a little r & r

Already, in less than a week, there have been so many words spoken and written about what happened last Wednesday in the insurrectionist attack on our nation’s capitol building.  Words of anger, words of sorrow, words of accusation and blame, words of denial, words that sought to excuse, words that tried to explain.  But as I seek to write this pastor’s column on the Monday following the attack, I find I have no words left.  So I turned to a favorite scripture.  The Apostle Paul writing to the church at Rome offered these words to people who (like me) aren’t exactly sure what to say or pray:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8: 26-28)

Right now, when I have run out of words of my own,  I find that the Holy Spirit is speaking to me through the wise words of others.  First an excerpt from the statement that my friend and colleague Marci Glass shared with her congregation Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco last Sunday.  Her words capture so much of what I am feeling but can’t find the words to express:

While the events of this [past]week have revealed truths about our country we’d prefer were lies, we can choose to change. We can choose hope. We can choose to reckon with our past, our systemic racism, our broken politics, and we can choose to write a different story for our country. I pray we can heed the lessons of this week, and learn some bitter truths so we can build a better union. I pray we can set aside the differences that have divided us in order to claim the higher ideals we claim we hold— justice for all, equality before the law, and freedom that gives life and hope for all people.

When people advocate violence, we can continue to work for peace. When people sow division, we can continue to seek the common welfare.

Finally, a favorite quote from nineteenth century clergyman Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

We can all do something.  In our own small way, we can all do something.  In the midst of the temptation to despair, we can all do something.

 

                                                Blessings-

                                                René

New Sermon Series Begins Sunday

Sermon Series “Why Church?’ Begins This Sunday

We begin a four-week sermon series “Why Church?” this Sunday, January 17.  As the title suggests, the series explores why church is important.

January 17 – Why Church?  What difference does the church make in people’s lives and in the world?

January 24 – Why Worship? Why do we worship?  Why is the act of worship central to the life of the church, even in these times when we cannot worship together in-person?

January 31 –  Why Mission? Why does the church engage in mission and outreach, in caring the least, the last and the lost among us?  Why is mission fundamental to what it means to be the church?

February 7 – Why Give?  Why is giving important to the life of the church and the faithful?  (Hint: It’s not just because the church needs to pay its bills.)

Texting Reminders for Sunday Service

You may have noticed that Shawnee Community now has the capacity to send out texts to members of the congregation.  Because we have to pay for this service and have a limited number of texts that we can send each month, we are sending only one text to each household.  So if you are not getting a text and someone else in your household is getting a text, it’s not because you aren’t important. It’s because we are striving to be good stewards of the church’s resources.  If you ARE getting the text, you have the job of reminding everyone in your household.

Finally, if no one in your household is getting a text (we send one out every Sunday morning to remind folks of worship), please contact Rev. René Jensen at revrenejensen@gmail.com to get added to our texting list.

a little r & r

Thank God!  No one wants to wish their life away, but I cannot think of a one of us who isn’t good and ready to put 2020 fast behind us. 

It isn’t like nothing good happened.  We Chiefs fans are ecstatic we put 50 years of Super Bowl futility behind us with their victory early last February.  Babies kept being born.  Wedding vows were still exchanged.  Birthdays were still observed, though mostly via Zoom. 

But we might amend Charles Dickens’ opening salvo in a Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  Except it was more the BEAST of times!

Syndicated Humorist and Miamian Dave Barry captured the absurdity of 2020 in a column in The Washington Post with a month-by-month account.  Some samples:

 

  • This was a year of nonstop awfulness, a year when we kept saying it couldn’t possibly get worse, and it always did. This was a year in which our only moments of genuine, unadulterated happiness were when we were able to buytoilet paper.  Which is fitting, because 2020 was one long, howling, Category 5 crapstorm.

 

  • In sports, (June-July) Major League Baseball tried to come up with a plan tosalvage the 2020 season, a task that became more urgent each day, as the Houston Astros had already won 137 games, all of them no-hitters.  The Washington Redskins, bowing to mounting public pressure, announced that they were changing their name, which critics said was insensitive. They will henceforth be known as the Pittsburgh Redskins.

 

  • In election news, Joe Biden makes history bychoosing Kamala Harris as his running mate; if elected, she would become the first U.S. vice president whose name can be rearranged to spell “I Alarm a Shark.” For his part, Trump dismisses rumors that he might change running mates, telling reporters, “I’m very happy with whatshisname.”

You get the point. 

2020 was like visiting Fantasy Land at Disney World, with not-to-be-believed trolls coming up with conspiracy theories faster than the speed of light!  Our nation is so divided astronomers have decided there’s no need to look for another habitable planet in our galaxy.  Half of Americans are living on one planet, while the other half has created a second planet right here on their own.  It’s as George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”  Except he surely meant this only of America.

Even die-hard pessimists are optimistic about 2021.  It has to end better than 2020! 

This is where I come down. 

Some of our own SCCC people have already started getting vaccinated.  For those of us who still believe in medical science this is very good news. 

The much larger audience (3 to 4x more folks than for the recorded services) over the first four weeks of Live Streaming is telling us there’s a real hunger for worship that at least approximates Live Streaming.  The great turn-out for the Christmas Eve Parking Lot Service on a bitterly cold evening punctuates the thirst for in-person worship.  René and I are committed to increasing member participation in worship through video-recorded Calls to Worship shared by households of every size.

That at least two households pre-paid their 2021 pledge and our landlord postponed three-month’s (December-February) rent helps us meet 2020’s June through October financial shortfall due to COVID and the loss of the Rev. Johnny Lewis.  The Search Committee is formed and will be seeking congregational feedback in late winter 2021.  And this is just about our church.

On the home front the Chiefs have won the “BYE” for the playoffs as the top AFC team in the NFL.  The “Five Thirty-Eight” web site gives them a 35% chance of winning their second Super Bowl in a row.  And hope springs eternal for the Royals who have made several positive moves in the off-season and have a great farm system.  2021, here we come!

But the thing that distinguishes us in the Jewish-Christian tradition is our capacity for hope and faith in spite of the obstacles our hope and faith have met this past year.  The reason we have this capacity to overcome these obstacles isn’t just the longing for the life-to-come.  The vast majority of global Christians focus on the afterlife, which makes sense considering the extent of global poverty and while many working class Americans have all but given up hope for this life. 

The reason we can overcome these obstacles is because we believe in a God, Who takes each of our lives and all our lives together so seriously and lovingly, God chose to become one of us in Jesus.  Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, is all about God taking upon God’s own self the sadness and the suffering of our world.  God will bring about, as Revelation 21 says, “a new heaven and a new earth.”   Our sorrows as much if not more than our victories mean everything to God.  That’s why the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is so hard on the Rich Man.  He failed to care for his poor brother, as God cares for our poor neighbor.

So, while we cannot see the ultimate outcome God has for all creation, we know the outcome God has in mind and in store for the world:  A future where there is no more COVID, no more death, no more sadness, no more 2020’s. 

This is where our life’s journey is headed.  But, until that new earth comes, our job is to seek it for others, which is finally the way we seek it for ourselves.  We need to start to give what we most would like to receive:  joy, justice, and peace on earth forever and ever, world without end.  May it be so, Lord.  May it be so!

 Happy New Year!  Happy new you!

                                    Rick

Children’s Christmas Program on Sunday

Children’s Christmas Program • Sunday, December 20th

What is Christmas without little children in costumes telling the story of the birth of our Savior? So much of our world is changing, but we are going to attempt to keep that small piece of Christmas alive and well at Shawnee Community.  This year’s program is The Mystery of Christmas and this virtual program will be presented as a part of the livestream worship service at 10:00 am.

Also on December 20th, as a part of our Advent series on angels, there will be a special appearance by Gloria the Grumpy Angel, who tries to talk God about the whole idea of being born as baby Jesus. Join us for the livestreamed worship at 10:00 am every Sunday on Facebook.

Christmas Eve Service

Parking Lot Christmas Eve Service • Thursday, December 24th

Join us on Christmas Eve at 5:00 pm for a Parking Lot Christmas Eve service. In this brief service we will sing beloved Christmas carols, hear the ancient story of the birth of Christ, and light our candles as we sing “Silent Night.”  (Please bring your own candles!)

Attendees can stay in their cars or get out, if they are bundled up and feeling hardy.  Those who get out will need to be masked and practice social distancing.

Even if we are in our cars, it will be a blessing to welcome the birth of the Christ Child together as a family of faith!

a little r & r

To last week’s entry from Ann Weems’ book of poetry Kneeling in Bethlehem I want to add another entry from her book.  René came across this while we were doing our Advent wreath candle lighting this past week.  It is titled “Toward the Light”:

Too often our answer to the darkness

         is not running toward Bethlehem

        but running away.

We ought to know by now that we can’t see

         where we’re going in the dark.

Running away is rampant. . .

         separation is stylish:

            separation from mates, from friends, from self.

Run and tranquilize,

         don’t talk about it,

        avoid.

Run away and join the army

        of those who have already run away.

When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace

         comes only when we turn and face the darkness?

Only then will we be able to see

         the Light of the World.

My senior year at Shawnee Mission West High School, our A Cappella Choir put on our annual winter musical “110 in the Shade.”  It is the musical version of the popular 1956 play “The Rainmaker,” about a snake oil salesman in a drought-ridden rural Kansas farm town (not to be confused with Matt Damon’s 1997 movie of the same name) promising rain.  

Over the years I have never forgotten one of “110’s” best songs, titled “Everything Beautiful Happens at Night.”  They simple, beautiful lyrics go:

Everything beautiful happens at night

Everything beautiful happens when the sun goes down.

After the day is through.

After it’s dark is when

All of your daydreams….

Come true.

It is a love song that captures the romantic relationships between the Rainmaker played by then Oscar award winning actors Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. 

Of course, darkness especially through frigid winter nights can be intimidating and threatening.  In the Dark Ages in Europe, winter brought with it a high frequency of death.  

Our Christian ancestors were wise to this threatening factor by setting the Advent- Christmas season in conjunction with the Winter Solstice (Jesus was probably born between late February and early April), the longest, darkest, night of the year.  Our ancestors were clever too.  They co-opted the pagan “Feast of the Unconquerable Sun” celebrated on the pre-Gregorian calendar original date of the Winter Solstice December 25th and made that date Christmas, “The Mass (or “Feast of Christ”).   This conjunction of pagan festival and Christmas was designed to bring peace and joy to the hearts of Jesus’ followers, as longer daylight paralleled Jesus’ birth and life beyond the Solstice.

Of course, we moderns have never completely overcome this respect for winter darkness with electric lighting and central heating.  Winter still earns our respect as cold from our car broken down on the road that time of year chills us to the bone. The Covid vaccine notwithstanding, we have all heard and been personally affected by news reports that the pandemic will likely hit its peak in the next few days or weeks, with the prospect that all Americans may be vaccinated by mid-Spring.  Hallelujah!  Praise the Lord!

But life is full of ironies.  One of those ironies is that light shines brightest in darkness.  A good night’s sleep is often followed by a more energetic day.  Those who have weathered tragedy and loss often are the ones who are most able to assist others who are experiencing similar heartbreaks and catastrophes.  

More importantly, the kind of boredom, spiritual ennui, infecting our times is often the result of people running away as fast as they can from any pain or hint of suffering they may have to endure.  As my clinical supervisor at Vanderbilt Hospital once wisely remarked, “Tears are often the truest indication a personal breakthrough is occurring.”   Those who run away from the darkness of suffering and pain cheat themselves of the joy and exhilaration that facing the darkness can bring.

I hope each one of us will pause in these next few days and weeks to permit ourselves to get in touch with the emotional and mental challenges the pandemic presented us all with in 2020.  Instead of running away from the darkness, I hope we can pause long enough to face into that darkness and even embrace it.   Because on the other side something joyful, hopeful, loving, and peaceful awaits us.  

 

It is the acknowledgement that…

“Everything beautiful happens at night.”   And,

 “Only when we turn and face the darkness will we be able to see the Light of the World”

“Even the darkness is not dark to you, O Lord” Psalm 139

                                                                                                                                  Rick

P.S.  Don’t forget that at dusk Monday, December 21, the conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn will shine brightly for the naked eye to see in the southwest horizon.  It may be visible 2 or 3 evenings on either side of the 21st

The Reviews Are In!

 

The reviews are in for last week’s live streamed worship service. Here’s what folks have said:

  • It felt so much more like being in church
  • Thanks for the angels that are providing this worship service. What a blessing to be able to worship together even though in our homes
  • I am loving this

Visit our Facebook or YouTube page to view Sunday’s worship if you missed it. Make sure you join us on Sunday, December 13 at 10:00 am on Facebook or YouTube. An email will be sent on Sunday morning with links for you to tune in at 10:00 am.

a little r & r

One of René’s and my favorite books of Advent and Christmas meditations is Ann Weems’ Kneeling in Bethlehem.  The book has been around a while, but it is timeless in capturing the spirit of this season.  Here is one entry titled “In December Darkness”:

The whole world waits in December darkness

for a glimpse of the Light of God.

Even those who snarl “Humbug!”

and chase away the carolers

have been seen looking toward the skies.

The one who declared he never would forgive

has forgiven,

and those who left home

have returned,

and even wars are halted,

if briefly,

as the whole world looks starward.

In the December darkness

we peer from our windows

watching for an angel with rainbow wings

to announce the Hope of the World.

Our times have become times of worry, desperation, pessimism, and even cynicism.  Being quarantined or simply observing “stay at home” CDC instructions is enough to make us think we are stuck in the slough of despond with little or no way out.  It is so easy to perceive nothing but darkness and believe life has failed us.  It is as if we are in exile, as indeed we are compared to pre-pandemic days.

But the Jewish-Christian faith is about acknowledging that neither darkness nor death have the final word, as Ann Weems poem suggests.  Our faith never crumples under the weight of despair.  In fact, for us it is about believing in impossible possibilities.

On December 21, the Winter Solstice, just such an impossible possibility will occur.  We are about to see an incredible event when the two largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn will directly align themselves for the first time in 800 years!  This “Jupiter-Saturn maximum conjunction” will happen near dusk on Monday, the 21st, at approximately 17 degrees on the southwestern horizon.  Saturn will appear to overtake Jupiter and come within only 0.1 degrees from one another, giving the sense of a double planet.  For more details you can listen for weather reports or look this up on your browser, including news of the next such conjunction in 2080, when our children or grandchildren will be 60 years older.

What makes this a very special occasion is that the conjunction of the two planets should be visible to the naked eye.  Furthermore, there is speculation that it was a similar maximum conjunction, which formed “the Star of Bethlehem,” at the time of Jesus’ birth in the year 4 B.C.E.  At that point in human history it was popularly assumed that such a rare occurrence was a divine signal of a royal birth.  Matthew’s nativity narrative describes Magi in the East (technically from Persia—modern day Iran) gazing at the night sky when they saw the star and followed it to the stable in Bethlehem.

This last Sunday René read the tag line of the day’s scripture, Luke 1:37, “Nothing is impossible for God.”  The text refers to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that not only Mary will conceive God’s special child, the Messiah, but Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth was also carrying a child—John the Baptist.

By referring to God’s impossible possibilities the scriptures, like from Luke, are not suggesting that we are to think of ourselves as living in some bubble of unreality we make up to confirm our prejudices.  God’s impossible possibilities are quite positive, hopeful, and in a true literal sense, enlightening. 

These impossible possibilities also are not reserved for some “pie-in-the-sky” future, which dismisses our earthly existence as ignoble and dispensable.  We aren’t talking trash, though not the kind of trash talking on a sports field or court.  God’s impossible possibilities are always about an alternative future for life as we experience it today and not solely for some heaven far away.  God is a very down to earth God.  It’s why the names of that famous-infamous first couple, Adam and Eve can be translated “groundling” or “earth being.”  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof!” as Psalm 24 says.

So, God’s promise is not just for “a new heaven,” but also “a new earth.”  And this is what we await every Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and throughout the year:  a new earth as well as a new heaven.  And so, once again I would say like the late astronomer and “Star Gazer,” Jack Horkheimer, “Keep looking up!”

 

                                                                                Remember Dusk Monday, December 21!

                                                                                                                                Rick

Children’s Christmas Program on Sunday, December 20

Children’s Christmas Program • Sunday, December 20th

What is Christmas without little children in costumes telling the story of the birth of our Savior? So much of our world is changing, but we are going to attempt to keep that small piece of Christmas alive and well at Shawnee Community.  This year’s program is The Mystery of Christmas and this virtual program will be presented as a part of the livestream worship service at 10:00 am.

Also on December 20th, as a part of our Advent series on angels, there will be a special appearance by Gloria the Grumpy Angel, who tries to talk God about the whole idea of being born as baby Jesus. Join us for the livestreamed worship at 10:00 am every Sunday on Facebook and YouTube.