Tag Archives: Lent

Seasons change: a New Year’s reflection

Vietnamese New Yearby Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

I hate the cold.  I mean, really hate the cold.  Sure, snow is beautiful resting on the barn roof or lightly coating the hedge, but when it’s on my car, the road, or me, enough is enough.

I’ve found myself this winter dreaming about moving to Hawaii.  I’ve never been to Hawaii, but on TV it looks like the sun is always shining and a gentle ocean breeze always keeps it at a comfortable temperature for flip-flops and shorts.  They don’t have winter in Hawaii. That sounds just about perfect to me.

I can’t imagine life in C.S. Lewis’ fictional land of Narnia, held captive by an evil queen’s spell, always winter (and never Christmas).  It was an unchanging reality, the way it had always been and the way it always would be.  I wonder how they must have felt when they saw their home beginning to thaw, when green grass began to emerge from the melting snow, rivers began rushing, trees began blooming, and the chill in the air was replaced by a breeze that smelled of soil and warmth.

And then, how must they have felt their first winter after the land’s rightful king, Aslan, won back the kingdom?  Did the first snowflake send a chill up their spines?  Did the first winter’s frost send them into a panic—oh, no, not this again?  Because Aslan didn’t bring eternal spring to replace the eternal winter; instead, he put the world right, returning Narnia to the rhythm of seasons.

Last Sunday, I joined the Vietnamese Gospel congregation in Allentown, Pa. for their annual Tet (New Year) celebration.  Among Scripture readings and songs welcoming the rain and possibilities of a new year, Pastor Hien and his wife Nga performed a song called, “Only Jesus Brings the Spring.”  I was struck by this simple statement of faith, a reminder that Jesus, through whom the world was created, set our seasons in motion.

And how wonderful that the Vietnamese Tet occurred the Sunday before Lent this year!  Lent (which means “spring” or, literally, the “lengthening of days”), begins with ashes and ends with lilies, a reminder that this season will pass and a new, glorious season is on its way, a season that only Jesus can bring.

Seasons and change aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  On a very fundamental level, they remind us that whatever we’re going through, however challenging our life is, whatever seems impossible or insurmountable, this, too, shall pass.  Just as the people of Narnia heard the trickle of melting snow and murmured in awe, “Aslan is on the move!” we, too, see signs of change in our lives and know that Jesus is lengthening our days, bringing spring to our winter, offering the promise of resurrection and the hope of a world that one day will be made right again.

Seasons change.  Continual spring or summer could end up feeling as confining as the snow and cold of winter.  Just as winter prepares the land for the fruitfulness of planting and harvest, the challenging seasons of our lives shape our character and prepare us for what’s coming next.  Seasons of rest prepare us for seasons of action.  Seasons of learning prepare us for seasons of teaching.  Seasons of pain prepare us for seasons of strength.

Seasons change.  This Lent, I’m giving up my longing for Hawaii and looking ahead to the promise of a spring that only Jesus can bring.

Hiding treasures where others may find them

House of Prayer: Welcome
House of Prayer: Welcome

by Sandy Drescher-Lehman, Souderton

Making safe space for people to experience the love of God has been a passion of mine ever since I can remember.  That passion has been given life in camp settings, in prison cells, in our home and yard, in homeless shelters, on bicycle trips, in mental health facilities, and in churches.

Thirty years ago, after a profound experience at a retreat center of God’s love totally enveloping and holding me, my life verse became Isaiah 43: “But now, [Sandy], the Lord who created you says, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’”  Since that day, I have had the desire to live as many minutes of my life as possible in the heart of that much Love and to help others to connect with that much Love in whatever way they can experience it, thus receiving the healing we all need to become more fully human and to hold more of the Divine.

House of Prayer: Life's Transitions
House of Prayer: Life’s Transitions

A formative book for me was, “Prayer and Temperament” which taught me the different ways that different personalities pray. I resonated with Sue Monk Kidd, when she said “Symbols are the language of the soul” and Paul Tillich who called Christians to the revitalization of their inner lives through the recovery of symbols. I began to notice how not only symbols but color, also, called my soul to go deeper into the wordless heart of God.

Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach encouraged the practice of looking for God in everything. I noticed, as a worship leader, that when all of our senses are called for, people more easily engage in the heart of worship rather than only staying in their head with words and reasoning. And I’ve always loved the stories of Pippi Longstocking, who hid treasures in old tree stumps so she could watch her friends joyfully discover them on their “thing-finding” adventures.

House of Prayer: Resting with God
House of Prayer: Resting with God

So, when I became one of the pastors at Souderton Mennonite Church, I had the chance to combine all those learnings and passions!  Joy Sawatzky and I began inviting people to special times of prayer to begin the Lenten season, combining input with times of silence; spending time alone with God in any of the several prayer centers we created, each with colors and symbols and scriptures. The variety was in the ways participants were invited to use their body or mind or taste buds or ears or sense of smell or sight.  When we ended these retreats by “sharing the wealth” of our time with God, we were always overwhelmed to hear how God had come to each person in exactly the way that was most needed – far beyond anything we could have planned or imagined!

Then about 7 years ago, the ideas for different ways to pray suddenly exploded into 50 and then 60 centers, as more people joined the team, creating ways to express and make available to others how they prayed most easily. In experimenting with each other’s favorite methods and colors and symbols for praying, we discovered that when we try new ways of prayer, we sometimes go even deeper into the heart of God than engaging our usual patterns over and over. We organized the centers into rooms of a house – the kitchen (where we pray as we eat), the study (where we pray as we read and write and kneel and listen to music), the playroom (where tactile centers and craft centers help children play their prayers), the bedroom (where it’s enough to just BE; resting in God’s comfort), the art room (where all kinds of things to create wait to be discovered), and the great outdoors (where the sounds and smells and sights of creation invite us to pray in our walking and in noticing God in the world)

House of Prayer: Prayer Wheels
House of Prayer: Prayer Wheels

And my Pippi-heart loves to hide treasures in places where those who enter may or may not find them! The “House” symbolically calls us to see every room we enter as a place of prayer; every moment we live is another chance to be aware of God’s love and peace and mercy and grace and healing and whatever else we need from the One who created us and continues to create through us!

Souderton’s Lenten House of Prayer will be open February 8-18th, from 9am to 9pm in the congregation’s fellowship hall.  All are welcome to visit.  For more information or to access other Lenten resources from Souderton congregation, visit their website.

Walking together on the road to Easter

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

It’s a familiar story, especially for those who have grown up in the church.  So how do we retell the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection year after year in ways that open us up, once again, to the pain, the beauty, and the wonder of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death?

dove scripture picture
Members at Souderton congregation contributed artwork made of scripture. Photo provided.

The season of Lent, celebrated for the forty days leading up to Easter, marks Christ’s journey to Jerusalem.  It invites those who follow Jesus to walk with him by remembering his life, practicing disciplines of fasting and sacrifice, and engaging in deeper commitment to their brothers and sisters in the church.

Souderton (Pa.) congregation began Lent by diving deeper into Mennonite Church USA’s “Year of the Bible” with an art project.  Members of the congregation were invited to choose a word or phrase from scripture on which they wanted to meditate and to write it over and over on a panel using colors to create images.  These panels became banners that hung in the front of their sanctuary during the Lenten season.

Souderton wasn’t the only congregation to celebrate the imaginative Spirit.  Swamp (Quakertown, Pa.) spent Lent exploring God as creator, “littering” the steps of their platform with items created by members of the congregation, symbols of God’s unique creative work in them.  Their children memorized Psalm 139, which they recited on Palm Sunday after leading the entire congregation in a procession, joyfully waving palm branches.

Plains maps
Plains congregation used maps to illustrate their prayers for their region, country, and world. Photo by Dawn Ranck.

Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week and was the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adoration of the crowds.  The week soon turned more somber, however, as Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples, washing their feet, and predicting his betrayal.  These events are remembered on Maundy Thursday.

Conference congregations reenacted Christ’s humility with their own experiences of footwashing.  Traditionally, Mennonites have practiced footwashing in groups divided by gender.  At Perkiomenville (Pa.) congregation this year, footwashing was one of several stations that members could visit, which, for the first time, allowed married couples or family members to wash each other’s feet.

Good Friday vigil
Franconia Conference members joined Christians from all over the Philadelphia region for a Good Friday vigil outside a gun shop. Photo by Jim McIntire.

In addition to footwashing, Plains (Hatfield, Pa.) congregation acted out Christ’s care and humility by setting up prayer stations with large maps of the world, the country, and their region.  Members could pray for and mark areas on each map with a dot or a heart.

Compassion for the community continued to spread into Good Friday, the day when followers of Jesus remember his death on the cross.  Members of churches all over the Philadelphia region gathered outside a gun shop in the city for a Good Friday vigil.  As these believers stood against violence in the city, others gathered in Good Friday services to remember that Jesus’ death made peace and reconciliation with God, and one another, possible.

Salford power outage
Salford congregation spent part of its Good Friday service in the dark, thanks to an unexpected power outage. Photo by Emily Ralph

Just when Good Friday seemed like it couldn’t get any darker, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.) congregation’s evening service was suddenly interrupted by a power outage.  For just a few, brief moments the congregation was surprised by the darkness and powerless to do anything but sit in the shadow of the cross.

There was a hush in Franconia Conference on the Saturday of Holy Week, as though the Church was holding its breath, waiting for the joy they knew was coming on Easter morning.

And the joy did come—in colors and flowers, in song and story, in food and hope and promise.  Crosses were draped in white and lilies and hyacinths and forsythia decorated sanctuaries.  Congregations met as the sun rose, around breakfast tables, and in their morning services to celebrate an empty tomb.

Philadelphia Praise Center viewed a video in which church members took to the city streets to ask people about the significance of Easter.  Blooming Glen (Pa.) congregation acted out the resurrection story in a chilly sunrise service and a member at Deep Run East (Perkasie, Pa.) built a custom tomb to display on Easter morning. In Vermont, members of Bethany congregation participated in an ecumenical sunrise service on the side of Mt Killington and then, after brunch, were led in worship by a new generation of storytellers–their children.

It’s a familiar story, and yet it’s born fresh each year as we once again walk with Jesus through Lent, Holy Week, and the Easter season.  In this story, we recognize what theologian H.S. Bender once wrote: we live on the resurrection side of the cross.  May we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by living our lives as a resurrected people.

He is risen: He is risen indeed!

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