Notes on the Journey Word Fast

Last summer, when Minister Angell shared with us a book review about THE 40 DAY WORD FAST, I knew not only that it would be our Lenten challenge this year, but that I personally needed it. I need to work on my words. I need to watch my words because when I am stressed, I slip easily into talking negatively about a situation or a person. When I am excited, I am quick to speak and often interrupt people in mid-sentence. Through this 40-day Word Fast, I am asking the Holy Spirit to help me watch my words so that the Spirit can reveal to me what is in my heart; for as Jesus says “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart” (Matthew 15. 18). My words are teaching me what is unhealthy and unholy in my heart, such as stress, fear, jealousy, ego, defensiveness, prejudice, and entitlement. Since the Presidential election season and the divisive words that crowded our media’s attention, I realize that watching my words is not only for my benefit, but for the nation’s and the world’s. If I am going to be a peacemaker, I need to watch my words. I need, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught the Civil Rights protesters “to refrain from the violence of fist, tongue and heart.” I need to eliminate “violent” words and images from my speech, such as “shooting an email”, “wanting to strangle someone”, or “targeting” a situation. I need to speak with compassion for those who are different from me in their politics. Our nation cannot afford us to “otherize” each other. To build walls with our words which make us objectify and turn into enemies those who voted differently from us. Through this Word Fast, I am realizing how powerful words are. As Tim Cameron writes: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue. The words that come out of our mouths heal or hurt. They bring reconciliation or division. By our words people are called into their destiny. By our words dreams are shattered.” (from The 40 DAY WORD FAST) Clearly this Word Fast is serious business for every Christian and every peacemaker. When I described this Word Fast to my sister Cheryl, she told me a beautiful story of a woman who knows the power of words to create peace. She lives in Afghanistan and works to educate women despite her village being run by the Taliban. One day, as her car was stopped at a check point, the guards asked if she was in the car. Fearing for her life, the driver of the car said “No”, but the guards insisted that they had been following the car and knew she was in it. She decided to get out of the car to talk with them. Several minutes later she returned – unharmed. The passengers asked what happened. “They are honorable young men. I told them that I am a teacher and I can teach them how to read. As honorable young men they should know how to read. So we arranged for a time for me to teach them.” Through her words she turned a potentially violent situation into a moment of compassion and peace. I pray this Lent that my word fast may transform the way I speak so that my words may bring more peace, hope and joy to a world in desperate need.   By Pastor Janet Hellner-Burris

Staying for Jesus

Twenty-five years ago I sat in the newly remodeled parlor being interviewed for the position of pastor.  At the end of that interview I asked the leadership, “Why do you stay in this declining urban neighborhood when other white congregations have fled?”  Our beloved Minister of Music, Ted Yearsley, answered with the words that called me to this ministry, “Because Jesus calls us to stay.” Truly there have been many changes over these past 25 years of staying with Jesus.  The neighborhood around us is full of abandoned homes and businesses.  The school across the street graduated less than 30 students last year.  Three times in this past year, there were shootings within a block of the church, including one outside the doors of the Hosanna House day care center.  Yet we stay not in fear, but in faith in the One who calls us to keep His light on for Wilkinsburg. As part of our journey of staying, we have learned what it means to do the hard and constant work of being a multi-racial and multi-cultural congregation.  We have become a beacon for Jesus’ hope and peace in a community which is being devastated economically and racially. We have continued the legacy started by the saints before us of working in mission to the community of Wilkinsburg through the New to You Shop, Wilkinsburg Community Ministry and youth ministry programs. We have learned to live on manna and trust in God’s provision.  Often we start ministries not knowing where the money or the volunteers will come from, but trusting in God to provide for our every need. Over the years we have been blessed with many partnership in ministry: people who come alongside us to help us with our witness of racial reconciliation and outreach to the youth of the community.  This past year, Gwen’s Girls started an after school club house for girls 8-18 every week day. Our amazing summer basketball coach, Frank Tillman, started a school year program on Saturday nights. The Sanctuary Project, which we coordinate, continues to bring people from churches and agencies together to work on ending youth violence. All of this is a God-thing.  Who could have anticipated the growing love and connection with the students of the University of Idaho who started us on our road to our mission camp ministry three years ago?  Or the partnership with the youth of the Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian church who not only help us with Santa’s Open House and the Block Party for Peace, but offered a Vacation Bible School for the children of the community last summer? Or the call to minister in the Allegheny County Jail which came through our connections with the local Roman Catholic parish? At the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to overcome their fear and “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”  Because we have chosen to stay, we have become not only a stable influence for Jesus in our community, but also we have experienced what it means to be “clothed with power from on high”.  We have witnessed the power of Agape love to change the racist and the prejudiced inside of every human heart.  We have experienced the power of Dr. King’s Beloved Community, where people are judged not by the color of their skin, or the accent of their tongue, or the diagnosis of their mental health, but by the content of their character.   We have seen the miraculous power of a community in prayer stopping the forces of violence and evil in its tracks. We have been clothed with strength beyond our own strength, resources beyond our own limited financial and emotional resources, and hope beyond our wildest dreams.  Because we have been obedient in staying, we have been clothed with a power from on high. Thank you my beloved church family as well as all of our friends and supporters for being partners in the gospel for the past 25 years.  I am humbled by all that Jesus has done through us.  I am in awe of the daily miracles of this small mustard seed church. I am honored to be your pastor and partner in this exciting gospel story happening right here at the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg.   By Pastor Janet Hellner-Burris