own strength of character? What if “Don’t be afraid” isn’t a call to disregard and downplay our fear, to roll up our sleeves and forcefully imprison our fear by our own volition? What if “Don’t be afraid” is an invitation to step outside of ourselves, to acknowledge our fear and to freely place it in the hands of our God whose perfect love casts out fear?

I’m reminded of the words of George Matheson’s beloved hymn:

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

In these days when so much is uncertain, when isolation and fear seem to be our bread and butter, let us resist the urge to go it alone. May we rest our weary souls in our God who will never let us go, whose perfect love casts out fear.

What We Know, Part II

Read Part I of this reflection here.

Eight weeks later, and I’m still thinking about this: the balance between what we know and what we don’t about the situation we find ourselves in: this pandemic.

In those weeks, it seems like so much has changed – and also not nearly enough.

It feels like ages ago, years, since I sat down at Walker Brothers with Pastor Pete and Pastor Joel to discuss whether we should start cancelling in-person programs at WCC while COVID-19 spread across our areas. Since I went to my gym and swam in the pool there. Since I booked a plane ticket and worried not about whether I’d be allowed to fly, but about who would watch my dog when I went away.

At the same time, though, it feels like all of these weeks of anxiety, uncertainty, pain and fear blend together into one big blur.

The things that we know about the virus, and its spread, have changed a lot. We know much more now, about risk factors and complications and protective measures. We know more about how long it will likely take to get back to anything resembling normal life (as in, we know that it won’t be anytime soon).

I know I should wear a mask whenever I’m unable to keep six feet distance from people outside of my family, and I know that I have to whenever I go inside a grocery store or other place of business.

But here’s what is really the most important thing that I know; that we all know, by now:

We know that this pandemic has affected everyone. Even if we don’t know how, we can be sure that all of our lives have been touched in some way.

Specifically, we know that everyone has lost something: in the best case scenario, that may be the loss of normalcy, the loss of routine, the loss of community and connection.

In the worst case, that loss could be someone, a family member or close friend. It could be the loss of a job, or savings; loss of health, loss of hope.

And in-between those extremes, there are so many other losses: birthdays celebrated alone; graduations moved online; weddings postponed or performed without any guests or cake or dancing.

We have all lost something.

The temptation, of course, is to rank those losses from least to most severe. To diminish the ones that are more about loss of comfort and continuity, and emphasize the other losses: of life, of livelihood. But the truth is, that kind of thinking doesn’t help. It creates a sense of shame if we’re struggling with so-called smaller losses; a sense that we shouldn’t be hurting so much if all we’ve lost is the ability to grocery shop with a sense of security.

I know the urge, because I feel it too. I recognize that I am in a comparatively cushy situation, holed up at home with my sister and my dog, feeling so far healthy and having the financial means to buy groceries for two weeks at a time. Why should I get to complain that it will probably be several more months before I can see my parents again – when one of my close friends is an ICU nurse?

But here’s the thing I have noticed about our God, as I continue to sit these days with the scriptures: God doesn’t put much stock by comparison and shame. God is about compassion and healing, mercy and love.

When those who were crippled or bleeding or possessed by demons came to Jesus, he didn’t sort through to find the worst cases first and then come back to the others: he just healed.

I think he wants to do the same for us now.

I think that he is already grieving our losses with us, no matter how small or how large, and that he yearns to be invited in to our hearts, to weep with us and eventually to dry our tears.

I hope, dear friends, that you will let him. As often as you need to, and as much as you want to, in these trying times.

Because here is what we know: the steadfast love of our God never changes. Not now, and not ever.


– Pastor Jen

The Prophet’s Call for US

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”                 (Amos 5:20-24)

My heart is heavy today even though the sun is shining. On February 23, a Sunday Afternoon,  Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old African American man, was jogging through a Portsmouth, Georgia neighborhood when he was confronted and shot to death by a white man and his son who said he “resembled” a description they had heard about a local robbery suspect. Add his name to tens of thousands of other young black men who have died like this, along with thousands who were lynched from the end of the civil war until the second world war.

I feel drawn myself to cry out for justice, as these men who killed Ahmaud have not yet to my knowledge been arrested. And I know, I know, there may be more to say about what happened, although a video released begs to differ with grim details.

What I’m wrestling with is the way I safely distance myself — “I don’t have guns, I don’t hate, I’m not a racist, my family wasn’t in America when slavery was going on, I would never do something like that…” — But if I’m honest, I feel the harsh words through Amos of God’s anger and disgust as mine to own, as ours to own as white America, and especially as the white Christian community. Excuses won’t do, can’t cut the mustard when what’s just and right is at stake. We need to listen and watch, stop getting defensive, and sit in ashes together. We need to repent of our history, which begins by learning and owning what white people have done and are still doing to black people in this country, and Native Americans before them.

An American  society that’s right and just can begin to breathe only if and when we who are white begin to own our history of “not loving our neighbors as ourselves”, but rather taking advantage of others for our own gain. And what is desperately needed is a white church driven by God’s justice fire that starts strongly advocating for and seeking justice for black people in this country, racially, in terms of incarceration, economics, education….every dimension of our common life needs to be made right and whole, just. This is what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves — to receive the anger, pain, sorrow, and truth that our our black sisters and brothers have for us to hear, and OWN it, and from that place of our own repentance work diligently for what is just and right.

All this is impossible if we deflect the prophet’s words as meant for someone else, or just become defensive so that we don’t have to grapple with the pain of racism’s broad sweep through our history, roaming our suburban streets still. Justice will never come for our African American neighbors until we as the white community and especially the white church in America acknowledge our wrong, “the things we have done and the things we have left undone.”

I pray it might be so. I sit in ashes today, and invite you to join me.

May the Lord, Mighty God

May the Lord, mighty God,
bless and keep you forever;
grant you peace, perfect peace,
courage in every endeavor.

Lift up your eyes and see His face,
and His grace forever;
may the Lord, mighty God,
bless and keep you forever.

These words are sung at the end of every Refuel gathering we have at church on Wednesday nights- a time that I so deeply miss & grieve in this season.  They are used as a Benediction that we sing to each other as we go forward from our time together.

These words unite us.  They connect us.  Not only to those at Winnetka Covenant Church but countless other people who have sung these same exact words to the same exact tune of “Edelweiss” for years.  I have sung this tune at more church services & weeks of camp that I can remember.

I, personally have looked into the eyes of people that have never probably even heard of Winnetka Covenant Church, and we have held strong to this message.

Likewise, you probably have had these words sung to you by people I have never met, nor ever will meet.

We are rooted together in the history of Saints to people we know nothing of, but we have sung the same words to the same tune, time and time again.  And this is just one song, one that’s not even that old.  Think about how the Holy Scriptures unite us; how the Holy Spirit unites us!

So in this time of shelter in place, where the number of people we see might be less than before.  In this time where we as a church body don’t gather on Wednesday night and sing these words to each other every week.  I hope we all can remember how vast, how large, the Body of Christ is.    And how we are in this together.

May the Lord, mighty God,
bless and keep you forever;
grant you peace, perfect peace,
courage in every endeavor.

Lift up your eyes and see His face,
and His grace forever;
may the Lord, mighty God,
bless and keep you forever.