“We are worse than we think we are, but we are more forgiven than we can imagine because we have been more loved than we could ever possibly conceive.” (Rev. Keith Abramowski)
This quote of his own is the cover photo on the Facebook account of a seminary classmate of mine, and every time I see it, I’m led to pause and ponder the wonderful paradox contained in this statement. As humans in a world broken by sin, you and I are utterly in need of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. But as humans born of the creation of God, we are also utterly precious and loved by God. There is nothing God desires more than to be in relationship with us through the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. In regard to our human condition, we can never think too lowly of ourselves in terms of our need for God’s mercy and help. But at the same time, we can never think too highly of ourselves when it comes to our value in the eyes of God. Learning to live in the tension of this paradox is part of what it means to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
I was reminded of this again a few days ago when the words of an older hymn came to mind. There are many contemporary hymns that I love, but I am also grateful to have been steeped in the traditional hymns that were sung in my childhood church. To hold contemporary songs in one hand and traditional hymns in the other makes for a rich hymnody; it’s a “musical canon” in my head for which I’m deeply grateful. The hymn that came to mind recently is one by Charles Gabriel called, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.”
I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how He could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean.
For me it was in the garden, He prayed, “Not my will, but Thine.” He had no tears for His own griefs, but sweat drops of blood for mine.
He took my sins and my sorrows, He made them His very own; He bore the burden to Calvary, and suffered and died alone.
When with the ransomed in glory His face I at last shall see, 'twill be my joy through the ages to sing of His love for me.
How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be; How marvelous! How wonderful! Is my Savior’s love for me.
The fact that a perfect God could continue to love us in spite of all our failings is a gift worthy of our amazement. God came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ, and in this way, bore our sins and our sorrows and made them his own, so that you and I might know the joy of God’s eternal presence. When we place our future into the hands of our Savior, we can know we will one day see his face, and then the marvelous song will be our own.
With prayers for your journey,
I am acquainted with a man who is an Orthodox Christian priest in Russia. He has an interesting story about how he came to be a priest, and maybe I will tell you that story, sometime. But as I write this, I am thinking about something he said about our souls. Father Vladimir lives and serves in a small village about an hour and a half outside Moscow. Like many Russian villages, this one was devastated during the days of Stalin and the ensuing Soviet era. Upheaval occurred in all aspects of life; economic, social and religious. The crosses and cupolas were pulled down from the top of the village church, which became a storage building for agricultural products and eventually an area club and movie house. By the time Father Vladimir and his family moved to the village in the 1990’s, the roof of the church had collapsed and the building was in complete disrepair. The longer story I’ll tell you someday has to do with how the family’s part-time project to help restore the church building blossomed into a multi-faceted ministry in the village.
After a casual “yes” to a request years ago to allow some parents and their disabled children to come and find summer respite, the village is now the center of a thriving summer ministry to special needs children and their parents. Mostly it is exhausted mothers who come to find rest, instruction and encouragement, while living the remainder of the year in a culture that is not particularly welcoming or supportive of families with special needs children. While the children’s diagnoses are not revealed to visitors like me, my observation has been that most (but not all) of the campers are teenaged boys who appear to be on the autism spectrum. In many cases, the boys’ fathers have left the home because of the stress (and in Russian culture, the embarrassment) of dealing with their children. In a nation still working to recover from seventy years of communist leadership, the educational and social support systems we take for granted do not exist for most special needs families.
Because many like those who come to the summer camps end up in Soviet-style institutions when their parents or other relatives pass away, the village is now creating permanent housing for families, with the aim of creating a community in which special needs adults can continue to live in a safe and supportive environment when they no longer have a family member to care for them. A critical aspect of the ministry in the village is to address the spiritual needs of the campers and their parents, as well as their emotional and developmental needs. As one mother said, “this is the thing the government cannot do for our children.” Village life revolves around the now-restored church and its seasons of Orthodox worship, fasting and celebration. In my visits, I’ve been inspired by how the special needs campers are patiently and lovingly integrated into village life and worship, even when their presence at church can be very disruptive.
So, why am I telling you all this? I was recently watching a video that’s been made about life in this village and its ministry to special needs children and their families. I was struck hard by a comment from Father Vladimir, who was speaking to the spiritual aspect of ministering to children with special needs. “If you look attentively at people’s lives, how they live, and especially how they die; are they ready to meet God, or not? In that sense, we are all invalids.” We are all invalids. While we decide as cultures who is “abled” and “disabled,” and how different people will be treated, the truth is that in a world broken by sin, we are all crippled. We are all “disabled” by sin, from the humanity we were intended to be at Creation. From the perspective of eternity with God, no one of us is any more “abled” than another. Each one of us is entirely dependent on the grace of God in Christ for our spiritual healing and for reconciliation with our Creator. As long as we live on this earth, we will continue to be “disabled” by our presence in earthly brokenness, but with Christ’s help, we will know the joy of complete restoration in the life to come.
When I think of myself as a spiritual invalid, completely dependent on God’s grace, it changes how I view others. It makes me more patient and more loving, and it opens my eyes a bit more to the preciousness of every human life. This is what my friends in a little Russian village have learned; and I hope it’s what we can learn, too.
With prayers for your journey,
Do you have a favorite movie that you watch at Christmas? Most people I know do. In fact, most people I know have more than one favorite movie at Christmas time. My husband and I used to start off with “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but the last couple of years, our go-to first movie for Christmas has been “Elf,” with Will Ferrell. Several people have told me they’ve never watched Elf because they don’t like Will Ferrell’s style. If you are one of those people, then I encourage you to watch it, anyway. It’s different from his other movies, and I think you will enjoy it.
Once my husband and I have watched our first Christmas movie, we proceed with a series of others that includes “Miracle on 34th Street,” “A Christmas Story,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We usually add in a couple of Christmas episodes from The Vicar of Dibley and Mr. Bean that we have on DVD. My husband watches (without me) a very old film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Other favorites among my friends include “White Christmas,” “Love, Actually,” and…”Die Hard” with Bruce Willis!
It seems that a lot of people are longing for Christmas this year more than usual, and even starting their decorating and other holiday traditions early. It’s understandable that with the year we’ve had in 2020 – COVID-19, social unrest, and an election cycle that has tested friendships and family ties – we would “need a little Christmas, right this very minute!” Our traditions and the beauty of the season promise familiarity and comfort.
It’s been a gratifying challenge to preach on the Revelation during November and I hope the sermon series that has wrapped up has been meaningful and helpful for many. But I’m ready now to ease up a bit and enjoy the Advent season on Sunday mornings. I want to do that by inviting you to watch a Christmas movie each week and then considering how the themes that attract us to these movies again and again relate to messages of the Advent season. To that end, I invite you to watch the following movies, and join us for worship at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays, either in person or via live-stream on our church Facebook page:
For December 6th, “A Christmas Story” (1983) with Peter Billingsley
For December 13th, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) with Edmund Gwenn
For December 20th, “Elf” (2003) with Will Ferrell
For December 24th (Christmas Eve), “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)
For December 27th, “It’s a Wonderful Life” with James Stewart
For January 3rd, “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby & Danny Kaye
(Jan. 3rd is the last Sunday of Christmas in the church liturgical year)
Our Christmas Eve service will be recorded in advance this year and released on the church’s YouTube channel the week of Christmas. We’ll post a link on our Facebook page and here on our website. A lot of discussion went into this decision among the staff and members of our Worship Committee. Christmas Eve is our service with the highest attendance. We know attendance would be lower this year because of COVID-19. But we also know we probably could not accommodate all who would want to attend, due to our distancing requirements, and we can’t bear the thought of turning people away on Christmas Eve. So, this year’s service will be online-only.
With prayers for your journey,
I came across a funny little story in a magazine the other day:
A man went into a pet shop looking for a pet that was unique. No puppies or kittens for this guy; he wanted something that no one else had. The clerk at the pet store had just the thing – a talking centipede! The man was excited to be buying such an unusual pet. He carefully carried the centipede home in its little house and put it in a safe place so it could get used to its new surroundings.
On Sunday morning, the man asked his new pet if it would like to come along with him to church. He expected to hear something from this talking centipede, but there was no answer from inside the little house. Confused, the man asked again, “Would you like to go to church with me?” Still no answer from inside the tiny house.
The man starts to wonder if he’s been duped by the clerk at the pet store. Is this really a talking centipede? With irritation in his voice, he asks again, “Would you like to come to church with me?” Before he can finish his sentence, a tiny voice is heard from inside the little house. “Hey, buddy, I heard you the first time. Be patient with me. I’m still putting on my shoes!”
Alright. So, whether you laughed at that or groaned a bit, there are points to be taken from this story. One is that we don’t always understand one another’s struggles. Something that’s relatively easy for some of us (like putting on just two shoes!) can be a real struggle for someone else. It’s easy to become impatient with a person who seems to have a hard time doing something that comes easy to us.
There’s even an old saying that you never really know a man (or woman) until you have walked a mile in his (or her) shoes. To stand and walk around in another person’s shoes means to internalize that person’s perspective on life; the pain, the fears, the experiences, the worries and doubts, and what brings that person joy. When we take the time to do this with one another, we start to understand why some people feel like they have a hundred pairs of feet to move around in order just to walk through life.
Maybe there’s a person you know who seems to have “too many shoes;” a person who makes you feel impatient and frustrated. Or perhaps there’s someone in your life who makes you feel angry, or who has disappointed you. There’s plenty of anger and disappointment to go around, especially in this fearful and contentious season of public life.
It may even be that the person you feel most impatient and frustrated with is yourself. In spite of your best efforts and expectations, you find that you’re falling short of the kind of person you want to be, and of what you’d hoped to accomplish in your life.
One of my favorite Scripture passages is Ephesians 3:14-21. The writer of this epistle reminds us that we take our “name,” our value and our worth, from the One who knows what it’s like to walk in our shoes. Through the Incarnation in Christ, God entered into our human condition in love. Regardless of our present life’s circumstances, as we look to Christ, we are being rooted and grounded in that love. That means we have an eternal source of patience and understanding for one another and for ourselves, if we just tap into it.
With prayers for your journey,