More Than A Miracle

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now, I’m found.

Was blind, but now I see.

The story of the man born blind (John 9:1 – 41) is the text for this, the 4th Sunday in Lent, and the basis of the hymn Amazing Grace. It is a long text, but the lectionary reading ends before John is finished relating all there is to see and hear. Jesus does not stop talking in verse 41, but continues to 10:21.

Before you read on here, read John 9:1 – 10:41. Darkness and light. Blindness and sight. Hearing, recognizing and following. These central themes of the Gospel of John playout in this sign story.

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (Succoth). As a faithful Jew, Jesus will not stay away from Jerusalem during this festival even if it is dangerous (7:1 – 9). He just won’t go with his brothers, perhaps for more than one reason.

Jesus has been busy in Jerusalem, and is walking with his disciples when they come upon a blind man. We are told that he is blind from birth, and Jesus’ disciples immediately want to know who sinned to cause this. Jesus dismisses this, and that is our clue to move on as well, to the revelation of God’s presence in, and work through, Jesus in what happens next.

Jesus has to work while there is still light … before it gets dark. The light of the world (8:12 – 20) has work to do, more to make visible about who he is – who God is – before his hour comes (8: 21 – 30).

This blind man does not ask to be healed. We may assume that the man overheard Jesus’ conversation, but are told only that Jesus immediately makes a mud plaster. Made with his saliva no less.

Jesus addresses the man only after putting the mud on the man’s eyes, giving him instructions but nothing else, not even anything about what will happen. The man does what he is told, receives his sight, and Jesus removes himself from this brief encounter.

There is a huge temptation to focus on the failings in this story primarily as a contrast to the man. It is true that everyone is in the dark about what has happened to the man, seeking an explanation that makes sense to them. Actually, the man himself is clueless about what happened or who did it. At least at first, but let’s pay more attention to him.

Blind from birth is blind for life. That is what anyone, everyone would know; including the man himself.

Despite this, he allowed a stranger to put mud on his eyes. He listened and followed instructions. He may well have had no expectation that something would happen. Yet, he listened to an unknown man’s voice. Did he have only a foolish hope without any real reason to think something would happen? Probably, but he was willing to listen. Did he have faith? We don’t know that either, only that he was willing to ‘step out.’

The once blind man knows how he had always been and how he is now. The change – the before and after – is what is important to him. He seems baffled that no one else thinks that receiving his sight isn’t the big thing to be excited about. Everyone is missing the point.

The only other thing that is central to him is the stranger who performed this miracle, and what this miracle says about who this man is. While he doesn’t understand it, for the newly sighted man, this man is special.

In the course of things, the man is asked over and over about what happens, and he recounts the little that he knows about the specifics; which isn’t much. As he retells the experience over and over, he thinks more and more deeply about who did this and how. His ability to ‘see’ becomes more clear: he has met a man who has to be powered by the divine, whoever he is. When he sees Jesus for the first time he is ready to listen again, and believe. (Meanwhile, everyone else keeps asking the wrong questions and remain ‘in the dark.’)

Now, you know from reading the text that sin is a big topic in this story. Sin is of great concern to most people in the story, but not to Jesus and not to the man born blind. Neither sinfulness nor piety or merit play a role in this story. Rather, the power of God to overcome sin and to bring about radical transformation in every individual’s life is the thing.

The blind man is not described by Jesus as in special need due to sinfulness or of being especially worthy because of merit. The man doesn’t even ask to be healed. He is only willing to respond and receive. That is his only contribution to the miracle. After that, everything changes.

This comes to know who Jesus is, and to understand God in a new way. It is not a matter of having enough faith, of being worthy or anything else that humans establish as criteria. It is all about God’s love and the incarnation of that love in Jesus. It is a free gift that is priceless. A gift that we simply have to receive. After that, everything changes as we listen to the shepherd’s voice and follow.

The transformation is noticeable. And, even today, the noticeably different way of being in the world by followers of Christ can be unnerving to others. It begs for an explanation if for no other reason than the world views it as illogical to be known by love – love of God and neighbor – rather than by material achievements. (And, that’s before we get into the definition of neighbor Jesus teaches.)

Yes, it is all about God’s grace, and it is amazing.

Do No Harm & Do All the Good that You Can

Our lives have been disrupted in most every way, and we know that this will go on until the end of March. It feels as if everything is out of control.

Actually, by following CDC guidelines – staying home, avoiding crowds if we do go out, washing our hands, wearing masks, etc. – we are doing a lot. We are following the first of the three simple rules John Wesley advocated: do no harm. We are doing our part to protect vulnerable people and support the response of our health care system.

Rev. Chris Barbiere and his wife, Dr. Jennifer Barbieri recently wrote an open letter to clergy encouraging us as we have to cancel services and are unable to be with our congregations. Jennifer is a pulmonologist who is on the frontline of care of individuals with the virus, and Chris is a hospital chaplain. Chris and Jennifer have two daughters who Jennifer cannot be around due to possible exposure.

Here is an excerpt from their letter, with things we could do to support the medical community:

  • Please pray for hospital employees and their families. Your prayers are appreciated! Consider a 24-hour prayer vigil in which people sign up for specific time slots.
  • Write a note or card of encouragement, either for a specific healthcare employee you know or for any healthcare employee. Please check with your local hospital to ensure they can receive and deliver these before doing this.
  • As a church, write a message of encouragement for your medical community. Post it on social media and have your members share it.
  • Give blood. Social distancing has resulted in a large decrease in blood donations. In NW Georgia, Blood Assurance provides the blood products for all the hospitals in our region. Last week, there were 800 cancelations in Rome, Cartersville, and Dalton. This decline in donations is likely occurring state-wide. If that trend continues, the blood supply could reach critical status quickly. Our local Blood Assurance donor center has extended its hours and is using extra screening protocols for staff and donors to keep everyone safe. Please check with your local donor center and make an appointment (we don’t want long lines!)
  • Individually wrapped snacks might be appreciated. Many hospital staff are working long shifts and cannot break for meals. Please check with your local hospital to ensure they can receive and deliver these before doing this.
  • Childcare is a concern raised by a number of staff in our Floyd County medical community. This is admittedly a difficult problem to solve but be aware this may be one of the greatest current needs in your community.

Again, the most important thing you can do is to encourage your congregations to practice social distancing and to avoid crowds or gatherings (and practice good handwashing.) Helping slow the spread of COVID-19 is the greatest gift you can offer to the medical community (and your whole community!)

Here is a graph (from CDC posted on Univ. of Michigan site) that shows how much good we can do (the second of Wesley’s three simple rules) if we slow down this virus:

Our Methodist heritage and a theological emphasis places an emphasis on the practical: the role of the church in the daily life and needs of people. We know that prayer feeds our souls and makes a difference; but we have never been a denomination that believes that this is all we are called to do as the Body of Christ. It is our tradition to combine spiritual practices with concrete, practical actions. Even our hymnal has a section on social holiness as well as personal holiness.

The beginnings of Methodism did not separate the physical needs of people from the spiritual, but sought to minister to both. After all, this is what Jesus did when he healed the sick and when he admonished some of the Pharisees and Saducees, who made much of their personal piety, to care for widows and orphans. This is what Torah teachings and what the prophets preached, too.

We can bless others and ourselves with this practical theology. We are called to do this. With God’s help, we can do this.

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!

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.