A Symbol of Hope

30 12 2010

BY JANET AND JIM POIRER,
North Central USA/Canada Mission Field

A welcoming symbol greets all those entering the Chemotherapy Suite at the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. A simple, four-foot artificial tree, a seemingly known and understood entity, marks the entrance to an often-misunderstood world of treatments, fear, and uncertainty.

Trees have long been steeped in history and mythology—providers of shade, bearers of fruit, and homes of protection. The Tree of Life, a symbol of God’s love, symbolizes life and creation. Strong roots support the trunk, and branches reach to the heavens.

This small tree took birth four years ago as a traditional Christmas tree at the reception desk. Destined for greatness, it evolved over time.

Every month brought different decorations.

For example, January saw the tree decked in sparkling ice and snow. Easter brought the new life of spring. In August, the summer tree, decked with skipping ropes, sunflowers, and butterflies, brought smiles. Autumn leaves and scarecrows adorned the tree in September.

Patients began calling our tree, “The Hope Tree.” They celebrate the feasts of our culture together, anticipate holidays, and look forward to a life without the effects of their treatments. The staff of the Chemo Suite decided to stage a “Celebration of Hope” with the tree as the focal point of the worship experience.

Patients, staff members, and visitors were invited to share a thought, a wish, a hope, or a prayer written on a small card with a brightly colored ribbon. Over several weeks the tree bloomed with these beautiful words.

As we came together in celebration we realized that despite our different journeys we can walk together. As the service closed, the chaplain asked each person to remove a card from the tree to remember another’s journey. One by one the people came forward.

Our simple tree is a touch of whimsy, a touch of home, a symbol of joy, hope, love, and peace in the stressful world.

We hope it will continue to inspire hope and strength. This small tree has proven itself as a blessing to our community throughout the year.

Blessings of Hope

Among the sentiments that bloomed on The Hope Tree:

  • “May I and my family have the courage to fight this disease.”
  • “Hope brings strength!”
  • “We are so thankful for the staff members who take our needs into their hands and hearts.”
  • “This tree inspires HOPE!”
  • “I am less afraid, knowing there is a plan for my treatment.”
  • “I receive strength from the stories of others.”
  • “I hate cancer. My prayer is that there will soon be a cure for this disease.”
  • “As a nurse, my hope is to provide the best care that I can to my patients.”
  • “May God bless the doctors and nurses who care for us.”
  • “This is a hard path to take, but it is made easier because of caring people.”




A Story of Immigrants

27 12 2010

BY DALE E. LUFFMAN,
Council of Twelve Apostles

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. —Matthew 2:14, 15 NRSV

Traditional readings often overlook an important piece of the marginalized context of Jesus’ birth.

Jesus is birthed by an unmarried teen engaged to an older man. The birth took place in humble surroundings—amid farm animals bedded down for the night. The circumstances and environment marginalized Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. But the family further was marginalized as one of many ordered to register with the government—as dictated by an imperialistic foreign power.

This, according to Matthew, was the reason for their trek to Bethlehem. People often forget Jesus was born into a poor, marginalized family in a country presided over by a ruthless client-king who executed the imperial domination and influence of Rome. But that context is important to understanding the good news of the gospel.

According to Matthew’s account, the scandalous birth also provoked Herod’s paranoia and fear. He worried his own children might be excluded from the throne because of the news the Magi brought to his court. After hearing the Magi’s inquiry, Herod further marginalized Jesus’ family members by forcing them to become political refugees.

Joseph had to take “the child and his mother by night” and leave for Egypt. Joseph fled to escape execution of the babe by Herod’s soldiers. The holy family became a family of refugees. In Egypt, they became immigrants—not by choice, but by circumstance, as are many immigrants.

Reading of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth reminds me of the sacredness of all life to God. It reminds me God cares for the whole world and all inhabitants. It reminds me policies lacking respect for life and the dignity of all should be called to account.

It is not accidental the holy family also is an immigrant family, a family on the margins.

Reading the story of Jesus’ birth reminds me of my need to be sensitive to the unnecessary suffering of the world. It calls me to promote community in which all, especially the stranger, are welcome. It encourages me to promote immigration policies and procedures that are humane, fair, and based on the equal worth of people, regardless of their country of origin.

Public policy on immigration should show respect for the life and dignity of all persons. It should stand in solidarity with the marginalized and not with the Herods of this world. The story of Jesus’ birth calls me to missional witness!





Praying the Nativity

25 12 2010

BY KATHY SHOCKLEY,
Spiritual Formation Team

The iconic images of Christmas for the Christian world are found in the Nativity and the star. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials, from the heirloom lovingly unpacked each year to the colorful cartoon stickers awarded to our young Sunday scholars.

Our gracious and generous God uses all manner of things to call attention to the divine presence in the world. How fitting during this Advent to look to the Nativity as an ever-present flow of symbols, altars, and worship centers, reaching out to us in what for many is the year’s most-hectic season. In the days ahead spend time contemplating all the characters and what spiritual invitation each might have for you.

Consider the young woman asked to bear God’s son with all the challenge, privilege, and heartache that would mean. Mary said “Yes” to the task, and “the Word became flesh.” How will the Word become flesh in you this Advent?

Consider Joseph, moving in faith with the angel’s message. Ignoring the possibility of scandal, he becomes protector and provider to the Incarnation. Who have been your protectors and providers as you have sought to bring forth your God-given gifts?

Consider the shepherds tending their sheep when an angelic host inserts itself into their ordinary lives. God can break into our lives at unexpected times and in unexpected places. How can you prepare for God to break into your life this Advent?

Consider the Wise Men. We have no way of knowing how long they had been on their journey to find the Christ child. We don’t know what obstacles they overcame, what challenges they faced, or what their journey cost them. What we do know is that they persevered. They followed the light of his star, and it led them to Christ, the light and life of the world. What fills you with light and life? How can you be more faithful to the journey before you?

Let each Nativity scene you encounter this Advent invite you to your own new, expanded understanding of the messages and symbols found there.

Spiritual Practice

Breathe the light of the Christmas star. The following images may help you during personal or congregational meditations.

Imagine being bathed in the light of the star. With each breath, bring that light into yourself, filling you until you are aglow with Christ’s light. Shine that loving light on others for the rest of the day.

Imagine the light of the Christmas star penetrating your heart and illuminating the Christ child there.

With each breath the light grows brighter, and Christ grows within you.

Imagine looking up at the Christmas star. Its light is God’s unconditional love for you. As this light of love engulfs you, it begins to draw you upward into Christ’s open arms. With each breath you move closer to that loving embrace. You might want to go outside on a clear evening and look for a bright star for this meditation.





Celebrating Christmas in Our Homes

23 12 2010

BY JERI LAUREN LAMBERT,
Children and Family Ministries

I have remarked that my children are working hard to raise good parents.

Authors Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, who wrote On Becoming Preteen Wise: Parenting Your Child From Eight to Twelve Years, observed: “…[P]arenting is a process that leads to maturity, but what we don’t always realize is that the children aren’t the only ones maturing…”

Raising capable parents is not easy. It requires patience and the willingness to forgive mistakes.

As we decorated our home for Christmas, our preteen daughter, ever diligent in her responsibility to keep us on the right track, asked why the Nativity already had all the figures. She pointed out that in previous years we added the figures as we read the story of Jesus’ birth.

I did not realize how much this tradition meant to her until it was forgotten and recalled.

Each Sunday of Advent we read another part of the story, describing events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Then we add the figures in the story. Shouts of, “I’ll get the camel!” and “I’ll get the sheep!” spread through our home as each child helps recreate the Nativity.

Finally, after opening presents Christmas morning, we move from the Christmas tree to gather around the Nativity. There, we read the Bible verses describing the birth of Jesus. Our children share the honor of placing the small figure of baby Jesus in the manger. In this much-anticipated moment we experience a noticeable shift from gifts to the story that started it all.

As a parent-in-training, I am grateful for these young, patient teachers who eagerly place Jesus in the center of Christmas in our home.

Creating Space for the Sacred

You may have your own family traditions—particular ways you lift up your faith as a disciple of Jesus Christ during the Christmas season. Because many congregations do not have worship services on Christmas Day, it is even more important to create a space for the sacred in our celebrations at home.

Here are a few ideas from Karen Marie Yust, author of Real Kids, Real Faith, Practices for Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Lives:

  • Set aside a time to pray, at mealtime or before bed, for people represented by the holiday cards your family receives.
  • Have a birthday party for Jesus with other families and collect gifts for those who, like Jesus and his family, struggle to find safe places to sleep.
  • Set up a Nativity scene but add the figures slowly, holding back the Christ child until his birth (and the three kings until the religious celebration of their arrival at Epiphany on January 6). Note: On the Lambert farm, the three king figures sit atop the piano, (across the room from the Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus figures on the fireplace mantel), because they had to come from afar.




Whisperings of the Word

20 12 2010

BY TONY AND CHARMAINE CHVALA-SMITH, Disciple Formation Ministries

Always seeking our ear, the Living Word whispers to us in the sacred story of scripture. Have you heard the soft, penetrating voice? In venturing to listen together, might a congregation encounter Christ in its midst? Be changed toward each other and God?

Friends in Michigan recently e-mailed us about what is happening in their congregation:
From Kevin Anderson:

I thought you’d be interested to hear the impact serious, honest study and sharing can have on a congregation.

Last fall our pastor, Nan, felt a strong need for us to spend more time studying scripture. So we began with the parables. We set Thursday evening at the church as the time, hoping to have five–six people. Twenty-two people came, and we’ve never had fewer than 13. We completed a study of the parables, and then Luke and Acts. We’ll begin Paul’s letters soon.

But the testimony of this story is not of numbers; it’s of learning how to share, question, and listen. We learned to seek new insights without condemning previously held ones. We learned to sometimes leave discussions open without forcing a conclusion. We learned that debates are best when the goal is not to win, but to be open to new possibilities.

A favorite memory of that class was when a retired gentleman said of the parable of the vineyard, “This story has troubled me for years. It just didn’t seem fair. But now I get it. It’s not about economics, but about God sharing generously with all people whenever they come into his presence.” His joy at new insights was powerful, and I’m grateful to have shared in this experience with him.

The greatest testimony of studying together came in January–March 2010. When President [Steve] Veazey presented the inspired document we decided to take one Thursday each month and review it and the legislation slated to come before Conference. Our approach was similar to our study of the parables. We read, shared, questioned, listened, and did not condemn views. We left some of the difficult questions open for further thought, and even came back to them in later months.

Our time spent studying scripture together had prepared us for this time of discernment. We don’t all have the same social viewpoints, but the manner in which we’ve shared has drawn our congregation closer. I’ve heard several members say we never could have had such an open discussion if we’d not been sharing in scripture study prior to January 2010.

Our approach allowed us to practice opening up to each other, and to question, explore, and gain insights into the deeper places of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’ve come to know each other on a deeper level, and because of that, we care for each other more deeply, too. We’ve also seen a growing depth in our preaching, which has enhanced worship for the entire congregation.

Deep engagement with scripture plus genuine respect for each other can create avenues of spiritual and relational growth in congregations and the whole church. Christ meets us in the sacred story as we earnestly share, question, and listen in loving community.





From Shame to Surrender

18 12 2010

Editor’s note: Tammie Wirt’s testimony explains that her pain started early, losing her father when she was an infant and being abused as a child. A series of decisions led her to addiction, violence, and crime before reaching adulthood. She first was incarcerated as a young adult and spent several years in and out of jail. During her detention in Jay, Oklahoma, she was offered sanctuary through Community of Christ jail ministers Bonnie Scarberry and Barbara Hardesty. Following is part of Tammie’s story, in her words:

BY TAMMIE WIRT, McCloud, Oklahoma, USA

So I finally got caught in Jay, Oklahoma. Went to the Delaware County Jail. Was arrested for kidnapping, forgery, bail jumping, domestic abuse, bogus checks. I remember going for arraignment, feeling sick, knowing I was going back to prison again, but this time was a lot more serious. …Don’t even remember doing the crime because I was truly addicted to cocaine.

I remember all these girls would talk about Barb and Bonnie and how wonderful they were. I got sick of hearing this. I had already moved into a padded cell alone just as I wanted to be. Also didn’t want to talk or anyone talking to me.

So one day Bonnie came busting through the pod door, singing and laughing, praising the Lord. I put my mat and towel over my door, trying to block the noise. But I could not block her out completely.

So I found a name for her: “The loud, high-spirited, you know what.” I hated the day they were coming. But, after several weeks of the ladies asking and praying for me and showing me love, I started to open my door, little by little. Then I finally would go to church. But I wouldn’t share or say much. Didn’t even know really how to pray or anything about the Bible.

Then one day Bonnie wanted to give me a hug. Didn’t want to be shown any love. That was a sign of weakness to me. But I did hug her, and I even prayed with her. This continued for months. Everyone praying for me. I was too emotionally sick to pray or to ask for anything. Mostly ashamed of myself. Couldn’t even look at myself. I wanted to die. Remember begging someone to please let me die.

Then one afternoon the jailer called me out to talk to my attorney. She said the D.A. offered me 80 years. I laughed and said, “That’s all? Tell them to let me think about it.” So this went on about seven months. I continue going to church during all this. Trying to remember what happened. Was beginning to have a little bit more understanding about the Lord and was able to let go of my anger issues little by little.

Then one day a lady [Terry Robison] came from Missouri with Barb and Bonnie and told her story. It really touched my heart. I remember crying and praying for the first time ever. It was very touching, and I didn’t even understand. Didn’t want to. I was ashamed again for being weak. So when they left I really cried, alone in my cell.

…I found myself on the floor asking the Lord to please help me and make me a human again instead of an animal. I was out of control.

I found myself wanting Barb and Bonnie to hurry up and come. So the next [visit] I ask Bonnie to pray for me and with me. I wanted to invite the Lord to walk with me and help me and make me whole again.
So when I went to court the witness didn’t show up, and all charges were dropped except one, the forgery. Was sentenced to seven years: four in, three out.

[Tammie was transferred from jail to a prison. She kept going to church.]

The root had been planted. My family started to talk to me and was believing in me again. I started to feel like I was alive inside and could look at the person in the mirror. I could laugh. It was truly a new experience for me to be able to feel I could cry. I don’t remember ever being able to ever validate my feelings. I always suppressed the way I felt.

But today, even being locked-down in a maximum-security prison, I’m not really locked down. I feel more better inside because my heart is pure and I know I’ve found security and peace within only because my sisters in Christ believed in me when I never knew how it felt to have Jesus to come into your life. Until Bonnie asked one day. The Lord wants to come into your heart. Why don’t you ask him to do so? So I did. Life is much better. So why not ask him? Just lay down and surrender after all. What do you have to lose?





Called to Become Sanctuary

16 12 2010

BY BARBARA HOWARD,
Independence, Missouri, USA

For years, at camps, reunions, and congregational retreats, I sang, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary.…” I little realized the blessings that would come from that simple act.

Our congregation continues to be blessed because a family came to us for sanctuary, seeking a congregation it could call “home.”

The story began three years ago. Few of us knew the family, which first had attended only the Sunday before. During a traditional time to share concerns, the father stood and said simply, “In May I will be making a decision that will change the course of my life forever. I ask for an interest in your prayers.”

After the service, several people visited with the family, which shared the father was transgendered. In May he would begin transitioning to a woman, passing through preparations for transsexual surgery about a year later.

At the church they previously attended—not a Community of Christ congregation—a member told the couple they were going to hell. In reality, the father said, he had been in hell all his life.

Realizing that some members might need a better understanding of his situation, our pastor arranged for Matthew Naylor to educate the congregation on the subject of the transgendered. Matt, a Community of Christ high priest, has a PhD in sexology from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. On a Tuesday night, almost every family was represented at a congregational meeting. There, the couple said they and their family wished to join our congregation.

I shall never forget the yearning they expressed for a congregational home.

They left the meeting, and then Matt spent more than an hour educating us. He told us about the first three months of pregnancy, when a hormonal wash normally occurs. If this wash doesn’t happen, the person’s body and psyche are not the same. In a few months a transgendered person is born.

The session answered several questions. One person expressed a negative concern. But the congregation’s positive response to the family, to Matt, and to the anxious person was overwhelming.
It was if God was saying, “If you want to act as the compassionate sanctuary I have called you to become, then I will help you in your journey.”

The following Friday night on NBC-TV, Barbara Walters spent an hour exploring the transgendered in a program, “Born in the Wrong Body.” She interviewed parents of transgendered children. Shortly afterward, Newsweek magazine printed a cover story on the topic.

Fourteen months later the father went to Thailand for the surgery, accompanied by a daughter, Rebekah. On the Wednesday night before they left, the congregation held a sending-forth service. The prayers and support sent them on their journey, assured of our love and God’s richest blessings. During that service his testimony was simple and from the heart: “You have saved my life.”

Today, Gayle and Joyce Humphrey continue to parent their remarkably gifted children and to enrich our congregation. Their prayers at services, the family’s music, their questions and responses, and their buoyant and engaging spirits bless us beyond words.

At the start we offered them sanctuary; since then, they have done the same for our whole congregation.

The actions and presence of their children enrich our lives. And their children seemed to attract more children from other families. We now see babies, toddlers, grade-school, junior high, and senior high students in the services and classes. For several years before, young people rarely participated.

Joan Chittister, an author and nun, reminds us that

We have been so concerned about the emergence of various forms of modern family—biracial, single parent, merged, mixed, blended and single sex—that we have too often lost sight of the underlying essence of human relations. When we pray, “God of Love,” we forget that God’s love takes no form, has no boundaries, knows no barriers, requires no systemic litmus test of propriety.

The Apostle Paul’s counsel undergirds her statement:

Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who was at the right hand of God who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:34–35, 38–39

Like most church members I love my congregation. I love the humor, the compassion, the joy, and the shared pain people express for one another. And I cherish the journey we’ve known by learning more fully what it means to become sanctuary.

Our congregation has many challenges. We are primarily a middle-class Caucasian congregation. Our building is not handicapped accessible. We need to do more in the community around us. We are not always good stewards of the environment. And the list goes on.

We have much need for spiritual growth. Yet God continues to love and bless us. I believe the Creator will call on us continually to learn and to grow in our commitment to become a sanctuary of God’s love.