It came without ribbons, It came without tags…

It’s about this time every year that I start getting a little nostalgic with All Things Christmas.

I’ve been away from home throughout the Christmas season for six years now. Sometimes, I can manage to get back for a few days including Christmas Day, but more often I arrive around the 27th and spend New Year’s back in Massachusetts with my family. Gone are the days of finishing school weeks before December 25th, and heading home for days on end of shopping, baking with Mom, wrapping gifts beneath our big decorated tree in front of the living room windows.

So it’s pretty typical, in the last few days before Christmas finally gets here, that I start yearning for home and for familiar comforts: Grandma’s peanut butter bars, Swedish mulled wine, the same three Christmas CDs that get played on repeat as we trim the tree and curl ribbons for packages.

This year is no exception; in fact, it’s even intensifying my feelings of longing because I won’t see my parents, for the first Christmas ever. And I know I’m not alone in that; I know far too many of us are looking ahead to spending this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone, or with just a couple of family members or friends.

We’re scaling back our customary feasts or doing away with them altogether; we’re buying more packages online and wrapping far fewer gifts.

In the midst of this, of mourning all these losses – large and small – I keep hearing the echoes of Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas story; at the very end, when the Grinch hears the Whos singing in the village square and realizes that, despite all the gifts and decorations he has stolen, Christmas has still come:

He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came. Somehow or other, it came just the same.

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling. How could it be so?

It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags!

He puzzled and puzzed till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

We know, as people of faith, that there is so much more to Christmas than stuff; than presents and decorations. But this year, I am challenged to realize that there is also more to Christmas than experiences, than food, than parties and traditions. Those all give the holidays substance and meaning, but the truth is that Christmas still comes without any of it.

Christmas will still come this year.

Without all of us singing carols together in church, and without the flood of candles lit as we sing Silent Night together. Without families gathered at big dinner tables, even without wrapped presents or cardboard Amazon boxes under the tree.

Christmas will still come.

We will still, in all our various places, read or hear the scripture story, remember the feeling of joy and surprise as Christ’s birth is announced, look up at the starry sky and recall shepherds in a field so long ago. We will still be reminded that Christ came to be with us, and that means he is still with us now, even in these dark and trying times.

We will still have Emmanuel, and in some sense, whether together or apart, we will still have each other.

Thank God for that. Thank God for Christmas.

And thank God for each and every one of you.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

-Pastor Jen

Fear And Love

We have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:14-18, NLT)

For God did not give us the spirit of fear, but one of power and love… (2 Timothy 1:7)

Some theological wrestlings this time. I hope you are finding some good books to read, that cause you to reflect, stretch, and build some muscle in your faith. One of those books for me recently has been UNAFRAID: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin Corey (Harper One, 2017). Corey’s thesis is this: “We can hold a fear-based foundational understanding of God or a love-based understanding of God, but we cannot hold both. Love doesn’t fear, and fear can’t love.”

What do you think? We have after all a bible filled with the call to the fear of God, to fear the Lord, and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. These things we know well. And we have these words above, referencing the early church’s theological wrestling with how to understand the fear of God through the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ. Their conclusion, it seems, is that love wins, and that fear is sent packing. Reflecting on these scriptures, is it sacrilege to say “I’m not afraid of God anymore?”. I wonder — maybe the truth is that it’s more of a sacrilege to trust and Jesus and hold onto fear. Wrestle with me.

And with Corey, who reflects in Christmas this way: “I ponder the reality that when God entered the human story– when he took on flesh and became one of us — the first thing the angel proclaimed to humanity was ‘Be Unafraid!’ — as God had arrived to bring great joy to all people. As I sit beside the crackle of my Christmas Eve fire, in finally sinks deep in my spirit that if the story of God began with the command to be unafraid, I should probably just accept and embrace that command…When God stepped off his rightful throne and became flesh, the angels didn’t announce the coming of a king set on destroying us….warning us that we’re “in big trouble now that dad is here“. The angels didn’t announce the arrival of a warrior God ready to slay his enemies….Instead the angels announced the birth of a baby — the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. And printed atop the birth announcement of our King were the words “Be Unafraid!”

Unfortunately, what begins as “good news of great joy that will be for all the people”, has been convoluted, distorted, and reduced to a message that’s good news for a few, and horrible news for the rest of us. It must be that eight out of ten folks I chat with have an image of God that is much more fearful or fear-filled than loving. That famous sermon, “Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God” that Jonathan Edwards preached in the summer of 1741 in New England is said to have begun a great spiritual awakening. And while many found God, they found an angry God, and not a God of love, and I would argue, not the God of the Bible who comes to life in Jesus.

The biblical idea attached to fear, found mostly in Hebrew Scripture, is of awe, reverence, and worship. But fear is often taught, preached, and understood by the church as anger — that is, that God is angry, wanting us to fall, to fail, that God is fundamentally against us. In our own evangelical tradition we attach this anger to God’s Holiness — that God cannot tolerate our sin and imperfection. The trouble is that this is not the biblical witness, which instead tells the story of God who loves us so much that God incarnates God’s own self into a human being to embrace our sins and imperfections, forgive us, and set us free! Now that’s Good news of great joy! And it’s for all people.

Love, in the end, is the holiest measure of our holy God. “God Is Love.” Love is the one word more than any other that describes God perfectly. I know I’m not there yet when it comes to “fully experiencing God’s perfect love.” But it’s a journey I’m on, and excited about. I hope you are too! Maybe this winter we could read the book and talk about our faith together!

In the meantime, What if, what if John and Paul are pleading still with us in the Christian Community to root our lives in the love of Christ, which actually is a love that cannot co-exist with fear? What if to love is to be unafraid after all?

Peter Hawkinson

“The Last Judgment”, Anonymous Artist


Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. (Luke 1)

It’s called a theophany, an appearance of God story. One of the most difficult things for me about them is that they tend to come off like slick, smooth, expected transactions. No big deal. And, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth! I think the best way we can begin to understand this is to experience the appearance from the perspective of the one who is surprised by God. Take Mary, for instance.

She is filled with fear, more than anything! Betrothed, engaged, with her life’s dreams seeming to be lined up, the angel Gabriel comes and speaks to her, and she is perplexed, Mary is afraid. She finds out she has favor with God (check in the good column!), and that she will conceive and bear a son (check in the bad column, the impossible column for a virgin). Just think about the questions racing through Mary’s head…”how am I going to tell Joseph? and what about the law (a pregnancy like this was a death sentence)…and what about all our plans for the wedding, and the reception, and the little house with the stone fence, and my life together with Joseph?” It seemed that her dreams would go unfulfilled….Mary was afraid, and with good reason, and Gabriel knew it…he said, “Do not be afraid, Mary…” The reason he said was that this was a God thing. But Mary is afraid, and she is also confused. She wonders, “how this can be since I am a virgin?” The response is that nothing will be impossible for God. In other words, she is being asked to trust that God is going to do some impossible thing. She knows that no one will believe the impossible.Imminent for Mary, should all this really take place, is first the loss of her marriage, and then the loss of her life, a stoning at the edge of town.

Taking some time to reflect on these things, it might cause us to miss a breath to hear Mary say, as she holds onto all these real fears, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That is a word of faith, of trust, of yielding, that is not devoid of all the fear Mary still faces. This is not a response that is spoken by Mary like a child would read it in a Christmas play, the kind that is expected, that you know is coming, and that is cute. No, this has to be must be terrifying for Mary, terrifying.

Mary runs off with haste to her aunt Elizabeth’s house (I wonder what kind of haste that was?)…and her life is changed forever. She will give birth to the Son of God, she will witness his crucifixion, and bear witness on the first Easter to the God of the impossible.

It’s ok to be afraid. It’s a human essential, I think, especially when God shows up with a word. And we need not let go of all that we don’t understand, or that causes us fear, to say yes to God. Just faith to trust in the One who always has something wonderful in mind.

Peter Hawkinson

Lemonade, Sometimes

Last week, to start our (virtual) staff meeting off, Pastor Pete shared with us a story. Taken from a book of modern-day parables, it tells of a little girl who comes to her grandparents’ house at lunchtime on a school day, all worked up because some neighborhood boys have been throwing snowballs at her, making her cold and wet.

The grandparents usher her in, of course, feed her a warm lunch and take her mind off of it all – in addition to drying out her wet coat and gloves. And an hour or so later, when she’s bundling up to return to school, the little girl remarks how lucky it was, after all, that those boys threw snowballs at her – because without them, she wouldn’t have ended up here, for such a lovely respite from the day.

It’s a sweet story, and one that reminded us in the meeting of all the ways that God can redeem a bad situation – make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak.

And I love that, and agree with that, but as we reflected on the story, another point was also made which I’ve been thinking about all week.

Sometimes, life just gives us lemons:

Pandemics. Job losses. Rifts in families. Cancer. Mental illness.

And one day, probably a good distance from now, we might be able to look back and see God’s providence even in those times, or to discern how God redeemed the bad. We might even, sometimes, be able as we are suffering to make good out of bad, to take those lemons and make some really good lemonade.


It’s also okay if, right now, in the middle of the bad stuff, we don’t rush to make meaning out of it or find a silver lining, but we just see lemons. No lemonade – just lemons.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

Sometimes, in the midst of this pandemic, I can see real and meaningful silver linings: fewer nights away from home, more meaningful conversations with people when we do connect over the phone or on a walk. I’ve explored my neighborhood in ways I hadn’t before, and made my home a more comfortable and happy place to be.

Those are all pretty great forms of lemonade.

But sometimes, darn it, I just miss life before COVID. I want to have a dinner party, or go to the movies with friends; I want to have someone over to bake Christmas cookies with me, or see the sanctuary filled with people and greet them with hugs.

What I’m starting to realize is…it’s okay to take some time and just grieve all of this. Lament for what has been lost forever, and for what is just lost right now.

It’s okay if I can’t make lemonade out of my lemons just this moment. It’s okay if you can’t, either.

And, if I might be so bold as to say it, I don’t think that’s our call as Christians either.

We are called to be people of hope, yes, but hope doesn’t mean relentless positivity that turns a blind eye to our own sufferings or those of others. Hope means looking at all of those hard, bad things face on and saying “yes….and.” Yes, those are real…and they will not last forever. Yes, those are causing some serious hurt right now….and God is still on the move. Yes, weeping will last for a night…and joy will still come in the morning.

I think our call as Christians in times of suffering, times like these, is to trust that God is still, somewhere, at work. Advent is in some ways the perfect time to think about that: a season predicated on the promise that God is always coming toward us.

So it’s okay if you can make some lemonade out of your lemons right now.

And it’s equally okay if you can’t. If they are just lemons. If you need more time, and distance, and healing before you can make meaning out of or see blessing in the hardship.

Either way, it is okay.

God is still with us, with you. God is still coming, and healing, and redeeming, and making all things new.

We don’t have to see it right now, to trust that it will one day be so.

We Pray AND We Act

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”– but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything” — but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

When COVID-19 quickly found us, pastor Jen rooted us in the scripture above as a guiding light, to discern along the way what is best, and beneficial in our care for one another. Love of neighbor, as we keep being reminded of, is at the heart of our Christian life. Most recently, we have not been able to gather in the sanctuary for our blessed worship as we had hoped to beginning in November. The surge of the virus left us once again plotting the question, “What does it mean right now to be concerned for the good of each other?” And it is true that the mitigation restrictions are not technically binding on religious services, leaving open the door for churches to decide for themselves. In this case, we have discerned that for now what is good, best, beneficial in our care for each other is not to gather together. It hurts. It’s hard. And increasingly an increasing number of us wonder why, when we could choose to gather.

In 1517 Martin Luther’s famed 95 theses helped spark the protestant reformation after they were distributed far and wide with the help of the printing press, which was the 16th century’s version of social media. Less famous are his words written ten years later, when the Bubonic Plague was passing around Europe again. Back then these seasons like we’re in now were much more common, and what those who had the means would do was flee their cities for the countryside. In this case, in Wittenberg, The Elector of of Saxony and John the Steadfast on their way out of town ordered the famous professor and pastor to follow them down the road. Luther refused, and he along with his pregnant wife Katharina, turned their own house into a field hospital for the sick.

“We pray and we act” is what he wrote: “Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. … See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Martin and his wife cared for the sick and dying out of a deep sense of love for neighbor, and at great risk to themselves, while at the same time seeking to follow the given protocol of the time for the safety of their neighbors. This was their focus. They recognized their own need to do without aspects of normal life (routines, rhythms, activities) as an act of caring, of love for others.

And this is what we are seeking to do these days. We are able to continue our gatherings virtually, though this is not what we would choose. Our worship of the Lord will never cease, though for a time we won’t be together in the sanctuary. These are sacrifices we embrace when we are less concerned about ourselves and more concerned about others. This in itself is a witness to our faith in Jesus, and in the presence of Holy Spirit, which join us together even though we are apart.

There is hope on the horizon. Planes carrying shipments of medicine are moving everywhere. God be praised! In the meantime, we physical distance, we stay home, and we wear masks — these all acts of concern and care for each other’s well-being.

Peter Hawkinson

20 Questions

Hello Winnetka Covenant,

I’m going to do something different today than write my normal blog post.  I want to point you to a Youtube video series called “20 Questions” that we have created on our “Winnetka Covenant Youth Ministry” Youtube channel (note, this is different than our main church Youtube channel.)

It’s simple and straight forward; each week one of our students answers 20 questions about themselves and we upload the interview so other students, leaders and members of our church can learn more about them.  In this time of physical distance, we want to stay socially connected- as a youth group and as a church community all together.  

So please click the link below and watch one of the ten interviews from our awesome students!  You can learn something about a child/grandchild of one of the church families you know or get to know a child from a family that you might not have met yet.  New videos are posted every Friday so stay tuned for more “20 Questions” videos.


Pastor Joel