Advent blessings for the journeyBy Brigit Stevens - December 19, 2014, 9:09 am
While I was in seminary, my mother was gravely ill and ended her own life. Her death was devastating for me and bewildering for my faith. Her long time struggle with depression and anxiety coupled with a new terminal diagnosis were too much for her to bear. On the one hand, I understood very well how and why she made the choice that she did that last week of November 2000. She wanted to choose her own fate. She was terrified of being a burden on the rest of the family. I really believe that she believed those pills were the best and most loving and thoughtful choice for all of us. On the other hand, I knew of her prayers and mine for her healing, and I was so deeply grief-stricken and angry at God for not answering them. It wasn’t fair. How could it be that a child of God’s could be in such a cold and dark place without relief? I wept for the darkness of my mother’s pain and suffering. And my own soul was chilled and alone.
There was a time in my early grief when I was not able to claim a belief in God. I couldn’t assert any hope in a benevolent force over and above all else. I was unsure what I would do with my useless Master of Divinity degree because it wouldn’t be worth even the paper it was printed on.
But, God found me, and God was wearing a tattered sweatshirt, aprons, and rubber gloves.
My friends had told me to let them know whenever I needed them, as you do when your friend is grieving, so I did.
One night, my grief had taken hold for a good long week, getting off the couch was almost impossible, and the pile of dirty dishes in the sink brought me to tears. I called my friend Hanna, cried about how hard it was to wash the dishes and how useless it all felt. And 30 minutes later she appeared at my door with our mutual friend Anissa, decked out in aprons and gloves and carrying buckets and feather dusters! They cleaned my tiny apartment and shared hugs and laughter and tears with me! They didn’t tell me to get over it or pray harder. They showed up and helped clean off the crusty dishes.
I think of them at Christmastime because they were the very real incarnation of God in my life. They were Love, embodied and empowered. Just like the infant Christ, they showed up, right in the middle of the mess, and offered what they had to give.
I pray that this Advent season has unfolded for you and yours with surprising gifts of hope, peace, joy and most of all, of love. May you witness the great in-breaking of God into the dark and cold places, so much so that it spills over into the rest of the world!
Advent blessings for the journey,
—Brigit Stevens, Associate Conference Minister
By Brigit Stevens - December 19, 2014, 9:09 am
Caught Where We AreBy Jonna Jensen - December 11, 2014, 9:56 am
The holy season of Advent comes ‘round every year. As long as we live here, there are Decembers after Novembers and before Januaries. Think and pray backward with me, if you will, through the Advents of your life and the life of your family and the life of your congregation and community.
I can imagine there were Advents when you were falling in love or in the midst of some other glorious adventure. There were Advents for welcoming new babies. There were Advents when the church seemed to hum and glow with joyful anticipation of our Savior. There were Advents of warm neighbor love in our communities.
I can imagine there were Advents when your heart was breaking. Advents of wilderness wandering. Advents spent deep in the valley of shadows. There were fractious Advents in our faith communities. There were hungry Advents. Advents in times of war.
Rich, Brigit, and I are recently home from days of intense learning and fellowship with our colleagues on the staffs of the Conferences of the United Church of Christ, along with the officers of our national Collegium, led by members of the MESA (Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization) team in our national setting. Among the conversations that stirred through our break times were conversations about whether or not it was good and right to light the joy candle in our Advent wreaths this year. Might it remain unlit as a witness to pain, violence, and injustice in our communities?
The discernment of most became: no. The holy season of Advent comes ‘round every year. It catches us where we are. It is meant to catch us where we are. This Sunday, in our homes and in our congregations, we will light the joy candle. We may light it with hearts so full of joy our words and even our songs are too small to name it well. We may light it with tears streaming down our cheeks. We may light it trembling with fear or anger.
But we will light it. We will light it as our witness to a joy that the world does not give and cannot remove. We will light it as our witness to the promise we will proclaim as the Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
With deep gratitude for the light of Christ and for Christ light that shines through each of you,
Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister
By Jonna Jensen - December 11, 2014, 9:56 am
Our Common LifeBy Rich Pleva - December 5, 2014, 9:30 am
Ferguson, Missouri. A place most of us had never heard of prior to this past August has become the latest symbol of our nation’s confusion about race and civil order and equality and more. Added to that is this week’s grand jury decision in New York not to indict a police officer for the asphyxiation death of an individual in his custody.
We are fond – those of us in the liberal Protestant tradition – of quoting Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
But like all human words, those words are only filled with meaning based on the history and experience of the one who hears and speaks the words. In fact, justice has no objective and irrefutable meaning easily and indisputably discernable in each and every human context. Most people actually (and sincerely!) affirm the application of justice to the situations of life! But the ways in which we were raised and the experiences of our various lives and the degree to which we have been privileged or not (by upbringing and socio-economic station and skin color) shape our understandings of “justice.” That which looks plainly to some as “justice” looks like nothing of the sort to others.
Are we therefore destined to endless and subjective wrangling over whether or not the killing of Michael Brown by police office Darren Wilson was an example of fear-based racial profiling or a justifiable act of self-defense by a duly authorized officer of the law?
Here in the Iowa Conference we assert an intentionality about “boldly following Jesus.” Whatever “boldness” might connote in this context, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t imply unwavering certainty. Instead it connotes an unwavering resolution to learn and question and grow.
Perhaps we need to return to that selection from Micah and pay as much attention to its third recommendation as to the first – perhaps we need to wonder what role “humility” plays in situations where different children of God find themselves at odds over the application of justice and kindness.
I’ve found that certainty is more often than not an impediment to growth. Are we – are you – willing to learn and grow and be pushed about all that “Ferguson, Missouri” has come to represent?
I’ll not be coy about this – I’m strongly inclined to suspect that deeply ingrained (though frequently unconscious) racism and fear lies at the heart of our nation’s stunningly and disproportionately high incarceration rates of African-American males and consequently incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown and the choking death in NY (and whole lot of other social and economic matters of racial disparity). But I hope I’m willing to question and continue to learn – as I hope you are.
To that end please figure out ways to listen to voices you might not otherwise hear. For those of you in the Des Moines area, you might start with an event sponsored by Iowa Interfaith Alliance on December 19 at Plymouth Church. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, Associate Professor of Religion at Drake University will discuss what might come next if “racial reconciliation” isn’t our answer. It’s a provocative title. I wonder what she has to say. Do you wonder too…or is your mind too made up to allow room for dialogue and creativity and change?
Whatever “boldly following Jesus” might mean, certainly it doesn’t imply a passive acquiescence to the status quo. Jesus rattled cages….not for the sake of mere disruption….but to the ends of justice….and yes, kindness and humility as well.
We can do no less.
By Rich Pleva - December 5, 2014, 9:30 am
The UCC in Iowa
Thankful for YOUBy Rich Pleva - November 25, 2014, 11:45 am
There are a lot of “non-liturgical” holidays. Mother’s Day….Valentine’s Day (sort of)…Labor Day….and more. I think Thanksgiving Day is the most Christian of the lot.
Some holidays take more explanation than others, but Thanksgiving Day requires almost none. That act of giving thanks is the quintessential act of acknowledging “creatureliness.” I am contingent. I am not God. I am dependent on others.
On my more sinful days, I wish to be independent – to depend on no one but myself. It is part of the American myth to imagine oneself self-made – autonomous. There are few insults more universally affirmed in our culture than that of “dependency.”
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reality of unhealthy dependencies, but the idea that anyone could be, or should be really autonomous is, it seems to me, idolatrous. Only God is autonomous….and even God choose to create and in some measure make Godself dependent on the welfare of that which God had created. Is there any biblical text more breathtaking than that of Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave…..
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
So, assuredly I am thankful for food and for clothing and for money in the checking account, but mostly I am thankful for the web of relationships that make life something worth living. I am thankful to and for God and I am thankful for family and friends and colleagues – for YOU!
Thank you. God bless you!
By Rich Pleva - November 25, 2014, 11:45 am
UCC in Iowa
All the Good GivingBy Jonna Jensen - November 20, 2014, 12:54 pm
I’ve been praying and wondering quite a lot and preaching a little bit in and about this passage from the first chapter of the Letter of James:
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…”
In our daily and yearly rhythms of reading, praying, and listening through the Bible, we are blessed with occasions to startle over a familiar text. In the same way as we startle over a beautiful tree or an architectural detail along a route we’ve traveled hundreds or even thousands of times (“Has that always been here? I’ve never noticed that before!”), so we startle over words of Scripture that we’ve driven by hundreds or even thousands of times, noticing a detail we’ve never seen before. One of the luscious blessings of making time all the time to offer our attention to sacred texts!
Like you, I’ve sung and prayed over and sighed on and preached from the second portion of this passage a lot of times. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Amen. Thank God!
But I startled this fall over the first portion of the passage, which seems to have caught my attention for the first time. (“Has that always been here? I’ve never noticed that before!”) Every generous act of giving is also from above!
Not only the gifts we receive but the gifts we give are Godsent. God has my PIN and password. God writes checks on my account. God has access to my calendar and can spend my time. Amen. Thank God!
Our calendar years close with seasons of feasts and gifts. Very good times, my beloved, to watch for what hasn’t been noticed before. Very good times, my beloved, for God to use our PINs and passwords and account numbers to give gifts to precious souls who are not on our lists of favorites, whose names we didn’t draw for the gift exchange. Very good times, these weeks of crowded calendars, to pay attention to ways God may choose to spend our time on an unnoticed someone needing presence that God chooses (WOW!) to send through us.
Thank you and thank God for the stunning ways God sends gifts through you!
—Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister
By Jonna Jensen - November 20, 2014, 12:54 pm