Gratitude Is

Well, here we are again.

Thanksgiving week. The beginning of the holiday gamut – from here until New Year’s, it’s a sprint. A sometimes merry sprint, but often a stressful one, full of shopping and wrapping and baking and delivering and planning and visiting, and and and…

And, it’s still one of my favorite times of the year. Starting with this week, this holiday.

I love Thanksgiving and not just for the stuffing – though it doesn’t hurt. I love that it’s a day, despite its admittedly complicated history, that we set aside to celebrate our blessings and exercise at least some degree of gratitude for all of them.

That the only gifts we focus on are on plates in front of us and in chairs next to us.

But as I was preparing next week’s Sunday School lesson on gratitude, I realized that we can often turn our gratefulness into something less genuine and organic, and something more performative and perfunctory. As usual, I was led and inspired in this by Kate Bowler, in a short series of videos posted on her YouTube from the spring of 2020.

In the first video I watched, she talks about how gratitude can become a script, a way to “manage the experience we have of having our lives be hard” or an “off-ramp” to that challenge and struggle.

It’s something we feel compelled to perform, and have others perform, to manage our discomfort at the way life just sometimes turns out rough.

Everything feels awful right now, butttttttt I’m grateful because…!

And as I kept watching and listening to Kate, I heard her say this: gratitude is not a solution. It will not fix things. It does not take anything out of the “minus column” of your life, or diminish what’s already there.

But she also reminded me of what it is: that gratitude is “the beauty of small details…it is the ability to allow smaller and smaller things to count in the plus column…it is good and beautiful because it is the overflowing of a heart that is full of joy and a brain that can start noticing the little details…it’s an accounting of lovely goodness.”

An accounting of lovely goodness.

Of small details.

Things are hard these days, friends, and I won’t deny it. The days are short and cold, the nights are long and dark. Conversations in our congregation are tense, and they in many ways mirror conversations in the culture around us: divided, discouraged, frustrated. The holidays will bring joy to many and also deep sadness to many.

But in the midst of all this, God is still good, still sprinkling little blessings throughout our days. And so we can still account for that lovely goodness.

We can still notice and celebrate the small details, and let them count in the “plus column.”

Like the way the sunlight plays on my dining room floor in the morning.

The warmth of that first cup of coffee.

The flight of a bright yellow leaf off its tree branch and down to the sidewalk below.

We don’t have to perform gratitude, or use it to mask that life is hard. But we can hold it hand-in-hand with sadness, and find things that are beautiful and lovely and good. That God has left for us to notice. That will help us see that it’s not always and only hardness, but also goodness in our world.

I pray you see more of it, more of these small lovely details, in this Thanksgiving week and in the weeks to come.

-Pastor Jen

Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ)

“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”

“In Essentials,Unity, In Non-Essentials, Liberty, In All Things, Charity.”

These Identity statements form the ministry spirit and practice of the Disciples of Christ (DOC), with whom I have begun to journey with toward transfer of ordination in a couple of years. A number of you have asked for a bit more reflection on the DOC, and the place to start is their website, I am presently auditing a class on their history and polity and have met with their board of ministry and received a commission (license) for pastoral ministry until that time of ordination transfer.

The history of the denomination begins in the Second Great Awakening and the Cane Ridge Revivals the happened in Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the early 19th century, developing into what historians call the “Stone-Campbell” movement taking place on the American frontier.

I am excited to find so many wonderful similarities to our Covenant Church ministry and practice. Among them are:

Congregational Polity. Each local congregation is self-governing in the tradition of congregational polity. They call their own ministers, select their own leadership, own their own property, and manage their own affairs.

Scripture and Freedom. Through belief in theDisciples also practice freedom of biblical and theological interpretation among its members. Holding to the centrality of scripture, there is a recognized freedom and responsibility each member has to come to scripture in community. Only confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and baptism required for membership. It is not uncommon to find individuals who seemingly hold diametrically opposed beliefs within the same congregation affirming one another’s journeys of faith as sisters and brothers in Christ. The website says it this way: “We are called to study and read scripture for ourselves. Rather than having tests of faith and creedal statements, we critically and thoughtfully study scripture, taking into account the history and background — the context — in which it was written.”

Open Communion. Communion is open to all who come with faith in Christ, or who desire life with him. Many Disciples congregations, but not all, share communion every week. The logo of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a red chalice with a white St. Andrew’s Cross.

Baptism. Most congregations practice primarily believer’s baptism by immersion, Disciples also accept other forms of baptism including infant baptism.

Ecumenical Efforts. Celebrating oneness with all who seek Christ, the Disciples place a high value on working together with other denominations and inter-faith organizations in mission and witness to the Good News of the Gospel. The Disciples belong to the National Council of Churches and have two full communion partners: The United Church of Christ (since 1989) and the United Church of Canada (since 2019).

Mercy and Justice. The DOC has committed itself to be a pro-reconciling, anti-racist church. “having deepened our understanding of systemic racism, Christ compels us to advocate for justice.”

All these wonderful things mirror very closely our own Covenant way of being the Church together. One notable difference, however, comes in the congregational posture extended to issues of Human Sexuality. In 2011, the DOC stated that “Disciples do not have a formal policy on same sex marriage. Different congregations have autonomy to discern on issues such as this one.” In 2013 there was a resolution affirming all members regardless of sexual orientation. After same-sex marriage was legalized in the US, the denomination reiterated that it leaves “all decisions of policy on same-sex marriage to local congregations.”

I hope this information is helpful. Please be in touch with further questions or wonderings you might have.

Finally, I want to re-iterate that IN NO WAY are the plans of Winnetka Covenant Church to end its Covenant Church Affiliation. I simply wanted to offer more insight into this church relative which will credential me for my next season of ministry.

About a month ago, meeting over zoom with the regional board of Disciples of Christ ministers, after the interview and prayer, one of the ministers said to me, “Your journey is fascinating. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, because it’s what I celebrate about the Disciples. What I want to say is that I disagree with you biblically and theologically about a number of things, and, and….I’m so very glad you are here. Welcome!”

Love From Here,

Peter Hawkinson

Praying (by Mary Oliver)

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with prayer. Always have, and I’m afraid, always will. Or maybe the struggle is to come to grips with what we’ve decided counts, qualifies, and what is effective in the end. I’ve always taken comfort in those disciples who begged Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” (Luke 11:1). In their imploring is both a confession of struggle and a longing for new strength and understanding.

Me too! Me too! Both the struggle and the longing. How about you?

Like so many of Mary Oliver’s poems, this one about praying invites me into a more hopeful space. Maybe she’s right – that the secret of a praying life is accepting the grace of what “it doesn’t have to be.” If you’re like me – and you don’t usually find the exquisite and profound words (that would be the blue iris!), and the truth is you often have no words at all; if your secret prayer closet habits, would they become public, cause you to shutter with fear; if doubt and questions haunt you into feeling that your faith is, after all, inadequate; then I say, welcome, welcome. Your struggles are mine.

But what if Mary is right? What if prayer’s invitation is an open door into a whole new world, or put bluntly – what if prayer is God’s primary way to speak, and for me to be quiet – simply to open the door of my life, and receive what God has to say, to give. What if the contest is about who can be quiet, and still, who can listen and wonder…these are hopeful and inviting words.

Read the poem again. Better yet, a few times. It’s short enough to memorize, and then you and I can pretend the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, again and again, reminding us that it’s not a contest, but an invitation, should we desire a shared life with the God of the Universe. Now that sounds hopeful!

Peter Hawkinson

On Walks, Barking, and Better Hopes

This morning, I took my dog out for a walk – a long one.

After waking me up yesterday bright and early – I dearly love her, but daylight savings time is meaningless in doggie world – she let me sleep late today, and for that I was grateful. That, and the sun was shining, the leaves on the trees were showing off all their deepest and brightest colors, and I had time. So we walked, and we walked some more, and I breathed in the air and let the sun wash over me.

It’s been a tough summer for me and little Zoe; we moved across town at the end of June, and while it meant more space and more freedom for me, it also meant leaving all her doggie friends and green spaces and the dentist with the huge milk bones out on the curb.

Zoe has always had some trouble reacting to other dogs, which stems – I believe – from her early life, likely as a dog bred to fight with others. Fortunately for us, she’s too loving and silly to make it in the dogfighting world, so she found her way to the streets, to the Chicago pound, to a shelter in Northbrook, and then to me. But we still have that early history to reckon with, which means reactivity to other dogs when she is stressed – and moving houses was her biggest stress to date since I adopted her.

This meant that for many weeks, we trained HARD, and we struggled when other dogs approached us on the sidewalk. I tried calming words, I tried restricting her leash, I tried yelling and crying and calling our trainer.

But some of it just took time. Time to learn the new sights and smells, the new people and dogs and sounds of our neighborhood, and to trust that I wasn’t going anywhere despite all these other changes. And when time did its work, and we found some new training techniques, Zoe started to shine again. She made a puppy friend, whom we now have play dates with. And she is doing much better at not barking at other dogs when we’re out on our walks. In fact, we went a whole weekend without a single bark.

Until today.

Today, during that beautiful, leisurely walk, she barked at four dogs. And I was crushed.

I yanked her leash, and scolded her, and when we got safely home I knelt down to explain:

“I just want you to meet other dogs, and make friends, and be universally adored. Is that so much to ask?”

I laughed a little at myself for that last part, but the rest of it was true. I have high hopes for this dog, and I know how sweet and silly and lovable she can be, and I want the world to see that. To look past her worst moments and see her for the best that she is.

That’s why I was disappointed at her today. That’s why I was sad and more than a little angry.

That’s why I felt the same way after our church meeting yesterday.

Yes, I come from a long line of Scandinavians who don’t like conflict, but more than that, it pains me to see contentious meetings like yesterday’s because I know what the church can be. I know the church’s best self, and one of the best parts of being a pastor is seeing that best self in action.

I wrote several months ago about how the church showed up for me on moving day, hefting boxes in heat and humidity AND pouring rain, down stairs, around tight corners, and up more stairs. How everyone laughed and joked and sweated but never complained. How it was a joyful, if exhausting day, and I went to bed feeling so loved and supported.

That’s what the church can be.

The church can surround someone in grief, showing up at visitation and waiting in long lines because it matters to show up and hug someone who’s in shock at their loss.

The church can fill a refugee’s empty new apartment to the brim, shower them in linens and kitchen goods and love and friendship, and make a strange land feel a little more like home.

The church can be a bunch of adults showing up on a cold October night and dressing in all sorts of silly costumes to hand out candy, so that kids have a safe place to trick-or-treat.

That’s what I want people to see, when they look at the church, and our church in particular. I want them to see our kindness, and our joy; our generosity and fierce love for each other and our caring and delight.

I know that we have to work through conflicts, but I want people to see us do so with love and respect, not harshness, distrust and animosity.

I know that we will disagree, but I want people to see us do so with grace.

I know that we will have hard days, like Zoe did this morning, but I want people to see us leaning on each other and on God to get through those days, and to find better ones ahead.

I want us to show the world what the church can be, and it will require work on our part, training and discipline and effort – just like Zoe and I have to do every day – but it is possible. It is worth it.

Because, after all, when we show the world what we can be, we point them more and more to Jesus. And that should always be the most important thing.

-Pastor Jen

Light, We Need Light!

“God saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“Light, we need light!” Bonnie must get tired of hearing me say this as November comes, and leaves fall, and it’s time to fall back (remember, Saturday night!) because once again all indications are that in our Northern Hemisphere of the world darkness is winning its battle with light. I don’t like waking up in the darkness that’s also increasingly cold. Driving home from church on most days my spirit is lifted by the warm glow of the western sky signaling that the daylight will soon end. In between, I have my ways of fighting the darkness in my office. At my desk a candle burns through a stained glass tower gifted to me by friends last Christmas. In my windowsill an electric candelabra shines through the day for those driving by on Hibbard Road to see. At home the electric candles come out of storage and glow in the gloom. Before long the Christmas lights will appear on the tree and around the house.

I know, I know that darkness has it’s place. It helps us rest and sleep. As C. JoyBell says it, “The dance between darkness and light will always remain– the stars and the moon will always need the darkness to be seen.” Light needs the darkness to shine in. It seems that from the very beginning God sees not only that light is good, but that the separation of light and darkness is good too. In this sense, as Madeline L’Engle says, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the darkness.” Yet I lament the light’s lessening, along with the warmth it brings. I’m just that way. My folks were not that way. They retired to Minnesota and loved the winter the most.

This central human theme of light and darkness fills the scripture and parables our spirituality. St John’s gospel begins with light shining in the darkness that can’t overcome it. “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” Victor Hugo says. It’s true that we get a daily experience of resurrection, of the light over coming the darkness!

Yet I remain. Light, we need light! Maybe the answer is to move down close to the equator, where the seasons don’t change and the light stays on its daily 12 hour timeline. I don’t know. Maybe like so many others I need to seek treatment for what we call Seasonal Affective Disorder. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s ok, just alright to live with a lament and longing for a season. Maybe its ok to say that winter isn’t my season, and that sometimes winters seasons of life are what they are. Some anticipation goes along with that. Spring will most surely appear. Starting December 21 the light will start to win its wrestling match with the darkness. Pitchers and catchers report in 104 days! As Rogers Hornsby said, People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” I can relate!

Light, we need light! With longing and hope, spring and summer will come again. I can’t wait! But I must. And the season of cold and dark will surely give way to warmth of the light.

Peter Hawkinson