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December 2017

Welcome to Advent!

For Christians, this is a season of anticipation for the arrival of the Christ child. This time of year, we get into our cellars and attics to find the boxes of Christmas things, make lists, make cookies, and make our homes beautiful for the season.

But before we get too far down the Advent road….

…Let me express my best hopes that everyone had a truly wonderful Thanksgiving. I hope everyone had an opportunity to reach out to your friends, family, neighbors, and your various communities.  Thanksgiving is perhaps the most inclusive of all holidays in that it does not involve any single faith tradition. Thanksgiving offers everyone, regardless of religion — whether or not a person even has a religion — to enjoy a feeling of gratitude.  It’s a break from our usual “make-it-happen” attitude to acknowledge that ultimately we are in Someone Else’s hands, whether that Someone Else is known to us as God, Allah, Universal Energy, or The Force. Feeling grateful for where we are and what we have doesn’t require any special belief. In a world that feels so divided lately, it’s healing to be wrapped up in that universal blanket of Thanksgiving, and know everyone else is included along with us.

I hope we carry that universal warmth of gratitude as we turn to Advent, when as Christians, we set our faces toward the manger in Bethlehem.

Regardless of our favorite Christmas movies, treasured recipes, Christmas tree traditions, and other activities that surround the holiday, eventually we all make our way to that manger in Bethlehem. Eventually, we tell the story of a pregnant girl and her betrothed, who are drawn from their rural home to the big city to be counted for a census. Once again we tell the story of hotels with no vacancies, of shepherds in a field, and angels in the sky.

Stories are important. This fall, the church youth got together for a series of “movie nights.” They connected with each other, ate a lot (thanks, parents!), and talked about God. Some of the movies were older, and some were relatively new.  The newer ones had great special effects; the older ones, not so much.  The teens talked about the difficulty they sometimes have watching older films that don’t employ modern movie-making methods, such as computerized imaging. They find it distracting when a film’s special effects seem too crude.

(I get it. Enjoying a movie means you have to engage your “willing suspension of disbelief.” When you see the fishing line that is dangling the space ship, it kind of ruins the mood.)

However, the teens’ favorite movie of the whole series was The Princess Bride, released 30 years ago.  I don’t think it had anything you could call a “special effect,” and much of it seemed a little crude. I asked the teens about this, and they said it didn’t matter “because the story is so good.”

Let me repeat this important insight …. It didn’t matter because the story is so good.

A good story doesn’t need bells and whistles. A good story doesn’t even need to be very innovative. The Princess Bride is a simple fairy tale involving a pretty princess in a tiara who needs rescuing from a castle. The hero is handsome, smart, and has a team of loyal friends who believe in him and believe in each other.  There’s nothing very original. But the story is a very good one, and it’s told very well, in a generous, big-hearted way. (By the way, no cursing, no nudity, no car chases, no explosions, no superstars).

This season, as we look toward the manger in Bethlehem, we are remembering and retelling what some call “the greatest story ever told.” We have heard it and told it hundreds of times before, yet it remains very powerful. It is so familiar to us, yet we never tire of hearing it.  We know the story backwards and forwards, but its power and profundity always make their way to the deepest reaches of our souls.

This year, as we hear the account of the birth of Jesus yet again, may we strive to hear it with fresh ears. As we tell it to others, may we endeavor to tell it with fresh words.  We need not enhance it, embellish it, or dress it up.  But may we hand it to a new generation of Christians with generosity and an open heart.

Blessings for a wonderful Advent season,

 

 

 

 

Rev. Amy Lignitz Harken

 

October 2017

One of the most satisfying things in life is to put all we have into something, and see our efforts pay off.

It’s good for us human beings to try our hardest. It’s good to “leave it all on the field” – whether our “field” is the backyard garden, the office, the church, the kitchen, a research laboratory, or a difficult-but-important relationship. Granted, we each have many “fields” and our best effort tomorrow may not match our best effort today. But we should always strive to do the best we can at the time.

Regardless of our age or stage in life, we never know what we can achieve unless we try our best. Most often, we are pleasantly surprised to find we have more in us than we knew. We discover that God has endowed us with more endurance, more strength, more brainpower, or more compassion than we gave ourselves credit for.

Trying our hardest and achieving more than we expected is deeply satisfying on its own. It’s doubly satisfying when all that effort brings about something positive, for ourselves or someone else. In the spring, when we toil and sweat to create a garden, we end the day with sore muscles and a heap of dirt-stained laundry. Then, for weeks, we anxiously monitor what Mother Nature provides in the way of wind, sun, rain, and bugs. Too much? Not enough? The right kind? We do what we can to respond. It’s a lot of work, but soon, the fruits of our labors are filling our countertops, and possibly the countertops of our friends and neighbors.

Three years ago, dozens of us labored long and hard to begin a mobile summer literacy mission project in Cherry Log, Georgia, where none of us had ever been. It took a lot of work to get us there, a lot of work to figure out what we would do, and a lot of work to actually do it. Frankly, we didn’t know what we were getting into, and neither did the good folks at the Craddock Center. It was the center’s first time hosting a church for a mission trip, the first summer of a mobile “Camp Craddock,” and for many of us, our first mission trip.

We were blessed to meet Dr. Fred Craddock, who started the center to address the literacy and culture needs of Appalachian children. As we admired the work of the center, Dr. Craddock said the church’s best response to a mission trip there would be to return home and start a similar program.  The Missions Committee took that message to heart, and began searching for additional opportunities in our own back yard, including our now monthly service at Mercy Meals & More and ongoing work at the Carlos Pacheco school, both in New Bedford. Meanwhile, back in Georgia, the Craddock Center used our experience to continue its Camp Craddock mission trip experience, and is now hosting churches from all over the country. For everybody concerned, the experience was energizing and galvanizing. (We’re headed back to the Craddock Center in July 2018! Please see article, page 7).

These kinds of experiences – creating a garden, or piloting a mission project – are what “stewardship” is about. First, it’s about discovering just how much God has endowed you by challenging yourself to do your absolute best. Second, it’s about seeing your efforts result in good, wholesome, worthwhile things. Third, it’s about trusting that God is multiplying the effects of your offerings in ways you may never know. Fourth, when stewardship is a community endeavor, doing your best inspires others to do better than they originally intended.

The theme of this year’s stewardship campaign is “This Is Who We Are.” It’s an invitation to celebrate who we are – individually, and collectively – as a church. It’s also an invitation to imagine how God continues to call us forward to respond to the needs of the world, spiritual and material.

While the stewardship and finance committees sort out the dollars and cents of stewardship season, my hope is that you will spend the next month or so considering whether there is an area of your life where you might challenge yourself a bit more. Maybe it’s eating more healthfully, becoming engaged in an important issue, reconciling a painful relationship, or developing better work habits. When we challenge ourselves spiritually, physically, or intellectually, we open new doors of being. It’s often through those newly opened doors where God greets us.

Many blessings for the fall,

Rev. Amy Lignitz Harken

 

September 2017

“Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. … when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect of wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift.  … A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God … should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” – Martin Luther, 1538


What a summer!

With much planning and the work of many hands and minds, we moved our worship from the sanctuary to Reynard Hall. Artists and artisans in our congregation turned the hall into a beautiful worship space; the hospitality crew arrived early to make the coffee; and the deacons ensured the myriad details of worship were tended to.

Our hall is a busy place with various events, fundraisers, and building projects. Throughout the summer, whatever had to be moved for the week’s activities, our band of volunteer Trustees faithfully made sure we were ready for Sunday 9 a.m. worship!

Sunday mornings, we became a little more familiar with the New Century Hymnal, and read scripture printed in the bulletin.  Meanwhile, the sermon series invited us to take an up-close-and-personal look at a dozen of our favorite hymns. We learned about the people who wrote them, the “back stories,” and the theological meanings of the lyrics. Many folks have requested this be the basis of our sermon series every summer – and there are surely enough hymns that we could do this for decades and never duplicate!

As we wind up our series, I’d like to express my hope that we might be coming to appreciate more fully the power of the hymns we sing. The hymns bind us together as a congregation, and convey profound thoughts about God, Jesus, and the life of faith. These aren’t random words on a page.  These are perhaps the most powerful tools to learn, exercise, express, and share our Christian faith.

Martin Luther, quoted above, included the congregational singing of hymns in worship as a key ingredient of the Protestant Reformation.  I’ll also repeat a quote from a 1966 article, “Hymns and Heresies” by Prof. Alvin C. Porteous:  “Hymns are among the most potent vehicles for religious nurture and theological instruction that the church possesses. The spiritual vitality, the scriptural fidelity and the theological maturity of individuals and congregations are often more dependent on what is sung than on what is formally taught in church or in Sunday school.”

Between Martin Luther and Prof. Porteous, another man sensed the importance and potential of what we sing in worship: the famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who was born in Northfield, Mass., in 1837. He believed hymns should be written in the ordinary language of common people, easy to sing, with the kind of tune that would stick with you. He found somebody to write some new “gospel” songs, and to his delight, these songs had people clapping their hands and stomping their feet. In his generation, these hymns became a new way people could participate in the worship service, and build community among themselves.

Our favorite hymns come in many forms: some new, some old, some long, some short. Some have lyrics that are easily grasped the first time you sing them; others have lyrics that a person could ponder for a long time, in the way we might ponder scripture.  For all the hymns that we’ll be singing in the coming year, I’d like to encourage you to begin paying special attention to the words. What do they say about God? What do they say to you? Do you agree with all of it? Discuss these hymns with your partner or your friend. Does he or she understand it the way you do?

I’m looking forward to the return of our hard-working choir at our Sept. 10 Homecoming, and grateful for all those talented people who’ve been sharing their musical gifts all summer long.

Our Music Director Michelle Gordon is always on the lookout for singers and musicians to help our church worship. If you like to sing, come join the choir! If you play an instrument – the guitar, piano, or anything at all – don’t hide your light under a bushel basket. Talk to Michelle!

Meanwhile, may the hymns we sing as a worshipping community continue to bless you!

Rev. Amy Lignitz Harken