I always become a little frustrated when I forget to refill the tank on my snowblower and run out gas on a cold windy morning while clearing my driveway. Inevitably with fossil fuel, one stops at empty, and there is no where else to go, but to get a can and a funnel.
The problem of stopping at empty is the intended journey of clearing the driveway comes to a stop and an end, and one is left standing in the cold. One of the most grieving sunrise services I have witnessed was a community sunrise service I participated in about 25 years ago. I was always “pumped” on Easter morning. Easter Sunday worship was a highlight, if not the highlight of years. The great bridge from Christmas to Easter, Incarnation to Resurrection was complete. But this particular sunrise service left me in grief. A well meaning pastor, in speaking of Mary Magdalen and the other Mary finding the tomb empty could only conclude the tomb was empty. And reading from Mathew 28, his sermon
concluded with the proposition that all we could be certain of was the tomb was empty, and beyond that there was no certainty of what happened next. Mary Magdalen’s and the other Mary’s meeting with the angel, then meeting Jesus was credited to the emotional hysteria of the moment, their visions created from being distraught that the body was not there. The sermon’s conclusion was that the only thing certain in Mathew 28: 1-10 was the body was gone and all else was speculation and mystery. We could only stop at empty, and wander away wondering what God had done. There was no conclusion, except an empty tomb and hysteria the produced a movement called Christianity.
I suspect my grief that sunrise morning is understood by those reading these words. I remember thinking, “Why stop at empty?”
When I read the opening paragraph of Matthew 28, the two women find an empty tomb, and then a second great chapter of God’s movement in human space and time begins. The angel, the messenger, tells these two women: "don’t be afraid." The admonishment brings about for the two a mixture of being afraid and joyful. The picture is being afraid in the unknown yet powerful presence of God, and the knowing that God has acted. And there is the resurrected Christ appearing, again telling the two not to be afraid. I suspect their fear was beginning to dissipate, a fear of the unknown, replaced with a fear and awe of the Holy inexplicable. They obey Jesus’ command and rush to tell the other disciples. Of course we know from the other Gospels that the men didn’t quite believe them, until Peter and John
saw for themselves.
Why stop at empty? Why not trust the resurrected Christ? Why not welcome the gift of the Holy Spirit? The disciples move from emptiness to openness: Open to the receiving of Jesus Christ, receiving a greater filling of the Holy Spirit, receiving that in knowing and living with Jesus, the individual, the body of Christ and the whole of culture and society can be transformed into reflecting God’s image. I don’t understand why anyone would stop at empty and not welcome and reach for a fresh and deeper filling.
“But now, this what the Lord says-
He who created you O Jacob
He who formed you, O Israel
I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
As one might suspect, for myself the new year has begun with a bit of reflection. My thoughts and tasks are now woven with the knowledge that in several months my tenure as the regional executive minister will end. Coupled with this knowledge, I realize that stepping back from the role of executive minister will necessitate for a time the relinquishing of the role of pastor. When I retire on September 1st, it will mark 40 years of pastoral ministry. (Granted, I wouldn’t have called myself a pastor, when I was 24.) Shortly after Christmas, God’s grace let me stumble into a place of seeing the blessing of laying down the roles I have filled for 40 years. It was a renewed call to a “first identity.”
I have discovered that this journey into retirement is partially about the intentional shedding of identities. The blessing is the rediscovering, or re-embracing a fuller sole identity in Christ. In the business of serving God, there is the temptation and the creation of identities from what we do, complete, or achieve. And in welcoming these identities, we run the risk of finding our first identity not in Christ, but in a whirlwind of things that fill our ego needs. The roles quickly become distorted not as a means of reflecting Christ, but instead become reinforcements of our own self-image. We possibly need the roles to assure ourselves of our worth and our place in the world. We can manipulate our environments, and manipulate others as though they are mirrors from which we derive a desired image of ourselves. And what happens when the mirrors fall away?
I am coming to believe that the richness of intentionally shedding identities for only the identity of “Christian” does not create an emptiness but rather creates an openness, only to be filled by Christ. It sounds a little kenotic that a person pours out, so that the Holy Spirit might pour in. I worry that part of the erosion of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy is because we somehow begin to believe our first identity in Christ is found wanting, so we must substitute temporal ideological or political identities for an eternal one. Maybe substitute ideologies play better to our egos, and justify our angers, than living under Christ’s reign. In the same manner, the calls we have received, the positions we have filled, and work we have poured ourselves into, become our identity. In our spiritual and emotional strivings, we slip away from the assurance that our identity is found in the One who extended the call and formed our lives.
To borrow imagery from C.S. Lewis, maybe the inventorying and shedding of identities is like Aslan’s claws removing the dragon scales so one might be redeemed and real. Isaiah assures the people of Israel, and his words echo to us, “I have called you by name, and you are mine.” How different we and the Body of Christ would be, if the first identity most often prevailed.
To echo the words of the Westminster Confession, the purpose of humanity is to worship God and enjoy Him forever. The truth is breathtakingly revealed on the night the angels greet the shepherds with news the Messiah is born. Since my announced retirement, people have several times asked what has brought me the most reward or satisfaction during 40 years of ministry. I do not answer the question lightly, but reflecting on the Judean shepherds, what I have treasured the most, have been the times of just being with God and knowing Christ close, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes gathered in a group, like shepherds, God chooses to visit a Christian Community, and in a miraculous way one glimpses eternity and realizes how Holy and close Jesus is. At other times in the struggles of prayer, God is so close, indescribably close. In the mundane world of “doing church” or even in the habitual movements of spiritual disciplines, God breaks in, and once again there is the jaw dropping experience that Jesus Christ is who he says he is. I have sometimes wondered if the shepherds went flat on their faces before the angels, and how the angel’s announcement thundered through their souls, and how did they drink it all in?
In a couple of recent sermons, I have mentioned the times of ministry when as a pastor you feel at wit’s end: being exhausted on a Sunday morning, dreading a tense business meeting, anxious over another difficult conversation. Yet, I have occasionally in desperation prayed, “Jesus it will be all right if you just show up.” And more times than not, Jesus has. I see a fractured, hate filled, self-worshiping world, and too many times the Body of Christ mimics a secular society, and our aspiration for a timeless Spirit molded church are discouraged and eroded by headwinds blowing from 360 degrees. But Jesus arrives. The human condition remains the same, the propensity in C.S. Lewis’ words “to be bent.” But in cold and darkness, angels speak to the almost least of these, who raise lambs to be sacrificed. I wonder if the shepherds rejoiced as out of the night they saw the glory of God, and they knew everything was going to be o.k. The joy of knowing everything will be o.k. must have overwhelmed the shepherds.
Recently I heard a pundit say: “To be American is to be lonely.” I was struck by what is obviously and an oversimplified statement, but I cannot deny the truth it contains. How in a society so wealthy and technologically advanced, so “connected” can people experience personal and societal loneliness? Partly the reason is the problem of sin, and maybe part of the sin is that in a tribalized culture we are lonely because we have grown to hate one another. Bonhoeffer writes that we only truly see each other through the experience of the cross. Maybe the same is true about the manger. If I have not entered into the Good News from cradle to grave, if I truly believe that hope and salvation are fleeting solely human endeavors maybe hate becomes easy and hatred creates the deepest of despair, isolation,
and loneliness. But if the incarnation proves nothing else, it is hope and salvation are beyond ourselves found in the grace of God who sends the Son born of Mary and held by Joseph. And God breaks into the darkness and the message is “Glory to God in the highest.” And the response is to run breathlessly to meet Jesus.
On September 17, 2022, we held our 3rd annual Festival of Hope in Plainfield CT. It was
different than the first two. In the previous years, we organized this event, as the Ecumenical Churches in the area. This year we came together as “The Body of Christ” which was my heart’s desire from the beginning.
In August, I read an article in Reader’s Digest that helped solidify my focus for the Festival. It was about the Coast Guard’s involvement with the rescues in New York City on September 11th, 2001. The article ended with this: “In a day where his efforts had helped rescue the equivalent population of a midsize city, the sound that haunts him is that of all the people who weren’t saved.” - Lt. Michael Day, Coast Guard, The Great 9/11 Maritime Rescue
“The cry of the unsaved”, this phrase really struck my heart. It has become part of my
new mission statement, for my life, my church, and The Festival of Hope. The one focus
is: “To hear the cry of the unsaved - and respond with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ,
to encourage believers, and to Glorify the Lord”
That was our plan and our goal for this year’s Festival. We had wonderful speakers, preachers and musicians. We had ministries to present and testimonies of changed lives. The weather was perfect (thank you Father!). Through some wonderful sponsors, we were able to provide the event and food, free to the public. Well, you know when you have a Godly plan, the enemy is going to try and mess it up, and he tried! For a few weeks until 1 hour before we started, everything that could go wrong, did! BUT GOD….
I love that Scriptural phrase “but God”. The head of the Christian Council of Arts, who had struggled the week earlier to put on an outdoor concert, and I came up with the phrase “Murphy’s Blessings”- Everything that can go wrong does, BUT God will triumph and be Glorified!!!” Great is Thy Faithfulness!!!
The 3rd annual Festival of Hope turned out to be a wonderful day in the Lord. God’s Word was sent for throughout the town of Plainfield with our great sound system, lives were changed, hearts were encouraged, and our Lord was glorified.
One of the participants, captured the “Vision” when she wrote this about her
"I must confess, I have a special place in my heart for this Festival. I have been blessed to be a part of it from the beginning and I love the fact that everyone is there to honor God. It is not about what church you are from but rather, it is the Body of Christ coming together to show His love. It is not a 'church performance' driven event but a Christ-centered time. And, because I have been with it from the beginning, I see that it has not changed its focus over time.
All those who put this festival together work very hard to make it the most welcoming and
nurturing time for those who come to it. I thank Father for His hand on all the organizers. It is a definite blessing" -Toni Hurshman
“It was also my first time at the Festival of Hope and let me just say Father God was very much glorified that day. The openness and heartfelt love for God were beautiful to behold. The thing that stood out to me the most was that it didn't feel like a 'church event'; but more like a family barbecue. It was a lot of fun to rejoice in the Lord's love together with you and I look forward to next year's festival. God Bless” -Joel Deeter
We already have a date for next year’s Festival, Sept. 16, 2023 (barring RAPTURE). You
are all invited!
As we go through this year our mission statement is still the same “To hear the cry of the
unsaved - and respond with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, to encourage believers,
and to Glorify the Lord”. Great is Thy Faithfulness!!!
Rev. Linda Foye Hirtle
One of my favorite topics is chickens. Lately I have been thinking about eggs and connecting my thoughts on eggs to the parable of the wheat and thorns. Sometimes eggs don’t hatch, and sometimes the garden is overtaken by weeds. One of the novice questions I receive from would-be chicken keepers is: “Do I have to have a rooster to get eggs?” The answer is no. But a hen setting on eggs doesn’t always hatch them all, even when there is a rooster present. Sometimes eggs get addled; something occurs to stop the egg from developing or growing. The word “addled”, when applied to the human mind, can refer to “fuzzy”, befuddled”, mixed up”, and “off base.” Reading these definitions reminds me the present writer is included in them.
A further question is: “do Christians, churches, and whole denominations get addled?”; something occurs and the development stops. Addling eggs is way to control geese populations, but there is possible federal prison time for addling an eagle’s egg! I find local church histories inspiring. They usually sound something like this: “Twelve people gathered in the parlor of the Smith farm and after a night of prayer covenanted together to give birth to the First Baptist Church. With the help of a Baptist pastor, an evangelistic Sunday morning worship was established and the new church witnessed 20 people baptized in the brook. Within the next decade, nearly 100 people gave their lives to Christ. On the celebration of the church’s 50th year, it boasted 150 people in attendance and witnessed a Sunday School of 50 children. Its generosity was known through-out the county and three other churches were established by their deacons.”
Fast forward and we ask in a post-COVID world, what’s next? How come so many eggs got addled, and sometimes my own soul is one of the eggs? Lately, I have been sitting with the book of Colossians and thinking about Paul planting churches in that particular valley and how correction from the apostle was needed so soon. In the final chapter of his letter, Paul writes. “Devote yourselves to prayer and be watchful and thankful.” Prayer, awareness, and gratitude may be what protects souls and churches from being addled. Possibly the threat of being addled increases with time. Anxieties and reactions to the present world could bring about being addled. Or, could it be, and as any historian can point out, the movements lose their original purpose and finding the future is regaining the original purpose? I wonder what it was like to sit in that kitchen or parlor and pray together by candle or lamp light.
I think this is still happening, maybe not by candle light, but sometimes subtle movements go unnoticed by those of us busily getting churches to work the way they should. How can I storm the gates of hell when I am too busy revising a set of by-laws or trying to pay for the heat? I believe the Gospel is the purpose that overshadows all others.
With self-awareness, gratitude and a healthy practice of prayer, possibly our eggs wouldn’t get addled.
In Jesus name,
Read what's happening all around the Region!