These Three Kings

Christmas is a story that speaks to us through many storylines. Mary learns from an angel named Gabriel that she will give birth to a child whose life will be the unsettling of the world order. Joseph, who learns that he will be a father to the child, is unsettled by the news, then (through the persuasive intervention of an angel who speaks to him in a dream) decides to embrace the child as his own. And then there are the Magi, or the wise men, or the mysterious visitors from the East. The biblical record of their role in the drama of Jesus’ birth does not tell us their names, their precise land of origin, or their number. Yet traditions over time have told us that there were three–and that their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Henry Van Dyke, the pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City during the nineteenth century, added to the story by writing a book called The Fourth Wise Man.

In my imagination I see the Magi (however many there may have been) traveling slowly by camel over a vast expanse to worship the Christ child and give him their gifts. In the following poem I have tried to ponder not so much the details of the external journey, but the interior journey that brought them to their destination. Perhaps it will prompt you to create your own imaginative engagement with this story as a way of deepening your encounter with the child whose name was called Jesus, and who is alive and at large in the world today with his fierce love and persistent compassion.

“These Three Kings”

They did not know one another
Any better than they knew the road
That stretched before them.

These three kings were unrehearsed
In the rigors of long journeys and  
Unaccustomed to travel over great distances.

Yet the star would not take no for an answer    
The inevitable had become unavoidable:
They turned their camels toward the light.

At night they warmed themselves by the fire,
Stepped out of its illumination
To confirm the star’s onward leading.

Their gifts rattled in the rough packs,
Their teeth rattled from the plodding beasts.           
They hid their shaking hands

From the king who demanded obedience:
Opened their hearts to the infant king
Who welcomed their love.

They went home by another way,
Warned in a dream that saved their skins
And kept the child a holy secret:

The child whose light is now the star,
That calls us from our homelands
To the horizon of all that love makes possible.

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Out of the Depths

In a filing cabinet in my office I keep several files that I have carried with me for over thirty years and through my service to three different churches. There is a file in this collection for each of the Christian seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost). I have files for some of the other days of special importance on the Christian calendar (such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday), and for those days where our religious belonging comes into conversation with national identity and global concern (the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and World Communion Sunday).

In most cases the file folders are tattered and bursting with their contents. They are chock full of notes, clippings, artwork, newspaper articles, notes from parishioners, recipes, and reflections. With each new season I dive once again into the depths of these spiritual libraries, and rummage around for wisdom from the past to clarify the call of faith for the present and the future.

If I were to set all these files side by side it would be easy to see that the one I have developed for Advent is the largest. I suppose that reflects my special fondness for this season, and the traditions that accompany it, like the weekly lighting of Advent candles and the annual Christmas Pageant. And of all the treasures in my Advent collection, the ones that mean the most to me are some photocopied prayers by Samuel Miller. He was minister of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1934 to 1959, and then became Dean of Harvard Divinity School in that same year. His prayers for the season of Advent were collected after his death in 1968, and even though I have read them many times over the years, I feel that whenever I do so a door opens within me, allowing a little more room for wonder and the possibilities for love and peace that God would bring into the world through us.

In this blog I share with you two of Samuel Miller’s prayers that have been particular favorites of mine. May his words, and the meditations of our hearts, prepare the space not only for Christmas, but for the coming of Christ himself.

God and Father of us all, in whom our joy finds perfect peace, enter, we beseech thee, into the crowded inn of our life, quiet the tumult and the disorder, and let thy strength impel us to make an ample place for the advent of thy Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Move us by such joy as we have had in Jesus Christ and in thee to praise thy holy will and wisdom. Make us glad, after the way of thy spirit, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, in the fog and fury of this dark age, keep the inner world of heart and mind in us clear and strong, that we may not be buffeted from our course by the wild winds of chaos and seas of bitterness. Help us onward through all kinds of whether to follow patiently the north star of thy eternal purpose and, if darkness and chaos hide it, hold us firm by every remembrance and hope to do thy will through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pass the Peace and Exercise Faith

“Would you please pass the bread?” Seated with friends and family at the dinner table, we suddenly notice that a basket of fresh bread has landed near our place at the table. We comply with the request to keep it moving by passing it along to the person next to us, who in turn sends it along to the next person. This simple action is repeated by all at the table until everyone has been served.

There is a powerful lesson in this simple ritual of table fellowship.  A meal in which all are nourished depends on the rhythm of giving and receiving. Should one person hoard the bread, or eat more than their share, the harmony of the meal will be destroyed. Receive and pass along, receive and pass along: when this pattern is in place the meal does more than feed the body. It feeds the soul.

There is a ritual that is sometimes used in Christian churches to help us get into our muscles the importance of being good receivers and good givers. We call it the Passing of the Peace, and when it occurs in the midst of worship it provides an opportunity for each person in the sanctuary to reach out to others nearby with a handshake and the words, “may the peace of Christ be with you.” Through this action and these words we pass along to others the grace and peace with which we have been received by God, friends, families and strangers. We receive, and we pass along, and all are nourished in body and spirit.

On Sunday, December 3, we will include a time for the Passing of the Peace in our service of worship. As we do so, I pray that we will deepen our love and care for one another, and strengthen the bonds, visible and invisible, that unite us. And when we leave the sanctuary may we do so with the assurance “that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

For All the Saints

“I’m no saint, but I was glad to help!”

I have sometimes heard that phrase spoken by people in response to a compliment they might have received for some good work. But why is this so? What image of saints do we carry within us that makes us reluctant to be counted among their number? Are we perhaps fearful that one good deed might lead to another, carrying us ever more deeply into a life where we eventually find ourselves way out of our spiritual comfort zones? Maybe that spirit of reluctance is expressed best in the old prayer that goes like this: “Make me good, O God, but not quite yet.”

The word saint can be used to describe someone whose actions demonstrate the highest level of commitment to the well-being of the world, whether in one bold event, or over a lifetime of accumulated care and advocacy. This passion may well involve various kinds of suffering and sacrifice. It can seem to place at risk not only personal safety but relationships with friends and family members.

Over the years the word saint has come to be used in a more inclusive way. It may refer to heroic acts that receive public attention as well as the quiet daily expressions of love that take place well off the main stage of life. Sainthood is for the theologically sure-footed as well as for those wracked with doubts about divine intentions. Most of us might find ourselves at home with the title that Anne Tyler used for one of her books: Saint Maybe.

When we use the word saint to describe all those who express love through a vast array of actions, we haven’t lowered the bar. We’ve just returned to the way that saints were described in the New Testament: not as spiritual elites but as people who organized themselves into gatherings around the Mediterranean world to figure out what in the world it meant to be a Jesus-follower.

When St. Paul wrote to small gatherings of faithful people two thousand years ago, he didn’t address his letters to some of the saints, the great saints, or the cool saints, but to “all the saints.” That would have included the gracious and the grumblers, the clear and the confused, the eager and the hesitant. He wrote to them as if they all had two addresses: one in a geographical location (like Philippi or Rome or Corinth) and one in a spiritual location (“in Christ Jesus”). And he reminded them that all saints are great not because of what they do or where they are born but because they are loved by God and needed by God.

We could all try putting a St. in front of our names from time to time. It would be a reminder that we are today what Jesus-followers were two thousand years ago: people with unique gifts living in unique circumstances who seek to allow the love of God through our words and bodies. All saints. . .then and now for the future.

What’s Next?

“So . . . what’s next?” It’s a common question, often asked after we cross off an item on a to-do list, or when we think about the next activity during a vacation. But those words can take on a special urgency when we’re thinking about how to approach the next stage of life, especially our elder years. What if the second half of life is not a destination but an invitation, a time to uncover creative energies for personal growth and the common good? Could it be our destiny to use those years to help those whose first acts are just beginning? Marci Alboher hopes we will answer that question with a resounding yes.

I met Marci a few months ago and learned about her work as V.P. of Strategic Communications at Encore.org, a small nonprofit driving a growing movement around “second acts for the greater good.” This was my first introduction to Encore’s nationwide commitment to mobilize people in their second half of life to become change-makers; to leverage their time, talent, and experience in ways that can shape other lives for the better. Since I find myself in this demographic, I was especially eager to hear how Encore might help me to imagine my second act to bring about both personal and social benefit.

We welcomed Marci to Round Hill Community Church on October 27, and were drawn to the passion she feels for her work and what it can make possible. And it was inspiring to hear from Ruth Wooden, another Encore guest, who has experienced firsthand the renewal of energy and purpose that can emerge from a second act. After retiring from years of a demanding career in advertising, Ruth discovered the engaging world of theological education at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Having already served as a board member for Encore, she found a way to blend her support for that organization with new horizons of learning. Union has given Ruth the opportunity to teach a class for people who are making the transition into a time of life when they are eager to find fresh purpose and meaning.

When asked how a person can begin to take steps in the direction of an Encore vision, Marci encouraged a patient and thoughtful approach. Rather than rush into a project that might not prove the right fit, why not take the time to read and explore options? A good starting place would be Marci’s book, The Encore Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life. And the journey to insights about how best to live an encore life can also be helped by reaching out to local community leaders whose knowledge and expertise may reveal areas of need where we can make a positive difference in the lives of others.

To coincide with Marci’s visit, we invited representatives from several local groups eager to bring in the time and talent of this encore generation. Our congregation is developing relationships with Inspirica (a visionary program serving homeless families), United Way’s Reading Champions program, and Simply Smiles (a Connecticut-based nonprofit working to encourage the well-being of children in Oaxaca, Mexico and on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in LaPlant, South Dakota). With this new lens, we see these relationships as our way of joining Encore’s Generation to Generation campaign, mobilizing the elders in our community to stand up and show up for the next generation.

There are second acts for life . . . and as life spans continue to lengthen, there may be third and fourth acts as well. I’m grateful for the guidance of Encore, for the passion of Marci and Ruth, and for the inspiration of those who are discovering in the second half of life a whole new and beautiful way to make life worth living.

 

 

Encore! Encore!

Golf? That’s right. Golf. There were golf clubs in my mother’s apartment. Up to that point in her life, I had never seen her express even the slightest interest in the sport, or any other for that matter. An avid walker, and creative gardener, she never felt the need, or desire, to exercise in ways that cost money or extravagant amounts of time.

But when my mother approached her seventieth year, she developed a new orientation to life. After selling our family home in Vermont, she moved to an apartment outside Schenectady, New York and a more urban environment. One day, while out for a drive in her new surroundings, she came across a nine-hole golf course tucked in a suburban neighborhood, and for reasons unknown to me to this day, she chose to visit it, and that opened up a whole new world for her. She rented some clubs, checked out the putting green, practiced on the driving range, and became a true lover of the sport. It was at that time, while visiting her, that I saw the golf clubs. Not long afterwards, we were out on the course together, with my children tagging along.

I think that the second act of my mother’s life brought her a sense of joy that had been elusive through most of her adult years. And when she took one leap of faith, she discovered that others were to follow. She signed up for painting classes, and soon art brushes and oil paints joined her golf clubs as treasured possessions. She volunteered at a soup kitchen in Albany, and each Thanksgiving made a pilgrimage to a local Italian bakery where she successfully persuaded the owners to provide desserts for the holiday dinner at that same shelter.

I am inspired by my mother’s willingness to become vulnerable to change. When she downsized her home, little did she know how much that transition would upgrade her life. I see a comparison between her journey of faith and openness to mystery, and the way in which so many biblical characters made out of their latter years a time of rewarding and beneficial activity. Abram was seventy-five when he and his wife Sarai were called by God out of retirement to welcome the journey of a lifetime:  a one-way ticket to the promised land. Moses and Aaron were eighty and eighty three years old respectively when they confronted the Egyptian Pharaoh with this memorable message from God: “Let my people go.” Thus began the Exodus, a radical act of liberation that set the people of Israel on a new path of freedom.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “there are no second acts in life” he was clearly writing from a very narrow base of experience. Over three decades as a pastor I have witnessed more times than I can count the flowering of life and commitment and learning among people precisely at the time when people they might have chosen more private and leisurely pursuits. My dear friend, Bud Thompson, is one such person. A life long advocate for American Indians, he established a museum in Warner, New Hampshire to affirm and celebrate the rich fund of traditions and crafts that Indians have used to sustain their way of life over the centuries. Bud started that museum when he turned seventy, and just celebrated the twenty-fifth year of its existence. With all due respect to Mr. Fitzgerald, that’s what I would call a second act, and there are plenty more like it.

I am thankful for people like Marci Alboher, who believe in second acts and are helping people to craft them as their lives mature. Marci is the vice president of encore.org, a nonprofit making it easier for millions of people to pursue second acts for the greater good, and the author of The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and Difference in the Second Half of Life. Through her work at encore.org she helps experienced adults to embrace the idea of leveraging their skills and talents to improve communities and the world. Generation to Generation, a signature program of encore.org, is a campaign to mobilize the skills of adults 50+ to improve the prospects of children and youth. Marci will speak at Round Hill Community Church on October 27 at 7pm and I can’t wait to learn from her insights. She will help us to imagine creative ways of developing a second, exciting act for our lives, that can create goodness in the world around us. She will be available after her talk to sign copies of her book. And several local organizations (the Greenwich United Way, Boys and Girls Club, and Inspirica) will be available to guide attendees towards possible avenues of service.

I hope you can join us on October 27. It may be a significant step to a second act in your life, and a resounding encore!

An Ancient Hope for Modern Hearts

“O Lord…you have made human beings a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) These words can be found in the heart of the Bible—the Book of Psalms—and were written by a poet over 2,500 years ago. We do not know much about that author, except that he possessed an enormously high opinion of humanity. Yet following the recent acts of violence in Las Vegas, and other horrific attacks in recent months around the world, I wonder whether we might be developing an alternative, and less generous, view of the human capacity for goodness.

As a person of faith, I am not naïve about the harm that human beings can inflict on one another and the creation. But as a pastor, I believe it is the work of my life to develop and encourage our God-given ability to heal, to devote our resources and energy for the common good, and to change those things that contradict the movement of God toward a world of greater compassion. So I pray my prayers for healing on behalf of all those who suffered violence in Las Vegas, knowing that such recovery is only barely underway and will require years of prayer and effort to unfold. And alongside my prayers for those who need consolation, I will work to sustain my faith in humanity, to see in people across the world a God-given orientation towards peace and good will.

I invite you to set aside the news from time to time, and sit down with the author of Psalm 8, the one who brings us another kind of news, that we have been made a little lower than God, and are crowned with glory and honor. And if you seek a more modern witness to this legacy of faith, I commend to you these words by Howard Zinn, an American historian with a heart for hope:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something, if we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

Yours in Christ,

Ed Horstmann

 

Time Machine

A small envelope arrived through the mail the other day with a return address from Colorado. Inside the letter there was a note from my cousin who lives there, and a thick piece of yellow card stock that had been folded over once. When I opened it there were two Kodachrome slides inside: relics from a bygone way of remembering special and not so special events. Before I read the note I immediately held the slides to the light of our kitchen window, and was greeted in one of them by the sight of three familiar faces looking back at me. One of those faces was mine, and the others belonged to my mother and father. The photo was taken not long after the death of my grandfather (when I was nine years old), as family members gathered together from distant places to attend his memorial service. One of my cousins had captured my little family in one photograph, and the other slide included an image of my father standing next to his sister.

It was such a gift to receive my cousin’s letter and its contents. The slides had emerged when she was cleaning out some closets and she wanted me to have them. Each time I held one of the slides to the light, a few more memories would come alongside me, tugging at my sleeve for attention. As if to say: do you remember Dad’s coat, the one that he is wearing in that photograph, the way it smelled after he had worn it in the rain? Do you see Mom’s face? How unhappy she is to be cornered by someone with a camera? And look at you, says the voice of memory. You don’t look too pleased either…clearly less than thrilled to be dressed up in scratchy, new clothes, probably purchased just for the occasion.

The two sturdy Kodachrome slides that I hold up against the light are tiny time machines. They carry me back to a day that I hadn’t thought about for many years. They invite me to wonder at the inner life of my parents; the feelings, or fears, or hopes that moved them but cannot be captured on film.  And when I’ve taken in what I can from the past, I set the slides aside, and return to the land of the present where I can see my life from a fresh perspective.  As I ponder my place in the world, I wonder anew how my life can build on the past, and how I can best use the power in me to bring peace and hope to the world for such a time as this.

These are the kinds of questions that my parents faced, and now they are mine to answer. So I pray, in the words of the Round Hill Community Church Prayer, to be part of a church family that longs to be an instrument in God’s hands for good: here, near here, and far from here. And one day, when another generation comes across images of us, may they see a community of faith that devoted every ounce of its energy, resources and skill to the creation of a world at peace with itself, full of good will for all.

 

 

 

Helping Hands for the Long Haul

Following the devastation that was created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I spoke with a friend who traveled to the New Orleans area to assist with re-building efforts. While there, he met volunteers from Florida. In conversations with them he learned that residents from that state were still restoring neighborhoods—and lives—from Hurricane Andrew. And that was in 1992.

This has been an especially traumatic year for residents of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean as one major storm after another has brought damaging winds and flooding. In addition, we have heard reports of monsoons in Indonesia and earthquakes in Mexico and the loss of life and homes that have resulted from them. As I look up into the mostly blue skies over Connecticut, I am ever mindful of those who have been turning their gaze to the horizon in other parts of the world with  nervous anticipation.

While re-building efforts from recent storms will necessarily involve broad support from the federal government and large institutions, there is a decisive role that communities of faith can play in this ongoing work of healing. From the earliest days of the Christian movement, congregations have reached out to one another with helping hands for the long haul. Even before the church was called the church, when Christian congregations consisted of small gatherings of people who met in homes or the places where they worked, these people of faith were conscious of belonging to a global community. So even as St. Paul worked with brand new communities in Greece not more than twenty years after the death of Jesus, he wasted no time in making them aware of the material needs of their brothers and sisters living in Jerusalem, and so began to collect an offering on their behalf.  As if to say, you are the body of Christ:  let me introduce you to an offering plate.

On October 1, World Communion Sunday, the congregation of Round Hill Community Church will dedicate its morning offering to the work of Church World Service (CWS), an ecumenical agency based in Elkhart, Indiana. For many decades, Church World Service has dedicated its expertise and resources to support people whose lives have been overturned by natural disaster, and to continue to offer that care long after the impact on them has slipped from media attention. You will find these words of their commitment on the CWS website: Whether along the shores of New Jersey or in the capital of Haiti, a disaster does not go away once attention turns elsewhere. In fact, for many the struggle to recover from a disaster can take months, even years. That is why CWS ardently promotes the local long-term recovery effort in communities affected by disaster. CWS disaster response partners, such as denominational and secular relief agencies, bring together faith-based and secular groups to work together following a disaster.

When we send our offering to Church World Service, I hope we will also send our commitment to offer helping hands for the long haul: perhaps through other offerings, or participation on work teams to assist with re-building, or by partnering with a congregation in an affected area, and always with prayers and heart felt concern. To paraphrase a comment by Mother Teresa: “We may not always be able to do great things, but we can always do small things with great love.”

On the Way

When I was in college I used to take one week of each summer to hike a section of the Long Trail in Vermont. This path is 273 miles long and runs in a north-south direction from the state’s border with Massachusetts to its border with Canada, and overlaps in part with the Appalachian Trail. It is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States, and was constructed between 1910 and 1930 by the Green Mountain Club.

In the southern section of the state the Long Trail meanders through mile after mile of woodlands. While there is a unique beauty to this terrain, I always looked forward to the occasional sign that points the way off the beaten path where hikers can find their way to rare scenic overlooks. Many times I debated whether these detours were worth the added effort. But I was always refreshed by every opportunity to encounter a wide-open vista of the Green Mountains before resuming my journey along the main trail.

I was reminded of my Long Trail experiences while reading through the New Testament this summer. Those who gathered in homes or workplaces to shape a Christian life two thousand years ago did not describe themselves with words like church or congregation. They were known as “people of the Way.” In one sense they were on a trail of faith that was well prepared, for their scriptures and faith practices were formed almost exclusively by the traditions of Judaism. But they were also willing to go off the beaten path, to seek new ways of love and service that brought them face to face with breathtaking views of possibility.

Our sermon series for the autumn will begin on September 3, and its purpose is to help us explore how a “people on the Way” for such a time as this can bring healing and hope to the world. Through messages that will draw mainly from the Letters of St. Paul for their inspiration, we hope to find fresh faith on well-traveled trails as well as on off-road adventures. And while this series will last for a season, we hope that the faith that it inspires will continue to evolve. For as the Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alves once said: “There is no there; there is only a way.”

Recommended reading:

Marcus Borg  Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written

Marcus Borg wrote this volume to present the books of the New Testament in chronological order, and added helpful introductions to each text. This book provides insight into the way that letters from early Christian missionaries (like St. Paul) provided the guidance that Christian gatherings needed in order to grow in their faith. Those “love letters” inspired faith long before the Gospels were written and made available.