By Name

By Name

Dear Friends,

The reaction was swift and strong. It was the first Sunday after a presidential election and in our congregation’s prayers we prayed for the president and vice president-elect: “For Barack and Joseph . . .”

“How dare you!” were the first words out of her mouth at the door. “How dare you treat our elected leaders with such disrespect!” And she stormed out of the building.

Disrespect? How?  Praying for newly-elected leaders? Praying for their protection and health? I was confused. It did not take long for me to learn the nature of my disrespect (my critic had not been shy in sharing her displeasure). The problem was this: I had used their first names rather than their titles in prayer.

The kerfuffle became a teachable moment about prayer. When we pray, we come before God not with the designations we wear in the world—president, pastor, brick layer, widow—but as children who are known by name. That is how I pray for you—by name. That is how I pray for our elected leaders—Donald, Mike, Mitch, Nancy. I would never address them that way in person or publicly, but to God? In God’s eyes, we are loved regardless of our station in the world, each of us known by name. And we kneel side-by-side in God’s presence by name—all of us sinners in need of mercy.

It’s all about names this Sunday, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord. From God’s promise to Israel: “Do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” (Isaiah 43.1-7) to the Spirit’s announcement at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved,” (Luke 3.15-17, 21-22) each of us called by name.

But before we gather in the sanctuary for worship, we invite you to a conversation about the importance of names. And the name-less. We have invited John Bair, member of Ascension and psychologist, professor and researcher with the VA, to deepen our discussion of homelessness at our fourth Vitality Talk (9:30 a.m., coffee and donuts provided). John met with our Strategy Team earlier this week to help us refine our questions about ways we might better engage this issue. We were wildly impressed with the depth of his knowledge and experience, and stunned at the seeming intractability of homelessness in our country. It was hard not to be overwhelmed by the complexities. But John is a wise and patient teacher. Seeing our distress, he stepped back, describing ways in which he and his colleagues at the VA work with the homeless veterans in their care: “First, we learn each other’s names.”

Learn each other’s names? Aren’t there more pressing matters? Mental health issues. Moral injury. Substance abuse. The lack of affordable housing. Social stigma.

Where did John learn that simple, life-changing lesson? In part, from years of professional experience, but also as a believer in God’s promise: “Do not fear. I have called you by name.” Please join the conversation Sunday—it will be well worth your time and attention.

Our children will enjoy Children’s Music at 9:30; Godly Play at 9:45. We will gather for Worship at 10 a.m. by the light of the Epiphany Star that still hangs over our font, under the Wise Men’s welcome we chalked last Sunday: 20 + C M B + 19, in the company of brothers and sisters whom God knows by name.

As I write, we still suffer under a partial government shutdown as our elected leaders search for an acceptable compromise to the current impasse. Perhaps when we meet Sunday, this will all have been resolved—at least, that is my prayer. Please join me in prayer for those who hold our country’s future in their hands—pray for them by name. Please join me in prayer for the 800,000 federal employees and their families—some of whom we know—who bear the burden of this standoff.  Please join me in prayer for the thousands who are homeless—some of whom we know—and those, like John, who care for them.

A grade-school friend goes by the name “Abbey,” though her full name is Abigail Melissa Isabella.  I find her full name beautiful and elegant, but she calls it her “yelling name”—the name her parents shout when they are displeased with her or need her attention.

Each of us has a name. And regardless of how the world addresses us—by our yelling name or some other title—to God and among God’s people we are precious, honored, loved, known by name.

See you Sunday.

JoAnn Amanda

 

 

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Life is short. Life is long.

Life is short. Life is long.

Dear Friends,

I did a double-take when she said, “Remember, friends, life is short.”

Two mornings ago, I was sitting with my Mom during the morning Bible study at the care center where she lives. I had made a hurried New Year’s Day trip to see her, as her health declines and her life forces dwindle. The study leader was engaging a discussion of 1 John and the need to discern those who might welcome conversation about the gospel and those who don’t. It was a highly-nuanced argument, and I admired her insight and persistence. Sadly, the students in her Bible study were not so admiring. They were, instead, in various states of somnambulism—some nodding gently in the warm sunlit room, a few muttering quietly to themselves, and others full-on snoring. It’s not that she was boring, but that they are old. And tired.  And modestly confused. And ready to be done.

It was in that context that her comment, “life is short,” struck me ironic.

The Bible study leader is in the prime of her ministry—smart, energetic, thoughtful. There are clearly not enough hours in her days. But for everyone else in the room, my Mom included, life is dragging on far too long. The care center’s residents pray life to be short, that they might be released from the burden their bodies have become.

Life is short. Life is long.

Each is true. But each is not necessarily a gift.

This Sunday we celebrate Epiphany—a day on which we read of Academics from the East who visited Jesus in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2.1-12)  This odd little story is found only in Matthew’s gospel, awash in dream analysis and astrological anomaly. Learned men from an Eastern country had been tracking an unusual constellation—a King’s Star—when they stumbled into Jerusalem. Nosing around the city’s markets in search of the Jewish king whose birth the star announced, they were delighted to be summoned to the King’s palace. Surely the King would know! But the King was not delighted—news of a rival king on his turf was terrifying.

Though attuned to the movements of stars, the Wise Men were blind to the machinations of power. “Go, find this King and tell me all about it so I can worship him, too!” Herod exclaimed. But he lied. His only interest in the natal king’s location was to smother him in his sleep.

Buoyed by King Herod’s enthusiasm, they followed the star all the way to Bethlehem. There they knelt before the child monarch, offering gifts befitting a king. Meanwhile, Herod lay sleepless in his palace, awaiting word of his rival.

In the same way that the duration of life is a gift to some and a curse to others, the arrival of Jesus in our world was the answer to prayer for some and others’ worst nightmare. If Jesus is who the angels and shepherds and Wise Men—say he is, the powers of this world are right to be frightened. Jesus is a King who rules with kindness, who judges with mercy, who welcomes the weak, and feeds the hungry.  The Herods in our world may not fear Jesus, but they certainly scratch their bejeweled heads. No regent on earth rules that way.

Please join us for worship on the Festival of the Epiphany. Our Sunday School children will enjoy Children’s Music at 9:30, Godly Play at 9:45, and, as part of our offering, perform a procession of Royals bearing gifts. At the beginning of Worship we will bless our sanctuary entrance in the new year, and multiply the Wise Men’s joy.

Is life short? Yes, and life is long. It depends on who you ask.

Is Christ “King?” Yes, and he is threat. It depends on who you serve.

Blessed Epiphany,

Pastor JoAnn Post

An untimely answer

An untimely answer

Dear Friends,

Women hold center stage this Sunday. Two women—one near the end of her life, the other at the beginning. Two women, each of whom received a gift they had not asked for—pregnancy.

Elizabeth was the childless geriatric wife an equally-elderly temple priest. For all their married life they had prayed for the gift of a child, but to no avail.

Mary was a virgin teenager engaged to the village carpenter. They, too, hoped to have children but not now. Not yet. Not this way.

We know that Elizabeth carried a son named John, whom Isaiah had foretold: “A voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”  Mary carried Jesus, a child who, according to the angel would “be great, the Son of the Most High God.” On Sunday these unlikely mothers meet to share both their joy and their confusion.

The story of these two women and their faithful confidence is an Advent gift to those of us who struggle to trust God’s timing, God’s wisdom, God’s plan.

Please join us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent for the lighting of the last candle on our wreath and words of promise in our ears. Our children will gather at 9:30 a.m. for Children’s Music, and then at 9:45 a.m. for Godly Play, which this week includes Christmas costume drama. During worship at 10 a.m. we celebrate Advent Lessons and Carols, an opportunity to hear and sing the hopeful longing of the season.

We will meet again for worship on Christmas Eve, December 24:

Festival Worship and Children’s Pageant, 4:00 p.m.

Festival Worship with Baptism, 7:00 p.m.

Christmas Eve Vespers, 9:00 p.m.

The First Sunday of Christmas, December 30, will find us worshipping at Northfield Community Church. My colleagues Rector Lisa Senuta, St. James the Less Episcopal Church and Pastor Duayne Meyer, Northfield Community Church, will preside; I will preach. Supervised childcare will be provided and a Festive Reception will follow.

If Advent teaches us anything it is that God does not keep time the way we do, and that God always answers prayer, though often in unlikely ways.  I keep you close in my thoughts and prayers on these dark days of winter, praying God to lighten your life and your load.

Blessed Advent,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

A sad anniversary

A sad anniversary

Dear Friends,

I was home the morning the news broke, six years ago today. “Home” was Manchester, CT, where I served a congregation. The “News” was a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, just 50 miles away. First reports of the shooting were sketchy, as they always are in such chaotic circumstances.  How many dead and wounded? Who was the gunman? Did he act alone? What was his weapon? Was he dead or alive? What was the motive? Was this part of an orchestrated terrorist attack or a one-off?

My first thought was of my younger daughter, who was in school in Hartford. Almost as quickly as the thought crossed my mind, I received a text from the school indicating that the students were safe, and that they were in “lock-down” until the threat of danger could be assessed.  I have rarely hugged her with the ferocity I did after school that day. I had a daughter to hug; other mothers did not.

I accomplished nothing more that day, spending it glued to the television and on the phone with friends and colleagues. The stories that emerged from survivors and first-responders kept me awake for weeks. Even now, six years later, the senselessness of it leaves me shaking my head.

And here’s a second tragedy. We learned nothing from Sandy Hook. We are having the same conversations about guns and mental illness and public safety and personal responsibility and law enforcement and education that we have been having for years. I don’t think the issue is that people in positions of leadership don’t care, but that the problem is enormous; there is no “answer.” Like a maddening game of whack-a-mole, every possible answer begs even more questions. There is so much to do or that could be done, that we do nothing. “Analysis to paralysis,” a friend would call it. What then should we do?

The Third Sunday of Advent finds us on the banks of the Jordan River with John, son of Zechariah. (Luke 3.7-18)  We were introduced to him last week as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness. . .” This Sunday we are privy to John’s first public sermon, and it’s a barn burner. He calls his congregation a nasty name, mocks their Abrahamic heritage (“God could turn these rocks into Abraham’s children”), and threatens to destroy what remains of King David’s line (“Even now the axe is at the root of the tree”). Rather than running away or calling the police, the crowds press closer, absolutely enthralled with this foul-mouthed, sharp-tongued preacher.  “What then should we do?” they ask.

Though John’s criticism was broad (corruption, entitlement, faithlessness, economic inequity), he would not be intimidated by it. Instead, his answer was concise. And very personal. Rather than take on the entire military-temple complex, he addressed one sinner and one sin at a time, advising each listener to repent in a specific way with a single step. He instructed the wealthy to be generous; the tax collectors to be honest; the soldiers to accept their circumstances. He wasn’t interested in intellectual debate or massive cultural reform; he urged action—specific action, suited to the circumstance, suited to the sinner.

Ascension has chosen a specific action this Advent. Though a hundred agencies and issues compete for our attention, we have chosen a single task for the four weeks of the season. The Night Ministry’s mission is broad—providing housing, health care, outreach, spiritual care, and social services to adults and youth who struggle with homelessness, poverty, and loneliness. No congregation could address it all. But we asked them for a specific, concrete action that would make a difference. And they gave us one.

Our growing collection of waterproof outdoor footwear and warm sleepwear under The Night Ministry Tree is not an answer to the intractable problems faced by The Night Ministry’s clients; it is an action. It is a concrete action they desperately need and one for which we are uniquely suited.

There is no “answer” to the world’s sorrows, only more questions. But John, son of Zechariah, challenges us not to be overwhelmed but to act—in small, specific, intentional ways. Please join us Sunday as we take those small, specific, intentional steps together.

I was wrong earlier when I said nothing has changed since Sandy Hook. Small steps have been taken. Specific weaknesses have been addressed. Clarity and consensus have emerged in some places.  Lives have been saved and tragedies averted. Is it enough? No. But John would be proud of us. He didn’t challenge his hearers to change the whole world in one swell foop*. He asked them only to change their hearts and their direction—one step at a time.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

*spoonerism intentional

Restrain and Retrain Us, Lord

Restrain and Retrain Us, Lord

Dear Friends,

“Restrained.” That word has been used often to describe the character of President Bush the Elder’s term in office. “Restrained.”

After the danger and drama of the Reagan years, 41 was tasked with the careful implementation of initiatives he inherited, some of them perilous. One of Bush’s biographers said it more clearly than anyone else, “President Bush was critically instrumental in end of the Cold War not being the beginning of a world war.” To what did the biographer attribute that amazing feat? Calm conversations with world leaders. A steady hand on the wheel. A refusal to react. In other words, Restraint.

Another commentator contends that a man like George H.W. Bush could never be elected president again.  “His decency and restraint render him unpalatable in our political climate.” I pray he is wrong.

Regardless of what one may think of his presidency, most agree that he was a good and decent man, a man worthy of respect.

The dignity and restraint of the Bush presidency stands in stark contrast to another fraught political time in our history.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius . . .” The gospel reading for Sunday (Luke 3.1-6) plops us down in the middle of another dangerous and dramatic political era—the Middle East in the 1st century. After announcing the roster of world leaders (emperor, governor, rulers, high priest) Luke introduces us to John the Baptizer.  It was in the shadow of men of enormous power and prestige that camel-clad John the Baptizer stepped on to the world stage.

In stark contrast to our recently deceased, civil and restrained president, John the Baptizer was a Tasmanian devil.  He explodes from the pages of Luke’s gospel with an Isaiah prophecy that defies engineering expertise in any century.  The Expected One will tear up the tarmac—every valley will be lifted up, every high place leveled. Roads will be rerouted and the whole landscape revised. And these will not be subtle, measured, restrained changes. John the Baptizer is not one to tinker. “All flesh shall see the salvation of our God!” John the Baptizer promises that the Expected One will not be restrained or calm or civil.

As a purse-lipped New England acquaintance often whispers, judgmentally, under her breath, “There is a time and place for everything.” If that is true, when is the time for restrained leadership, and when is it time to shake it up? Where is the place to take measured steps and what terrains need to be detonated? How do we know whether it is the restraint or the roaring, the measuring or the mixing-up that is of God or simply the whims of human hubris?

We think about these things here at Ascension. We long for our feet to follow God’s paths, our words to reflect God’s desires, our actions to bring hope to the nations. But how? And when? And who is arbiter of the designation: Godly restraint or self-serving mayhem?

Please join us Sunday. At 9:30 our children meet in the Children’s Music Room to sing. At 9:45 a.m. they move to Godly Play. We will invite them to leave their shoes outside the classroom for St. Nicholas to leave treats. (St. Nicholas’ Feast Day was yesterday, December 5). And, if any adults wish to leave their shoes outside the sanctuary doors, St. Nicholas might find them, too.

Before worship (9:30 a.m.) adults gather for our third Vitality Talk—a fast-paced, coffee-and-donut fueled conversation about strategic directions for Ascension.  This Sunday we will reflect on a deepening relationship with one of our ministry partners, The Night Ministry.

Of course, we will Worship. Calmly. Quietly. One might even call it “restrained,” in a hopeful, Advent, Ascension sort of way.

And don’t forget. Sunday afternoon we revel in our Advent Christmas Concert—choirs, orchestra, carols. It is a wonderful, warm and inspiring afternoon of seasonal music.

Restrained.  I was in my car Wednesday at midday listening to the end of the President’s funeral.  I could hear the assembly rise to its feet for the recessional hymn. I held my breath as the opening chords of the Navy hymn soared through the speakers. “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose hands have stilled the restless wave . . .” Barreling down the expressway, tears running down my face, I sang with them—this slow, measured, respectful and honest hymn.

Today I give thanks for a leader of great restraint, praying that I might be granted such calm and dignified wisdom. And, in the same measure, I pray for John the Baptizer’s courage and clarity, his willingness to name names and level the disheveled.

Blessed Advent. The King is coming soon.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Darn you, Jodie Foster!

Darn you, Jodie Foster!

Dear Friends,

Jodie Foster ruined scary movies for me. Until “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) I enjoyed the occasional horror film, titillated by Freddy Krueger haunting his victim’s dreams or Jason stalking mischievous teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake.  But Clarice Starling? She ruined them all for me.

The scene that still gives me chills is near the end of the movie when FBI Agent Starling finds herself in the basement of serial killer Buffalo Bill. The basement is dark as pitch, laced with random obstacles, pocked by doors that lead to nowhere and random spider-webby walls.  She can see nothing, but we see everything through Buffalo Bill’s night vision goggles. Though I managed to sit through the rest of the movie, I had nightmares for weeks afterward.  Even now, I tremble at the thought of it. (My husband’s arm bore the marks of my fingernails for days afterward.)

What bothered me? Agent Starling was surrounded by danger, but did not know it. Her assailant was as near as her own breath, but she could not see him. Trouble in a dozen disguises surrounded her, but she was unaware of it. She stumbled through the darkness and almost directly into the arms of her enemy.

I want to know when trouble is coming. I want to know my enemy’s name. I want to prepare for potential danger. And I am not alone. A decades-old study of  anticipated vs. unanticipated trouble produced results that should not surprise us. Those who know trouble is coming, negotiate the trouble better than those who are unaware.  For example, if I had known Agent Starling would emerge victorious from Buffalo Bill’s basement, I would not have had to swallow my screams. I could have managed my fear because I knew what the darkness hid.  (This is not a universally-applicable rule, but worth pondering.)

The aphorism “Don’t surprise old people or pregnant women” applies also to me. I can face anything I can face. But to be blindsided?  (Swallowed screams.)

The distress planted by Agent Starling runs so deep in my being, that the scripture texts for the First Sunday of Advent elicit that same trembling fear. The first Sunday of the season is always devoted to texts about impending trouble and last days. From the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 33.14-16) to the Gospel (Luke 21.25-36) we are warned of trouble to come. But in ridiculously non-specific ways.  “The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah predicts. Jesus warns, “There will be signs. People will faint from fear. The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

When is the “surely coming day”, Jeremiah?

How will we know an “end times” sign from an ordinary seasonal sign, Jesus?

Could you be more specific, please?

All of scripture is filled with warnings of danger and promises of deliverance.  But nowhere is the danger time-stamped or the day of deliverance penciled on the calendar. Trouble will come. God will save. When? How? And, more important, how do we live in this maddening meantime?

The season of Advent anticipates three distinct events: the arrival of Jesus as a human child, the end of our own lives, and the great last day when we “stand before the Son of Man.” Most of us want to race to the manger, but before we do, we have to reckon with God’s non-specific time and the inevitable end of all things.

Please join us for the First Sunday of Advent and its anxiety-inducing images.  We believe the days are surely coming, but when? We long to be blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus, but how? We know that “that day” will come “like a trap for all who live on the face of the earth,” but how will we receive it?

And we pray that we will have the courage to face all the trouble—the immediate and the cosmic—as Jesus instructed his disciples. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is coming near.”

I know one thing I will not be doing this weekend. I will not be downloading “The Silence of the Lambs” on Netflix. But I also know one thing I will be doing. I will be eagerly anticipating our time together in worship, as we stand together in the face of all life’s troubles.

Trying not to tremble,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

Christ is King! Says who?

Christ is King! Says who?

Dear Friends,

Pope Pius XI universally instituted the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King in 1925 in his encyclical Quas Primas. At the time, secularism was on the rise, and many Christians, even Catholics, were doubting Christ’s authority, as well as the Church’s, and even doubting Christ’s existence. Pius XI, and the rest of the Christian world, witnessed the rise of dictatorships in Europe, and saw Catholics being taken in by these earthly leaders. (excerpt from “thepracticingcatholic.com”)

Though established almost a century ago, the concerns that gave rise to “Christ the King Sunday” are rising again. Across the world, we see a steady decline in interest in God and God’s work, and a frightening increase of nationalistic rhetoric, strong-arm dictators and disregard for human rights. Perhaps Pope Pius XI believed that by establishing an annual festival in honor of Christ the King, those trends would be curbed. But even as the Pope placed this new commemoration on the church calendar, myopic nationalistic fervor was boiling all around him, and would, within the decade, erupt in another world war.

Christ the King Sunday marks the end of the church year for us. Most years, it is a benign event marked by triumphal hymns and scripture texts reminding us of God’s power in our lives. But “benign” does not apply to the context of this year’s festival. Every day new concerns are voiced about abuse of power somewhere in the world. (see “Saudi Crown Prince involved in assassination” or “Michigan university president charged with lying.”)

How do Christians balance respect for elected leaders with faithfulness to their call as disciples of Jesus?  Who holds our leaders accountable when they seem to stray from concern for the common good? To whom do we hold final allegiance: the kingdoms of the world or the kingdom of God? These questions are not idealistic nagging, but are as old as the church itself. Remember when the Apostle Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome, a congregation living under Roman occupation: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13.1)  There was nothing benign about that imperative. Christ might have been their king, but Claudius was their emperor and he wasn’t willing to share the throne with anyone, not even the Son of God.

“Please,” you are shouting at your computer screen, “lay off the political rhetoric! Can’t you write about something pleasant for a change? Can’t you opine about Thanksgiving dinner and autumn leaves and football championships? Just once?”

Don’t worry. I won’t shout back at you. I struggle, too. The preacher must always strike a balance between competing claims, competing realities. Do we offer breathless hope or brutal honesty? Do we harp on sin or just hand out grace? Do we leave the world idling in the parking lot on Sunday morning, or invite it to sit next to us in the pew? How do we speak of the intersection—or collision—of the world’s ways and God’s ways?  When does the highly political nature of Jesus’ teaching tempt the preacher toward partisan musing?

I know many of you are either traveling this weekend or entertaining the masses in your own home. If you are able, please join us for worship this Sunday. I promise that Christ the King Sunday will be, for us, a joyful reminder of the power of God in and over and through all things. We will join the questioning and exude the confidence of Christians across the ages: “The Lord is King with majesty surrounded! The Lord our King shall reign forevermore!” (Psalm 93)

Whether in spite of or because of our complicated lives, I find myself deeply grateful. For my life, saturated with blessings. For you. For this blessed work. For the challenges we face, faithfully, together.

Pastor JoAnn Post