Celebrating The Longest Relationship

Over the trajectory of our lives, what are the longest and most enduring relationships we are likely to experience?  With our parents?  Our partner?  Our children?  For those of us who are not ‘only’ children, the longest relationships we are likely to hold are those with our sisters and brothers.  Siblings are perhaps the most significant repositories of our life stories outside of ourselves and those other intimate and key relationships we create and nurture for ourselves.  Who else has memory of early years, growing up, young adulthood, who observes our forming loving partnerships with another, who might be appointed a guardian of our own children should the unthinkable occur and who holding all this story will accompany a person into old age?  While some friendships do endure for life, many arise either for a reason or for a season.  While some families do become estranged, it is unusual for a person to lose contact entirely with their sisters and brothers.

Both realising this reality and arising from a pastoral wish to involve all members of a family, it has long been a regular practice of mine to offer the option of a promise or set of promises for older siblings to make when a baby is brought to church and welcomed into the Christian community at baptism or dedication.  It has never felt pastorally comfortable (to me) when older brothers and sisters are left on the sidelines of the church’s liturgy, with more emphasis on the role of godparents than on the longest relationship the baby is likely to experience and enjoy.

Celebrating the Longest Relationship PhotoThis particular set of affirmations was prepared for a nine year old girl, Holly, to make at the baptism of Daisy, her younger sister.  It accompanies A Service for Infant Baptism written by Alan Paterson and published by The United Reformed Church, Additional Material, ‘Worship: from The United Reformed Church’ (London: The United Reformed Church, 2004).

Affirmations for an older sister



We read in the Bible of sisters and brothers

some who were together friends of Jesus,

the fishermen James and John

Mary, Martha and Lazarus,

whose home he visited.

We hear of others,

Moses, Miriam and Aaron

who journeyed together

even though they

did not know exactly

where they were going.

Holly, will you try

to always be a friend and helper to Daisy?



I will



We heard too in the Bible

about some sisters and brothers

who did not get on so well together;

of Jacob who took

what belonged to his brother Esau,

and of Joseph of the amazing coat

whose brothers

sold him to a foreign land.

Holly, when Daisy annoys you

or when you don’t agree

on what is right,

will you try to be patient and understanding?



I will



We celebrate the stories of the times

sisters and brothers helped each other

to know Jesus for themselves.

The Gospel writers remembered

how Andrew introduced

his brother Simon to Jesus

and how brothers James and John

followed Jesus’ call together.

Holly, will you try to follow the example of Jesus’ friends

and will you share with Daisy

everything that you have learned here at chapel

about how Jesus invites all of us to follow him

and will you look forward to a time

when you and Daisy can learn about

God, family and community together?



I will

Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tiffany Jo McDonald is an Ordained Elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is currently appointed to family leave, raising the preschool daughter who inspired this sermon and a 5 month old. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, ’04, and resides with her husband and daughters in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Photo by Esparta Palma, http://www.flickr.com/photos/esparta/4482887906/ March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.

nightscape, winter

Blue Christmas Service: When Christmas Hurts

Editors Note: This service was developed by Heather Hill.  She put this service together from a variety of sources and then made it her own.  It has been used it for 4-5 years now for a variety of sizes of groups and does not require clergy to lead it.  This type of service has many names Blue Christmas/ Longest Night/ When Christmas hurts, and she has found it very helpful in her congregation.  All Scripture comes from the NRSV.  She has given permission for others to use it.

Blue Christmas Service:  When Christmas Hurts

 The service begins in silence so all may participate in a time of reflection: May God help each of us to participate tonight and throughout the season as we are able.

nightscape, winter 

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.




Leader:       The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

People:       And also with you.

Leader:       The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow, a light has shone. For the yoke that was weighing upon them, and the burden upon their shoulders, you have broken in pieces, 0 God, our Redeemer.

Let us pray:

People:       God of mercy, hear our prayer in this Advent season for ourselves and for our families who live with painful thoughts and memories. We ask for strength for today, courage for tomorrow and peace for the past. We ask these things in the name of your Christ, who shares our life in joy and sorrow, death and new birth, despair and promise. Amen.



A Reading from the book of Isaiah (40:1, 25-31)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Leader: The Word of the Lord.
People:  Thanks be to God.


Psalm 121

Leader:       I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come?

People:       My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth

Leader:       He will not let your foot be moved and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.

People:       Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Leader:       The Lord himself watches over you; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

People:       So that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night

Leader:       The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.

People:       The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for ever more.

Leader:       Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

People:       As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.


A Reading from the Gospel of 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.’

Leader: The Word of the Lord.
People:  Thanks be to God.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Remembrance of the First Christmas


Lighting of Four Advent Candles

First Candle:

Leader:       The first candle we light to remember those persons whom we have loved and lost. We pause to remember their name, their voice, their face, the memory that binds them to us in this season. We hold them before God, giving thanks for their lives in ours.

Please take a moment to remember those who have died. I invite you to name them, aloud or in the silence of your hearts….


All:               Lord, each of us takes our loved one by the hand and leads them to you, the God of love, Here we present them to you. Accept our love and thanksgiving as we entrust them to your loving care. We want our loved ones to be free at home with you. We ask that you save a place for us beside them. We ask that you fill us with motivation and energy in the days ahead when we feel like giving up; remind us often of our true homeland when we are caught up in the desolation of the journey. Help us to find joy in the people, events and the beauty of nature which surrounds us.

Thank you for the gift each of these people has been in our lives. We want to believe that we will celebrate the treasure of love with them again, when we are all in your presence forever. May this truth sustain us in the days to come. Take our sad and aching hearts and comfort us. Comfort us, for we only feel hollowness and emptiness. God of sorrowing, draw near!        Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Second Candle:

Leader:       The second candle we light is to redeem the pain of loss; the loss of relationships, the loss of jobs with the security they bring, the loss of health in ourselves or in family members, the loss of joy and peace in our lives from the stresses which surround us, the loss and loneliness we experience when our loved ones do not share our faith. As we gather up the pain of the past we offer it to you, 0 God, asking that into our open hands you will place the gift of peace.

Please take a moment to remember the losses. I invite you to name them, aloud or in the silence of your hearts….


All:               God of mystery, we turn our hearts to you. We come before you in need of peace, grateful for the mystery of life and ever keenly aware of your promises of guidance and protection. We want to place our trust in you, but our hearts grow fearful and anxious. We forget so easily that you will be with us in all that we experience. Teach us to be patient with the transformation of our lives and to be open to the changes which we are now going through.   Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


Third Candle:

Leader:       The third candle we light for those who experience a loss of direction in their lives.

God of the Exodus, you led Moses and your people through the wilderness to a new land. Hear our prayer. We want so much to have a sense of direction, to know where we are and where we ought to be headed. But the darkness and the questions stay. You ask us to be full of faith, to believe deep within that you are our signpost, that you are our wisdom and our guide, and to trust in your presence. Your words to us are clear: “Do not fear, I go before you.”

All:               God of our depths, we cry out to you to be our guide. Help us to have a strong sense of inner direction and grant that we may have the reassurance of knowing that we are on the right path. Take our lives and use them according to your will. Take all that is lost in us and bring it home with you.      Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


Fourth Candle:

Leader:       The fourth candle we light as a sign of hope, the hope that the Christmas story offers to us. We remember that God, who shares our life, promises us a place and time of no more pain and suffering.

All:         O God whose spirit is known by those whose hearts are thankful, and who makes cheerfulness a companion of strength, lift up our hearts, we pray, to a joyous confidence in your care. Guide us when we cannot see the way. Teach us to know that a shadow is only a shadow, because the light of eternal goodness shines behind the object of our fears. Where there is love in life, teach us to find it; help us to trust it and enable us to grow in the power of love. So may our lives bring comfort and encouragement to others. We ask it, in the name of Jesus Christ whose life is our light.      Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


Prayers of the People

Leader:       In the spirit of this season let us now confidently ask our God for all the good things we need: For ourselves as we participate in this Christmas as special people coping with our many different losses. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For our families and friends, that they may continue to help and support us. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For any person we have loved who has died, for all the losses we know in our lives, that all may be redeemed by your Easter promise. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For our family and friends, that you may bless them with love, peace, and joy. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For peace throughout the world as proclaimed by the Christmas Angels on that faraway hillside. God, hear our prayer

People:       And in your mercy, answer

Leader:       For greater understanding of the lessons of love and acceptance as taught by Jesus your Christ. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.


Leader:          God of great compassion and love, listen to the prayers of these your people. Grant to all, especially the bereaved and troubled ones this Christmas, the blessing we ask in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray

People:          Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those

who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil,

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever. Amen

Lighting of Individual Candles

Leader:          Each of us comes bearing our own hurts, sorrows, broken places. I want to invite each of you  to offer your personal wound to the God who loves each of us deeply and wants to carry our pain.  God waits patiently, gently calling out: “Give me your pain, come to me… all who labor and are heavy laden, I will refresh you!”

I invite each of you to come forward and light a candle.  As you light the candle, remember that it is God who lights a candle in our darkness and holds us close until we are able to shine.


If you wish, you may kneel at the altar rail for the laying on of hands and a blessing, or you may return to your seat


Leader: These lights in their brightness are only symbols, but as they burn and finally go out, we remember that suffering passes, though memory remains forever.



As we gather this evening, we embrace and claim the darkness that is present both in the world and in our own lives.  As people who are familiar with the darkness, we also know that we gather to be illumined by the light of the Christ Child this Christmas season.  May the Christ Child, born in a lowly stable, himself an outcast and marginale, bring light, comfort, peace, and joy this holiday season. 

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel


Leader:          May the hope of the Christ Child sustain us through this darkness.

People:          That together we may shine again.  Amen.

You are invited to join us in the Narthex for refreshments or to remain in prayer.

* Note: The hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a song of people in darkness longing for God’s light.  It is not calling us to rejoice in the worldly form of the word, but calling our spirits and souls to reflect the true hope and joy that only God can give.

Heather Hill is the Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Parma, Ohio.  She has served churches in Pennsylvania and Michigan before moving to Ohio three years ago.  She has a BA from Bucknell University and a MDIV from Harvard University.  She and her husband, Dustin Berg have five month old twins who are wonderful and exhausting!

Photo Credit: Photo by Tord Mattsson, http://www.flickr.com/photos/photos_by_tord/5238955761.  Used by permission of the Creative Common License 2.0.


Election Day Communion

“Election Day Communion- Tuesday,  Nov 6 at 12:15PM in the upper chapel. As our nation goes to the polls, let us gather at God’s table- not as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, but as brothers and sisters in Christ”.

“Election Day Communion- Tuesday,  Nov 6 at 12:15PM in the upper chapel- As our nation goes to the polls, let us gather at God’s table to celebrate that we are all one in Christ”.

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Emmanuel: God is (Still) With Us

Earlier this week, I ran into Jesus on Facebook.

I was scrolling aimlessly through my news feed, and saw that my friend Rev. Tisha Brown, who pastors a UCC church up in Madison, had posted a video with this note: “This is incredible – not only feeding but loving the poor. I wish I was this compassionate and willing to give everything to serve my sisters and brothers like this man does.”

Well, that sounded pretty cool to me, so I decided to click on the video and watch it.

The video opens with an image of a Hindu temple in Madurai, India. A man’s voice can be heard over images of a busy street and close ups of streetpeople lying on the edge of the road.

He says, “I finished my college here. I was working for Taj Group of Hotels Bangalore. I saw a very old man. He was eating his own human waste for hunger.”

The camera focuses on a young man who is speaking directly to me, sitting on the other side of the world. He says, “I thought what is the purpose of my life? What am I going to do? In my star hotel, I feed all my guests, but in my hometown there are people who are living, even without food. I quit my job and I started feeding all these people from 2002.”

The voice of Christ – right there on Facebook. This time of year, we typically are on the lookout for the advent of Christ in our world – but we often expect the Spirit of Christ to hit us in more predictable ways. Perhaps we feel it move among us as the candles are lit and Silent Night is sung at church. Or we see a newborn baby with her parents and realize God is still being born into the world – even today.

I don’t know about you, but I just didn’t expect to see a video of the living Christ on Facebook. Of all places!

I have to admit. It actually took me a few days to realize this was Christ speaking to me through my laptop. I was taken with the video immediately. In it, Narayanan Krishna dices, stirs, and lifts giant pots of food. He drives around town in his truck, delivering food to the destitute, mentally ill, and elderly. Every day, he delivers breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 400 people living on the streets of Madurai.

But he does more than just deliver food. He delivers love.

In the video, Mr. Krishna gets out of his truck and opens his arms wide as a young, shirtless boy walks into him. They share a long embrace. Mr. Krishna has trained himself to offer eight styles of haircuts. He gently washes and dries the faces of the homeless as he offers them a shave. He massages their temples as he shampoos and trims their hair.

Mr. Krishna says, “For them to feel, psychologically, that they are also human beings – that there are people to care for them – they have a hand to hold, hope to live. Food is one part. Love is another part. So the food will give them physical nutrition. The love and affection which you show will give them mental nutrition.”

After watching the video one time, I shared it on my wall so others could see it, and then I temporarily forgot about it. But it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I watched it several more times over the next few days. Then I started hunting for more information about this man – who isn’t named in the original video I saw. From CNN’s website, I learned more about his life.

Turns out that since he’s from a Brahmin family, Mr. Krishna is not supposed to be doing this work. As a part of the Hindu priestly class, he should not be feeding, touching, cleaning these people. His family was initially horrified when he began this work. They were upset that he was wasting the expensive education they had provided for him.

When he quit his full-time job in 2002 he was well on his way to climbing the ladder as a chef. He had recently secured a transfer to a fancy hotel in Switzerland, but when he visited his hometown and saw the poverty there, he couldn’t move to Europe. When he finally convinced his mom to come see the work he was doing, she was transformed. She spent the day working with him and then immediately pledged to do anything in her power to help him live out his dream. Mr. Krishna, who is 29 years old, lives off of a meager allowance provided by his parents so that he can continue his work.

Brahmin or not, Mr. Krishna insists that these streetpeople deserve love. He says, “Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me, everybody the same. There are thousands and thousands and lots and lots of people suffering. What is the ultimate purpose of life? It is to give. Start giving. See the joy of giving.”

I saw another video about him on CNN.com and learned that he gets up at 4:00am each day to begin cooking. He doesn’t slow down until after dinner is delivered and cleaned up. He does this every day – no holidays, rain or shine. Mr. Krishna says, “Others find it difficult to do this. I don’t find it difficult. My vision and my ideals are very clear. The happiness in their face keeps me going. I take energy from them. I want to save my people. That is the purpose of my life.”

And it was that phrase – “I want to save my people” – that made me realize why I couldn’t get Mr. Krishna out of my mind. He is the Spirit of the Living Christ.

Jesus came into the word to save his people. That’s what the Gospel of Matthew tells us this morning. And, apparently, Narayanan Krishna came to do the same thing. I’m not saying Jesus of Nazareth and Mr. Krishna are the same person, of course. But they both represent a specific reality – the Spirit of Christ – alive and well in our world.

Let’s get some terms straight before we confuse ourselves any further.

Jesus was the name of a particular baby boy whose birth we celebrate this time of year. It was a common name in his time and place. It was probably pronounced Yeshua and it’s where we get our name, Joshua. It means “YHWH saves” – which is why the angel told Joseph to “name the child Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. It means “the anointed one.” It can be used to refer to the one person who is more anointed than all others – but it can also be used to refer to anyone who is anointed. In fact, the ruler of Persia, Cyrus, is referred to as Messiah in the book of Isaiah because he had been anointed by God to escort the people of Israel back to their homeland after the Babylonian Exile. Cyrus wasn’t even Jewish and he was called Messiah – anointed one – by the prophet Isaiah.

And then we have Emmanuel – God is with us. We see that name for Jesus in Matthew’s text – “the virgin shall conceive and bear a child and they will name him Emmanuel – God is with us.” Matthew is quoting from a much older text, the one we heard from the book of Isaiah earlier this morning. Traditionally, Christians have believed that the prophet Isaiah was predicting the birth of Jesus Christ, but it is fairly apparent when you read the book of Isaiah that this was not the case. Isaiah was writing to a specific time and people and he was writing about the birth of another baby. Isaiah told King Ahaz that while this child was an infant, the two kingdoms Ahaz feared, Damascus and Syria, would be defeated by Assyria. The child, Immanuel, signified that God was with the people Israel and that all would be well.

Whew! Okay – enough with the vocabulary lesson. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is this – when I say that I ran into Jesus on Facebook in the person of Mr. Krishna, I’m not being totally accurate. Jesus was a particular person who lived a long time ago. But he was called Jesus because he embodied the Spirit of Christ – the anointed one. And he was Emmanuel – God with us.

I believe that part of what it means to be a people of the Resurrection is to recognize that while the person Jesus of Nazareth is not walking around today, the Spirit of Christ and the reality of Emmanuel are still alive and well. Christ cannot die. God is always with us.

Matthew uses the Isaiah text to say, “Hey, folks, pay attention. Because do you remember what God did when that baby Immanuel was born a few hundred years ago? Remember the story about how King Ahaz learned from Isaiah that his people were about to be saved from their foes? Well, that’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about this baby, Jesus. This baby reminds us that God is with us, just like that one did.”

And, really, don’t we all need to be reminded from time to time that God is with us?

The good news of Christmas is not just that God came in a baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothing and lying in a manger. The good news of Christmas is that God comes again and again.

God is still with us, just as God was with the people of Israel when Ahaz was King, and as God was with the Jews living and struggling to persevere in the Roman Empire. God does not quit.

When you find out your mom has cancer, God is with you. And God does not quit.

When you are staring at a bottle of pills and wondering if you really want to wake up tomorrow, God is with you. And God does not quit.

When you break someone’s heart because of a stupid, selfish choice, God is with you. And God does not quit.

And if you’re lying on the side of a street in Madurai, India – eating your own waste because you are literally starving to death, God is with you. And God does not quit.

God sends people – tiny babies and big grown men and little girls and old grandfatherly types and everyone in between – God sends people to be the presence of God to a broken world.

When Narayanan Krishna wakes up at 4:00 in the morning and begins chopping onions and carrots, when he loads up his truck, and when he hugs those kids on the street – he is doing more than just bringing himself along. He is bringing the very Sprit of Christ into the world day in and day out. He is Emmanuel – God with us. He felt a call to save his people and he is living it out in the streets of Madurai each and every day.

I think the only way to sustain this wild and crazy kind of behavior day in and day out is to truly be called to do this work. I don’t believe that every person sitting here today is called to save their people. But I would be willing to wager that a few folks might be.

This Advent season, as we await the birth of Jesus Christ, we also await the birth of the Spirit of Christ in our own time and place. It’s more than just a story, folks. It’s reality. The shocking and incredulous and simple and real gospel truth is that God is still with us.

God is breaking into our world in every crack and crevice that can be found. And all we have to do is pay attention and say yes.

Thanks be to God.

Editor’s Note:  This sermon, “Emmanuel: God is (Still) With Us” uses Matthew 1:18-25 and was prepared for t First United Church on Sunday, December 19, 2010 (fourth Sunday of Advent). This sermon was previously published on the First United Church website and Caela’s personal sermon blog (revcaela.blogspot.com). More information about Narayanan Krishna’s foundation, The Akshaya Trust, can be found at: www.akshayatrust.org .

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She has served as the Associate Minister at First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana since January 2010. Caela has a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas and a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Studies in Indianapolis. Caela was raised in Kansas, where she met her future husband, David, in youth group. Since moving to Indiana, they’ve added a beagle and a son to their family. Caela spends too much time on facebook.

 Photo Credit: by The Fluffy Owl, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/7856630628/ via href=”http://photopin.com”.  Used by Creative Commons License 2.0.

New Hope: Greedy Boys and Happy Trees

Luke 19:1-10 The Story of Zacchaeus

I want to tell you the story of another boy who climbed a tree:  The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.   (Read story)

The message of the children’s book is profoundly true. Over and over again it is the giving tree that is happy. In the first part of the story when both the boy and the tree are enjoying their mutual give and take, they both are happy.  But have you ever noticed that after that first part, not once does it say that the boy is happy. It is always, “And the tree was happy.”

Ben Gill in his book, The Joy of Giving, says in the opening paragraph:
“My life has been spent helping people to learn the gift of giving. After twenty-five years in this pursuit, I come now to tell you that one fact has become increasingly clear: the happiest people on earth are the people who have learned the joy of giving.”

Let me tell you another story about a boy and a tree.  Once there was a tree and she loved a boy very much.  He would climb her branches, make crowns from her leaves, eat her figs, and when he was tired, would sleep in her shade.  And the boy loved the tree very much.  But time went by and the boy grew older.  One day the boy came to the tree and she invited him to play and eat figs and rest.  But the boy said he was too big to climb and play…he wanted to buy things and have money.  The tree offered her figs for the boy to sell and have money and be happy … the boy took her figs and left.  And the tree was happy.  But the boy stayed away a long time, earning money and becoming a successful businessman.  So successful, in fact, that he earned a promotion and became a regional supervisor … earning more money than he ever could’ve imagined.  He forgot all about the tree and her hope for him to be happy.  But he was not happy.  He had no friends.  People hated him because he was corrupt – skimming the profits, stealing from his co-workers, lying and cheating throughout the week but playing the part of the devout believer when it mattered.

He heard the grumbling of his neighbors, his servants, his “friends”.  He knew what they said about him.  And even though he pretended it didn’t bother him … it did.  One night, he dreamt about his old friend, the fig tree.  She whispered to him, “Come to me, boy.  Climb my branches & remember what it means to be happy.”  The next day, he heard that a famous preacher was passing through town & he wanted to get a look at him.  But his grumbling neighbors and all the people he had cheated & taken advantage of wouldn’t let him through.  He heard them laughing as he jumped and strained to catch a glimpse of this preacher.  He stopped as he caught sight of a tree … HIS tree.  She beckoned to him, waving her branches wildly.  He smiled, looking for an instant like the boy he used to be, and took off at a run, catching the crowd by surprise.   He swung himself into her branches and climbed quickly out to where he could see perfectly.  The preacher was closer than he expected … so close, in fact, that the branch he was laying on brushed the top of the preacher’s head and made him look up, catching the man’s gaze.  “Come down,” he said.  “Come down & learn what it means to be truly happy.”

The tree shook with love as the man climbed down, pausing for moment to hug her trunk.  The crowd grumbled loudly, “He already knows what it means to be happy.  He’s stolen from all of us to make himself rich.  The thief … liar … cheater.”  With his arms still around the tree, the man exclaimed, “I DO know what it means to be happy…I had forgotten!  Money doesn’t grant happiness…GIVING does!  Right here and now, in front of everyone, I pledge to give half of everything I own to the poor and I’ll repay the people I’ve stolen from with 400% interest!”  The preacher reached up and plucked a fig, smiling up at the tree then down at the man.  “Well done, my friend.  This changes everything.  Go and live your life and remember what it means to be truly happy.”  And the man did.  And the tree was happy.

Our world is obsessed with the pursuit of temporary happiness; a new car, new iPhone, new house.  But we miss the basic truth that genuine, lasting joy is the product of giving, not getting. Giving isn’t just about money; it’s a lifestyle that encompasses one’s whole personality. It’s a lifestyle perfectly exemplified in Jesus Christ. And when we live lives of joy, when we remember what it means to be truly happy, that’s the Spirit of Christ functioning as the Lord within us.  May the grace of God produce the joy of Christ within each of us.  Amen.

Rev. Christina Whitehouse-Suggs was previously the Associate Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina but is currently ministering full-time to her infant son, Dylan.  She received her M.Div. from Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC.  Christina resides in Columbia, SC with spouse Matt (chaplain with Tidewater Hospice), 7 year old daughter Kara (full of awesome), son Dylan (late night drinking buddy), and their cat Pipsqueak (who thinks she’s a dog).  She is also a nationally certified sign language interpreter and is often found on stage at one of several local theatres (in all her spare time).

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mladjenovic_n/3480169658/”>I Am Not I</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photo pin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

Backpack Blessings

This will be the third year we do a backpack prayer at our church.  We announce for several weeks before that all children are invited to bring their backpacks with them to church on the Sunday before school starts (here that is usually the last Sunday in July!!).  During the time for children, we invite them all to come forward, and we talk a little bit about going back to school, and what is exciting, and what is scary, and what is fun. Then each child gets a postcard sized card with a clip-art of a backpack on it for them to color and a prayer.  The back is left blank for them to write their own prayer when they get home.  The card can then be tucked into the child’s backpack as a reminder all year that they are prayed for while they are at school.   We have a large number of teachers in our congregation, so this year, we will be making a card for them as well, with a different prayer.

The prayer for the children that is printed on the card is:

Loving God, be with me today when I go to school.  Sometimes it is scary, and sometimes it is hard.  Sometimes it is exciting, and sometimes it is fun.  I know that no matter what happens today, you are with me.  Help me to learn from my teachers every day.  You gave us the gift of learning.  Help me to remember to show my thanks to you by doing my best everyday.  Amen.

For Teachers:  

Oh God, you have called me to teach your children in this community.  Be with me today when I go to school.  Help me do my best to be patient and kind, no matter what this day brings.  Give me courage and strength when they are needed, and a spirit of fun and energy.  May the minutia of administration and paperwork not be draining.  Help me use the gifts you have given me to nurture and shape the children in my care.  Amen.


Julie Jensen is the Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Mission at First Presbyterian Church in Cartersville, GA.  When she is not trying to stay out of the heat, you will find her knitting, cooking, and trying to make something grow in her garden.

Photo Credit: by o5comm, http://www.flickr.com/photos/o5com/5302863243/ Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.

Sing A New Song! A Poem and Sermon for Advent

Editor’s Note: With many clergy spending time in the summer focusing on Advent and Christmas preparations, Sunday Morning and Beyond is featuring a poem and sermon from Advent to help get those creative worship juices flowing.  Happy Planning!

Sing a New Song!

Mary’s song – Luke 1 & Hannah’s song – 1 Samuel 2

Isaiah’s song – Isaiah 12 & Moses’ song – Exodus 15


Like Mary sang anew

the old, old hymn of Hannah

Like Isaiah drew new depths

from Moses’ song of salvation

Like this voice gives new voice

to cherished carols—sacred carols—


God’s Word


creative energies


and ready to gestate

her next wonder.


Sing a Different Song – But Don’t Change My Favorite Hymns!

(Based on the text from Isaiah 12:2-6 from Advent 2009)

Our choir sang a Cantata during worship last Sunday.

Not only was it beautiful,

but for me it also evoked an unexpected visceral response.

Every cell in my body seemed to

echo the universal sacred heartbeat

encompassed in





In those moments, I had an experience of the Holy:

God was present in each vibration.

My whole being – mind, body, emotion, spirit – was affected by that encounter with the Divine.


Music is one of the ways we encounter God with more than our very active brains.

Consider how many times scripture admonishes us to “Make a joyful noise!” or “Come into God’s presence singing!”

And how many times do we hear the song of someone expressing praise, sorrow, longing, anger, joy, thanksgiving? Consider which pieces of music never fail to draw you closer to the core of your faith,

which hymns help you sink

into the depths of

the Divine presence.


Christmas carols are like that for many people – evoking the spirit of the season with just a few familiar notes. This is why many of us tend to get upset when anyone dares change the words

because it’s part of our sacred connection.


Those of you who are familiar with the UCC’s New Century Hymnal know what I’m talking about – we sing Good Christian Friends Rejoice rather than the customary Good Christian Men Rejoice;

and in It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

“peace on the earth good will to men from heaven’s all-gracious King”


“peace on the earth, good will to all, great news of joy we bring”.


Is it really okay to change the words like that?


I’m of differing minds with many internal contradictions on this question.


I feel strongly about inclusive language:

the language we use, whether we intend it or not,

creates lasting images in our minds and

develops either inclusive or non-inclusive understandings deep within us.

No matter how you say it,

naming God King or Lord

evokes a masculine image for our kids –

and that memory stays with us into adulthood.


Yet many of my favorite hymns and carols were written in a time when nobody thought about such things!

God most certainly was male

because that was the only way to comprehend God in relationship with us.


And so our songs come to us with a little historical baggage.

And I recognize that as I continue to choose to sing along with them on the radio,

reconnecting with my childhood,

reveling in Christmas sentiments that soaked in long before my brain began to

question parts of the faith I was taught.


Yes: I have an internal contradiction in my experience of Christmas carols –

I want both the words that I learned as a kid AND the faithful new words!


Last year, I adamantly told my partner, “I’m not going to worry about how completely opposed I am to some of the Christian sentiments on my favorite childhood albums! I’m just going to sing along without theological guilt, even if they’re sappy and pie-in-the-sky-baby-Jesus-brings-peace-to-the-world whatever …. I’m going to enjoy them.” She laughed, having teased me every year about those same albums.


The transformation of some of our favorite hymns and carols is a challenge –

but it’s not a new concept to rewrite a song’s words; there is biblical precedent!


The reading from Isaiah is itself a song:

“Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;

let this be known in all the earth.

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”


Isaiah offered this song to his people for their time and place – a time of struggle and discouragement.

And the people who heard this song from the prophet’s lips

would have recognized it immediately as one of their favorite hymns:

it was Moses’ song

following the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.


Listen for the connection:

“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord…

‘The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation;

this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him’” (Exodus 15);


and Isaiah: “I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.”


It was Moses’ song and a faithful favorite that evoked in Israel

memories of release from captivity,

a sense of God’s possibilities,

a feeling of hope.

The people knew and loved it – but Isaiah changed the words.

Instead of singing about Pharaoh’s armies being drowned in the sea,

Isaiah sings of joyfully drawing from the well of hope and salvation.

Why’d he change the words?

Because he understood that this familiar song evoked the core of the people’s faith;

it was known in their sinew and soul,

passed down through generations

like their very own musical genetic code.


Isaiah changed some of the words of this well-known hymn

because he knew the people’s current circumstances,

their new understandings of truths in their modern world.

The hymn of faith that takes them deep,

can speak to their current circumstances

and still hold them in faith.


Mary, whose Magnificat our choir interpreted so boldly in Cantata, did the same thing.

Mary sang her praise and hope and expectation all from her own immediate circumstances –

but she didn’t make up her song, either.

She reinterpreted a favorite hymn of her people

to speak to her current experience.

Mary’s Magnificat was also Hannah’s song:

it was the celebration of a woman

upon dedicating her son to God.


When Luke’s original hearers first encountered Mary’s song,

I wonder if they felt as uncomfortable or disjointed as some of us do

when faced with our own reinterpreted Christmas carols?

Or did they take it as standard practice

to take the familiar, the beloved texts and hymns and stories of their faith,

and reinterpret them for new experiences of God:

bringing the tradition and that which

already connects us with the Holy

into current understanding, present faith;

so that it cannot become antiquated,

appropriate for a corner pedestal

but not really be applicable to our lives?


Re-interpretation of tradition is an inherent part of our tradition.


We’re NOT just being politically correct by reinterpreting the songs of our faith –

we’re being faithful to tradition and our still-speaking God.


The UCC is a denomination that diligently questions the “truths” that our forebears handed down to us –

yet we still strongly need a deep connection to Spirit.

We need the relationship that comes when we experience God –

like in a visceral, spiritual response to the choir as it crescendos with Mary’s song of praise,

lovingly lifted from Hannah’s own experience of the Divine.


This is why we continue to sing cherished Christmas carols –

to keep us tied to that experience of God that goes beyond the brain.

And that is why we reinterpret them for the truths of our day, our experiences –

so we can be faithful to what we know of God

and God’s ever-evolving relationship with humanity.


This Christmas, sing the songs as your spirit calls to you – familiar words or new – but be faithful in doing so; be faithful to your experience of God in mind, body, emotion and spirit.


And sing!

With Mary and Hannah,

with Isaiah and Moses,

with one another in this place and time.

Sing your experience of God.


Sharon Benton nears the end of her “young clergywoman” tenure, having served in ministry since she was 23 years-old and nearing (gasp!) the close of her 30s. She enjoys writing, petting cats and being Associate Minister at Plymouth UCC in Fort Collins, CO. She graduated from Claremont School of Theology in 2000.

Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/gingerburn/3074957813/”>Gingerburn</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photo pin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

35°48′ 20″N 82°47′28″W

A Sermon based on Psalm 139 verses 1-18.

In 1944 two people feel in love with each other. She was the daughter of tobacco farmers; her father tended the fields while her mother tended the children.  He was the son of a carpenter and a gardener; his father built houses while his mother fed the family.  She lived in Worley and he lived in Barnard, two tiny dots on a map of North Carolina, two of many such dots sprinkled across the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. Connecting their dots was a road called Big Pine, and along this road, aside from the pine trees that gave the road its name, there wasn’t much, save a Volunteer Fire Department and a Baptist church. That church is where they met; he was shy, but he managed to ask her out. Before she could say yes, the army sent him 300 miles east of her to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and then he was moved again 700 miles south of her and stationed in Camp Blanding, Florida.

Every week he would write letters and she would drive along Big Pine to the town of Marshall, a slightly bigger dot on the map, and the only one with a post office. There she would pay three cents and slip her letter into the mail box, sending her words over the miles, miles that covered states and towns she had never seen and did not know. At first their letters were shy, “would you like to go out next time I am home?” he would ask her, but as their love grew, the shyness wore off. In that time, and in their particular corner of the world, talk of love and romance was often exchanged for more constructive conversation, so their letters were mainly composed of details: when and where they would meet, who they would double date with that evening, and when he might be coming home for good.

Yet lingering among the practicalities of their letters was the whisper of emotion, as subtle as a soft breeze you don’t notice until you are reaching for a sweater. As they came to know one another more deeply the whispers of that emotion grew louder. He went from signing his letters with his initials, F.T.P. for Fred Thomas Payne, to “Love you, Fred”. In turn she signed hers, “All my love, Mary Kate”.

Sometimes, when love grows, the language with which that love can be described shrinks. This happened to Mary and Fred. At one point she wrote to him: “Sometimes I think I could write a book and then I sit down to write you and not a word comes to mind.” 

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

Even if Mary didn’t know what she wanted to say, God knew, and somehow that message got through to Fred, because when he came home from the army he asked her to marry him.  As a wedding present her Daddy gave them 49 acres of land and on it they built their home, and planted their livelihood into the rich soil of the mountains.  Tobacco sprang up along with seven children, five boys and two girls. When he wasn’t in the fields, Fred worked at ‘Home Electric and Furniture’ a store down on Main Street, the only street that ran through the center of Marshall. Between selling furniture and tilling the field, Fred made a lean living. Around the end of the month cornbread and milk would be the staple for dinner, “We just have to make do until your Daddy gets paid”, Mary would tell her children. Having grown up poor she was accustomed the language of “making do”, which is an altogether different way of speaking than then language of “want”. When you are always “making do” you rarely talk about what you want and so those desires go unnoticed and unfulfilled. Whatever Mary longed for, her children didn’t know, she may not have even known, but God knew.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

And are acquainted with all my ways.

The house where Mary and Fred lived was nestled among the gentle slopes at the base of the mountains. From the front porch you could see the largest hill where the cows grazed on the tall, brown grass. At sunset the fading light would illumine that hill and turn the whole world amber.

As the first stars appeared in the sky, Mary and Fred would sit on that front porch, their children in the rocking chairs beside them, grandchildren running through the grass catching lightening bugs. That is how the family came to know one another, sharing that time week after week. At the time they may not have known just how important Mary and Fred’s home was to them. They may not have known the ways it was shaping them and their families. They may not have known, but God did.

O God where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

On August 8th, 1994 Fred died in their home with his family nearby. His youngest daughter had just changed the sheets on his bed so that they were fresh and cool to his skin. Mary was by his side, heartbroken to lose him, but relieved his suffering was over. How the human heart can hold both joy and sorrow is hard to know, how Mary’s heart was able to carry so much grief she probably didn’t know, but God knew.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night”,

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

When Mary died, the love of her family, those who knew her best, helped usher her passing from this life to the next. One granddaughter held her hand while another one brushed her hair. Her daughters rubbed lotion into her arms, and fed her bites of chocolate ice cream. As many children and grandchildren as could fit in her room did, and they were all there when she crossed over the threshold.

I want to go home, she had said to my mother, who kissed her forehead and said, “I know”.

In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,

When none of them as yet existed.

Before it could be proven that the world was round, the ocean was believed to stretch out forever, its glistening horizon being the most remote distance any human mind could imagine.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

Even there your hand shall lead me.

Now of course we know where the oceans lead, we’ve crossed over that horizon many times, but the knowledge of God still eludes us. No matter how many of the earth’s mysteries we uncover there are still questions that go unanswered, secrets of life that the mountain holds deep to her core, and the ocean buries under miles and miles of liquid blue. If you listen carefully you might hear these secrets being passed on a winter’s day when the breeze rubs the empty tree limbs together; or when you walk by the sea and hear the shoreline lapping the sand. But even if you hear it, you will not understand it, for God’s knowledge is a knowledge made up of stardust and the grains of sand created when the world began; it is a cosmic and other-worldly knowledge, a knowledge that answered Job from the whirlwind, commanded the Red Sea to part, cried out on the cross and was met with silence-only to echo that silence on Sunday morning when the tomb was empty and the whole world was left wondering how a dead man rolled away that heavy boulder. Why, it is a knowledge that is simply too wonderful – something so high, that we cannot attain it.

Unable to reach this knowledge it chose instead to come to us. The knowledge of God showed up weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, comforting a grieving widow, and rejoicing when families were reunited.

The knowledge of God held the hands of those who were diseased, and ate supper with those who couldn’t afford their share of the bill. The knowledge of God knew who people were before they could even introduce themselves, and in response to their disbelief God’s knowledge would say, “I saw you before you saw yourself, and I have seen greater things than these.” (John 1:43-51)

Because, remember? God’s knowledge was there when it all got started, for in the beginning was the Word. God’s Word to us. You are not alone. I am with you. There is nowhere, not even death, where I am not.

So when Mary couldn’t find the words to write to Fred, or when she couldn’t express her deepest longings; or when she didn’t know how her heart could hold all that joy and grief at the same time, God knew.  And when she finally passed from this life she didn’t go to God; she simply went with God to her new home. For God was already there. God is always there. Beginning to end; day to night; shoreline to mountain ridge, death to life. Days when our eyes continually fill with tears and days when we think we might burst with joy. In and through and around

and beyond all of that God is there. 

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them—they are more than the sand;

I come to the end—I am still with you.

All praise be to God. Amen


Author’s Note: I preached this sermon on January 15, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich. I wrote this sermon during a week when my grandmother was dying. She passed away on the Wednesday before I was slated to preach. Because of my schedule I wasn’t able to return home for the funeral, scheduled for that Saturday, an experience with which  many clergy can relate.

Erin M. Keys serves First Presbyterian Church Greenwich as the Associate Minister for Congregational Life. Most recently Erin served as the Interim Associate Pastor for Education and Discipleship at The Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Keys is originally from Asheville, North Carolina. She studied Religion and Theology at Elon University in Elon, NC. Keys received her Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

Photo by Serene Vannoy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/serenejournal/2056094568/ Used under Creative Common Lisense 2.0.

Prayer for Parents & Those Who Want to Be

For those who got pregnant right away and those who have been trying for years…


For those who entrust their babies to the care of another family…


For those who cannot wait to welcome a baby into their home and those who are terrified they are not fit to be parents…


For those whose child will get a soccer scholarship and those whose child will never run…


For those who proudly pose for pregnant photos and those who shamefully hide their bellies…


For those who are proud to be fathers and those who hope the DNA tests are incorrect…


For those who pay child support and those who need child support…


For those who fight with teenage daughters and those whose daughters have run away…


For those who cannot pay for college and those who cannot pay for medical care…


For those who home school and those who fear their children won’t make it home from school…


For those who think their son is the best surprise of their life…


For those whose children are in prison and those whose children want to be corrections officers…


For those whose baby doesn’t live outside of the womb and those whose wombs are empty…


For those taking hormones and those who feel exhausted from hormone changes…


For those grieving what will never be and those amazed by what life has become…


For those who are single parents and those who are now step parents…


For those who have an empty nest and for those whose nest was never full…


For the couple who is closer than ever and the couple getting divorced…


For all of your children of all ages, hold them close and give them life…Amen.


Editor’s Note: Permission is granted by the author to use this prayer in written or spoken form as long as “Written by Rev. Ashley-Anne Masters” appears somewhere in the order of service or bulletin.

Ashley-Anne Masters is a pastor, chaplain, author and theologian in Chicago, IL. She is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and received her Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. She is co-author of “Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman”, which is the first book from The Young Clergy Women Project Series through Chalice Press.  Currently, Ashley-Anne serves as a PRN chaplain at Children’s Memorial Hospital and is passionate about providing education and support to families during their hospital stay. She also serves as an event planner for various Presbyterian Church(USA) events and has much experience in youth and young adult ministry.

Photo by Lenny Baker. Used under Creative Common Share Alike 2.0 License.