I Recommend Enjoying Something You’re Terrible at Doing

The photos above probably give it away: I went to a Bob Ross Paint-Along, and it was so much fun!

And… I’m terrible at painting. I mean, look at it…

Yet I enjoyed the attempt very much. I joined some student friends at the Ann Arbor Public Library to watch a half hour video of Bob Ross, who led us in the creation of a scenic view. Unfortunately, he never said the phrase, “happy little trees,” but we created them nevertheless.

Now don’t let Bob’s soothing voice fool you. He may be calming, but gracious, he moves fast!

My first mistake was that I put waaaaay too much water on my canvas at the beginning. Bob typically uses a clear, oil base across the canvas at the beginning. We were instructed to use brushstrokes of water instead. I was too generous with this, so once I started painting in earnest, my initial, happy little trees were remarkably waterlogged. They were more like a big blob of green, floating, meh, non-trees. And the rest “took shape” from there.

It’s possible that I painted in middle school art, though I don’t remember that. I never took an art class in high school or college. The last time I clearly remember painting was when I was using watercolors at preschool age. Does it show? As an adult, it’s also clear to me now that I’ve always had some sort of spacial reasoning deficit too (fun fact: I can’t do jigsaw puzzles… like literally cannot do them. It’s intriguing!) so these things do not set me up to paint well.

But I loved the experience.

And I just want to say that it can be wonderfully refreshing to simply play, thoroughly enjoying something you’re terrible at doing. I want to recommend this in whatever the equivalent may be for you.

Too often, we’re focused on results and outcomes for their own sake. We also get caught up in comparison and competition with others. But process matters. Play matters. Enjoyment for its own sake matters. And it can be especially fun to do it with others.

Do something terribly.

Enjoy it thoroughly.

Renee Roederer

Swirling Stars, Swirling Questions

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[NASA Image]

This sermon was preached at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Lincoln Park, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Matthew 2:1-12. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

The story begins with questions.

It’s a story that is familiar to many. Each year, the Magi make their way into our nativity scenes at Christmas. From our boxes stretched out in all directions, they arrive from the “East.” We pose them carefully in the hopes of setting up a holy scene of serenity, or perhaps, we simply desire a decorative display for our houses. Apart from our pristine nativity scenes, however, we might forget that the story begins with swirling, controversial questions:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

These wise ones had come into the city of Jerusalem, and before they ever met with King Herod, it seems that they were asking these questions of everyone. “Where is this child? Where is this King?” They stirred up these questions among the people of Jerusalem.

And then, King Herod heard about it.
The questions stirred up fear in the king.

The story says,

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.

Soon after, Herod begins asking questions of his own. He calls together all the chief priests and scribes he can find, and he inquires of them where this Messiah is to be born. This is the pressing question before him. They tell him,

In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’

At these words, Herod must have been terrified and enraged. In the midst of his fear and anger, he puts a plan into place. He decides to use these Magi as pawns.

Herod secretly calls for them.
It is time to do his own questioning.

Herod asks them questions about the star that they have observed. The Magi were likely astrologers, and Herod wanted to know about the astronomical sign that initiated their journey. And after gaining enough information, Herod then sends the Magi directly into Bethlehem to find the very child who is stirring up fear in his heart. He gives a false story to cover up his motives, saying that he wants to find the child and honor him. But along with the fear, Herod has hatred and violence in his heart. How dare this child question his own rule?

And so, they go. The Magi from the East will not be deterred by these false motives, but instead, they let their questions lead them on. They follow the astronomical sign, and they follow the questions of their hearts. Then miraculously, they find the child Jesus. They enter the house and see Mary, his mother, also. This is when they fall to their knees to honor him.

And from that place of honor, they give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are odd gifts to give a child. . . and yet, they set the scene for the life story that will unfold.

Gold is a gift fitting for a king.
Frankincense is a gift fitting for a priest.
Myrrh is a gift fitting for one who will die,
one whose body will be anointed.

These gifts raise hints about how the story will unfold, and perhaps we find ourselves curious with questions. Alongside these questions, the scene gives way to exclamations of joy.

This child… in a way we can barely begin to understand… is a King…
This child… in way can barely begin to understand… is the Prince of Peace…
This child… in a way we can barely begin to understand…
reigns over the entire cosmos — all that is, and through all that is — and
This child reigns within our very being.

This is the exclamation of this story.
It invites our own exclamations of joy and conviction.

Where is this child, the one who is born a King?
Where is this child, the one who is born the Prince of Peace?
Where is this child who reigns over this cosmos — all that is —
from whom and for whom all things have come into being?

These questions lead to responsive exclamations.

Of course, large questions like these lead to an array of exclamations. For some, questions like these can become exclamations of threat.

This was certainly true for Herod. The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to him, so they left for their own country by another road. They practiced a bit of civil disobedience. [1] Meanwhile Herod, in a fit of rage and violence, begins to massacre all children in Bethlehem under the age of two in an attempt to stop the reign of the child who threatens him. Joseph, Jesus’ father, also warned in a dream, then flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, a country where they never expected to live. The holy family lives there as refugees until Herod dies and is no longer a threat to their own lives.

That’s picture is quite different than our serene nativity scenes.

For those in positions of power, and especially for those who rule over others in oppressive ways, the birth of Jesus is not particularly good news.[2] because

God will always uplift those who are downtrodden.
God will always stand against uneven, oppressive manifestations of power.
God will always make holy space for the oppressed, marginalized, and suffering.

For some, this will not seem to be good news. Though it is.

The questions emerge again and again.

Where is this child, the one who is born a King?
Where is this child, the one who is born the Prince of Peace?
Where is this child who reigns over this cosmos,
from whom and for whom all things have come into being?

These questions lead to responsive exclamations.

For us, they don’t have to be exclamations of threat. For us, they can be questions of wonder and hope. These questions can guide our lives. Like that astronomical sign in the sky, these large questions can lead us to find the child who has been born. They can help us to follow him as he grows, as he serves the people of God with freedom, peace, justice, and love.

These questions can guide us to be found in him, for that is what he seeks. Jesus seeks to transform our lives so that we can live in the very same way, serving people with freedom, peace, justice and love.

If we let large questions guide us, we will soon discover that Jesus himself is light among us. He guides the questions. He clears the pathway so that we may find him and be found in him.

He is God among us in human form.
He is infinitely with us.
He is light leading the way.

He is with us. . .

He comes among us as one who is poor. He is born to a family in poverty, and he enters the world at a time when there is with no room at the inn. He is born into a world of violence, where his very being seems to threaten those in power. He lives as a refugee.

He walks alongside us.
He enters this world with us,
guiding us in our places of deepest heartache.

The light is among us because he is with us.

Where is this child, the one who is born a King?
Where is this child, the one who is born the Prince of Peace?
Where is this child who reigns over this cosmos,
from whom and for whom all things have come into being?

He is with us.

He is the light beside us, among us, beyond us, within us.
He is with us in our poverty,
He is with us in our heartbreak,
He is with us in our grief and losses,
He is with us in our cancer,
He is with us in our Alzheimer’s Disease,
He is with us in our mental illness,
He is with us in our experiences of bullying, racism, and discrimination,
He is with us in our loss of a homeland,
He is with us in our loss of immigration status,
He is with us in our experiences of violence,
He is with us in our experiences of abuse,
He is with us in all forms of suffering.

And no matter where we find ourselves today and no matter how we feel today, the light invites us forward. Jesus is leading the way toward hope, justice, wholeness, and peace.

So let us follow that light.
Let us find this one who seeks us.
Let us be found in him.
Amen.

Renee Roederer

[1] I appreciated this tweet from Dr. Serene Jones, which says, “Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him. May we do likewise.”

[2] The Epiphany C (Jan. 3, 2016) episode of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast influenced my thinking and language here.

Refugee Child

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Today, I’d like to feature the artwork and poetry of my good friend and colleague, the Rev. Allison Becker. She is a pastor in Scotland and a creator and curator of many beautiful words and expressions of art. I am so grateful for her friendship and her many gifts.

Refugee Child

They had no idea where his accent was exactly from
They both spoke
In halting words
Picked up at trading posts
Along the way
Escaping
a far off calamity
With names and places
Out of context
And out of sight

Some mention
Of the tragedy
Had reached some near them
But only their family
Seemed to have escaped it

She sang lullabys
In tunes too foreign
In words unknown
To anyone but themselves
He trading what little they had for food

Few could understand them
At all

Some took pity on them
A young family barely getting by
In what seemed to by a makeshift tent

They certainly had packed in a hurry
Carrying what they could

She went to get
Water daily like everyone else
But their tent was ill-equipped for the winds,
morning sun and evening cold

Some more patient
Stopped by to listen
And
They seemed to encounter there
Much more than the story

Leaving their tent
They seemed
Glazed-eyed in wonder
Changed in ways that were hard to describe

Some, mainly mothers,
Spoke the language that
Has no need of words
But understands need
Offering Gentle care and strength
Bringing extra blankets
And a bit more fruit and bread by

One family did the most
Travelers themselves
They
Saw to it to take them in

Two years about they stayed
Far beyond house guests
Family

Settling in this land
Joseph putting his skill to work
Mary raising their son

In time more
And more beholding
Just who
They had
Welcomed in

— Rev. Allison Becker, 2019

The New Day

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I love this cartoon by Bjenny Montero. I highly recommend following more here.

A friend of mine recently initiated a fun and silly exchange on Facebook. In light of the New Year’s holiday, she invited people to use the predictive text features on their phones to answer a particular prompt. She invited people to type, “This year, I will…” then to keep pushing the middle suggested word on the auto-fill, predictive text until it finished the sentence. Some of the answers were really great:

“This year I will get more snow.”

“This year I will get my car in the morning so I’ll be home.”

“This year I will be gone Monday, heading to the church.”

I decided I would try. Mine said,

“This year, I will be well today.” And I authentically love that! Every day is a new day, and while all sorts of concepts around that idea might sound like hokey, inspirational posters, we begin again… all the time. Daily. We can choose wellness, aliveness, vitality, purpose, calling, connection, groundedness, centeredness, and rootedness again and again, including when we feel as though we’ve gotten off track in some way.

Again?

Again.

Renee Roederer

The Collective Reset

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Here’s something I love about New Year’s celebrations: The timing is completely arbitrary, but the collective energy is vital. When we view something — in this case, a shift in time — with collective vision, we see things differently, even if just for a bit.

Now, of course, in a calendar sense, the timing of a new year isn’t completely arbitrary. Obviously, we know the date when a year ends, and we know the date when a new one begins. But there is only one reason January 1 is the first day of the year: We’ve collectively agreed upon that marker.

My partner is an astronomer, and a couple of years ago, I asked him a question I had never really thought about before. “Is there any reason that our calendar year starts on January 1? I mean, isn’t that date rather arbitrary?” It turns out that’s true. Our 365 day year is based on the earth’s revolution around the sun, but astronomically speaking, the year could technically start at any point on that revolution journey.

I think about this every year when we cross over from December 31 to January 1. I don’t find the arbitrary nature of the shift to be deflating. I actually find it to be heartening. As people agree upon a collective marker to honor change, the collective energy results in actual change.

Sure, New Year’s resolutions don’t always result in permanent shifts in our individual lives. That may be true, but collective vision does actually change things. Around the world, we have playful rituals to honor New Year’s Eve and the shift from one year to the next. The customs vary, but this arbitrary date does manage to connect the world. And for a particular period, we are connected to one another in better hopes. That certainly changes things.

We need each other,
We need to be connected,
We need to refresh our hopes.

In many cases, some challenges from our previous year remain firmly intact, but as we cross over a completely arbitrary marker, we somehow manage to reevaluate our relationship to those very challenges. We hope for new visions, and we resolve to work toward them.

Yes,
We need each other,
We need to be connected,
We need to refresh our hopes.

I love the gift of this annual, collective reset.

Renee Roederer

Tenderness

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Tenderness is my focus-word for 2019. Isn’t that a lovely thing to think about? A year with more tenderness in it?

People showing each other kindness, love, gentleness, care, and focused gratitude with intentionality? Giving this on purpose? Receiving this often because there is an abundance of it, even in the midst of its opposites?

I want to cultivate this. I want to look for this. I want to welcome this into my own life.

Over the last six weeks or so, when people have shared kind words, I’ve written them down. They live in this purple folder I have. I’ve loved this practice because I’ve realized how easy it is to miss these kinds of words, even though they come pretty often. It’s also so lovely and affirming to read them all in one place.

I hope that your year has more tenderness in it too.

If you were to choose a focus-word, what might yours be?

Renee Roederer