Advent ATM

O’Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, November 30.  I needed cash and took the right hand turn towards the BMO Harris ATM.  An older adult woman in a wheelchair with an attendant rested sideways to the ATM, wanting cash.  She had repeated trouble reaching and hitting the right suggestions on the screen.  Her assistant had his back turned, protecting her privacy.  When I arrived she was retrieving her first card due to an inaccurate pin number.  She had taken nearly three minutes to get to this point; impatience was showing around my edges.

She drew out a second credit card.  She repeated the routine.  I thought:  why don’t I step up to the ATM, interrupt them, handle my business, and move on to my gate, which by the way didn’t board for over an hour?  Her second card was rejected to her increasing despair.  She hung her head in frustration, sadness, and anxiety.  Over my shoulder a young couple rolled their eyes  in unison, indicating they thought this old lady was an intolerable pain.  They apparently didn’t need cash so desperately and moved on.  Not me.  I needed cash and this was the last ATM of my bank before the gate.

Frustration and impatience increased as she reached for a third card; painfully reached, her anxiety rising together with her confusion.  Her escort and I both now began to coach her in hopes that this time the card would work.  She lowered her requested amount from $40 to $20.  The screen noted she had exceeded her available credit.  She was crushed.  The young man’s face empathetically frowned.  I was frustrated.  Then the young man said quietly, yet loud enough for all to hear, “Don’t worry!  You don’t have to give me anything.  Really.  This is my job!”  All she wanted to do was give thanks to this young man for helping her through the airport from car to gate.  When the screen showed no funds her head drooped, her hands went to her lap, and a profound sadness enveloped her face.  They left the ATM and headed towards her gate.

Realizing my own shortsightedness, I quickly inserted my card, took my money, and headed to find them.  This shouldn’t be so hard, I thought, there aren’t that many people in wheelchairs. The hallway reached out with people shoulder to shoulder.  Looking left a twosome came into sight and I headed their way.  After weaving and dodging for 100 yards, there they were!  He was talking kindly to her as he pulled her over to wait.  I knelt down next to her;  “You want to help this young man for his kindness.  I saw you at the ATM.  Here’s some money for you to give him.”  I handed her $20.  “Oh, thank you honey!  You don’t know how much this means to me.”  “And to me as well!”  I thought: you’ll never know.  “Merry Christmas!”  With a smile on her face and a befuddled look on the young man’s, I turned towards my gate grateful, once again, for Advent and Jesus’ unusual and beautiful ways of showing up.

Happy Advent.

The Rev. Alvin Johnson is Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Blessing and Hope

On August 11 I received a call from Cindy Dougan at the Diocesan Center concerning an unfortunate situation and our possibly assisting St. Stephen’s in Olean, NY (which is on the border of Pennsylvania, north of Bradford). Cindy received a phone call from The Rev. Kim Rossi, rector of St. Stephen’s, requesting assistance. I called to see if I could help with the situation. A person from Olean had a friend in Bradford whose daughter had died unexpectedly at Hamot Hospital in Erie and didn’t have enough funds to bring her daughter’s body back to Bradford. Kim told me that her Alms Fund was almost gone and hoped I could help. I told her I would. I contacted the mother and assured her that we would get the remaining funds to the funeral director so her daughter could come home. In conversation with the mother, Sandy, I inquired if she was going to have a service and she said not at this time.

Just when we think we have been blessed with more then we can imagine, God does what God does best, and blesses us with more. This blessing I received was not a monetary blessing but a spiritual and hope blessing. A few days later, I was asked if I would celebrate a Memorial service for Bobbie Jo Groff. I did not personally know Bobbie Jo. I only recognized who she was by Ascension, Bradford’s secretary, Chris Schaffer’s, description and knowing that Bobbie Jo came to our Thursday lunches and Second Harvest Food Bank. She was confined to a wheelchair. I only mention this for the following reason: there are those who have worked hard or who have been blessed with financial security that sometimes feel sorry for or may even look down upon people with disabilities or who are going through low economic hardship. In reality, they don’t care what anyone thinks, what they want is to be accepted just as they are. God does just that.

In preparing for the service, I asked Bobbie Jo’s mother what was she like. Her mother told me she loved to dance, she loved her family, she loved to laugh, she loved her friends, and she loved to fish. For those reasons, I knew I would have liked Bobbie Jo.
Then I asked how many people did she expect to be in attendance at the service so we could print enough bulletins. She estimated 25 to 35 so Chris printed 50.

As it got closer to the beginning of the service I was operating the handicap elevator, so I wasn’t paying much attention to how many people were coming in. When Janet Carr, a member of Ascension, and I walked into the sanctuary we were surprised by a full church – one hundred plus with some standing. This was the blessing and the hope all in one package. To see a church full of love and compassion for someone who was full of and shared her LOVE and COMPASSION.

Thank you God for the blessing and hope in humanity that I experienced on August 17 at Bobbie Jo’s celebration of new life.

The Ven. Gail Winslow is the archdeacon of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and serves at Church of the Ascension, Bradford.

O Come, Divine Messiah!

advent-policeThe above cartoon recently popped up on my Facebook feed. It’s by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham, and depicts ‘the Advent police’ citing people for putting up Christmas ornaments and singing Christmas carols during Advent. Silly, right? Normally I would just chuckle and keep scrolling, but for some reason this particular image made me stop and really look.

Can you imagine if there really WERE an Advent police? I know for a fact that the dollar store downtown would be awash in violations, since I’m pretty sure I recall the Christmas aisle being set up the week before Halloween this year. Think of all the fines that could be set aside for mission funds! (Just kidding.) Then again, how many of us are really able to go the entire four weeks before Christmas without trimming the tree or humming a few bars of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ when we hear it played over the store loudspeakers while doing our Christmas shopping?

As a former (recovering?) church organist and cantor, I find Advent to be one of the most fascinating times in the church year. Though the calendar year is drawing to a close, it’s just the beginning of the liturgical year – a time of quiet, preparation, and yes – anticipation of the coming Savior. The days are shorter, the hymns on Sunday a bit quieter than during the season after Pentecost, and the readings talk about waking from sleep and preparing the way of the Lord.

One hymn in particular makes me marvel every year: ‘O Come, Divine Messiah’.  If you’re not familiar with the tune, please do look it up on YouTube. The music is light, just a tiny bit bouncy, but combined with the lyrics it’s an amazing summation of the anticipation and longing of the Advent season. We wait in the dark and quiet of these weeks of December, yearning for Jesus to come to Earth for our redemption and to bring joy and light into our lives.

“Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.”

I finally made a note in pen at the top of my sheet music to tell the choir not to speed up at that point, because every. single. time. we sang that piece they would get so excited it was like trying to hold back runaway horses. “Hurry, Jesus! We’ve been waiting for so long!” Women in their 80s were singing with all the enthusiasm and impatience of my two year old daughter – “Now, Mommy? Now?”

It’s a busy time of year, and many of us have to-do lists as long as our arm, making our physical preparations for the coming of the Lord. Try to take a few moments this week, though, to quiet your mind and enjoy that thrilling anticipation that comes from having to wait.

“O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.”

Megin Sewak is Communications Specialist for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Receive Advent As A Gift

advent-1812702_1280As we prepare to enter another season of Advent, we are given the gift of waiting.  So often, we focus on what we want, but Advent invites us to focus on what God might give us.  Instead of expending our effort on choosing what we would like and striving to get it, our energy goes into preparing our hearts to be open to what is coming.  This preparation is much harder work, but ultimately more fruitful.

One of the lies we tell ourselves is that if we work hard enough, what we think is best will come to us.  Really, though, however hard we work, we are always handed a jumble of broken leftovers from the pursuits and plans of others.  We can toil desperately to make that mess into the gift we have decided we deserve to be given.  But we cannot create what we truly need to satisfy us.

Advent provides the space for us to strip down our projections and put away our projects so that we can see where the divine gift for us is to be found in the midst of life’s pains and paradoxes.  We shut off the flashing lights and neon beacons so we can simply see the stars around us.  We step out of the buzzing cacophony and make space for silence where the still, small voice may beckon.  We close the Facebook feeds and the commercial messages to open the prophets and the psalms preparing us to recognize what we can’t yet imagine.  We stop jockeying for candles-141892_640position and simply sit beside our brothers and sisters until these erstwhile allies and enemies become nothing less to us than the true image and likeness of God.

Advent helps us hand over our wills, our imaginations, and our desires so that in the crucible of waiting they can be purified into hope.  We cannot learn hope until we have learned to stop and let go of everything except for God’s coming to us.  Then God’s coming will fill every nook and cranny of our being, occupying our every thought and hunger. We will be able to recognize the Messiah come into the world because we will have become nothing more than a Messiah-shaped outline waiting desperately for God to fill us.

The waiting of Advent allows us to recognize and receive the Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace amid shepherds and Latin-speaking IRS agents two thousand years ago.  That same waiting allows us to recognize and receive the body of Christ in the gifts placed on the altar and in those gathered around it, as well as in the least of our brothers and sisters for whom whatever we do we do also for Jesus.  Our Advent waiting will also allow us to recognize and be received by the Son of Man in his crucified glory at the last day.

Our souls are saturated with so much stress and striving that we cannot wait to wait.  Receive Advent as a gift and dive into it deeply.  Wait until we can’t imagine wanting anything but Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s, Sharon.