This isn't the New Year's Eve greeting anyone expected, but I'm writing to give you an update on how you can help support folks who are feeling the impact of the horrendous fire in Boulder County (view images here).
Here is a word from our pastoral colleague, JT Smiedendorf:
The fires are another rough ride for us here in Boulder County.
The fires were not near us, but forced my stepson to wait to see if his Louisville house survived (it did). And we are without power (28 hours and counting) and living with neighbors.
Prayers for resilience requested.
I know you will keep JT and his family in your prayers, and I also ask that you pray for our churches in Boulder County, who are likely to have members who have lost homes. None of the church buildings have been affected.
In addition to praying, the Rocky Mountain Conference, UCC, is collecting funds to support our communities. If you would like to participate, please write a check to Plymouth with "Boulder Fire" in the memo line or choose "Boulder Fire" in the fund dropdown in online giving.
I'll include a message from our Conference Minister, Rev. Sue Artt, below. Thank you for your prayerful and financial support at this time of crisis.
Another Covid Christmas was not on my 2021 Bingo Card. In addition to all the craziness raging on in the world, we had an overfilled holiday weekend, leaving me even more exhausted. I am weary. I imagine I am not alone.
In our Family Christmas Eve Zoom, Jane Anne asked a question that is sticking with me: What kept the magi going?
We are now in the season of Christmastide, waiting until Epiphany. In a few short days, the wise men will finally meet Jesus. Especially during these twelve days, I have been meditating on what kept them going.
The baby Jesus was a new king. This birth represented a new political and economic system. They wanted to see this. They wanted to feel this. They wanted to believe this. It’s no longer that hope was coming. Hope arrived. They were going to find Hope.
This is what I am striving to remember as we move towards Epiphany and into 2022. As we partner with God’s redemptive work in the world, we bring wholeness and newness to our systems.
There is hope that things will get better. That kept the magi going, and it will keep me going. I am tired. I am weary. And yet I rejoice in the Hope that is here and still yet to come.
You might have memories that form a family and/or church story of "here’s what we do" on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We want them to happen. We plan for them and know what to expect.
Here’s something unexpected: Christmas is not about the past, but about the future.
As much as we drift toward the fondly remembered past or toward a certain predefined form of Christmas, the original Christmas stories from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and even John speak of God doing a new thing, an unexpected thing through unexpected people in an unexpected way. Consider the stories of Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, or even Zechariah: the unexpected moment needed for new life to come.
Our tradition is meant to be a living one that calls us to be in our ancient stories anew, to trust, amidst life’s unexpected events, personal and historical, that Spirit can move anew to birth the Christ Presence anew. New births of life and love can and do occur, even when the innkeeper of our hearts and minds and imaginations says there is no room.
Will we make room for the unexpected? Joyful or challenging in their appearance, will we trust the GodMystery is with us and able to help us make something new of the unexpected?
We’ve already begun by creating new forms of meeting and worship amidst the pandemic. Let’s make room for the unexpected, even the worrisome kind, and allow for the unexpected ways that God’s Light and Love is coming to be, even amidst the darkness.
I pray for a powerful unexpected arrival of new Light and Life for us all this season.
The Rev. JT Smiedendorf has been a UCC minister since 2001, serving churches in Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington. He has a particular passion for reclaiming the earthy, embodied, and experiential aspect of Christian spiritual practice. He and his wife Allison are co-founders of The Sanctuary for Sacred Union, an inter-spiritual initiative, and he is currently earning a postgraduate Certificate in Psychedelic Therapies and Research. Read more about JT here.
I hope that you all had a chance to hear my colleague, JT Smeidendorf’s, sermon this past Sunday, "Hard Truth, Sweet Fruit." If not, click the link to experience it. His scripture text was from Luke 3 in which John the Baptist, the wild man prophet, is proclaiming God’s call to freedom, to new life, in the wilderness. “Change your life!” calls John. “Empowered by God’s grace and forgiveness.” “Learn to resist oppression through sloughing off old ways of resentment, fear and scarcity through sharing your abundance and God’s love.”
The call to new life in God’s realm is freeing and joyful. It is also hard. It comes with hard truths, with a keen, realistic view of the world with all its beauty and treachery. It is a call to a journey towards wholeness that we know only through learning to walk in the darkness of the shadow side of ourselves as individuals and communities. JT illuminated John’s call and its joyful costs of service as we lit the pink Advent candle of Joy on Sunday.
This year’s Plymouth Advent devotional, Advent Unbound, sheds light on the prophet’s call to joy and hard times. “Among shadows of sorrow, grief, and despair … we light a candle of joy. Joy that God calls us to lives of simple generosity and justice: Got two coats? Give one away. Be fair. Be grateful. And joy that God promises to burn away the “chaff,” the husks on our hearts that get in the way of doing such simple, beautiful things.”
Late last week I was contacted by a young adult who has been attending Plymouth regularly, Gray La Fond. In the midst of recovering from a booster shot, caring for an aging, ailing and beloved dog, and finishing finals, Gray is on a mission of Joy. Here is the mission in Gray’s own words:
“Hello, my name is Gray La Fond and I am a new attendee of services here. I wanted to invite you to participate in a project of mine to bring blankets, socks, jackets, cash, gift cards, wipes/toiletries, and Christmas cookies to the homeless. I am making three types of cookies and I will be buying a few blankets and some warm socks. This is an independent, unaffiliated project of mine as I see my vocation as service. I plan to distribute these supplies to the places where I usually see the homeless, like outside grocery stores, this week until the 19th. I am a CSU student and I will be flying back to San Diego on the 20th, hence the end date. If you would like to drive around with me, I would love that. If you don’t have time to pass anything out yourself, you can give it to me and I can do that part. If you feel inspired to do something on your own, that is great, too. Please contact me via email or at (858) 281-3042 to let me know if you want to join me.”
Psalm 30.5b tells us that “Weeping will stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Lamentations, a book of lament and grief, tells us in chapter 3, verses 22-23, that “The steadfast love of the God never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” I believe Gray understands this, as did John the Baptist in his call. And they both inspire me to look for God’s joy each morning in this third week of Advent.
This morning (Tuesday) I brought some Blessing Bags with toiletries and warm socks as well as a gently used coat to donate to Gray’s efforts and placed them in a box in Plymouth’s narthex. You can find what I am calling Gray’s “Joy Box” there and place your donations in and around it until the office closes on Friday (12/17) at 4 pm. Or contact Gray (info above) and help distribute the Joy!
With you on the Advent journey,
Advent Unbound Week Three: Joy
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series.
“Advent is not a time to declare, but to listen,
to listen to whatever God may want to tell us
through the singing of the stars, the quickening of a baby…”
– Madeleine L’Engle
For almost an eternity, it seems I’ve been told (and have said myself) that Advent is a time of waiting. For little kids, it’s about anticipating Christmas celebrations, opening Advent calendars one window at a time, smelling luscious aromas of baking cookies and decorating them is a manner that would make Jackson Pollock jealous. But what of us older folks?
What are we waiting for? Surely not a new sled under the Christmas tree. To be sure, we anticipate gatherings and carols (which we sang wonderfully at First Name Club last Thursday!). But for those with a more mature faith, what is waiting all about?
I’ve never been a particularly patient person, and we live in a culture that doesn’t value waiting. Are we waiting for the Kingdom of God to come? We pray for God’s realm to come twice each Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer, as our forebears in the faith have done for 2,000 years, but it still hasn’t come in its fullness. School shootings happen, pandemics happen, wars happen, homelessness happens, global warming happens, and the list goes on.
Yet, there are significant ways that life is better now than ever…even if it doesn’t feel that way to us. Our efforts and those of our forebears are yielding fruit! In 1900, women couldn’t vote, “separate but equal” was the racial law of the land, and LGBTQ folks were deeply in the closet. In 1900, about 85% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (today that figure in 10%). Child mortality has shrunk from 35% of kids dying before the age of five to 4% today. Educational attainment in 1900 was such that 65% of the world’s population had no formal education; today 14% of the world’s population has no education. Literacy has grown from 20% in 1900 to 85% today. (source: https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts) Life expectancy has increased dramatically. In the US in 1900, life expectancy was 49 years and today it is 79 years. (source: ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy) Global peace is markedly better than it has been in the past 100 years with the fewest battlefield deaths…in the wake of the bloodiest century ever with two World Wars. (source: www.visionofhumanity.org/world-become-peaceful-since-wwi/)
The Social Gospel movement in this country lasted from the end of the Civil War through the First World War, when it was judged to be overly optimistic. After all, how could God let WWI happen? Were the Social Gospelers just wearing rose-colored glasses? I don’t think so. They were working for real reform in racial justice, industrial working conditions (especially for women and children), and to promote the Kingdom of God here and now, imperfect as it is. The above data may give us reason to hope and to think that the Social Gospel movement had some impact (as it surely did on the Progressive Movement in the early 1900s and the New Deal in the 1930s).
Are we waiting for the Second Coming? Some Christians do, and they pin their hopes of God cleaning up the mess that we humans have created. And perhaps that will happen, but in the meantime, I find it helpful to focus on what we can do while we wait, namely, to love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God.
We have a long way to go, but at least while we wait for “God’s glorious reign of peace,” we can appreciate the progress we made instead of just wring our hands for the ways we fall short. And we can listen…listen for the murmurings of the Spirit, for the sounds of hope, the singing of the stars.
Blessed Advent to you!
P.S. If you need help finding the “On Being” poetry readings that accompany our Advent Devotional readings this week, here they are:
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal here.