Pastors’ Page for December . . .

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It’s that time of the year again. Church newsletters across the country are filling up with articles about stewardship. As you peruse these pages, you’ll realize we’re no different. If you (hopefully!) attend We Meet on Wednesday, November 9, you’ll hear more about stewardship then. If you’re (hopefully!) in worship on Sunday, November 13, you’ll hear more about stewardship then too. How you frame all these discussions in your own heart and mind will largely dictate how you receive these messages.

I once read a reliable study from some research group about the “Top 10 Reasons People Avoid Church.” The number one reason was hypocrisy in the church, which makes sense. Being around hypocrites is emotionally and relationally taxing. The second reason? “Too much talk about money.” The third reason was “Too judgmental.” From this study we can deduce that people would rather come to church and be judged than asked to give! Yikes!

Clearly, then, I’m treading into treacherous waters here – as is the rest of the Finance Committee and Session as they lead us through another year of stewardship messages and pledge cards.

Yet here’s my little secret: I love when the church talks about finances because every single day, I get to see how your generosity is put to work in the life, mission, and ministry of this church. I get to sit in my warm, safe, well-resourced office, using the church internet to send emails and the church phone to make calls. I can focus well on my work because I’m not worried about my family’s personal finances. I am then blessed to walk out of my office door and have two extraordinarily gifted coworkers nearby to bounce ideas off of, to plan with, to dream big holy dreams alongside. As I stand in the office your generosity has provided, I can hear Heather’s rehearsal trickle faintly up the stairs, providing a sanctifying soundtrack to the good work we’re all doing. I can then take 10 more steps and stand in the office lobby talking with the WLI clients about what crafts they made that day or what their score was in bowling. Their joy is contagious! Inevitably, I’ll stand there long enough to bump into one of you on the way to a book study or the Deacon Shop. Maybe someone from La Conexion or BGOPride swings through, each providing some little taste of God’s love for the people they serve. If I choose, I can walk up a flight of steps and stand in a sanctuary painted in stained-glass glory, marveling as the light of God passes through windows that tell the story of God’s love and grace for the world. These, too, are gifts of your generosity. I’ve taken maybe all of 50 steps total and I’m already overwhelmed with the power of generosity. I hope, then, you can see why this topic is so delightful for me. Truly, I lament for those who find this topic only slightly worse than hypocrisy. They’re clearly missing all the beauty and glory in their midst.

Additionally, I know from talking with many of you that your acts of generosity have been their own blessing in your life. Maybe you don’t get the same joys I get, but you are blessed in your own way, receive your own joy, express your own gratitude for this church – both the building and the people – through your giving. As a pastor, of course, this all makes sense to me; God made us for giving, not hoarding, and when we live into the ways we’ve been created, we find harmony and joy with God.

All of this, by the way, is why the church talks about “stewardship” and not just “giving.” “Giving” can be largely transactional, but stewardship is about sharing; it’s about relationships. “Stewardship” names the practice of collaboration in community in which the sum of our gifts is greater than its parts. “Stewardship” is the alchemy by which our gifts mingle with God’s grace and becomes so much more.

Dear Friends,

    Advent, from the Latin “to come” or “arrival,” is a unique Church season. Two reasons, in particular stand out:

              First, the Church calendar begins with the first Sunday of Advent, so in a week or so we will enter a new year. It is significant that the Church calendar runs from waiting for the birth of the Messiah as its first Sunday to the celebration of the Messiah as King (Christ the King Sunday) as its last Sunday. You can see from this little fact alone that all things revolve around Christ – our Church calendar, our very sense of time, indeed, our whole lives.

Second, Advent is as much a form of remembering as it is anticipating – that is, it is as much about the past as it is about the future. To be sure, we are not actually awaiting the birth of Christ since that happened 2,000 years ago. We are commemorating it, but this commemoration only and exclusively occurs on the day of Christmas and the Christmastide season that follows. Simply put, Advent is not Christmas. So, Advent exists as more than a four-week-long birthday party of Jesus. In fact, that’s not what Advent is about at all.

What, then, is Advent? Why did the saints of yore create this season? Why have saints since them passed it along to us? Why are we passing it along to the next generation?

The answers to these questions might be a bit surprising, maybe even challenging. The answer is (warning… big theological word coming) “eschatology.” Eschatology names the theology about Jesus’ return at the end of time in which God’s shalom will reign in every manifold way possible. It is sometimes more popularly known as “the end times” or, in some circles, “consummation.”

Of course, this raises a challenge for us because “eschatology” has been hijacked in recent generations by Christians who peddle in fear-mongering evangelism. (That is, by Christians who use the “if you died tonight do you know where you would go?” form of questioning to introduce the faith. Meanwhile, I’m like, “Bruh, I’m in line at Kroger. Can we just keep the convo to local sports or the weather like all good Midwesterners?”). In fact, eschatology has been so usurped by a certain (often tactless) branch of Christianity that most Presbyterians blush to even speak of it. And that’s a shame worth blushing over for eschatology is a gift to the Church. It is God’s way of allowing us to peak into a future in which the trials and tribulations of all our lives give way to the blessings, communion, and peace of living with God forever. In other words, this topic should make us smile, not cringe.

I hope that we can resist this more Evangelical appropriation of eschatology (the “cringe”) in favor of a more thoughtful, faithful, Reformed review of it (the “smile”). And there is no better time of the year to do just this than Advent, for from its very inception, this has been Advent’s purpose. The Church-historic cultivated this season as a way of teaching the faithful people of God – you – how to learn to wait and hope in the Lord. For, as anyone who has ever spent time raising a toddler knows all too well, “patience” is not an inherent skill, but rather one that must be worked at. Advent, then, is our season of learning to work on our patient awaiting of Christ’s return.                   As such, we see, Advent helps point our faces forward in time even more than it teaches us to look back to the history of Christ’s incarnation.

But, wait, if that’s true, why am I going to preach sermons out of the nativity of Christ? Well, for the simple fact that we learn how to wait for God’s (second) coming by attending to the details of God’s original Advent. We learn, for example, to trust in the just peace of God’s advent by listening to Mary’s Magnificat. We learn humility through Joseph’s humiliation in marrying a pregnant woman. We learn joyful expectation through John’s leaping in Elizabeth’s womb. We learn steadfast devotion through Zechariah’s season of silence prior to the birth of his son, John the Baptist. Our own anticipation of Christ’s return will run through these virtues of courage, humility, joy, and quiet patience.

Being so new, I’m not sure of all the past traditions and events for this church during Advent. What I do know is that many churches conflate “Advent” and “Christmas” in a way that – all quite innocently, I’m sure – robs their members of the blessings of Advent. And so, hoping to avoid replicating that error, we will engage Advent on its own terms. We will avoid Christmas hymns and carols until Christmas Eve and the weeks following. We will be focused on the virtues that learning to wait can cultivate within us. We will – ideally – appreciate the joy of Christmas all the more for having waited for it rather than indulged in it for four weeks. And in the event that you’re not sure you like this approach, I beg only that you be patient with me in it. I ask that you trust the intended purpose of the season (and those saints of yore who passed this down to you as a gift to be received). For if you do even that much – be patient with me and trust our Traditions – you’ll already find yourself assuming the patient, trusting spirit that this season aims to make a part of your life all year long.

As such, we see, Advent helps point our faces forward in time even more than it teaches us to look back to the history of Christ’s incarnation.

              But, wait, if that’s true, why am I going to preach sermons out of the nativity of Christ? Well, for the simple fact that we learn how to wait for God’s (second) coming by attending to the details of God’s original Advent. We learn, for example, to trust in the just peace of God’s advent by listening to Mary’s Magnificat. We learn humility through Joseph’s humiliation in marrying a pregnant woman. We learn joyful expectation through John’s leaping in Elizabeth’s womb. We learn steadfast devotion through Zechariah’s season of silence prior to the birth of his son, John the Baptist. Our own anticipation of Christ’s return will run through these virtues of courage, humility, joy, and quiet patience.

Being so new, I’m not sure of all the past traditions and events for this church during Advent. What I do know is that many churches conflate “Advent” and “Christmas” in a way that – all quite innocently, I’m sure – robs their members of the blessings of Advent. And so, hoping to avoid replicating that error, we will engage Advent on its own terms. We will avoid Christmas hymns and carols until Christmas Eve and the weeks following. We will be focused on the virtues that learning to wait can cultivate within us. We will – ideally – appreciate the joy of Christmas all the more for having waited for it rather than indulged in it for four weeks. And in the event that you’re not sure you like this approach, I beg only that you be patient with me in it. I ask that you trust the intended purpose of the season (and those saints of yore who passed this down to you as a gift to be received). For if you do even that much – be patient with me and trust our Traditions – you’ll already find yourself assuming the patient, trusting spirit that this season aims to make a part of your life all year long.

Jeff

Tammy Schnitker

Tammy Schnitker

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