Forgiveness: Drawing close to the wound

What happens when you are denied forgiveness?

Source: Unsplash/Lina Trochez

“Do you forgive me?”

The question hung in the air between my friend and me. I had just admitted fault and apologized, and I tried not to hold my breath. What if my desire for reconciliation was not returned? What if my attempts to repair the broken relationship were not reciprocated? My four little words were so full of vulnerability, hope and pregnant anticipation.

The roots of this conversation started weeks ago when my friend and I had a misunderstanding and they stopped speaking to me. I did everything I knew to do to make the situation right. I wanted our healing to follow the familiar pattern: contrition, confession, absolution, and reconciliation.

I took the steps I thought I needed to, then I waited to receive some sign, an assurance of forgiveness from my friend. To be very honest, I felt that I needed it. We all need forgiveness. Our flawed selves spill over and hurt the people in our lives, time and time again. As we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” By God’s grace, the ability to pardon one another’s missteps is what holds us together. Without forgiveness, we would be alone.

But forgiveness is as challenging to ask for as it is to accept. In Consolationsa lyrical ode to words themselves, poet and philosopher David Whyte describes forgiveness as nothing short of “heartache.” He writes how difficult it is to practice, for “it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound but actually draws us closer to its source.” The path to forgiveness is painful. It assumes a great deal of risk. It does not deny the damage done but accepts it and looks forward, all while recognizing something has been altered in one’s self and in one’s relationship. Furthermore, forgiveness is painful because sometimes it does not come — or it is delayed.

“[Forgiveness] not only refuses to eliminate the original wound but actually draws us closer to its source.” — David Whyte

As I write this, my friend has not forgiven me. At least, not yet. When I stood in the intersection of our “original wound” with a hand outstretched in apology, my friend did not want to meet me there. I wanted resolution and reconciliation. My friend wanted space.

Dazed by their rejection, I was not sure what to do next until another friend counseled me: “You might have to look elsewhere for closure.” That’s when I heard the assurance of pardon anew. As a pastor, I frequently lead this section of worship. One Sunday after this conversation with my friend, however, I was a participant. The leader opened, “Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.” The congregation responded, “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.”

Something clicked at that moment, and a weight lifted from my shoulders. I was reminded by my community that I was forgiven, and I started to believe it.

I was reminded by my community that I was forgiven, and I started to believe it.

In our Reformed tradition, we don’t wait for absolution to be given by a mortal in a robe or a collar. The business of forgiveness isn’t left to the professionals. Forgiveness comes from Christ, and since Christ’s forgiveness has already been freely given, it can be uttered equally as freely by everyone sitting in the pews: young and old; member and visitor; believer and nonbeliever.

God’s abundant grace demonstrated by Christ’s free gift of forgiveness is a key theme of our theological inheritance. While this thought is certainly good news, it can be hard to grasp. We can easily lean into either passivity or obligation. Forgiveness can easily become a forgone conclusion, regardless of how we act, or a duty.

In my rush to resolve the situation with my friend, I fell into the trap of the latter. I took what I believed to be necessary steps out of duty and obligation to my friend. I expected instant forgiveness and an immediate gesture of reconciliation in return. My friend isn’t ready to forgive me yet, but this doesn’t negate the truth that God’s promise of forgiveness and work of reconciliation is still at work in both of our lives. Perhaps inward efforts were made on behalf of my friend, and I haven’t seen them. Perhaps this will be a process. As David Whyte points out, “The great mercy is that the sincere act of trying to forgive, even if it is not entirely successful, is a form of blessing and forgiveness itself.” I still hold out hope for us, with time.

Through this experience, I have been reminded that our ability to forgive one another is not a duty or obligation. It is a sacred extension of God’s perfectly sufficient act to forgive us through Christ Jesus. Forgiveness is a means of grace. Always. It’s not something we should ever take for granted. Nor is it an obligation that binds us without freedom. If all forgiveness comes from Christ, then the good news is that all relationships are redeemable.

Our ability to forgive one another … is a sacred extension of God’s perfectly sufficient act to forgive us through Christ Jesus.

When we sit with Christ’s free gift, we are prompted to offer our own free gifts to those around us: How can we show understanding and compassion to someone who pulls back their hand from us? If reconciliation in one relationship isn’t possible for a time, can we extend ourselves outward to forgive someone else? Can we locate the “original wound” within us and have compassion for the person we used to be, as someone who has both gotten hurt and has done the hurting?

Share the good news with someone hurting and who needs to hear it. Affirm it in your heart: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

Thank you for reading! As alwayscheck out this piece and more at my Presbyterian Outlook author page! 

We don’t create — We reclaim

What does it mean to reclaim something?

Source: Unsplash/Martine Vogel

After retrieving the appropriate key, my colleague unlocked the door, and we stood side-by-side in the newly vacated church office of our former head of staff. It was our first time in the space since she had left. At first glance, the unoccupied room appeared typical: rows of windows; cleared bookshelves; motivational art; cushioned couches; leafy plants stretching for sunlight.

Yet, as I stepped through the threshold, I remembered recent scenes of flurried intensity in this room. The all-hours crisis and conflict management meetings, emergency conference calls, tense supervisory sessions, tearful confessions, rigorous conferences with outside consultants, etc. All the harried work of institutional transition: the good, bad and ugly.

Today, this office was silent, unlit and empty. Our head of staff had left abruptly due to unforeseen and tragic medical circumstances. The difficult work that had been done in this room was now finished. Soon, we would be calling our next senior pastor to sit behind that desk. We are preparing to write a new chapter in this room.

I am reminded how much the rooms in which we live, breathe and work reflect images of ourselves back to us. A workspace contains the archives of who we’ve been and who we are currently striving to become. It’s contained in the memories of early mornings, late nights, triumphs, failures, echoes of hearty laughter, vent sessions behind closed doors, and secret tears behind computer screens. If we take the time, we can sift through emails, forms, photos, degrees and awards to find a roadmap. Rooms store our past and present selves. They also contain space for our future potential.

A spiritual director recently asked me: “Do you imagine God experiencing you as you have experienced your life?” My kneejerk reaction was to inelegantly snort and retort, “As a hot mess?” After we both laughed and our discussion evolved to a different subject, I found myself picking his question back up again later. I was surprised to find myself thinking of standing in that empty church office alongside my pastoral colleague.

“Our past is not what we’ve left behind; it’s what we carry.” — James K.A. Smith

I imagine God experiences us like the rooms that form us. I imagine my former head of staff’s office sighing with compassion for its occupant who had to leave so unexpectedly. I imagine that room filled with grace for the ones who carry this painful past with us.

The rooms that house us bear witness to the best and worst of us. So does God. And when we clear out a room, splash the walls with a fresh coat of paint, and prepare to start over again, our experiences aren’t erased. They are a part of us and a part of a much bigger picture. A grander narrative is unfolding.

In his book How to Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith lifts up a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Smith observes in response, “Our past is not what we’ve left behind; it’s what we carry.” Smith reminds us that even when we start over again, we aren’t starting with nothing. It isn’t creation ex nihilo. We are continuously shaped, formed and changed by our experiences.

When we go through a season of upheaval – a change, shift, move, or rupture –  the task before us isn’t creation out of nothing; it’s the work of reclamation. We are called to reclaim the things we carry, the past pieces of ourselves that have formed us but have fallen temporarily from our awareness.

When we go through a season of upheaval – a change, shift, move, or rupture –  the task before us isn’t creation out of nothing; it’s the work of reclamation.

To reclaim means “to recover,” “to retrieve,” and “to take back.” Images of reclamation that spring to my mind require significant labors of time and meticulous attention: unpacking boxes, repurposing furniture, mending tattered clothes, and the long process of mental and physical healing. All of these entail holding space for what is lost, broken, worn, tired, and in varying stages of disuse or disrepair. An undeniable factor in the work of reclamation is the essential acknowledgement that something or someone is worth reclaiming. Intrinsic value is found. Love and care are felt.

Every part of us is held in God’s memory. The things we carry with us, however ugly or messy they may be, are worthy of redemption. God loves even the parts of us that we have forgotten, or perhaps are actively trying to forget. Confession is a vital step in the work of reclamation. Much of our baggage is the regrets we shoulder, the guilt we feel for what we have done or left undone. Rooms witness our sins and trespasses non-judgmentally and contain these as well.

An undeniable factor in the work of reclamation is the essential acknowledgement that something or someone is worth reclaiming in the first place.

There was no closure or reconciliation between myself and my former head of staff before she had to leave. To continue the analogy, her empty office knows that: as does God. God is asking me to trust that God already holds the knowledge of what was done and said in this room, and therefore, to release the confessions of my heart back to God. By God’s grace, I am working on that. I am working on reclaiming the parts of myself that have changed over time or were temporarily shelved.

I am grateful that every piece of us is held in God’s memory. God knows what we have been and what we will be, our past and our potential. And in this little sliver of time we call the present is when we are given the grace to keep trying, to keep reclaiming, to keep carrying the memories we hold that have formed and shaped us.

Here in the present, may we dust ourselves off and breathe. Imagine God experiences you like the rooms that have housed you, remember you, and have formed you. Breathe into God’s daily experience of you: full of abiding compassion, mercy, and love.

Thank you for reading! As always, check out this piece and more at my Presbyterian Outlook author page!

Pilgrimage reflections from the messy middle

What’s the difference between transition and transformation?

Source: Unsplash/Richard Viana

I wonder, what does it mean to be on a spiritual journey we never intended to take in the first place?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. I didn’t join the Great Resignation of 2021-2022. I like my job. I like the congregation I serve. In fact, I like it so much that I relocated to town. I happily adopted the local zip code and kissed my twice-daily views of Jersey Turnpike bumpers goodbye. Then one day, I looked up to realize I was working in a place I didn’t fully recognize. My office was the same, but the ground around me had shifted. Overnight, the journey of transition had begun and had permeated every aspect of our congregational life. It was as though I was serving an entirely different church…

Like so many institutions right now, our large congregation on the Philadelphia Main Line is experiencing massive change. In about a year’s time, nearly all my former colleagues have departed. Seats around our conference table are vacant or filled with interim colleagues, chief of which is highlighted by our ongoing search for a senior pastor. It has been a bumpy road, particularly over these past several months. Congregational grief over lost relationships and missing institutional memory remains acute. Some members have walked out the door, weary of the constant flood of change.

Yet prospective members want to join, hopeful that something new under the sun is happening here. Our new staff team has locked arms and are eager to create and lead together. I confess that sometimes it feels as though we are trying to build on sand. At any point, will office responsibilities get shuffled around yet again? Will another volunteer step into my office feeling discouraged? The internal dialogue in my head loops on repeat: How did we even get here? Where are we going next? Maybe I should start a dog-walking business, just to be safe… 

Nevertheless, here we are: a liminal setting we never intended to be. Since arriving in this unanticipated space, I wonder what it all means for our congregation and for me. In many ways, life itself is a series of arriving in unexpected places. I suppose it’s what we do after we arrive in each space that matters. Specifically, when God calls each of us forth into uncharted territory: how will we respond?Will we answer the call?

To be clear, I am still in the midst of the pilgrimage. These are not my sage reflections from life on the other side, but rather my obscured views peering out from some choppy “middle” place.  It’s not easy to articulate my thoughts on the journey so far. As I have learned, existing in this liminal space means many things are truth all at once, often in tension. I love my new colleagues, but I miss my former ones. The ubiquity of impermanence is overwhelming; still a new door of possibilities has cracked open to us wider than ever before. I can see the light of revitalization streaming through, and it’s so clear to me that God is at work here.

The question now is: how will we step forward into this next phase of the journey? How do we interpret God’s work faithfully and with intention? How do we participate and join in with what God is already doing in this place? The soil is fertile in the congregation for renewal, regrowth, and dare I say revival. What will we do with the fertile soil God has handed us? All this remains to be seen…

My experience in the messy middle has made me wonder if churches overuse the word “transition.” Without a doubt, the word “transition” is a beneficial one to keep bookmarked in our congregational lexicons, especially today. A transitional season is a midway point, a place of change, a time of fluidity, and a shift toward the next thing. Lord knows, none of us are strangers to transition these days! Though to be very clear, a time of transition is only intended to carry us so far by its very definition. It literally means “to go across,” like a bridge. In anticipation of our arrival on the other side, we need another word at the ready in our back pockets.    

With that in mind, as our congregation takes the next step into an uncertain future, I am craving a different word: “transformation.” Transformation means to be changed, to undergo a metamorphosis. For my weary soul, transformation feels exciting, holistic, and capacious: brimming with big possibilities and full of potential. Transformation offers an invitation to step into something bigger than we are, a metaphysical transcendence beyond the finite limitations of who and what we once were.

Transformation is a term expansive enough to fit both our enthusiasm for what is to come and our sadness at what once was. To be transformed doesn’t mean we step away from our grief and simply leave it behind us in the dust, unaddressed and denied. The transformative process is one that takes our grief along with us to this next pivotal phase of the journey, allowing every part of us to be shaped and molded, especially the pieces of us still broken and hurting. Truly God’s hand is the redemptive agent in the sacred work of transformation.

If we’re honest with ourselves, transformation is equal parts exhilarating and frightening. Ready or not, widespread spiritual and ecclesial transformation is already happening. Whatever comes next, in the life of our own congregations or for the American Church at large it will be nothing we’ve ever seen before. Once we go across that bridge, we won’t be the same. Our God who leads us to the other side will shape us and form us in ways beyond our wildest imaginations. Transition takes decisive steps toward a new place; it is the bridge that carries us over to the other side. Transformation is full immersion into uncharted territoryhow will God change us?

What is Epiphany?

Though Lent is right around the corner, technically we’re still in the season of Epiphany. What does that mean for us and for the Church?

Source: Unsplash/Sergey Zhesterev

What is Epiphany?

Epiphany reminds us of how the light of Jesus Christ continues to guide our lives every day —even after we put away the bright and cheery Christmas lights. Epiphany is a Christian holiday celebrated in the West on January 6. The word “Epiphany” originates from the Greek epiphaneiameaning “manifestation” or “appearance.”

Also known as “Three Kings Day,” the Western church largely celebrates the visit of the three Magi to the newly-born Jesus in Bethlehem that is detailed in Matthew 2:1-12. More broadly, the day of Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Christ as the eternal Savior of all humankind. Not only did Christ reveal himself as the Son of God to the three Magi, but also through his baptism (Mark 1:9-11) as well as through his first miracle in the turning of the water to wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). The liturgical season of Epiphany, which stretches from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, highlights all these “theophanies” or “epiphanies” of Christ’s divinity to the world.

All these significant revelations of Jesus have been commemorated on Epiphany at different historical periods and in different regions throughout the Eastern and Western churches. In addition to Christmas and Easter, Epiphany is one of the three oldest Christian feast days.

What is the difference between Epiphany and the Twelve Days of Christmas?

The Twelve Days of Christmas traditionally refers to the period of 12 calendar days between Christmas Day, December 25, and Epiphany on January 6.

What’s the difference between Epiphany in the Western church and Epiphany in the Eastern church?

Western Christians, such as Roman Catholics and Protestants, and Eastern Christians, such as Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, follow different calendars when it comes to deciding feast days and liturgical seasons. In the West, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 and the feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. Additionally, the feast day of Epiphany in the Western church principally focuses on the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus and how this visit revealed Jesus’ divinity. Eastern Christian traditions follow the Julian calendar in which Christmas Eve falls on January 6 and the feast day of Epiphany falls on January 19. In the East, the feast of Epiphany principally focuses on Jesus’ baptism, and how this act revealed Christ’s divinity. Western Christians celebrate Jesus’ baptism on the Sunday that follows the Epiphany feast day.

How long does Epiphany last?

The feast day of Epiphany lasts for 24 hours and is observed by Western Christians on January 6. For Christian traditions that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the liturgical season of Epiphany lasts from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

Do Protestants celebrate Epiphany?

Yes, Christians all around the world celebrate Epiphany: Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

What is the history of Epiphany?

Source: Unsplash/Robert Thiemann

The church’s celebration of Epiphany is one of the church’s three earliest feast days, even older than Christmas. As a result, its history is complicated and has no one pervading theory of origination. In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher cites the earliest recorded evidence for Epiphany dated around 215 in Egypt. Some historians believe that the church’s observance of Epiphany was established to replace local pagan feast celebrations dated in and around January 6. (A similar hypothesis has been proposed for December 25 by Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson in The Origins of Feasts, Fast, and Seasons in Early Christianity.)

Scholars note that another theory for the establishment of Epiphany is linked closely with the celebration of Easter. (See Bradshaw and Johnson and Pfatteicher.) Early Christians in Asia Minor celebrated both the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Jewish Passover on April 6. They chose April 6 because they professed that Jesus’ life was perfect and this perfection must be reflected in the dates of his conception and death, meaning that his beginning and end must have occurred on the same date. Therefore, they believed that the date of Jesus’ crucifixion must have been the same as his conception — April 6, nine months before his birth on January 6.

There are still other accounts of early Christians in places like Alexandria, Egypt, celebrating Epiphany without any mention of Jesus’ birth narrative at all. In Alexandria, the Gospel of Mark was the available Scripture. Since the Gospel of Mark notably omits the story of Jesus’ birth, their Epiphany celebrations focused on the baptism and miracle stories of Jesus. These earliest Epiphany celebrations were feast days for the baptism and joyous welcome of new catechumens, or converts, into the life of the church.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Phatteicher notes that a gradual “exchange of feasts” took place between the Eastern and Western Church in the mid-to-late fourth century. The Western church received the Eastern observance of Epiphany and the Eastern church adopted the Western observance of Christmas. When the Western church in Rome adopted the Eastern celebration of Epiphany, the story of the three Magi was the focus of their celebration. Jesus’ baptism would later be commemorated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today in the West. Today, the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism remains stronger in the East. In the West, Epiphany, known today as “Three Kings Day” in some regions, is most commonly associated with the journey and gifts of the three Magi.

Is Epiphany in the Bible?

Bradshaw and Johnson note that Epiphany has historically been a celebration of many theological themes, including Christ’s birth before Christmas was observed. On Epiphany, the Eastern and Western churches throughout the centuries have also commemorated Jesus’ baptism, the journey of the three kings to visit the Christ child, as well as the wedding at Cana wherein Jesus performed his great miracle of turning water into wine. The story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-7), the journey of the three Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), and the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) are all located in the Bible.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Phatteicher notes that a gradual “exchange of feasts” took place between the Eastern and Western Church in the mid-to-late fourth century. The Western church received the Eastern observance of Epiphany and the Eastern church adopted the Western observance of Christmas. When the Western church in Rome adopted the Eastern celebration of Epiphany, the story of the three Magi was the focus of their celebration. Jesus’ baptism would later be commemorated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today in the West. Today, the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism remains stronger in the East. In the West, Epiphany, known today as “Three Kings Day” in some regions, is most commonly associated with the journey and gifts of the three Magi.

What is the legend of La Befana: Italy’s Epiphany gift-giver?

On Epiphany Eve, the children of Italy anticipate the visit of a mythical figure who carries a broomstick and brings gifts. She’s a woman known as La Befana. Sources date that the legend of La Befana has been observed as early as the 13th century, easily pre-dating Santa Clause. The Italian legend blends with biblical tradition. The story goes that the three Magi stopped at the home of an old woman on their way to visit the baby Jesus. She offered them rest and hospitality. In exchange, they invited her to join them on their journey, but she turned down their offer, saying that she had too much housework to do. She later regretted her decision. Each year, on Epiphany Eve, La Befana sets out on her own search for the Christ Child, visiting the homes of children and leaving toys and sweets. A later adaptation of the myth even has La Befana leaving gifts of carbone — candy made to resemble coal.

What are “Star Words?”

Passing out “star words” has been a practice in Protestant churches for nearly a decade and continues to proliferate in congregations. The annual ritual derives from the story of the luminous star that led the three Magi to the Christ Child. “Star words” are intention words that are printed or written out on paper stars. Each year, during Epiphany worship, members of churches are invited to take a paper star, often either from a basket or from the Communion Table. Without knowing the word written on their paper star ahead of time, worshippers are invited to place their trust in the word they have drawn and to allow that word to reflectively guide them. The word we choose helps us prayerfully set our intention for the coming year. Star words are a lovely liturgical practice that encapsulates so well the spirit of Epiphany: our ever-present hope that God is an illuminating presence in our daily lives, calling us, loving us, and leading us forth into our world together.

What is Advent?

Advent was not always understood as a countdown to Christmas. In fact, the origins of our modern-day Advent celebration may not have had much to do with December 25th at all.

A version of this piece is published online at Presbyterian Outlook.

Source: Unsplash/Max Beck

What is Advent?

As the days shorten and the nights grow colder, Christians embrace God’s promise of light. Heralding the beginning of the church calendar year, Advent begins on the Sunday between November 27th and December 3rd. [1] Deriving from the Latin word, adventus, the word means “coming,” “approach,” or “arrival.” “Advent” is also a translation of the Greek παρουσία (parousia), a word historically used in the church to signify Christ’s second coming. The church collectively waits with hope-filled anticipation for arrival, “Advent,” of Christ in our world, the One born in the flesh and whose presence is with us both now and eternally.

What is the history of the Advent wreath?

Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christian traditions around the world celebrate the season of Advent with a host of annual rituals: contemplative worship, prayer, scripture study, and daily devotionals to name a few. In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher lifts up an enduring appeal of the Advent season: the development of meaningful traditions and customs celebrated both in worship, as well as in the home with our families. Today, the Advent wreath is one of most common symbols associated with the season.

Invented by Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1839, the Advent wreath was intended as a physical sign to help bring the spirit and expectation of the season to young boys living in a settlement house that Wichern founded in Hamburg. Evergreens and fire, two of the main materials that make up the Advent wreath, are both deeply rooted in ancient, pre-Christian symbolism associated with everlasting life. Though traditions vary today, four candles typically form a circle around the outside with one white candle in the middle, known as the Christ Candle. The four outer candles customarily represent peace, hope, joy, and love. One candle is lit for each of the four Sundays of Advent, with the Christ Candle as the final one we light on Christmas Eve.  

Why do churches decorate with purple during Advent?

Rich, deep colors are symbolic of the Advent season. As in the season of Lent, purple is one of the main liturgical hues associated with Advent. Philip Pfatteicher observes that the color purple holds different meanings for different church calendar seasons. Purple represents penitence during the Lenten season. Whereas during Advent, purple is often associated with royalty, signifying the anticipated arrival of Christ the king. Dark blue is also commonly recognized during Advent. In church history, a deep shade of blue is symbolic of hope and also of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today, throughout the Advent season, clergy wear purple or dark blue vestments and churches are adorned in purple or dark blue paraments. In the Middle Ages, black was also a liturgical color associated with the observance of Advent.  

What are the historical origins of Advent?

Much like the mystical spirit of the season, the precise historical origins of Advent are something of a mystery. Scholars have pieced together significant evidence for annual liturgical periods of fasting and preparation in the early Christian church. Notably, these early Advent seasons didn’t culminate on December 25th but instead on January 6th, the day of Epiphany. On Epiphany, the church commemorates the revelation of the Christ-child to the world, represented by the three magi who traveled a great distance to Bethlehem to pay him homage. The early church’s observance of Epiphany included themes of the nativity, Jesus’ baptism, the miracle of the Jesus’ turning of the water into wine at Cana, and other revelations of Jesus’ identity to the world. In the West, Epiphany was marked as a feast day for the baptism and joyful reception of new catechumens, or converts, into the life of the church. In The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity, Bradshaw and Johnson point out that the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism is stronger in the Eastern church than in the West. In the Western Church, Jesus’ baptism would later come to be celebrated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today.

Scholars believe that our modern-day Advent observance may have its origins in Spain and in Gaul. In the sixth century, the church in Rome observes a similar season of preparation for baptism. Bradshaw and Johnson note that these early church preparatory observances were of varying lengths, anywhere from three weeks to a six-week Advent in Rome. Pope Gregory I at the end of the sixth century eventually shortens the length of the Advent season to four weeks. Christmas Day, commemorated on December 25th, began as a local Roman church observance. In Rome, the four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas were officially set by Pope Gregory I. Though the early church’s celebration of Epiphany on January 6th was much older and celebrated more broadly, as Christmas Day gained wider acceptance in the church, the celebration of Advent became oriented not toward preparation for Epiphany but for Christmas.  

What is the theological significance of Advent?

As early church Advent celebrations were not centered upon December 25th at all, theologically Advent is oriented beyond the birthday of Jesus. Advent prepares us to celebrate Jesus Christ’s arrival, born into our broken world as a real, en-fleshed human being. However, the season of Advent also directs us toward the ultimate, eschatological hope of our eternal Savior’s second coming and the subsequent reconciliation of all things. In other words, we spiritually “get ready” for Christ to come again.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher writes, “The spirit of the season is expressed in the impatient cry of a sometimes desperate people, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64:1).” In contrast to the often-ostentatious ethos of the commercial Christmas season, the Church’s Advent is a somber and soulful time of contemplation. Many of our Advent scriptures and hymns are of lament. A very familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” has a haunting minor melody, in which the chorus cries out for God to save God’s people, to “ransom captive Israel.” In the final days of Advent, many churches hold “Longest Night” worship services in the evening, intentional spaces for communities to gather and lay bare the sadness and grief so often felt on these longest nights of the year.

The Church’s Advent journey does not abandon us at the threshold of despair and sorrow. Ultimately, this season orients us toward hope in a Savior who has the power to break through the anguish and sins of this world—and to ultimately redeem us all. The theme of the fourth and final Sunday in Advent is profoundly Incarnational, pointing us toward the eternal hope of God’s people in Jesus Christ and the enduring promise that our prayers for salvation have at last been answered. The Catholic Church has recited morning prayers together for hundreds and hundreds of years. One line of praise from these morning prayers (Lauds) on the final days of Advent strikes a triumphant and optimistic tone, beautifully summing up our ultimate hope of the Advent season:

“The Lord is here; go out to meet him, saying: Great is his birth, eternal his kingdom, strong God, Ruler of all, Prince of peace, alleluia!”



A Thanksgiving Benediction

A benediction for worship or to share for your Thanksgiving meal with friends and family.

May the Lord bless you and hold you close,

May the Lord fill your heart with an overwhelming sense of peace and an abundance of gratitude.

May you rest in the assurance that God loves you completely, uniquely, and beyond measure.

May you step into the fullness of God’s love for you,

May God’s love kindle within you a yearning to reach out to those who need you, whose beloved faces you can picture in your mind’s eye, as well as the strangers whom you haven’t yet met.

May you work for justice, cling to kindness, and walk humbly with Christ in your midst.

May you live for one another and for God like never before,

With open hands, minds, and hearts,

Not just during the short days of this thanksgiving season,

But for each and every day to come.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Why was Miriam punished for speaking out?

Source: Unsplash/Milan Popovic

Miriam was a skilled, female prophet who did not receive fair credit. Are we really supposed to believe that she should have kept silent and taken it in stride?

After all, nothing in this woman’s background is commensurate with timidity. In the Old Testament, Miriam is faithful and fearless, equally as courageous of a leader as she is full of compassion. She saves her baby brother Moses’ life. She stands beside him as they grow up together and he becomes the great liberator of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Miriam is one of few women prophets identified in scripture. She is a worship leader, striking up her tambourine and leading a triumphant song of praise after the Egyptians’ watery demise in the Red Sea. She is indispensable to Moses and Aaron as they tirelessly shepherd the Israelites through the desert, in the hopes that one day, at long last, they will reach the Promise Land.

Miriam is spirited, strong, and not afraid to speak up for herself. And God punishes her for it.

We enter the scene in Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam have both leveled serious criticism at Moses. Firstly, they take issue with his marriage to a Cushite woman. Whether their concern is because his new wife is not an Israelite or for another reason, the text is unclear. Then they pose a second issue: “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

The editor’s heading in my Bible clearly presumes Miriam and Aaron’s intentions behind questioning their leader: “Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses.”Though even if jealousy contributed, wasn’t their critique truthful? Wasn’t it, in fact, true that Aaron and Miriam were called to lead alongside Moses?

Why, even in the previous chapter of Numbers, Moses himself rebukes Joshua for attempting to stop others from exercising leadership! He demands, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Here Moses seems rather favorable of the team approach!

Whereas God, on the other hand, was very unhappy with Miriam and Aaron’s line of questioning. He calls them forth and harshly rebukes them, reminding them of Moses’ favored status and that other prophets only speak to God indirectly through visions and dreams. “Not so with my servant Moses…,” says God, “with him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” Therefore, God admonishes that they should not have spoken against Moses!

What comes next truly baffles me. Both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses, but only Miriam is penalized! At God’s hand, she is stricken with leprosy. Furthermore, she is forced to quarantine outside of their camp for seven days. Of Miriam’s predicament, pastor and professor Lynn Japinga writes, “This ‘time-out’ may seem innocuous, but imagine a woman living alone outside the camp without shelter or protection from predators or the elements.” I suppose it is a small comfort that the Israelites wait for Miriam’s isolation period to end. Miriam is welcomed back into the camp and continues along with her people on their journey. Picking up right where she left off, she remains their leader. Nevertheless, as Japinga notes, during Miriam’s seven days of quarantine, it is unclear as to whether she even had access to food or water!

Honestly, this is a cringeworthy passage to read through in its entirety. From Moses’ pitiful begging, “Oh God, please heal her!” To Aaron’s disquieting appeal that she would not be, “like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.” How as a person of faith—as a woman of faith—am I supposed with reconcile with the divine punishment for Miriam’s choice to speak? Even if her intentions were less than noble, still Aaron ostensibly would share the blame—and despite his guilt-wracked conscience, he walks away without a blemish!

In her study on this biblical story, Japinga poses a question for reflection to her readers: “Had you been Miriam, what would you have said to God when you were struck with leprosy?” Besides a few choice expletives, my initial response to God would have been disbelief. Had I been Miriam, I would have wondered why I was being punished for speaking out and for holding those in power to a high standard. Moses may be called to a high prophetic station, but is he not also a flawed and finite human being, prone to mistakes and in need of accountability, just like everyone else?

To play the devil’s advocate, one could well argue that Miriam and Aaron mishandled their approach. They publicly questioned their leader in front of others rather than privately approach Moses. Even if the content of their criticism was correct, their means to that end was rash and misguided. Did they honestly think that God wouldn’t overhear them?

Of course, discerning how and when to speak up is always complicated. Even if Miriam was in the right, clearly she was part of a system that wasn’t ready for change. Sadly, as a result, she was punished and put in her place. But isn’t it possible that incremental changes happened behind the scenes? Perhaps Miriam’s voice helped pave the way for other spiritual leaders to step up—and other female prophets to be called in later generations. At the very least, Moses and Aaron must have been inwardly changed after witnessing Miriam’s courage to speak and her grace in accepting the consequences for her actions.

There have been plenty of points in my life when I’ve failed to speak up against wrongdoing, or to advocate for myself or for others—regarding small things but also big things as well. Then, there have been times when I’ve raised concerns about something I thought was wrong and suffered the consequences. Whether those consequences were warranted or not, I’ve certainly indulged in that torturous exercise of replaying scenarios over and over in my head, wondering what I might have done or said differently, wondering whether my actions had, in the end, made any difference at all. All in all, I think I have a pretty good idea what Miriam’s inner dialogue was for those seven long, lonely days quarantined outside of camp…

As a female pastor, I grieve with Miriam. Her is a story that shows how women leaders throughout history have been silenced. Even after spending considerable time with this story, I still don’t understand why she was punished for speaking out. Regardless, I celebrate her courage and strength as an example to model. Even if female leaders speak up today and get shut down, maybe the door cracks open a little wider for tomorrow’s possibilities. Incremental changes add up. One voice makes space for other voices. We can lean on the saints who have come before us to show us how to speak up for ourselves and others—and also to learn how the Church can do better at listening to stories of exclusion.

Miriam’s story gives me hope. She reminds me how far the Church has come already.   

Choosing our seasons

Click here to read the published version of this piece at the Presbyterian Outlook.

Source: Unsplash/Mario Dobelmann

The opening line of Ecclesiastes 3 is a familiar one: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven…”

Is this verse comforting? I think most folks would say so. It’s nice to be reminded that life follows a pattern. Seasons come and go. Challenging periods give way to times of ease. Life follows a natural rhythm that ebbs and flows between sorrow and celebration. Gratitude and respite come with the passage of time, for whatever phase of life in which we currently find ourselves assuredly will not last forever.  

But recently, I’ve had to stop myself from reading the words of Ecclesiastes 3 through a fatalistic lens. I wonder if the seasons of our lives are really quite so fixed? Does time press us relentlessly from one life stage to the next as though we were on a conveyor belt, or do we have a bit more agency than that? I believe it’s true that God created a kind of world with structure and order that provides our lives with predictability, purpose, and direction. There are known factors that mark the passage of time in my own life. For example, it’s currently the heat of the summer in mid-July. The year is 2022. I’m 32 years old.

In her commentary on Ecclesiastes 3, Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Knowing ‘what time it is’ in one’s life is a central part of wisdom’s discernment.” Though I’m wondering to what extent this is knowledge I must passively accept, like spotting a clock on the wall and acknowledging, “Oh, it’s 3:00 p.m.” Or, alternatively, is identifying “what time it is” for me something that I can also actively determine and choose?

Maybe it’s true that God creates a world with ordered structure. Though maybe it’s just as truethat as an intelligent agent, I can provide form and shape to the seasons that guide my limited time on this earth. Perhaps to some extent, I actually get to choose the seasons of my life. Maybe I can even go so far as to namemy own seasons for myself! “A time to mourn and a time to dance?” so says Ecclesiastes. Maybe my life right now calls for a season of both mourning and dancing at the same time!

As someone who is finishing up a divorce, I’m learning that the seasons of my life are not, in fact, so rigidly predetermined. At any point, yes, you can hop off the conveyor belt! You can choose to reorient yourself in a new direction, set a different course for your life, and step into a brand-new season, a whole new phase otherwise uncharted.

As a newly-divorced person, I know what I’ve left behind. I walked away from a five-year-marriage. For the moment, I’ve left behind the traditional roadmap for homeownership and 2.5 kids. Those life benchmarks were neatly laid out for me consecutively one after the other, if I had chosen to stay on that particular path. Now instead, I’m turning to a brand new chapter in my life. Now owning a home and parenthood are no longer imminently on the horizon. Something else, yet to be determined, is coming up next for me now.  

Ecclesiastes 3:6 echoes in my head: “A time to seek and a time to lose…” I think these words resonate well with the season of divorce. For me, my time to lose has become synonymous with my time to seek. What I’m stepping into now is a whole new season as a newly-single, older, and more mature woman. If a central piece of my wisdom discernment is to identify what time it is in my own life, then that’s the main question for my current process of self-discovery: What season of life am I currently in? And to what extent do I get to decide what it is and what it looks like?

Currently, one of my favorite podcasts is The Real Question with Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan. In each episode, Casper and Vanessa bring their own expertise and usually at least one entertaining pop culture insight to addressing life’s big questions. I love the playful spirit of enthusiastic curiosity Vanessa and Casper bring to their conversations. They often make me think about something I’ve been contemplating from a very different perspective.

For example, in one episode, Casper ter Kuile wrestles with the question of what the term “middle age” means for him. Like me, his life has also taken a less traditional trajectory, and he considers how this next stage of life for him can be marked by fullness rather than absence (e.g. absence of kids, absence of homeownership, etc.) In the episode, Casper ponders not just what he wants to do in this next stage of his life but who he hopes he will be.

Casper’s framing of the question as who he wants to “be” made a lightbulb flicker on in my mind. Suddenly determining what season of life I’m in feels far less to do with extrinsic factors outside of my control. When I look at Ecclesiastes 3, I read it now through a different lens. “A time to mourn and a time to dance” are states of being. Certainly, weeping and laughter are natural responses to external events, but I also can choose my responses accordingly. Times for weeping and for laughter don’t have to be thrust upon me without my willing consent. If I want to fall apart, I can fall apart. My grief is mine. My joy is also mine. No one can dictate what it looks like, or how long it should last.

In what season of life am I currently living? For me, this is predominantly a season of resilience, optimism, and the delight of self-discovery. This is a moment of incredible liberation, of “being” anew. And when I look forward into the future, I think about the words that I want to define the next few years of my life. I think of words like “stable,” “steady”, and “dependable.” With God’s help, I hope to be the kind of person that embodies a steadiness and dependability in this new unfolding phase of my life. I also hope to be able to share my experiences so that others might learn from my personal journey and feel seen and validated by what I’ve gone through.

For whatever season of life you are facing, step forward in hope. You can choose who you want to be in each and every one.  

A prayer for milestones

A prayer for the transitions of life
Source: Unsplash/Adrien Olichon

Gracious God,

In this lifetime, we face a great many milestones. Some happy. Some sad. Many both at once.

Help us to navigate the fullness of both our joys and our sorrows for the many transitions we undergo in our lives, especially when the emotional weight of it all at times feels too overwhelming to name and too heavy to carry.

In this season of graduations, we celebrate the joy of new beginnings as well as grieve the inevitable arrival of endings. For both good endings and bad, may we show grace to ourselves and to others.

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