Showing Up

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

the baptism of christ

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

brilliant.gloom

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

k62a5022

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

nativity

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.

Some New Words for Advent

by Ed Horstmann

mary-with-ange-2l

Hope, peace, love and joy: beautiful words! During the weeks before Christmas, churches often explore these four voices of Advent, and light candles to turn us toward the brightness of what they can mean for a full and meaningful life.

But this year I wondered what it would mean to let go of the familiar traditions and focus attention on some different words for Advent. Why not light candles for these words: interruption, intrusion, confusion, and anger?  I know this does not sound like an activity that syncs well with the run-up to Christmas but here’s my logic.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, the key characters in the unfolding drama of his life experienced precious little hope, peace, love, or joy. Mary was startled by the presence of an angel who announced not just the coming of a savior, but the unsettling news that she was to be his mother: not much peace there! When Joseph was told the disturbing news that he was to be the father of this child, he sought to distance himself from Mary as quickly as possible: not much love there! When King Herod was told by visiting astrologers that they had seen the sign of a star that signaled the rising of a different kind of king, he was full of jealous rage: not much joy there!

For these characters in the first Christmas pageant, the birth of Jesus came as an unwanted interruption that inspired fear, brought confusion, and stimulated envy. What makes this story meaningful and foundational to our spiritual wellness is that Mary and Joseph and the Magi allowed their lives to align with the intrusive power. Mary loved the child even while questions of his origins remained unanswered. Joseph cared for the holy family and risked his life to keep them safe. Those Magi-astrologers did not agree to be Herod’s spies but honored the child, kept his whereabouts safe, and then sneaked home by a secret way.

Thank God that those who were first entrusted with the infant baby came to welcome him, make a home for him, and nurture a life with him. Though over two thousand years separate us from the event of that child’s birth, he can certainly enter our lives and dwell in our hearts as he did then. “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Follow a Star

by Ed Horstmann

adoration-of-magi.jpg

In one of his poems Robert Frost offered this counsel: “When at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be stayed.” What is the star that “stays our minds” during these uncertain times? What does it ask of us by way of commitment?

The Bible is a book about great leaders but equally a book about great followers: their failures and foibles and faith. From Moses to Mary to the Magi and more . . . all of them, in their own way, followed a star. These people were not great because they organized massive projects or had brilliant educations or achieved major awards, but because they oriented themselves to the star of God’s dream for the world and followed it.

I do not consider myself a poet, but I offer this short reflection by way of thinking of those wise visitors who played such an important role in the life of the infant Jesus. And I hope these words may invite you to think about them as well, so that we, too, will follow only the stars that are truly worth following:

These Three Kings

They did not know one another
any better than they knew the road that
stretched before them.

These three kings were unrehearsed
in the rigors of long journeys,
unaccustomed to travel over great distances,

Yet the star would not take no for an answer.
The inevitable had become unavoidable;
they turned their camels toward the light.

At night they warmed themselves by the fire,
stepped out of its illumination
to confirm the star’s onward leading.

Their gifts rattled in the rough packs,
their teeth rattled from the plodding beasts.
They hid their shaking hands

from the king who demanded obedience —
opened their hearts to the infant king
who welcomed their love.

They went home by another way,
warned in a dream that saved their skins
and kept the child a holy secret:

The child whose light is now the star
that calls us from our homelands
to the horizon of all that love makes possible.