Monday, December 28, 2020

Pastor in Lincoln, Vermont, finds Christmas message of hope.


Lincoln pastor finds Christmas message of hope

THE REV. JUSTIN COX was just settling in as senior pastor of United Church of Lincoln when the pandemic hit. Since then the North Carolina native has found new ways to deepen his connections with his new community, such as cooking Southern food and delivering it to his parishioners and neighbors. Cox will conduct the church’s Christmas Eve service virtually this year. Independent photo/Steve James


UNITED CHURCH OF Lincoln Senior Pastor Justin Cox, who refers to himself as a Black Sheep Baptist, has always been kind of a fringe seeker, trying to offer an alternative perspective, he says. When he began studying religion and philosophy in his native North Carolina he worked simultaneously at a church and at bar. It was during this time that he realized that he was going to be “doing this a bit differently” from other people. Independent photo/Steve James
If there’s any consolation to the pandemic it has been this ability to look at things a bit differently, to go out into the wilderness and try to reexamine how we look at the divine and how we experience it. — Rev. Justin Cox

LINCOLN — A few months ago, during the dawn hours he reserves for solitude, the Rev. Justin Cox was sitting upstairs in the United Church of Lincoln parsonage making his way through a book about Black culinary history in the South when he came to a passage about soup stock, and paused.

“It just made me want to go downstairs and cook,” said Cox, who grew up in North Carolina. “So I went and found these old turkey bones that were in the freezer that my mother-in-law had stored away for us, and I just made stock. It was so fulfilling. It was like this very contemplative and embodied prayer that I felt like I’d been missing.”

Cox and his spouse, Lauren, and their young daughter, Violet, moved to Lincoln in May 2019 so he could take the job as senior pastor at the church.

“When I first got here it was really just trying to learn and to sit and listen,” he said. “Like I would go and just spend two or three hours with someone. I wanted to know the people. I wanted them to know me. And that was kind of starting to happen.”

And then COVID-19 struck.

“That really shook me because I really hedged my bets on being this present, centered pastor where I’m like hanging out on porches with people, and I don’t get to be that right now,” he said.

Cox went through a stretch of “really bad days” this year coming to terms with that.

“When you can’t meet people face to face, it’s so distant to me,” he said. “It’s like you’re watching ‘Stranger Things’ and you’re in the Upside Down. That’s what it feels like.”

He has felt, too, the heart-sickness of a congregation that yearns to gather but cannot.

“For a lot of people this is a very sacred space and to not be in it is extremely difficult.”

As he and his parishioners and neighbors struggled to make sense of difficult times, cooking has provided Cox with new ways to connect with his community — and reconnect with his Southern roots.

“I literally cook every morning now,” he said. “And then I show up at people’s doors and I’m like, ‘Hey, here’s some biscuits I made. Here’s some cornbread. Here’s all the things that I love that give meaning to me, and I want to share them with you.’ It has been a way for me to love on people when I can’t love on them in the way that I know how.”

In line with how he tends to interpret scriptural stories, Cox sees this new way of connecting as something he stumbled into, or that was presented for him to find, as he made his way through the darkness.

“Jesus kind of goes out into this wilderness, these dark places, these desert places. That is where the divine is very present, and I think we are called to go out into it,” he said. “So if there’s any consolation to the pandemic it has been this ability to look at things a bit differently, to go out into the wilderness and try to reexamine how we look at the divine and how we experience it.”

It’s hard to think of a more important time for this lesson than Christmas Eve this year, when millions of worshippers around the world, separated from one another in pandemic-ravaged places, must trust they are not alone when they raise their voices to Heaven.

“This year things are going to be different,” Cox said.

On Christmas Eve the warmly lit sanctuary of the United Church of Lincoln will remain mostly empty. Children will not saunter down to the front pews to hear a special rendering of the Christmas story. There will be no quiet communal rustling and coughing accompanying the lighting of hundreds of candles, and the light from those candles, dispersed across the homes of these hills, may feel lonely and thus less powerful.

But there will be light nonetheless.

Cox will conduct a service at 6:30 p.m. and it will be streamed live over the internet. The church has created and distributed worship bags with cookies, cocoa and candles so people tuning in will have a few small items in common with their neighbors a couple of houses down, or up on the mountain.

“We tend to whitewash Jesus a lot,” Cox said. “The kingdom work that Jesus talked about — taking care of each other, being there for the widow, calling out those who are being oppressed, being there for the orphans — that’s radical. And the message of compassion — this whole idea of loving our enemies — that’s radical. And sometimes this message comes in the voices of the delicate and the fragile and the oppressed, voices that just shake things up. There is something scandalous about the gospel. It calls us to action.

“I think the message of Christmas is ‘God has come near.’ Maybe that’s the kind of thing we found out during the pandemic. We were reminded that God is always near. We need to be looking, we need to be searching, but it’s something you can hope for. If that’s not the message of Christmas, if it’s not a message of hope, then you need to pack it up and call it a day.”

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