These past two weeks we have been observing the Celtic Advent, but today we transition into the traditional, four-week season of Advent. Here in Vermont, it is also a season fondly (and not so fondly) referred to as “stick” season. It’s the time of year when the leaf peepers have all gone home. The leaves are on the ground and the bare limbs have not yet been covered with a warm blanket of snow.
The barren trees paint a melancholy canvas and some see drabness. I see beauty. For the barrenness opens my eyes to new things, a new perspective. And perhaps that is the opportunity the start of Advent presents us with — a chance to gain a new perspective, to finally see the beauty of God when all seems hopeless.
And so, let us begin our time of worship here at the farm. Our reading for today is:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Time to Reflect: As the season of Advent begins, it is easy to get caught up in the mad dash to Christmas, to rush to the good news of a Savior born for all. How easy it is to lose sight of the meaning of the season, to not call upon God or reach out our hands to heaven. Spend time today calling upon God, even simply whispering God’s name. Quietly sit in the presence of God, with your hands opened as if to receive something. Meditate on God’s goodness and hope in your life as the first candle of Advent burns.
As we head into this holiday, I realize many are not “feeling” it, many are feeling down, and many are missing loved ones. As I prepare for my holiday meal, I share with you how God is with us, and that what we really need to do is prepare our hearts to receive God’s love.
This time together has been loosely based on a Blue Christmas service, where short reflections are interspersed with reflection music. May it bring a sense of joy and peace to your heart.
Welcome to ministry in 2020. The picture below illustrates it the best. The picture also got me thinking about feasting — not on the turkey that will grace my Thanksgiving table this Thursday, but feasting on faith rather than fear.
It seems lately I, the one who always took leaps of faith, have been weighed down by the fear of the unknown. I blame the pandemic for instilling this fear in me as “uncertainty” is a word reverberating in all of us, isn’t it?
The thing about fear is it doesn’t satiate one’s soul. If anything, it gives you heartburn. Or in my case, heartache.
I have dreams. I’ve shared that with you before. I have big, crazy, scary dreams that need a big helping of faith to birth them into being. And this picture of me on the big screen in a Methodist church’s ecumenical Thanksgiving service is making me hunger for that faith that always filled me up. It is making me regret, too, some of the dreams that I let go all because I allowed myself to listen to those in the church, caring friends, even family, whisper well-intentioned messages of warning: What if it fails? It’s not possible. Play it safe.
Being that I was the pastor who lived the furthest away in the clergy group, I was invited to send a video welcome and an opening prayer. My Vermont home is more than an hour away from the historic village of Ticonderoga, New York, where battles between the French and the Indians were waged and where one can trace the footsteps of Revolutionary War heroes like Ethan Allen and traitors like Benedict Arnold. So I was thankful to the Ticonderoga clergy for being understanding and considerate.
Watching myself on the big screen, though, reminds me of the wacky idea I had three years ago when I tried pitching a virtual circuit rider ministry to three rural churches in my area. I would rotate being in person at a church on Sunday. One Sunday I would preach while the other churches zoomed me in via technology. Each church would have pastor physically present one Sunday a month. One church was sort of on board with the idea, but when I began working with them, it was clear they just wanted a traditional pastor to preach and spend time having tea with members. I am not tea drinker.
One church, who was looking for a part-time pastor, was honest and brutally shot it down, stating, “We can’t afford to take a risk with such an idea. What happens five years from now if this doesn’t work?”
That was three years ago, and where are they now? No further along and perhaps their dire straits becoming more dire. Imagine where they might have been if they went with this pastor’s crazy idea of using technology before technology was a ministry necessity in 2020?
But they didn’t want to feast on faith. Their taste buds had grown accustomed to the empty calories of fear. And I, in the process, accepted their invitation to sit at that table with them.
I can’t help but feel a tremendous sadness that these churches would have been way ahead in digital ministry as the pandemic swept through the country. They would have been showing their communities faith, not fear. They might have started to see a revival. They might have learned that seeking what they want in ministry never works. They might have seen the amazing things that I have seen in my ministry when you trust God all the way and only seek to follow what God wants.
Yesterday I had a wonderful chat with a minister in Tennessee for a magazine story I am writing. He took a small church of 15 members all in their 70s and turned it around. Well, he didn’t turn it around. The members did because when he came on board as their pastor they told him don’t fear the lack of money, don’t look at the empty pews, don’t worry about the budget. “We have decided to put our trust in God and God alone,” they said. He then told me their mantra became, “Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King.” That was all they needed to allow the Spirit to enter and transform them.
“Donna, they never once asked me as pastor to get children into the church. They never once asked ‘how do we fill our pews?’,” he said. “They just kept saying, ‘Jesus is Lord.'” To that I say, “Amen!”
My crazy dream of using technology to zoom pastors and the word of God into people’s homes and other sanctuaries has become true. While I didn’t get the chance to actually launch it, I feel validated that it wasn’t as crazy as others thought.
I look over at my frozen turkey thawing on the kitchen counter. I am done feasting on fear. It’s time to sit down to the table of faith where a crusty loaf of bread is broken and in that act, my eyes once again open and see Jesus smiling, nodding a loving “yes” to me, saying, “Dream, live, fear not. I am with you.”
What will you be feasting on this Thanksgiving? Faith or fear?
Our Celtic Advent, which began Nov. 15, continues today, Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is the church’s New Year’s Eve, as it marks the end of one liturgical year and begins a new one that starts with us preparing for the birth of Jesus. On this Sunday we are reminded why Christ was born — to be a our Suffering Servant, our Crucified Lord, our Heavenly King. It is fitting to remember this as the Advent season gets into full swing and we make our way to the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The Celtic Advent is traditionally divided into two parts — the first focusing on Jesus’ first coming — his birth — and then the second half focusing on Jesus’ second coming. Today, here at the farm, we will focus on the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. I will share with you the beautiful Incarnation page, the most famous page, from the Book of Kells, the illustrated 8th century book Irish monks created. Also called the Chi Rho page, from the Greek letters representing Christ, the ornate and intricate detailing is a lot to take in. You can spend hours gazing at it and all of the symbolism hidden in plain sight. But what it reminded me of the most is that while Christ is my King, he is also my caring, humble, always-available, loving friend and brother. Yes, brother. I have spiritual royalty in my family tree. And so do you.
Let us begin our worship!
Blessings, Pastor Donna
1 An account of the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah,[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,[c]8 and Asaph[d] the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,[e] and Amos[f] the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.[g]
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah,[h] fourteen generations.
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
I was so intrigued — and excited — when I learned recently about the Celtic Advent, which starts on November 15. I love the season of Advent, but four weeks just never seems like enough time to fully embrace it, especially how Christmas festivities from decorating to caroling to shopping for presents overshadow the simplicity and joyful somberness (yes, joyful somberness) of Advent. There was a time when Advent mirrored Lent in that it was a full 40 days of preparing for Christ’s birth.
So, with our Scripture lesson from Titus — one of Paul’s three epistles written in 63 A.D. — I invite you to start a new tradition with me this year. I invite you to an early Advent.
Blessings, Pastor Donna
Titus 2:11-13 (New Revised Standard Version)
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The idea of returning to the lost art of mending has been on my mind for a while now, but this week it just seemed so perfect to talk to you about it and imagine our spiritual needles and thread stitching what is ripped in our lives — and our country.
And so with God’s Word speaking to us through Ecclesiastes 3, who tells us to everything there is a season, we explore entering a season of learning how to sew/how to mend all that is torn.
This video was filmed before the election was called, so there is a moment where I mention the votes were still being counted. It was my parents who called me with the good news as I was editing our worship service. As I cried, I realized my tears of joy were being joined by those who cried tears of sadness. And while I might not understand those tears, I need to respect those tears as we turn our eyes to God. Now is the time to love, to listen, to respect, to sew.
My faith was faltering, but this week I realized something: No matter how far we fall from God, God is gracious, reaching out His arm to lift us back up. Let us reach back for that Divine hand.
Let us worship! Blessings, Pastor Donna
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version) For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
This country pastor has been quiet this election week: quiet, stressed, heartbroken, anxious, hopeful. I had no idea so many emotions could show up all that same time, but show up they did.
I must say, it has been tiring this election week. But unlike many of my ministry colleagues, I didn’t schedule vacation time. I should have, because getting work done has proven futile. It’s now the end of the week and nothing has been scratched off of my to-do list, which only adds to the stress swirling all around me.
No, I wasn’t mindful in creating self-care rituals for this week. I didn’t schedule any time to do something joyful for my soul. I had every intention to churn some butter in my 18th reproduction butter churn. That always makes me feel better. I waited too long, though, and my churning therapy went right down the drain with the curdled cream.
I was also going to take an online yoga class. Light a candle and allow my body and soul to melt into a beautiful oblivion. That didn’t happen either. Instead, every night this week I pried myself from my desk — accomplishing nothing — to go for run, forgetting that daylight savings time had ended. A dark wooded trail is a great motivator in turning your leisurely run into a frantic sprint. With every rustle and crunch of leaves, I envisioned the worst: a bear, a coy dog — Big Foot? (Don’t laugh. A rural town just over the Vermont border claims to be home to Big Foot, even holding a Big Foot festival every summer.) No, not even my time of exercise could qualify as self-care.
I was far from kind to myself. I was especially harsh to racing mind, yelling at it to focus. “What’s wrong with you, mind? Work. Be productive,” I would tell it. It didn’t help. If anything it made my mind huff away. It was not good because this was the week I was faced with several self-imposed impossible deadlines. I thought if I challenged myself, and if I met them, I would feel better. I would feel in control. I would have a sense of accomplishment. You can guess what happened. I failed miserably. Oh, and my mind is still giving me the silent treatment.
This morning, though, I struggled to get my worn out body out of bed early. I wanted to see the sun rise. Bleary-eyed and achy, I made a cup of coffee and sat on my old stone well. I watched, and I listened. I listened to God speak in the sound of a bird, in the honking of geese flying low and in the ardent moo’s of my neighbor’s cows wanting to get to the field that promised them their breakfast. And then it happened. The faintest of light emerged and grew stronger as the sun’s rays yawned and stretched over the hills.
It’s been a stressful election week, and the stress is not over — nor is the healing work this country needs to do. I never thought I would say I live in a United States that is not united, but here I am — and here is the sun still rising, and here is God still speaking, and here is grace still saving us.
For those who worship virtually with me at Old Stone Well Farm, this morning I couldn’t help but to sing the song from our time together two weeks ago…
I can see a light that is shining for the heart that holds on...
For the first time in weeks, months, dare I admit these past few years, I find my faltering faith steadying…”And the light shines in darkness; and the darkness cannot overcome it.” John 1:5
My heart is holding on.
A light shining on the Vermont trail I run on. Yes, that is snow.
Let us now prepare for worship! Blessings, Pastor Donna
When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.