Grief and Hope

Now we don’t want you, brothers and sisters, to be in any doubt about those who “Fall asleep” in death, or to grieve over them like those who have no hope. After all, if woe believe that Jesus died and rose again from death, then we can believe that God will just as surely bring with Jesus all who are “asleep” in him. (1 Thess 4).

Last Sunday morning Ingrid Papanek died. I have been looking at her work across the room from me for years now, after asking her if I could have it years ago. She smiled and blushed and said “well, sure!”. Can’t you just see her now?

I just love her painting. I love the brilliant colors of blue, the holes plated with gold to fill the whole scene with stars. I love the faceless wonder of Mary, and the strong, steady, calm repose of Joseph. And I love that gracious golden starlight filling the whole scene like a lit up a “julgran” (christmas tree). One Lucia morning while waiting for the program to begin Ingrid told me about the Julgran of her childhood, that was lit up with real candles. I love the over-sized halo the baby Jesus has, reflecting how much Ingrid loved Jesus. Hers was a simple and deep faith.

While meeting with Ingrid’s family this week, I came across a letter she wrote now eleven years ago when her thirteen year old grand-daughter Anika died. It’s a thank you to the Church for love and prayers, and also a seemingly strange invitation: “If you would like some sunflower seeds let the office know, or contact me.” It is the beautiful backstory that brings the invitation to life:

“Last May Anika’s grandmother from Vermont came to visit Anika in New York, and they planted sunflower seeds. Anika placed her planters on the window sill near her bed. Each day she watered them, and was delighted when the plants started to sprout. When they became too big her grandmother brought them to Vermont and placed them where Anika used to play. On the morning of Anika’s memorial service in New York last July, they put the sturdiest of the bunch on the stage for the service. None of them had yet opened. Several hours later when we all came to the service, a beautiful splash of yellow on Anika’s sunflower greeted us. A single beautiful flower had opened, just in time! The seeds were saved, and we would like to share them with you.”

Anika is buried in our memorial garden, and on July 17, 2 p.m. at service end we will process there to lay Ingrid to rest next to her. It is a symbolic reminder of what we believe to be a hopeful reality, that Anika and Ingrid, having died, are alive together with Jesus in God’s bright shining glory. This is why we grieve, oh, how we grieve! But not as those who have no hope.

Thanks be to our God! And comfort to Ronald, Lee, Ron and family.

Peace to Ingrid and Anika’s memory. May they Rest In Peace and rise in glory!

When There’s No Words

“Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside us helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keep us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Romans 8:26-28, The Message)

This is one of those nights. Every Wednesday it’s time to write, to find words, to play with a spiritual thought or theological idea. But tonight for some reason (or for many reasons) I can’t find any words to put together. Tonight the thoughts and ideas don’t come. Usually when this is the case — and it’s more often than I care to admit — it’s because my soul is weary. Mea Culpa.

The solution when there’s work to be done, and I can’t do the work, is to find the good work of some other saint, some other pilgrim. A prayer, a hymn, a devotion, hopefully some lengthy quote that will more or less fill up the space of the page enough to count. And I could do that! I have lots of underlined and marked up books to share.

But tonight, it won’t do, if I’m honest. There are times like now when there are no words, nothing profound or even thoughtful, and that’s ok according to St. Paul. In our restlessness, in our exhaustion, in our sorrows and stresses and uncertainties, the Spirit of God goes to work, ministering to us, and making sense out of our groaning. I love how Eugene Peterson’s translation gives us “wordless sighs” and “aching groans”.

If he’s right, then I don’t have to find words, or work to make up some thought, or do anything at all for God to understand and receive my prayers. In fact, God knows what’s going on in me better than I do! Trusting this news, I can let go of any and all need to perform, to produce, to perfect the articulation of spiritual life. I can give in to the void, I can acknowledge my moment of emptiness, or weariness, or whatever, and this is every bit as spiritual as all the things I do normally to cover this up.

There it is! God bless us, one an all.

Why We Need Each Other

As many of you may have heard by now, I’m in the process of moving across town. After years of renting, I’ll be moving into a place of my own, and I’m excited to finally get there and get settled.

However, this is not a thing I can do on my own.

And forget just the physical part of it – carting lots of boxes down two flights of stairs and then up three at my new home; or moving a few large pieces of furniture. I also couldn’t have found the home without help, or financed it; nor can I fix it up without lots of help from others.

I know I need help; but some of my need has been easier to acknowledge than others. I know I can’t understand all the documents given to me at the closing without the help of an attorney, and I know I can’t move my queen-sized mattress on my own. But as a pretty independent and organized person, I want to be able to do so much more without having to ask others. To move all my books and my very large collection of kitchenware; to clean and organize my new closets and shelves; to care well for Zoe at the same time as I attempt to put all our possessions in boxes and bags.

It has been very humbling to realize that I cannot lift as much as I thought I could. That I cannot work hard with my body all day packing, and then have my mind clear to decide on which paint color and what ceiling fan to order. That I need other people, so much more than I realized.

And that is just in the world of my move.

There is so much going on beyond that; a lot in our life together as a church; and a lot in my own life as I start engaging the world with much more freedom and less fear, now that I’m fully vaccinated.

I need help with all of this too.

Just this morning, I needed to call a friend to help me sort something out over the phone. I had a conversation with someone days ago that was still bothering me, still causing me hurt and anger and sadness, and I needed someone else to help me unpack all of those feelings. To listen, and to offer her thoughts; to help me find a way out and forward.

It has been such an intense year of intense feelings, coupled with isolation. Most of us, if we’re fortunate, have had a small group of people with whom we have hunkered down and stayed connected while we made it through. We have needed each other to get through the worst of the pandemic; and we still need each other, but in a new way.

We need our full community again, not just a few members of it. We need to gather, and to grieve, and also to celebrate; to share and process through our experiences; to help each other.

In the course of my conversation this morning, I was reminded that God exists as three-in-one; not just God and Jesus; not just one or two members taking on the world – but three in one; a true community.

So too do we need multiple others to flourish as we were meant to. As those made in God’s image, we were also made for community and connection, made for a diversity of relationships, made for difference and yet for commitment to each other.

It’s tricky, of course, to need other people. It’s humbling. It’s not as straightforward as going it alone. But it is also so much better, and richer, and more honoring of who God created us to be.

So I’m going to keep asking for help, and I hope you will too. The coming days will still challenge us, I am sure; but let us go forward together, and have courage.

-Pastor Jen

A Generous Orthodoxy

Generous Orthodoxy is a term created by Yale theologian Hans Frei. It is also the title of a wonderful book by Brian Mclaren, who thinks about A Generous Orthodoxy in the following ways: strong ecumenical interests, a desire to move beyond the liberal/conservative divide, and a willingness to think through old questions in new ways that foster the pursuit of truth, the unity of the church, and the gracious character of the gospel. The centrality of Christ is the single unifying force. Generous orthodoxy seems oxymoronic, doesn’t it? Like a “heavy lightness”, a “dark flash”, or a “dry rain”. Orthodoxies of any certain tribe don’t generally show much generosity toward others who think differently.

My favorite chapter of his in the book is “Why I am Incarnational”. He says, on page 247:

“My friend Neil Livingstone once told me that Jesus didn’t want to create an in-group that would banish others to an out-group; Jesus wanted to create a “come-on-in-group”, one that sought and welcomed everyone. Such a group came not to conquer, not to badger, not to vanquish, not to eradicate other groups, but to save them, redeem them, bless them, respect them, love them, befriend them, and embrace them.

Or, put another way, Jesus threatened people with inclusion; if they were to be excluded, it would be because they refused to accept their acceptance.”

Threatening people with inclusion — that phrase seems oxymoronic too! generally exclusion is a much greater threat, it seems. To be shut out is much more a fear for a human being than being welcomed in. Inclusion, especially the radical inclusion Jesus preaches and embodies, rubs the ways of the world (and the church) the wrong way. This is especially difficult for the religious community that is most focused on orthodoxy — what is true and right.

Somehow, in ways I’m struggling to understand, and have contributed, we have landed and settled on this idea in the church that orthodoxy is incompatible with inclusion. And scripture can be read and interpreted to message orthodoxy’s tendency toward exclusion on our journey toward holiness. The problem is that right in the Bible’s middle is this Jesus, who is God incarnate, in a human body, entering the dirty waters of baptism, showing his glory only to set it aside to wash his disciple’s feet, engaging in a ministry of redemption that is the most inclusive act the world has ever known. What to do, when he looks at us, loves us, and says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Among the mightiest of struggles is for us, you and I, to accept that in and through Jesus we are accepted. That’s grace. It’s challenging because it’s news that is too good to be true. And grace’s very nature is that it be shared, lavished on others, else we have not yet come home to it in the way God invites us to.

Called to faith, and faithfulness, YES! inclusion does not negate orthodoxy, but calls all others around us to all the challenges of life with the Living God. We need to wrestle with this idea that inclusion is the orthodoxy that reflects the God of the Bible, and if we are so convinced, let the good news of the gospel come alive in this message that all are welcome, and all belong who will come to Jesus in repentance and accept that they are accepted.

What would it mean for us, filled with the love of Christ, to threaten people with inclusion? Is this not the way of Jesus Christ our Lord? I wonder.

Peter Hawkinson

Such a Friend

As I’ve told you before, the words of the hymn “Why Should I Be Anxious” (hymnal 431) hang next to my office doorknob. The hymn comes from Nils Frykman (1842-1911), a mission friend pastor first in Sweden and then here in America. Bonnie handed this calligraphy to me one day early on in ministry life, encouraging me to put it in an unavoidable place.

It came to life again in the hymn sing last night, as once again we were led into green pastures and still waters by Royce Eckhardt. It’s always companioned my coming and going as a gift, a grounding reminder, a settling truth. J. Irving Erickson in “Twice Born Hymns” shares the story of how the hymn came to be.

During his years in Sweden, early in his ministry, Pastor Nils was in trouble, because he was gathering people together to sing, and read scripture, and talk about New Life in Jesus outside of the state church. This was against the law. Increased difficulty for him came when he had one of his own children baptized by a free church pastor rather than by a pastor of the state church. He endured such harassment and threat that he resigned his pastorate and took up life as an itinerant, traveling preacher. It was in this context that he shares the story of how this hymn came to be:

It was a Saturday afternoon. I was on my way to a school house where I was to preach that evening. On the way I became so overwhelmed by despair, both over my own and other people’s sins, that I threw myself to the ground and cried like a spanked child. Oh, how I prayed, and how the tears flowed! I can’t remember ever having cried like that. Yet I knew through it all I was a child of God, saved by grace. And without a doubt, it was this assurance that made the tears flow so easily and so heavenly. After I had wept out my burden, I resumed the journey with a light heart and light steps. And then it was easy to write and sing.

When he reached his destination the song had been born. Here then is the text. Let it settle you, wherever your spirit is this morning, to know you have such a friend:

Why should I be anxious? I have such a friend, who bears in his heart all my woe; this friend is the Savior, on him I depend, his love is eternal, I know.

Though I am unworthy he chose even me, by grace in his kingdom to dwell; that grace so abundant my refuge will be, your goodness, O God, I would tell.

His mercy, I know, is sufficient for me, and therein my soul finds its peace; he chastens with love, ever patient is he, my joys through his blessing increase.

The power of hell holds no terror for me, my stronghold is Israel’s God; in trial and sorrow my refuge is he: O Savior, your mercy I Laud!

Thus onward I go to that wonderful land, the beautiful home of the blest; though storms rage in fury, I’m safe in his hand, I’ll enter the haven of rest.

Peter Hawkinson

A Grateful Prayer

We’ve been blessed through years and decades by the ministry of Art Nelson. That blessing continues! And nowhere do Art’s gifts shine more than in his praying. It is poetic and lyrical, filled with images that we might sink into and dwell with for awhile.

One of those prayers called “Summer” comes back to me like an old friend in these magnificent early June moments. It’s from Art’s Book of Prayers. Read it, then linger with it, let your senses come alive and let your spirit rejoice:

For this time of year when sun rests high and days stand still, praise to you, O God, for whatever of re-creation happens for us and for your beautiful world.

Our children play games on chalked sidewalks, and neighbors love their porches for sitting and sipping cool drinks, and we all rejoice that trees are full green and birds and bugs make noises that create a very fine chorus.

Keep making us attentive to good things and even good news, that large and small occasions on long days and evenings might keep us aware that you visit us these months with growing and nurturing surprises for us to enjoy at the time. Let us file them away too for times when news is bleak and gray days make us feel that life is flat and you seem far away.

In our best hours we are sure of your changeless love, and summer is the pledge of the brightest weather of the heart.