A Letter from Liz

How often do we write letters anymore?  When was the last time I sat down, with a pen and paper (or, fine, a laptop)?  It’s not something we do often.  Email is today’s form of a letter but we use it for business, for necessary communication.  Letter writing feels like something altogether different.  Letter writing is reserved for when we have something meaningful and personal to say.  The last time I wrote a letter, not to be confused with a thank you note, I was saying something deeply personal to someone very close.

The Apostle Paul wrote letters to many, different faith communities in his ministry.  Some of the communities were having theological arguments that he needed to help sort out.  Others were concerned about him sitting in prison and he wrote to ease their worry.  Some of Paul’s letters were in response to good reports about how the community was doing.  But, in all of his letters there are two consistent characteristics.  He reminds each community of the centrality of Christ’s teaching and he encourages them.

As I was thinking of how to write you, I could think of no better model.  I have loved my time at Plymouth.  I have grown to love many of you.  I love our worship together.  I love our ministers and staff. I’ll return to Georgia a better minister because of my time here.  So, while it will be difficult for me not to be with you, I am not worried because of who I see you to be, Plymouth.  You are a church that indeed encourages one another and looks to the Gospel for hope, instruction, and purpose.  The centrality of Christ in all aspects of your ministries is evident.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in his first letter of the beautiful hope we have in Christ.  Life was not always easy for this community living in Greek culture and learning to follow the way of Jesus.  Culture often conflicts with what we learned from God incarnate.  And so Paul, to these people he had grown to love, wrote these words:  “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  That is what I, likewise, say to you.

Thank you for blessing my life richly and for encouraging me.  Keep up the good work of God that I have seen you doing and keep remembering because of whom you do it.  Be different and have courage for the awesome work that God is offering you.  See with God’s eyes and know that the spirit of love shines brightly through you.

I pray all of God’s grace and joy for you as you continue to grow in community and faith.




What is Lent for you?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush writes of Lent, “some will fast from mindless consumption of what distracts us; others will offer radical service to neighbor; but what is most important about Lent is that we make time and space for an awareness that God is with us and loves us—even right here and now.”

I love Lent.  I’m glad to be part of a Protestant tradition that doesn’t skip or gloss over it.  I’ve spent some time reflecting this week about why I love it and I think I’ve come to a conclusion.  Praise and joy feel shallow without first having faced the hard stuff.  Easter is only joyous because of Good Friday.  And this mystery of Cross and Resurrection is a reflection of the rhythm of life that is hard for us name.  But if I try to name it, it will sound something like this: Lent is a reset when we get to reflect on the hard stuff that makes the great stuff recognizably great.  And we get there by different means.

About this time each year, we hear people asking one another, “What are you doing for Lent?”  Giving up chocolate, or Facebook, or worrying, or booze are a common response.  We give up something that is a regular part of our day so that each time we reach for it, our attention is turned back to Christ in the wilderness.  We connect with our temptations.  And chocolate might be a daily, less significant one, but hopefully by God’s grace we start forming an awareness of bigger temptations we contend with in life.

Others of us choose to do something for Lent; volunteer at the soup kitchen on Saturdays, add a special, extra time of prayer into our busy day, drop by and talk with our elderly neighbor who we know to be lonely twice each week.  We take up a burden and are reminded of the burden Christ took up for us.  And, hopefully, by God’s grace, we become people who embrace that burden until it no longer feels like such.  It becomes a joy.

Whatever we do to honor Lent, let us do this: hold fast to the why.  Be aware of God’s love and compassion for us.  Connect with things God is calling us to or away from.  Listen hard and be willing to see the things within ourselves that we prefer to overlook.  The great mystery of God-work is happening all the time.  So, may we go into Lent looking for how it is happening in us.  The journey to the Cross is difficult.  But Sunday, God has promised, is indeed coming.  And, it will mean more, Easter will mean so much more, if we have embraced the season of Lent.  Welcome to the season of the night, but go into knowing that joy comes in the morning.


Fear or Fear Not?

Three men were walking together from lunch one day.  Two of the men were not religious.  One of the men was religious.  Along came a stranger in their direction.  He was wearing biker gear, had a shaved head with tattoos covering his neck, and a chain wallet.  Once the menacing looking fellow was out of earshot, one of the non-religious men looks at the other two and says, “Man, that guy looked like trouble.”  The other responds, “Yeah, he was a scary.”  The religious fellow responds to his friends, “What man?”

As people of faith we are called to fear less. The command not to fear is given 365 times in the Bible.  Over and over again that’s what God is saying across the ages.   But, we fear anyway.  We fear all kinds of things.   Nomophobia is a fear of losing cell phone contact.  Gamophobia is the fear of getting married.  We joke about scary in-laws, but syngenesophobia refers to the fear of relatives.  And, this one is risky to mention, but ecclesiophobia is the fear of going to church.  (Not one of you better use this one next time you miss worship.)

Thankfully most of us don’t fear cheese, birds, or the moon because there would be some pretty difficult implications for our lives.  But, we do fear civil unrest, political strife, personal rejection, loss, financial insecurity, and making big mistakes.  The truth is that our biggest mistakes are often the result of fear.  God has been trying to help us see that since the beginning of time.  When we choose fear over love, despair over hope, exclusivity over inclusivity, we are at odds with the good news of the Gospel and we are succumbing to fears.

National fear and unrest is at all-time high.  What do we, Gospel-people, do in times like these?  One temptation is paralysis; to lay low and wait for the storm of unrest to blow over.  Another temptation is to blame and point and proclaim that “I” am not the problem; to pass off responsibility.  But, we are reminded 365 times, to fear not.  Why?  Most often the answer follows the “fear not” and has something to do with God being with us, something to do with good news, something to do with God.

“Fear not,” is also used when there’s hard work to be done that nobody wants to do or knows how to do.  “Fear not,” is what gets communicated to us before a burden gets laid on us.  We are keenly aware of menacing forces in our world, our country, and our own lives that tempt us to forget the call to fear less as people of faith.

The man of faith responded to the fear of his friends, “what man?”  He didn’t see what there was to be afraid of because he looked at the world through a different lens.  He looked through eyes that knew God; knew God doesn’t have strangers, knew God doesn’t see our differences the same way we do; knew God loves us beyond the surface, beyond ethnicity, beyond nationality, beyond religion—all of us.

To Jesus-followers, partisan isn’t most important.  People are.  We get to fear not and love hard.  We get to not make our biggest mistakes because of fear.  We get to stand on the foundation of God-with-us and do the work God calls us to.  That’s the beauty of faith and it’s a gift for which we can be grateful.


Life Abundant

As we close out this season we are (just as Mary and Joseph were when the wise men left) forced back into the real world.  The twinkling lights get put away.  The trees and wrapping are put out on the curb.  The garland has dried out and the red and green are fading from the city.  Carols are gone from stores and elevators and, maybe, from our spirits.  We get back into the daily grind.  Back to regular work and school schedules.   And, if we aren’t careful, our sense of awe at God’s love for us might fade right along with the lights over Court Street.

We are, with the close of the Christmas season, being ushered back to reality.  We’ve taken twelve days and then some to reflect on what it means that God came among us in the flesh.  We’ve thought about why God came, incarnate in Jesus, to be born into the lowliest of circumstances.  It’s like God choosing to be born to immigrant parents in Queens who can’t qualify for a Habitat house and struggle to keep the heat on in the winter.  Why would God choose that?  Hopefully, in these twelve days we’ve come to the conclusion that it is because those circumstances show us that there is no place God’s love can’t dwell.  There is no person it cannot envelope.  There is no space God’s love won’t go.

The wise men brought gifts symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth.  The gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.  Jesus’ three pronged identity as royal, divine, and mortal threatened the existing power, and ultimately, the reigning way of life.  Pray that Jesus continues to threaten our way of life beyond these twelve days of Christmas.  Pray that this Christmas has shaken up our tendency toward existential dread, toward mundane attitudes, toward blindness of what God is doing.  Pray that the wonder and awe of this season will not die with the lights and that we will continue into 2017 with a keen sense of God-with-us.

Jesus talks about having come so that we might have life and have it abundantly.  As we move out of the Christmas season and into Epiphany, may we live as though life is a feast every day.  May we recognize the table of goodness spread before us.  May we see twinkling light in the eyes of our children, beauty in the morning sky, and the glow of our friends’ smiles.  Above all, may we have life abundant because we love and are loved, so, so loved, by God.


Advent Hope

All of us are hoping for something.  I’ve had more than a fair share of hopes these first weeks in Brooklyn.  I spent my first hour here hoping that my box spring would fit through my door if we tried one more time.  I hope that I learn to properly use my washer/dryer combo so that I don’t have to iron every article of clothing that comes out of it.  I hope what I think is curbing my dog is actually curbing my dog.

That’s one kind of hope.  There are also hopes that carry more weight.  We hope our children handle preschool well.  We hope our marriage gets stronger when it feels strained.  We hope our new president-elect will do a good job. We hope that our families will be happy and healthy.

A few nights after I moved here, I was wearing Converse tennis shoes walking down State Street.  As I look down at my feet, crying, I experienced God-hope.   A small wave of missing my old life came.  My dog, my family, my friends, all that was familiar felt suddenly out of reach.   But, as I looked down at my feet, through watery, blurred eyes, I experienced a flash of how fully I will one day understand exactly why God brought me here.  It was hope.  Hope is not about certainty.  We cannot be certain that everything in life is going to go well.  Hope, rather, is a choice in the absence of certainty that makes all the difference.  Hope is a promise in God’s story made to you and me and anyone willing to choose it in the face of uncertainty.

We are invited to participate in a great hope that cannot be taken away.  Hope that love, God-love, will become second nature in and through us.  Hope is the gift of Jesus Christ.  We may not get angels and shepherds reminding us to hope, but the gift of God among us is forever present if we are looking for it.  And, that IS reason for hope.

Welcome to the season of a greater hope.  Welcome to Advent, a time carved out of this year for the purpose of reflecting on greater hope; hope that things are being made right, hope that what is broken is being restored, hope that love will win and that joy and peace are already here, waiting for us.  We need to live with that hope.

Liz Coates