No one likes to wait. The often frustrating experience of inconvenient stasis and failed expectations of arrival can easily darken one's mood. But what if those seemingly idle moments can be a gift of the spirit in our lives? Through the prayerful discipline of the liturgical calendar year, we are called to be patient for the birth of Christ during Advent, the season of waiting. By doing so, we immerse ourselves further into the story of Jesus year to year. But perhaps a more appropriate word for waiting is preparing – to be more receptive to the love of God in this season and every one thereafter.
I am always reminded of the choral anthem "Lord, Before This Fleeting Season" by Libby Larsen at this time of year. The text by poet Mary Ann Jindra beautifully expresses the message of this fleeting mysterious season. May it make your waiting all the more worthwhile.
Lord, before this fleeting season is upon us,
Let me remember to walk slowly.
Lord, bless my heart with Love and with quiet.
Give my heart a leaning to hear carols.
Grace our family with contentment,
And the peace that comes only from You.
Lord, help us to do less this busy season;
Go less; stay closer to home; kneel more.
May our hearts be Your heart.
May we simply, peacefully, celebrate You.*
*“Simply Celebrate You — an Advent poem” by Mary Ann Jindra
Permission to print is through Christian Copyright Solutions #11133
Mark Heiskanen is Plymouth's Dir. of Music and Organist. Learn more about him and read his weekly Music Minute here.
It was great to be back with you in worship on Sunday. I am so grateful to you all for granting sabbaticals for your clergy for a time of rest, regeneration, and learning. (And also home-improvement projects: we now have solar panels on our rooftop at home.) I had a wonderful time, but I missed you who form this incredible community. Even though I watched online services from other churches and worshiped in a few cathedrals in Italy, nothing touched my heart like our service last Sunday. I also want to thank our staff for keeping things going in my absence, and especially to my friend and colleague, Ron Patterson, for another interim gig at Plymouth.
My sabbatical journey led me on a path of healing from my knee replacement, and a week at Ring Lake Ranch in August put it to the test, and it passed with flying colors. Diana Butler Bass was the presenter that week, and it was great. (It was Diana who strongly recommended Brian McLaren’s Do I Stay Christian? to me, and when the Ring Lake Silent Auction offered an online session with Brian, Jane Anne and I made the winning bid for Plymouth. I heard it was a great adult ed. offering!) You can go to Ring Lake Ranch next summer to get some R&R and hear great speakers like Jim Wallis and Otis Moss III.
I spent six amazing weeks in Italy searching for insights from the earliest Christian communities in that country, which was home to both Peter and Paul. Looking at art and architecture as indicators of community, I saw some incredible paleo-Christian sites, spanning from Aquileia at the northernmost part of the Adriatic Sea to Cimitile in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.
We will be having a free Italian dinner and slide talk about the sabbatical (good for all ages!) at Plymouth on Tuesday, December 6 at 6:00 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall. RSVP here by 12.4. (Many thanks to an anonymous member of our congregation who offered to subsidize this evening!) In the meantime, you can look at my blog at halsabbatical.com to see more. I’ll continue to add to the blog, and you can subscribe and get update notifications.
Sabbatical also allowed me to spend time with family, which is so important in the life of clergy serving in the parish. My son, Cameron, spent almost two weeks with me in northern Italy, which was a blast for both of us. (He didn’t even complain about being dragged into many churches.) He is a great traveler, having lived in Ireland and Japan, and his best friend (who lives in London), joined us for a weekend in Venice. And of course, Jane Anne joined me for two weeks at the end of my time in Italy. We visited more churches (surprise!) and paleo-Christian sites, including amazing catacombs in Rome. And we caught up with an Italian friend, took a wonderful cooking class in Tuscany, and experienced the culture we love.
Some of the things I learned from our early Christian forebears and the way they practiced their faith (and which might inspire us in the 21st century) are
As we give thanks to God this coming Thursday, I offer gratitude for this congregation and its critical witness and work as an outpost of God’s kingdom in this time and place.
From Hal’s Desk, where Ron has been sitting until today……
As you know, I am literally on my way out the door. We are in town through Thanksgiving to be with the family, but the next few days will involve several things.
I have resolved to finish our Christmas letter. It is crazy and perhaps we will fail, but we decided to do it anyway because we know that our Advent season will be very short when we return home. It seems daunting, but I intend to make the time. It is so important to let loved ones and friends know that you are thinking of them and to share a memory and express a hope that there are things worth living for and dreams worth having. It is a sort of benediction (good words) on the past year and a blessing on the year to come, that we are planning to send out into the world by snail mail. I know it’s only a letter, but I believe that any chance to make the Word flesh is worth taking!
I also plan to complete one last weaving project. It has been a great Ft. Collins visit on that score—I have managed to weave 25 yards of fabric which includes 14 place mats, six table runners, and 7 hand towels. These were completed with the support of the staff at Lambspun, my favorite yarn store in Fort Collins, aided by the fact that I have only worked with this amazing congregation and its staff part-time. One real plus of my weaving time was the presence of a few Plymouth folk, who knit and weave there too.
Next Sunday, I will be sharing in the Baptism of my two Fort Collins grandchildren during the second service. Let’s be clear, I will be doing the traditional motions and asking the questions, but you, dear congregation, will be doing the Baptism. In our tradition, the Sacrament of Baptism belongs to the gathered congregation representing the Spirit of the Loving God. As I explained to the grandchildren, there is nothing magical about Baptism or their "Opa,” other than a biological family and a church family agreeing that they need one another and that they affirm one another as care givers for children in the presence of a loving God. The tradition can wax all theological about it, but Baptism is the church welcoming God’s children in a visible way!
Then the following week, just before we leave, we will share Thanksgiving with our family here. This is a holiday with more than a little freight. We could discuss that at another time, but it does have potential. It might raise a justice question or two in our minds concerning food, or the genocide of indigenous people, or the American fixation on the violent sport of football and the sacrifice of young lives destined to suffer the consequences of traumatic brain injury. Thanksgiving can be much more than well-stuffed relatives sharing a meal. I do love that part of it, of course!
Once again, thank you for the joy of sitting at Hal’s desk!
So then, with endurance, let's also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let's throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith's pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him... - Hebrews 12.1-2
It was good to be back at Plymouth this past weekend for our Mission Marketplace and for worship after three weeks away! Great to reconnect with so many of you! We had a two meaningful and profound Totenfest/All Saints worship services. I am still musing about the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. In our travels in Italy, Hal took me to a small town outside of Naples called Nola. There we spent a morning visiting the 3rd century paleo-Christian church of St. Felix, a north African bishop who inspired the 4th century saint, Paulinus. Paulinus was a one percenter in his day who converted to Christianity and literally sold his entire portion of his family’s fortune to rebuild the church of St. Felix, a hospital, and a hostel for the poor in Nola. The story of a rich man who was not deterred by Jesus’ exhortation to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Paulinus and his wife took up the challenge and their legacy can still inspire us today.
In the ancient church is the fresco you see above. A palimpsest of the faces of our Christian ancestors in Nola painted over the centuries. A great cloud of witnesses. This picture and JT’s sermon on Sunday invites me more deeply into the image of this great cloud in Hebrews 11 and 12. A cloud of witnesses keeping the faith for centuries before the writer of Hebrews extolled them. And then more and more witnesses of faith from the time of the first century writing of Hebrews till now. We can lean into their faith, even if we express ours in 21st century ways that could be very different from their expressions. We can lean into and rest upon the knowledge that so many generations have run the race of faith with endurance, thrown off the baggage of mistakes and falsehoods weighing them down and kept their focus on the compassionate, inclusive, joyful love of God revealed in Jesus. They have lived out the joy that comes even in extreme adversity and kept the faith alive!
This gives me hope on this crucial election day. Times are tough in our country. It is hard to have hope as extreme partisanship raises its divisive head falsely in the name of the faith we love. Action for climate change must be taken NOW. Inflation must be curbed to keep people fed and housed. I get weighed down at times. And yet, today I am finding courage to keep on keeping on through the faces of the ancestors and the ancient words of the sermon in the book of Hebrews.
No matter the political outcomes of today, we will hold fast to faith in Jesus, pioneer and perfecter of God’s justice and love. It is blessed to be in a community like Plymouth where we lean into our faith, our relationships, our ministries, and our care for one another.
Take hope, dear friends!
With you on the journey,
It’s All Saints Day today which is also known as All Hallows' Day, hence, October 31st is Hallows' Eve aka Halloween. While some churches weirdly react to Halloween as some devilish cultural attack on Christianity, Halloween and the adjacent days are a part of Christian history, and mostly a healthy part.
As my Episcopal clergy colleague Rev. Hunt Priest notes, “The three “holy days” of autumn--All Hallows' Eve, All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day and All Souls’ Day (also called “Day of the Dead”)--are invitations to spiritual practice around death, fear, and remembering those we love but no longer see. These three days offer an invitation for us to come face to face with death (Oct 31), to remember the giants of the faith (Nov 1), and to re-collect the great cloud of witnesses in our own lives (Nov 2).”
While I’m usually not a big Halloween guy, I do recognize the importance of directing our attention where our culture and often our faith do not: dealing with death and loss as well as fear, and honoring the lineage of life. This annual “thinning of the veil” where death and the presence of those who have gone before is an opportune time to honor our ancestors and our ancestors of faith.
And it can be an enriching and healing time for the soul.
My mentors and teachers have helped me to understand the deep power of lineage and our relationship to it. In my journey and in helping others over the years, I have seen frequently a loss of life energy and liberation because of unhealed wounds, judgments, and blocks in the lineage of people. A healthy relationship of acceptance and sovereignty in relation to one’s lineage can offer a liberation and an empowerment in one’s life.
I will preach on Lineage and Soul this Sunday, but in the meantime, you can do your own imaginative experiment. I encourage you to stand up for this (or, if need be, imagine yourself standing). Imagine your parents standing behind you, mother on the left and father on the right. (If you’ve been adopted, place your birth parents there as well as those who raised you.) See how that feels. Imagine leaning back into them. Any resistance? Any negative blocks? Note what you feel. Now imagine the next generation standing similarly behind your parents. And so on and so on until there is a massive pyramid of people.
How each one of us relates to this image says a lot about our soul’s journey. We can bring the resources of faith to engage with our lineage. I’ll talk more about that on Sunday.
Until then, let yourself be enriched by the image and presence of all those ancestors and saints who have gone before and helped bring life to this moment.
What saints are standing behind you and behind Plymouth Church?