Houseplants and Hope

As many of you will know by now, I’m a novice gardener.

I say novice because last year was the first time I did anything like a full garden by myself, start to finish (and yes, by that I do also mean buying some starter plants from the nursery).

But I’ve tried for years to keep some houseplants alive, with limited success. Very limited, actually. I have one aloe vera plant in my current house that I’ve had for a few years, a spider plant that has maybe lived for five, and an orchid that’s about 18 months old. Everybody else is a newcomer by a wide margin.

I tried outdoor gardening on the hunch that maybe I would have more success with sunshine, wind and rain than my own ability to gauge soil moisture content. And that having plants I could eat might help motivate me towards better care.

Well, last week I finally started some seeds for this year’s garden. And as I sat in my kitchen (because it was way too cold to do this on my deck), trying desperately not to get potting soil everywhere, I couldn’t help but thrill a little at the thought of these little seeds growing into little plants and then – hopefully one day – big plants full of eggplants, and bell peppers, tomatoes and herbs.

These little seeds need a very particular environment- moist, warm, and not too bright – to germinate. They don’t need any extra feeding of fertilizer at this point, though soon enough they will. Right now, all their nutrients are contained in that tiny little seed, which is right now, I hope, breaking open into a first fragile little root.

Over the next ten weeks (nine and a half by now!), I will care for these six little seed pots that I started, and add a great deal to their number. I will harden them off when the weather gets nice by bringing them outside for a few hours, then a few more, then a full day, then overnight too. I will move them from little seed starting trays to small pots, to medium ones, then to large grow bags that are the best I can do in a city condo. And I will use grow lights, and sunshine; fertilizer and mulch; support stakes and whatever else to help them grow strong and tall and abundant.

All this care I intend to give to my little plants has reminded me of a great quote that I saw moving around the internet right when winter set in:

“Don’t forget to drink water and get some sun. You’re basically a houseplant with more complicated emotions.”

And boy does that feel true.

Especially right now when I’m a little extra tired and probably a little dehydrated too. It’s a good reminder that starting with the basics might feel silly but rarely is it wrong.

That sometimes when life gets a little nutty and we’re stretched extra thin, we need to care for ourselves with all the tenderness we might save for a fragile little tomato seedling: water, light, food. Shelter.

It also reminds me of a wonderful detail pointed out in the book Good Enough by Kate Bowler and Jessica Ritchie, in their retelling of Mary encountering the risen Christ’s appearance outside of his empty tomb:

She mistook him for the gardener.

They give lots of possible reasons why that might be, but the list ends with this: “Maybe this gardener looks like he knows something about hope – hope that Mary desperately needs.”

Maybe Jesus looked like a gardener to Mary because he exuded that kind of patient, attentive caring that gardeners have. The hope that despite all odds, things will grow and flourish and even thrive.

Maybe we can learn from him, in this.

Maybe we can care for ourselves, and others this way, too. With tenderness and focus and also hope.

Whether you’re starting your seeds right now, anticipating the coming growing season, or not; this too is something you can do. I hope you will.

-Pastor Jen

Come Home!

Come Home! Says God to his people, in their most desperate time of need. Come home.

A few years ago I was having lunch with a colleague who was in the most painful and broken moment of his personal and professional life. Years of labor suddenly lost, and lost through his own negligence and his marriage having crumbled, he look across the table and with tear-filled eyes he said to me, “my mother called me last night and said, ‘Why don’t you just come back home.’ He paused and continued…”It’s all gone to hell. It’s time for me to go home. There is this natural and deep sense of longing for home when life comes tumbling in, when sorrows like sea billows roll, when it feels like the only thing left to do is sit in sackcloth and ashes and grieve. There’s a pull toward home that’s rooted in an unconditional love, that broken is allowed and embraced.

The prophet Joel and the people of God are living in the midst of an unprecedented locust plague in Jerusalem. Crops are destroyed, and people are starving. And we here God, calling out to them, to come home, “Return to me with all your heart” he says. In their desperation, God starts talking about a renewed worshipping community…call an assembly, blow the trumpets, gather the people at the altar…even now, especially now, in one of the worst moments in the nation’s history, EVEN NOW says the Lord, come home, return to me, bring your hearts back, why? Why? Remember, says God, remember that I am gracious and merciful, full of steadfast love, relenting from punishment. It’s a message of both judgment, along with an unconditional love.

King David is living in the shadow of his adultery, and all kinds of deceit that has led him to become a murderer too. Brutal honest confession of sin follows, along with David’s own awareness that a “broken spirit” is an acceptable to God, that his own broken and contrite heart is the road home to God. He hears on his life’s most difficult day that God is calling him to come home.
This sense of coming home that we embrace tonight, in the dark of Ash Wednesday, is grounded in two realities that are reflected in our Ash Crosses. Those realities are our sin, and the grace of God. Our sin, and the grace of God.

Ashes, The darkest symbol of our sin and death, and our grieving, of all that it means to be human, the ashes of last year’s palm branches are streaked across our foreheads, and we are firmly and finally gripped by the words we usually hear at gravesides…”From the dust you have come, and to the dust you will return.” We’re told to remember that everything real about our life turns to ashes. The houses we live in, the clothes we wear, our money, the hands we hold things with, the people we love, our beating hearts, its all dust. And on that fading way, we must say with honesty and grief, each of us to God, “I know my transgressions, my sin is ever before me. Lord, you are justified when you speak, upright in your judgment.” Ashes. Confession, apology, remorse, repentance…Ash Wednesday is the preeminent day in the Church year for us to come to terms with ourselves before God, Here we fall down, our sin is ever before us. There is no denying this reality. This is the moment when, like the prodigal Son, we come to ourselves….and in the words of my friend, we sit with the sense tonight that “it’s all gone to hell.”

And in that brutal honesty, we turn our faces toward home, because we know that the one who loves us even so is there. Because of who God is, and what God has done, even in the brutal truth of Ash Wednesday, we don’t need defenses and barricades. We don’t need the medication of self-deception, we don’t need to lie anymore to ourselves or others. We don’t need to live out an exhausting, lifelong charade of pretense lest someone else discover the truth, that we are not what we appear to be. You see, the ashes of our sin and death are formed into the shape of a cross, because, thanks be to God, there is another who has taken our sin and death upon himself, and in so doing, has nullified it. Jesus, the Son of God, embodies the grace of God, the mercy of God. Like that youngest son that wanders back home to share in honesty his unworthiness, Our confession is indeed embraced by this God who is full of steadfast love for us. It’s time to come home. Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.

Rev. Susan Johnson talks about the memory of a daughter coming home on an Ash Wednesday from school with an assignment to write a poem for her Spanish class.
“I need an oxymoron for ‘HOPE’” she announces.
She says,
“We work together on it as I’m reading the prophet Joel, and the desperate King David, and the 6th chapter of Matthew, and I feel like I want to write a poem of my own, because the ashes of Palm Sunday really are an oxymoron for hope.”

Ashes (the dark, dusty reality of the promise of sin and death) are made into a cross (the symbol of our salvation, the grace of God, forgiveness). Alas, an oxymoron for hope, indeed.

May you know this night the deep and unavoidable reality of your sin and death, and deeply grieve as you reflect on your life that “it’s all gone to hell.” May we together deeply sorrow in the brokenness of life which we experience and to which we contribute. May we as different people and as one people come to ourselves, and confess our deepest regrets to the God of our creation…

And, in so doing, may our hearts turn us toward home tonight, as we get up soon, and come forward, dipping our hands into the waters of our baptism, hearing still, even now that we are God’s beloved, remembering that Jesus is baptized and crucified for sinners, may we return to God with all our hearts.

Repent. Return to the Lord your God, who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Weep for sorrow, and weep for joy too. Come home! Come home! You who are weary, come home. Amen.

Almighty God of power and love, we fall down.
Sorrow and hope mingle together in our tears that carry
both our iniquities and the holy grace you bestow on us.
Praise to you, for calling us home again, and again, and again,
and for coming to be at home with us.
On this holy night we cling to your Christ and Holy Spirit,
As we consecrate ourselves again to you.
Form us from our weakness and despair into a holy people.
Call us into your righteousness, and give us courage
To follow Christ in the lent before us,
That we would be transformed into a people, suffering
For the sake of your glory, and our neighbor’s good.
Send us home this night with your peace,
Letting go of the year past,
Looking ahead into the budding possibilities of mercy and justice.
We offer our lives to you, as we now follow your blessed Son,
Who offers his life for us.

Peter Hawkinson

A Changing World and a Surrogate Faith

One of the blessings of these years of such rapid change within the culture and church in the Unites States is an endless supply of good, helpful, prodding books, often uncomfortable to wrestle with, yet so important and valuable. One of those is Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters by Bob Smietana. Bob is a Covenanter who is a journalist and religion reporter, currently for the Religious News Service (RNS). Our men’s group, meeting Saturday mornings at 8:30, is beginning to read and reflect together. THIS WOULD BE A GREAT TIME TO COME AND JOIN US!

Thus far I’ve read the first two sections — Where we stand, and why people are leaving. The final section, Where do we go from here, will come before too long. Here’s a statistic to whet your wondering appetite: “Polling from Gallup found that from 1937 to the mid-1980’s about 70 percent of Americans claimed to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque. That number has fallen to less than half — 47 percent– in recent years. (18)

We all feel this, and there are so many factors why. Smietana talks about external pressures — changing demographics, a loss of trust in institutions, a global pandemic, increasing political polarization, evolving social norms, and the weight of America’s weight of unsolved history of racial division — and internal pressures — consolidation of people into larger churches, increasing frailty of small “ordinary” congregations, tension over how to deal with issues of sexuality, and unhealthy pastoral leadership models. (66)

If you have a pulse, your experience tells you this all makes sense. We are in a time of great change, “re-formation” some might say, deconstruction and reconstruction (hopefully) for us individually and corporately.

What I love too is that the author remains abundantly hopeful, and faith-filled, offering all kinds of stories about ways the church continues to act out the love of Christ even in a fallow season, echoing the spirit of the prophet Habbakuk, who scribed one day: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult the God of my salvation.” (3:17)

Life in the church can often have that fallow feeling about it these days. What I’m learning is that it’s ok to live in and be present to the space and time where we find ourselves — to honestly lament and sorrow about it — without losing faith and hope in the One who has companioned us and strengthened us through good times and bad: “I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the LORD, is my strength.” (v.18-19)

The call for us it seems is to seek understanding about our current circumstance as the church in our culture — and not be defensive even about the ways we have contributed to its decline — while also seeing and sensing all the opportunities we have right now, even though we be a smaller band, to love, and serve, and bless, and hold onto hope, even for the sake of the world.

Smietana quotes the late Dr. Arvid Adell, covenant minister and chair of the Philosophy professor at Millikin University, as saying this: “We are called to practice surrogate faith for a world that has lost it.”

I hope you’ll find the book, and so many others wrestling with all that’s going on. How about working on a blog like this as you try to organize your thought in a moment?

ending hope today and sending love from here!

Peter Hawkinson

On Loving What Is

Tonight, I will gather with a group of women from church. We will sit – this evening on Zoom – together for a time, and read a short essay, and reflect on it together.

My chosen piece is from Kate Bowler and Jessica Ritchie’s wonderful little book, Good Enough: 40ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection. I’m sure I have told you before about this book, but at risk of repeating myself, let me say so again: it is terrific. No piece more than a few pages long, always ending with a blessing, and a “good enough step.” It’s tailor made for practical minds like mine, that want a: so what? What do I do next? to accompany any good or new ideas.

Tonight, we will talk about their essay “Loving What Is.” I was looking for something that might capture some of the particular energies of this week, with Galentine’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and all things love on the brain.

And I found it, in this brief little essay. It challenges us to love what is right in front of us, instead of succumbing to society’s narrative that the best is always yet to come. Because, simply put, it might not be. We might have more life behind us than ahead. Some of our most precious experiences might be memories for us, not hopes for what could be. And that’s ok.

But let’s be honest about it. And instead of looking forward or backward, love what is in front of us.

The imperfect, often-overlooked details of every day. The people we actually have alongside us, not the ones we wish we did.

It’s pretty counter to the aspirational, over the top, high romance of Valentine’s Day. But actually, it’s a lot more enduring and attainable and no less important.

To love what is.

To love the companions we have: the friends, the siblings, the neighbors, even the companion animals! The church community. The coworkers. The spouse or partner who leaves the dirty dishes in the sink.

To love our bodies, even with their scars and extra pounds and gray hairs. To love our families, even the people in them who drive us the craziest.

You’ll notice that this is a word for single people and partnered ones on Valentine’s Day.

A word for young marrieds and widows and widowers alike.

A word for the young, the old, the middle-aged.

A word for all of us.

If we pause to be here, to look around at what God has blessed us with, we just mind find ourselves loving what is, instead of what could be. We can still dream, of course, and wish and plan and look back and reminisce. But not at the expense of seeing what’s good and in front of us right now.

That is my prayer for you this Valentine’s Day, and indeed always.

-Pastor Jen

2 Celebrations and a Reflection

Hello friends! This is an un-blog this week, except that we might note God’s goodness shining through in these 2 announcements:

Beginning this Friday, February 10, we welcome Susan Lofton as our Office coordinator! Susan is a native of Glen Ellyn, a professional singer and choir director as well as an able administrator. We are so excited to have her joining our team! Watch for a congregational worship welcome sometime soon. Judy Isaacson will be working with Susan over the end of this week and next to mentor her into this role. Pray for this time! Also, we will have a celebration for Judy later this spring to celebrate her 23 years with us! This is an exciting development.

On Sunday, February 19, following worship, we will share lunch with New Vision Covenant Church in fellowship hall. This represents another healing “coming together” in the far reaches of COVID-19. New Vision will serve us lunch, and we are going to serve them a potluck of our desserts, so please bring a dessert to share a week from Sunday, February 19. We celebrate in these healing days.

Finally, a reflection. It was a year ago at our annual meeting that we came together to discern future plans and directions. Since that time we have faced many challenges, but we have been blessed with daily strength from the Spirit of God to move ahead together, still unified as a local body of Christ. We have lost some friends, and we carry sorrows of different sorts, but we are renewing our strength in life rhythms and the Good News of all who might belong.

Last week at the conclusion of the winter retreat I saw the picture of that strong gathered band of our church family together at camp, and my heart soared with hope. We have much to be thankful for!

Love From Here

Peter Hawkinson