Reflections from Pastor Debbie
May 8, 2020
In Celebration of Mother’s Day
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from a 14th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, who says “all people are meant to be mothers of God, giving birth to God’s presence in the world.”
My own mother died in September 2009, while she was in the hospital recovering from knee replacement surgery, from a pulmonary embolism. I had been staying with Mom and Dad in Georgia during the time of her surgery but had returned home to North Carolina after she was recovering and doing well. One afternoon a few days after returning home, I received a call from my father: “We have lost your mother.” “What do you mean, you have lost her? Did they move her to a different hospital room?” She died suddenly with my father sitting beside her hospital bed, talking with her. It took me a few moments to comprehend what my father was telling me.
Mom always told us she wanted Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to be sung at her memorial service. My sister and I tried our best to talk her out of it; how would it appear if the family opted to sing hallelujahs at her funeral? And Mom and Dad were members of a small country church in Northeast Georgia; to ask that small choir of volunteers to sing such a challenging piece of music seemed daunting. My mother was stubborn and dug in her heels. Unless we wanted to be haunted by her spirit for the remainder of our days, we complied with her wishes.
My mother contended that singing a portion of Handel’s Messiah was about the words, our faith and worship. It was not about performance. God didn’t care how perfectly we sang but that our song was from our hearts. And the words: God omnipotent reigns, hallelujah. He is Lord of lords and King of kings, hallelujah. And he shall reign forever and ever. Truthfully, my mother lived this faith. God was Lord of her life. Christ was her King of kings. And she believed with her whole being that God was in control of her life and the world. And she wanted that message to be sung and preached at a memorial service celebrating her life and new life of the resurrection. That small choir invited the congregation to join in singing with them. I can honestly tell you that I have never heard the Hallelujah Chorus sung more beautifully, the words and music resonating across the valley where my parents’ family of faith worshipped. My mother was right and I am glad she dug in her heels. My mother, in so many ways, gave birth to God’s presence in the world. She was kind and I never heard her criticize or judge another person. She was generous and giving, volunteering hours and hours of time through our church’s outreach ministries. She worked tirelessly for diversity, serving as chairperson of the Atlanta chapter of Friendship Force for many years. She demonstrated hospitality, always opening our home to people from around the world. She always believed that people could grow and change, becoming the people God created them to be. She always believed in the possibility of new life; she lived as a person who believed in the resurrection.
My mother was not lost to us. She continues to give birth to God’s presence in the world through those who have loved her.
You and I are also called, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to give birth to God’s presence in our world.
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)
Last week when Governor Roy Copper extended the stay-at-home order, I felt my patience waning. I am an extrovert so social distancing for a month seemed doable but to extend that month seemed daunting. I had to have a little talk with myself about the virtue of patience after receiving Governor Cooper’s updated message. Patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Remaining calm even when you have been waiting forever or dealing with something painstakingly slow or teaching someone how to do something and they just don’t get it. Inherent in patience is hope that tomorrow will indeed be different and that God’s timing is always perfect.
The person in the Bible who epitomizes patience is Hannah. Hannah’s story is told in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. She was living during a difficult time in Israel’s history – there was great division among her people, fighting with foreign nations, lawlessness and people were doing what “was right in their own eyes” without regard for God or other people. But things were about to change for Hannah and for her people – God was about to do a new thing in her world. Hannah was happily married, but she was unable to conceive and have children. It was her practice to go to worship and persevere in prayer, asking God to give to her a child. A child – new life. God did hear her prayer and, in God’s time, she did conceive and give birth to a son – Samuel. Samuel will grow to become the priest (and prophet) who would anoint Saul and David as kings of Israel. What is significant about Hannah is that she had patience born of hope and she persevered in prayer. God heard her, and you and me, when we cry to God and God responds to our cries with new life.
We have a little longer to stay-at-home and practice social distancing. While we are practicing social distancing, I am renewing my commitment to the practice of patience and prayer, as I envision the new life God is bringing to us.
Years ago, when my sister and I were about 8 and 5 years old (I am the oldest), my father invited us to go overnight camping with him. He had just purchased a piece of property adjacent to a state park close to Toccoa, Georgia and he would go up there from time to time to check things out. Our plan was to make a campfire, roast hotdogs and s’mores and then my sister and I would sleep in the back of our family Chrysler station wagon while my father was content to sleep in his sleeping bag out under the stars, returning home the next morning. My sister and I loved these adventures with my father; my mother was not an outdoor camping kind of person, so she was content to stay home with the dogs for company. The night was gorgeous, warm and the sky was filled with stars. We were happily filling our stomachs with hotdogs when my father casually mentioned the fact that bears roamed the woods during the summer months so we needed to be sure to pack our food away when we slept. Within seconds of my father mentioning bears, my sister and I were in the back of the station wagon and we refused to budge until we were headed home the next morning. Even when my father enticed us with s’mores, we refused to leave the safety of the back of our station wagon. Our fear was gripping and paralyzing.
There is fear swirling around us in the midst of this pandemic. When I go to the grocery store, I see it in people’s faces. And, I have to admit, I am fearful of what will happen when we can begin to phase back into some routine of public existence. Fear can be a good thing – it alerts us to possible danger and gives us a chance to prepare. But often fear can become gripping and paralyzing. Worry is akin to fear and grows out of fear. Both fester and grow in an environment of uncertainty and change.
Some thoughts about fear:
Often our adversary is not what we imagine it to be. Black bears roaming in North Georgia are actually timid and will not attack unless they perceive a threat. Most times they will not draw near to people unless they are looking for food. So, a little fear causes us to be smart and take precautions. Understanding lessens fear.
Dwelling on the past and worrying about the future will only rob you of the present’s joy. Stacy A. Padula
Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears. Rudyard Kipling
Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie ten Boom
Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow. Swedish proverb.
When I think about all the biblical characters who confronted their fear and conquered it, David comes to mind. He was a young boy when he agreed to go out and face the giant Goliath in battle. He stepped onto the battle field alone, with only a sling shot and stones. “The giant in front of David was never bigger than the God inside of him.” His faith allowed him to confront a giant of a problem, believing that with God all things are possible. In the same way, the virus we face today is never bigger than the God who is with us.
Reflections from Pastor Debbie
April 22, 2020 50th Anniversary of Earth Day
“God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God created humankind in his image, male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1: 24-28, selected verses)
In the Hebrew, having dominion over and subduing creation does not mean controlling, exercising power over and destroying. It means rather caring for, encouraging life, supporting, and being responsible for the community of God’s creation. Implied in God’s mandate for us to be good stewards of the earth, is, first and foremost, a recognition that it is God’s creation and we are called to live in creation with all of God’s creatures. We have been given the awesome responsibility, as human beings, to be caretakers in God’s creation. And, as caretakers, we recognize our interconnectedness with all of creation/ with God’s community.
Back in March, when the stay-at-home mandate was issued and virtually all public venues closed, a story was reported entitled “Penguins go on a field trip.” The Chicago Aquarium closed to the public. Without humans around, the staff decided to allow 3 of the penguins – Andy, Edward and Wellington (the oldest penguin in the country; he’s about 30 years old) to escape from their glass enclosed home to roam about the lobby of the aquarium. Wellington became particularly interested in the Amazon fish exhibit. I loved this story for several reasons.
First, it reminded me that sometimes we live in our own glass enclosed homes, not venturing beyond our routines and schedules to explore the broader world. Ironically this enforced stay at home time in our lives is prompting us to consider our worlds from a bigger perspective; to consider our priorities, to understand our interconnectedness. We have been forced to change our routines and schedules and learn to adapt. While our physical spaces are limited, we are allowed to roam in bigger ideological/theological spaces and discover a few truths from our own field trips.
Second, I have been fascinated with how our staying at home is impacting creation. In addition to penguins being free to roam in places where humans have previously limited their movement, pollution over our heavily populated areas has decreased. There has been a 60% fall in pollution over India’s New Delhi; a 54% drop over Seoul, South Korea, etc. Cities like New York and Los Angeles can actually see the sun rising/setting on the horizon because of the lack of smog. Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide according to the World Health Organization. It begs the question: How are we doing at being good stewards of all of God’s creation, penguins included?
One of my favorite ancient Native American quotes:
Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children.
Happy Earth Day! Enjoy the beauty of God’s creation outside your door! Consider your own Field Trip in your neighborhood!
In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene in a garden. In fact, she initially mistakes him for a gardener. I have been fascinated with John’s depiction of the resurrected Jesus as a gardener. What truths can we glean from this gardening imagery?
Any gardener recognizes the truth that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” It is our Creator God who gives life. According to Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament professor and author, “The destiny of the human creature is to live in God’s world, not a world of his or her own making. And human beings are to live in community with God’s other creatures, caring for them.” The nature of our sinfulness is to neglect or ignore this truth – that God is our Creator and we are called to live in community. Before this pandemic pulled the rug out from under us, we had become, in the big picture, an incredibly selfish and individualistic society and the gospel message had become less and less relevant for more and more people. Maybe we are now remembering the truth that this is God’s world and we are called to live in the community of God’s making.
The gardener also understands the cycle of seasons, the cycle of life. In the winter of life, we would believe that life dies. But in truth, winter is the time when much activity is occurring below the ground, beyond what the eye can see. I believe that as we have been living through the “winter” of our lives these past weeks, in isolation, much activity is stirring in our souls and in our communities. It will be exciting to see, once we come out of our homes, what new life looks like.
A good gardener knows that for new life to sprout forth, pruning and weeding needs to take place. Weeds, while they may seem pretty in certain circumstances, can choke out the life of all other plants. Kudzu is a good example of a weedy vine; transported from overseas to this country to control soil erosion. Now kudzu is choking out our forests. Weeds demand all the nutrients of the soil, take up all the space, and soak up all the water. We need to be attentive to the weeds in our lives! And pruning – if we do not prune away the dead wood and unnecessary growth, that which does not contribute to new life, the entire plant suffers. We cannot simply celebrate growth for growth’s sake.
A good gardener is attentive to the garden and patient. Tending the garden and being patient and waiting while the mystery of growth takes place. Maybe this time of isolation and social distancing is affording us with an opportunity to be attentive to our gardens – our families, our communities and our country. To be patient and wait on the new life God will bring to us. To do what we can to recognize the weeds in our lives and prune away that which does not ultimately bring new life.
When this coronavirus subsides, perhaps we will see our world differently; we will recognize the beauty of God’s creation and our responsibility to tend and care for it.
Yesterday our Jewish friends celebrated Passover. The Passover meal or Seder is an ancient celebration, remembering the escape of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. Once the Hebrew people had safely made it across the Red Sea, away from the threat of the Egyptian armies, God instructs them to remember that night annually, when they gather to celebrate the Passover Seder. God instructs them to remember God’s mercy and grace and power, when confronted with those forces which would oppose God. The meal is called “seder” which means “order”, as in “the order of worship.” Perhaps order in the midst of chaos as well? Through the generations, the central feature of the entire Passover celebration has been this common meal, eaten by all the members of the family at the first full moon of spring. This meal was essentially a rite of family reunion, not only with the members of the family, but with the Jewish people as a whole (past, present and future), and even more importantly, with God.
Jesus was a Jew, so he gathered on the Thursday before his crucifixion to celebrate the Passover Seder with his disciples in Jerusalem. At the end of the meal, he took the bread and the cup and instituted what we celebrate as the Lord’s Supper. Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper has its roots in the Passover and the symbolism of the bread and the cup, in addition to our understanding of it being symbolic of the body and blood of Christ broken and shed for us, reminds us of God’s providential care as we wander in the wilderness, just as our Israelite ancestors did before us.
One of my favorite parts of the Passover Seder is the Prayer which is called “Dayenu”, meaning “it would have sufficed.” The prayer recounts all the ways in which the Jewish people have experienced God’s saving grace throughout the generations. No matter what present situation the people of God were living through, they were called to remember God’s salvation in the midst of that tribulation. In the recounting, the power of God once again becomes a present reality.
The celebration of the Passover, as families reunite and gather around the table to remember God’s goodness and grace, reminds me a bit of our family Thanksgiving celebrations. We always gathered at our family home in the North Georgia mountains. Before the blessing, my mother always insisted that we go around the table and share what we were thankful for, and there was no repeating what had been said previously.
Perhaps it would be good for us to practice our own prayer – the Dayenu – recounting all the ways in which God has provided for us in our individual lives, in our life as a church and community, and as a country. All the ways in which we have experienced God’s saving grace. And in the recounting/remembering it will become a present reality as we begin to look to the future.
Maybe this will be a time not just for survival – but a time of renewal and revival.
Reverend debbie osterhoudt
I am very excited to join in the ministry at Peace Presbyterian Church as interim pastor! I graduated from Vanderbilt University and received my Master of Divinity from Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA. Before serving at Peace Presbyterian, I served in Triangle area churches as pastor, associate pastor and interim pastor for 33 years. I have a passion for my ministry and study, travel, walking, sailing (which I learned from my father) and gardening.