Who Do We Think We Are?

It has been a long time since I posted anything to my blog.  We have just been too busy doing things around here! It has been wonderful being a part of an active church with an energetic and joyful spirit, but it has left little time or energy to write. I need to do better!

When our Lagrange District Newsletter arrived, the article written by our District Superintendent, Rev. Susan Landry, both touched my heart and made me think about the coming year and who we will be as a church as we continue to move into the future that God has for us. I wanted to share this, so that you can reflect on this as well:

Who Do They Think We Are?

One cold December evening, several hundred people gathered at a large downtown church in Winston Salem, NC to celebrate the Christmas season. Bishop Ernest Fitzgerald, one of our Bishops here in the North Georgia Conference, (the same bishop who ordained me Deacon in 1989 and Elder in 1991), was present that evening.

As the story goes, Bishop Fitzgerald had gone down a long hallway to help a small boy who was pushing against massive oak doors trying to get outside. The little guy was only about 2 years old and as he pushed, he was crying as if his heart would break.

The Bishop picked him up, thinking he belonged to someone at one of the Christmas parties. On impulse, he opened the doors and looked outside, spotting an old-model car speeding away in the darkness. Gradually, it dawned on him that the boy he held in his arms had been abandoned.

Phone calls were made, and soon the church was filled with people wanting to help in any way they could. Within moments, the local TV stations interrupted their usual programs to ask if anyone knew the identity of the little boy. The next morning, one of the city’s newspapers put the child’s picture on the front page.

Under the picture there was an article describing the events of the evening before. The article began with this striking line:”Someone trusted the church last night, and the church came through!”

Bishop Fitzgerald shared that story with the Michigan Christian Advocate back in 1997, because that phrase from the paper didn’t leave him. And he wondered more and more, if the church is still seen that way by the world.

Some 20 years later, I can’t be sure that I know what the world expects of the church. But I think it is important that we ask the question. Who are we going to show them that we are? I hope that we are still the place that someone can trust, the place that “comes through.”

I will always work beside you to make that true.

May Peace, Hope, Joy and Love be yours in this season.

Merry Christmas!
Susan

A Season of Renewal

September will be a Season of Renewal for NFUMC. Yes, we will be making commitments of time, talents, gifts, service and witness for 2020; but renewal is so much more than that.

According to the Oxford Dictionary a renewal is

  • an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption,
  • the action of extending a period of validity, or
  • a repair/replacement of something that is broken, run down or worn out

Synonyms of renewal include resumption, renovation, restoration,  improvement, reconditioning, rehabilitation, regeneration, overhauling, redevelopment, and rebuilding.

All of the definitions and synonyms can be applied to our renewal in September 2019. We will be renewing, so that we may resume, expand and extend our mission as a part of the body of Christ into the future.

During September we will be fostering renewal in worship and fellowship; and even in a meeting or two to chart a new and exciting path for fruitful ministries.

On Sunday mornings we will explore renewal from the perspective of a gardener or farmer. Since it is September, it is appropriate to talk about what happens after the crops are harvested. If you aren’t a gardener or farmer, you might not realize that the soil needs to be prepared for the next growing season; but there are things that are necessary to keep the soil and crops healthy and the harvest plentiful.

  • Trees and vines are pruned.
  • Weeds burned off of fields.
  • The soil must be nourished and protected.
  • Stones that seem to work their way to the top every year are removed.
  • The hard earth of a new or neglected plot of land is turned and made ready to receive the new seeds and plantings.

On three Wednesday evenings we will meet for services of prayer. Change is scary and hard, and often involves pain. This pain can be inflicted by the process of change itself, or by people who – despite their better natures – destructively resist change. These realities make it doubly important to provide times of communion with God for healing and wholeness as well as for strength and direction. I hope and pray that everyone will be a part of these special services, and please, let me know if you need transportation.

There will also be two sessions explaining our move to the One Board Accountability Model of church administration during the Sunday School hour. This model isn’t just about reducing the number of administrative meetings – which it will – it involves changing our way of doing administration so that we are more focused and fruitful in mission and ministry, building upon what we have already begun.

In the past year:

  • We have gained new members who are engaged in service.
  • The 2018 5K day was the largest we have ever had, and 2020 should be bigger with more going on and more members involved in meaningful ways.
  • The Firecrackers of Faith team made a record amount for Relay for Life in 2018, and has already exceeded that amount for this year.
  • We have reached out to the community with a life-size nativity on our front lawn, and engaged members who had not found a way to become involved before.
  • The Peachtree Wind Ensemble now makes their home with us, and together we are reaching out to our community with concerts that are standing room only. The July 4th cook out was fun and joining them for their “friends and family night” performance and covered dish was great.
  • Grow Camp got off to a strong start, and we are on the list for 2020 because our members supported this new ministry in amazing ways.
  • Our Girl Scout troop is growing with girls ages K – 9th grade in the existing group, and a new group (K – 2nd) that is forming now.
  • Our support of Narcotics Anonymous now includes area gatherings and fellowship for families.
  • We will be doing local missions again, beginning with service days once a quarter; continuing what we first experienced last year at the Mid-West Food Bank.
  • We began a clothing ministry that addresses the needs of homeless people and support the efforts of clothing ministry from down the street to downtown Atlanta.

And yes, we have had losses. Some losses were people who supported the ministries of the church with their gifts and service, so they will be missed as fellow servants as well as friends who we saw most Sundays.  Some moved to be closer to their grandchildren, worshipping with them on a weekly basis. Some are heart breaking, because their motivations for leaving were never shared with me, and so there were no opportunities to reach out, or attempt to mend or heal; even if their decision to go was firm.

Do you know of a book called A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens? The book was actually about two cities – Paris and London – and set during the period leading up to the French Revolution. The opening line is almost a cliché, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, …”

When a church begins to change and turn outward, especially after a long period of anxiety and stasis, you have all of these contrasts and more within a single church; within the same congregation. The choice is which direction it will take, which one of two futures it will envision and move toward.

There are way too many things over which we have no control to fret about. There will always be bad things, patches of darkness, foolishness and doubt even when wonderful things are happening, the light is bright, and wisdom and faith are growing. It is the nature of living in this world; of being human.

There is one thing we can count on:  we do not walk this path alone.  We have a God who is always faithful, and we have each other. We have the teachings and example of Christ and the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Our choice is whether we recognize and cooperate with the divine; or not. God leaves it up to us, but God never loses hope or walks away.

You are invited to be renewed next month: renewed in your spirit, renewed in your devotion, and renewed in your commitment to be a member of the body of Christ in union with Him, and in ministry to the world here at NFUMC.

May the blessings of light and hope be yours, Pastor Beverly

PS – Did I mention that there will be food? A Love Feast and a covered dish fellowship meal. Yum!

One for the World

These days, it is all too common for two people who disagree to treat each other badly, even severing their relationship. It may feel as if we are living in unique times; as if bitter disagreements were never so bitter as today. For some perspective as well as guidance, it is helpful to recall that John Wesley’s Methodist movement stirred up quite a bit of bitter division in his day. There was plenty of bitterness toward a movement that served the marginalized; and therefore, was at odds with established religious institutions and economic powers. In Jesus’ time there were multiple factions who disparaged and fought one another to the point of mutual destruction. So, what can we learn from Wesley and Jesus about living in divisive times?

Before there were accredited United Methodist seminaries, Wesley’s writings, including his sermons, were textbooks for would-be pastors along with our fundamental beliefs called the Articles  of Religion. Even today, the Board of Ordained Ministry examines candidates about these core beliefs. At the same time, Wesley,  believed and taught that there is room for differences among Christians about those ideas and beliefs that are non-essentials, and to approach other faiths (who have different beliefs) with respect. Quoted in paragraph 103 of The UM Book of Discipline, Wesley said,

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Charity is important because there are limits to human understanding. Wesley went on to say, “To be ignorant of many things and to be mistaken in some, is the necessary condition of humanity.” In other words, we shouldn’t be so sure that we know enough to claim to be right all the time. We always have room to learn from others and from God, who does know everything.

I do a lot of “fact checking” to verify or refute what I see, hear and read. This is helpful in making up my own mind; but not of much use when it comes to becoming of one mind with someone else, or even receiving an acknowledgment that there is another valid opinion. Tactics involving reason, data and debate rarely move folks to consider that they are not entirely right or you are not entirely wrong. It is even hard to agree to disagree on a single issue because everything else you may have in common ceases to matter.

I have come to realize that our problem is not one of a human mind (mine or anyone else’s) as much as it is a problem of the human heart meaning that our challenge is not to change a mind, but changing the foundation of our hearts and our minds. To stand on the examples and teachings of Jesus son of Joseph, who carried a cross, not because he had to, but because he chose to. His choice was not to take a side but to be a servant and a sacrifice for all sides.

As the Gospel of John says in many ways in chapters 14 through 17, Jesus wanted us to see the Father in Him, and not just see, but be united with God the Father through the Son. This unity is one of mind, heart and life. It isn’t just a set of beliefs but a way of being and living that leads to real life and real freedom, not something that happens after we die, but what makes this life a reflection of the kingdom of God here and now.  This is the life worth living, and worth dying for. There are many scriptures that relate to a life built upon Christ’s teachings and example, such as:

Jesus saying to his squabbling, often difficult disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 34)

Paul asking a church to live a life worthy of the Gospel by instructing them to,  ” Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)

Peter, instructing a church under pressure, saying, “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (1 Peter 3:8 )

The following prayer is based on 1 Kings 8 and Galatians 1: 1-12.  It comes from the Ministry Matters website. It may be a challenge to pray this, but a challenge that is worth accepting daily by everyone of us called by His name.

Prayer for One Voice

Eternal God,
who in Jesus Christ redeems us from the sin that drives us apart and reconciles us with the love that brings us together, we thank you for him who has made us your partners in covenant. We bless you for the vision with which you bless us through him: for the vision of yourself, whose love for all does not diminish your love for each; for the vision of us as individuals, whose move away from you does not slow your move toward us; for the vision of the community of believers, whose history of division does not alter your desire for union; and for the vision of the world, whose clamor for power does not silence your demand for justice.

O God, grant us the faith of Solomon’s prayer: the faith that calls the temple not by the builder’s name but by your name; the faith that looks not within the temple but beyond for your dwelling place; the faith that longs for the temple to become a house of prayer—not for one people but for all the peoples of the earth.

Unfortunately, our faith in Christ has often been no match for Solomon’s prayer. We sing of Christ for all the world, but the world we have in mind is much smaller than the world for which Solomon prayed. It is not the world of “all the peoples of the earth,” but only some of them—those of them who think as we think, feel as we feel, worship as we worship, and live as we live.

Forgive us, O God, not only for shrinking your world to the size of our prejudices, but for reducing Christ to the level of our preferences. Too often we turn your Christ into a Christ of our own creation: a Christ too narrow to tolerate any behavior we do not approve; to sanction any belief we do not hold; to welcome any person we do not like; to permit any worship we do not practice.

O God, you have made us in your image. Forgive us for remaking the world in ours. You have made Christ the church’s one foundation. Forgive us for trying to build it on another. Transform us, O Lord. Grant us the grace so to represent the Christ you have sent that the world might receive your glorious gospel, obey your great commandment, and worship your holy name.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Miracle of Small Things

We are in the middle of our Back-to-School drive for school supplies and donations to assist kids in our community who are in need, often desperate need, of the basics. Pencils, paper, 3-ring notebooks, composition books, glue sticks, pen, crayons and book bags are not the things we think will change the world, yet such small things are the small miracles that do make a difference.  Throughout the year, contributions are used to provide ongoing support of the most vulnerable children in our community.

An example of this is best told by someone who works with these precious children:

This was supposed to be a typical visit to check on a family which had struggled from time to time.  But today was different. 

When the door opened, the first scene was that of a man sitting incoherent on the sofa.  The squalor in the home indicated poverty and suggested drug use. The woman who had answered the door seemed nervous, wary about the visit from this social worker, an outsider. Immediately and without a word, she appeared with a bottle of bleach and poured it, undiluted, on the floor.  

Only one possibility made sense:  she was trying to cover a smell. The social worker asked to see the children – to make sure they were okay.  The children were brought out, and during the ensuing conversation, one child – of upper elementary school age — began to cry.  The incoherent father made no move from the sofa to respond to his child.

It was obvious that the child was overwhelmed by this situation  and powerless to do anything about it.  However, he was able to talk about another situation, also frightening but easier to grasp:  he was failing all of his classes at school.  He became more agitated, finally exclaiming “how do they expect me to do my work when I don’t even have pencils and paper and a notebook?”

No response from the sofa.  But the woman in the home was adamant:  “the children do too have school supplies!” She left the room and soon returned, waving a sheet of notebook paper.  “See?”

The boy cried even more pitifully.   The social worker perceived multiple problems, some of which defy quick and easy solutions.  But one solution was close at hand.  In her car were school supplies in abundance, including book bags, paper, note books, pens, pencils, crayons, note cards, glue sticks, and markers.  All of these items had been donated by the congregation of North Fayette United Methodist Church. 

The social worker implored the woman in the home to clean up the bleach, and asked,  “Can I take your children outside to get away from the fumes?”  The woman nodded yes.  

The social worker took the children outside to her car, where they picked out new book bags and filled them with all the school supplies they needed.  Their tears began to dry as they picked bags and notebooks in their favorite colors, and smiles lit up their faces.  Truly, God had seen the chaos in this household and made an appearance in the form of pencils and notebooks, covering His children with caring.

The adults charged with caring for them had problems that were so extensive, they were unable to provide even the most basic needs for the children.   Yet, even in such a situation, great good can be done by providing the simple things, things that encourage and enable children to rise above.

We welcome your participation whether you buy the supplies, give a donation or donate gift cards. Such ordinary things make an extraordinary difference.

God bless you.

5 Principles

The North Georgia Annual Conference was held last week at the Classic Center in Athens, GA. I confess that I both look forward to and dread annual conference.

Seeing people you know from seminary, a prior appointment, a seminar, residency group, etc. is wonderful. We rarely see each other otherwise. We just don’t have time. I also enjoy hearing what is being done by local churches and agencies around the conference and beyond. This is always inspirational.

Reverend Gary Moore, a Methodist clergyman from Northern Ireland, led us in a series of sessions on conflict and reconciliation. Having lived through “The Troubles,” witnessing death and destruction for years between Protestants and Catholics, he knows what he is talking about.  Since our theme was “One with Each Other,” and divisiveness is the way of most things these days, his sessions were challenging, inspiring and realistic.

What I generally do not like are the floor debates and General and Jurisdictional Conference elections. This year was different. We did not have many resolutions on which to vote, and the one that might have spiked a bitter debate was introduced by our Youth Delegates (high school age kids from all 12 districts who have full voting rights just like the adults). These youth spoke eloquently during the floor debate, and the resolution passed. And, for once, I was prepared for elections. I, and many of my colleagues, met multiple times to talk with and about who would bring voices of reconciliation to the next gathering of the world-wide UMC.

Many annual conferences were different from prior years as well.  The Greater New Jersey Conference stood out in my mind because of their “5 Principles” developed by Communities of Hope.* Here are excerpts from these guidelines for doing ministry and making decisions in a world that is increasingly partisan and divisive:

1. The Lord loves unity.

Jesus prayed that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11), not only about the disciples, but “also for those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). That’s us.

Our unity was very important to Jesus, and should be important to us. The call for oneness echoes through the New Testament, with Paul, Peter, and James adding their voices. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” Paul wrote (Ephesians 4:3). Scripture is full of conflict but the message of unity remains.

2. Discern what is essential, and what is not.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, was fond of reminding colleagues and members, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”

This saying was written in the middle of the Thirty Years War, a colossal struggle between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics that tore Europe apart in the 17th century, killing half the population. Originally applied to this misuse of the church by national political entities, Wesley used it in his struggles with opponents to his mission (Methodism) to the unchurched in the Anglican Church.

This quote doesn’t solve our problems, but should cause us to determine how essential our position is. We should ask, “Is there a core aspect of Christianity at stake here, or could we “agree to disagree?’” Christians have split over issues such as the use of alcohol, policy on divorce, ordination of women, slavery, and justification by faith. Which of these call for division, separation and walls?

3. It’s better to be loving than right.

The New Testament refers frequently to the all-importance of love. What’s the greatest commandment? Love God and others (Matthew 22:37-39). It’s how we fulfill God’s law (Romans 13:10). It’s greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13). Even if you do amazing religious things, without love they’re worthless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Of course we shouldn’t dilute God-given love into the stuff of pop songs and romantic comedies. Love doesn’t mean avoiding all conflict or just doing whatever people want. But it is our ultimate calling to put others first, to live sacrificially in the way of Jesus.

Paul, in his discussion of Christian disagreements in Romans 14-15, was dealing with issues that separated people from Jewish and pagan backgrounds. He assumes a certain liberty in these matters, but challenges people to act in love. “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).

4. We pay attention to our culture, but we don’t follow it.

We want to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, there are culture-following churches that simply go with the flow, blithely accepting the opinions of the prevailing culture on money, marriage, or even morality. Then there are culture-blind churches that pay no attention to the changing attitudes of their communities. Both types become irrelevant. The culture-blind church loses its ability to speak to people in the modern world, and the culture-following church has nothing to say.

We should be leading the culture, speaking prophetically; which means applying the teachings and example of Christ to daily life and decisions. We share the Lord’s passion for this world (John 3:16), but we won’t let the culture decide our priorities. The apostle Paul lived this, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” he writes, adding that he had a similar approach to non-Jews. “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).

The important questions to ask are, “What is the most God-honoring stand we can take?” “What is the best witness to the Gospel?”

5. Through the Bible, God still speaks to our world.

Increasingly, Americans see the Bible as a relic of the ancient world. How could it possibly guide us today? Some consider it irrelevant to 21st century issues because ‘things were different back then.’ Others consider this book dangerous, a supporter of violence, slavery, and discrimination against various people groups.

The Bible describes violence and oppression enacted by fallible humans, but it also provides a better way. Only through prayer and studying together can we understand context, intent, audience; and discern modern application: essentially the spirit, not the letter. Current conversations are not in any way a referendum on whether we believe the Bible or not, but rather how we understand it? So, what is God saying to us? And how does he want us to communicate his message to our current culture?

For me, these five principles are helpful – challenging o be sure – but still helpful.

 

* Communities of Hope walks with communities to identify their assets and develop strategic plans for community transformation. During training, local teams develop a Hope Plan for implementation within their communities.