It started, like most worship installations at Westfield, with Pintrest. A seminary friend had pinned a craft blog post that gave instructions on how to make a suncatcher-mobile out of melted plastic cups. Among the most striking elements of Westfield are the two-story windows the line the walls of the sanctuary. On clear mornings, sunlight streams in through the windows warming the pews and people inside.
But there’s a part of me that misses the stained glass of Loganville, glass that told stories and threw light onto the floor and pews. There’s a sacred beauty to those windows. And a connection to the past. There’s power in knowing that the windows you gaze upon have been gazed upon in the same way by generations of church-goers.
Westfield carries its own simple beauty, but as we headed into this Pentecost–a day when we particularly remember the Spirit’s fire–I wanted to find a way to play with the abundance of light that regularly floods through our windows. Maybe we could create a stained glass effect on our own. And that’s when Pintrest and 3,000 plastic cups came in.
I found what thought were red, orange, and yellow cups online. Turns out they were more pink, orange, and pollen. Due to a lack of time (and, frankly, desire to pay return shipping and restock fees), our supposed-to-be red, yellow, and orange tongue of fire took on a neon theme.
One afternoon a volunteer and I spent nearly five hours melting, smashing, and cooling the cups. Here’s how to make that happen:
First, lay out the cups. We used large baking sheets that could hold 20 cups.
We placed the cup into a 325-degree oven for around 2 minutes. Once they’re out, we needed to smash quick! Take care when smashing to (1) not burn yourself and (2) try to smash straight down. It’s super easy to smash multiple cups together. Once they’ve cooled together, there’s no getting them apart! N.B.-Please ensure your work area is well-ventilated!
Then, let them cool. It’s important to give them 30 seconds or more on a cool tray before tossing them in with the already crushed cups. We collected them in trash bags by color and count–500 cups per bag.
Now to assemble! After some intense figuring out, we discovered that two tables end to end created a large enough work space. We laid cups in lines.
Next we placed strands of floral binding wire down the lines of cups and taped them onto the cups using small pieces of tape. Then we hot glued the wire to the cups. The most effective way we found was to hot glue over the peaks of the cup to ensure the glue sticks to the cup and covers the wire. We want the effect that they are descending–not for the actually to descend!
We assembled over 150 strands of cups in 4′, 6′, 8′, 10′, and 12′ lengths.
Next we ran fishing line across from balcony to balcony and attached the strand s by wrapping the wire around the line three times to one side then back to the other side three times. This keeps the strands from sliding back and forth on the wire.
Here’s how it turned out!
This was a HUGE project. It took hours and hours to complete and it looks incredible. Are neon melted cups everyone’s cup of tea? No. But the creativity and effort were well-respected. And it does create a pretty cool effect in the sanctuary.
This was also a project that included lots of participation from church members, which is always a plus in church work! Lots of folks helped glue, string, and hang. And of course, lots admired!
To my sweet Mama,
It’s been four years since we last shared a Mother’s Day together in person. This time four years ago you were in the middle of a rigorous series of chemo treatments–treatments we discovered the following July had worked. That fall, your walking became more careful, more intentional. You had to focus on writing with clean strokes. Something was wrong. That’s when we discovered that one tiny piece lodged somewhere in your brain–that one piece that started to spread and as it did slowly took your away your motor skills. So you began another round of treatments. This time it was radiation. And we thought that had worked. But then came the night you fell. And that was the beginning of the end.
But Mom, that’s not how I remember you. What I remember is a woman who’s strength in the face of uncertainty was inspiring. I don’t remember the fragile-too-early 63 year old. I remember you like this:
There are so many good memories I want to remind you about. You were always worried that there wouldn’t be enough. But Mom, don’t worry. There are. I remember our trip to New York, all the trips to the mountains to see the fall leaves, the season passes to Six Flags. I remember cleaning my condo bright and early the morning after we closed the sale. I remember you and I picking out my pretty, little cat and bringing her to her new home.
But over these last four and a half years that you’ve been gone the thing that I’m most worried about is forgetting the little things that we shared.
When I moved to Connecticut (more on that in a second), I brought your cookbooks with me. And sometimes, when I miss you the most, I open your favorites and flip through the pages. I search for your notes–little bits of conversation that I savor like the last few bites of a meal you only get to eat once. You listed your adjustments, noted when you made that particular recipe and for whom. And, of course, the teacher in you left a grade for most of them. Never a letter grade–mostly a rating. A “fair” here. A “superb” there.
But truth be told, what fills my soul with the deepest relief is when I flip through those pages and I see your notes, I realize that I can still recognize your handwriting. I can’t remember your voice much beyond an out-of-focus memory, but I see those notes and I can remember the handwriting that listed out math problems on construction paper cut into seasonal shapes for me to do on the car ride home from school. It’s the handwriting that wrote notes to the school office, signed all those permission slips, and helped me keep track of who all to invite to graduations. Later, it was that handwriting that launched a birthday card campaign that yielded nearly 60 birthday cards the semester I studied in Copenhagen.
A lot has happened in those four and a half years. I graduated from seminary. I was ordained and became a pastor, a goal you remembered me setting when I was 8. I moved to Connecticut. You’d love the fall up here. It’s beautiful. Really.
I work for an historic congregation in a lovely, old building that is classic New England. It’s a charming place. The best part are the people–kind and gracious, they’re nothing like the Yankees I heard about at home. The worst part is the distance from home, from Dad, and from G.
That’s something else that’s happened: I met and fell in love with my dear G.–a man who holds my heart. He’s tall and funny and Southern. You’d like him, Mom–he’s a Methodist. AND a musician. And Lord, he can play the piano. Early when we were first dating, I was listening to him play hymns and I asked him to play one of your favorites.
I asked him to play There’s Within My Heart a Melody. He flipped right to it and started to play. I started to sing. Then I said, “play it like mama.” And without me even telling him what that meant, he got his left hand going back and forth just like you would’ve played it. And mama, we sang. It was a song of praise, but also a song that I could almost hear you sing with us. So be happy, Mama. I found someone to love and be loved by. And I’ll always have a pianist!
I remember you calling me one day telling me that a usually kind church friend turned into a jerk in the middle of meeting about what kind of pastor the church wanted. He said he was fine with anyone as long as they weren’t a woman or gay. You told me how your mind was racing through the whole rest of that meeting. And then you told me how you confronted him in the parking lot through your tears and fears. You stood up for me. And I want you to know that I’m grateful for that–for that act of love and strength. It was worth it.
Your beloved sister, Virginia, died. And I want you to know (although I’m pretty sure you already do) that I was in the room with her and Nelanie and Jeff when she passed. I was holding her hand just like I think you would’ve wanted me to. We all were. And we cried. I cried for Aunt Virginia. She was a woman who had so much love and faced so much hardship. But selfishly I cried for myself–for the loss of a woman who could tell me the stories about the two of you growing up, who could remind me when I needed to hear it the most that you would’ve been proud of me–of my decisions, of the man I’ve become.
I’ll be honest, Mom. I really hate Mother’s day. I can make it through your birthday. I can even make it through the anniversary of your death. But this day–Mother’s Day–it’s the toughest. A day when everyone celebrates their moms–who by and large are alive–and little inner Jon wants to stamp his feet and scream that it’s not fair. Because, it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that I had to write your obituary at 23. It isn’t fair that Dad’s alone. It isn’t fair that you aren’t here.
But in the midst of my internal tantrum, I can hear your voice. “Now, Jonathan.” And I remind myself of all the gifts you and Dad gave me: a love of music, your sense of humor. You would be such a Southern lady, then you would come out with a joke that would leave the people around the table rolling on the floor. Let’s face it: you were funny.
Even when you died, you left your humor behind. Your funeral plans are a perfect example–remember, those? At the top of the page, in big bold print: “GET THE CAR WASHED. WHICHEVER CAR YOU WILL DRIVE IN THE PROCESSIONAL–WASH IT.” Don’t worry. We did. Then, at the end, you wrote this: “Finally, I would like to buried naked. I came into this world naked and I want to go out naked.” Directly beneath that you added “The above is a joke. Please put clothes on me.”
Of course, the greatest gift you gave me was your love. And not just your love, but the knowledge of your love. It wasn’t until I was in seminary and more recently beginning my career that I realized how rare it is for kids to know without a shadow of a doubt that they are loved–that their parents are proud of them. I never questioned that Mom. Thanks.
I miss you, Mama. I miss you everyday. I remember sitting in the den while you cooked supper and I’d hear you sigh “Oh, I love you, Mama.” You were talking to your own mother, calling out to her. I didn’t understand it then. I knew what the words meant, but I couldn’t comprehend the sigh.
But now I do. And I find myself slicing up my Tombstone pizza some nights and sighing the same way. “Oh, I love you, Mama.” And I find comfort in saying it–in speaking your name into the world–into this world. There are times when I have these dreams that you and I are having conversations. And I wake up and could swear that you were just with me, that we were just talking. And honestly, I think they are real. And they bring me such comfort. So thanks–for showing up however and whenever you do.
One final thing: I would never say that God makes shitty things happen so that He can redeem it. But I do believe that God can make really beautiful things come out of really shitty situations. (I know–you’re probably a little mortified that I just used the word ‘shitty’ publicly twice–well, three times. Let’s be honest–You could be a little colorful,too, no?)
Anyway, one of the beautiful things that’s blossomed in the last four years is a genuine friendship between Dad and me. Honestly, he’s my best friend. You chose right. And let me tell you, he’s been one hell of a Dad and Mom these last four years.
Wish you were here (and I know, somehow, you are),
After a week in simply spring-y Georgia, I am back in Connecticut basking in the warm spring sun and watching the trees sprout out their baby green leaves. I was back in the South to go to my dear seminary friend’s wedding in Mobile (fun fact: Mobile has the oldest carnival celebrations in the US). After returning to Atlanta, I spent some much needed R & R with my sweet G. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but G. has a penchant for late-night stole shopping which has led to several stole commissions for me. This particular one is one I’ve been sitting on since Christmas! Can you believe I was even able to make it this long without posting some obnoxious status to my clergy friends that probably would’ve amounted to something like an elementary school taunt about look what I’ve got (and what you don’t!). But, then, that wouldn’t be particularly Christian, would it?
Fish and fishermen play a surprisingly large roll in the Gospels. I’m sure you remember this story:
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Matthew 4: 18 – 22, NRSV
Or maybe this one?
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.
Luke 5: 4 – 7, NRSV
Anyway, this particular stole (which I felt OK wearing during Easter due to its mostly white background and stunning sun not to mention it fit in well with my sermon from today) features a sailboat floating on a peaceful, blue sea under a vibrant sun. Off the side of the boat (and, I’ll admit it, this might be my favorite part) is a 3D net–cast into deep waters.
G. gave it to me with the idea that it would be worn on the Sunday when the lectionary centers on one of the above texts, but it seems a shame to leave it on the hanger that much, no?
Three weeks ago, when I was looking at the scriptures for this week, I chose these three because at the time I intended to speak to the way that God has welcomed all of us into God’s kingdom, the new heaven and the new earth which is shown by the story we heard from Acts earlier this morning. And that we make that truth manifest when we love one another as Jesus commands us in John. There you go–a sermon in two sentences. Probably the quickest sermon you’ve ever heard.
But, as I’m sure you’re aware, a lot has happened in those three weeks. And so, these texts–visions about who and where God works, about a new heaven and a new earth, about who we are to love take on a deeper meaning.
The New Revised Standard Version of our Revelation text reads:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Revelation is an account of a vision that John of Patmos had. It’s part of a larger genre of ancient literature called Apocalypse–a genre that deals with the end times–with that fundamental question: what’s next?
Theologian Dana Fergueseon offers this insight: “We humans spend a lot of time conjuring up images in our minds of the physical nature of the place–heavenly mountains or beaches, divinely paved roads or rolling soft hills. In the Revelation to Joh, that image is revised. The new heaven is plainly and simply the place where God is. This is the first and most important detail: heaven is the place where God is and humans are fully united with God.”
Interestingly, John describes the New Jerusalem by telling us what’s not in it: “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” Ah, the sea. The sea, in the Bible at least, is a powerful symbol for chaos. Think back to Genesis 1–the story that starts it all: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Those waters are understood to be the waters of chaos–that which God created good things out of and that which still separates us from one another. So one of the beautiful things about this dry, New Jerusalem is there are no stormy seas to separate us from one another. John envisions a place where humans and God live in harmony with one another.
But given all that’s happened these past two weeks, the line that strikes me as the most hopeful is this one: “See, I am making all things new.” Because, Lord, don’t we need some new–some new hope, some new faith in humanity–in the promise that Good will overcome Evil. I hear those words, “see, I am making all things new,” and I think of the images from the Boston bombings or of the destruction an un-inspected fertilizer plant caused in Texas, and it’s easy for me to go to God and say “are you? are you making all things new?” If things are being made new, then why do such acts of destruction take place? And I’m not just talking about the ones that directly affect us–I’m talking about the ones that take place around the world.
Following the bombings, a group of Syrians made a sign and took a picture holding it that reads “Boston Bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” There’s such sadness in this world–such heartache and destruction. Don’t we need for all things to be made new?
But then I think about the response we saw in the last two weeks. Yes, we met destruction head on, but what we also saw (as I’m sure you’ve seen pointed out on the news) were people rushing to help. Literally–running toward the smoke the Boston bombs created–to help–anyway they could. The community of West, Texas is finding support flooding in from across the nation. A day after that picture was taken in Syria, one showed up from Boston: Friends in Syria, we too hope for the safety of your families and FOR PEACE.
And it’s moments like that–seeing people running toward the smoke, the outpouring of support, and photos sent in love to people half a world away that act as notes of comfort and support from God. I imagine God saying “I’m working on it. See, I am making all things new.”
That’s really what Peter is recounting in the eleventh chapter of Acts–that God is making all things new. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this story. In fact, this story is told twice in Acts–the first time being just a chapter before–in chapter ten. It was an important story for the early Christians because it dealt with a fundamental question: Who could be Christian? Christianity was, at its beginning, a sect of Judaism. The earliest Christians wouldn’t have considered themselves Christian. They would’ve thought of themselves as Jews who believed the Messiah had come. And in the ancient Jewish world, there were Jewish and there were Gentiles. And one did not just switch between the two.
And so, as the early church was established, the question soon came to the forefront–can someone be what we would call “christian” if they weren’t Jewish first? After all, Jesus was said to be the fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies.
So, Peter recounts this story, this vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven. And as that sheet got close to him , Peter saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. AND he heard a voice saying–Get up, Peter; kill and eat.
Of course, the animals Peter was commanded to eat were unclean–not kosher. Peter protests, to which the voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter claims this happened three times. Then something interesting happens (as if voices and animals and floating sheets are interesting!). Peter tells us he was set by the Spirit to go with three men, Gentiles, and to treat them without distinction. He was also told to share the Gospel with them. And then Peter asks the pivotal question: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who was I that I could hinder God? Who am I to hinder God? To hinder God’s ways of making all things new? We are not called to hinder God’s work in this world. Friends, we are called to be God’s work in this world.
Jesus, of course, knew this. In the gospel of John, Jesus explains to his disciples: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said tot he Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
That is how we will be God’s ongoing work in this world, how we will witness to God making all things new, how we will march to Zion, to that New Jerusalem–by loving one another. Which means that we will discuss the merits of one paint color over another, then we will paint together. It means that we will stand by one another. That we will reach into the hurting places of this community and find a way to offer comfort, to say to the people who long for a message of hope: Look. See, God is making all things new. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. Whether you look like me or sound like me or eat the same foods as me–there is nothing, nothing we can do to hinder God’s ongoing work of making all things new.
So, we will choose to love one another and to welcome strangers and friends, everyone, everyone, everyone alike into our community of forgiveness and grace–all the while standing in astonishment at what God has done and in gratitude that we are part of it.
My freshman year of college was filled with icebreakers. You know the ones–those obnoxious little games meant to help a group of nervous underclassmen become a little more familiar with one another. Generally, these games center around “interesting little tidbits,” those odd facts or strange confessions that are individual to that person. Rarely are the useful questions like “If you could be any Golden Girl, which one would you be?” or “If you had to be knee-deep in any condiment, which condiment would you choose?” No. Generally, there were more mundane: “How many siblings do you have?” or “What’s your favorite movie?”
That last one was always a problem for me. If you asked, “What’s your favorite movie?” I’d be likely to respond “What kind of movie?” I’ve got a lot of favorite movies. Favorite cartoon? Probably Beauty and the Beast, followed closely by Shrek. Favorite musical? (I’ll admit, this one normally garnered a look that screamed “Have you met me?”) The Music Man–a film I’ve watched at least 30 times with my Dad alone. Drama? Amadeus. Or Dangerous Liaisons. Comedy? The Blues Brothers. See? That’s the problem. I can’t pick just one.
The same is true when I’m asked which hymn is my favorite (which as a former music director and as a pastor happens fairly regularly). When I’m asked, “What’s your favorite hymn?”, I almost always think “Which kind?” The truth is, I’ve got lots. Hymn of comfort? It is Well. Easter Hymn? Up from the Grave (but only when it is sung properly by slowing down the verses, the speeding up the refrain). Hymn of faith? There’s within My Heart a Melody. Hymn about that Great Cloud of Witnesses? For All the Saints. Hymn about being in it together? March to Zion. You get the point.
Unlike my movie quandary, the truth is I do have a favorite hymn: How Can I Keep from Singing. It’s a powerful hymn. It’s lyrics remind us of our life in faith, that whatever we come up against in Christ we have reason to keep singing. And not just reason to keep singing. Our faith calls us beyond that–to the place where we begin to wonder even in the face of our hardest trials, how can I keep from singing? How can I not sing of all the wondrous things God has done and continues to do in my life.
Go ahead, pause your day for just a couple of minutes and listen to its beautiful words.
This song kept popping in my mind last week. It’s no secret that it was a hard week for our country and for many individually. But in the midst of that hardship there were two videos that filled my eyes with tears. The first isn’t even from our country. The issue of gay marriage isn’t just up for debate here. New Zealand has been having the same discussion we’ve been having. Their governing body just voted to approve gay marriage, and here’s what happened in their parliament:
The user posting the video offers this description of what happened:
As the votes are announced in the New Zealand Parliament that affirm the Definition of Marriage Amendment (allowing equal marriage rights for the gay community), spectators in the gallery break into a Maori love song which most of the Members of Parliament then join in with. Quite touching.
For my American chums who want to know more about the song being sung: “Pokarekare ana.” Unofficially it is New Zealand’s second national anthem. It is believed to have been communally written by Maori soldiers in training camp during World War I.
Stormy are the waters on restless Waiapu
If you cross them, girl, they will be calmed
Oh girl, come back to me, my heart is dying of love for you.
I have written you a letter, and enclosed with it my ring,
So your people can see how troubled I am
Oh girl, come back to me, my heart is dying of love for you.
Beautiful, no? And then, for a second time, tears filled my eyes. After last week’s horrific events in Boston, this happened at a Bruins game:
Music is indeed a power unto itself. It has the ability to unify and to point us to deeper truths about what it means to faith–faith in whatever it is you have faith in.
Nearly 5 years ago, as my mother lay dying in a hospital bed in Georgia, I found myself singing to her: Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand… In those five long days that we waited for her death, songs and music brought us comfort. I’m confident they brought her some comfort too. Even as her condition deteriorated and she slipped into a coma, the familiar songs of her faith eased her breathing and seemed, even if just a little, to remind all of us of the faith we shared in that hospital room–that what we were swiftly approaching (and too soon) wasn’t the end of the story.
All of that to say, even in the midst of the heartbreak of the last week’s bombings (and the celebrations of last week’s advancements), we find music central. We find that creating music together, singing songs together, is a testament to God’s creative power and a unifying force in times that seem to grow more divisive day by day.
So I suppose this is really an invitation. It’s an invitation to sing, to invite others to join our singing. And with our voices raised, we will be reminded that there is something more that connects us all–that there is something deeper that holds us together. And, at the risk of being cliché (too late, it seems!), the One who holds us together is far, far greater than the one who strives to tear us apart. May we be held together and in all we say and do and encounter, may we continue to wonder how it is that we can keep from singing.