November 28: The Season of Advent
We have entered a new year in the church calendar: the last Sunday of the church liturgical year was November 26, Christ the King Sunday. We have now entered a new season: Advent.
Seasons are important. I never want to live anywhere where I don’t get to experience all four seasons because the changing seasons remind me that the seasons of our lives are always changing. There’s a rhythm. We all go through different seasons in life. Sometimes we are in seasons of intense work, other times we are more at play. We have seasons of health and seasons of sickness. We experience seasons of life and seasons of death. We know “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). With these varied seasons in our lives comes a wide range of emotions, from joy to sorrow, anticipation to dread, stress to relaxation, despair to hope.
What the church calendar does is create space for Jesus to meet us in the full range of human experience, for God to speak to us across the spectrum, in the good and the bad, in the joy and in the tears in every season and time. This is the crime of only singing happy victory songs in church (we often ask sad people to sing happy songs)—half of the Psalms are laments.
The Bible is not a collection of war chants from victors—it’s an incredibly varied collection of writings reflecting an intensely diverse amount of postures, moods and perspectives. A lot like how life is, actually. Sometimes you’re furious with God, other times you’re madly in love.
The church calendar with all its seasons, from Advent to Lent to Eastertide or Pentecost, reminds us that whatever we’re feeling, whatever we’re experiencing, wherever we are in our heart—God waits to meet us there.
And that takes us to Advent. Advent, then, is a season. Lots of people know about holidays—one day a year set apart. The church calendar is about seasons, whole periods of time we enter into with a specific cry, a particular intention, for a reason.
Advent is about anticipating the birth of Christ. It’s about longing, desiring, that which is yet to come, that which isn’t here yet. And so we wait, expectantly, together, with an ache. Because all is not right.
Something is missing.
It’s important to recognize and live into the season of Advent, and not just Christmas, because cynicism is the new religion of our world. Whatever it is, this religion teaches that it isn’t as good as it seems. It will let you down. It will betray you. That institution? That church? That politician? That authority figure? They’ll all let you down. We know that all too well. Whatever you do, don’t get your hopes up. Whatever you think it is, whatever it appears to be, it will burn you, just give it time.
Advent confronts this corrosion of the heart with the insistence that God has not abandoned the world, hope is real and something is coming. Advent charges into the temple of cynicism with a whip of hope, overturning the tables of despair, driving out the priests of that jaded cult, announcing there’s a new day and it’s not like the one that came before it.
“The not yet will be worth it,” Advent whispers in the dark.
And so each December, we enter into a season of waiting, expecting, longing. Spirit meets us in the ache. We ask God to enter into the deepest places of cynicism, bitterness and hardness where we have stopped believing that tomorrow can be better than today. We open up. We soften up. We turn our hearts in the direction of that day. That day when the baby cries His first cry and we, surrounded by shepherds and angels and everybody in between, celebrate that sound in time that brings our Spirits what we’ve been longing for: the dawn of redeeming grace.
In common calling,
Pastor Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
November 22: For A Kingdom and a King
Jesus, who we proclaim to be the Son of God, Lord of Lord, King of Kings—was executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, was it? And then, to add more indignity, more shame, the soldiers knelt at his feet while he was still alive—not to worship but to gamble for his clothes.
And the people mocked him: “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” It amused them to see this carpenter turned revolutionary preacher wrapped in purple, claiming to be the king of the Jews and the representative of God on earth. They knew what a real king looked like, and this was definitely not it. A real king had power and arrogance and a hint of cruelty, and this Jesus had none of that. How could he be the King?
There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest, for people now, including many of us. We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who not only forgives our sins but makes us richer and prettier, more popular and prosperous. We want a powerful savior, a helpful God, a conquering messiah, a mighty King. The Scripture shows us a man who is not anything like what anyone believes a king should be—not then and not now. They knew Herod as King, Caesar as Emperor, Pilate as leader. Jesus was nothing like the authority they knew, so they didn’t recognize the authority he had.
I recently heard the story of a Lutheran pastor who served as a chaplain in Vietnam. One night he was in his tent when a young private came to see him. The private was newly arrived from the States and was scared, very scared, scared to death. The next day, he was going on patrol for the first time. And he was afraid to die. He cried, he moaned, he cursed, he prayed. He wanted the chaplain to give him a saint’s medal, a New Testament, some charm or talisman that would keep him safe. He wanted the chaplain to tell him a prayer to pray, a good deed to do, anything to keep from dying. The chaplain said, “Look soldier, there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from getting killed on patrol tomorrow; there is no way I can promise you it won’t happen. There’s only one thing I can do. I’ll go with you.”
The chaplain walked into the jungle unarmed and unprotected to be with the soldier in his fearful world. That’s what Christ did for us, leaving the kingdom of heaven to live with us in the kingdom of this world—unarmed and unprotected, sharing with us in our trials and temptations, our dangers and defeats. The King of Heaven emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. He’s a new kind of King, a servant King, and he starts a revolution of service, humility, and love.
We are called to follow our king in this revolution into places of service and suffering. We are called to live each day in two worlds, two realities, two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. We cannot permanently retreat from the real world that surrounds us with its pain and suffering, its hunger and disease, its wars and violence of all shapes and sizes. We are called by God to imitate Christ and put ourselves into the midst of the world’s need. We are called by God to struggle with the world we see all around us, to be active participants in making this world a better place for everyone. The revolution is here, and it’s coming again. The King still reigns.
In common calling,
Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
November 13: A Special Night
Our Basically Broadway night on Sunday, November 12 was a lot of fun. If you missed it, contact Sue George for a link to view the show. We have some amazing talent at Derry Presbyterian Church. It was great to see such a diverse group of people from youth to adults on stage performing, singing, and just having fun. It was a night filled with beautiful music, silly skits, a lot of laughter, and resounding applause.
What I really loved was the simplicity of it: we had one quick rehearsal before the show and that’s it. Everyone prepared their offerings and just brought them together. We didn’t need fancy sets or costumes or a big production to have a wonderful night. We just brought our talents, our desserts, and ourselves, and that was enough.
That’s what stewardship season is all about. It’s bringing what we have and using it well for the good of the community. So many people pitched in to make Basically Broadway a profoundly simple yet satisfying event. Lois Harris set up Fellowship Hall and organized the desserts with a team of dedicated helpers. Sue George ran video, Jim Pease and Steven Guenther took care of audio, and Tom Talley was an awesome stage manager. Sean McCarthy organized all our acts and Karen Click was a great accompanist. And I can’t forget each of you who came and cheered and laughed and stuck around to eat desserts and enjoy fellowship with one another.
I was talking with a small group of people after the show, and one of them said, “You know, I can’t remember ever laughing so hard in church before.” The others agreed and commented how great it was to see youth who had grown up in the church get up on stage and be silly or sing so beautifully. That’s stewardship right there, nurturing children as they grow up and being a part of their lives.
I think I loved Sunday night so much because we were a family together. We were comfortable enough with each other to step outside our comfort zones, try something new, laugh, be silly, and just let the walls come down. We were real and authentic and we cheered each other for it.
We just had fun.
Sometimes in all the business and ministry of the church we can forget to do that, but I think that’s one of the beautiful things about church. Because we know and trust each other, we can allow ourselves to not take ourselves too seriously. We can just have fun. We can laugh. And when we make a mistake, it’s no big deal. We are all ready to forgive each other, or laugh it off and move on.
That’s the beauty of church. We support each other and create a space where we can be uniquely and authentically ourselves. Which means we can we be angry together, sad together, silly together, focused together, joyous together, and reverent together. The key is we’re together. We’re bound together in Christ, and that’s what makes us church.
Thank you for a wonderful night on Sunday and for being a wonderful and special church.
In common calling,
Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
November 1: Five Things
How do you determine your path in life? It seems earlier and earlier, students are asked to have some sort of career path in mind. What do you want to be when you grow up? What is your career plan? Do you know what your major is going to be in college? What are you going to do when you get out of college, get an internship, find a job, get another degree? What’s your five year plan?
As soon as you answer one question, five more follow. There are so many choices and options today, how do we know what path is for us?
Churches face similar questions. What kind of church are you? What kind of worship services are you going to offer? What is your staffing model going to be? Are you going to focus on attracting young families or focus on a singles ministry? What mission projects are you going to support? What are you going to use the space in your church for during the week? What kind of curriculum are you going to use?
There are so many different ways to be the church today and there are so many different kinds of churches, even different kinds of Presbyterian churches within our own denomination. So how do we know what our path is?
Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self is a compilation of letters written by extraordinary people to their 16-year-old selves. If you could write a letter to yourself at 16, what would it say? What would you tell yourself?
Hugh Jackman writes to himself:
Five things; just five things. What are five things you love to do and five things you are good at? Do they match up? Could they in the future? I’d like you to try writing down five things that you love to do and five things that you are good at and share those with me. Email them to email@example.com. You don’t have to write a lot of explanations if you don’t want to, just five things. I’d like to know what you love and what you believe you are gifted at.
After you write down those five things for yourself, I’d like you to think about the church. What are five things Derry is passionate about? Write those down and then write down five things we’re really good at. What are five things we are gifted at doing or providing? Write those down and please share those with me, too.
I look forward to reading your five things and what you observe are five things for the church. The Long-Range Planning Committee and Session are currently working on Five Goals for Five Years. We are exploring what five things we should focus on over the next five years. I hope those five things are built upon what we love to do and what we are good at. If they aren’t, they are probably the wrong five things, but if they are then they will keep us Rooted, Giving, and Growing for years to come.
In common calling,
Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker