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A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

A Hammock and a Window

more-than-enoughI have a very un-humble confession to make: I adore the cover of my new book. When my publisher first sent me the image earlier this year, I’m pretty sure I squealed like a teenager who has just found the perfect dress to wear to the prom.

The drawing on the cover is inspired by the hammock in our backyard. I bought it a couple of years ago, on a trip to visit some friends in Nicaragua. In real life, it’s red and white, though after a few seasons in the sun and the rain, the colors aren’t quite as bright anymore. It hangs between two trees, and dips low to the ground; my daughter likes to read out there, her brother likes to make it swing. I watch them through the back window, and the sight of the two of them out there playing is so beautiful to me that it takes my breath away.

Our life is very good. We live in a safe place. We have healthy kids, good jobs that we like; we’re able to pay the bills and put food on the table. Sometimes, I look around at this very good life and I can hardly believe that this is the same world in which people go hungry every night. The same world in which refugees walk for months and years with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The same world in which the gap between rich and poor is growing wider all the time.

How are we supposed to live, given this reality? When every choice we make – from where we live, to what schools our kids go to, to where we buy our groceries and our clothes – has implications far beyond our own family, how do we live?

I’ve been wondering about this for awhile now, but as I went looking for some answers, most of the responses I found were inadequate or confusing.

We could live more simply, but simple living turns out to be kind of complicated. We could commit to only buying stuff that’s sustainably produced and locally sourced, but that’s not always easy to find. We could buy only organic, locally grown food…or should we buy cheaper food and have more money to give to the hungry? We could use our cars less and give the earth a break, but then how do we get to work? We could go off the grid entirely and grow all our food and make our own clothes, but what if we don’t know how to do that, or want to do that? And aren’t we, as Christians, called to live in the world?

I didn’t exactly find answers to all these questions, but I do think there are some things we can do and do better. I think there are some faithful ways to live. We can make better choices with our stuff, all those material goods that make up our lives. We can pay attention to where it comes from and who makes it, use less of it, and be grateful for it. We can give generously from what we have. We can get to know our neighbors better. We can advocate for changing systems and laws that further exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

The Christian tradition also offers some resources that can be helpful: Confession and lament. Sabbath-keeping. Delight, and hope. These are practices that ground us in our tradition as we try to make sense of the world we live in.

Anyway: back to the hammock. Earlier this year, one of the trees that held up the hammock had to be taken out. It was diseased up at the top, and the tree guy who understands such things said that it was too dangerous to leave standing. I was sad to lose the tree but I was even sadder to lose the hammock.

It had become a touchstone for me. Just having it out there reminds me of things I need to be reminded of: It reminds me that there are people who live different sorts of lives in different parts of the world. It reminds me of the need for sabbath and play and delight, even in the middle of regular, busy life. It reminds me that we are not without responsibility for our actions and our choices, but that there are faithful ways to live in the tension between appreciating the goodness of the world and grieving for the ways the world is broken.

I missed the hammock when it was gone.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, my dad and my father-in-law happened to be in town at the same time. My father-in-law is an architect who knows how to figure things out, and my dad is a putterer who likes to have a little project to work on. Together they rigged up the hammock in a different part of the yard, between two different trees in a spot I hadn’t considered.

There’s a different view from the back window, now, but I can still see it out there, standing as a reminder for all I hold dear. I am grateful.

Read more about Lee’s hammock (and plenty of other reflections on living faithfully in an unjust world) in her new book More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of ExcessAn accompanying discussion guide and worship planning guide is available for free download here.

1908 Chicago Cubs

Hope After the World Series

1908 Chicago Cubs

1908 Chicago Cubs

The world was turned upside down for Cubs fans this week. Since their last appearance in a World Series in 1945, one of the truisms of Cubs fanship has been hope for the impossible: that this will be the year. With their World Series victory, does life as Cubs fans know it cease to exist?

The question of life as we know it ceasing to exist may sound cliché and existential, but consider the changes in the world since 1908, when the Cubs last won the Series, or, for that matter in 1948 when Cleveland last won the Series: cars are everywhere; humans have landed on the moon; and we’ve learned to send messages on tiny screens using just our thumbs. The world as we knew it, a century, or even decades ago, has ceased to exist.

Fans of long-suffering baseball teams have established a personal practice of hope. This has been true both of Cubs fans and Cleveland fans. To hope means to look forward. Looking back at what could have been only ends in disappointment. Read more

Healing Sanctuary

Dec 2014 Blue CandleIn the church parking lot, I was breathing deeply.  I knew that going inside was something I needed to do, but I also knew that it would be hard. I had no idea just how comforting attending my first Blue Christmas service would be.

I was nervous about going.  I mean, who really wants to have to deal with grief in front of them like that?  So much of our culture tells us to stop crying, to be happy, that we should be over it by now,  and not to show too much emotion.  What if I broke down?  What if I sobbed in front of others?  What if my grief was so deep it was unnameable?

My father passed away in 2004, the day after Thanksgiving.  Two weeks later my grandmother passed away, and a month later I married my husband and moved to the Middle East.  It was a time of great turmoil in my life.  I was afraid that the holidays would be hard forever because of the deaths.

But the year that I went to the Blue Christmas service, in December of 2006, I found peace and hope in the holidays once again.

After enough deep breaths, I went inside and entered a sanctuary that was beautifully decorated.  The lights had all been covered with blue tissue paper, and silver stars hung from the rafters.  This gave the whole place an otherworldly glow that pulled me in and made me feel protected.  The ethereal decorations made me feel connected to God and made the room feel safe from the rest of the world. I was calm and allowed myself to stop forcing deep breaths. This would be a safe place to miss my Dad and to acknowledge that sometimes life is hard.

We do not grieve well as a society.  We tell people to be happy, to stop crying.  We tell people to stuff their feelings and not to let them show. People thought I should be happy because my Dad was living with God.  I always wanted to scream back, “But I want him here with me!” Luckily, because of my training as a counselor and a seminary student in CPE, I knew that I needed to let myself grieve.

And this service, this magical, beautiful Blue Christmas Service…it allowed me to do that in a way I had not been able to do before.  I was with others who were also grieving.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was sad that I had to face Thanksgiving and Christmas without my Dad once again.

I do not clearly remember all the details of the service.  But here is what I do remember:  There was a time when I got to share a story about my Dad.  There was a time during the service when I felt connected to my Dad.  My Dad is the one who taught me about church, and we worshiped together nearly every Sunday when I was at home.  There was a time during the service for being still and quiet, for crying, for acknowledging the hurt and anger.  And it was safe to feel all those things — even around others — because we were wrapped in the blue light.

This light helped me feel secure, wrapped in a cocoon of God’s love. Inside this safe space, I could feel what I needed to feel without being judged.  I could set aside the hard memories of my grief: crying in the supermarket in front of the Christmas cards from daughters to dads, being told that letting my grief show was unprofessional, and being told that because of heaven, I should just be happy.

And that made all the difference.  It made the difference that inside this cocoon of blue light, I could feel how I needed to feel.  I could receive the message from the church that my grief was ok.  Even if my Dad is living with God, the church said it was still ok to miss him living on earth with me.  Hearing this message, I felt God was with me in my pain and cradled me as I experienced it.  .

I left that service feeling tired, but also relaxed.  I was exhausted, but had a deeper sense of peace.  It was like emerging from the sanctuary to a new world where I knew that God was with me in my pain, not to shut it up or out, but to hold me in it until things got better.  This was an important part of my grief and healing process.

This other world of the Blue Christmas service helped me connect all my feelings about the holidays, God, my grandmother, and my Dad in a whole and comforting way.  Even all these years later, the memories of this this service still help me make those connections.

As I think about that service now, I feel calm.  I feel the love of my Dad as if he is with me and as though he’ll be with me this Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I somehow am reminded by the memory that God is part of all of this, too.  There is a place I go to in my memory, when I think about that service, where I find acknowledgement.  And that gives me what I need to let go of the pain (at least most of it) and to keep the joy, hope, and comfort.

Whatever your losses in life, whatever feelings the holidays bring up in you, I would encourage you to seek out a Blue Christmas service, at least once.  Maybe it will help you, too, remember that God promises to eventually return us to new life . . . and that in the meantime, in the present pain and grief, God is with us.  Even if you are not able to find a service, I encourage you to make your own space to securely acknowledge your grief during this time.  And as you seek out your own healing this season, I offer you this Christmas blessing:

May God be big enough for all your losses,

May Jesus hold your hand when you need to cry, and

May the Holy Spirit lead you to places of deep hope and joy from on high.  Amen.

 

Keep Calm and Carry on with Hope

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A little over a month ago a man named Thomas Eric Duncan was getting ready to leave Liberia for Dallas, Texas. Prior to departing he helped a neighbor get a sick pregnant woman into a car to go to the hospital for medical care. Or so is the story the media twisted, and spun out of control. (Since Duncan’s death, the Dallas News published a letter from Duncan’s nephew disputing that story.)

Whatever the truth, I resonate with that story: I’m in the last months of pregnancy, waiting to deliver my daughter at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, the same hospital where Duncan was quarantined, treated for Ebola, and eventually died.

West African countries have been battling Ebola for months, treating thousands of cases. Americans didn’t tune in to the magnitude of that story until one case popped up in one city in one western country. The media descended, and anxiety rose and infected the Dallas community and the country more quickly than Ebola could.

It became clear to clergy including myself that fear and anxiety were what we had to reframe and fight. We had to keep calm and carry on with hope.

At my church, my colleague and I preached, prayed, and tried to live out calm in the midst of crisis.

Living out calm meant I went about ministry as usual visiting parishioners who were hospitalized at Dallas Presbyterian, and going to my own obstetrician check-ups there. I didn’t think twice about continuing with my doctor and pushing forward with our plans to deliver our firstborn at Presbyterian Hospital.

I also continued to go about the parts of my ministry that took me to Vickery Meadows, the neighborhood where Duncan has lived with his fiancée, Louise Troh.

I attended a parent meeting at McShan Elementary School in the heart of Vickery Meadow to share information about the community garden our church started, and an upcoming event. The discussion came round to Ebola. As panic alarm bells were sounding and paranoia was setting in the principal said this, “We are all neighbors, and this is a multicultural community. You have nothing to fear. We encourage you to keep on supporting each other, and we will not tolerate bullying or isolation of others.”

She preached to me, and I’ve held her words in my head over the last month: “You have nothing to fear.”

Other ministers closer to the situation, like Rev. George Mason of Wilshire Baptist church spoke eloquently on national television putting out an alternative to the frenzied media story…one of love, care for our neighbor, and compassion as his congregation ministered to Louise Troh, a member of their congregation.

A few weeks ago another colleague, Rev. Brent Barry invited an ecumenical group of clergy to lead a prayer vigil for hope. The mayor came to speak, but also to find solace.

As the third case emerged and anxiety and fear became more widespread, the mayor held a conference call for faith leaders. He encouraged us to share a message of love and hope. He preached to me, reminding me that Jesus ministered to the lepers, and that the early church stood in the gaps when others were abandoned. Now, more than ever we were needed.

When I get a concerned call from a loved one or church member about plans to deliver my firstborn at Dallas Presbyterian, I’m not worried. I fight the fear with facts: I’ve not touched the fecal matter or bodily fluids of the 3 Ebola patients, and neither has my doctor. I’m fine, and the baby is fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

When I encounter a neighbor or friend who is concerned about us welcoming “those people” from Vickery Meadow into our neighborhood or houses of worship I ask them these questions: Why are you afraid? Have you come into contact with the fecal matter, bodily fluids, or urine of those 3 people? No? Then you’re just fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

Now, more than ever our neighbors in Vickery Meadow or West Africa need us to love them, to welcome them, and to embrace them. They need hope, and I pray that we can continue to remember those lessons once this Ebola story ends. Shunning, and living in fear is not our story as Christians nor is it the Gospel call to hope.

I can’t wait to tell that story of hope to my baby girl when she is born one of these days at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital. Maybe I’ll even get one of the coveted birthing tubs since so many other pregnant women have changed their hospital out of fear.

 

Shards of Hope

Permission March 2014“Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know? That you’ve pulled a fast one over on God? I don’t know a lot about you, but I know this: our God, who created you, who somehow manages to be three persons and also one at the same time, sees you, knows you, loves you, and highly regards you. As you are.”  

Pastor Ray (Name Changed)

Those may have been the most grace-filled words ever spoken to me. Could it be possible that exactly as I am, broken as I feel, I am made in the image of God? Could it be possible that God doesn’t just know about my brokenness, but knows my multifaceted experience, and still loves and highly regards me?

Or should I say, us? That, after all, more accurately reflects my experience and my internal dialogue. What I call “me” is really a collection of many pieces of myself who live within me. These ‘others’ have their own memories, experiences, belief systems, and ways of making meaning. They even have their own names. Sometimes, we all get along. More often, our conflicting worldviews and belief systems collide within us, challenging us to find an integrated way of living. The official name for this is Dissociative Identity Disorder. (You can read more about that here.)

In spite of the multiplicity of voices that make up my experience, this oft feared, misunderstood mental health challenge leaves me feeling alone. I’m learning to feel comfortable talking about the peripheral issues: depression, anxiety, being an incest survivor, etc. Still, I fear talking about this one. I am afraid to tell anyone about my diagnosis. I am afraid to tell people how challenging it is to live and to minister this way. I am afraid of what people will think and say. Will my bishop decide it’s too risky for me to serve a congregation? Will my congregation react with fear or horror or morbid curiosity? Will my friends think I’m crazy? If they really know me, will they stop loving me?

Fear and silence shroud my whole life. The cloistered secrecy that pervaded my childhood made my disorder possible (and necessary). As an adult, I push back against these walls. I stretch to characterize my life with confidence, honesty, and integrity. And yet, still I am afraid. Still I have a secret. The deepest, most painful secret possible: who I really am.

Carrying this secret exhausts me, which is why I sought out Pastor Ray that day. Tired of feeling afraid for my job, tired of feeling alone in the world, tired of feeling overwhelmed and suicidal, I sought out someone I believed might bring me good news. I told my secret. I explained what I believe: God didn’t mean for my life to be this way. God didn’t create me with the intention that I would have ‘others’ inside of me. I am this way because of what happened to me. Fundamentally, I believe that I am different in my soul than God originally intended. Then, I explained what I fear: God couldn’t possibly know about these ‘others’ and love me. Their very existence must mean that we’re meant to be alone. Ultimately, I fear that because I am not who God created me to be, I should not even be alive.

I sat quietly trembling in Pastor Ray’s office, waiting for his response. He didn’t recoil, didn’t appear horrified, didn’t ask questions. He just said that. “Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know?…” Something broke loose inside of me. I began to breathe again. Streams of colored light began to play deep within my soul, as though someone had turned on the light behind a stained glass window.

This should not have been surprising. After all, I don’t believe in a God who created a world where evil ‘got in’ and can never be redeemed. I believe that our creation & garden stories bear witness to a God who does not cause sin and brokenness, or ignore it, or punish it. Rather, I believe these stories speak of a God who constantly invites us to take part in God’s redemptive work. God gently holds our brokenness with an invitation to work together to create unfathomable beauty. Just as a stained glass window transforms broken shards of glass into a single beautiful piece of art, so God works with us and our brokenness to create ever more complex, beautiful artwork. Brokenness doesn’t ruin the art, it is the art.

What really surprised me that day was that the light shone from within me. Somehow, God’s light was already present behind my broken soul. Somehow, in spite of my fear, I had never really been alone. Somehow, pulling together the painful gashes that separate pieces of my soul, God could still create beauty from my brokenness. Somehow, God could still bring me hope.

I know that many people live with mental illness. Many people live exhausted from keeping secrets in fear. Many people believe that something about them makes them fundamentally unlovable, unknowable, and disdainful to God. So often, I feel that I must be the only person (or at least, the only clergyperson) in the world who struggles in these ways. I also know that isn’t actually true, even when I feel most abandoned and alone. Every person’s life experience is unique, and anyone can feel completely alone even if they’re not. That is, even though they’re not. So I know, even when I feel most alone, I am not. I cling to the hope that even God lives as three-in-one. And God’s light shines, even when I can’t see it.

I still don’t have the courage to share my story openly. I still wonder what would happen if my bishop or my congregation learned about my diagnosis. I still think carefully about which friends might be safe to tell and how they might respond. I even still wonder, sometimes, if God’s promises hold true for me. At the same time, I ask God to nurture the brightness within me. I seek places where it can be seen. And I let it shine through my broken pieces with hope.

Feeling isolated and alone comes easy in life. Society still teaches us to keep secrets, especially about mental health challenges. Yet God’s grace shines brightest in community. God’s grace comes when we know we are seen and known and loved and highly regarded. God’s grace remains present at all times. But so often, it takes someone who sees and knows us to shine light into our deepest secrets. It takes someone else to bring grace to our most broken places. It takes someone else to open us to hope.

Hope gives me permission to live. It gives me permission to be vulnerable. It gives me permission to play. It gives me permission to be me, and it gives me permission to be ‘others’ — Janie or Daniel or little one or Sara or Ana or 12 or anyone who needs time to be. It gives me permission to shine. After all, it isn’t me the light graces — it’s us. And after all, it isn’t my light that is shining — it’s God’s. Even in me. Even in us.

The author serves as a full-time solo pastor of a congregation somewhere in the world that gives her time to see her therapist on a regular basis. You may contact the editor of this article at theoneswelove (dot) ycw (at) gmail (dot) com.

Photo provided by the author.

Learning to be a Daughter, Mother, and a Pastor . . . with Hope

Mother & DaughterThe first month was the hardest.  The time spent wondering—wondering what the future would hold, the next hour, the next day, and hopefully even the next year.  The time spent waiting—waiting to hear what the next medical professional would have to say.  I was exhausted and emotional and trying to hold everything together.

And then she came home and we started a new journey, shaped by new realities—a new future that didn’t look like the one we had planned to embark upon.

It sounds very much like a birth story, doesn’t it?  It sounds like I welcomed a precious baby girl into my life.  I have, twice.  But not in this story.

This story is about learning to mother my mother, all while trying to mother my children and pastor a congregation.  This story is about learning to mother my mother, all while still being her daughter.

My life has been shaped by cancer.  My dad died of cancer when I was nine.  He died six months after his diagnosis.  I don’t remember many details from those six months, but I do know that they worked their way into my soul.  And I remember the many, many, moments of dealing with the realities of grief, loss, death—and even resurrection.  These are the moments that still take place as I continually face life without my dad’s physical presence.

So when one of the two surgeons came out to talk with me in the waiting room this past March, I was calm and self-assured as I asked questions and waited for answers.  And yet, I heard the word “cancer” and the words “much more extensive than we anticipated”.    The inner nine year old me fell apart; the thirty-five year old me held it together.  The last time I heard a parent had cancer resulted in my world collapsing.  I wasn’t ready to face that again.  As a daughter, I cried.  As a daughter, I questioned God.  As a daughter, I struggled.

As a pastor, I continued to plan midweek Lenten services.  As a pastor, I continued to shape Holy Week and Easter worship services.  As a pastor, I prepared to celebrate death and resurrection.

And I did things that needed to be done.  I visited my mom nearly daily for the weeks of hospitalizations and the weeks of rehab.  I stopped by her apartment regularly for months after.  I did her laundry and dishes for four months.  I am going on six months of grocery shopping.  I am her transportation to doctor’s appointments, CT scans, and chemo.  I am the one who drops everything to take her to the ER when something is not right.  I am the one who listens along with her to what the doctor has to say about her prognosis.  I ask questions and write down answers.  I log into her medical records to make sure I understand.

Sometimes I feel like now I have to be the mother.  I was relieved when my sister who lives across the country came to visit for two weeks.  For two weeks, I didn’t have to be my mom’s mother.   Mostly, though, it’s new territory we are navigating.  As she gets stronger and looks to an end date for chemo with a very good prognosis, I have to mother her less and less.  I will still care for her, in many of the ways in which she cared for me over the years.  I know the day will come when I’ll have to mother her some more, but I’ll be ready because she taught me to be a mother.

And because I’m a pastor who journeyed a very personal Lenten journey this past Lent, God opened me up to experience a very Easter message.  When my mom dies, be it from this cancer—though that doesn’t look likely—or somewhere down the road, I will be okay.  Resurrection is real; that will get me through.

In the meantime though, I’ll keep learning—how to be…a mother, a daughter, and a pastor.

 

A daughter for 36 years, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 10 years, a mother for 5, Jodi continues to learn how to be all three (at once) thanks to the lovely people of Shepherd of the Cross Lutheran Church in Muscatine, Iowa and two precious little girls (Alexa, 5 and Mackenzie, 2).

Photo by Colin Cook, http://www.flickr.com/photos/colin_cook/9384667831/, October 14, 2013, Used by Permission of the Photographer, All Rights Reserved.  For more of Colin’s photos, check out his Flikr Page at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/colin_cook/.

Words and Water

water bottleI was first introduced to the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto when I watched a fascinating movie/documentary called What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?.  Dr. Emoto studied the effects that various words and prayers had on water.  He discovered that when thoughts and words were directed at ordinary water, the crystals that would form when the water was frozen changed — positive words resulted in beautifully shaped (healthy-looking) crystals, while negative words resulted in misshapen (sickly looking) crystals.  Considering what he found through his experiments with water, and considering that the average person is made of around 70% water,  Dr. Emoto has suggested that our words and thoughts and intentions and prayers affect us in the same way as those water crystals: our health and our peace is greatly impacted by the words and thoughts that surround us.

Recently, a group of young clergywomen and I reflected on various negative comments that we have endured in our ministries.  The comments ranged from the ridiculous to the undeniably evil – and everything in between.  Accusations of being uncaring and unloving hurt.  There is no way around it.  Rarely does it mater that the person who is saying such things to us or about us is merely projecting their own anxieties about themselves onto us — their words still sting.  Broken promises can cling to us like lint on our favorite black dress.  Selfish demands can weigh us down like that extra bag of groceries that we have to carry up three flights of stairs.  Even the craziest of complaints can keep us up at night, stressing over how to respond to people and situations that they simply didn’t teach us about in seminary.

After sharing numerous stories of the discouraging comments that haunt us as we go about the work of answering God’s call (once again, being reminded in our sharing, that we are not alone), one of the clergywomen asked about the positive comments and experiences that we have enjoyed recently.  Those comments ranged from the simple to the profound – and everything in between.  It is amazing how much of a difference a simple “thank you” can make.  Words of blessing and gratitude can bring much-needed healing on days when all else seems to be falling apart.  Rarely do the people who share such hopeful messages realize how much their words mean — their words can soothe troubled spirits and hearts in ways that can only be understood as gifts from the Holy One.  Sincere compliments can comfort us like a handmade quilt on a cold winter day.  Expressions of genuine gratitude can lift us up like a free-flying kite on a breezy summer day.  Even the smallest of notes or mentions of thanks for what it is that we do or who we are can give us the nudge that we need to push forward, celebrating God’s goodness and taking joy in God’s calling day by day.

After presenting a synopsis of Dr. Emoto’s work in the movie, What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, one character says this to another: “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what our thoughts can do to us.”  We have all faced harsh, hurtful words from others – and, if we’re honest, many of us have faced harsh and hurtful words from ourselves, too.  It is easy to focus on the negativity that is thrown at us.  It is tempting to let the criticisms and judgments sink into our souls, contaminating our spirits.  It is no wonder that there is so much sickness and burnout in the church and world today!  But the positive words that we share with one another can cleanse and purify.  If thoughts filled with hate and spite lead us to have heartburn and panic attacks, imagine what effect positive thoughts could have on our health and well-being!

In the Sacrament of Baptism, we pray a Prayer of Thanksgiving — a blessing of love and gratitude — over the water.  What if we spoke those same prayers over one another?  What if we would actively seek to bless the around 70% of ourselves that is made of water?  Would we be transformed?  Whether or not Dr. Emoto is right in his assessment that words and thoughts can affect water, I don’t know.  Whether or not Dr. Emoto is correct in thinking that – because of our water content – we are influenced by the words and thoughts that we read and hear, I don’t know.  And yet, I can’t imagine that it is that far from the truth.  Whenever I let the negative talk play like a broken record in my brain, it is not long before I begin to see and feel the effects: insomnia, sour stomach, elevated blood pressure…  But, when I remember and embrace the positive talk – writing words of affirmation and hope on my heart and mind – I feel those effects, too: increased inner peace, joy, calm, and happiness.  Words of love and gratitude can change everything — and always for the better!

Somehow, we need to remember the words that are spoken over those baptismal waters — especially in those moments when words of hate threaten to overtake us.  We need to keep the words of blessing that we hear from God in our hearts.  We need to recite those blessings of love and gratitude to one another.  We must speak words of grace in our workplaces and homes and places of Sabbath rest.  We should bind the words of affirmation that we hear on our hands and fix them on our foreheads.  We should write words of hope and post them next to our computers and use them as the wallpaper on our cell phones.  If we surround ourselves with messages of love and gratitude, I can only imagine the positive impact that would have on our lives, our ministries, and the world around us!

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.