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Christmas Eve Prayer

Oh God, it’s you who is the magic, the splendor, and the wonder of Christmas. You have set forth the brilliance of the stars, the magnificence of the angels, the perplexity of the Christ child. You created the whole, wide world and everything in it. You have shown us your covenantal love and faithfulness from everlasting to everlasting. May we never cease to be amazed by the work of your hand. As we celebrate the birth of your Son, help us to have the faith of children who marvel at your divine mystery that enchants us to celebrate you year after year. Help us to delight in you and your people, as you delight in us.

Oh Jesus, it is you who became God-with-us, the word made flesh. You came in the grit of childbirth and the filth of a stable to show us that your love does not shy away from the pain and grime of the world. You are the Messiah who is humble, who gets his hands dirty, who doesn’t avoid suffering; you are the visible evidence of the invisible, unfathomable love of God. Help us to always lean in and embrace people with the same courageous love that you modeled for us. Help us to fully commit to being your disciples, continuing the mission that you began by entering into a broken world.

Oh Holy Spirit, when our own souls are worn within us, when we lose our faith, our hope, our peace, and our joy, it’s your still small voice that reminds us of who we are and whose we are. It is you who sparks our hearts with light and life each year at Christmas, reminding us that the first coming of Christ was not a one-time event. You sustain our spirits as we wait for when Jesus comes again. When it seems like the celebration of the season is out of our reach, and when hope in a peaceful kingdom of reconciled people seems like a dream withered and deferred, it is your breath of life that comes blowing by reviving us in your fire.

Holy Trinity, three in one, we give praise to you on this glorious Christmas Eve. We have practiced hope, peace, joy, and love all of Advent doing our best to honor the kingdom that is already here. We hold dear to our hearts the birth of Christ as a promise of your kingdom come, when your goodness will prevail and all the virtues we have practiced will be the abiding law in all the world. When the celebration dies down, help us not to abandon this work and help us not to grow weary in our waiting. You have come, and you will come; and that is the fierce hope of Christmas. Alleluia, amen.

Advent 4: Love

Micah 5:2-5a
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

If you love, you get battered. It’s just true. You fray at the edges, then unravel. You get all used up.

Loving anyone or anything in any way empties you and dumps all your goodness out. Compassion fatigue and empathy erosion are real things that can take the kindest, tenderest heart and harden it up.

Love can break you down.

Love is always two-sided: you cannot love others if you do not love yourself; you cannot love yourself without loving others. Whether we like it or not, our hope, peace, joy, happiness, success, and prosperity depend upon each other. We need each other. You need everyone else. You are needed in this world. You need us. We need you, too.

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

― Frederick Buechner

Love can break you down. If you seek out the love and care you deserve, it can break away the hardness of your heart and make it soft and caring again. You will be emptied of your love at the end of your life, but that can be good news. It can be a sign of a life lived well, filled with the care and love poured into you. Your goodness may be emptied out, but you can be full of the goodness of others. Love gives, and love receives.

You may be battered, but you may also be healed. Hold the tension of the battle scars, sutures, and balms that entail a life well loved.

Luke 1:46b-55
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

Advent 3: Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Joy is almost as hard to write about as hope. I think we’ve nearly over-sentimentalized it:

“I choose joy!”

“I won’t let anything steal my joy!”

“Joy is what I feel deep down inside. It’s not like happiness, it can’t be taken from me.”

While I appreciate the attempts to differentiate joy as a state of being from the fleeting emotion of happiness, these have become the catchphrases associated with joy. I think when we’ve adopted catchphrases for something then it’s probably safe to say we’ve lost the essence of it.

I think having a deep abiding peace is quite different than joy. Peace is centering. Joy is jubilant. I think joy involves the whole self: our voices, our ears, our eyes, our bodies, our hearts, our souls. It’s a rejoicing that involves every part of us, fully engaged, entirely attentive, completely immersed.

Therefore, joy can only be sustained for so long. It can be fleeting too. Happiness doesn’t require so much of us; joy reaches down to our core. I’m not so sure that we “choose” joy so much as it chooses us and demands our attention, appreciation, and wonder. When it comes by, let’s just surrender to the gift that it is and lean into the moment with our whole selves, unabashed and free.

 

Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Advent 2: Peace

Baruch 5:1-9
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.” Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

We have a group called “Caring Friends” which is for widows and widowers to gather a couple times a month for fellowship and support. We held a “Blue Christmas” service for them and anyone else in our community who wanted to come and lament their lost loved ones they were missing this holiday season. Afterwards we met to talk over coffee and pie about grieving during the holidays.

I can’t share specifics for the sake of confidentiality, but it was a time of kindness, support, and understanding. While the grief and pain are very real for many people in the holiday season, there is peace among the support of friends. There is peace in the community of the church. There is peace when a small tealight is lit for the loved one they remember. There is peace in the decisions made after the death of a loved one for self-care purposes.

Instead of abiding, overwhelming peace for those who are grieving, there a moments of peace. These moments give life and breath to continue on to the next moment and the next day.  These moments provide clarity and make a pathway for joy and healing. When grief strikes, one can only go minute to minute, day by day since grief is unpredictable in nature. And that’s how peace sneaks in, between the moments and the breaths taken to provide some grace in the chaos.

Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

Advent 1: Hope

Psalm 25:1-10

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD! Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

Even when horrible things are happening in the world, I can typically tap into the mindset of Advent. This year I’m struggling.

I read a story about the California wildfires where burned remains were found. They were thought to be from a single person. Results showed the the DNA came from two people. It’s believed that they were holding each other when they died. I spent the morning sick to my stomach and in tears.

And I’m supposed to summon hope for Advent?

How?

I’ve been working on sermons and Advent readings, but I just couldn’t write anymore. We are supposed to be talking about our hope in Christ who came to earth to overcome evil, sin, and death. And we’re waiting for Christ’s return. But where’s Jesus now? Can he see what’s happening here? Is he watching? Burnt remains sure don’t feel like death has been overcome. Tear gas thrown at the border feels evil. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen where people are starving to death feel like the result of sinful leaders.

How am I supposed to write hopeful readings for my congregation to read aloud as they light candles? How am I supposed to pray when the people who are fleeing from fires, seeking asylum, and hungering for food are praying and their suffering is not being relieved? What can I preach from scripture that hasn’t been said? Is anyone going to change their hearts towards compassion, or are they going to sit in church and leave the same person they came in as?

Jesus, we clearly can’t do this on our own. We’re freely admitting it.  We’re confessing our dependency on you, so why aren’t you showing up?

I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. Pastors don’t have the theological answers to these problems. I’ll show up. Light the candles. Say the prayers. Read the scriptures. Maybe it’s not up to me to instill hope. I’ll do my part in church and in my own personal life, and maybe hope will find a way. I’ll keep being faithful and maybe Jesus will show up. There aren’t any guarantees here. Is that the point? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll have to keep trying as we wait and see.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

The Girl I Was

“Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” -C.S. Lewis

As an avid reader I have always had a vivid imagination. I loved reading fantasy and horror, any type of fiction that took me to a different world or a different time.

As a kid, I wrote short stories, plays, and poems. I would read my writings aloud in class and sometimes to other classes during their library time. I performed my little plays, which ended up getting me scholarships to acting camps and began my love for theatre.

The majority of my poems were about dolphins, the sea, stars, and the moon. I was obsessed with the ocean at night. Throughout middle school my bedroom was under water themed. This was my magical world.

I remembering strongly identifying with Anne of Green Gables. I loved that she was a redhead like me, that she had a wild imagination, that she was a reader and writer, and that she was emotional and dramatic. I read about Anne as a child, and then she sort of faded in my memory.

I watched the LOTR movies throughout middle school and high school. I lost count after watching them all the way through 20 times. I just couldn’t keep up anymore. I wanted a grand adventure in Middle Earth more than anything!

Like most adults, I have lost a lot of the magic I had as a kid. Even though I’ve kept some of my wonder and glee for beautiful things, I lost the mystery and the slight hope other worlds exist somewhere over the rainbow, in a time wrinkle, or through a wardrobe. I’ve hated that I have lost this about myself. Not that I want to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy as a grown woman, but that I can use my imagination to make reality a little more magical.

In January I began watching “Anne with an E” on Netflix. A number of people had complained that it was “too dark” when the book series had been comedic and lighthearted, but I had experienced it completely differently. I was re-introduced to Anne who used her imagination to tell wild stories, was too verbose for her own good, and embraced the wonder of the world around her. I cried while watching the series, remembering the parts of myself that had long been forgotten.

Not long after, I interviewed at my current church. I remember sitting outside, overwhelmed with the job offer in front of me. I had a life-changing, weighty choice sitting in my lap. While I processed what was happening and where my future was headed, I sat on a balcony in the dark that overlooked the ocean. I could see the stars and the white caps of the breaking waves. I remembered the part of me that was entranced by the sea at night. I couldn’t help but smile, as a faint heartbeat as my former self came to life. A cloud floated into view that looked very much like a dragon in flight. I was glad to know that my imagination wasn’t completely dead after all.

Tonight Andy and I walked under the full moon by the ocean. Ever since we moved here to Florida I have called jokingly called myself “pastor mermaid.” I told Andy that tonight was the night: under the full moon I would finally transform into the mermaid I was meant to be, and that he should come with me so we could rule the ocean together. We chased each other in the waves and giggled together. Andy told me that he only believes I am half joking when I talk about going to be a mermaid in the sea, and that he believes there’s a part of me that believes in the fantasy.

I’ve had a lot of hope, joy, peace, and imagination beaten out of me by life. I struggle with anxiety and depression. Life is hard. There is so much evil. It is such a dark place here. And I am supposed to preach about the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But imagination gives me hope. If I can recover parts of the girl I was, maybe some of the magic can return to my reality. Fantasy reflects the hope of the reality of a just and peaceful world, full of wonder and delight, with endless joy. This renews my hope in the Kingdom here, and Kingdom come.

Halfway through the Bible

So, I am still planning on finishing the Bible in 90 days.

I’m just ridiculously behind.

I got behind during graduation, but caught up.

Only to get behind while traveling to Canada, immediately followed by our apartment hunting trip to Florida.

Then I started to catch up. But we had 2 weeks to pack everything and get out of our apartment.

And now we’ve been living in Florida almost a week.

Where am I in my study?

Psalms.

Where should I be?

Isaiah.

photo of child reading holy bible
Photo by nappy on Pexels.com

But I can and will catch up! I will finish on schedule! I am finally getting into the rhythm of life again (more about life in Florida later. I have too much to figure out and get a handle on before I can write about it all!)

Anyway, the read through is tough. There is a lot of skimming. I am running into troubling passages about genocide, rape, and murder, and I can’t really sit in the pain of those passages. They trouble me but I must keep moving on to meet my goal. I knew going into this project that I would get frustrated by breezing through the Bible, so I was ready for this. It’s a good reminder how important it is to really delve into scripture instead of just reading it at face value.

adult blur books close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Despite the challenges, I am glad to be doing this. I am absorbing the stories and the language, even if I’m missing the details. It’s also really helping me as I am writing a (fairly) comprehensive Biblical curriculum for the youth group this coming school year. We’re going through the whole Bible; we might miss a couple books and we can’t hit all the stories, but we’re studying scripture as a whole story. We’re talking about God’s covenantal faithfulness, sin and restoration, justice and community, as one story woven together. Right now I’m working with the title “The Holy Story,” but we’ll see if I stick with that. Biblical literacy is not only important for me in my life, but also for my ministry and the people I teach. I will be using music, movie clips, acting, and other creative activities to engage scripture. I’ll hit some tough topics and important topics so that the youth will see just how relevant scripture is. We’ll talk about mental health, vocation, pain and suffering, consent, abuse, self love and celebrating gifts, etc. I will also be using The Bible Project youtube videos to break down these books and the complex ideas represented in them. We’re learning about the whole Bible in numerous ways through media, activities, creativity, and the reading of scripture. While I am breezing through scripture now, we won’t be this upcoming year.

Between my read through, reading The Essential Bible Companion, creating this curriculum, and watching all of the Bible Project videos, I feel like scripture is truly sinking in and providing the firm foundation I need. I hope to be one of those people who just “know” scripture. I have a long way to go, but I’m on my way.

Graduation

Seminary is by far the hardest thing I’ve done so far in my life. I remember getting to the end of my first year, looking at other seminaries and even other master’s programs to seek other career options, trying not to freak out over the fact that I still had 3 whole years left. I thought graduation day would never come.33027122_10216841036200720_246261471858655232_n

Some people come to seminary for only 1-2 years. Many come for 3 years for the MDiv program. I chose Dual Degree, which combined the 2 year MAPT program with the 3 year MDiv program, for a total of 4 years at CTS. It was daunting to think that I would be here so much longer than many of my peers.

After the halfway mark of finishing two years, I finally made peace with four years. Around that time there was a shift in the social atmosphere at CTS. Exclusivity and power-cliques were being called out, and more people were stepping out of their exclusive groups to promote inclusivity. I started to finally feel at home at CTS. Graduation was still far off, but I didn’t mind so much.

At the end of my third year, I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was sad to see so many of my peers graduate. Many of them had been with me through my entire seminary career up until this point. But I looked around and noticed that there were so many of us who had chosen the two-degree, four-year program. We were sticking it out together. And the majority of my friends were in the class that had entered seminary the year after me. I knew that I was going to be fine.

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I overloaded a few semesters so that my final year would be lower stress. After hours of Hebrew and Greek keeping me up late, after an especially tough semester when I wrote about 80 pages in 3 months, after struggling through and passing my ordination exams, I had a lighter load my final year. I interned at two small rural churches, I interned at the Outreach and Advocacy Center in downtown Atlanta working with people experiencing homelessness, and I took numerous electives. I enjoyed my work and I enjoyed my classes. It was a relief to take a breath during this last year and just enjoy the last months of my seminary education. It also freed me up to interview at churches to find a job for after graduation.

I was so excited for graduation day, counting down the days. People would approach me through the year and ask how many days we had left! At long last, I knew graduation was coming. But I also enjoyed my time. I took pleasure in my classes, my friends, the campus community, and all of the “lasts” (last dinners, lunches, meetings.) I wanted to savor the moments, not wish them away, as I looked forward.

I dreamed about graduation day for four years. The actual day was even more exciting and even more joyful than I had imagined. My husband, my mom, my grandmother, and my aunt came to cheer me on. They were all filled with joy, and all told me how proud they were of me. It made my heart so warm to hear these words.

My friends and I all laughed, took pictures, and cheered so loudly for each other when we accepted our diplomas. We were like giddy children. No matter how long we had been in seminary, 1 year or 4 years or somewhere in between, we had worked so hard for this day. Our communities were proud of us. And we were proud of ourselves!

I was surprised by winning two awards on top of my two degrees! I won the “Indiantown Country Church Award” for my work I did in the rural churches last summer. I also won the “William Rivers Waddey Award” for my work with youth ministry and my continued work with youth once I graduate. I was nominated by the faculty to receive these awards, and I had no idea I would be receiving them.

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I am filled with joy and gratefulness. I am grateful for the CTS faculty and staff, my mentors, pastors, and supervisors, my friends and family, my church, and my husband. Without this support I wouldn’t have been able to make it. I’m also a little sad. Goodbyes aren’t easy. But it’s ok that I’m sad. I’m glad CTS became a place that I am sad to leave.

God has reminded me that this call isn’t about me. God poured out the Spirit to calm me when I wanted to run. The Spirit whispered, “Just show up” when I was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. And I did. I just kept showing up, even if I didn’t know why. I wouldn’t be here without God’s guiding hand. Praise God for goodness, guidance, and peace. I struggled. I didn’t always have peace. I just remained as faithful as I could, and God’s grace did the rest.

 

Mini Boot Camp

For learning about wisdom and instruction,
    for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
    righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
    knowledge and prudence to the young—
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
    and the discerning acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction. -Proverbs 1:2-7

 

So I know that I have prepared all that I can from seminary. I have learned from the best! (I could name drop here, but I’ll play it cool.) I also know that ministry is full of surprises and improvisations that you really can’t plan much for. You just jump in and hope the grace of God makes it work out! And if it doesn’t work out….then rely on grace to shine through anyway.

I know I don’t really know what’s coming. I’m fine with this. I learn better in the field anyway.

But as I prepare to jump into my first pastoral role, I am doing something for myself. I have made my own mini boot camp. This is to simply re-ground me in the foundations of my faith. I have studied, and studied, and studied. But I just want to be refreshed by the basics so that going forward, whatever is thrown at me, I have the basic foundation under my feet.

bootcamp

I am reading “Christian Doctrine” by Shirley Guthrie. I want to have the basics of reformed theology fresh in my mind, and I am pairing this with doing a brief look over of “Introducing the Reformed Faith” by Donald McKim (I’m not reading the whole book, just the “reformed emphasis” portions of each chapter.) I am doing a Bible-in-90-Days read-through to have scripture on the brain, paired with a read-through of “The Essential Bible Companion.” And I am going back through the Confessions.

These are just the basics. Please, don’t tell me that, “The work is just beginning”; “You have no idea what’s ahead of you”; “This won’t matter when you’re at someone’s deathbed.” I know these things, and they have been repeated to me ad nauseam. Those phrases simply aren’t helpful. This is for myself, for own personal spiritual practice that will refresh the foundation in me so that is may help in my ministry.

As for the work just beginning, not knowing what is coming next, and being next to someone in need of pastoral care, I am looking forward to continuing my studies as a pastor learning from the church and the people.