Advent & More Space


November 15, 2023
A Note from Pastor April

Dearest Friends,

It’s so good to be back with you!

In this week before Thanksgiving, my heart is full of gratitude to you, the HUMC congregation, lay leaders, and staff for supporting this sacred time away. There aren’t enough words of thanksgiving for the ways all of you continued to embody the mission of our church, taking significant steps forward to meet the needs of our community and to keep our shared work moving forward. I am forever indebted to both Pastors Jon and John for their leadership during this time and for the care they provided during my absence.

A lot has happened for both of us during this time apart. There will be many stories to share in both directions, and I look forward to those conversations unfolding in the coming weeks and months. Some of you may be new to the congregation! I can’t wait to meet you.

Pastor April on renewal leave

Over these past four months, I’ve been on renewal leave. United Methodist pastors are encouraged to take time away every six years of full-time ministry. I had the chance to step back and reflect, to travel (both literally and metaphorically), and to reconnect with myself and those I hold dear.

I’ll try to use these letters to share with you some of the special moments I had along the way and how God was at work during this season. I’ll start with some thoughts on how we work to create more space in our lives. This was something I spent a lot of time thinking about while I was away.

Walking the Camino

In September, I had the chance to join a friend walking the Camino de Santiago, a network of some of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world all leading to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, believed to hold the remains of the Christian apostle, St. James.

Our journey on the Camino began in the North Central city of Burgos. Burgos is home to one of the more spectacular cathedrals along the Camino Frances.[1] Finally completed in 1567, the grand Gothic design evolved over the course of more than 300 years.[2]

A light rain was falling in the Plaza Rey San Fernando as I caught my first glimpses of the cathedral’s gothic spires stretching to the wide-open sky. I was absolutely immobilized as my body took in the scene before me. I was finally here… and it was everything I had hoped for.

Burgos Cathedral
Burgos Cathedral main altar

As we paid our entrance fee and made our way into the cathedral itself, my gaze was immediately drawn upward. The space was unbelievably massive.

Burgos Cathedral, star-shaped ceiling

A star-shaped ceiling stretching nearly 300 feet above me…  hand-carved spiral stonework weaving pathways to each of the 19 connected chapels honoring different saints… an enormous gold-plated central altar… and in every corner, from floor to ceiling, incredibly intricate, detailed works of art. Paintings, stonework, carvings, stained glass, and tilework depicting figures, stories, and above all… images of God.

No wonder it had taken three centuries to build! If you were to stay at the cathedral all day, you would still only be able to take in a fraction of what it contained.

A stifling sense of constriction

It might seem strange that amid this incredibly large and seemingly spacious structure, I began to feel something else: a stifling sense of constriction.

My body was confused. Where do I place my gaze? My overloaded senses couldn’t find a place to focus. I kept trying to stay in the present moment and take in the beauty. Nothing seemed to help.

The whole experience was disorienting and disappointing.

I had traveled across the ocean to make space to be with myself and with God in a new way. If I couldn’t experience that connection in this stunningly beautiful cathedral, what could I reasonably expect in the more ordinary spaces that lay ahead?

The next day we began to walk. From the cathedral, we navigated our way out of the city following the yellow arrows and gold scallop shells left like breadcrumbs along the way. We walked through neighborhoods and parks, alongside rivers, schools, and busy streets, until the pathway turned to dirt and began to narrow.

Walking the Camino

For the next seven miles, we marveled at the sunflower fields stretching up the gentle hillsides. We made our first new friend from South Korea, who shared with us the iconic photo he had taken while walking 50 meters behind us. We stopped at a lovely village bar for caffe con leche.[3]

Openness and wonder return

The constriction in my body was easing. The sense of wonder and openness was beginning to return.

Sister Mary Jose’s Chapel

On the outskirts of the next village, we came upon a small stone chapel on the left side of the path. An old and modest structure, the builders had cobbled together stones of various sizes in a haphazard pattern. Even the stone cut for the doorway they didn’t bother to make uniform.

It wasn’t the building that was drawing our attention, however.

It was the music.

Without speaking a word, both my friend and I began to walk toward the wide-open doors of the chapel. The angelic melody coming through the speakers was calling us like a siren, and we weren’t going to miss it.

Standing at the entrance was Sister Mary Jose. No more than 5 feet tall and dressed in full habit, she beckoned us inside with a look on her face of utter delight, as if to say,

“I’ve been eagerly awaiting your arrival all day.”

Before we knew what was happening, a thin plastic gold pendant of the Virgin Mary on a pink string was placed around our necks, and Sister Mary Jose had gently placed her hands on our heads. While I couldn’t translate most of the words she prayed, I felt I understood exactly what she was trying to convey:

You are welcome here.
You are loved.
Open yourself up to ALL this journey has to offer.
God is with you.

Utterly disarmed, I stumbled into the stiff wooden pews of the chapel. All the constriction was gone. The walls were coming down, and the tears were beginning to flow. As I sat in that tiny chapel, I felt the space opening wide within me… as wide as the stars above. And I whispered over and over again… Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

True Spaciousness

When we encounter true spaciousness, whether it’s in the night sky, a sanctuary, or the generous presence of another human… we are often left with an unexpected and surprising gift: the discovery of more space within ourselves.

Advent at Hilliard UMC

The season of Advent in the Christian church was really designed to interrupt our busyness, to invite us into a slower rhythm of listening to the movement of God and, perhaps as a result, finding more space within ourselves.

This year at HUMC, we are leaning into that intention by using the ancient Orthodox Advent calendar, which extends the season by another two weeks. That means THIS Sunday will be our FIRST week of Advent.

In a time of year that can overload our senses with too much, too fast, how can this season of Advent offer you the space you need to move more slowly, with greater intention?

Can you hear the gentle voice of Jesus offering you these same words?

You are welcome here.
You are loved.
Open yourself up to ALL this journey has to offer.
God is with you.

I look forward to being back together this Sunday at one of our THREE worship services: 9am Traditional & 10:30am Family worship in the Sanctuary, and 11:15 Nontraditional worship in Warehouse 839.

Did I mention it’s good to be back???

Grace and peace in this Advent season,

Pastor April

The Rev. April Blaine
Lead Pastor

Reverend April Blaine, Lead Pastor

[1] Camino Frances is the specific name of the trail that leads to Compostela and begins near the border of France and Spain at Pierre de Port. It is the most traveled of the various Camino trails and probably the oldest. Burgos is about 300 miles from Santiago de Compostela, the final destination, and about one-third of the way along the trail for those who started at the beginning in France.

[2] Information about World Heritage Sites along the St. James Way can be found here.

[3] Spanish for “coffee with milk.” The milk is steamed and frothed to perfection and will make you want to move to Europe just for the coffee.