From Exile to Hope: December 22, 2022

From Exile to Hope: December 22, 2022

December 21, 2022

This Year's Gifts

By: Rev. Lee Roorda Schott 

As I look ahead to the gifts I’ll give and those I’ll open on Christmas morning, it occurs to me that I’ve already received some gifts I’m savoring. This year, 2022, for all its challenges, has brought me some gifts that have been unexpected and sweet. I wonder if that might be true for you, too. I’ll share a few of mine. Maybe my reflection will prompt you to think, too, about gifts this year has brought you and yours.
Returning to something like normal. I must preface this reflection with all kinds of awareness that how things are in 2022 is not what anyone would call “normal.” With COVID, inflation, politics, the Great Resignation, supply chain interruptions, and much more, nothing is normal. So, hold that reaction you had at the start of this paragraph. 
And… (take a breath)
…haven’t we found that, in our day-to-day life and activities, things have become kinda like “normal,” most of the time? We can pretty much go where we want, when we want, without a mask, unless we choose to wear one,[1] and do the kinds of activities we’d expect to be able to do. 
I’ll never forget that week last February when the CDC changed its guidance that had most all of us, up until that moment, in a zone where masking and distancing were recommended. Suddenly, those guidelines no longer applied. With gladness and some trepidation, I tore down the signs at church that said we were masking, and the large “X”s we had taped onto every other row in the sanctuary. That very Sunday we started inviting people to follow each other’s body language, when it came to touch, during the long-missed actual passing of the actual peace. We had actual communion elements with a common loaf, even! 
And, truly, doesn’t it surprise you a bit that we haven’t had to go backwards into all those precautions? I so feared that, in that moment. Thank you, 2022. For now, thank you.
Returning to this odd, slightly untrustworthy, normal-ish time has been truly a gift. After the two prior years in which we line danced two-steps-forward-one-step-back-and-vice-versa until we had no dance left in us. I’m grateful beyond words to have (for now) emerged. Thank you, God, the CDC, science, healthcare workers, and the universe for this progress.
For now. (Not to tempt fate.)
Some kind of spiritual renewal. Several months ago I wrote about this renewal for Abiding in Exile, when this experience for me was still rather new. Over the ensuing months, this spiritual renewal has shaped 2022 for me. I’ve made time to read from the Bible, time to pray, time to journal, time with God. I’ve added to my podcast queue voices that support what I’m experiencing. I’ve found myself laughing with God, at odd moments, over funny things, private jokes. I don’t know how to explain all this, and I don’t claim it as some kind of achievement. It’s something I wonder at, and I’m trying to let it unfold as faithfully as I can—some days more fully than others.
My favorite thing is that I’ve made a monthly retreat day a priority—a weekday when I’d otherwise be working at my office, set aside for silence and solitude, rereading my journal, lectio (or visiodivina,[2] listening for God. It’s a day-long pause to check in with myself and catch up with what I need to notice. I look forward to this time. It’s a gift.
You’ve surely noticed, though, that I’m hedging again in how I described this experience. I called it “Some kind of spiritual renewal” rather than “a complete and thoroughgoing spiritual renewal.” You’re right; I don’t want to claim too much! I feel like I’ve been here before—in that first flush of recommitment and intention. It all feels so important, and rich, and life-giving. 
Until it doesn’t, by inches. By millimeters. Hairbreadths. And one day I realize I haven’t journaled for two weeks, nor really, intentionally prayed. 
So, yes, alongside savoring this gift, through this year, I’m carrying some anxiety about that happening, ahead. That I’ll drift. Get distracted and go back to relying on my own steam. To be honest, I probably will. I’ve found myself in that spot before. 
And maybe that’s the way this journey works—another one-step-forward-two-steps-back-and-vice-versa dance that we find ourselves learning, and losing track of, over and over. And, each time, realizing God is still there, loving us, longing for us to turn back, filling all the spaces, always, whether we knew it or not.
So, yes, I am glad to notice and celebrate this very real, truly experienced (for now) gift of 2022. I am ending this year more centered, more spiritually “full” than when I began. What joy.
The unwanted gift of preaching without notesFor the first 19 years of my pastoral ministry, I understood myself as a “manuscript” preacher. I’d come to the pulpit with a scripted sermon and I’d bring life to it, in that preaching moment, Sunday after Sunday. Through the years I came to realize there were things I didn’t need to write out word by word, so I’d use a kind of shorthand to remind myself what I intended to say in those spots. But still, it was a written sermon, by any measure.
I’ve always been aware, of course, that there are people who tout the homiletical (and moral!) superiority of preaching without a manuscript. I had tried it, once in a while. It didn’t go well, almost ever. So I decided, long since, that that wasn’t something I would pursue. I knew who I was; I was a pretty good preacher; I was the way I was.
Then, last February, I was writing a sermon on Luke 4, about Jesus preaching in his hometown, and it wasn’t going well. I’d start in one direction, and hit a wall. I’d shift around, and hit another one. (Seasoned preachers know what this is like.) In my frustration, I felt some kind of itch to go into the sanctuary, and so I tried that. I found myself asking, “What are you trying to say?” And somehow I started talking my way to a sermon. Which I offered that Sunday without notes, to my utter surprise. Praying with our organist that morning before worship, I said, “Pray for me to be able to do this. I didn’t mean to; it just happened.”
And it has kept happening. Not every week, and not always entirely without notes. But I’ve probably preached half of 2022’s Sundays without a script. It isn’t something I aimed for, but I’m feeling a kind of joy in it. A “leveling up,” as my son described it. 
I don’t say this to claim some kind of homiletical (or moral!) superiority. I do feel somewhat more connected with my people when I’m not tied to a manuscript, but—truly—I have not felt that lacking, really, through two decades of preaching. I do think it has made me more judicious about what to jettison, what not to include this week, in this sermon. Carey Nieuwhof says to preach without notes you don’t have to memorize your sermon, you have to understand it;[3] I’ve found this the single most important piece of advice I’ve heard on this subject. Once I’m clear about what I want to say, and why, then the how—the flow and content—that’s in me in a different way.
So, each week as I come to this work of preaching, I find myself wondering whether this will happen again. More and more often, it does. It feels like part of the adventure that has been 2022, in quite a few good ways. Another one of the gifts of this year.

I’m struck by the tentativeness that suffuses my words here! The uncertainty of coming back to “normal.” A spiritual renewal, and another in preaching, that cannot be totally grasped. It seems my sense of uncertainty is on high alert! And surely it has been honed, for all of us, by living through the pandemic. So many gifts feel so uncertain, having realized how quickly things can change.
For today, though, I’ll claim these gifts with gratitude in their unfolding, and I might even dare to look ahead to 2023 with curiosity about what gems (not “germs”!) it might hold. 
I hope you’ll take a few moments (or a whole retreat day!) to ponder some of these questions. What has 2022 brought that you celebrate? What gifts have you received? What has emerged in the communities where you find yourself? Maybe you’ll be surprised like I have been. And then let’s hold those gifts lightly, together.

[1] I do note that in recent weeks some medical facilities and offices have re-instituted their mask requirements, with the current rise in cases of COVID, influenza, and RSV.
[2] If you don’t know what these are, you can find all kinds of guidance online. I have a guide for visio divina that I like better than the ones I find out there; e-mail me and I’ll send it to you! 
[3] I’ve heard this advice on Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast and on his blog repeatedly. Here’s one example:
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