Sunday September 18, Rev. Catherine Williams’ sermon “Pray Every Way You Know How.” 1 Timothy 2:1-7

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In the huge pile of mail that greeted me upon my return from Trinidad a couple of weeks ago, was a letter from our Bishop, John Schol. Dear Catherine, it began, I understand you are preparing for next year’s full member retreat and examination. You have already been affirmed in your calling and have been leading people to make disciples and grow vital congregations to transform the world, Thank you. A quick glance through the rest of the letter assured me I wasn’t in any trouble – whew! The Bishop actually wrote to offer me words of hope, admonition, encouragement, and support in advance of my upcoming ordination assessment period. His closing words – “Keep the Faith! John.”

When spiritual overseers write to the pastors under their care, their words carry great import for good or for ill. I’d like to think Pastor Timothy felt at least as supported and cared for when he received his letter from his Bishop, Paul, as I felt when I received this letter from my Bishop, John. Bishops or spiritual overseers tend to be rich in faith, grounded in the Scriptures, and seasoned in life and ministry experiences; any instruction they give to those under their care could very well be the Word of the Lord to the minister and to the church.

So we are fortunate this morning to hear this Word from the Lord as we peer over Timothy’s shoulder, reading what his Bishop had to say as he offered words of instruction and administrative guidance to this young leader of the well-established church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a bustling, commercial metropolis in Western Asia Minor; we now call that region Turkey. Paul had left young Timothy in charge of this urban congregation, where philosophical and theological issues were beginning to pose a threat to the faith. So Paul did some fairly close mentoring and coaching in both letters to the young Pastor. In this first letter, just prior to where we begin reading, Paul gives the same exhortation to Timothy as John Schol gave to me – hold on to faith, he says. Hold on to faith and a good th-39conscience. Then he proceeds to suggest how: First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be madeThe Message Bible translation – which provided the title for today’s sermon – puts it this way, The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. The slightly nuanced differences between supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings don’t really warrant separating them into discrete categories of prayer. It was the writer’s way of saying, pray every way you know how.

In our Christian tradition, to pray is essentially to talk to God. If God does not factor into this faith-building practice, we may as well call it a pious little monologue. Furthermore, if God is not expected to have something to say in response to our petitions, supplications, intercessions, or thanksgivings, then…what can I say? You probably know how it feels to have a conversation with someone where you couldn’t get a word in edgewise to save your th-14life? Granted, God’s response in the conversation may take all kinds of delightful or terrifying forms, but that calls for the kind of discernment we only get by the act of prayer, by practicing to pray. Prayer is a conversation; it is being in a place of God-awareness. Keep the faith, Paul tells Timothy; hold on to faith by first of all praying.

You might be saying, “but I don’t know how to pray.” You probably have in mind the eloquent prayers given by clergy or other spiritual leaders in worship. I am happy to clarify that verbal prayer is only one of many, many ways to pray. “How do you pray?” 

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Hashtags: Vacation Time!

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Photo by Robin Birkel

It’s vacation time!Join us for worship on Sundays at 10 a.m. for our Vacation Tweets sermon series.  These phrases, such as “are we there yet” and “this is the life” are so universal. We’re looking forward to how our pastors relate them to our growing as disciples of Christ. If you have a Twitter account, feel free to use the hashtags! (Hint: our Twitter handle is @PrincetonUMC)

June 26: #didweforgetanything            Donald Brash

July 3: #imtooexcitedtosleep                Jana Purkis-Brash

July 10: #arewethereyet                       ASP Team

July 17: #thisisthelife                            Catherine Williams

July 24: #itsraining                               Jana Purkis-Brash

July 31: #idontwanttogoback              Jana Purkis-Brash

Come early to join in the hymn sing (9:45). A nursery is available and children will enjoy the Summer Sundays: Fun Plays program. Everyone is welcome and, yes, the church is air-conditioned!

Pastor’s Pen: Leaning into Lent

2016LentenSeries-WildernessTimeSlider-943x345From Rev. Catherine Williams: As I write this note Lent is on my mind. This is the time of the liturgical year I think of death and renewal. The dry, barren woods behind my home remind me that nature is in her own necessary cycle of death and renewal, even as Lent approaches. What images does Lent conjure for you? As a child growing up in Anglican schools the images of this season were markedly somber: fasting, deprivation, denial, meatless Fridays, penitence, confession, and lots of songs in minor keys! It was all about traditional piety back then. As an adult however, I’ve learned to lean into Lent more purposefully. Leaning into Lent means preparing to strip down my faith to its bare essentials. I don’t always succeed but the process always yields a healthier spirituality.

This year our mid-week Lenten meditations invite us into a fresh experience of the wilderness. We can lean into Lent as we take the journey from our cultivated daily landscapes into the uninhabited places of prayer, fasting, study, or whatever spiritual discipline is most meaningful to us at this time.
Our Lenten sermon series, starting February 17, looks at the “I am” sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to John. Jesus identified himself in these sayings as the Light of the World, the True Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Door, and the Resurrection and the Life. These are powerful nodes of spiritual encounter that invite you and me to fertilize and prune our faith during this season of death and renewal. I hope you’ll take this invitation to heart and join us on this grace-filled journey as the Spirit leads us towards wholeness and healing. As we lean into Lent together, I offer for our meditation this hymn of prayer from Charles Wesley: (UMH #410)
I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear,
A sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.
In Lenten simplicity.

Catherine Williams

Endless buckets of love

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Prayer at Children’s Time. “There’s always another bucket.”
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Middle-schoolers get ready to take ‘buckets of God’s love’ down the aisles, collecting today’s offering.

God offers endless buckets of love — that was Lay Minister Cindy Gordon’s message on Sunday (2/7/2016), at Children’s Time. For a photo essay, click here.

Anger: Healthily Spiritual?

How can anger be spiritually healthy? On Sunday, January 10 at 9:30 and 11, with Ephesians 4: 26-31 as her text, Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash continues the sermon series “A Healthy Spirituality: Inside Out,” referencing the Pixar movie. Her texts will be Ephesians 4: 26-31 and Mark 3:1-5. The Youth Choir, directed by Tom Shelton, will sing “Sanctuary” and “Gift of Love” at the 9:30 service, and Hyosang Park will direct the Chancel Choir in “Inscription” by Z.R. Stroope. Catherine Williams will speak to the children at Children’s Time. All are welcome! Join us for coffee and finger food after each service.

 

 

Rev. Catherine E. Williams: Beyond Death

Jebutterfly (1)sus said: I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. We honor the lives of those who have died in the context of Christian faith and hope, says Rev. Catherine Williams, believing that the resurrection is central to our faith, and it is ultimately the words of Jesus Christ that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death.

Beyond Death was the topic of Rev. Catherine Williams’ sermon commemorating  All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2015. Among her references: Psalm 16:11, Romans 8, 1 , 1 Peter 1 and the Book of Revelation. Her thoughts, she said, turned out to be more of an extended reflection than a sermon.  She began with an anecdote. 

I had barely begun here as an intern in the fall of 2008; I was standing in the Sanford Davis room after the first service, scanning the room at my eye level when I felt a tug at my robe. I looked down into the sad eyes of a 4th-grader who without any introduction or small talk asked me pointedly, “Where is Mrs. Fullman now?” I scrambled through my mental Rolodex and came up with a Mrs. Fullman who had recently passed away, and who had given outstanding, compassionate leadership to this congregation. I stooped down. My eyes came to the level of those misty pools of brown in that chubby face. “Mrs. Fullman is in heaven now; she is with God,” I said. “Where is heaven?” she shot back. “Well, I said, “some people say it’s up there or out there. We don’t really know where it is, but we know that wherever it is that’s God’s home.” Slight pause…then,“Is that where my dog is too?” There was no escaping the tinge of hope in her voice. I had no dog in my Rolodex, and to be honest, had never given much thought to a theology of animals. In times like these there are two voices in my ears – the rational theologian on my left shoulder and the compassionate pastor on my right. Sometimes they both help me respond well to unexpected questions, but this time my theologian was quiet for a little too long, so following the pastor’s voice I said, “Oh yes, God made the animals and wants them to be with him after they die too.” My inquirer gave me a brief, satisfied smile and disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, leaving me to marvel at the sacredness of that encounter.

When it comes to the subject of life after death we all have thoughts and questions, even if we entertain them only briefly. But like this child, we grapple with these questions mostly in the context of personal loss. When we are about to lose or have lost a loved one, or when we are confronted with our own mortality, it is natural for us to begin thinking about what happens after we die. People have asked questions such as, What do we do in heaven? It sounds boring! Do we spend eternity with those we love or is it one endless cocktail party with millions of souls? Do we have a form in heaven or are we just spirits? What age will I be in heaven? If my mother is there will I recognize her? How good do I have to be to get to heaven?

I remember being with of one of our members the day after the doctors had told her that her body would only continue functioning for another day or so. As I settled in a chair by her bedside she looked me in the eyes and matter-of-factly informed me that she was going to die. How do you feel about that? I asked. She shrugged, “I’m okay.” Pause. Then, ‘how will it happen?’ she wanted to know. The theologian on my left shoulder began her spiel about how no-one really knows, and I had to put her on mute so I could better hear the compassionate pastor on my right shoulder. “It will be beautiful,” I assured her. “Jesus is waiting to welcome you home with open arms.” She nodded and smiled. I’m not sure whether she was humoring me or my answer really resonated with her, but right then in that room I could sense the unmistakable presence of God. I have to tell you that one of the reasons lately I have come to believe heaven is beyond death is because I have sensed the presence of God at so many end of life horizons – anytime I’ve had the opportunity to be with someone just before, at the moment of, or just after their passing, I have witnessed God’s reassuring presence in ways that are humanly difficult to describe. As one of our favorite Affirmations of Faith ends – in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone.

Today we commemorate All Saints Sunday. We honor the lives of those who have died, and we do so in the context of Christian hope. Hope has always been vital to the people of God. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is filled with it. Thousands of years before Christ, God’s people learned how to hold on to hope in the midst of a pain-filled existence. Life on earth forced them to look for relief. One such relief was in their hope of a future day where God would vindicate them, deliver them permanently from their national enemies, and be their host around a rich feast of the finest bread and wine. Days of scarcity would be over as God’s abundance would overflow generously. The poetry speaks of God removing the shroud and sheet of death that had been cast over the people. A fitting image for many of our international neighbors today, particularly in the war-ravaged Middle East. The Old Testament Middle Easterners believed God would triumph over death, they declared God would feed them, wipe away all tears from their eyes, and bring them to a place of peace and wholeness in God’s presence. Hope has always been a cherished commodity of our faith.

And it is the writings of Scripture that have not only given birth to our hope down through the ages, Scripture has also fed and sustained this hope. In Psalm 16 the Psalmist sings that in the presence of God there is the fullness of joy. Romans 8 reminds us that it is not only humans who yearn for God’s ultimate salvation but the entire creation groans and waits to be liberated from its bondage to decay. In 1 Corinthians 15 there is a beautiful treatise on death that argues for the resurrection of our glorified bodies. In 1 Peter 1 the apostle fairly sings about this living hope of an ultimate salvation where there is even an inheritance kept in heaven for us. And the writer to the Hebrews puts another spin on this hope by reminding us that as we run this earthly race we are surrounded and encouraged by a heavenly cloud of witnesses that includes people who have died in faith centuries ago.

Then there’s the sublime poetry and prose in the book of Revelation. There the writer has a vision of the Holy City beautifully adorned. But even more than the splendor of the city – even more than streets of gold, walls of jasper, and gates of pearl, the most magnificent aspect of this vision is that it is the place where God dwells among mortals. And the place where mortals call home. When someone asks for my elevator response to the question where is heaven, I say, it is where God is, and where God welcomes the people of God who transition from this life to the next.

We really don’t have adequate language to describe eternal realities. But that doesn’t stop us from using the language we have – to dream, to sing, to reflect on an eternity with a God who loves, deeply, generously, and in whose presence we are forever moving towards wholeness and fulfillment. I prepared for this reflection with my Bible and my hymnal both open. It is no secret that the songs we sing from the base of our operational theology. When it comes to life beyond death we turn to such songs as Abide with Me, with its witness of God’s tenacious grasp on our lives, no matter what the circumstances of our death. We sing songs like When We All Get To Heaven, with its flat-footed assurance that heaven will be worth whatever it takes to get there. We lean on the Spirituals for their earthy yearning for that time when we can steal away to Jesus or be caught up in the heaven-bound chariot that’s swinging low. We might even turn to Natalie Sleeth’s Hymn of Promise that frames our hope in the cycles of death and life found within nature. Hymn of Promise is a hymn that identifies us as people of the resurrection when we sing “In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity. In our death, a resurrection, at the last a victory unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” Yes! we are people of hope because we are people of the resurrection.

The theologian in my left ear and the pastor in my right are unified that this belief in the resurrection is central to our faith, and to our hope. And it is ultimately the words of Jesus, the Christ, the one whose followers we are, it is those words that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death. When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he had not yet been crucified. His raising of Lazarus from the dead was a precursor for what he was soon to demonstrate that life and death are a divine cycle where one yields to the other. Yes, there is much about this cycle that remains a mystery. Science has proved and keeps probing, making discoveries at a painfully slow rate. But what if the eternal realities are such that there are no instruments to measure them? We look through a glass dimly as we peer into eternity. Our finite human eyes don’t have the capacity to see into infinity. But our faith – our faith, given to us by God – our faith gives us the capacity to receive the words of Jesus who says, “do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many dwelling places, and I am going there to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that where I am you will be there also.” Our God-given faith gives us the capacity to believe the witness of the biblical accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus who claimed I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. He asks us today as he asked Martha, Do you believe this?

May God grant us the faith of eternal proportions, faith to trust in a God who, in Jesus Christ, lived in death even as he died in life; faith to believe that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone. Amen.

Knitting for faith and prayer

The prayer shawl group meets Tuesday, September 29. Everyone is invited, no matter your skill level. Here’s how Catherine Williams describes her experience:

I joined the prayer shawl group originally to keep my daughter company. She loved knitting and crocheting but was anxious about being in the company of women so much older than she was. She soon discovered her fears were needless, even as I soon discovered the time spent was therapeutic. The evenings were low-keyed, relaxing, uplifting, and a wonderful opportunity for connecting to God through “prayer-work.” I learned stitches I had not known before and my teachers were all so gracious. I encourage anyone – especially if you’re not yet connected to a group – to give the Prayer Shawl group a try. My daughter is away at college now, but has carried with her treasured memories of those calming Tuesday evenings spent with her crocheting buddies!

Interested?  E-mail: prayer-shawls@princetonumc.org or call 609-924-2613

The Gospel According to Calypso

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Many value the Calypso – the indigenous music of Trinidad and Tobago –  exclusively as tourist or Carnival entertainment, says  Catherine Williams, pastoral care assistant.

“However there is much that is akin to preaching in this genre, and the calypsonians themselves would be the first to admit it,” says Catherine. She returned to her home country of Trinidad & Tobago to research her doctoral thesis. “It was my delight to discover anew this cultural gem from my country of origin, and to use it as a lens through which to focus on local preaching.”

Catherine will speak at the Circle of Friends meeting on Tuesday, April 14, at 10:30 a.m. at Rocky Hill’s Trinity Church. The Circle of Friends, part of United Methodist Women, meets bimonthly. RSVP to 609-924-2613 and big a bag lunch; beverage and dessert will be provided. All women are welcome.

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A January class of Homiletics students at the West Indies School of Theology in Trinidad and Tobago.

Landscape of Lent: Cave

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In the story as told in the gospel of John, said Catherine Williams in her sermon on April 6, Lazarus probably  counted on Jesus coming to heal him. She imagined how he would have felt:

“You take to your fevered bed that night in hope. You rise next morning feeling frighteningly worse than last night, and you ask for news of Jesus. . . Now the sun has begun to set; Jesus is still not here. By now you feel yourself enveloped in a thick, dark cloud of disappointment, anger, fear, and abandonment. You wonder if this what death feels like…

Sometimes we feel abandoned, like Lazarus, Catherine said. She quoted theologian Gordon Lathrop’s book on the ‘little deaths’ we face in the course of living. Lathrop speaks of “moments of physical sickness or disability, or the moments of letting go, of moving on, or of facing failure, all of which can be described in metaphoric language as having something of death about them.”

To Lathrop’s listing she added: strained or severed relationships with living persons, mental and emotional pathologies, loss of employment or underemployment, loneliness, betrayal, and a host of other little deaths that begin to close in around us, cutting off our hope, our connections, even our faith, and leaving us entombed by circumstances beyond our control. . .

Near the end of her message, she pointed out that Lazarus’s name meant “God is my help,” and that he had no idea where, or how close,  his help was.

He only knew he was trapped in circumstances utterly beyond his control, and could see no way out. Which means that for the person in the cave, all I’ve said until now may mean absolutely nothing. But the fact that you are here in this gathered community of faith is symbolic of something hopeful. It symbolizes that you are part of a wider community that cares, and that believes the life of God has the power to destroy death, and that the light of Christ cannot be overpowered by darkness.

(The entire message is here.)

Altar design by Debbie Meola and photos are by Edem Timpo.

The Landscape of Lent: Wind

2014 3 16 wind photo sanctuary Some of God’s best work happens in the midst of chaos and ambiguity, said Catherine Williams in her sermon at Princeton United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 16, 2014. The theme was “Wind,” and it was part of a Lenten sermon series on the elements. Here is an excerpt, and for the complete text, click here. The audio version is also available on Sermon.net.

Some of God’s best work happens in the midst of chaos and ambiguity. I was never more aware of that than in my clinical pastoral exposure in the chaos of emergency rooms, in the ambiguity of the psychiatric floor, or in the limbo of the intensive care unit and its waiting rooms. As a terrified chaplain-in-training, despite my predilection for order and control, I discovered that some of God’s best work takes place in the midst of life’s disruptions.

May those of us today who are trying to live through situations of ambiguity and uncertainty allow the wind of God’s spirit to fill us with peace. Often in this place of peace we encounter God’s wisdom, God’s knowledge, God’s understanding, God’s perspective of the situation that simply had not occurred to us before, nor would ever have, had we not placed our trust in God.

So come Holy Spirit, blow upon our hearts this day.

Blow your healing breath where there is pain and sadness.

Blow like a gale where there is complacency and inertia.

Blow, wind of God, blow over our trampled, broken dreams and bring them to life.

Blow over our callous hearts and soften them for your compassionate use.

Blow over our broken families and breathe forgiveness into places of disillusion.

Blow over frail and dysfunctional bodies and cause a rush of healing life to flow within them.

Blow over our failed systems of justice and overturn the rampant corruption and fraud that oppress your people.

Blow over city streets filled with violence and crime; let your reign of peace exert a leavening influence in our families and schools so our children learn to love peace and hate war.

Come holy spirit, breath of God, may this Lenten season give way to the Easter of our lives where we are reborn and renewed from above…

in the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the blessed Holy Spirit, Amen