The Advent Yoke

origin_11311678723This is the hardest time of the year for me to be a pastor. It’s a disheartening time. We have this incredible gem of truth in the coming of Christ while the rest of the world is spinning in the empty promises of Santa Claus. Culture, economics, and politics all rely on the materialism of the season. We’ve literally bought into it. We spend weeks – months – planning, buying, and baking for Christmas. What for? I shepherd a congregation where the worship attendance for Christmas Eve is lower than the average Sunday worship. That tells me that people don’t care to spend an hour to quiet themselves and revere the truth of the season. In times like this, I need to hold on to the promises of Christ.

“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.” Matthew 11:29-30

These words from Jesus give me hope in trivial times. They remind me of the depth and wholeness of our faith. They reveal to me the claim that God has on us. They remind me of why I do what I do.

Advent is a beginning of life with God which, honestly, can be scary. One Advent, I witnessed a baptism of a baby boy where the mother of the child began crying, then sobbing, so uncontrollably it was difficult for the pastor to get through the service.

I was moved by her deep emotion that played out in our liturgy. I was also a bit puzzled. I approached the mother after the service while she looked down with shame. In a hug, I congratulated her, but she quickly apologized for her emotional outburst. I said to her that she had nothing to apologize about because I truly believe that tears are one of the most powerful ways that God gives us peace. If you can’t cry in church, where on earth can you cry?

“But,” I said to her, “I do have a question for you. If your tears could speak, what would they say?” She looked at me with big eyes and said, “Baptism is a mixed bag. It’s such a joyous occasion because this child will learn the wonder of belonging to God and God’s family. But,” she said to me, and her eyes welling up with tears again, her throat choking, “baptism means this child is no longer mine. I will love him and care for him in the way God calls me to do. He is such a blessing to me. I want him to live faithfully, but look at what happened to Jesus when he lived faithfully. He encountered bullies and the most broken people in his world, he was tested and tried and betrayed. He loved so hard. He died on the cross because he lived faithfully. And Momma Mary stood back and watched. Mary had to watch everything her blessed son went through – I am not strong enough. I am glad he’s now in God’s hands, but I am terrified of what that means for him.”

This encounter changed me. It changed my faith. It changed the way I live in Christian community. This mother gets it. She knows that life in faith is difficult. Why would she go through the pain and hardship that following Christ entails?

Because life happens regardless of who we are and whose we are. This Advent, I walk alongside people who have recently learned of scary diagnoses. I watch my community rally around a teenage girl who is dying from an aggressive form of cancer. I drive through neighborhoods that are in burning heaps of bonfires because they have been swept away to piles of rubble by an F4 tornado. I grieve sudden deaths. I learn of broken relationships. I find people struggling with such heavy hearts that they don’t know how to function in a healthy way when everything around them tells them to “suck it up” and deal. This is when I feel that mother’s hug squeeze me even harder. We live this way because it matters. The kingdom of God is near.

No one ever promised life would be easy. Far from it. Life is hard, scary, even dangerous. Jesus promises he will do whatever it takes to lighten the load. Jesus give us hope and peace to make it through. We wait for Christ at Advent, we celebrate God-with-us at Christmas. We mistakenly wrap everything up, put it away, and feel empty because Christmas is over. But it’s not. Advent reminds us that Christ is with us always. If we didn’t have that, what would we have?

Nothing. No gift-wrapped presents, fresh-baked cookies, or indulgent family meals can replace the coming of Christ in our lives. When I go to that dark place in my soul, I feel the squeeze of the mother’s hug from that Advent in years past. Jesus came to walk with us through the joy and the pain. He came to show us how to do it. Rest, ease of burdens, lightness of heart. He came to give us all that we will ever need: compassion as balm for our indifferent souls.

This season begins a journey that does not end when we put away the Christmas trees. It ends with the Pentecostal flaming tongues. There is no Christmas let-down when the season ends with an empty tomb and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether we are hurting or whether we are so burned out that we don’t care, Christ is there. We are promised the Holy Spirit will do its work.

God promises I will carry on. When I am disheartened, when I wonder if what I do matters, I find someone to hug. And I imagine a post-baptismal hug that brings me home.

Finding Hope amidst Honking Horns and Dirty Feet

Editor’s Note:  This Advent, join us for a series of articles that reflect on journeys and travel in our lives. Advent reminds us that we’re not quite there yet, that getting from point A to point B is a form of waiting. We hope this series of articles will help you find a few moments for quiet respite in the middle of the busy-ness of church life in December.  This post is most definitely about journeys.  It was originally published on September 10, 2013 from  Please follow Kirsten’s blog and join me in praying for her ministry in Egypt.

On most days, by the end of the day, I have sweat running down both my forehead and my back.  My feet are black from the dust and dirt.  I am so tired I want to go to bed at about 7:30.  On most days, I’ve learned a few Arabic words, only to forget them by the time I get home.  I hear that something will take ten minutes, but that really means at least thirty.  The sink in the kitchen breaks, leaving the meal program scrambling to provide lunch for the 100+ children who eat there everyday.  I hail what feels like a bajillion cabs before getting one that will actually take me where I need to go. I get the feeling that I’m just supposed to know this, that, and the other thing, but I don’t and I’m not entirely sure who I should ask in order to find out.  When I think I’ve got all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, I find out that the baas and taas (two letters of the Arabic alphabet) also need to be dotted.  I wait in line only to find out I didn’t have to.  This city is loud and dirty, and seemingly inefficient.  Traffic is horrible.  Getting a straight answer may or may not happen.  And Arabic is really, really hard.

And yet, I love it here.

I love to sit and watch as hundreds of people go by–walking, or riding in mini-buses or taxis, or zooming around traffic on motor scooters.  I love watching men balance on their heads huge boards stacked high with fresh baked bread, while they ride bicycles.  I love to observe the fashion–the gorgeous scarves wrapped and tied in all kinds of ways to cover heads; the totally impractical, but fabulous shoes the same women wear.  I love to listen to Arabic and try to decipher words or patterns.  I love it when I see totally random things on the street, like a flock of sheep in the middle of downtown.  I love it when the young men guarding the embassies in our neighborhood are caught laughing with one another.  I love walking around the neighborhood, people watching, cat watching, finding shade in the afternoon sun.  I haven’t managed to get myself terribly lost in the neighborhood yet, and that’s something.

And it seems like just about the time I find myself frustrated by cultural differences and language barriers, someone walks in my office just to check in.  The guards invite me for an afternoon Pepsi.  One of the teacher’s kids skips by my office, sees I’m there, and stops to give me a hug, dragging her little friend along.  The kid walking down the sidewalk stops to pose for a picture, presumably with the graffiti behind him advertising his favorite soccer team.  (By the way, the word for ball and/or soccer/football is one of the few Arabic words that have stuck in my brain.  Important when you work with kids!)

Part of my job is to work with the pastors of our sister congregations, refugee congregations that worship in the space throughout the week.  The pastors will often stop in to chat, and I ask them how their people find things these days.  Things are a little better now that the curfew doesn’t start until 11, but it is hard.  It’s hard to find work when your status is uncertain and the economy is informal.  It’s hard to live in an area where violence breaks out in unpredictable patterns.  It’s hard to live in a time that is uncertain and even harder when your refugee status card is the wrong color.  (There’s a whole system of colored cards that grant different statuses to refugees.  I don’t entirely understand it yet, but blue card v. yellow card comes up in conversation fairly often.)  I hear these stories of struggle and uncertainty, and it would seem like it could just suck the wind right out of you.

But that’s not all they tell me.  They speak of hope.  They speak of being grounded in Christ. They speak of faith and of community.  And that’s what keeps us all going–the refugees and those of us who work with them.  They speak of a faith that is deeply, deeply rooted in Christ’s promise of life.  They speak of the community giving hope to people who could not find it elsewhere.  They speak of caring for one another and for the children, the weak, the vulnerable.  These people are amazing.  Their faith inspires me.  Really, it breathes life into my tired soul.  Their faith kindles in me new sparks that ignite my own faith.  Their priorities help me reexamine my own, and remind me what’s really important.  They give me the strength to keep going, in spite of frustrations and inefficiencies and language barriers and misunderstandings.

The courtyard was filled the past few days with people waiting to register for English classes.  By 10:30 today, there was a sign on the door that they are full for the term.  I’m not exactly sure how many slots there are, but I know the Adult Education Program director has been very busy the past few days, registering people for classes, organizing space for registration and placement tests.  People are eager to learn and it is beautiful to sit and watch and see all of the faces come and go.  I haven’t had a chance yet to sit and listen to stories, but I will soon.  And those stories will surely be filled with sorrow and grief, and love and hope.

And then there are the kids.  I showed a friend some pictures the other night and her first comment was, “The kids are so happy.  That must be a good school.”  I hear from their pastors some of the challenges their families face, yet when they come to school, they’re kids.  They play soccer and jump rope.  Teenage girls giggle in tight circles as teenage boys lean cooly against the wall, both groups no doubt trying to impress the other.  When I bring out the camera, they gather around and pose.  They tap on my shoulder and pull me to a place where they have the background they want.  They make bunny ears on one another.  I find myself stopping just to watch.  I can’t help but smile.  You can see a smattering of pictures on my Shutterfly site.

So at the end of the day, when my feet are dirty and I find myself ridiculously envious of those who post on Facebook of their 70 degree weather, I think back on my day and say a little prayer of thanks for the taxi driver who, despite my broken Arabic and his broken English, got me home safely.  For the Arabic speaker who doesn’t laugh too much as I mess up words and quickly forget them.  For the kids whose smiles light up their faces.  For the people who fill the courtyard and patiently wait their turn.  To the God who created us all and loves us all very much.  And then, at least for a minute, it’s hard to be frustrated and I don’t feel so tired.  And I remember why it is I love this place.

Kirsten Fryer is an ELCA pastor serving through ELCA Global Mission at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo and Pastoral Associate to StARS (St. Andrew’s Refugee Service) in Cairo, Egypt.

Image by: Canadian Veggie. Used with permission.

Sleeping to One Side

Empty BedsI sleep alone in my queen-size bed and I’ve slept alone in this bed for almost two years. You’d think that after two years, I’d sleep sprawled in the middle of this mattress, limbs stretching as far as they could reach. But two years after I last had company on this mattress, I still sleep on one side of it. I can put my iPad and iPhone, four pillows and even a tower of books on the other side of the bed and when I wake up they will all be there, unmoved. It is hard to break the habits you learn when you share a bed night after night.

I sleep alone in my queen-size bed and you’d think that would mean I’ve been single for two years. But I haven’t…or I have. It’s complicated. Everything is complicated when you’re married to a man who is in jail. I’ve been raising a son alone despite the fact that he has a living father. I’ve been filing my taxes as “married” despite the fact that I’m the sole bread winner and only adult in the house. I’ve been going to bed alone despite the fact that I have a husband. Complicated. Read more

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, March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.

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 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 ( More information about Narayanan Krishna’s foundation, The Akshaya Trust, can be found at: .

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,[email protected]/7856630628/ via href=””.  Used by Creative Commons 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=””>Gingerburn</a> via <a href=””>photo pin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

The Art of Worship Planning

Church of the Pilgrims Advent wreath 2010

Several years ago my colleague, Jeff Krehbiel, went on a three-month sabbatical. While Jeff was gone, Pilgrims wanted to have their own enriching three-month experience. We created a sabbatical planning team to plan not just congregational endeavors but worship. Together, we explored the lectionary texts, the meaning of sabbatical, and came up with the theme of “connections and clarity” for the sabbatical season. All of these elements came alive in worship during the sabbatical. While still maintaining our loyalty to the Reformed Order of Worship, our planning process opened up our imagination, courage, and curiosity to what is possible. We sang new songs, congregants told stories on connections and clarity, we created more spontaneous moments of sharing, and we explored new ways of engaging with each other during worship.

Our planning process paid off and we were hooked. Read more

The Details of Advent

When I was a little girl, Advent was my absolute favorite time of year. It is true that part of the excitement had to do with the promise of gifts under the tree – but my love for the season went far beyond a desire for presents. Looking back, it is clear that Advent's top-ranking status in my personal pantheon of holidays had everything to do with a sense of wonder.

For me, decorating the Christmas tree was the best part – twinkling white lights peering out between crisp branches, delicate ornaments nestled in each bough, shimmering icicles glistening from every bristly tip… I loved our tree so much that my mother often discovered me curled underneath it, reading a book illuminated by those little white lights.

Beyond the tree, there were also those other wondrous Advent rituals: lighting candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday, singing the hymns that taught me my faith more than any Sunday school class, decorating the church during the hanging of the greens. Each moment, each activity added a new degree of anticipation as we moved towards Christmas Day. Finally, that swelling expectation reached a crescendo on Christmas Eve night as we sang Silent Night and raised our candles in the darkness of the sanctuary – Jesus would soon be born and I knew we were lighting the way.

Read more

Sanctuary Art

The sanctuary of our historic church was intentionally redesigned in the late 1960’s to recapture the “blank slate” of a traditional, Reformed worship space. When you walk into the sanctuary, it feels like a special place of worship.

The challenge we face, however, is in capturing the imaginations of generations that are increasingly visual. We can set up LCD projectors for special occasions, but the architecture and sightlines make permanent installation of current technologies untenable. Not to mention, there are lots of folks (myself included!) who are not so convinced we want to invite this piece of culture into worship on a weekly basis.

So, what to do with the blank slate?

Several years ago, I envisioned a huge drape to dramatically mark the front of the sanctuary for Advent/Lent (purple) and Christmas/Easter (white). Fortunately, my co-pastor and husband is very handy and rigged a pulley system to raise the drape more than 30 feet to the apex of the arch over the nave and secure it. Unfortunately, that is about the extent of my personal creativity.

We have been focusing in recent years on emphasizing the seasons of the liturgical year. The drapes were a good start, but how to mark the progression of Advent in a dramatic way? Since my creative impulses often far outstrip my actual creative abilities, we approached our artists in residence with a scrap of an idea: displaying the scenes of the season as we progressively made our way to Bethlehem.


What you see in the photo is what they came up with. Figures cut from poster board, displayed on a purple backdrop. They were beautifully done and created a very dramatic effect on our blank slate. The scenes built upon one another each week. They were similar in theme to the bulletin covers and were easily incorporated into the children’s message and sermon.

The photos are the scene for Christmas Eve, with the white drape and star of Bethlehem also hung.

Through experiences like this one, we have discovered the incredible gift it is to the congregation to plan ahead and make space for creativity – both our creativity and that of others in the Body. Creative folks need opportunities to offer their particular gifts to God and the church, and the rest of the congregation is blessed with their creative perspectives and interpretations.

Advent Prayer

Fulfill in us the coming of Christ.

May we, O God,
Like Mary, treasure and guard the coming of your kingdom deep within us
Nourishing it as it grows,
Delighting in its first flutterings,
cradling its growing weight in our hands,
until it is ready to come and call out to the world. Amen.

If your path involves motherhood, the odds are pretty good that you will be in some way waiting for motherhood to begin during an Advent season. This year, I know pastor-moms who are in a variety of states of waiting: trying, waiting to announce, announcing, waiting for paperwork, waiting for a referral, and ready to deliver.

Two Advents ago, I realized I was pregnant during a sermon on the annunciation. For a variety of reasons, the timing of this baby was horrible. As my head pastor explained all of the reasons the angel might tell Mary “Do not be afraid” I knew three things for sure: I was pregnant; I was very afraid; and I had better come up with a good explanation in case anyone in the congregation noticed that I was turning a shade of green in front of their eyes.

Our waiting in Advent is informed by many versions of waiting for the coming of Christ. Mary’s waiting for his birth might be the most distilled version. Women waiting for motherhood have incredible access to that experience.

I wrote this prayer as a way of exploring that version of waiting.