A Summer Challenge

Well, friends, believe it or not: summer is here!

At church, anyway; yesterday we had our last official day of the program year. We wrapped up regular Sunday School, and choir; last week we finished Wednesday night programming; next Sunday we will move to 10 AM worship and much of it outdoors for the next few months.

This weekend is the unofficial start of the summer season, with an extra day off and cookouts and barbecues and the beaches opening up, and in a few weeks the summer solstice will ring it all in officially. But it’s time already for new rhythms, of rest and connection, of getting outside and peeling off the layers that have kept us warm for so long.

Summer means opportunities – for fresh food, for travel, for rest; even for those of us who don’t get months off from school any longer, it’s still a time when we can take the dogs out later and later for a walk in full sunshine, when we can keep the windows open all day and hear the crickets instead of the snowplows.

It also means opportunities for different sorts of gatherings at church, away from our normal rhythms of Bible studies and Sunday School classes. Pastor Pete blogged last week about lots of opportunities to gather in his family’s backyard for potluck dinners, or on our church’s front lawn for Music on the Steps. And today I want to share with you a special opportunity for learning and growing together.

This summer, I’m proud to offer WCC’s (first!) Antiracism Challenge, a ten-week program for both adults and youth. Pastor Lynnea and I will lead this together, and I’m hopeful that you will join us. It’s based off a 21-day challenge curated by the Evanston YWCA, full of great topics and challenging ideas.

Each week, we will explore a couple of resources (often a video and a reading) on a different subtopic of racism: environmental racism, racism and trauma, racial identity, privilege – just to name a few. Additional resources will be provided if any topic peaks your particular interest. And then we will meet – some weeks on Zoom, and a few times in person – to discuss what we’ve learned and how it is impacting us.

Each meeting will be on a Wednesday at 7 PM, hosted by myself, Pastor Lynnea, or often both of us.

The challenge begins on June 4, just a couple of weeks away. We will take the first week to start working independently through these materials, and then begin our weekly gatherings the week of June 11.

The schedule, which appeared on an insert in yesterday’s bulletin, is as follows:

Zoom meetings: June 14, July 5, July 19 and August 2

In-person meetings at church: June 28, July 26, and August 9

Some Wednesdays we will not meet because of another opportunity to gather – Music on the Steps! But otherwise we will gather each week to process and learn from each other.

I hope you’ll read along with us, and come as much as you are able. I hope we’ll all take some time to learn new things and grow in this summer season; stretch our horizons; push past our comfort zones; and find God there with us.

If you have any questions, or want to sign up for the challenge and receive the packet of resources, please contact myself or Pastor Lynnea. I can’t wait to get started, and hope to see many of you join us!

-Pastor Jen

Thank You

I had a whole blog post planned for this week, about our summer offering from Christian Formation, a 10-week AntiRacism Challenge for adults and youth. And I will still write that post soon, perhaps next week.

But admittedly I cannot write it today. Because I have something much more important to say.

And that is: thank you.

On Sunday, my sister, who had been having some episodes of lightheadedness, suddenly passed out while on a walk with a friend. They wisely went straight to the hospital afterward and learned the cause of her dizziness: a large pulmonary embolism. For those of us who aren’t well versed in medical language – that’s a blood clot in her lungs. Or, to be more accurate, as we later learned, a series of clots that likely started in her legs and moved upwards. Very scary stuff.

The truth about crisis moments is that your world suddenly gets very small. The things I was so worried about before those words came across my text messages paled in comparison to her getting better. To her being okay.

But I knew one thing, despite the shock and the confusion and the fear: that we needed to widen the circle. We needed more people to pray. So I did what remains a very surreal thing, and typed out a prayer request on our Message Line to send to all of you.

And in the hours and days that followed, I was reminded of something that I can often forget. As a pastor, I spend so much of my time and focus on caring for the church, on caring for you, that I often lose sight of something equally important: that you care for me too – for all of us, your pastors.

You at Winnetka Covenant are especially good at that.

By the following morning, I had emails, and text messages, and phone calls asking about us. About my sister, of course, but also about my parents and me. I had someone call me and offer her incredible expertise gleaned from long experience with blood clots. Someone else offer to come spend time with me. Have dinner. Watch movies.

My sister, too, felt the impact of those prayers. Friends from afar sent balloons and called. Friends from close by brought food and medicine to her dog, who had been suddenly placed in boarding. They came with snacks and flowers and clothes from home, the all-important charging cords and a tablet to watch tv on. Books and cards and her own pillow for better rest. And now she is getting better, and today or tomorrow she will go home. My parents are on their way. I will fly to visit her soon.

The tears are going to come, I know. But they won’t be just because I was afraid. They will be because I felt the arms of God wrapping around us all, through the ways that you cared for my family and I in these tender, fragile days.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

-Pastor Jen

Resurrection, Really?

This week, on Easter Sunday morning, I woke up early – a little earlier than usual.

My parents were in town, and we had a full morning at church ahead, a big lunch to cook, family to call – lots going on. But I wanted time to move slowly, with intention instead of stress. I wanted to savor the delight of putting on a new Easter dress, and doing my hair, and picking out earrings. To take my dog Zoe on a walk, breathing in the perfectly warm April air, letting the sun shine on my face…I wanted to soak it all in.

It promised to be a beautiful day, the kind of Easter you always hope it will be, where you can open the windows wide, hunt eggs outside, take pictures without freezing your arms off. And after a long, hard Lenten season, I was ready for this.

I put Zoe’s leash and collar on her, grabbed a handful of treats, headed out the door and across the street. We started our walk in a little nearby park, often filled with residents from a medical facility. Many of them experience different levels of addiction, and the park can be full of trash and smoke – but the mornings are usually quite peaceful. One of the residents there waved hello, and wished me a happy Easter.

And then started talking about my body.

He assured me it wasn’t disrespectful, because there was no one else there, but I can promise you it was disrespectful in the extreme.

I pretended I couldn’t hear, ignored him, directed Zoe around the corner and went on with our walk and our day.

But later that afternoon, I went for another walk with my parents down by Northwestern’s campus, right on the lake. There were lots of others taking advantage of the late afternoon sunshine, walking their dogs, strolling, and running.

And then I saw a car full of young men pull up near the walkers path, and start yelling at one of those runners. A young woman.

Again, I’ll spare you the details, but it was gross and threatening and horrible to hear.

She pretended she couldn’t hear them, ignored them, and went on with her run and her day.

But I couldn’t shake it off this time. Not when I went to bed that Easter night, not when I woke up yesterday. And witnessed a dozen other petty and mean things: the dog poop someone left right in front of a neighbor’s garage. The road rage another driver hurled out of his window at my dad, for not going fast enough.

This, right on the heels of Easter?

All this nastiness, this brutality, this denigrating of other people, right when we’re supposed to be singing “Christ, the Lord, is risen today” and collecting our Easter lilies and greeting each other with “he is risen”?

This year, sin and death were doing their utmost to tell me they weren’t finished. They weren’t nearly finished. They might not even have been defeated. Not by the way things looked.

And I’ll be honest with you. I almost believed them. I almost fell for it.

Because if I were to go just by appearances, then they were right. Resurrection seemed just like a nice idea. A vague hope. But not a real and legitimate and life-altering thing.

Certainly, nothing seemed any different on Easter Sunday or even Monday, from the way it had been a few hours before. We might be proclaiming an empty tomb and a risen Christ, but the world around me still seemed to be stuck on Friday.

I was reminded, though, that this is probably how things also looked to Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter Sunday.

The artist Scott Erickson, in describing a show of his based on the resurrection, writes this:

“According to the scriptures, nothing seems to change in the world on the day that Jesus rose from grave. Rome didn’t stop being in power. The religious leaders who asked for a crucifixion didn’t lose their jobs. It took a while before the followers of Jesus stopped hiding for their lives in a room together. It was all very small at first. So small that you’d think it wasn’t any kind of event at all.” (See here for his full reflection.)

Scott goes on to comment that Jesus’ resurrection changed him, and thus his followers, and thus their own communities, and thus ultimately the world. But it was slow. It took time. For many people, things looked the same for a while.

I find that, in a strange way, encouraging. That resurrection isn’t any less real because I can’t see it some days. Because I still feel the power of death at work in me and all around me. Resurrection doesn’t promise me that death isn’t real, but it does promise me that it’s not final.

It doesn’t get the last word.

And what does get the last word?

Life. And love.

So if you, too (like me) need the reminder early and often during this Easter week, here it is: resurrection, really.

Life, really. Love, really.

In the end, this is what wins. May I, may you, may all of us live like we really believe it. Amen.

-Pastor Jen

The Things that Make for Peace

Last night, I couldn’t fall asleep.

After a long day on Monday when I intentionally didn’t dive into the news, knowing I couldn’t process yet another mass shooting, I took a deep breath yesterday and started to read.

And my reaction was what I knew it would be: shock. Disbelief. Anger. And pain.

Emotions that sit heavy on my heart, and can’t easily be brushed off by distractions.

So it was no surprise that as I went to bed and tried to quiet my mind, all those feelings came roaring back. And as I laid there, trying to shut down for the night, two passages of Scripture kept running through my head.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

These passages competed for my attention, along with all the compelling statistics, quotes and images I also saw in my scrolling yesterday:

That the majority of Americans now want to see common-sense gun reforms

That America is the only country in the world to see this level of gun-related violence, and certainly this number of mass shootings

That guns are the leading cause of death for children in the country

That since Congress repealed the assault weapons ban in 2005, the lethality of mass shootings in this country has steadily worsened. (see especially this graph)

And finally, this image, shared by our own Pastor Pete, along with many of my other friends. (I’m unsure of the original creator, but found it on Facebook here.)

The debate over gun rights and gun control and gun violence in our country is so deeply divisive, and has such a long and turbulent history, that it’s hard to feel like any of us has anything new to say.

But here’s a thought, anyway.

As Pastor Pete reflected with me today, it seems like much of our conversations in recent years have taken our politics as a starting point and our theology as what follows. We come to church as Democrats or Republicans and look for a preacher, a bible translation, a denominational affiliation, that reflects how we vote.

But the call of the gospel, as I understand it, is the opposite. That we take the scriptures, and the person of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the work of the Holy Spirit among us and let those things inform our politics.

And those passages that I can’t get out of my head, they tell me that God’s vision for us is one of peace. That we are called to recognize and embrace the things that make for peace.

I cannot for a second imagine that more guns will bring peace. That arming teachers with AR-15s will remove the threat of school shootings.

What I can imagine is turning swords into plowshares. And teaching not about war anymore, but about peace.

To me, that means responsible gun ownership: safe storage, firearm locks, red flag laws and universal background checks. But it also means that weapons of war like assault rifles and high-capacity magazines should have no place in civilian life.

I get a lot of flack sometimes for combining my politics and my preaching. And the response I give, the response I will always give, is this: my religion informs how I think about politics. I cannot possibly separate the two. To do so would be dishonest, because I don’t enter politics as a democrat first, or an Illinois voter first, but as a Christian first.

And Christ tells me to pursue the things that make for peace.

So today, I will weep and I will rage and I will probably make myself get off the couch and go for a run because it’s the best stress relief I know.

But I will also get to work. Calling my representatives, donating to organizations who are working for peace, and speaking aloud what I understand to be the gospel’s message for us in this moment.

I hope you’ll do the same.

-Pastor Jen

Holy Discontent

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

Today I came across this prayer from Robert Raines:

“O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life. Make me notice the stains when people get spilled on. Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women, and youth behind bars. Jar my complacence, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world. Give me integrity, once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.” (Wittenberg Door, 1971)

Discontent becomes a holy gift when it pushes us toward change. It causes us to notice all that is wrong, the structures and systems that cause pain and keep injustice alive and well. To be restless is not to be wrong in this context.

I have always thought of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount as speaking about grief, about a sense of being defeated by life, maybe a kind of “defeated” spirit flowing from a life that has gotten the best of me one way or another. The greek word for ‘”poor” is ptochoi — miserable, oppressed, lowly, destitute, afflicted, humiliated.

But I’m wondering about the poverty of spirit that comes and is engaged, voluntarily — that is, not the results of life’s journey and pain just for me, but the miserable oppression and humiliation of others in the world that bothers me deeply, that troubles my spirit. In this sense, it’s interesting to read the beatitudes as an expression of our corporate “un-doneness” from all the pain, all the sorrow, all the tragedy, all the suffering, all the poverty going on in the world. All the poverty in the world sinks into my spirit. Here the text not primarily about me (though I have my own sadnesses and sorrows) but about you, about others, about neighbors, about all the sorrows of the world.

That’s holy discontent, a blessing according to Jesus, a kind of willingness to take on the sorrows of our broken world with a vision of how they might be soothed in the here and now, and find their end in the kingdom of heaven. To care deeply about the world’s poverty and work for its end is a blessed life indeed, albeit painful.

I’m thinking about that oft forgotten moment after the grand parade of Palm Sunday, when Jesus leans out over the city and weeps, and says, “If only you knew the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:41). Here is Jesus, roundly celebrated as king, choosing to embrace a poverty of spirit for the city he looks over. And then he gets to work redeeming it.

It all sounds rather bleak and morbid, a lot like the weather these days. But listen to what Diana Butler Bass says, in her book Christianity After Religion: “Religious Discontent is indistinguishable from the history of spiritual renewal and awakening. Religion is often characterized as contentment, the idea that faith and faithfulness offer peace, security, and certainty. In this mode, God is depicted in kindly ways, the church as an escape from the cares and stresses of the world…But religion has another guise as well — the prophetic tradition. In the prophetic mode, faith discomforts the members of a community, opens their eyes and hearts to the shortcomings of their own lives and injustice in the world, and presses for human society to more fully embody God’s dream of healing and love for all people. (p. 88).

To walk around this world with the love of Christ in our hearts leaves us no other choice than to carry the burden of religious discontent, to find ourselves poor in spirit. And Christ, who died for us and our world, calls us to the same work. So don’t allow yourself to be numbed from the pain around you. And work with self-sacrifice to make thing right.

For all its struggle, this is what Jesus calls a blessed life. What do you think?

Love from here

Peter Hawkinson

A Halfway Lent Check

A couple of weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, I preached about a different way to look at this season. Instead of making it the Olympics of self-denial or religious practices, I invited us all to take it as an opportunity to lean deeper into our identity as beloved children of God, and to take on whatever habits or practices helped us experience that belovedness. (If you missed this sermon or want to rewatch, you can find it here.)

Well, now that we’re halfway through the six weeks of Lent, I’m back to ask:

How’s it going?

Did you take up the invitation? Did you find that some of the things you were doing regularly left you feeling…something short of beloved? Did you find that there are practices or relationships or just things you can do that helped you feel special and valued and cherished by God?

Or did you sink back into the ordinary way of doing things, centered entirely around the hustle and bustle, the demands of each day that don’t cease, and did you find yourself listening again to the drumbeat of our culture: more, more, more? Did you succumb to the lie that no matter what you do, or how much you accomplish, you’re never enough?

You would be forgiven, of course, if you did. I admit that I have already more than a few times. It’s hard, to swim upstream against the flow of all the messaging that we get every day from our phones, radios, tvs, and computers. There’s always something more to buy, some more pounds to drop, some more muscle to tone, some new clothing to wear, to ensure that you are enough. To ensure that you are loved.

So says the world.

But the message of scripture, and I think especially the Lenten desert story, is that despite all these messages saying if you are God’s beloved child, planting a seed of doubt, the truth is: you are. Forever and always. No matter what.

I’ve been trying to practice my Lent in this way; to engage with the people, the habits, the behaviors and practices that help me really believe I am beloved, and feel it.

And I’ve noticed a couple of things.

The first is that this is hard. That the powers and principalities in this world do not want me or you to believe this. Because if we don’t believe we’re beloved, if we doubt it, if we refute it, then at the very least someone can make a profit off us. Selling us the beauty product or the home furnishing or the diet pill or whatever else will make us feel unique and special and important. But also we’ll be easily distracted from the call of the gospel and the building of God’s kingdom because we’re feeling too rotten in ourselves to do anything, to think we have a message worth sharing or help worth contributing.

There are probably many other reasons that this is so hard. Those are just two that I’ve come up against in a few weeks of this Lenten practice.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that God provides, even as we wrestle.

When Jesus withstood his own desert temptations, angels came and cared for him.

And I believe that when we stare down the voices and the influences that want to question our identity as beloveds, and when we bring those insecurities or fear to God, God will once again provide.

I was wrestling last weekend with feeling isolated, far from my community, too overwhelmed by all the tasks I had to do, to feel connected or valued. And I went on a retreat with some fellow ECC Clergywomen, and in a matter of two days I felt the opposite: wholly myself, wholly loved. It was not what I expected, but just what I needed.

Similarly, this Saturday I was having a hard day, feeling again lonely and disconnected, frustrated with some relationships in my life. And the next day, some dear friends I haven’t spent time with in a while invited me for dinner that night.

I wrestled, and God provided. And at the end of it all, I remembered that I was beloved.

I’m curious if you have experienced anything similar: the struggle, the questions, the gifts of grace. If you’re also finding it hard and ultimately very important to lean into your belovedness this way.

Whatever your experience in this season turns out to be, my prayer for you, and me, and all of us, is that we come to the other side of Lent assured and convicted: we are beloved. Forever and always. No matter what.

-Pastor Jen

The Pesky Call to Forgiving

“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Luke uses “Hamartia”, the Greek word for sin. Matthew goes with “Opheilemata”, debts, a more familiar term in Jewish culture. The word trespass likely comes from translators William Tyndale (1494-1536) or John Knox (1514-1572) used in the first Book of Common Prayer published in 1549.

Collectively, they hold us day by day and week by week to an honest confession to God and a loving mercy directed at one another. Love of God… and love of neighbor is all bound up together here, as though they are dependent on each other. I can’t possibly love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and not love you. I can’t experience the forgiveness of my sins and withhold forgiveness from you. And in offering you grace I return again to what God in Christ Jesus has done for me.

It sounds good, and organic, and even kind of natural, but we all know how the challenge of our own egos sever this holy collective tissue. There is a requirement that goes with the mercy and grace of forgiveness. It isn’t fair, or just; and as such, I must lay down my stubborn pride that tells me I’m right, and justified therefore in continuing to hold our broken relationship at bay, at least until you confess your trespass, and bow before me owing a debt.

And where would we be, if such was God’s way? If Jesus, hanging on the cross, decided not to pray to his Father “forgive them all!” but instead, “Damn them all for what they have done to me!”, or “Forgive them when they realize what they’ve done, when they repent.”

But no, it is not that way. It’s “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” It’s Jesus’ own determinative action. He has power, holds real power to forgive, and does so, even though humanity holds no collective contrite heart. Blessed be the Lord! He lets go of his human impulse for holding onto hurt, he accepts the humiliation of not needing to win, and chooses to go with mercy and grace. Jesus becomes the running father embracing his runaway son. Carl Bjork (1837-1916), first Covenant Church President says it this way:

“No, not a word about sin, uncleanness, seriousness or amends, but just as he was, he embraced him and kissed him. The son did not even have time to tell him that he did not expect to be received as a son but would be glad if he could remain as one of his servants. Now, do you have anything against this, if he does the same with you?” (Images in Covenant Beginnings, p. 138).

N.T Wright says that

“In particular, having received God’s forgiveness themselves, they were to practice it among themselves. Not to do so would mean they hadn’t grasped what was going on…failure to forgive one another wasn’t a matter of failing to live up to a new bit of moral teaching. It was cutting off the branch you were sitting on.

So the more I am aware of God’s goodness to me, the more I am able to be gracious to those around me. Forgiveness has a dual purpose. It is intended to restore us to a renewed relationship with God AND with one another.

Yet “I forgive you” sticks to the roof of my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter, as I hold not the right to judgement rather than mercy and locate my spirit back in the old worldly ways of revenge instead of the reconciliation Jesus so beautifully brings into the world. Cycles of violence develop in my heart and mind. Hatred lives and breathes. The establishment of God’s Kingdom come and God’s will being done is thwarted.

Into all this pain of our human condition — your ego and my pride — Jesus comes and teaches us, shows us how not to hold on to the pain, but work through it toward reconciliation. nd he empowers his disciples — tells them that they can and must do the same thing for each other, over and and over and over, that he is doing for them.

That’s the pesky and courageous call to forgive. Who comes to mind for you?

Love from here

Peter Hawkinson


“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

“…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…(Ephesians 1:18-19)

I’ve always wondered about that phrase, that image Paul uses, “The eyes of your heart…” the implication is that there’s a lot more having to do with seeing and sight than my eyes can handle. I wonder.

One of my most treasured old tomes is The Way of the World: Contemplative Reflections on the Gospels by Rev. William Martin, who was a pastor and spiritual director in the desert southwest. He writes simple poems leading to simple reflections. Yesterday I came to “Seeing and Believing”. Here it is:

There are two ways of seeing:

with the eyes, and with the heart.

Eyes respond to light waves

between 400 and 800 nanometers.

Most of the electromagnetic spectrum

lies outside of these boundaries,

and cannot be seen by eyes.

Only the heart has the capacity

to know beyond seeing.

Trust what the heart knows,

not the tiny bit the eyes see.

Wow! It’s good to know, and amazing that the ancients had a sense of this without the help of modern science. I’m thinking of the current worship song we often sing that goes like this:

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord

Open the eyes of my heart

I want to see you

I want to see you

It’s such an intriguing thought, but how? Like Nicodemus who’s wondering how in the world he can be born all over again, how can I open up wide the eyes of my heart? Is there a switch, or some thought process, or a certain prayer? I think not. It seems to be all bound up in this process of faith somehow, of relationship to the Creator who gives us eyes to see and as I’m learning hearts also to see with. I wonder how that works. What do you think?

“Seeing is believing” we say. Is that all there is to it? Or can we learn to trust what our hearts know and not just the tiny bits our eyes see?

Love From Here

Peter Hawkinson

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