Pastor’s Column for February: The Intentions of the Season

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Pastor’s Column:  The Intentions of the Season 

A tradition for the Murphy children at Christmas has been the creation of gingerbread houses.  Walls and roof of hard gingerbread decorated with icing and candies ranging from M&Ms and licorice ropes to sprinkles and sour patch kids.  In the end each of our three children produce their own sugar masterpiece of seasonal art… which they are then strictly forbidden to eat. “It’s for display,” they are told… or so has been our tradition.

Our children’s stance being that this misses the point: a gingerbread house is made for eating.  All those sweets. About a pound of icing for the faux snow. They drool over them every year.

Yet Mom holds fast. And the confectionary structures sit on a shelf, pretty if slowly going stale, until they are unceremoniously tossed with the withered greenery come about January 3rd.

All of which, at the risk of mixing ecclesiastical seasons, reminds me a great deal of the season of Lent now before us, and the journey toward Holy Week to be traveled here in 2018.

Lent is a season of purpose: much like the aforementioned Advent it is a season rooted in acts of preparation – to get ourselves ready (heart, mind, soul and personal planner) to witness, receive and celebrate both the death of Jesus upon the Cross on Good Friday, and the enormous joy of His resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. Again, the purpose of highlighting this time is to prepare ourselves – to be mindful, intentional, and to produce good fruits (outward or inward) over these six weeks.

However, just as often – if not moreso – Lent can also be something ignored or misunderstood or just missed all together – a misuse of the weeks before us. An outcome which, to me, looks a lot like an uneaten gingerbread house… something pretty, sure, but also stale and empty and missing its purpose.

The traditions behind Lent being rooted in themes of repentance, spiritual discipline, self-denial and a deep gratitude to Jesus for all He undertook to reconcile us back to God. The forty days of Lent are most commonly celebrated via “giving something up” — something you deny yourself as a modest reflection of the many ways Jesus denied Himself in putting us first, leaving the thrones of heaven, emptying Himself of His glory, being born in human flesh, and of course suffering the passion, crucifixion and bitterness of death for us and for all the world. When you deny yourself something, and you miss that thing, the invitation is to consider how much more Jesus gave up for you – and to be grateful. That is why some people give up a modest form of pleasure during Lent – they give up television, or chocolate, or desserts, or their morning run through Starbucks – maybe even paying the proceeds forward to a charity or ministry. But when they do, the idea is to turn heart and mind to Jesus – and be thankful for His much-greater sacrifice.

Others take the practice a step further, “giving up” their time and talents through acts of service during the season – if not daily acts, then weekly volunteerism, that sort of approach.  And so Lent becomes a time of increased and intentional service – often among the less fortunate and marginalized.

Still others take a modern approach of “adding something in,” often among the spiritual disciplines.  If not a regular practice already, Lent is a great season for daily “TAG” time – that is, “Time Alone with God.”  That can be prayer.  Reading a Scripture. Studying a devotional. That prayer walk in God’s creation. Many forms – but the point being, to add more focus and time with God than had been your routine.

Still others mix the two – say, they fast from a specific meal each week, and take that extra time and use it for extra devotional focus, or extra volunteerism and service.  So it becomes a practice of both “giving up” and “adding in.”

Each of which represents a form of intentional change. There’s a season coming, there’s space for something new, and all it takes is a little organization of self and the desire to stretch and grow.

But what can make Lent empty and meaningless, like those dusty, untouched gingerbread houses on my shelf, is when we fail to engage it at all.  If Lent is just a word we use to describe a few dates, then that misses the purpose. Or if it involves giving something up without connecting that practice to gratitude to Jesus – that can miss the purpose too.  If it only adds in busyness for the sake of busyness, or cuts something out without a purpose for that change – that misses the reason for the season.  You get the idea. And ultimately, if that change is not about cherishing and prioritizing our own relationships with God in Christ… then that misses Lent all together.

Friends, my purpose here is to encourage you to be intentional in your purpose when it comes to this season:  our Christian tradition is gifting us with 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and Easter, all beginning so appropriately on Ash Wednesday, February 14th – also known as Valentine’s Day.  Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about love – and God’s love is at the heart of Ash Wednesday, and this Lenten season.  The love of God we witness in Jesus – who becomes incarnate, is born, lives, teaches, heals, includes, suffers, dies, rises and reigns all to forgive sin, beat death and sow life. And He does it all for you. And me. And this world.

That’s the kind of love no valentine can convey.

So sisters and brothers be encouraged – take action this Lent.  Cut something out, or add something in. Use it for why we have it: to prepare ourselves. To prioritize Jesus.  To make more space in our lives for God. And to be “methodical” (denominational pun!) in how we approach the work of growing in God’s Spirit.

Grateful to be on this Lenten journey together,

Pastor James Murphy

Pastor’s Column: Our New Associate Pastor Ashley Creek

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  Isaiah 49:13
Pastor’s Column: Our New Associate Pastor Ashley Creek
      Friends, I am so grateful for God’s Spirit at work in so many lay leaders and servants in our faith fellowship, active in expressions of worship and service, education and community, building the kingdom upon Jesus our Cornerstone!
        I marvel at Financial servants who give generously of their time and talents, right down to counting offerings on Sundays. Trustees who are often called upon in a pinch – like sudden snowfall on Christmas Eve. Committee servants who keep our administrative machine purring along. Teachers in Children’s Church, ministers in youth ministries. And the gaggle of ladies who make fellowship happen on Sundays with hospitality. Our Church is blessed with many giving hearts who express their devotion and gratitude to God in Christ in many ways, both inside and outside our fellowship. We can see the fingerprints of God and the flames of God’s Holy Spirit in precious people all around us!
         In addition to our lay servants, a big part of our this special community are the lay staff members we are also blessed with.
        Our Kimberley, an answer to prayer, who holds down our fort and wears many hats, with a foot in many corners; keeping us all on track.
        Our Christine, whose love of children and desire to see them grow in knowledge of God’s love for them is evident each week, and each month, from Children’s Church programs to our many special events.
Our not-so-new-anymore Felicia, who dove right in with us, shining in the work of relationship building with the special age group of preteens to tweens to middle school teens.
Our Lorena, who is much more than the caretaker of our facility; a great big heart caring for her parish.
And the always-talented three-headed dynamic song-leading conglomeration that is Chuck, Amy and Jimmy. Chuck who celebrated his 25thyear serving with us; reminding us of all he brings recently by opening (at 10 am) and closing (at 11 pm) our Christmas Eve worship with his ripping version of Little Drummer Boy. Amy, the leader of our pack, who grounds us and draws so many in to share their musical gifts. And Jimmy, who brings new music and new energy to Sundays that he is refining with our extraordinary youth band on Wednesday nights. If we could somehow clone these people, churches across the Western Jurisdiction would get in line for their copy.
     And as if God had not blessed us with a sufficient wealth of ministerial talent with all of the servants mentioned, and those who serve in other big ways alongside them, the Lord runs our cup right over with the gift of Ashley Creek.
As you know, this month, beginning on Sunday, January 7th, Ashley has been appointed by our Bishop Elaine Stanovsky to serve three-quarters time as Cornerstone’s first Associate Pastor. Having completed licensing school and a rigorous candidacy process to become a local pastor, Ashley will be granted sacramental authority within our parish. She will also be starting the significant step of seminary education toward a Masters of Divinity degree… following in the footsteps, so to speak, of Cornerstone alumnus Pastor Marc Kennedy.
Let’s remind ourselves how we arrived at this important moment with this special servant.
In an age where many denominational churches could not pay twentysomethings to touch us with a ten-foot pole, Ashley has built a young adults group from the ground up. That meets in her own home. That allows for relationships to be grown in the faith, and a space to welcome back former youth who have grown into maturity. All among an age group where many are busy wandering away from churches… God is using Ashley and her team to create a place for them.
And in a day that has seen many youth programs dry up around our Conference, Ashley has added to the proud history of youth ministries at Cornerstone, growing youth participants and adult leadership to the point where our parish is now blessed with one of the very largest youth programs in the Pacific Northwest Conference.  They reach youth both inside and also outside our Church. Each week she organizes kind hearts to feed these youth a delicious meal, making room for conversation and relationship. They play crazy, fun games together. Then they move into a time of worship that is youth-led, with a band of teenagers who collectively would rival the adult music programs in many of our sister parishes. The way they lift their hearts to God together is incredible – a space where all kinds of different kids are welcomed and affirmed and encouraged to know more about Jesus. Ashley’s program alternates between large group learning (think a sermon for youth – which Ashley often offers) and small group interactions. It is as solid a youth program in a congregation of our size as you will find.
            This in addition to the missions emphasis and the special events Ashley and her team have crafted and grown into our yearly traditions. Friendsgiving at Thanksgiving – an enormous outreach of food and fellowship and witness. Retreats, like during winter break to Leavenworth, or at Lazy F camp, or the multitude of summer backpacking trips she leads (for graduates… high schoolers… and young adults… that’s a lot of hiking!) Her leadership of our summer intern program. And most centrally her work in engaging our youth in the missions program serving in Mexico, including a massive fundraising Auction night that has become one of the highlights of our entire programmatic year.
            Church, as many have witnessed, a servant like Ashley does not come along every day. Indeed – the average term of service for most youth ministers falls closer to two years; Ashley is working on year five at Cornerstone, with no intentions of stepping away. From her emphasis on one-on-one relationship building, to her evangelist’s heart, to her insights into church priority and administration, our Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries has displayed the gifts and graces necessary for ministry – youth ministries, certainly, but in addition, Ashley displays the building blocks of pastoral ministry. She is just now beginning that journey, and will need room to grow into that role and into those gifts. But let us witness that we, the people of Cornerstone, will be the beneficiaries.
            In some ways I liken our Ashley (and by extension, her partner Jimmy) to a particular detail in the Genesis story of Joseph. No, not the Technicolor dreamcoat. Nor the grandiose dreams, nor familial betrayal, nor feeding all of Egypt.  The part of Joseph’s story that stands out to me was how, through God’s work in and through him, the Lord would in turn bless others via Joseph’s ministries. We see it twice in Joseph’s story. First, when he was initially sold into slavery in Egypt to a leader of the guard named Potiphar. Early on, Potiphar realized that Joseph was talented, and blessed, and that God was with him. So Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his entire household – to curry the trickle down blessings from God. If God was going to work through Joseph in powerful ways, then Potiphar wanted his whole household to be the beneficiaries.
            In similar fashion, when Joseph was imprisoned, the jail overseer saw the same Spirit of God at work in his new inmate, and put Joseph in charge of everything within those prison walls.
            The point being – if you have a special servant with a heart for God, whom the Lord is shaping and molding and blazing through, then you lift that person up and allow God to bless you through them.  Like how God is blessing our youth and young adults via God’s servant Ashley. How our entire parish is benefiting because she wants to shine for Jesus.
            Admittedly, despite this change, you won’t see sweeping changes in Ashley’s responsibility set. She will still be charged with directing our high school and young adult ministries, leading mission efforts, and coordinating special events. The biggest visible change will be Ashley’s burgeoning involvement with Sunday worship, including sharing in sacramental responsibilities (she will be assisting in leading Communion this Sunday, for instance) and in preaching duties (offering a sermon to us January 14th). You will also spot Ashley in new areas of church life, as we attempt to “get her feet wet” in many forms of parish ministry.
            Does this change mean Cornerstone will always have an Associate Pastor going forward?  No, this is a special circumstance, and we do not know the long-term picture.  But there is a good chance Ashley would at least remain with us through seminary, which gives us several more years.  We are also fortunate that, as a local pastor, Ashley is appointed but not part of the itinerant system, meaning our Bishop cannot send her and Jimmy to the far reaches of the Conference to serve.
            Rather, Church family, I invite us to witness what God is gifting us with in the present:  a servant who has and continues to commit her life to the Good News of Jesus, and God’s awesome love and power offered to each one of us.  Let us take this time to encourage her, to work alongside her, to give her grace as she grows, and to be faithful in our calling as a faith community needing to lift up leaders and servants as God moves, so that the kingdom can continue to be sown here on earth!
            A closing word.  From our fall budget process, our leadership and membership committed to a modest increase for Ashley commiserate with her new level of responsibility.  Other than an increase to apportionments, that bump represents the only additions to our budget for this new year.  Yet it was a step of faith all the same, asking God would provide for this new cost.
            How quick God is to answer, sometimes.
At the close of 2017 a family in our parish reached out to let me know they were committing (on top of an increase to our capital campaign) an additional $10,000 in giving in 2018, to ensure that Ashley’s salary would be covered.  That figure nearly covers the entirety of those new costs.  When asked why they were giving, they simply expressed their belief that God is at work in Ashley, that we can see the good fruits of what God is sowing through her ministries, and they felt this was the right way to support what the Spirit is doing at Cornerstone. But the kicker for me? This family doesn’t have any children or youth in our program.  They simply are witnesses to what God is doing in the life of this special servant.
            So friends, I invite you to join me in celebrating what God is doing in the life of our faith fellowship – through our lay leaders and servants, our lay staffing, and now our Associate Pastor.  Together, may we proclaim the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice, and His victory.  May we reach out to the poor and those on the margins.  May we stand with the broken, and offer hope to those despairing. And may we witness the Holy Spirit at work in each other – binding us together, and binding us to God’s own Self!
            Grateful to be on this journey together,
Pastor James Murphy