'Lord, create in my life and in my church a miracle'
As a child, about this time every year, I would play under the legs of a large wingback chair in our living room. That chair was located - for most of the year - in the exact spot where our Christmas tree stood during the holidays.
There, I would carefully run my hands over the then-fashionable green shag carpeting, looking - hopefully - for a stray pine needle, some sign that the magic of Christmas, now long past by a child's calendar, had not been a figment of my imagination.
It wasn't always easy to unearth a trace of the tree's prior existence, due to my mother's proclivity to vacuuming just for fun. But when I did spy something, the find was a gem. It was a symbol that Christmastime, with all its mystery and excitement, was real indeed and would someday return - even if its trappings were now tucked away in stored boxes of decorations.
Even in the dreariness of post-Christmas winter, cast dimmer by the removal of holiday lights, hope can stay alive, thanks to a stubborn brown pine needle.
But it's always been that way. For children and adults alike, hope sustains itself on very little. Hope requires no linear thought, few certainties and not much hard evidence.
Hope transforms past failures into new plans, crisis into opportunity, and life's uncertainties into experiments in trust. That "new you" - the one born with January's resolutions or last night's prayer - is kept alive by the hopes that buoy your dreams.
These days, I'm much too big to play under my parents' wingback chair, but I will come clean and admit that my faith life has been in "search mode" lately. I've been looking for something. For an ordained pastor, that's not always an easy thing to acknowledge.
Perhaps, as a church journalist, it's the routine church fights I too often witness. Or maybe it's the negative tone and pessimism so often expressed about the church - and its leaders - in the dozens of letters my office receives each week.
My faith crisis is likely rooted, at least in part, in the national setting's ever-uncertain financial realities and the now-routine practice of saying goodbye to good colleagues - more than 100 during the past three years - who have left our budget-strapped organization behind.
Or, it could be how religion, in general, is used culturally and politically as a weapon, a tool and a trophy. Mistrust of "the other" spreads and festers, while chapter and verse are quoted to justify the division. It gets old.
Whatever it is, I do find myself moving my hand over that proverbial green shag of my youth, looking for something - a sign, a symbol, a project, a task to inspire a measure of new hope about the future of the institution to which I've given my life's service. And, just recently, I found something.
In early January, my good friend, the Rev. Jo Hudson, pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, issued a heartfelt challenge to her congregation to experiment communally with a prayer. Since hearing her idea, it has stayed with me.
Jo is asking her 4,300 parishioners, during Lent, to begin and end each day with a single, short and sincere prayer: "Lord, I offer my life to you. I ask that you create in my life and in the life of our church a miracle. Amen."
As she says, "If each of us did that, wouldn't we make God's dream come true?"
In Jo's challenge, I found in the fringe what, I think, needs to be centerpiece during the UCC's 50th anniversary year -- a sense of shared urgency to discover a new day, a new us. We need the prayerful imagination to discover again the "united and uniting" spirit that swirled about our predecessors during the 1950s.
The beauty of Jo's prayer is that it's a posture, not a prescription. It is not a definitive plan, but it is an openness to expecting and receiving one. What is God's dream for me, for you, and for the UCC? I really don't know, but I'd sure like to find out.
"Lord, I offer my life to you. I ask that you create in my life and in my church a miracle."
Will you join me in that prayer this year?