I’ve been thinking about sacrifice recently. It’s a common word in Christianity, but I wonder if we truly understand what it means to sacrifice. When we choose to sacrifice our time to volunteer at Alpha House or the Delonis Center, we’re giving up time that we could use to be doing something else in favor of doing something more important to us. When we choose to sacrifice our money to pledge to the church or to donate to charities, we’re giving up the potential to buy something that we might want or need in favor of supporting an important organization or cause. But a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice if it doesn’t cost us something.
During this pandemic, we’ve been forced to sacrifice so much that we didn’t want to give up, but we did it because we knew it was important and for the greater good. And now, the pandemic of systemic racism and white supremacy are more apparent to us than ever before. Now is the time to ask ourselves, are we, as white people, willing to make sacrifices for racial equity? Are we willing to sacrifice our privilege and power - not just for a few weeks or a season, but for life - in order to lift up all those who have been marginalized, dehumanized, and disenfranchised? Are we willing to sacrifice what we thought we knew in order to imagine a new world where justice reigns? Are we willing to sacrifice our comfort in order to abolish the colonizer, the oppressor, the cop in our own heads? Are we willing to sacrifice everything?
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple
must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it,
but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world,
yet forfeit their soul?’”
Holding you in love,
Rev. Andrew Frazier
Recently, I was up in Traverse City, a city open and welcoming guests back to town. How strange it was to sit in a restaurant and eat near other people, to put our masks on to walk to the restroom, to watch people walking down city streets with no masks. The world has changed. There were protests going on that day for George Floyd’s death, which both inspired and unsettled me. People — some with masks, some without — were yelling, shouting, raging for justice, waving signs calling for change. I applaud them. And I pray for them. Despite a deadly virus so easily spread, people are willing to die to fight for an end to this scourge of systemic racism, injustice and oppression. Exhausted, they have had enough. Fighting for truth and justice and equality is more important to the protesters than their own safety. They are willing to lay down their lives for their friends, their brothers, their fellow human beings, all children of God, equally cherished, equally loved. This a reckoning long overdue.
At a little gift shop in the hotel in which I stayed, a table of small trinkets was just outside the store in the lobby. There were small troll-like dolls, sweatshirts from Latin America, dangly earrings, and fur-lined eye-glass holders. A plate of small teddy bears sat in the center of the table. Most of the items appeared hand-made, and perhaps produced by the woman who owns the shop. By each small item, the shop’s owner, and the creator of these pieces, had hand-written a tag. One said, “Cute little dolls. $2” Another said, “Precious teddy bears, $7.” Another said, “Beautiful eye-glass holders, $12.” Another said “Sweet little hair sticks, $8.” Every tag was hand-written in a type of cursive that reminded me of my grandmother. I was mesmerized! For every item, the owner had chosen an adjective. I was fascinated, but also judged. Frankly, those eye-glass holders were not beautiful to me, they were kind of unique, and old-fashioned. The dolls weren’t cute, they were odd. The teddy bears were overpriced. What adjectives would I have used if I were selling those things? What words would I choose?
These were her words, and those were her feelings about what she’d created. Those were her descriptors, her adjectives. I picked up these little tags. I pondered these little tags and these particular words.
Through our recent Climate Change series, our diverse congregants made comments. I listened closely. Many of you were encouraged and uplifted. Others were put off by the tenacity by which we stuck to the topic week after week. A few were offended when our guest preacher used specific and pointed examples of what we must do in the world today if we care about saving the planet. I can’t tell you how you should feel, nor would any of us try. Our goal is to get you listening to your own self with the ears of the Holy Spirit, to look at the globe with the Holy Spirit’s eyes and compassion, to hear what the Spirit might be saying to you — through our series — about how to tend and cherish all of God’s creation, and to diminish our own needs for convenience, to reframe how we use the world, and how we give back to this bright globe upon which all God’s creatures live (and many are being made extinct). Our goal is for you to think of your adjectives, pick them up, and ponder them. Maybe, even change them.
As I watch the unfolding protests, I think of the adjectives I used to name the ongoing protests. Inspiring protestors! Brave souls! Committed Activists! Fierce Warriors for Justice! Those are the words I use. Those are the feelings I choose. I think of some of my racist family members who happen to live in the deep south, and I imagine some of my relatives would use different words for those who protest, not kind words, and not positive words. I’m not alone. Many of us know places not only where ignorance and racism have a deep hold, but where it is acceptable to be spoken aloud, uttered at dinner tables where children gather, spewed into the atmosphere as viral particulates that keep the disease of racism spreading.
No matter what words my relatives use, it’s not the language only that needs to change. It’s not even a momentary opinion of what is going on. A present assessment of our climate issues or racial injustice isn’t worth much — but a deep, courageous dive into the murky waters of our own part in the problem as individuals and a culture that bravely considers doing what God always does best — a new and different thing. Words and opinions do reveal much to us. They point to what is in our hearts. And what is there should spur us into action, with no rest for the weary until we arrive at the Promised Land.
What is in my heart was birthed in a home that was nurturing and nourishing, but was often visited by people with vile and hateful opinions, some whom I’m ashamed to know. What remains in me? What adjectives are more than words, but are feelings, that have wrapped around my desire to become aware, wise, compassionate, righteous, and just — and keep me from moving in the direction God calls me? What’s in my heart and soul that’s holding me back? There’s nothing adorable, cute, or precious about our prejudices and biases. If I could see my own laid out on a table, I would carefully choose adjectives to describe them. I would name those deep biases and prejudices. Unacceptable. Intolerable. Disgusting. And I would do the work to end them, and walk away from the table hand in hand with the one who loves me enough to give me a new way — the Word, the best Word, the Holy Word.
Peace be with you,
Rev. Melissa Anne Rogers
I’ve noticed a lot of people putting quotation marks around the word “see” lately. While I understand that we as the church are no longer “seeing” one another the way we’re used to, I find this use of quotation marks limiting. The word “see” has a multitude of meanings: to perceive, to view, to discern, to recognize, to ascertain, to visit, to escort, to read. Although we don’t see one another during worship anymore, we can see the number of people currently worshiping with us on YouTube. Yes, it’s not the same as walking into the sanctuary and seeing familiar faces, but it is what we have right now, and it is enough.
How many of you are scrunching up your faces because of what I just said? Believe me, I get it. Virtual worship and Bible study is not the same. Sharing a meal through FaceTime is not the same. Making pastoral care visits by phone or text or email is not the same. But it is what we have right now, and it is enough. How much are we not seeing because things are different? The word “see” is a verb. It requires action and engagement. It is not remotely passive. It’s why Jesus said these words in Matthew 13:
“But blessed are your eyes,
for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
Truly I tell you,
many prophets and righteous people
longed to see what you see, but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
So here is my invitation to all of us: see. Let us go and see what we can see. Let us put on our spectacles and see the wonder of creation laid bare before us. Let us see the joy of human love and connection in the phone calls and texts and emails that we receive. Let us see the injustice in the world right in front of our faces. Let us see the path God continues to lay before us. Let us see each other more clearly. And let us see that what we have right now is enough.
Holding you in love,
Rev. Andrew Frazier
I’m so grateful for Rev. Frazier’s words in the last blog post; they were an invitation to listen deeply. As I sat with a cup of tea while I watched and listened to the rain this weekend, I listened. I listened to the drops hit the pavement outside. I listened to my wife typing at her computer. I listened to the small flicker of the candle that sat on the coffee table near me. I listened as I heard my dog snore softly near the front door. I listened to the rhythm of my own breathing.
Today I was reminded of this moment, this small ripple in a day filled with to-do lists, sound bites on the airwaves, and Zoom calls. I was reminded of it when I read these words from a favorite poet of mine:
“Watching the wind in trees, I think of how spirit and inspiration both come from the same word: spīrāre [Latin, verb] ~ to breathe.”
I hope that wherever you are, whenever you read these words, that you find space in the day to simply sit and breathe. Listen deeply, breathe deeply, and open yourself to that still, small, voice that speaks these words:
You are beloved. You are enough.
I find great release in poetry. Reading these honest words causes me to slow down, listen, and breathe. I invite you to check out Pádraig Ó Tuama’s podcast, Poetry Unbound (he’s the one who said those words above), where he reads some of his favorite poems and shares a few thoughts. You can find the podcast by clicking this link.
Friends, you are beloved. You are enough. The Peace of Christ be with you.
I hope to "see" you soon!
Grace y paz,
Rev. Mark Mares
How deeply do you listen?
As you go about your week, I encourage you to set aside time each day to do nothing but sit and listen. Listen to your home - the buzz of the refrigerator, the creaks of settling wood, the sounds of your pet or child or partner. Listen to music, an entire album if you can - an album you love but haven’t listened to in a while or an album you’ve never heard before. Listen to the world - the wind rustling the trees and flowers, birds calling to one another, the falling rain, the rumble of thunder, the crack of lightning. Listen to your loved ones both near and far - the stories of their days, their unspoken words, the love in their voices. Listen to yourself, to your heart, to your soul. Listen to God - listen for that still, small voice. Just listen.
What do you hear?
Holding you in love,
Rev. Andrew Frazier
When I was a child, I loved working on art projects and refinishing furniture with my mother.
Mom and I created all kinds of art together. Although I never went to art museums while
growing up, I give thanks to my mom for developing my love of beauty in the world. The
projects may have been small, but they brought joy to others. I believe that is what art does - it
brings joy and deeper meaning into the mystery of our faith.
When I was completing my Masters Degree in Practical Theology at Columbia Theological
Seminary, I had to produce a final project of art for one of my elective classes, Worship and the
Arts. As a musician, I thought about planning a hymn festival, since that was something I had
done many times. I decided instead that I should stretch myself and create an art piece. I knew
immediately what I was going to do. I would fold a thousand origami cranes out of red, yellow,
and orange paper and hang them on a white dove-shaped wooden frame to suspend over the
chancel on Pentecost Sunday. I began folding origami cranes and praying for people while I
folded them. When the time came to present my project to the class, I folded a crane for each
of my classmates with a written prayer on the inside of the origami paper.
I now find myself in the midst of virtual church folding origami cranes and praying for the
vulnerable people in our world who have been affected by Covid-19 and also for us, FPC
members, friends, and staff who are separated and isolated in these days of shelter in place. As
a new staff member I am very sad not to have been in community for Holy Week and Easter,
one of my favorite liturgical weeks in the life of the church. So, as I continue to fold these
cranes, know that I am lifting each of you in prayer as we live in this new (though hopefully
May the peace and comfort of Christ be with you.
I was talking with a friend of mine the other day. She talked about how their family was managing the disruption to their life -- navigating kids at home, while trying to work from home as well -- it’s a lot, and it is really hard. I’m sure you in some way or another have felt this struggle. My friend shared with me that earlier that day her 10-yr old daughter broke down and had a 40 minute tantrum. At the end, she went and sat on the couch and said, “I miss going to school. I miss my friends.” There’s a lot packed into those two short sentences, and the pain that came before it. Her daughter’s response may seem out of the ordinary, but the truth, is that it speaks to the emotions that not only our young people feel, but many if not most of us might be experiencing. As a youth worker, I try to help young people name their feelings, and learn how to respond in healthy ways. What are ways you “regulate” your emotions?
There is a great podcast that I have really enjoyed listening to from Brene Brown called, Unlocking Us. In a conversation with Dr. Marc Brackett, they talk about how we as a society do a pretty terrible job at navigating how we really feel (“we have been trained to fake our feelings, we mask them”). It is a really great conversation, and I invite you to listen to it. And know that it is ok to feel whatever it is your feeling. We’re living in an unprecedented moment. My prayer for you is that you are able to find some rest and care in this moment. Be gentle and have compassion with yourself.
I leave you with this "mantra" from Kate Bowler.
God is here.
We are loved.
It is enough.
I hope to "see" you soon!
Grace y paz,
Rev. Mark Mares
A few years back as I completed the Direct Commission Officer Indoctrination Course in Newport, RI, I had the opportunity to tour the oldest ship still afloat: The USS Constitution. Old Ironsides, as she is also known, was launched in 1797. She is a wooden, three-masted heavy frigate – one of the six original frigates in the US Navy. I toured the ship and viewed the tight quarters, the rope systems that were used (blind) below deck to steer the ship, and the other features and compartments. As we made our way down to the gunpowder compartment, the sailor giving us our tour stopped us and told us we were about to touch one of the only remaining original – unrepaired pieces of the ship. We set foot on a piece of wood about two feet wide right outside the gunpowder compartment. It didn’t look like much…but it was the keel of the ship that we were standing on. It’s the part of the ship that is least visible but most important. It is the backbone of the ship. Without it none of the rest of the ship would be held together. A ship with holes in the hull might very well sink, but were it brought to the surface, it could be repaired and put back out to sea. A ship with a broken keel…you’d have to build a whole new ship.
I’ve thought a lot about that moment spent standing on the keel of that old ship. There was something profound about it; something I think that we can carry with us today. We are living in a time and space when a lot of things are trying to punch holes in our hulls. This virus has so many implications for how we live, and what life will look like going forward. It threatens our health and our lives as an infectious disease, but it also threatens our economy, our livelihood, and in many ways our very identity. It is one of those moments in time that we will always remember. Years later someone will ask us where we were when the Covid pandemic hit and we will all be able to say exactly where we were. More than that, we will be taken back and experience all of the feelings we are currently experiencing all over again. There is so much threatening our hulls, but some of those holes will be able to be repaired. But what about our keels? What is your backbone? What is the foundational structure upon which your entire being is built? Another way to ask that question is, what is your identity based upon?
For so much of my life, I have identified myself by what I do: student, daughter, sister, chaplain, athletic trainer, pastor, sailor, athlete, etc. All of those things are part of my identity, but when I stop to think about the backbone of my identity, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that none of those things are really the backbone of my identity, and if they are, I’m in for a world of trouble…because all of those things by which I identify myself are transient things. They are temporary. If I were to make any one of those things my backbone and were it to be taken away, on what would I have to stand? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I have realized that my identity, my very livelihood, is my faith in God. If my Keel is the Creator of the universe – the one who ordered the stars and planets into orbit, who made all life and called it good – then I can live in these days with hope, even if my hull (body) is to be destroyed. That is the beauty of faith. When our faith forms the backbone of our identities, even when things get hard, even when we are afraid, even when we don’t know what is going to happen or how things are going to turn out, the one thing we can rest assured of is that God is God. God loves us more than we can imagine; God crafted each of us in God’s own image and claims us as God’s own beloved children. Now that is a foundation on which I can stand. Like the keel of Old Ironsides, it stands the test of time. So as we continue on this CoVID journey, may we remember the foundation on which we are built. May we call to mind the keel of our being and find comfort in the one who is love.
God be with you,
Rev. Amy Ruhf
This week the Session welcomed 11 new members to our congregation, our Confirmation Class of 2020. As their teacher and fellow traveler, I journeyed together with them since we began in September, always asking questions on our quest to discover what it means to be a disciple of Christ and a member of this congregation.
I invited them to answer our Big Ten Questions, which are some of the key questions that bind us together as fellow travelers on this journey. They are:
Who is Jesus? Describe his relationship in your life.
What is worship? Why do we worship God?
What does the Bible reveal to us? What does it say about who God is?
What is communion? Why do we take communion together?
What is a favorite Bible verse (or story) of yours? What does it mean to you?
What is grace? Why is it important?
What is a Messiah(Savior)? Why do we need one?
What does the word Presbyterian mean? Who are the leaders of the Presbyterian church?
What was your favorite thing you learned in confirmation class this year?
I want to join First Presbyterian Church because…
They came up with some creative responses.
Who is Jesus? The one who is immune to sin.
What does the Bible say about God? God is all-knowing and all being.
What is grace? Grace is Jesus’ superpower.
Why do we need a Messiah? To break the cycle of violence.
Why do you want to join First Pres? I want to be able to help people; this church helps people a lot.
How might you answer some of these questions? Remember: the quest is in the question, and we are fellow companions on this journey of faith.
Rev. Evans McGowan
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
In October of my first year in seminary in New Jersey, an arsonist came through parts of Florida, setting churches ablaze. On October 21, he came to my hometown, Lake City, Florida, and to my home church, First Presbyterian Church. He torched the sanctuary and part of the educational building, just as he’d done with other churches in the area. Our church was decimated.
My mom called me with the news. I burst into tears. She mailed me the newspaper articles with photos, and when I opened them, the tears fell hard again. It was devastating. I had spent ten years of my life in Sunday School class there, memorizing the order of the Bible’s great books and winning ribbons for perfect attendance, sitting in a circle on couches with my middle and high school friends and our cool youth pastor, leading worship from the sanctuary and singing in the choir. My pastor’s father had been the Senior Minister there for 30 years, and then his son for the next 30. The Montgomery family had shaped our town deeply and forever — even today there are many streets and buildings named after those kind and holy folks. My pastor’s wife was my piano teacher and I gave my Senior piano recital in the church’s Social Hall. It was in those old wooden pews where I sat with my dad every Sunday, trying to keep him from falling asleep. It was where my sister got married to her husband, me standing up with her as her maid of honor. A schizophrenic drifter was eventually — the following February — found guilty of setting 16 churches on fire over a 3-month period. There was no reason ever stated, no pattern to what he did, no beef he had to grind with God or religious folks. He was just sick.
Though I was far away from Florida that next Sunday, unable to fly home to be with our family of faith, I was certainly with my fellow members in spirit the next Sunday morning when they gathered on the grounds, far away from the building, huddled in a corner of the parking lot, still close enough to see the ashes still smoldering, and breathe in the smoky air. It was the only time they gathered there before moving to an out-of-business tuxedo rental shop in our local mall. The first time I preached for my home congregation after a few seminary classes, it was in that makeshift chapel where a collective of men’s fancy suits once hung. It was church at the mall — and a place they would call home for 2 years. But as they gathered there, that first Sunday after the fire, my mom told me that the Rev. Dr. Montgomery had preached on the passage above from 1 Peter. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you.”
I remember asking myself whether I thought God sent a fire to test our community, to test Christians, to sharpen our faith. Hogwash. I didn’t believe that for a second. But the passage was compelling, and it did speak truth. For we were being tested by the fire, and we would be for several years — trying to keep our staff active and engaged with members, raising funds to get us beyond the insurance money that would rebuild the bricks and mortar, caring for those heartbroken by our loss. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals at the mall were challenging, for sure, and they required creativity in our celebrations of life and death. But God wasn’t the one testing us. The fire tested us. One man’s mental illness and the lack of the resources and care he needed tested us. And by sticking together, hearts and hands united, justice and mercy joining hands, he went to jail and got treatment. We rebuilt. Two years later, I preached just after my graduation from seminary and entered ordained ministry. By then, I knew — ministry would be fraught with pain and peril, and that the church had great value in times of struggle. Pastors and preachers are called to speak to our hearts in a time of need, to uplift, to support, and to guide. When things are good, when life is calm, when the economy is great, when Americans unite around common moral themes and spiritual values, when there is no pandemic — we coast a bit. But when we are in pain, and when we are facing our greatest trials — we best be ready to practice what we preach. We must be sure of what we hold in our hearts — faith in a time of trial, the ability to accept uncertainty and doubt, the willingness to embrace questions and simply say, multiple times, “I do not know, but God is here, and we are loved.”
Annie Dillard, American non-fiction writer and novelist, turns 75 on April 30, the same day my newest granddaughter turns 1. The author of another blog posting wrote this about her — “You’ll likely know her for her memoir of her time living along a creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1975. In this masterful book, Annie wove first-hand observations and marvelous facts about the natural world with reflections on theology and literature. Here’s how the book begins: “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. But here’s the kicker: Dillard decided to omit from her masterpiece several things about her life, including the fact that she lived in the house with her husband (a writing professor), and that the house wasn’t a Walden-in-the-wilderness, much less a hermitage, but rather was located in a conventional suburban development in Roanoke, with a backyard that sloped down to a little stream. Many reviewers (and readers) mistakenly assumed Dillard wrote while living alone in a remote cabin in the woods. In the end, this isn’t sleight-of-hand so much as a splendid act of imagination: through Dillard’s eyes, we can see how “wilderness” - and the quality of mind wilderness can provide - is actually all around us, even in suburbia!”
Friends, our anchor-hold is not available to us just now, not in the same way. And boy, are we in a wilderness time, one that looks different from any woods we’ve been in before. But like Annie, it is up to our imagination to bring church alive — in our hearts, in our community, on our screens, out in nature. We need our splendid imaginations to remember our anchor-hold of First Pres, but also to realize we are not tethered to a building, sanctuary, or time or day of worship. Imagine with me what church will look like for months, most likely, to come. Remain open in your mind and your heart and your spirit. Imagine. That’s what will help us when life does begin to take baby steps towards a new normal.
The Coronavirus is testing us. Most days I don’t feel much like rejoicing about it, but I do rejoice in this. Our Lord who suffered, suffers with us, and understands. Our Lord who died and rose, will see us to rise someday from the ashes of this virus. Our Lord who reigns in power for us empowers us to grow, to learn, to endure, and despite the suffering we see and know, even to rejoice.
Peace be with you,
Rev. Melissa Anne Rogers