Blue Christmas

Dear CCOV Family,
We have just a week and a half to go, and then it is Christmas already! Some prepare by shopping, baking, wrapping gifts, traveling to or receiving family, and attending parties. Others struggle over the holidays because of stress, medical issues, world troubles, pain, and grief. Instead of singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” some may be sighing “In the Bleak Midwinter.” When I served as a chaplain at the Beatitudes Campus, we used to have a “Blue Christmas” service where folks who were having a difficult time could come and simply be reminded that God was there. Other places may call this kind of worship a “Longest Night” service, because we are near the winter solstice and the year’s least amount of daylight.
While we haven’t had this kind of service at CCOV yet, I do want you to know that I am aware of the struggles so many of you have been through this past year and are currently experiencing. I wish I could provide neat answers for you, but I cannot. What I can tell you is that I will stand with you and pray with you. I hope you will call on me when you need to talk or you need prayer. And I know that our church family is deeply caring and will also circle you with love.
For many, this Christmas may not be at all like ones before. We may not be able to participate in the same beloved traditions, and our nostalgia may prompt tears. One thing I can say is that the real message of Christmas is that God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, even when it seems like the darkness is winning. We have ultimate hope because of the coming of Jesus. You are not alone.
Peace,
Rev. Sandi

Advent and the Coming of Jesus

Friends,
Here we find ourselves in the Advent season once again—the beginning of the liturgical year for most churches in the Western tradition. The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival.” You will hear the motif of pregnancy running through our Advent worship, especially this Sunday as we talk about Mary. You will also hear soloist Katarzyna Honsberger sing “Ave Maria” and “Mary Did You Know?” among other beautiful songs. For those who like to read ahead, Sunday’s scripture is Luke 1:26-38, the story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was chosen to bear the Messiah. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and it ends on Christmas Eve. It’s going to be a great season at CCOV!

Like pregnancy, Advent is a season of expectation. We expect light to break into the darkness, even in the shortest days of the year. If we were following the lectionary, our readings this Sunday would seem to point us to Christ’s second coming with scripture passages like Mark 12:24-37. This is the text that speaks of “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” and how no one knows “that day or hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The passage concludes by calling us to be alert and awake. Those who have spent time in other Christian traditions may have heard these scriptures interpreted in terms of end-time prophecies and predictions—predictions that have failed again and again. I would suggest instead that we understand these passages as the coming of Jesus into our lives, again and again—sometimes with ferocious suddenness. So indeed be awake! Jesus comes when hearts of stone melt, oppressed and marginalized folks are liberated, when forgiveness sets us free, and all are granted a place at the table. Advent is truly about expecting Jesus to be born again and again in our hearts, saying “yes” to God as Mary did, and becoming the Christ carriers.

I look forward to celebrating this Advent season with you.
With Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love,
Rev. Sandi

So Much to be Thankful For

Dear CCOV Family,
I love the lyrics to a song called “Thankful” by David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager, and Richard Page. It’s on Josh Groban’s 2009 Christmas Album, Noel. The opening verse could be a mini sermon:

   Some days, we forget to look around us.
Some days, we can’t see the joy that surrounds us.
So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give.
So for tonight we pray for what we know can be.
And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see.
It’s up to us to be the change.
And even though we all can still do more,
there’s so much to be thankful for.

“Thankful” is a good Thanksgiving song about changing our perspective and looking outside of ourselves—rather than focusing first on flaws and problems. When I ask the usual question, “How are you today,” I am struck by faith-filled answers like, “I’m so thankful. I’ve got a roof over my head, friends and family around, and good food to eat. How are you?” I love responses that start at a place of gratitude. Unfortunately, I often catch myself responding to such a question with litany of complaints like, “Fine, if it weren’t for this cold,” or “Tired, because I’m not sleeping well.” Our natural human inclination is to focus on the flaws and problems, because indeed, we’re often “so caught up inside ourselves.” Paradoxically, the best way to stop dwelling on our problems is to make a habit of looking outside of ourselves.

These days we have so many opportunities to look outside of ourselves. You know as well as I do that a myriad of places in the world are in dire need of our attention. I hope you will continue to give to disaster relief as you are able. You can write checks to the church with the designation “disaster relief,” or you can go to the UCC’s website and give at www.ucc.org/. At church you can also help sponsor a senior for Christmas, purchase UMOM cards in Hayden Hall after the service, or help with our UMOM meal service. This Thanksgiving let us respond to God’s incredible generosity to us by offering our gifts, tithes, talents, and treasures.

Clint and I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving holiday!
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Sandi

Rest

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls…”
–Matthew 11:28-29

Each fall, the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ holds an annual clergy retreat at the peaceful Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson. This is the first year that I have been able to attend, and I can tell you that it was a life-giving and restorative experience for me. I will never miss another one! Its theme was, “And I Will Give You Rest.” Together we worshipped and prayed, had group discussions, hiked in the beautiful desert surroundings, and got to know conference clergy, who are spread all across Arizona and New Mexico. During our first worship service there, we were reminded that on the seventh day, even God rested—and Jesus would retreat into the desert as well. Rest in its various forms is essential for all of us.

Of course we all need adequate sleep, but I also learned that rest is more than just sleep. Rest is also about grasping that we are yoked with Jesus, and that we are never alone in our burdens and struggles. For many of us, we get a glimpse of Jesus in one another when we extend love and compassion, and in that sense we are yoked to one another too. Have you ever felt relief when you were going through a particularly difficult time, and someone else, whom you trusted, entered into your pain and put his or her arm around you, listened deeply, or prayed with you? That is yoking. I’ve seen you all offer such love to one another in the midst of grief or difficulties. When you do that, you are offering rest by sharing the burden. In conversations with fellow clergy earlier this week, we were able to share our own struggles, hopes, and dreams for ministries and our congregations, and in that sharing I felt a sense of relief, realizing just how yoked we truly are.

At the retreat I was also reminded what incredible rest and blessing are offered in worship. Worship recalls for us how deeply yoked with God we are, even if the busy-ness of our daily lives causes us to forget this. This month in CCOV’s worship, I continue my preaching series on Women of the Bible. Next up is Esther, and then we will soon move into New Testament women. On Sunday, we will celebrate communion and All Saints, and you will be invited to come forward and light a candle or two in the memory of loved ones who have gone home to join all the saints in glory. My prayer is that there will be rest in both the partaking of communion and in the remembering of loved ones, knowing that these acts recall the blessing of our yoke with God in both the present and for all eternity.
Peace,
Rev. Sandi

Always Reforming

Friends,
This October 31st marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, heralded by Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. His 95 Theses were a list of propositions for academic debate protesting against the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Preachers sold indulgences, certificates believed to reduce punishment from sin committed by the purchaser or reduce punishment a loved one was enduring in Purgatory. In short, Luther’s 95 Theses argued that it was wrong to sell indulgences, especially to poor people, to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, that the pope had no power over Purgatory, and that buying indulgences gave people a false sense of security and actually endangered their salvation by inducing complacency. Luther sent a copy of the theses to Albert of Mainz, who then sent a copy to Pope Leo. Because the printing press was already in existence, the Theses were quickly reprinted and distributed throughout Europe. Luther was tried for heresy and excommunicated in 1521. As Luther continued to write, the selling of indulgences took a back seat to weightier theological matters like justification by faith or free will vs. predestination.

To celebrate the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary, last Wednesday night, a group of us from CCOV went to dinner at Byblos Restaurant and on to a concert at the Tempe Center for Fine Arts, which featured Music of the Reformation. A good bit of the concert was in German, and we were treated to a complex arrangement of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  We especially enjoyed hearing our own Bob Simington sing in the bass section! Following the Chamber Singers and Choral Union (and intermission), we were mightily roused by ASU’s Gospel Choir. Between each of their numbers, including “Lift Up Your Heads O, Ye Gates,” we heard the story of how the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was founded in Philadelphia in 1816. Also born out of protest, the AME was organized by people of African descent, as a response to being forcibly denied access to the white—and at that time racist—Methodist church.

From what I know of the history of Christianity, God’s people seem always to be reforming, regrouping in some way. Reform comes by way of protest, challenge, and vigorous theological debate. The Church Universal’s issues are by no means settled, and they may never be—especially if God is indeed still speaking. We in the UCC have long been on the prophetic edge and forefront of change, challenging the status quo, moving forward, and striving for full inclusion. One day soon our church family should have a conversation about what new 95 Theses we might nail on the church doors of our communities. Would they have anything to do with environmental sustainability, the health and welfare of all people, peace and justice, radical inclusion, and all kinds of equality? What is the first thesis you would pound into the door? See you Sunday!

Always Reforming,
Rev. Sandi

Special Fall Sundays

Dear CCOV Family,
It’s hard to believe that fall is now upon us! Pumpkins are everywhere in the stores, and it’s been chilly in Prescott for some time now. I see that you are enjoying cooler temperatures in the Valley as well. According to the liturgical calender, we are in the green or growing season during most of the fall, but we do observe a few special Sundays. Last Sunday, Oct. 1, was World Communion Sunday. Did you know that World Communion Sunday was begun in 1934 by Dr. Hugh Tomson Kerr, minister of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, with the vision to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity? On this fall date, many Christians all around the world participate in Holy Communion together.

The last Sunday of October is Reformation Sunday, which commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This event was the opening salvo of the Protestant Reformation, which occurred 500 years ago! You are invited to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in a special way this year by attending ASU’s Choral Union Chamber Singers and Gospel Choir’s Music of the Reformation on Wednesday, October 18 at 7:30 PM at the Tempe Center for Fine Arts. Our own Bob Simington is in the concert! We will have a 5 PM dinner first at Byblos Lebanese Restaurant in Tempe (bring cash for your check). Let me or the church office know ASAP if you plan to attend the dinner and concert, and I will buy a block of tickets. You can reimburse me later for the $10 cost.

On the heels of Reformation Sunday is All Saints, which many Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches typically celebrate on the first Sunday of November. All Saints is a time to remember the lives of Christian saints, particularly those who have no special feast days of their own. As in years past, we will have an opportunity in church to light candles in memory of our loved ones, the saints, who have gone home to glory before us.

Meanwhile, the preaching series on Women of the Bible continues. Next up are Ruth (by Rev. Dr. Dick Wing!), Rahab, and Deborah. Also, I invite you to continue giving through our www.ucc.org website to alleviate the terrible suffering in the wake of disasters all around the world, in particular Puerto Rico. Enjoy this beautiful time of year while being mindful of the suffering of others.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Sandi

Women in the Bible Preaching Series

Dear CCOV Family,
I’ve especially enjoyed sermon writing lately as I continue the series on Women in the Bible that I started on September 10. Naturally, I started with Eve, whom we tend to remember for her mistake, but I hope you will now think of her as one created foremost to be God’s image-bearer. Then last week I preached on Sarah, who experienced what it was like to live all those years in God’s silence until bearing a son at the age of 90! This coming Sunday, come to hear all about Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl, and how even as a woman, slave, and a Gentile, she was seen and valued by God. You will also learn all about Hannah, Ruth, and Rahab in the coming weeks, and your faith will grow from their stories. Of special note is that Rev. Dr. Dick Wing (who is inhabiting our sanctuary office) will deliver the Oct. 8 sermon on Ruth. Don’t miss getting acquainted with this energetic, fun-loving pastor, who recently retired from his mega church in Ohio! I’ll see ya’ll down in the Valley on Sunday and at the upcoming church and conference events listed in our announcements!
Blessings,
Rev. Sandi

Great Expectations for Fall

Dear CCOV Family,
I’m so excited to be back with you for regular worship again starting this Sunday, September 10th, 10 AM! Choir will also resume practice at 8:30 AM although won’t have an anthem to offer quite yet. Expect to hear many new songs this fall in our choir’s repertoire!

You can also expect a new preaching series on Women of the Bible that will take us, by and large, up until Advent. Each Sunday I will preach from scriptural passages that tell a particular woman’s story, some prominent and some obscure. Through this journey, we will see just how human these women are, uncover God’s purpose for them, and explore the courage and wisdom born of their struggles, aimed at transforming all our lives today, men and women alike. This Sunday you will hear all about Eve. If you like to read ahead, you can read the first three chapters of Genesis. Now if men in our congregation feel at all slighted, don’t worry—I will preach a similar series on Men of the Bible during the weeks before Lent begins in the spring. We will get to know many personages in the Bible quite well in the coming months!

Sunday, September 10th is also the International Day of Prayer for Faith, Hope, and Life (Just Peace Sunday). In recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day, also September 10, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has invited faith communities across the nation to pray for those whose lives have been touched by suicide. You can expect our prayers to focus on peace, and you will also hear from Dr. Clint Anthony, who will spend a few minutes talking about suicide prevention during the service.

Also, please remember that although Hurricane Harvey has blown through, recovery will continue for years: Need remains dire. If you haven’t yet given or if you can give more, please visit our denomination’s disaster webpage and give https://transactions.ucc.org/CampaignForm/UCChrist/Hurricane+Harvey+relief. If you would prefer, you can send a check to our UCC Southwest Conference office in an envelope marked Harvey Relief, C/O Disaster Coordinator Phil Shea, 917 E Sheridan St, Phoenix, AZ 85006. Agencies are asking folks NOT to send items or supplies. Sending money is best.

I expect to see you very soon!
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Sandi

Servant Leadership

Dear CCOV Family,
It was so great to see so many of you in Hayden Hall last Sunday and hear about your feelings, practices, and experiences with meditation (getting quiet before God). A special thank you to those who have kept Sunday mornings going this summer. Making coffee, setting out food, offering prayer, fellowship, and leading and coordinating programs obviously have been a wonderful service to the church, as our community continues to grow and bonds get strengthened.

Earlier this month Clint and I had a refreshing time in the Canadian Rockies basking in the majesty of nature. Of course, when we got back to the hotel each evening and logged into Wi-Fi, we watched in horror the events unfolding in Charlottesville and in Spain. Inevitably, political and religious leaders weigh in with statements in the aftermath of horrific events, and as you know, some can be inspiring and others can be divisive and inciting. The pastor in the church where I was ordained once told me, “Organizations tend to reflect the characteristics of their leaders.” This can apply to churches, companies, and even countries. He told me this to heighten my awareness of what it meant to be a leader, but he also wanted me to understand the dynamics in human interactions: Gracious, thoughtful speech and actions can create a beautiful, unifying culture, but bombastic, divisive speech and actions can create chaos.

We all are leaders in our own spheres of influence and as such can make a difference no matter what is going on around us. You know what one of the best things about being UCC is? We are not hierarchical—we are all leaders in our own circles. We look to Jesus as our only head, and it is his example that inspires a way for us to be in this world. He modeled servant leadership in his life and death—his thoughts, even on the cross, were not on himself but always on others. We can always practice servant leadership even when awful events, beyond our control, are going down.

In difficult times, some people turn to prayer, others march, and some may just scratch their heads, because it often seems that these days, one tragedy begets another. No matter what, we can also continue to practice the message of Micah 6:8, which says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Perhaps in our Christian meditations this week, we can focus on Micah 6:8. I look forward to being back in regular worship with you all on Sunday, September 10th at 10 AM!
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Sandi

Supporting UMOM

Dear CCOV Family,

In less than a month we will be back to regular worship at CCOV!  Please know how grateful I am for how you have kept fellowship alive Sunday mornings in my absence.  I look forward to being with you all again on Sunday, August 20th  when I would like to talk about meditation (listening to God) and hear about any of your meditation practices or experiences.  We will even do a brief, guided meditation together.

One other thing I want to be sure you know about is the damage monsoonal flooding has done to the United Methodist Outreach Mission (UMOM).  UMOM, which is the largest of homeless shelters for families in the state, has been one of the central mission projects of this church for many years and one that our folks have gotten most excited about.  UMOM’s main campus was badly hit by the monsoon on Thursday evening, August 3.  Dozens of families and several staff members had to be relocated out of their flooded rooms and offices, and the elevator in the most affected building may need serious repairs. Staff also had damage to their vehicles due to the rising waters.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.

While the organization acquired flood insurance in June, damage is so great that UMOM will need to spend tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket. They have reached out to their supporters for donations to help get them back on their feet.    Please consider sending them a gift so that UMOM may continue to offer a continuum of shelter as well as opportunities for folks to access education, skills, medical care, and quality child care so that they can go on to lead successful lives. You can donate by clicking here: https://umom.thankyou4caring.org/donate.  Michelle is forwarding an email directly from the shelter that will offer more information.

Again, I miss seeing you each week, but that will change soon!  Clint and I will be vacationing in Jasper, Alberta August 8-16 seeing parts of the Canadian Rockies.  I plan to post some beautiful pictures on Facebook or share them with you on Sunday, August 20.  In the meantime, stay cool!

Blessings,

Rev. Sandi