A Time to Pluck Up
On Sunday afternoon when I arrived home from the church, I noticed our backyard looked different. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the difference was instantly noticeable. I chalked it up to my increasing age and a morning of expending quite a bit of energy during worship, and went back inside.
Once inside, I kept asking myself questions, "Was the difference because we have started to clean off the garden? Is it because the elderberry has grown larger and woolier? WHAT. IS. MISSING? " Like a flash it hit me. I took off to our native perennial bed and stood there, staring. Dumfounded. Our bright, seaside teal patio umbrella was missing from its place beside my hammock!
Immediately I went back into the house to ask my spouse if they had done something with the umbrella. They said they had not. I thought maybe someone had stolen it, but who steals a patio umbrella in early autumn, in broad daylight, while people are home? Turns out, no one.
At that moment, I felt a sturdy breeze blow through my hair, and I remembered that I had left the umbrella up over night. Quickly I made my way to the otherside of the house and backyard fence, and found the umbrella upside down, broken beyond repair. It had been plucked up by Mother Nature and set down by the laws of gravity. My heart was heavy, recalling all of the warm summer afternoons I had been shaded by that umbrella. Summer was really over...as over as this broken patio umbrella.
While I don't believe that my patio umbrella had to be plucked up due to some Divine predestination, I do believe that seasons of plucking up are necessary in our lives in order for growth to occur. The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 seems to understand life and the world similarly, as in the first few lines of this chapter they write, "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;"
Might it be time to examine what in your life needs to be plucked up? What has been planted in you that is no longer bearing fruit or serving your wellness or your wholeness? Maybe it's the belief that your worth is dependent on how much you hustle for it. Maybe it's the practice of being your own biggest bully in the mirror every morning. Maybe it's your anger or your need for control. Maybe it's your apathy or your resignation that "just getting by" is all you will ever do.
I don't know what it is for you, but what I know for sure is that now, as our natural seasons change, seems like as good a time as any to look at the landscape of our hearts and our lives to see what needs plucking up, and then get to plucking. There will be a time for planting another day. But this is the time to pluck up, to pull up, and make room for whatever's next. This is holy work, and work that can, at times hurt. But I promise you, if we're willing, this work has something to teach us, not just in some next season, but in this season, here and now.
Walking through this season with you,
A Fresh Start
Not long after moving to Oskaloosa and beginning my new call here at St. Paul, I came to the church one morning and found a man sprawled out on the office door steps. He had a heavy-looking pack beside him, and he appeared to be sunning himself while listening to music on a bluetooth speaker.
I approached the steps and the man quickly began to gather his things, apologizing profusely. He said, "I thought the building was abandoned. I never see anyone here and the windows are all covered." I assured him that there was indeed good life inside this building, and reminded him that people hadn't been at the church due to COVID-19 precautions and closures. But his window comment has always stuck with me.
After asking around, I was told that the yellowed, plexi/plastic coverings had been placed over the stained glass windows years ago in an effort to protect the windows. The thought, at the time, was that the windows would not only be protected from would-be vandals, but they would also be better protected from the elements.
This summer, the church's Administration Board, which oversees Building and Grounds projects, and I met with a stained glass company to get an estimate on maintenance and repair of the stained glass windows. During that meeting, we learned that the coverings every church was scrambling to put over their windows years ago to protect the windows, were actually causing more harm than good by trapping moisture between the covering and the glass window, causing more rapid deterioration than would occur with no covering at all. The window expert shared with us that the window covers could be removed from any window that did not need repair.
Out of a desire to be cautious, it was decided we would remove one window cover to determine if we should do more. So, last week, members of the Cohrt family removed the window cover over the stained glass window right next to the western office steps to the church (by the double glass doors). The change was immediate, breathtaking, and stark. Sure some paint and some clean-up needed done, but the one little change on the outside offered a more accurate reflection of the church and the people and wild love and inclusion sought on the inside. Of the 36 stained glass windows, all but 14 have covers that could be removed today with the right amount of help and equipment.
All of this has made me wonder about all of the ways we people of God have covered ourselves with what we thought would protect us, only to find it was deteriorating us instead. Have we held on to old ways of working and being that felt comforting once, but now choke out the light of growth that comes from trying something new? Have our hearts remained closed off to others only to leave us wondering why we feel so isolated? What would it mean to remove the old, weathered, yellowed coverings around our souls? Might we find that the beauty and light of God that is in us is just waiting to burst out from behind the barriers of our own making so that others might see them as well?
I don't know, but I hope you'll join me in finding out. Maybe a fresh start for our spiritual lives comes pane by pane, as we chip away at everything we thought would protect us but hasn't. Maybe we'd find the truth that has been staring at us all along: That protective layers often don't keep the damaging elements out, they keep us sealed in.
Uncovering the beauty and light of God within,
Listening to the HEartbeat of God
This morning I sat by the open window in an old sweatshirt sipping a cup of coffee, and listening to the sounds of my neighborhood waking up. There were the usual traffic sounds from Hwy 92 and S 11th Street, of course, but there was so much more.
There were crickets playing their familiar symphony, reminding us all that summer weather is drawing to a close. There were bird chirps and squawks and caws and songs, reminding me of all the languages I do not yet understand. Dogs barked up the street and one barked in our living room. All while my spouse rattled around our kitchen before heading to work downstairs.
As I sat, my injured knee throbbed. My other knee felt sore from having to over-compensate for its injured companion, and my mind wound, round and around, all of the things I needed to remember to do today. Then the wind made its way through the leaves on the tree just outside my window, and a pudgy hummingbird happily sat at our feeder and drank from the syrupy goodness it held.
In Celtic Christianity there is an understanding that God is present in all living organisms. If this is true, as I believe it is, then I have to believe that the sounds of nature are God's constant call to each and every one of us. That, through Creation and all her sounds, God is cutting through the deafening sounds of modern living--our to do lists, our hurried commutes, our ever-present anxieties, and the fears we don't dare speak aloud--to reach deep into our crazy-making cycles and pull us back into communion with the Divine.
I wonder how many times we miss God's presence in this way? I wonder how many mornings we have rushed and run and hurried right past the outstretched hand of the Divine from the tip of a robin's wing or the buzz of a persistent fly? I wonder just how different our hearts might look if we allowed them to be led by rustling leaves and the pudgy little hummingbird? I wonder if their beat might sound a whole lot more like the heartbeat of God?
Listening to the heartbeat of God with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.