Do Not Be Afraid

Scripture lessons: Psalm 138, Luke 5.1-11

Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
      – Psalm 138.8 (New Revised Standard Version)

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by Ed Horstmann

One of the great saints of the church was Teresa of Avila—a Spanish woman who lived during the sixteenth century. Renowned as an energetic reformer of the church and a trustworthy friend to all who knew her, she wrote the following words: Let nothing upset you, let nothing frighten you; everything is changing, God alone is changeless; patience attains the goal; who has God lacks nothing, God alone fills all her needs.

St. Teresa was saying that the consistent love of God for the earth and all people is intended to give us courage to live with strength and vision in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. The steadfast love of God endures forever, says the author of Psalm 138. Thus whether we experience illness or doubt or uncertainty about the future, this love abides and is ever available to us. “On the day I called,” writes the psalmist, “you answered me; you increased my strength of soul.”

Despite changes of political whim and social upheaval, the word of God is “do not be afraid.” It is that call to boldness that undergirds the words of Jesus when he tells his prospective disciples to “put out into deeper water.” The deep waters of risky loving and hopeful living are where we shall be sustained by a God whose love is unending. 

Prayer: O God of love, grant us a full measure of your presence, that we may not fear the changes around us and within us, but embrace those things about our world that make for peace and justice; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Plotting Goodness

Scripture lesson: Exodus 1.8-2.10
The midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
                            Exodus 1.17     New Revised Standard Version

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by Ed Horstmann

Our daily conversations are frequently seasoned by the appearance of the word good. Parents remind their children to be good; in the evening hours a loved one might ask us if we had a good day; and students will often speak of good teachers. It would seem that concerns about becoming a good person and enjoying the goodness of life are at the heart of what it means to be fully alive.

Interestingly enough, Jesus refused to be called good, reserving that designation for God alone. Yet surely he wanted us to express the goodness of God, as a clear glass of water allows light to pass through it. The goodness of God, radiating through the word or action of another is nothing less than an experience of sheer grace.

The Bible is full of people who are not always good in a purely moral sense, but who do uncommonly good things for others, and often without reason or hope of reward. Midwives in ancient Egypt deceived Egypt’s king and helped Israelite women to give birth to their children. Pharaoh’s own daughter rescued an infant boy who would grow to be the leader of a nation.

Where people choose the good, God is active and alive, further enhancing the goodness of a world created in love.

Prayer: O gracious God, restore in us the confidence that our world is a good place in which to live and share life, and help us to be for others an expression of your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Fast Times, Slow Faith

“The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections — with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds.”
                                 Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed

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by Ed Horstmann

Some years ago I was playing tennis with a friend and he made an observation about my game: “You look like you are rushing all your shots,” he said. “Maybe you have more time than you think you have.”

He was on to something. Since that day, on the tennis court and in other areas of my life, I have tried to be aware of a deeply entrenched instinct to rush things. Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, academic, statistician, and public speaker, called this the urgency instinct, and sometimes it has great value. If I require the immediate intervention of an Emergency Medical Technician, I want that person to act quickly and decisively. On a much larger scale, planet earth is stressed out from centuries of human abuse, and the time is now for healing those wounds.

But even where urgent action is required, it is not wise to be rushed or hasty. The times when we feel that we have no time may be precisely the times when we most need to slow things down as much as possible; to think clearly and explore the options available to us before choosing a course of action. I believe that for a majority of the time available to us we have time, and can take time, and can make time to nurture our relationships and make good decisions. Because when we are not rushed we are more relaxed, and can enjoy what we are doing, and can experience time as a gift to be received rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

I think that fast times call for a slow faith: time to simmer and savor, ponder and pray. So when I’m out for a walk and find myself rushing along without looking around, I slow down, or stop altogether, and listen. What is nature saying to me? What is God saying to me through the lavish abundance of that world?

Fast times call for a slow faith: a faith that can call me to slow down my instincts to judge others too quickly or harshly, to rush to form an opinion before considering the facts in play, or to respond with roiling emotions when other alternatives (deep breathing!) are available.  Maybe slow faith is the antidote to road rage!

I’ve been reading my way through the biblical book of the Gospel of Mark: one verse per day. That gives me time to memorize the words so they can linger with me as I move through my daily responsibilities.

When I feel like I’m out of time, that’s a cue to slow the day down, to realize that I might have more time than I think I have. And even though the future of the planet is in peril, I am taking time to talk and think with others about the best way to dedicate my energy and resources to positive and impactful change.

“Much better to do fewer things and have time to make the most of them,” writes Carl Honoré.   For those who seek deeper connections with God, with others, with themselves, fast times call for a slow faith.

Response-ability

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.                – Margaret Mead

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by Ed Horstmann

When I was in sixth grade, I was a student at Iroquois Middle School in Niskayuna, New York. Along with my classmates I received a memorable introduction to the damage that human beings were inflicting on the environment. Through films and field trips and class presentations I was ushered into an awareness of my role as a steward of the earth and its resources. Every student in our school was given a copy of the book The Environmental Handbook, full of densely argued articles that told a grim history of human interaction with the planet and warned of worse to come.

Over the years I have dipped into The Environmental Handbook only occasionally, and its pages have yellowed in the place where it rests on a bookshelf in my home. But that initial message of my response-ability with respect to the future of planet earth has never waned, and its presence has prompted me to seek other voices of wisdom in my search for ways to leave a legacy of hope for future generations. In more recent years I have become even more engaged by the issue of environmental justice and have been inspired by members of our congregation for whom this issue is now a primary focus of attention.

Perhaps you, too, are thinking about how to make decisions and establish priorities that can bring good news to the creation and to those who will follow us. Perhaps you are already feeling called to live in a way or to take an action that will help you to become a greater force for good; not just to develop a green thumb but a green faith. You may also be feeling uncertain about the future and even more uncertain about how to engage such a vast challenge as climate change, or even whether changes in human behavior are possible. I am quite sure that if you are having any of these feelings, or all of them at once, you are not alone. I, too, am finding my own way through this thicket of thoughts and feelings.

I would welcome your thoughts or dreams, your ideas and your concerns as you contemplate the question of our response-ability on behalf of mother earth. Please write to me at egh@roundhillcommunitychurch.org. And I believe we can create the space together where a small group of committed citizens can be part of the change that the world needs most.

Our Wilderness Journeys

            Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness
                                                       – Matthew 4:1 (NRSV)

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by Ed Horstmann

My childhood home was the last house on a dead end road in a small town in upstate New York. Beyond our house the world, as seen through my young eyes, was a wilderness: dense forest occasionally opening up into meadows, followed by more forest. It was an exhilarating and sometimes frightening place for a young boy.

The wilderness can be desert, vast woodland, a mountain range, or even an experience of life that feels uncharted and unexplored. It may well be a harsh and threatening landscape, and yet can also be a place where we learn new skills, discover inner strength, and come to know the support of unseen hands. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were born in the wilderness spaces of the Middle East. It was into the wilderness that Jesus went before he taught and healed and loved the world with his fierce and tender truth. It was a place of testing and discernment: an experience of settling into his love for God and the world.

Throughout life we may experience the wilderness in many forms, sometimes as a beautiful though forbidding landscape, and sometimes as a journey of profound transition. The good news of the gospel is that throughout all of these experiences, God is with us and for us. In marvelous and unforeseen ways, we are strengthened to walk in faith, with love, and energized by hope.

God of steadfast love, we give you thanks that you are known to us in the wilderness journeys of our lives, and pray that you will guide and strengthen us as we navigate the uncharted regions of faith, hope and love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Showing Up

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
– Thomas Mann

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by Ed Horstmann

This comment by the German writer Thomas Mann is a helpful reminder that there will not likely come a day for me when writing will suddenly seem easy. The craft of putting words together in ways that are both meaningful and pleasing takes time and effort. Writing is what writers do, and it cannot happen if the writer does not show up, and it has to happen even when we want to bolt and have done with the whole thing once and for all.

So much of life has to do with showing up and doing difficult things even, and especially when, we do not feel like doing them at all. The ministry of Jesus started with the act making himself available to the mystery of God and the beauty and terror of the world. So that even before the waters of baptism had dried on his forehead, he was cast into the wilderness for a time of testing and preparation.

“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And from the heavens came a voice saying, “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.”            (Mark 1: King James Version)

 So, at the outset of Jesus’ ministry there were beautiful moments of affirmation and terrifying days out in the wild. This is what faith looks and feels like. And none of it happens if we are not willing to show up. Just as Jesus would never once have reached out to others with his healing touch if he weren’t willing to show up where people were hurting and harmed.

Brené Brown, whose book The Power of Vulnerability has become a recent bestseller, has said that, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

This is what Jesus did at the outset of his adult life: he showed up and let himself be seen. Not everybody who made his acquaintance agreed with him or supported him. But by showing up, at his baptism and day after day until his death and through his resurrection, he brought the power of love into the world in a thousand different ways. We can show up like that, too. Doing so will bring satisfaction to us and hope and healing to the world where we live, move, and have our being.

A Thread to Follow

by Ed Horstmann

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Sometimes we lose our place in a conversation and have to admit that we have “lost the thread.” Sometimes we have a moment of awareness when we wonder if we have lost the thread of purpose that can give meaning to life.  These can be unsettling experiences. Yet they can also be used to bring a fresh orientation to what we do and who we are seeking to become.

In his poem, “The Way It Is,” William Stafford uses the image of a thread to describe the sense of purposeful direction that can give meaning to our words, actions, and decisions. “There’s a thread you follow,” he writes. “It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.” Despite all the swirling flux of circumstances in our lives over the years, he provides this straightforward counsel: “Don’t ever let go of the thread.”

When Jesus called people to follow him, he invited them to pick up a thread of purpose and direction that would bring them into closer relationship to God, creation, and their fellow human beings. He called this thread “the kingdom of God.” Unlike earthly kingdoms with borders and rulers, this world of God’s realm was more like a movement; something to be followed, enjoyed, shared, and held onto beyond the forces of fear and hatred that can diminish fullness of being. Jesus made the process of following this thread the core purpose of human life. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness” may well have constituted his first sermon. And perhaps this is the message that lies at the depths of every story he told and every word of instruction he imparted to others.

I’m using these early days of a new year to consider the thread of a Jesus way of life running through my own. I want to discover how I can be more deeply committed to a path that aligns with the mercy, truth, and passion for life that I see in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s a thread worth following through all of our days and beyond.

For further reflection:
William Stafford’s poem “The Way It Is” with a reflection by Parker Palmer

God Comes At Us Fast

by Ed Horstmann

“Life comes at you fast.” The Nationwide Insurance company used that line as the theme for a series of commercials that emphasized the importance of good planning for the future. The message is well worn but never worn out: since the circumstances of life can change quickly, with the future somehow always rushing to greet us, the best time to build a buffer against the unexpected is right now.

“Life comes at you fast.” Each character in the drama of the first Christmas could have used those words as a title to their memoirs. Mary received the news that she was about to become pregnant with a child whose life’s purpose was to be nothing less than divine.  While she ultimately said Yes to this unsolicited plan for her life, I’ll bet her first instinct was to look for the exits.

When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant (by another father, aka the Holy Spirit), he wanted out of the relationship. But an angel invaded his dream and told him to stay with the story because he had a crucial role to play in it. He chose not to bolt, but the surge of events must have made his head swim.

Because modern celebrations of Christmas are so much about keeping cherished traditions, and preparing for parties and gatherings that spice up the season, and developing just the right message and music for Christmas Eve services, we can overlook the spirit of surprise that was the heart of the first Christmas. At the heart of that story is the message that God comes at us fast. In the lives of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the Magi, God was not an insurance policy. God was the instigator of plans that threw their lives into disarray. 

The brilliance of Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, is that he managed to show Christmas as both a cherished holiday and the experience of God bursting into the lives of unsuspecting people. As we follow the story of Scrooge we glimpse people caroling in the streets of London, collecting for those in need, and preparing for Christmas dinner. Yet alongside that vision he showed us Christmas as an experience of new life, taking shape in a stingy man with too much worldly care. A Dickens Christmas may have included a turkey on the table, but it also showed us a sweaty and haunting night for Scrooge. And with all due respect for the angel who put Joseph on the right path as the adoptive father of Jesus, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future would have given me a lifetime of the heebie jeebies. 

A cherished Christmas tradition can be a way for God to open our eyes, touch our hearts, and breathe into us the energy of love. But Christmas is also the good news that God will sneak or break into the drama of history, with or without our consent, to bring possibilities of compassion and fresh faith precisely where they seem least likely to sprout. As God found a way to sneak love into the world through a peasant baby born on the fringes of the Roman Empire, God will find a way to bring mercy and peace and tenderness even and especially where we have established bulwarks of exclusion and hostility and brutality. In that sense, Christmas is always underway, a dream of a world at peace with itself, where abundance for all means scarcity for none. And in God’s eyes, if that dream has to enter the world again and again and again through the life of a baby born to a family that no one notices or cares about, except maybe by a few shepherds and stargazers, so be it.

For Mary and Joseph, the life of God came at them fast: but they chose to lean into that breathtaking wave of grace, rolled with it, and eventually anchored themselves sufficiently to become a sanctuary for a baby born to fill the world with hope. That peculiar grace of God is still alive and at large in the world, looking for room to work its creative power, enlisting accomplices wherever they can be found. Our beloved Christmas traditions are at their best when they point to the restless ache of God to have a home in our lives, and to infuse our lives with a peace so heart achingly sweet that we can not help but share it.

So thank God that God is always finding a way to comfort us and unsettle us, mobilizing a movement to heal the whole creation. To do so, God may come at us fast. Thanks be to God.

Preparing for Christmas on Round Hill

by Ed Horstmann

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In the weeks before Christmas the campus of Round Hill Community Church undergoes a quiet but profound transformation. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the pulpit in the sanctuary is removed, and week by week, a beautifully designed manger scene is installed—complete with crib for the Christ Child, hay for the animals, camels for the Magi, and a little lantern to chase away the darkness.

An Angel Tree is placed in the Parlor and on its branches are cards that include the names of children from Norwalk, with their simple wishes for Christmas. In the first two weeks of December members and friends of Round Hill Community Church purchase the requested gifts and place them beneath the tree where they remind us that the reason for the season is to reach out to the world with love.

In late November, the great tree in front of the Community House is strung with lights, and on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, the necessary electrical connections are completed, and those lights spring to life, announcing that Advent is near.

These physical changes to the campus are important to us who visit the space on a regular basis for worship, work, or to attend a program. They might catch the eye of those whose daily travels take them along Round Hill Road. Yet these subtle transformations will not merit much attention beyond the local community. And so it was with the first Christmas. In the backcountry of a vast empire, a profound transformation occurred; a child was born to a family with barely the means to sustain themselves, let alone a vulnerable baby.

And yet this seems to be the way that God loves to draw alongside our lives: off center rather than main stage, in the natural events and rhythms of life, in actions that add a little light here and there, and that make way for hope and generosity. God is with us and for us where we have prepared space to receive more love and faith and hope (even if those actions don’t make the news).

God is with us and for us as we dedicate ourselves and our resources to the well-being of the world. “Let it be to me according to your word,” said Mary to the Angel Gabriel when he delivered the news of her role in the unfolding dreams of God. “Let it be. . .” she said, as if to say, “Yes, I will make room for your life in mine, for your hopes in my hopes.”

As we transform our physical spaces to make way for the light and music and beauty of the Christmas season, may we be just as dedicated to the preparation of our interior lives, so that we can receive all that God intends for us, and bring light and life to others in whatever way possible. For as the old carol says, “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

A Gift from God

by Ed Horstmann

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Madeline L’Engle was a gifted writer whose imagination has inspired millions of readers across the world. She was also a dedicated person of faith who brought her skill with words to participation in the church. When she was asked about the initial inspiration that led to her life-long commitment to the Christian way, she said that it had a lot to do with how she encountered the stories of faith as a child. Her grandmother introduced her to the Bible by encouraging her to read it as a storybook. She was given space to marvel at the characters and imagine her life in theirs. In this way she came to be a creative reader of sacred stories and found ways to bring the drama of their lives in subtle and explicit ways into the many books that she wrote as an adult.

During these days leading up to Christmas, maybe the best gift we can give to ourselves is some time with a story of the first Christmas: to read it as if for the first time. Try reading it aloud, with or to others, in different accents or in an unfamiliar translation. Read it slowly, savoring every word, as if you had never heard it before, and let it find its way into your imagination . . . and into your faith.

Here is a link to the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel according to Luke . . . a gift from God for peace on earth and good will among all.