...a way in the desert

...a way in the desert
A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40.3)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tissue Paper Moon

In 1996 I moved from Kansas City, MO to Phoenix, AZ to take a job that soon proved to be a step toward something greater rather than a destination.  For years I had experienced a call to ministry, specifically pastoral ministry in a congregational setting.  With a strange mixture of naivete and boldness, I sought a position as Associate Minister in a long-established, vibrant congregation in Tempe, AZ, and began enrollment in seminary with plans to seek ordination in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  My immersion into ministry was just that.  Within my first month on staff we experienced the death of three matriarchs of the congregation.  I was blessed to help officiate at all three memorial services, and my life was changed forever when I was present with two of the women at their deaths.  Precious.  Sacred.  This profound initiation into ministry confounded me and woke me in the mornings with heightened sensitivities.  One day the following poem poured from my fingertips after my morning exercise.  It is especially meaningful now that I am a tissue paper woman.

Tissue Paper Moon
Linda Miller
9/18/1997

A tissue paper moon monitors my morning run along the canal.

As she greets me and I watch her watching me,
I find myself wondering what she saw last night
when she was brighter... denser... fuller...
when she governed the sky, dressed in stunning silver.

Delicate now... lacey... ethereal...
she is no less beautiful than before.
Perhaps more.

I round the corner to enter my apartment and suddenly
there she stands before me
suspended on a field of brilliant blue
in the space between the palms. 

She bows graciously
to her younger brother, Sun --
strong and full of new energy --
now commanding the other sky
behind me.

She looks so wise and seems to be smiling.

There is little time. 
I urgently want to ask her,
"Tell me, please, what did you see when the sky was yours alone? 
What do you know? 
Tell me quickly before you go."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Slow Dancing With God


Jeremiah 2:11-13

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.  Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

 

 I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought the prophet Jeremiah was a little harsh.  He could have said almost  everything he said… a little nicer.  And I’m pretty sure he was never voted most popular kid in his class.  But all of us have our brutally honest moments.  Even best friends are that way sometimes.

Amy was my Occupational Therapist who saw me through the first month after my stroke in July and August of 2012.  I went to Mid America Rehab Hospital on the anniversary of my stroke, July 8, 2013, and it was a very emotional day.  Afterward Amy Facebook-messaged me and said I was the only one who could decide when I was ready to accept that this is who I am now. 
I hated her words, wanted to throw them away.  They were scratchy to my heart and my soul….  But I love her.  I trust her.  She was my Occupational Therapist.  She is the woman whose face was full of joy on the day when I showed her that the fingers of my left hand worked!  I will never forget the joy in her face.  Never.  That joy, which, my friends, is the face of God who wants only our success, our happiness, our fulfillment, is the face of love, of grace, of advocacy. Such joy is the face of God when we are rejoicing.   That face is on our side, wishing us to win, to defeat the odds.  I will never forget Amy’s face… God’s face.  But then she said something to me that wilted all my excitement over her belief in me.  I heard by what she said that I needed to decide when I would accept that this is who I am after having a stroke a little more than a year ago.  I am a woman who always believed, even as a girl-child that she could do anything she set her mind to do.  Then I had a stroke.  And the last year has been a time of learning what I can’t do… yet.  
Soon after my stroke, the congregation who had called me to be their senior minister terminated me.  Because my recovery seemed unusually rapid, I had proposed a plan for resumption of responsibilities as their pastor, building together to tend their needs and care for my own.  I described us working as a team; congregation and pastor.  It was very much like the plan I had already formulated for our ministry together while I was still in Phoenix, before I came to Independence, when I still lived with the expectation that my body would continue working as it always had.  You see, I had been a new church planter in AZ, and whether for good or ill, we planters give all of ourselves.  We are church secretary, receptionist, counselor, pastor, priest, web site designer, business manager, tree trimmer, and on and on.   Quite honestly, those words describe most ministers.  Never sell them short.  They give way more than you know they are giving.  On Saturdays I printed the worship bulletins out on my printer at home and tri-folded them by hand, secretly proud of the full-color graphics I had found on the internet that seemed to punctuate the points I hoped to make on the morrow in worship.  I designed and ordered post cards to advertise our Christmas Eve services and paid for it out of my pocket because there was no line item for it in the budget.  And I was never, and still am not, sorry for it.

I loved the work.   It called forth from me the best of my creative processes, and I almost without fail found confirmation of them in worship the next day.  That’s just about all that I needed… to know that the work to which God  had called me was good work, appreciated and yielding fruit… in the form of a congregation passionately committed to carrying on the work Jesus started.  It turns out to be the only congregation of which I was ever Senior/solo pastor in my short ministry. 

And that is enough.  To start a good thing, breathe life into it, and let it go, is to participate in creation.  Not many people get that close to the Creator.  I am blessed.

 I confided my response to what my precious Amy said about accepting that this is who I am to my outpatient physical therapist, Deb.  We talked about how stubbornly self-reliant I am and how convinced I am that my resolute optimism may be why I’m alive… and certainly how I’ve come this far, and she said, “It’s like God has been looking down on you all your life while you were succeeding, saying, “Look at her!  She thinks she did that all by herself!  I just love her.”    Like God was waiting for me to figure out it was God at work all along…. and then my friend and colleague in ministry, Molly, reminded me that when her firstborn son was born very prematurely, with many, many challenges, that the endless days in NICU, listening to monitors, hanging on every word from the doctors, she was changed.  Forever.  Transformed.  She was a new being, and there would never be any going back.  And different wasn’t bad.  She would never have chosen THAT way of getting there, but there might have been no other way….  And she reminded me that Amy might not have been saying I was ruined, spoiled, never to be any good any more, but rather that I now understand more, experience differently, am wiser than ever before, and that there may be nothing wrong with accepting that.  There might not be anything at all wrong with who I am now.  It might not even be painful, if I could just let go.  For the past year I have been working like crazy to recover from this stroke, to be good-as-new again, so that no one could ever tell that I’d had a stroke.  But I did have a stroke. 
I’m not ready to quit.  I really, really, really want this left leg to be able to help get me around.  I picture hiking the Grand Canyon with my grandchildren again.  And so I’m not going to quit. For the past year I have believed that it was my stubborn, willful determination to recover that has brought me through. 

Then a day or so after Molly’s message I received a private Facebook message from a woman I’ve never met, but was introduced to by Erin, a clergy colleague,  a couple of years ago. Her name is Lisa Gammel Maas.   Lisa sent me an article from Christian Century magazine to encourage me in my interest in becoming a Spiritual Director like she is. You see, I’ve always imagined in my retirement years being a counselor of sorts.  With my deep connection to the God-thing, spiritual direction seems a natural fit.  The author of the article talked about the value of engaging a spiritual director, and about this scripture we’re studying today about God’s people screwing up AGAIN, trading the amazing God who is a virtual life-sustaining fountain for something they could make themselves.  God said, “Look at this!  I’m a fountain, a constantly flowing source of fresh living water, and they have traded me for something they made themselves – a cistern to catch rainfall and runoff, and a cracked one at that!  What in my name are my people up to?”

I lived in the desert for a while, you may know… long enough to understand how precious water can be.  The Anasazi people built an intricate system of canals in the Sonoran Desert to capture and channel the water so they could develop agriculture to feed their people. 
A cistern can be as simple as a large cavity in the ground into which water is diverted and collected so it can be used later by the people.  I’ve seen cisterns of poured concrete on Midwestern farms where every attempt was being made to preserve precious water for times of drought.  I’ve also heard my Aunt Lois talking about the well on our family farm that never ran dry, even during the Dust Bowl drought.  The well was fed by an underground spring… like the fountain that God was, according to Jeremiah… living water, fresh-flowing, apparently eternal.

Idols aren’t usually bad, immoral things; they are usually good things, valuable things, worthy of our loyalty, investment and protection.  So valuable, in fact, that over time while we’re not watching, they begin to take up the space allotted to God.  They move into the God-space in our lives.
I began to wonder if the reason it was taking me so long to recover emotionally and spiritually from my loss of ministry is that ministry had begun to take up the God-space in my life.  Had ministry become my idol?  Had I made ministry into a cistern to capture God, to hold God in place, preserving God for the dry times so there would always be enough God?  Any good thing… any dream… any calling can become an idol when it begins to take up the God-space in our lives.  You know your dream may have become an idol when it seems to have left you, and yet you have trouble letting go of it.

I remember that as a young teen I felt really awkward at dances.  I wasn’t very good at it at all, which was why I usually stood leaning against the gymnasium wall with the long line of other timid girls.  Not many of the boys asked me to dance.  To be honest, I was relieved.  You see, I wasn’t very good at dancing.  I had a hard time figuring out how to let the guys lead.  Some of you know me well enough to understand that. 
Truth is,  dancing is a partnership.  Both partners need to know the steps.  Even Fred Astair couldn’t have been so brilliant without a partner who knew the dance well enough to do it alone, without him... and yet had the grace to follow his lead. 

As a teen it was a happy day for me when rock ‘n roll took over.  I found my place at sock hops where we didn’t really have partners and everyone just got out on the floor and danced together, only independently, apart.  No one leading… no one following.   All of us just out there shaking our booties.  It was great exercise and lots of fun.
However… romance only blushes in the slow dances.  You could only get “that” feeling when his hand was on your waist and yours was on his shoulder, and you waited that millisecond to feel his lead so you knew how to follow.  And maybe that is what it means to be church… slow dancing with God, waiting just a millisecond to sense how God is moving. 

I am beginning to understand what my friend, Spiritual Director, Lisa, said, that maybe it’s not either/or.  It’s both.  The stubborn, willful, bull-headed part of me is a gift from God, and has been God’s instrument for helping me recover.  And as my Physical Therapist Deb suggested, God is out there somewhere saying, “Look at her!  She’s figured it out!  It’s not her or me… it’s us!  It’s both/and.”  I poured and poured over all my friends had said, and then...
I could swear I heard God say, “Linda, may I have this dance?”

After all this discernment I hear my Occupational Therapist Amy differently.  She was not saying it’s time to say this is as far as I can go, but rather that NO ONE can say that for me.  So my resounding “NO!  IT’S NOT TIME!” was appropriate. I’m not done yet!  There still is much for me to do, and much for me to say.  I don’t know yet where to go or what to do.  The first step is a mystery to me.  I only know that I heard, “Linda, may I have this dance?” and then God extended a left hand to me, and there is nothing for me to do but to place my right hand in God’s left and wait until I feel God’s right hand resting on the back of my waist (which feels so safe and secure, even when I have no idea what’s going to happen next), and then wait… that millisecond… to feel where God is leading, before I take a step.
Lord, God of Hosts, be with us yet.  Amen.
 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why I don't believe in Satan

Mark 3.13-15, 19b-27

             Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons….  Then he went home; and the crowd came together again….  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

 April 19, 2013

Tonight we have word via the news media that the younger brother of the “Boston Marathon Bombers” has been captured alive, and can now be a source of information for a nation that is in love with information, and ever anxious to find the locus for blame.  We must know.  We must understand.  We feel compelled to learn as much from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as possible, and in due time, exact judgment and punishment upon him.  Whether or not we are aware of it, this is part and parcel of how we reassure ourselves that we are on the side of good/God, as opposed to the ones we have identified as being on the side of evil/Satan.
 
I don’t believe in Satan… mostly because I don’t want to give evil that much power.  Since I was a child I could not accept the idea that there was an embodied, anthropomorphic form of evil named Satan or the Devil.  I had learned that the one I knew as God was the One God, and to name another force and even picture it with a red body, horns and a long tail was to acknowledge that there was another god, albeit a god of evil, competing with my god of good.  Naming it Satan relocated the struggle between good and evil from me to them, making it a battle between two gods: God and Satan.  In antiquity this would have been a familiar rationale.  For me the explanation had to be more complex.

(I confess to inconsistency since I often speak of God in anthropomorphic terms: having a broken heart, desiring our wholeness, weeping with us, dancing with us, etc.)  For me there are two problems with the idea of Satan:  it gives evil potentially equal power to the power of good, which I attribute to God, and even more importantly, it takes the heat off you and me.  Mark’s Beelzebul was the ruler, or god, of all demons.  Some of us might think of the Tsarnaev brothers as subjects of Beelzebul, the lord of demons.  It might even be comforting to think of them as lesser demons themselves, manipulated by Satan.  Still, this explanation is too simple. 

Evil exists.  That is obvious.  But I don’t believe these two young men were evil.  The death and destruction and terror they caused are signs of evil working through them.  Their choices resulted in evil.  But I cannot pronounce them evil.  I look at Dhokhar’s photo on the TV screen, and I see a very handsome young man just a year older than my firstborn grandson which means I know something of where he is in his development toward adulthood. My heart breaks a little.  I see what seems to be a photo of him with his prom date.  I see photos of my grandsons and their prom dates. I see a photo of Suspect #1, and know that this is Tamerlan who was Dhokhar’s brother.  I see in my teenage grandsons a love and fierce loyalty to one another that belies their occasional fighting. My heart breaks a little more.   I cannot imagine the depth of grief that befalls Dhokhar and his parents today over the death of Tamerlan, or the grief of their friends who have expressed shock and disbelief over this tragedy as it unfolded.  My heart is broken.

The idea that we can point to “others” as definitively evil makes it extremely convenient to excuse ourselves from possibly being related to evil.  It is them, not us.  If evil is personified and given a name such as Satan or Beelzebul, thus resembling a human being that embodies, encompasses, and therefore contains all that is anti-life, anti-God, anti-grace, anti-good, then we can make that one the target of our retaliation, and maybe destroy “it.”

Evil is not such an entity.  Evil exists instead, as a force or an impulse permeating all that it can, as is good.  Each is charming and even seductive, and each is exercised, expressed, revered and elevated by good people.  The Tsarnaev brothers were/are not evil, but evil had its way in and through them.  If we borrow the imagery from Jesus’ metaphor in Mark, they simply were not strong enough to resist the evil that invaded their house.  If you and I can humble ourselves enough to find the grace to admit it, that means that sometimes evil has its way with and through us.  Evil can only “plunder our house” if we are too weak to resist it… only if the “strong man” or woman who owns the house is bound up can evil plunder the household, robbing the house of its goods.

When I was in seminary at Claremont School of Theology in California, our professor of New Testament listed a number of scriptures for us to choose from, to explore as the basis for our exegetical papers.  “The Beelzebub Controversy” (this story from Mark) was one of them.  I explored a little, and then watched as all of my classmates (and ultimately I) avoided it completely. This conundrum is daunting, and frankly even today it makes me uneasy to deliberately look for the truth hiding in it.  Lately, however, I’ve been compelled by so much that is happening around us to revisit and reconsider digging for meaning in this scripture.  How can evil win if God is in the world?

I’m fascinated with our resourcefulness in distancing ourselves from evil by projecting it onto someone else.  The “other” is the evil one.  We play the role of the good, the Godly.  Personifying evil and calling it Satan makes it ever so much easier to compose our own disclaimers.  When it’s possible to point to a person that embodies evil, we are more free to affirm our separateness from it, to define ourselves as NOT the evil one.  Yet it appears to me that what makes evil so insidious is that it works its way through the actions and inactions of good people… even people who don’t intend harm… even sometimes through people who passionately believe that they are doing the right thing or the only thing they can do.  

A congregation terminated me after I had a stroke, their leaders apparently convinced that it was the best or only thing to do for the good of the church.  It ended my profession in congregational ministry.  It was devastating and created financial fallout for me that I am still trying to sort out.  Evil worked its way through good people who just couldn’t see the full impact of what they were doing – or didn’t care, and I can’t quite believe that.  The damage was not just to me.  In fact the greater damage may have been to the congregation.  How will they teach their children to choose the Jesus way of caring for others, for “the least of these,” for the broken in mind, body or spirit?  How will they ever be able to convince their elderly that they still have worth when their bodies betray them, now that their elderly have watched as they dismissed me because I had a stroke?  What will these leaders do when they, themselves, suffer loss of their full, vibrant, middle-aged fitness… when they become the dispensable ones?

These people were/are not evil.  They just were not strong enough to resist the force of evil when it broke into their house, telling them to cut ties, quick and clean.  Some have even said to me that they have no power in the church.  They do not feel like the “strong person” who is owner of the house. The question that comes to mind is how can a church so effectively disempower its members that there are few if any who are strong enough to resist evil when it intrudes?  I ran into a dear woman, a senior member of the congregation, in the grocery store just yesterday.  She exclaimed over how good I look and how great it is to see me getting around so well.  “We loved you,” she said, “and we were so excited to have you be our minister.   All of us get sick and have things go wrong with our health, but we recover and we go on.  I’m so sorry it didn’t work out.  I was so angry, but no one listens to what I have to say.  Other people make the decisions there.” I wondered if she even knew that I had submitted an extensive proposal for how we would work together, pastor and congregation, through this recovery time… learning and recovering together, being stronger than we might have ever been were it not for my stroke.  I also wondered if she knew that her words were a powerful ministry to me.  I wonder if she knew.

It is so easy to recognize evil when an IED explodes in a public place and lives and property are lost.  But when evil slowly erodes the personhood, the dignity, the ability of people to speak with a voice that is heard and respected, when we take away their power, it is harder for us to recognize evil working through us.  I don’t believe in Satan… because I think personifying evil can be a cop out – it could too easily relieve me from responsibility for my own occasions of weakness when evil invades my house and I fail to resist, and the goods of my household are plundered. 

Evil has broken into our house.  What shall we do?  I am reminded and therefore would be remiss if I didn’t bring to your memory the words of Paul to the Romans (12:21):  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Paul seems to be echoing what Jesus, according to Mark was saying… that when evil breaks into your house, you cannot conquer it with evil; the only way you can overcome it is with good.  Be strong, God's people.  Be strong.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. 
Holy One, be with us yet.  Amen.

 
A prayer for the evening:
 
For all the times we seek revenge and ignore our own culpability...we pray.

For all the times we point to the sins of others and ignore our own...we pray.

For all the times we make decisions based on the color of someone’s skin or the language they speak or the country they call home, but fail to see the times we have been outsiders...we pray.

For all the times we have made assumptions about another, but railed against the assumptions placed on us...
ther, but railed against the assumptions placed on us...we pray.

For all the times we have lived in fear, but forgotten the times that we have been the aggressor...we pray.

For all the times that we have forgotten that God does not pick and choose who to call Loved.....we pray.

And for all those living in fear and exile...those living in terror and heartache...those living in anger and hatred...those living with loss and emptiness......we pray.

We pray for all God's Children....that they might know solace and peace and hope....and that the ugly bits of the heart, broken and bruised, might turn to the light and know resurrection. Amen.
We pray.

For all the times we have lived in fear, but forgotten the times we have been the aggressor… we pray.

For all the times that we have forgotten that God does not pick and choose who to call Loved… we pray.

And for all those living in fear and exile… those living in terror and heartache… those living in anger and hatred… those living with loss and emptiness… we pray.

We pray for all of God’s children… that they may know solace and peace and hope… and that the ugly bits of the heart, broken and bruised, might turn to the light and know resurrection.  Amen.

                                    ~ Rev. Tricia Thompson Winters 4/2013

 

 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ashes

 
First Testament Reading from the prophet Joel:  “Yet even now, says the Holy One, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Return to the Lord, Your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  (Joel 2:12-13)
 
Tomorrow we enter the season of the Christian calendar known as Lent.  It is a time of turning around and returning to God.  Through centuries of practice we have fashioned and accumulated traditions, many of them rich with meaning.  On Ash Wednesday we “don the ashes of our sinfulness” … or of “our humanity.”  During my affiliation with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I have found myself in the company of others who are as uncomfortable as I with proclaiming “our sinfulness”… certainly with trotting our confession out for the whole world to see.  I resist the notion that we humans are bad and only God is good or divine.  Many of us prefer to focus on the positive, and err on the side of recognizing the Spirit of God present in every child of God.  Whatever the reason, our spirits squirm when called to accountability for “our sinfulness.”  The practice of wearing a cross of ashes on our foreheads pushes the envelope, doesn’t it?  Yet the practice has potential for deep meaning.
The ashes we use for Ash Wednesday are created by burning some of the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, a reminder of how thin the veil is between our embrace of Jesus as Lord and our violence against the Spirit of Christ in how we live together and treat one another.
Humor me a bit and explore a deeper examination of this practice and its potential application to our lives in the spring of 2013.  We need to begin at that juxtaposition of our praise of Christ and our violence against Christ.  Where can you see that kind of inconsistency in the world around you? 
Public praise of Christ as Lord is abundant in the Midwest, the place of my upbringing to which I returned 7 months ago.  On a road trip to visit my daughter, Stacey, and family last weekend a big, imposing transport truck passed me sporting the proclamation, “Jesus is Lord.”  Along US highways are billboards proclaiming “Jesus Saves.”  Near Route 66 (Interstate 40 Highway), at Groom,Texas stands a 190-foot tall cross, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere.  Why do we display the cross as though this instrument of heinous death is something to be proud of?  It is a symbol of terror and shame. On the side of a church building in Tulsa are three murals with the words, “Jesus changed our lives.”  If (Lord) Jesus is such an all-fired big deal in our lives, why are we still crucifying him?   Why do we still allow poverty to misshape the hope and future of generations of our children… and then blame them and lock them up, separating ourselves from them, when they learn to steal in order to eat?  Why do we demonize shooters whose outrage brings death and destruction while ignoring our own responsibility as a society?  Why are we shocked that young people become bullies when bullying is the way of winning in the corporate world, in law, among political leaders, even in church?  Essentially ALL of the heroes, living or virtual, in our children’s lives demonstrate that bullying is how you win, and winning is everything.  Why do we leave so many of our children abandoned and alone, and then put guns in their hands and act surprised when they hurt themselves or someone else?  If Jesus is Lord, truly Lord, then what that congregation painted on their church building would be true of all of us:  our lives would be changed. 
 “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”  In Joel’s day devout people practiced tearing their clothing and poured ashes on their own heads as a public sign of their remorse for doing wrong.  Such an act would earn them approval from others who would understand it to mean that since they were sorry, they intended to change.  Joel says “Forget about tearing your clothes for others to see.  Instead, tear open your heart, that secret inner part of you, so it can be healed.”  This Lenten season, make the change where it counts, in private, at the core of your being.
As you were reading you may have thought of other ways we claim that we love Jesus while living like we don’t know who he is.  Make a few notes on paper.  Find a place where it is safe to burn that paper, and when it has been reduced to ash, pick it up with the tip of your forefinger and standing before a mirror, make a cross on your forehead with the ashes.  Better yet, find a house of worship tomorrow, stop in and there, in the midst of a gathered community, a small society, don the ashes of your sinfulness and, deep in the stillness of your torn heart, articulate how it is you will begin turning around.  But don’t do it for show.  Don’t wear the ashes unless you dare to try turning and returning to God.
I hear Joel saying that God is gracious and merciful, and waiting for us to turn around and return, without threat of punishment.  There’s nothing magical about this – not even very mysterious.  It is a simple matter of cause and effect.  Your parents probably taught you about consequences when you were growing up.  The crises of our age are not that different from the crises of Joel’s age, and they are brought upon us by our own behaviors, our own choices – individually and as societies.  If we could just bring ourselves to turn around and go another way, back to God, the crises would naturally fade.  The healing we long for would come.  Grace is there already, waiting for us.  Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet.  Amen.
 
The People's Prayer
Creating God, still Center of the world you have made, we come to you in this season of turning and returning.  We confess we do not know how to seek you with our whole hearts, but we know you are our source and our destiny.  In the midst of crazy-busy life, we turn toward you.  Thank you for receiving us.  Seeking you in secret, may we then honor you among humanity, through Jesus Christ, our way homeward to you.  Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Longest Night (order of service)


“The Longest Night”
                                                      a service of worship

The “Longest Night” worship service draws its name from the Winter Solstice on December 21, the longest night of the year.  Tonight we meet in a place of sanctuary to honor the sorrows that temper our holidays.  May this be a time of peace and comfort for you.

A TIME FOR PREPARATION

 
WORDS FOR SILENT MEDITATION                                 Psalm 28:1-2

 

To you, O Lord, I call;

my rock, do not refuse to hear me,

for if you are silent to me,

I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.

Hear the voice of my supplication,

as I cry to you for help,

as I lift up my hands

toward your most holy sanctuary.

MUSIC FOR MEDITATION

 (Feel free to use any name for God that is comfortable for you.)

WE APPROACH GOD

CALL TO WORSHIP                                             
 
LEADER:   I am at an impasse, and you, O God, are the one who has brought me here.

ALL:           Here in this darkness, I cannot find you.  Will my eyes adjust to this darkness?  Has anyone ever found you there?  Did they love what they saw?  Did they see love?  And are there songs for singing when the light has gone dim?  Or in the dark, is it best to wait in silence?
 
LEADER:  Couldn’t you, O God, come and sit with me?  O God of my heart, peel back the night and let starlight pour out on my upturned face.

OPENING PRAYER

          O living God, you dwell in clouds and thick darkness.  We lift our eyes to the night sky and sense depth and fullness beyond our grasp.  In the beginning there was a dark void and from it you drew the light.  It was night when you led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.  When Jesus was born, a star shone in the black heavens.  A dark-skinned man carried his cross up the hill.  Christ made his pure sacrifice of love in the midday darkness.  Rain falls from black clouds.  Babies grow in uterine shadows.  Prophets speak in ebony voices.  All of these treasures of darkness – help us receive them as riches from you.  Amen.

Hymn #333 Joyful is the Dark (vs. 1, 2, 3, 5)

 

CONTEMPLATING DARKNESS AND LIGHT

 FIRST LIGHT:  Presence

Lament                                                                 from Psalm 55     

          Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication.  Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled…. My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.  Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.  And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!  I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.

          It is not enemies who taunt me – I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me - I could hide from them.  But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God together.  (pause)

          But I call upon God, and God will save me.  Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and God will hear my voice.                                                          

Reflection

          God saw that the light was good.  Sometimes it seems that our lives are filled with only darkness.  Our days stretch before us as a void that has no boundaries.  We can only remember our hurts and our loss, and the worst part is the loneliness and isolation we experience – especially from people we once trusted.

Assurance                                                                   Genesis 1:1-5

          In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Response

          And so we light this candle to represent God’s creating presence, with us since the beginning of time.  We are not alone.  When solutions are impossible to find, there is One beside us, creating still.  We are never alone in the darkness of our pain and despair, for God’s light is there waiting patiently to break into that darkness. 

( light one candle) 

Leader:        The people who walked in darkness

PEOPLE:   have seen a great light.

SECOND LIGHT:  Comfort         

Lament                                                                 from Psalm 42

          As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

          These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the crowd, and led them in the procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise this One, my help and my God.
 
Reflection

          All around us are the sights and sounds of Christmas: the laughter of parties, the songs of carolers, the music playing in every store.  But deep within us we carry our pain; our grief walks with us every step we take; loneliness is a shawl we drape over our shoulders on empty nights.  We try to put on happiness, but it doesn’t fit.  So, in this season when every night stretches into eternity, we come bringing our gifts – not gold, frankincense and myrrh, but grief, bitterness and loss.

Assurance                                                            Matthew 11:28-30

          Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Response

          As we light the candle of comfort may we see before us the assurance of God’s love that will not leave us, no matter how dark the night.

( light one candle)
 
Leader:                  The people who walked in darkness

PEOPLE:             have seen a great light.

SOLO         “In the Bleak Midwinter” – Rossetti           

THIRD LIGHT:     Promise

Lament:                                                                                   Psalm 23

          The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

          Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

          You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
 
Reflection:

          Sometimes in the midst of the preparation, joy, and celebration of this season, we find it hard to sustain our enthusiasm.  The loss, the hurt, the pain that is so very real to us in this season overwhelms us.  We may find ourselves sinking into the darkness of our past, our sorrows, our losses and our memories.  We hear the words of God’s love; we may even be aware of God’s presence in our wandering, but the darkness of the moment wipes our confidence away.
                                 
Assurance:                                                                     Isaiah 60:1-3                
 
       Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you.  Nations shall come to your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn.
 
Response:

          The candle of promise echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah that herald the light of hope and renewal.  It is a sign that within each of us is the power to banish darkness.  And so we hear, one more time, the cry of Isaiah telling us to stand up and stand tall.  The coming of the Christ into our homes and hearts will shine within us.

(light one candle)

Leader:                  The people who walked in darkness

PEOPLE:             have seen a great light.

HYMN                 “Comfort, Comfort You My People”         (v. 1)             #122

FOURTH LIGHT:           Fulfillment                                       

Lament                                                                           from Psalm 13

          How long Elusive One?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

          Consider and answer me, O my God!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

          But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to God who has dealt bountifully with me.                   

Reflection

          Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew what it was like to be afraid.  Mary knew the wonder of God’s presence.  And so Mary sang a song of praise to her God, even though the world around her was a frightening place, without assurance of enough to eat or a place to house the child that soon would be born to her.  Mary’s is a song filled with hope, a song expressing her trust in God and the knowledge that the child she was to bear would banish the darkness of this uncertain world.

Assurance                                                                   Luke 1:46-53

          Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant.  Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is the name of God who has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Response

          As we celebrate Christmas this year may we share Mary’s understanding that God’s promise is fulfilled in us.  The sorrow and hurts of our life will pass.  There will be healing, and like Mary we can discover and sing our own hymn of praise.  As we light Mary’s Candle, the light of fulfillment and completion, let us remember that this light can never be extinguished when we carry it in our hearts. 

( light one candle)

Voice II:      The people who walked in darkness

PEOPLE:   have seen a great light.

SOLO         “Mary Did You Know?”         -- Lowry and Greene   

Pastoral Prayer

          Holy God of Advent, you became weak so we would find strength in moments of heartbreak; you left the safety of heaven to wnder the wilderness of the world, holding our hands when we feel hopeless; you set aside your glory to hold our pain so we might be healed, even when there seems to be no hope; you became one of us, so we would never be alone in any moment.

          So come now, Child of Bethlehem, to strengthen us in these days.  May we feel your presence in a way we have never known, not just as one born in a stable long ago and far away, but as the One born in our hearts.

          You have promised to go before us into our brokenness, into hospital rooms, into empty houses, into graveyards, into our future held by God, and we sense you here, even now, to hold and comfort and heal us, to live in us, now and for ever.  Amen.

THE PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Voice 1:

          Sacred Presence, we have come from different backgrounds, from different families, from different faith traditions.  But we have all lived in the land of shame and wandered the far country of despair.  We have stood on the side of every room we have gone into, hoping against hope that someone would ask us to dance but finding that the wall is our only friend.

Voice 2:

          In a season when so many people don’t have enough hours in a day to get their lists checked off, their cards mailed, their presents wrapped, we have all the time in the world: to remember the loss that has stolen the joy of the season; to grieve over a job, a dream, a loved one; to sit in the shadows of our homes, too weary to turn on the lights; to wander the streets lit by lights on all the houses, but not by the Light of the world.

Voice 3:

          Our fear of the future, our remembrance of the past, our pain that is difficult to bear and harder to release, our emptiness which cannot be filled with platitudes, our hands which cannot hold the ones we wish to embrace: all make this a season of long nights.

All:

          Be with us in our loneliness, in our longing, in our loss, in our living.  Amen.

INVITATION TO LIGHT INDIVIDUAL CANDLES

          During this quiet time, you are invited to light a candle and place it in the sand, letting it represent a hurt you wish to release, or a prayer you wish to leave in silence.  If you prefer to write your prayer or a statement of your sorrow, you may use the note cards provided and take your writing with you, or leave it at the altar.  The pastor will remember you in prayer.

BENEDICTION

          In your silence, may the Word dwell in your heart. 

          In your brokenness, may the Bread of Life fill you and mend you.

          In your pain, may the One who breathed life into you at your birth, and loved you even then, ease your spirit.  Amen.
-----------------
Resources

Chalice Hymnal, Merrick, ed.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995.

 “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti, 1872.

“Joyful Is the Dark,” Brian Wren, 1989, Hope Publishing Co., music by Gayle Schoepf, 1994, Chalice Press.

 “Mary, Did You Know?” Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, Hal Leonard Publishing Co.

“The Longest Night,” Candles and Conifers, Wild Goose Publications: Glasgow, 2005, p. 223.

 MORE PSALMS FOR SILENT REFLECTION

  from Psalm 13

          How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

          Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

          But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, because God has dealt bountifully with me.

 from Psalm 42

          As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’

          These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise this One, my help and my God.
                                                                                                      
Psalm 23     

          The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 

          Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

          You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.