Holy Tide of Christmas

At the heart of this classic carol is a message that Christmas changes the world through love. A powerful love that sweeps through everything else and there is no power on earth that can stand in its wake…

Referenced in Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol, which was first published in 1843, God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen is not a carol that we often sing in church these days. Probably because we cannot really make this one use inclusive language, our more recent hymnals have left it out. And yet, Dickens included it and so have more recent adaptations of other curmudgeonly characters. So perhaps this vintage song deserves another glance.

The lyrics of the carol actually date back as far as at least the mid-seventeenth century, when the people of Great Britain had to listen to extremely somber worship services. (Some suggest as far back as the 1500s.) At the time, few Christmas hymns existed and even fewer were accepted in church. This one seems to have become popular in the public, however, and continued to make the rounds until it was finally published properly in 1760. The words continued to evolve from “Sit yo’, merry gentlemen” in the original and several other minor quibbles over the centuries. It has also had at least two different tunes associated with it, one named “Cornish” and one that is literally called “as sung in the London streets.” That’s apparently the one we know and love.

At the heart of this classic carol is a message that Christmas changes the world through love. A powerful love that sweeps through everything else and there is no power on earth that can stand in its wake. A line in the final verse really captures the essence of this: with truth love and brotherhood each other now embrace; this holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface. Because that is truly what this world needs – more love made tangibly real.

Now, I am convinced that we need to hear certain stories every year and to be reminded that Christmas does have the power to change minds and hearts. Even the coldest of them. And this song is included in both Dickens and in a modern adaptation of another classic tale about how Christmas can change the way we see the world (I’ve included a clip below).

My encouragement is to not only sing this carol loud and proud, but also to remember that it is ours to add to the holy tide of Christmas by making the world a kinder, more compassionate, and, most of all, more loving place in every way that we can. This Christmas and every day of the year.

God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen

And hear the angels sing…

This carol focuses not on Bethlehem, but instead on the arrival of Christ-child into a world that continues to be filled with wrongs, strains, and strife. And yet, the millennia-old promise still rings true…

This year, though I won’t be doing my daily Advent music blog, I will be focusing on songs of the season when I do write. And I am beginning with the hymn that our congregation here in Central PA is using as our theme for the whole of the seasons of Advent-Christmastide.

So, once upon a time, in the bleak midwinter of Massachusetts, there lived a Unitarian pastor who was wary and worn from the strains of this world. The year was 1849. The Mexican-American War had ended a year before. The European continent was rife with political upheaval. These United States were headed for a war of our own. And Pastor Edmund Sears took the strife to heart, suffering a melancholic breakdown in the midst of his ministry.

Nevertheless, a dear friend and fellow Pastor William Parsons Lunt asked Sears to help him with a poem about the Nativity as Christmas approached that year. Something to offer to his Sunday School classes. So Sears wrote this beloved carol and one of Felix Mendelssohn’s students set it to music, a tune entitled “Carol,” a year later.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold: peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven’s all-gracious King. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

The verses focus not on Bethlehem, but instead on the arrival of Christ-child into a world that continues to be filled with wrongs, strains, and strife. And yet, the millennia-old promise still rings true: And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing: Oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

This Table

The Church is meant to be the ultimate welcome table with great big open doors. And our lives and our homes are meant to imitate that…

This past Sunday, for Children’s Time, we talked about what Thanksgiving Dinner looked like for everyone’s family. Sometimes it’s just our immediate family: parents and kids, brothers and sisters. Sometimes it’s grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Sometimes it’s lots of friends gathered around.

Then I shared that when I was growing up, my house was always the one where everyone was welcome for holidays. Whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, it really didn’t matter – if you needed a place to go, we just added another place setting. My mom and daddy, and then later dad, would actually keep an eye out for friends and extended family who were looking for a home to spend the holiday meals. To feel welcome. To find the hospitality that is so often lacking in our world. And when someone was found, the invitation was always, Well, come on, with a great big smile and an outstretched arm.

When I finished my story, I asked them, what’s another place that’s meant to look like that? Should always be like that – a family where you are welcome and accepted and there is always room enough at the table?

Interestingly, the little kids didn’t quite know the answer. But the teenagers, who have spent a bit more time with me had it figured out: the Church. (Not so surprising what career I went into with a family like that, is it?)

The Church is meant to be the ultimate welcome table with great big open doors. And our lives and our homes are meant to imitate that.

Now, I get that the world is scary. I understand the dangers that are lurking in the shadows and the reality of what is really out there – I’m a woman, remember? We’re trained from the get-go.

Nevertheless, especially when it comes to our churches, we are far from alone. There is no excuse. And as to our homes, perhaps the lesson is to find ways to open our hearts just a bit wider this year.

Remember those candles in your windows, those used to be a signal to weary travelers that your house was a safe place to stay in winter months. Not just a pretty decorative statement.

So as we come to our holiday this week when we give thanks for everything we have in our lives – because all of it is a gift – wouldn’t it be a miracle if every one of us looked for at least one way to ensure that those around us find the place at the table they never thought would exist.

Tell Jesus

Here’s a question for all of us who are looking to follow the carpenter-turned-preacher who lived two millennia ago: how well are we “telling Jesus” these days?

On our way home from school today we started talking about Christmas. We were discussing the importance of baby Jesus to the holiday – something my five-year-old twins are still figuring out. As we did, one of them said, referring to my work, “Mommy, do you tell Jesus to the [church] family and we get to listen?”

My jaw fell to the floor.

We honestly haven’t really had an in-depth conversation about what I do in-between them being dragged to committee meeting after meeting and enjoying Sunday School, coming to Night Church, watching me have to do way too much organizing and writing on my computer, and occasionally getting to go visit people (post-Covid world and all). I really wasn’t sure they had any idea what my job was. So I was absolutely floored by my son’s question – do you tell Jesus to the family?

Here’s a question for all of us who are looking to follow the carpenter-turned-preacher who lived two millennia ago: how well are we “telling Jesus” these days?

More than eight hundred years ago, a monk felt the call to change the world by truly caring for the people – the little people, that is: the poor, the regular people, the ignored, the lost and the forgotten. He used to say, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” While he is much better known for his love of animals, most people don’t realize how much he revolutionized the medieval church, or at least a major segment of it. And over two hundred and fifty years before the Reformation. Francis of Assisi spent his adult life “telling Jesus” in every way that he could plus showing others how to do the same.

In our day and age, we often hear the word “tell” and assume that it requires the use of literal verbiage. Yet actions communicate thousands, millions of messages that go far deeper than mere words ever can.

Yes, I get that a very large chunk of my work, my vocation and my profession are all tied up in text – from sermons to Scriptures to newsletters to this very blog.

However, we need to remember that for many people, we will be the only Bible they ever get to read. How we represent the Jesus we are meant to “tell” to the world matters.

If we are going to follow that self-same child of Bethlehem we are all getting ready to celebrate soon, we should probably look to his own words and commands for how he would have us do it. And the simplest is probably this: This is how they will know you are my disciples – if you love…

Go and tell that Jesus in everything you do (and occasionally say).

Artwork: “Through Him, All Things” by the Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, Inc.

Making Room for the Dead

It is not that we are necessarily given some mystical or magical link to them, but rather something far more simple. Far more fundamental. Far more profound…

Yesterday was All Saints Sunday in the Protestant tradition. Highlighting that central belief for us as Christians of the Communion of Saints – that all believers in every time and place are bound together in Christ. That we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses whose lives lend us their strength, their courage, and their resilience through all that life can bring.

It is not that we are necessarily given some mystical or magical link to them, but rather something far more simple. Far more fundamental. Far more profound.

We are connected through their stories.

This is not only true for the incredible humans included in the stories of our scriptures, but also the stories of our own lives and families. It is one of the most essential ways we keep someone alive after they have gone into the great beyond.

Tales of gumption. Narratives of woe. Chronicles of overcoming every obstacle. Yarns that make us roll on the floor in fits of laughter. Have you ever wondered why they have such an immense impact upon us?

They connect us. They give us what we need. Yet they also teach us who we are, where we come from, and whose we are. Bound together, the dead and the living are all a part of the great storyline of God’s family.

But we must make room for the dead. We cannot silently sweep them from our lives when they pass from this world, letting generations rise up without the knowledge of those who made them who they are.

As a child of three parents – the mother and father who gave me birth, and the dad who stepped up when my first father joined the Church Triumphant at far too young an age – I can attest that I am a combination of all three. Their stories are mine. And mine is certainly part of theirs.

Now it is my charge to ensure my own children know their stories, too, along with those of their father and his family. Not to mention all the other extensive extended family that has made us who we are. For lest we forget, God’s idea of family is always on the inclusive side and making more room at the table.

My point is this, it not only our work as humans and God’s followers to share the stories of our broader faith with our children, but also the tales of our own families and wider lives so that they will know the saints who have made them who they are. Who still watch over them. And who love them more than they can imagine, even if it is from a different shore.

Being Brave

Last weekend we looked again to the story of our forebears who worshipped God at “Blue Spring,” otherwise known as the head of Scotch Valley. How in 1788 they chose to form Frankstown Presbyterian Church, which would later be renamed Hollidaysburg Presbyterian Church. Even when literal fire and snow brought the buildings low, or the sparks of hatred and oppression drove us to use our tunnels to protect those escaping to freedom, or two pandemics a century apart pushed us to the brink – through it all, our congregation has and does still stand. 

Why? Because those who came before us made the choice to seek and serve God in this place. Not just once, but over and over again. Every major landmark in the history of our church marks one of those choices. Yet it was likely a daily choice for those believers who came before, just like it is for us today.

You see, the great cloud of witnesses to whom we will refer this Sunday – on All Saints Sunday – well, they were not so different from you or me. They lived regular lives. They faced challenging times. They found joy in unexpected places. They saw life and death come and go, just as we do. And in the midst of all of it they chose to remember that God was with them. Present. Active. A moving, breathing ferment. Just as God still is today.

God will always choose us. Scripture reminds us of this promise repeatedly, in both Testaments. I will be with you, God said to Moses. I will never leave you nor forsake you, God reminds Joshua. I have called you by name and you are mine, God promises Isaiah. I am with you to the very end of the age, Jesus assures his followers. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul prompts. God is always here. Already working in our midst.

When I teach little children the promises of God that we find in Scripture, I always focus on these three. The first is that God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. The second is that God is with us, wherever we are, wherever we go, no matter what. Now the third, this is where I want us all to pay attention: because God loves us and God is with us, we get to be brave. Have courage. Move mountains. Do all the great incredible things that people of faith have done before us. 

1 John 4:18 reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear. It may be difficult, be we need to cast it out. Let it go. Push it away so that we can look to where God wants us to focus.

For whatever challenges lie ahead of us, we are blessed that we can latch onto the strength and courage of our forebears who built this church from a tent into a log cabin. Then rebuilt the cabin when it burnt down. Then bravely bought property and built a cupola on a house of brick until the snow did it in. Then finally rebuilt a structure that stands today. They kept moving. Kept focusing on how God was working with them.

My friends, what we do know is this: the choice is ours now. To courageously step up and step into the future God has in store for us. Even if we do not know precisely what it will look like, we can be sure of one thing – God is already there. 

Blessings,  Pastor Janie

Teaching God

Yesterday was my fortieth birthday. And while it has me reflecting on many things, one that keeps sticking with me is something that came up while I was in a recent class about how we connect to God. Especially on the day of one’s birth, thoughts of your mother are bound to surface, so here is mine…

When I was little, my mother used to give me a bath every night. Afterward, she would wrap me up in a towel and sing this little song: I love my baby, oh yes I do. I really love here, oh yes I do. I love her. I do. Janie McElwee, I love you. Every night. It is something I sing to the Little Giants now and they can sing of their own accord, they know it so well.

Many years later, while traveling between pastoral visits, I was talking to my mom on the phone, as we often did since we lived so far apart (in this case, Missouri and South Carolina). And the practice of singing that song came up somehow in our conversation. That day she told me that she wanted to make sure, from the very beginning, that I knew I was loved more than I could possibly imagine. Without limits. Without strings. Without conditions.

Pure love and grace.

That day I realized that my mother had perfectly reflected to me who God is throughout my childhood in that song. Even if not everything else was practically perfect in every way, her intention and the love I felt in her arms every night got the message through. And it has remained at the heart of who I understand God to be even now.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up a bit of Greek to explain what I mean. Thanks to renowned gospel of John scholar, Gail O’Day, I learned that when the beloved disciple was “reclining at Jesus’s chest” during the Last Supper, the verbiage used is the exact same wording that is used at the very beginning of the gospel of John when the author describes the eternal Word being “with God.” And the image the Greek really implies is that of a child draped across their parent’s chest, perfectly at rest, safe, fully loved and secure in whose and who they are.

Because we are meant for that kind of love – a love that has no bounds and puts no conditions upon us. A love that welcomes us as we are and joyfully walks with us, loving us into who we are becoming. That is what God does. That is what we are meant to do for one another – our children, but also our neighbors.

Job Descriptions

Lately, I’ve seen a whole lot of posts and heard even more stories of people who have been extremely hurt by the church or other religious institutions. Even if they do not tell the full tale, the way they speak of God and believers easily belies the pain behind their words. And it is gut-wrenching to say the least.

I also see many believers trying to write-off these experiences as – “those were people, not God.” Or belittle them by saying, “well, if you just believe enough…” Or even worse, try to convert those who have lost their faith back into whatever fold they represent through either fear or erroneously concocted witness.

Every time I either want to slap my palm to my forehead or give someone a good “Gibbs-smack” to the backside of their noggin.

You know, I actually have friends and family members who are both agnostic and atheist. And believe it or not, I do not panic about it. Nor do I worry about it. For several reasons.

One is that I was told to love everyone. Where they are. However they are. And especially people who are loving individuals who know they are loved – those are not humans that I am too concerned about from a safety standpoint.

From a faith standpoint, the God I serve is far bigger and more expansive than some pithy little tyrant who cannot handle a creation having questions and problems and shouting matches from time to time. My God is Love. One that seeks out and searches and pursues us even beyond the gates of death itself. And when that God became flesh, Jesus said that it was the faith of friends that can save, too. So again, why should I worry.

Lastly, it has never, ever been my job, or your job, or our job to save anyone – at least where eternity is concerned. It is our job to care and serve and save lives and bodies and broken souls that are fighting battles here and now. That’s what my Lord did. That’s what we’re meant to do. And that’s the very best witness we can ever give.

Love with tangible, reckless, profligate, radical intensity. With everything we have. Just like our God has loved us.

The rest will sort itself out. The rest is God’s job. Period.

The Morning After

This morning is a different kind of morning after. We are dealing with a death that has a profound effect the world over. Why?…

I still remember that first morning after. I woke up late on a school day only to find my relatives sitting with my mom and my favorite teacher in my living room waiting for me. When the words left my mother’s mouth that my father was gone, my world spun out of control and, in many ways, it has never stopped.

But the thing is… the world just keeps on spinning.

Thirty-one years later I can attest that whatever may be happening in our own personal lives, the rest of the world will keep on moving forward. They will do their best to be kind. To try and remember that we are hurting. Yet there is a quintessential part of our human psyche or maybe it’s our culture that just doesn’t want to deal with death and the scary parts of the medical arena, especially when grief gets complicated. Because humans are always complicated and life is far more complex than it looks on the surface.

This morning is a different kind of morning after. We are dealing with a death that has a profound effect the world over. Why? Well, for two reasons. One is that we have had a ruler, a woman at that, who proved what strength, poise, compassion, and service, along with a bit of humor, can look like over a period of seventy years in a time when modern technology allowed all of us to watch very closely. The second reason is that there was a time when the sun did not set on the British Empire. Which means that with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the grief is going to be complicated. Complex. Downright messy in a lot of cases.

All of us need to remember that we never get to dictate the terms of someone else’s story – especially if they have experienced something we never have such as subjugation, oppression, or injustice. Nor do we get to choose how they will grieve or respond. If you do not know from your own experience, then simply be quiet and listen and learn. It is our God-given job in those instances to stand with the oppressed – not to direct their position or voice, especially given that voices have often been far too long denied in most circumstances.

Now, that being said, all those who feel so able, I hope you will join me in offering up prayers for the Queen’s family and all those who loved her. For yes, as a person she was truly remarkable. I also offer my prayers for our cousins across the pond as they make important decisions about the future of their nation in the coming days and years. And for all those who find grief in any expression from her death, I hold you in prayer as well, that you may also find peace one day.

Lastly, for anyone who is reading this who is grieving from their own tragedies and are in the midst of their own struggles, know that you are not alone. It has been thirty-one years and I am still not over it. There are better days, to be sure. However, some days are just impossible to breathe.

Know you are loved. Know you are not alone. Know you can do this.

Ten in Two

A contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Joachim Prinz once said that “Neighbor is not a geographic term.” He was making the same point that Jesus does in this parable. Your neighbor is every other human being on this planet…

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Luke 10:25-28

It is summary day, my friends. We have made it all the way through the Ten Commandments. And today is the day we look back to see what we have done and to take one more gander at what Jesus, an observant member of the house of Israel, had to say about the whole thing.

We must always remember that the Ten Commandments have been taught to children and adults since Moses dropped the third tablet (thank you Mel Brooks).

When Miss Dixie taught her Sunday School class about them, her students were quite shockingly astute. For example, after learning they were to honor their father and mother, the young teacher asked them, “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” And without missing a beat, little Cindy responded, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Out of the mouths of babes, right?

So, before we look at what Jesus said about the body, let’s take a look back at what we have learned together this summer:

First, the very beginning, the commandment upon which all the others sit is that our God is one – the one who saves. Our God seeks us always, because God loves us no matter what. It is therefore our job to work with everything we have to stop placing other gods or things or goals or ourselves where God should be in our lives. To instead let God’s Love rule.

Second, we are never to put God in a box. Whether that box looks like an idol of wood or stone or clay or instead like our minds trying to keep God contained into the shape we wish God would look like. We are instead to open our eyes and minds and hearts to who God truly is: something far more vast and wonderful than our minds can imagine.

Third, do not use God’s name as if it has no significance. Rather than being a prohibition on all cursing, this commandment has far more to do with ensuring that we are honoring the very meaning of God’s name – which is “life” itself. This means that our word is not merely the oaths that we give but more importantly is the testimony we give with our lives to the God who loves us and calls us to remember that all life is sacred by following the way of Christ.

Fourth, since the beginning, God has desired for us to have the opportunity, every single week, to rest and reconnect. To love and be loved. To know and be known. To be a part of the creative process. To ensure our body’s wellbeing. To let our spirit feel peace. And for those of us who follow Christ to follow in our ancient sibling’s footsteps: to recommit ourselves to the work of Christ that will see God’s love and justice done on earth as it is in heaven.

Fifth, while children are meant to give honor to those that love them, we who raise children are meant to create family environments built on mutual love and respect. Parents or caregivers are meant to ensure enough resources and proper boundaries for their children. Children are meant to learn limits and how to show courtesy to people of all ages. And children and meant to learn how to be loving, healthy, hopefully fun, and servant-minded adults by watching their parents.

Sixth, we all know we are not supposed to kill people. What we need to remember is that it is our job to make God’s life a priority. So anytime we give into anger, or fear, or hatred that turns us against our neighbor, it is as though we have killed them.

Seventh, God created us to be loyal and loving to one another, in relationships that are healthy, life-giving, and loving. We are to take are vows seriously and never enter into them lightly. 

Eighth, remember that there are countless ways we can loot people’s lives, as individuals and as bodies of people. It is not just about objects or property. It is about healthy, livelihood, reputation, their future, their ability to flourish, sometimes their very life. Sometimes in ways that a simple “I’m sorry” will not make up for. We need to be mindful of our actions and of the Lazaruses at our gates.

Ninth, do not put up with lies. Do not tell them. Do not accept them. We have to let ourselves be uncomfortable so we can finally deal with whatever problems we are actually facing. Protect your integrity. Let love rule.

Tenth, not everything in life has to be a competition. We cannot control our initial reactions, but we can control our intentions, our meditations, our plans, our choices. We can consciously decide on a better path forward that puts people first including our neighbors – all of our neighbors. 

 There you have it. The Ten Commandments. Most of them not meaning what we originally thought or what we were taught. Why? Well, probably because we took them largely on face value or didn’t actually listen to what Jesus said. And what are Christians always supposed to do? Listen to what Jesus said…

Speaking of which… Let’s look at our gospel lesson. So, in three of the four gospels, Jesus has to answer this question about which of the commandments is the greatest. It is always in a context where he is being tested by a lawyer (ahem) or a scribe. They are wanting to know if he knows his stuff. If he is really a part of the tradition. And also, if they are really the best at what they do. 

Jesus was not the first to summarize the law in this way. Other famous rabbis had made the same connection. So he was actually quite firmly within the tradition when he gave this answer. It was not a shocking revelation on its own. It was a good summary of the law – loving God (the first four commandments) and loving your neighbor (the last six commandments).

Then we come to this passage in the gospel of Luke. The lawyer decides to press his luck. And Jesus does something truly controversial. He begins this tale to explain the commandments: a man is attacked by bandits and left for dead. A clergyperson walks by, sees the hurting man and scurries along. Not wanting to be troubled. A person of the historic ruling class, let’s just go with a politician walks by, doesn’t have a camera crew, sees the hurting man and scurries along in a hurry to their next meeting. 

Now, here is the clincher, you need to picture someone you have historically hated. Assumed the worst of. A group of people you have thought would attack you on sight. Rob you. Beat you. People you had thought were the worst of the worst. Do you have a group in your mind’s eye?

Those are the Samaritans. We do not understand this now because of the millennia standing between us, but the hatred between them and the Jewish people was deep seated. For Jesus to say that a Samaritan helped this poor wretch was the same thing as us hearing that Malcom X helped the Grand Dragon of the KKK. It was controversial. Unheard of. Shocking and beyond belief. 

A contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Joachim Prinz once said that “Neighbor is not a geographic term.” He was making the same point that Jesus does in this parable. Your neighbor is every other human being on this planet. It is one of the first lessons I teach to our younglings, because it is that important. And whether our relationship with them last ten minutes or ten years or fifty years, we are meant to show the same love and compassion that God has called us to have for ourselves, for our families, and for our friends.

Because here it the reason Jesus said hang all the law and the prophets on these two commandments: we get really confused when we don’t keep it simple. We tend to want to hold each other to ridiculous standards while ignoring how badly we are failing ourselves. So Jesus and the other rabbis said, nope. Stick with this. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. In John, Jesus went even further to say, you know what, just love your neighbor. Period. (Because we can’t love our neighbor unless we are loving God.)

So what do we take away from all that we have learned? Well, hopefully that things are rarely what they appear to be on the surface. That’s a good start. Second, if you’re wanting these mandates to use them against someone else, you have missed the whole point. Third, they were written by God and messed up by humans almost immediately because we’re fallen creatures, so cheers.

But no, seriously. What should we remember? Love. Love is the whole point. Run everything through that test. Is what I’m thinking, saying, doing going to serve God’s love and life, God’s justice and peace? If not, well, you may want to rethink your plans.

God’s love is messy and beautiful. But it is worth it, as Christ himself knows from real experience. As God’s own self knows from real experience. And the Holy Spirit is waiting to push us further into that fray. So… are you ready?