Anywhere but Here

I don’t know about you, but I could use an out right now.

An out from more bad news – let’s start there – but also, while I’ve got your attention, I would like an out from cold weather, and from COVID, from loneliness, from fear, from difficult, often angry, conversations about race and politics and masks and even neighbors clearing ice (or not) from their sidewalks.

I would like to go somewhere else, to run away from all of my problems, to escape.

(This is probably a very natural feeling for a Chicagoan in February, even before you add in a pandemic and a war abroad).

And it’s an easy impulse to indulge, at least in some ways – I can pull out my phone, starting scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, do some online shopping, plan a trip. I can be anywhere but here mentally, even if not always physically.

While it’s important to take breaks from all of this stress, to find things to celebrate and ways to rest and connect with others, this constant impulse to be anywhere but here is also an unhelpful one. It doesn’t call us to root deeply in a place, to work to find solutions to its problems, to give witness to the pain and suffering and also the success and joy of people in that place. To look for God there.

When we are always somewhere else, we are not present to the place we’re actually in, and it suffers as a result of our indifference. We suffer too.

That’s why I am particularly excited for our WCC reading project this Lent, an unassuming little book called Backyard Pilgrim by Matt Canlis. A very small group of you will remember this book from our Fall 2020 Sunday School study, but I can’t wait to share it with more of you.

This forty-day journey invites us to be intentionally, thoughtfully rooted exactly where we are; in the words of the introduction, “It is the discipline of saying ‘Here I am’ to the place where you already live.”

In one 15 minute walk per day, the journey challenges us to recognize that there is holy ground all around us – that God is active and present in the very places where we might not think to look. In the places we hardly see because they are so familiar to us, and the places we might even want to escape from to be somewhere else.

The book brings us on a journey through scripture, through the story of God and humanity, asking each other the questions: where are you? who are you? And it leads us on that journey through 40 days, making it a perfect and thoughtful accompaniment to our Lenten walk.

I hope you will join us on the path. Books are available now in the church office, or online here.

With anticipation,

Pastor Jen

The Hands

Henri Nouwen’s seminal work “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. Rembrandt’s painting of the same name has hung in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia since 1766. Nouwen spent four hours looking at it, and endless time after in his return to life and ministry. His book is a must read, as he identifies parts of himself in every character of the story, probing the movements of the younger son’s leaving and return, the father’s restoration of sonship, the elder son’s vengefulness, and the father’s compassion. Themes of homecoming, affirmation, and reconciliation linger as invitations for that part of us that knows loneliness, dejection, jealousy or anger.

Poignant for me is Nouwen’s conclusion that “The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the Father. On them all the light is concentrated; on them the eyes of the bystanders are focused; in them mercy becomes flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation and healing come together, and through them not only the tired son, but also the worn-out father find their rest.” Finally reflecting on the call of Jesus to “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate”, Henri concludes that “The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father…I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me.”

I come back to this reflection each year when Lent is on the horizon, and the story of the passionate love and self-sacrifice of Jesus is told once again. His hands will be pierced through, only after he carries the weight of his own cross. His scarred but resurrected hands will hug Peter and the rest in restoration.

Take some time to look at and meditate on the hands of the father Rembrandt has for us, and look too with some slow time at your own again hands, and consider what weapons of loving they have become for God’s use.

Nouwen concludes, “As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”

A blessed Lent comes close to us. Those hands, and your hands.

Peter Hawkinson

One Word

Maybe you have seen by now the unfolding sacramental “scandal” unfolding in Arizona. Rev. Andres Arango has said, “WE baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” he was supposed to say “I baptize you.” That one word, that one pronoun according to Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix, nullifies every one of those thousand baptisms. The Bishop says, “If you were baptized using the wrong words, that means your baptism is invalid, and you are not baptized.”

As those rooted in a free church tradition, we must bristle at such pompous and really un-graceful Church platitudes and policies. We must speak and act as those who love the Church when we are convinced the Body of Christ has indeed wandered away from the God of all blessing. The Vatican’s argument is theological, that “the issue with using “we” is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ alone, and Him alone, who presides at all of the sacraments.”

I am left to wonder how we can render a baptism, a means of grace, a work of God “invalid”. I love how my colleague Judy Howard Peterson reflects in her blog: “The Church is willing to do this because of their devotion to a religious formula that is undergirded by a belief that God cares more about each piece of the formula being followed than the peace of God’s people.”

Father Arango, poor Father Arango, who never meant to make any point, and who just spent his days and years pouring out the grace of God onto human beings, is now regretful: “I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience my actions have caused and genuinely ask for your prayers, forgiveness, and understanding.” bristle too at the thought that he needs forgiving, at least for his one mis-spoken word.

The point is, I think, that our God has become way, way too small, if we are in fact to believe and declare that we can decide that whatever God decides to do is invalid, null and void, a mistake. The pastor still said, after all, to one blessed and beloved soul after another “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” How dare we even think we can call that invalid? Whether it be I or We, it is God’s work, and God’s love acted out for the one brought, or who comes as we say, “to the Church for the sacrament of Baptism.”

God is at work working God’s own purposes out and needs no help from us to make sure it’s all kosher. Those of us who claim to work for God — pastors, leaders, indeed all Jesus followers — we need to find humility again, and remember breath by breath that God is God, and we are not. We need to recognize our constant temptation and tendency to turn the power we have been given into something abusive to real human people.

Pastor Arango has no need to ask forgiveness for baptizing God’s beloved ones.

It is we who are the Church, all of us together, who might fall to our knees, and start again listening to the pleading words of Jesus to the Pharisees, and his disciples too: “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)

We have a long, long way to go. Let us with humility, repeatedly, say so.

Peter Hawkinson

About Love

As my inbox full of advertisements – special coupons, dinner deals, last-minute gift options – tells me, it’s Valentine’s Day. And although I’m spending it at home with my valentine (a 50-pound pitbull mix), the narrative around this day is hard to escape. Flowers! Romance! Candy! Chocolates! Cards and gifts!

This year, one of the places I shop asked if I wanted to receive their emails about Valentine’s Day, or if I would rather opt out, and not be bothered, or burdened, by reminders of the day. Even though I didn’t exercise the option, I have to say I was surprised and grateful that an online merchandiser would be that thoughtful about their customers.

The truth is, this is a complicated day, whether you’re partnered or not. I’ve seen more of a movement lately to take the pressure and expectations out of the day, but like it or not they are still in the ether, still alive and well in the culture around us.

So I wanted to take a minute today, of all days, and sit with a familiar passage from scripture, perhaps one of our best-known ones, 1 Corinthians 13. One of the few passages that talks explicitly about love. As I reminded our WCC kids a few weeks ago, it talks about God’s love for us.

And as I often do with a familiar passage, I prefer looking at this from a couple of different translations.

First, from the New Living Testament:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

And again, from the Message translation:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

On this day when we get a lot of messages about love, I invite you to hold this message first. This is the love God has for us. Patient and kind, rejoicing in the truth, trusting, hopeful, enduring. No matter how we woke up today, how we rise to the challenges of this particular Monday (or don’t), how we treat others, how we talk to ourselves…this is God’s love for us. It never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

Now put that on a chocolate heart.


Pastor Jen

Death Someday

It hangs on the wall just over the left edge of the fireplace mantle. Written, typed by my grandfather Eric on the occasion of his 40th birthday, when aware of his age, he had death on his mind. That was 86 years ago, and he died 48 years later when I was twenty years of age. The Psalmist reflects on the passing of time and life’s fleeting moment: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Ps 90:10, NLT).

Maybe it’s the snow, and how it quiets the urban world. Maybe it’s my newest round of sciatic pain a-flaring. Maybe it’s the latest rounds of toils and troubles. How about an upcoming doctor appointment that causes anxiety? For sure its more losses of more friends along with significant birthdays beginning with 6. For all kinds of reasons, I have death n my mind, death someday. And though it seems morbid, it seems good to consider that someday, sooner or later, I will experience death. You will too. The Psalmist continues: “So teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (v.12).

It seems that somehow getting in touch with the reality of death can help us treasure our days and not take them for granted. To live them with vigor and purpose. That’s wisdom. Most especially, according to our faith, resurrection’s promise looms on the other side of all that we know. Faith in the grace of God will carry us there, wherever God’s never-ending glory lingers. So much to be grateful for!

And that’s where grandpa Eric’s spirit lingers. Here are the words in case you can’t read them. Rest with faith in them:


I want no pomp, I want no state,

I want no colorful debate

of what I was, or could have been;

Just take me out and tuck me in,

In Mother Earth beneath the sky.

‘Twas good to live, but good to die,

Just leave me, in the wind and rain,

With flowers that bloom and fade again,

‘Neath winter’s snow and April shower,

In calm repose ’til waking hour,

Just tuck me ‘neath the sod

With friendly hand, but speak of God.

Eric G. Hawkinson — Chicago, 1936